Vietnam pacification and the big war
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Vietnam: Pacification and the Big War. Lsn 33. ID & SIG:. air mobility, attrition, Ia Drang, Kennedy, limited war, NVA, Operation Rolling Thunder, pacification, Special Forces (Green Berets), strategic hamlet program, Westmoreland. Pacification.

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Id sig

  • air mobility, attrition, Ia Drang, Kennedy, limited war, NVA, Operation Rolling Thunder, pacification, Special Forces (Green Berets), strategic hamlet program, Westmoreland


  • Between 1961 and 1963, President Kennedy launched a full-scale counterinsurgency program in Vietnam, part of which would become the “pacification” program

  • Major goals

    • Strengthen the South Vietnamese government’s hold on the peasantry

    • Cut into the heart of the Viet Cong politico-military organization

  • Designed to “win the hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese

In 1967, Robert Komer, shown here with President Johnson, was selected to head CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support)and coordinate all pacification programs


  • Strategic Hamlet Program… South Vietnamese peasants from scattered villages were brought together in defended and organized hamlets in order to protect them, isolate the Viet Cong, and show the superiority of what the SVN government could offer

    • Patterned after British experience in Malaya

    • Did not work in Vietnam because of traditional Vietnamese ties to the land


  • Combined Action Program… Placed selected Marine squads within the village militia to eliminate local guerrillas

    • Very successful at the local level but required a degree of American-Vietnamese cooperation unable to be replicated on a wider scale

    • Drew American troops away from the “big war”

  • Instead, American troops concentrated on the “big war”and left pacification to the South Vietnamese who did not show an abundance of commitment to the task


  • Revolutionary Development Program… Put armed social workers into Vietnamese villages to begin grass roots civic improvement and eliminate the VC shadow government

    • Didn’t reach full potential because South Vietnamese government feared the consequences of real rural politicalization

25th Infantry Division soldiers support the Revolutionary Development Program by clearing the village of Rach Kien during Operation Lanakai


  • Chieu hoi (opens arms) amnesty program… designed to persuade VC to change sides

    • When VC saw the program might bear fruit they unleashed a terrorist campaign that reduced defections from 5,000 to 500 a month

    • CORDS responded with Operation Phoenix, a direct action plan to kill, capture, or co-opt the “provincial reconnaissance units”

These former VC who took advantage of the chieu hoi amnesty receive training in automotive repair to help them in their new lives

Pacification overall assessment
Pacification: Overall Assessment

  • Commonly considered a missed strategic opportunity

  • Suffered from being “too little, too late”

    • CORDS not activated until 1967

  • Perceived as competition with the “big war” and many military officers favored a “military solution”

Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay reportedly said, “Grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

Limited war
Limited War

  • When the Soviet Union and the US nuclear programs reached the point of Mutually Assured Destruction, the US faced the dilemma of responding to communist challenges in peripheral areas by either risking starting a nuclear war or doing nothing

  • The alternative strategy of limited war was developed to harness the nation’s military power and employ only that force necessary to achieve the political aim

The US considered, but did not use, atomic bombs in support of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954

Limited war1
Limited War

  • The objective of limited war was not to destroy an opponent but to persuade him to break off the conflict short of achieving his goals and without resorting to nuclear war

  • The limited war theory was more an academic than a military concept and its application resulted in tensions, frustrations, and misunderstanding between the military and civilian leadership

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is sharply criticized for his technocratic and statistical approach to the Vietnam War

Johnson s approach
Johnson’s Approach

  • The Johnson Administration was deeply influenced by limited war theory

    • Desirous not to let the conflict expand into a third world war

    • Imposed precise geographical limitations

      • Cambodia, etc

    • Kept military commanders in close check

  • “General, I have a lot riding on you. I hope you don’t pull a MacArthur on me.” (Johnson to Westmoreland, Feb 1966)

Strategy of attrition
Strategy of Attrition

  • Traditionally, the “American way of war” had been a strategy of annihilation

    • Seeks the immediate destruction of the combat power of the enemy’s armed forces

  • In Vietnam, the US would instead follow a strategy of attrition

    • The reduction of the effectiveness of a force caused by loss of personnel and materiel

  • This proved to be a poor strategy against the North Vietnamese who used a strategy of exhaustion

    • The gradual erosion of a nation’s will or means to resist

Anti-war protests such as this one at the 1968 Democratic National Convention showed domestic support for the war was waning

Problems with the strategy of attrition
Problems with the Strategy of Attrition

  • Led the US to fight according to the theory of gradual escalation

    • A steady increase in the level of military pressure (rather than employing overwhelming force all at once) would coerce the enemy into compliance

    • US never had enough forces to control the countryside

    • US soldiers served one year tours in Vietnam

    • North Vietnamese soldiers were there till the end and recognized “Victory will come to us, not suddenly, but in a complicated and tortuous way.”

US soldiers regularly conducted clearing operations but the Viet Cong would reoccuppy the area after the US units moved on

Us troop levels in vietnam

1959 760

1960 900

1961 3,205

1962 11,300

1963 16,300

1964 23,300

1965 184,300

1966 385,300

1967 485,600

1968 536,100

1969 475,200

1970 334,600

1971 156,800

1972 24,200

1973 50

US Troop Levels in Vietnam

Problems with the strategy of attrition1
Problems with the Strategy of Attrition

  • Led to a “body count” mentality

    • Many reports were exaggerated or falsified

    • North Vietnamese were always able to replace their losses while Americans became disillusioned with the mounting death toll

  • Nightly news broadcasts reported US deaths versus North Vietnamese deaths

    • If ours were less, we were winning!

  • North Vietnamese showed a remarkable capability to cope, rebuild, and repair

    • The enemy will was never broken

Nightly news anchors such as Walter Cronkite regularly reported the Vietnam “body count”

Problems with the strategy of attrition2
Problems with the Strategy of Attrition

  • Low-tech nature of the enemy prevented the US from bringing to bear the full effects of its combat power

    • North Vietnamese infiltration routes were hard to bomb

    • North Vietnamese ground troops used the tactic of “clinging to the G.I.’s belts” to minimize American ability to use artillery and close air support

    • The nature of guerrilla war allowed the North Vietnamese to avoid contact when it was not to their advantage to fight

A long line of communist porters carry supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (AP photo by Trong Thanh)

Other manifestations of limited war theory
Other Manifestations of Limited War Theory

  • “Gradual escalation”

    • President never fully acceded to the troop or bombing requests of his commanders, but the process resulted in the failure of one level of force justifying the increase to the next level

  • Restrictive rules of engagement

  • Bombing pauses and negotiations

  • Failure to significantly mobilize the National Guard

Total war vs limited war
Total War vs Limited War

  • The relationship between the belligerents is asymmetric. The insurgents can pose no direct threat to the survival of the external power because . . . they lack an invasion capability. On the other hand, the metropolitan power poses not simply the threat of invasion, but the reality of occupation. This fact is so obvious that its implications have been ignored. It means, crudely speaking, that for the insurgents the war is “total,” while for the external power it is necessarily “limited.” Full mobilization of the total military resources of the external power is simply not politically possible. . . . Not only is full mobilization impossible politically, it is not thought to be in the least necessary. The asymmetry in conventional military capability is so great and the confidence that military might will prevail is so pervasive that expectation of victory is one of the hallmarks of the initial endeavor.

    • Jeffrey Record, “Why the Strong Lose”

Total war vs limited war1
Total War vs Limited War

  • Superior strength of commitment thus compensates for military inferiority. Because the outcome of the war can never be as important to the outside power as it is to those who have staked their very existence on victory, the weaker side fights harder, displaying a willingness to incur blood losses that would be unacceptable to the stronger side. The signers of the Declaration of Independence risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in what became a contest with an imperial giant for which North America was (after 1778) a secondary theater of operations in a much larger war. For the American rebel leadership, defeat meant the hangman's noose. For British commanders in North America, it meant a return to the comforts and pleasures of London society and perhaps eventual reassignment.

    • Jeffrey Record, “Why the Strong Lose”

Total war vs limited war2
Total War vs Limited War

  • The tables were reversed in Vietnam. There, the United States attempted to suppress a revolution against foreign domination mounted by an enemy waging a total war against a stronger power, a power for which the outcome of that war could never be remotely as important as it was to the insurgents. The United States could and did wreak enormous destruction in Vietnam, but nothing that happened in Vietnam could or did threaten core overseas US security interests, much less the survival of the United States. Thus, whereas the Vietnamese communists invested all their energy and available resources in waging war, US annual defense spending during the war averaged only 7.5 percent of the nation’s gross national product.

    • Jeffrey Record, “Why the Strong Lose”

Total war vs limited war3
Total War vs Limited War

  • “The ability of the Vietcong continuously to rebuild their units and make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war. We still find no plausible explanation for the continued strength of the Vietcong. . . . [They] have the recuperative power of the phoenix [and] an amazing ability to maintain morale.” (Maxwell Taylor)

  • “I never thought [the war] would go like this. I didn’t think these people had the capacity to fight this way. If I had thought they could take this punishment and fight this well, could enjoy fighting like this, I would have thought differently at the start.” (Robert McNamara)

  • “Hanoi’s persistence was incredible. I don’t understand it, even to this day.” (Dean Rusk)

  • The US leadership “underestimated the toughness of the Vietnamese.” (William Westmoreland)

    • Jeffrey Record, “Why the Strong Lose”

Flexible response
Flexible Response

  • President Kennedy moved away from the Eisenhower Administration’s reliance on nuclear weapons and developed a strategy of “Flexible Response” which was designed to permit different types of military options at different levels

    • Very interested in counterinsurgency and initiated the Special Forces

  • Between 1961 and 1963 Kennedy launched a full-scale counterinsurgency program in Vietnam


  • Provided equipment and advisors to South Vietnamese

  • Special Forces conducted civic action programs

  • US helicopter pilots transported South Vietnamese soldiers

  • Advisors accompanied South Vietnamese units down to the battalion level

Special Forces were active in training montagnards in the Central Highlands


  • Overall the counterinsurgency program failed

  • The US military refused to embrace counterinsurgency and instead stuck to traditional warfighting

  • Insisted on using technology and tactics that were inappropriate for the environment and the nature of the war

  • North Vietnamese became very adept at countering US conventional tactics

B-52 bomber over Vietnam

The big war
The Big War

  • Bombing

    • Rolling Thunder

  • Airmobility

    • Ia Drang

  • Search and destroy

    • Junction City

  • Tet

    • Phase III

  • Defeat

    • Domestic issues

    • Vietnamization

    • Withdrawal

  • Legacy

    • Vietnam Syndrome

Bombing rolling thunder
Bombing: Rolling Thunder

  • Sustained bombing campaign designed to

    • Reduce North Vietnamese/Viet Cong activities by affecting their will

    • Improve South Vietnamese morale

    • Provide US and South Vietnam with a bargaining tool

    • Reduce infiltration of men and material

    • Demonstrate US resolve to support allies

  • Gradually expanded from 63,000 tons of bombs in 1965 to 226,000 in 1967

    • Bomb tonnage surpassed what had been dropped on Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II

Bombing rolling thunder1
Bombing: Rolling Thunder

  • Heavy reliance on air power overestimated the capabilities of strategic bombing and underestimated North Vietnamese will

  • North Vietnamese were able to rebuild damage, seemingly strengthen their will, and actually increase infiltration in spite of the bombing

F-4Cs on a mission over Vietnam

Bombing rolling thunder2
Bombing: Rolling Thunder

  • Problems

    • Micromanaged targeting and target restrictions frustrated military planners

    • Difficulty in finding targets reduced effectiveness

    • Gradual escalation and frequent interruptions allowed North Vietnamese to recover

Bombing rolling thunder3
Bombing: Rolling Thunder

  • Restrictions

    • White House picked targets, strike force size, weapons, and timing of attacks

    • Most strategic targets were off limits:

      • 30-mile radius around Hanoi

      • 10-mile radius around Haiphong

      • Wide buffer zone along Chinese border

    • North Vietnamese airfields were off limits

    • Could not attack SAM sites unless fired upon

Bombing rolling thunder4
Bombing Rolling Thunder

  • Results

    • Ineffective

    • Showed a large disconnect between political considerations and military objectives

    • “Rolling Thunder had not been built to succeed, and it didn’t.”

      • John Correll

Johnson supposedly said, “I won’t let those Air Force generals bomb the smallest outhouse without checking with me.”

Airmobility ia drang
Airmobility: Ia Drang

  • In 1962 Secretary McNamara tasked the “Howze Board” to study the emerging helicopter technology and develop “a plan for implementing fresh and perhaps unorthodox concepts which will give us a significant increase in mobility.”

  • In Jan 1963 the Army began forming and testing the 11th Air Assault Division which would ultimately result in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) being activated in July 1965

  • In Aug the division began arriving in Vietnam

Airmobility ia drang1
Airmobility: Ia Drang

  • The airmobility concept was tested in combat when the 1st Cav was ordered to the Ia Drang valley in Oct 1965

  • On Nov 14 a US battalion (about 450 men) engaged some 2000 North Vietnamese regulars at LZ X-Ray

Lieutenant Colonel Hal

Moore on LZ X-Ray

Airmobility ia drang2
Airmobility: Ia Drang

  • US relied heavily on airmobility and firepower

    • Helicopters provided transportation, surprise, firepower, logistical support, evacuation

    • Artillery, bombers, close air support

Airmobility ia drang3
Airmobility: Ia Drang

  • Numerically a huge US victory

    • 3,000 North Vietnamese killed compared to 300 Americans

    • Confirmed Westmoreland’s “search and destroy” strategy

  • North Vietnamese returned to guerrilla warfare and made tactical adjustments to deal with US firepower

Vietnam pacification and the big war

  • The Big War (continued) and the Vietnam Syndrome