During the Second Indochina War, better known as the Vietnam War, a distinctive land warfare strategy and organization was used by the Main Force of the People's Liberation Armed Forces (better known as the Viet Cong or VC in the West) and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army/People's Army-Vietnam) to defeat their American and South Vietnamese (GVN/ARVN) opponents. These methods involved closely integrated political and military strategy - what was called dau tranh. Dau tranh is examined and compared to the counter-strategies of opponents like the US and ARVN. NLF and PAVN structure and organization are then discussed.
For related articles on logistics and tactics see:
The National Liberation Front, (NLF) in this article, identifies an umbrella of front groups, sympathizers and allies set up by the rulers of North Vietnam to conduct the insurgency in South Vietnam. The NLF also included fully armed formations- regional and local guerrillas, and the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). The PLAF was the "Main Force" - the Chu Luc or full-time soldiers of the NLF's military wing. Many histories lump both the NLF and the armed formations under the term "Viet Cong" or "VC" in common usage. Both were tightly interwoven and were in turn controlled by the North. Others consider the Viet Cong or "VC" to primarily refer to the armed elements. The term PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam), identifies regular troops of the North Vietnamese Army or NVA as they were commonly known by their Western opponents. Collectively, both forces- the southern armed wing and the regulars from the north were part of PAVN, and are treated as such in official communist histories of the war.
Certain terms such as "NLF" and "VC" or "NVA" and PAVN" are used interchangeably, and they, along with others used herein such as "Chicom", "Liberation Army", "regime", etc. have no pejorative or partisan intent or meaning. They are incorporated here due to their widespread popular usage by both South Vietnamese and American military personnel and civilians, and common usage in standard histories of the Vietnam War.
The formation of the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) lies in the communist dominated resistance to the French - the Viet Minh. The expulsion of the French had still left a clandestine organization behind in the South, reinforced by thousands of Southerners that had gone North after the communist victory ("regroupees"). This clandestine organization initially focused on political organization and propaganda, and came under heavy pressure by the Diem regime. Diem was an implacable enemy of the Communists and his nationalist credentials were comparatively clean, but he had inherited a very fragile situation. From the beginning he faced the threat of military coups, thrusting criminal gangs, a weak bureaucracy and army, and fierce factional fighting within South Vietnam between not only political factions, but religious groups (Buddhists and Catholics) as well.
Nevertheless Diem caused substantial early damage to the Communist apparatus. Some of his authoritarian methods and nepotism however alienated a variety of groups in South Vietnamese society. Diem's "Denounce Communism" campaign for example, indiscriminately persecuted and alienated numerous civilians (including people who helped the anti-French resistance) who may not have had strong links or sympathies with Communism. Diem's coldness towards Buddhist sensibilities in some areas also aggravated an already shaky situation.
Diem's successful campaign provoked increasing assistance from the Communist North to the clandestine southern formations. As early as 1959, the Central Committee of the Party had issued a resolution to pursue armed struggle. Thousands of regroupees were reinfiltrated south, and a special unit was also set up, the 559th Transport Group, to establish way-stations, trails, and supply caches for the movement of fighting men and material into the zone of conflict. In 1960 the Central Committee formed the National Liberation Front (NLF). Its military wing was officially called the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) but became more popularly known as the Viet Cong (VC). The NLF/VC took in not just armed guerrillas but served as a broad front for a variety of groups opposed to Diem.
By 1964 the VC, supported by smaller numbers of NVA, were increasingly effective, conducting attacks in regimental strength. The Battle of Binh Gia where the victorious VC held the battlefield for 4 days rather than simply melt away as in earlier times is a vivid example of their confidence and effectiveness. Their operations regularly drubbed Diem's troops, and although Diem's forces controlled a number of urban areas and scattered garrisons, the security situation had become critical.
VC confidence also showed in a number of attacks against American installations and troops, from assaults against places where US soldiers and advisers gathered, to sinking of an American aviation transport ship, the USS Card at a Saigon berth in 1964. Viet Cong forces also struck hard at American air assets, destroying or damaging large numbers of US aircraft during daring raids at the Bien Hoa in 1964, and Pleiku in 1965. Total VC/NVA fighting strength is controversially estimated by the American Military Assistance Command- Vietnam (MACV) at around 180,000 men in 1964. Opposing them during the war's early phases were (on paper by various estimates) over 300,000 ARVN troops and a US troop level that stood at around 16,000 in 1964, This was to increase rapidly in later years.
Prosecution of the war followed the Maoist model, closely integrating political and military efforts into the concept of one struggle, or dau tranh. Dau Tranh was and remains the stated basis of PAVN operations, and was held to spring from the history of Vietnamese resistance and patriotism, the superiority of Marxism-Lennism and the Party, the overwhelming justice of Vietnam's cause, and the support of the world's socialist and progressive forces. War was to be waged on all fronts: diplomatic, ideological, organizational, economic and military. Dau Tranh was divided into military and political spheres:
The strategy of the communist forces generally followed the protracted Revolutionary Warfare model of Mao in China, as diagrammed above. These phases were not static, and elements from one appear in others. Guerrilla warfare for example co-existed alongside conventional operations, and propaganda and terrorism would always be deployed throughout the conflict.
As part of the final stage, emphasis was placed on the Khoi Nghia, or "General Uprising" of the masses, in conjunction with the liberation forces. This spontaneous uprising of the masses would sweep away the imperialists and their puppets who would already be sorely weakened by earlier guerrilla and mobile warfare. The Communist leadership thus had a clear vision, strategy and method to guide their operations.
Overall, this approach was successful. It did not occur in a vacuum however. It both shaped and reacted to events in the arena of struggle. To fully grasp NLF/PAVN strategy, it is necessary to examine the counter-strategies used by the opponents of the NLF and PAVN: the South Vietnamese and the United states.
Struggles of GVN forces under Communist pressure. While segments of the government of South Vietnam suffered severe problems in leadership, motivation and administration, it is clear that millions of ordinary South Vietnamese opposed insurgent and northern efforts to takeover South Vietnam. These included some 900,000 refugees who voted with their feet to move South when Vietnam was partitioned in 1954.. Faced with a well-organized, ruthless foe, South Vietnamese (GVN- Government of South Vietnam) counter-strategy was heavily dependent on American aid and personnel. Coordination between the two allies was poor, and both seemed to fight separate wars for much of the conflict.
Much emphasis was placed on pacification, and rhetorical claims of "revolutionary" rural development paralleled Communist propaganda. However needed reforms in cleaning up government corruption, land redistribution, attacking the VC infrastructure, and improving the ARVN armies were uneven, or poorly implemented. Unlike Communist forces, the GVN also failed to effectively mobilize a critical mass of its populace behind a nationalist or even an anti-communist narrative on a sustained, large scale basis, although several initiatives were started. The GVN's "Strategic Hamlet" program for example boasted much progress, but this was primarily on paper, and ineffective in halting VC infiltration, terror, and organizing efforts.
ARVN units were often moulded in the American image and style, but without the training or technical knowledge to execute effectively. This style involved heavy logistical tails, ponderous organizational structures, dependence on firepower, and frequent roving "sweep" tactics that shortchanged the vital conterinsurgency war for the population base.
Improvement of conventional warfare capabilities was also uneven, although elite ARVN units often performed well. A primary GVN weakness was motivation and morale of its general issue forces. ARVN desertion rates in 1966 for example had reached epidemic proportions, and draft dodging was also serious, with some 232,000 evaders failing to report for duty. In 1966, US General Westmoreland forbade the creation of any more ARVN units until the existing ones were brought up to some minimum level of strength. Politicization of the officers corps was also rife, hindering combat training and operations. Relations with the civilian population remained hostile, playing into VC hands.
Improvements in ARVN performance. The Tet Offensive saw some steady ARVN performances and military defeat of the VC during Tet allowed the ARVN to consolidate its gains. The GVN made measurable progress in securing its population base -- retaking areas once dominated by the VC and rooting out their clandestine infrastructure. While old problems like corruption, leadership and political interference continued to dog them, some historians argue that with continued US material aid, the improved South Vietnamese forces, might have contained and overcome a moderate guerrilla-level war. By 1972, the guerrilla threat had essentially been reduced to low-level proportions and the Southern regime's hand was strengthened. The war however had ceased being primarily a guerrilla conflict and had become conventional, with Hanoi openly bidding for victory during the 1972 Easter attack. ARVN troops simply could not cope in the long term without US assistance and firepower against a ruthless, well organized, and well supplied conventional Northern foe.
With hundreds of thousands dead, and many localized examples of excellent combat performance, important segments of South Vietnamese society put up a strong fight against Northern hegemony. During the 1972 Easter Offensive for example, such resistance highlighted credible performances, not only by elite units like Rangers, Marines or Paratroops, but among elements of regular divisions as well. Strong leadership in the form of commanders like Maj. General Ngo Quang Truong also galvanized and inspired the ARVN effort at places like Hue and An Loc.
Credible performance of many local and regional militia forces: Of special note are the paramilitary units- the Popular Forces and Regional Forces (RF/PF - aka "Ruff-Puffs"). These militia troops were locally or regionally based, and continually shortchanged in terms of equipment, weaponry, pay, leadership, supplies and combat support like air, artillery or gunship strikes. Knowing their local areas in detail they had significant potential for local population security and represented a constant threat to the Viet Cong Infrastructure and communist troop movements. As such they came under special attack, suffering a higher casualty rate than ARVN regulars. Overlooked by both the US Army and their ARVN leaders, they made a credible impact- using less than 20% of the ARVN military budget and just 2-5% of overall war expenditure, the despised militia men accounted for some 30 percent of VC/NVA combat deaths inflicted by the South Vietnamese combat effort, despite lacking the heavy weaponry and resources of the regular army. Serious efforts to arm and train them properly however came comparatively late in the conflict (after the Tet Offensive) and their efforts however were often sidetracked by the American and ARVN preference for big-unit sweeps. They were never really integrated into the total war effort.
Demise of ARVN. Old difficulties however continued into the "Vietnamization" era and are well illustrated in the 1971 Laotian Lam Son 719 incursion, and these were magnified by the 1972 Offensive. By 1973, the Nixon regime faced growing public dissatisfaction, and unremitting pressure by the US Congress, anti-war protesters and segments of the US media, to quickly exit Vietnam, despite promises made of continued aid. The American pull-out left over 150,000 NVA troops in strong tactical positions inside South Vietnam. While aid from the Soviet bloc and China to the North continued unabated, American congressional action cut off the use of US military assets and sharply reduced promised aid to the South. By 1975, when the final conquest by the NVA/PAVN began, the South Vietnamese were on their own.
The US counter-strategy was ineffective in a number of ways against Communist forces. This ineffectiveness was predicted by Hanoi's analyses of weaknesses and contradictions in their enemy's camp (Vo Nguyen Giap, Big Victory, Great Task) An initial policy of gradualism against North Vietnam for example, saw the American President and his Secretary of Defence huddled over maps and charts, planning piecemeal airstrikes on limited targets. These inflicted some localized pain, but had little significant effect on the overall VC/NVA buildup in the south.
Fear of adverse Chinese, Soviet and public reaction also caused US policymakers to put numerous restrictions on American forces until comparatively late in the war. Plans drawn up by the military Joint Chief of Staff, US MACV commander General Westmoreland, and naval chief Admiral Sharp proposed bolder strategic action. This included airborne-amphibious landings north of the DMZ, corps-sized thrusts to liquidate enemy sanctuaries in the DMZ, Laos and Cambodia, a shutdown of incoming war material by mining the vital Haiphong harbor and more bombing of key targets in the Hanoi/Haiphong zone. All of these were rejected by civilian policymakers, with one or two implemented very late in the American War. By that time, the focus was on withdrawal of US forces. Some critics have argued that the Joint Chiefs in particular should have been more forceful in standing up to civilian leadership about their misgivings, but whether this would have made any difference is unknown. Others argue that a fundamental flaw in the American ground strategy was a focus on attrition rather than counterinsurgency to secure the population.
All of the more ambitious plans above had their own technical and political difficulties, some historians argue - including the threat of Chinese intervention, a repeat of the guerrilla warfare in the North as the Viet Minh did with the French, or other countermeasures by the North Vietnamese, who, in conjunction with allies such as the Pathet Lao, could have simply widened the war in Cambodia, Laos and even into Thailand as a reaction to American moves elsewhere.
US forces relied heavily on firepower in their attempt to counter Communist advantages in local concentration, organization, knowledge of the terrain, and the element of surprise in where and when to strike. The VC/NVA had no qualms about provoking US attacks and deliberately using civilians as human shields, sometimes preventing them from leaving an area under attack. . Such methods yielded both practical benefits and cynical propaganda opportunities. Some American tactics however caused extensive destruction to the countryside and its inhabitants, including harassment and interdiction fires (H&I), deployment of heavy artillery and bombs in populated areas, defoilation, the creation of "free-fire" zones, and the generation of refugees.
This approach not only failed to consistently bring big enemy units to battle, but failed to win the "hearts and minds" of the populace. By 1969, for example, some 20% of the country's population had been refugees at one time or another - an outcome caused by massive RNVAF and particularly US bombing and artillery. Widespread destruction among the civilian population is typical of many guerrilla conflicts- from the ancient Romans in Spain to the colonial wars of Africa -nevertheless such methods led many opponents of the US war to question both their legality and morality, and intensified political and diplomatic pressure against American involvement in the conflict.
Some US military sources also questioned their value. A Pentagon Systems Analysis study during the war for example concluded that H&I fires were ineffective and created a negative impression of indiscriminate force by US troops. There were also differences within the US command as well. Leaders such as Marine General V. Krulak favored a more restrained pacification-oriented approach, and his "Spreading Inkblot Theory" questioned the heavy 'search and destroy' philosophy of General W. Westmoreland as not only sometimes counter-productive, but neglectful of controlling key population bases, and developing more effective ARVN forces.
Combat units also lacked cohesion, due to the reluctance of the Johnson administration to call up the reserves, and a rotation policy that did not secure the best trained personnel on a consistent, long-term basis for Vietnam. The result in many US units was an endless supply of less seasoned "green" draftees or short-training officers, "rotated" in the theater for one year. Such policies were a drag on overall stability and cohesion, and caused the loss of hard-won combat knowledge in-country. Troop rotation policies also hindered continuity in pacification. Adviser postings to the ARVN's regular or local forces for example, were not considered to be a desirable career tracks, and a one-year or six-month tour of duty left scant time to build the intimate knowledge of an area, its politics, and its people necessary to counter the clandestine Communist infrastructure. American advisers might just begin to see results on the ground when they were rotated out.
The pacification-first approach. Supporters of the "pacification-first" approach argue that more focus on uprooting the local Communist infrastructure, and cleaning up internal problems would have denied the enemy their key population base, reduced the destructiveness of US operations, strengthened the Southern regime, and yielded better overall results. Since 90% of the population resided on the coastal plain and in the Delta, massive sweeps into thinly populated areas like the Highlands, or remote border jungle, were deemed counterproductive. Resources were better spent securing key rice-producing villages under pressure by VC operatives, or training ARVN forces to be more effective. Such critics point to the success sometimes achieved by the US Marines in their I Corps zone of operations, and the US Special Forces in organizing large areas of tribal peoples before the 1965 intervention. Both these alternative approaches however were marginalized or sidetracked by the main-unit war.
The search and destroy approach. Defenders of "search and destroy" maintain that the Communist shift to Phase 3 warfare required "big battalion" activity to remove the most pressing conventional threats to the Saigon regime. They maintain that since Westmoreland was forbidden from striking with ground forces at Communist concentrations and supply routes in the three countries surrounding the battle zone (Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam), his attritional strategy within the confines of South Vietnam was the only realistic option against an enemy that had the weak Saigon government on the ropes by 1964. Other analysts however, such as Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., (The Army and Vietnam), maintain that there were equal or better alternatives available at the time besides large-scale attrition operations.In between are any number of variants on these themes.
Uneven progress of US pacification effort. The American pacification effort was also ineffective over several critical years, hampered by bureaucratic rivalries between competing agencies, a focus on big-unit operations, and lack of coordination between South Vietnamese civil agencies concerned with pacification, and the US military. The success of pacification efforts were closely linked to security and security and ARVN performance improved in the Creighton Abrams era after 1968's Tet battles. Some resources were shifted away from attrition towards counterinsurgency/pacification, and progress was made on the population base issue. However these reforms were haltingly implemented, and US forces largely continued to operate in the same way - seeking body counts and other attritional indicators, against an enemy that could always up the ante indefinitely by introducing more troops.
Phases of the war and the conflicting US approaches. Some writers have attempted to reconcile the different schools of thought by linking activity to a particular phase of the conflict. Thus Phase 2 guerrilla assaults might well be met by a pacification focus, while Phase 3 conventional attacks required major counter-force, not police squad or small-patrol activity. The early 1965 stabilization battles such as the Ia Drang, the 1967 border battles, and the 1968 Tet Offensive, are examples of the efficacy of big-unit warfare. Nevertheless weaknesses were manifest in both areas. Some writers have questioned whether either pacification or "search and destroy" would have made any difference given dwindling American resolve, the big unit focus, other American and South Vietnamese weaknesses noted above, and the Communist strategy of attritional, protracted war.
Southerners were prominent among Hanoi's war directors, and included such men as Le Duan, who argued forcefully for more confrontation and the massive introduction of northern men and material into the conflict. The role of southerners was to diminish as the war ended, not only in the northern politburo but against VC remnants in the south as well.
The strategy to govern the war was often a matter of debate within Hanoi's upper echelons. The "northern-firsters" led by Vo Nguyen Giap and Truong Chinh, argued for a more conservative, protracted approach, which allowed the North to consolidate socialism and build its armed forces while the southern revolutionaries assumed primary responsibility for their liberation. Prominent "southern-firsters" led by Le Duan and Nguyen Chi Thanh maintained that the Diem regime was tottering on the ropes and quick victory could be assured by an aggressive push that required Main Force confrontations with both the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Debate still continues among some Western historians as to the exact line-up of Politburo personalities and issues, particularly that of Giap.
Early 1958-late 1960: Revolutionary War Preparation 1961-late 1964: Revolutionary Guerrilla War Early 1965-mid-1968: Regular Force Strategy
Late 1968-Easter 1972:
Neo-Revolutionary Guerrilla War
Summer 1972-end of war: High-Technology Regular Force Strategy
Tet was a definite change in strategy for the VC which largely had fought smaller-scale mobile and guerrilla warfare since the US arrival. During Tet they would stand and slug it out against the ARVN and Americans while enjoying the assistance of the aroused masses. The result was a military disaster, not only decimating the VC as an effective fighting force, but exposing much of their clandestine infrastructure. The Khe Sanh battle, while it did succeed in drawing a portion of American strength, was not sufficient to prevent or divert a strong US/ARVN response in the cities against the assaulting VC. The severe losses are noted even in official Communist sources.
It is significant that the main target of Tet was the GVN, the party tasked with pacification, the weak link in the defense of South Vietnam. Contrary to NLF dogma and expectations, the hoped for uprising of the masses never occurred. The South Vietnamese did not embrace the cause, and many ARVN units stood firm and fought back. Nevertheless Tet demonstrates how Communist strategy was focused on the key element in a People's War- the population - whether to control it or demoralize it, while American strategy focused on kill ratios and attrition.
Attacks on U.S. forces or influencing US elections were not of major importance during Tet. The main thrust was to destroy the GVN regime through demoralizing its armed forces and sparking the hoped for "General Uprising.
Some writers such as Stanley Karnow question whether there was an immediate American perception of Tet as a defeat however, given the drop in public support for the war prior to Tet, and polls taken during the initial Tet fighting showing a majority of the US public wanted stronger action against Communist forces. Nevertheless, according to Karnow, the Tet fighting seems to have shaken the determination of American political leaders, like US President L. Johnson.
Other writers such as US General Westmoreland, and journalist Peter Braestrup argue that negative press reports contributed to an attitude of defeatism and despair at the very moment American troops were winning against the VC. As such they claim, Tet was a major strategic political and psychological triumph for Communist forces in the conflict.
Whatever the merits of these debates or claims, it is clear that the Communist strategy of attritional conflict engendered an increasing war-weariness among their American opponents, whether the pressure was applied over time or more acutely during Tet, or whether guerrilla or conventional warfare was prominent at a particular time. After 1968, the US increasingly sought to withdraw from the conflict, and the future freedom of action by US leaders such as Richard Nixon was hindered by domestic anti-war opposition.
Tet not only exposed political weakness, but failures in America's military strategy as well - securing neither attrition or pacification after 3 years of war - an outcome predicted and achieved by the protracted strategy of the VC/PAVN. In the words of one US Departmentof Defence assessment called "Alternate Strategies" in March 1968, after the first phase or Tet:
Even the costly urban center attacks of the Tet Offensive aided this pattern by (a) undermining pacification efforts as GVN troops from rural areas were diverted to defend the cities, and (b) luring significant US forces out to the periphery where they could be bled. This was so most notably at Khe Sanh, which drew 5% of MACV's operational strength, and tied down 15-20% of MACV's maneuver battalions- kept in reserve for relief of the base. Some American policymakers recognized this "peripheral draw" method but could do little significant about it. In the words of Henry Kissinger who helped negotiate the final US exit from Vietnam:
The flexible shifting of tempo and styles however was not without cost. Tens of thousands of VC and PAVN regulars were required and on several occasions when attempts were made at confrontation in remote areas, such as at the Ia Drang in 1965 and in the 1967 border battles, heavy losses were suffered from US firepower.
A 1968 review of American strategy under US Commander C. Abrams, by the MACV "Long Range Planning Group" testifies to the efficacy of the PAVN/NLF strategy:
Initial recruitment and training. Based on a wide variety of accounts, the performance of some NVA units was excellent, and at times they garnered a grudging respect among those they fought for their discipline, morale and skill. Recruitment was primarily based on the military draft of North Vietnam, and most NVA soldiers served for the duration of the conflict. There were no "rotations" back to the homeland. The typical recruit was a rural youth in his early 20s, with three years of prior compulsory training and indoctrination in various militia and construction units. Draftees were mustered at indoctrination centers like Xuan Mia, southwest of Hanoi some months before their actual movement south.
A typical training cycle took 90 to 120 days for the recruit, with instruction on conventional military skills and procedure. Special emphasis was placed on physical conditioning. Heavy political indoctrination was part of the package throughout the cycle, most acutely during a special two-week "study" phase. Organization into three-man cells and kiem thao "criticism and self-criticism" sessions were part of the tight training regimen.
Men selected for infiltration to the South received more intense training - with more political indoctrination, weapons handling, and special emphasis on physical conditioning, particularly marching with heavy packs. Specialized training (heavy weapons, signals, medical, explosives) was given to selected individuals in courses that might last up to a year. Pay and rations for designated infiltrators was more than that given to other troops.
Assessment of the NVA/PAVN fighter. Compared to their VC counterparts most NVA had a higher standard of literacy. While his preparation was not especially impressive by Western standards, the typical NVA soldier proved more than adequate for the task at hand. NVA training was surprisingly conventional, with little special emphasis on jungle warfare. Most of the troops' learning occurred on the job. Service and indoctrination under the communist system prior to army recruitment made the typical NVA fighter a bit older and more seasoned than his American or ARVN opponent. Throughout the conflict, NVA defections and surrenders were extremely low, especially compared to that of the VC, a testimony to their motivation and organization.
Importance of the party cadres. Recruitment of VC fighters followed patterns similar to those in Mao's Revolutionary China. Party operatives dominated or influenced most significant activities, and so the initial agents of recruitment were the party cadres, tightly organized into small cells. The cadre, or team of cadres, typically were southern regroupees returning to help the insurgency. Since such persons would have some knowledge of the local area, theirs would not be a "cold call". They would enter a village, and make a careful study of its social, political and economic structure. Cadres usually downplayed communism, stressing local grievances and resentments, and national independence. All was not serious discussion. Musical groups, theater troupes and other forms of entertainment were frequently employed. The personal behavior of cadres was also vital. They were expected to lead austere, dedicated lives, beyond reproach. This would enable villagers to contrast their relatively restrained, non-pecuniary way of life, with the corruption of government representatives or targeted enemies. Female cadres sometimes made effective recruiters, being able to shame and goad young males into committing for the Revolution.
Use of local grievances and individuals. Local grievances and resentments were carefully catalogued by cadres, and detailed information was harvested on each potential supporter or recruit for later use. The cadres would then hit their targets with a variety of methods - friendship, casual political discussions, membership in some community organization, sponsorship of some village festival or event, or activism related to some local grievance or issue. As targets were softened up, the pressure increased. A small nucleus of followers was usually gathered, and these were used to further expand recruitment. The cadres exploited the incompetence, corruption or heavy-handedness of local government officials to stoke the fires. They also seized on perceived injustices by private parties - such as landlords. One vital part of the political effort was to encourage ARVN desertion, draft evasion, lowered morale, and if possible active or tacit support of the Front (NLF/VC). Friends and relatives of soldiers could make effective persuasive appeals while VC operatives who directed the prostelyzing remained hidden in the background.
Creation and manipulation of front groups or infiltration of existing organizations. While the Communist presence in the "united Front" against the US/GVN was no secret, VC operatives took pains to screen the full extent of their influence, and stressed patriotism, anti-foreign sentiment, local grievances and other issues that could mobilize support. Integral to this process was the creation of "front" groups to mask the true VC agenda. Such groups lent an aura of populist spontaneity and voluntarism while the VC worked them behind the scenes. Such entities could be seemingly innocuous farming cooperatives, or cultural groups, or anything in between. Party members either manipulated these new groups behind the scenes or infiltrated existing ones and gradually took over or influenced them towards the VC line. The goal was to enmesh as many people as possible in some group which could then be manipulated. Thus for example a traditional, apolitical rice harvest festival would be eventually twisted into mobilizing demonstrations against a government official or policy. Members of a farming cooperative might be persuaded into signing a petition against construction of an airfield. Whatever the exact front, issue, or cover used, the goal was control and manipulation of the target population.
The "parallel government" - strengthening the VC grip on the masses. As their web expanded, VC methods became more bold. Hit squads attacked and eliminated selected enemies. Ironically, officials who were TOO efficient or honest might also be liquidated since their conduct might mitigate the grievances and resentments the cadres sought to stoke. Farmers who owned "too much" land might also be fingered. Government facilities, or the private property of those on the target list might also be damaged and sabotaged. Such terror attacks not only eliminated rivals, they served as salutary examples to the villagers as to what could potentially befall them if they opposed the Revolution.
If fully successful, the once sleepy village might be turned into a functioning VC support base. In the early stages of the Vietnam War, American officials "discovered that several thousand supposedly government-controlled 'fortified hamlets' were in fact controlled by Viet Cong guerrillas, who 'often used them for supply and rest havens'. The VC intent was to set up a "parallel" administration, operating clandestinely. Such "revolutionary government" would set and collect taxes, draft soldiers to fight, impress laborers for construction tasks, administer justice, redistribute land, and coordinate local community events and civic improvements. All this activity had one aim - to further the VC/NLF cause, and tighten the Party's grip over the masses.
Intimidation. While a wide variety of front groups and propaganda campaigns were deployed and manipulated by VC political operatives, the VC also tapped effectively into local grievances and nationalist sentiment to attain a measure of genuine popular support in many areas. Parallel with this however, was an unmistakable track of coercion and intimidation. Villagers in a "liberated area" had little choice but to shelter, feed and finance the Revolutionary Forces, and were forced to expand the liberated zone by supplying manpower for constructing and maintaining supply dumps, fortifications, tunnels, and manufacturing facilities.
VC "Armed Propaganda" squads conducted a systematic campaign of assassination and kidnapping to eliminate competitors, intimidate the populace and disrupt or destroy normal social, political and economic life. These two tracks: popular support, and coercion/intimidation, were to run on together for a good part of the War.
Training of Main Force fighters. Recruits falling into the net were usually taken from the village to another location for political indoctrination and training, sometimes contradicting VC assurances that they would be able to serve near their home areas. Those showing promise were assigned to the Main Force Battalions, which were permanently organized military formations. Other recruits were expected to serve as part-time village helpers or guerrillas. Military training, like that of the NVA was essentially conventional - marching, small unit tactics, basic weapons handling, etc. Illiteracy and lack of education was often a problem in VC ranks, and steps were made to correct this, with focus on the political task at hand. Specialized and advanced training, as in the NVA was given to smaller groups of men. Political indoctrination continued throughout the VC Main Force fighter's training, with nightly "criticism and self-criticism" sessions to eliminate error, and purge incorrect thought.
Assessment of the VC fighter. The quality of VC training and recruitment was more uneven than that of the NVA, and varied based on the war situation. Literacy was lower and defections were several times that of their Northern counterparts. In the context of the protracted insurgency however, and the communist willingness to expend lives, the VC fighting man was more than adequate to fulfill the goals determined by Communist leadership.
Given the Communist Party's dominance over all spheres of Northern Vietnamese society, including the military struggle, it is impossible to understand VC/NVA organization, strategy and tactics without detailing party involvement. The bulk of the VC/NLF were initially southerners, with some distinctive southern issues and sensibilities. Nevertheless, the VC/NLF was clearly a creature of the Northern Lao Dong Party which manipulated and controlled it -furnishing it with supplies, weaponry and trained cadres, including regular PAVN troops posing as "local" fighters.
Hanoi also organized the Southern Communist party, the Peoples Revolutionary Party (PRP) in 1962, to mobilize communist party membership among southerners, and COSVN, Central Office for Southern Vietnam, which controlled a substantial range of military activity. While a measure of decentralization was necessary to pursue the conflict locally, the PRP, and COVSN, answered ultimately to their Northern handlers. The NVA likewise was controlled by the PAVN High Command, which answered to the Lao Dong, with party committees and representatives supervising and monitoring all echelons. As the war progressed, southern influence weakened, and the northern grip, both military and politically via the Lao Dong Party, was strengthened. This development was lamented by some former VC personnel who were forced off the stage by the northerners.
Operating through the PRP personnel, northern cadres and COSVN, and manipulating a variety of front groups, the communist leadership in the North forged a formidable weapon in both the military and propaganda spheres, garnering both internal support in the South, and international support from sympathetic Westerners. Heavily reliant on Chinese and Soviet sponsors for much of their manufactured weapons, the Northern regime, played both these communist giants against each other in the service of its own ends. This ruthless, skillful and tenacious leadership was to achieve final triumph after almost two decades of war.
The PAVN High Command supervised all regular NVA forces, but also some Main Force VC formations in the two northernmost Military Regions, and the B-3 Front (Western Highlands). Military Affairs Committees were coordinating groups that liaisoned and coordinated activity with the Central Reunification Department, another coordination body for the complex effort. Each front was a military command but was supervised also by regional Party committees set up by Hanoi's Politburo. The deeper PAVN formations moved into South Vietnam, the more coordination was needed with NLF/VC and regional forces. Hence COVSN was prominent in the southernmost areas, closest to the Cambodian border, where it had its headquarters. COVSN supervised VC forces (Main Force, Regional and Village Guerrilla) in this zone.
There were five geographic/area commands covering South Vietnam in terms of military operations. These zones evolved from a simpler two-front division during the early phases of the conflict. The names given below are approximate. More detailed subdivisions existed.
A creature of the Northern regime, the overall Viet Cong structure was made up of three parts:
The 5-level administrative structure. Publicly, the NLF was part of a spontaneous peoples movement for liberation. In reality it was controlled by COSVN, which in turn was controlled by the Lao Dong party. Some writers suggest that COVSN was an executive committee of the PRP, the Southern Communist Party, with associated staff for coordinating the war effort, but the exact structural arrangements remain ambiguous. The NLF was organized into 3 Interzone headquarters, that were subdivided into 7 smaller headquarters Zones. The Zones were split into Provinces and further subdivided into Districts. These likewise controlled Village and Hamlet elements. Each level was run by a committee, dominated as always by Communist Party operatives.
Military structure of the PLAF. The People's Liberation Armed Forces (aka "VC" in common usage) was the actual military muscle of the insurgency. The PLAF was also controlled by COVSN, which took its orders from the North. For military purposes South Vietnam was divided into 6 military regions, in turn broken down by province, district, village and hamlet. A military structure thus stood parallel with, and operated with the NLF "front" structure as cover, lending a popular gloss to the insurgency. Each level in theory was subject to the dictates of the next highest one. Interlocking party memberships, committees, and groupings like COSVN assured coordination between the NLF, the PLAF, the PRP (southern communist party), and Hanoi's war directors. Indeed, party membership was required to hold most significant command positions within the PLAF, and party operatives supervised activity all the way down to the hamlet level.
Three tier VC military formation: The VC/PLAF military formations were generally grouped into 3 echelons.
The typical NVA division had a strength of approximately 10,000 men grouped into three infantry regiments, with a supporting artillery regiment or battalion, and signals, engineers, medical and logistic formations. The artillery units were generally armed with mortars although they might use heavier weapons in an extended set-piece operation. The regiments were generally broken down into 3 foot-soldier battalions of 500-600 men each, along with the supporting units. Each battalion in turn was subdivided into companies and platoons, with heavy weapons units augmenting the small arms of the line troops.
Both the VC and NVA formations operated under a "system of three" - three cells to a squad, three squads to a platoon, 3 companies to a battalion etc. This could vary depending on operational circumstances. Small-arms dominated the armament of typical infantry battalions, which deployed the standard infantry companies, logistical support, and heavy weapons sub-units of modern formations. Heavier weapons like 81mm mortars or recoilless rifles and machines guns were at the battalions combat support company. Members of the combat support unit were also responsible for placing mines and booby traps. Special detachments or platoons included sappers, recon, signals, etc. and were directly responsible to the battalion commander.
Where distinct NVA formations were kept intact, they remained under the control of the NVA High command, although this was, like other military echelons, controlled in turn by the Northern Lao Dong Party. The NLF "front" framework, gave political cover to these military efforts. Since Party operatives were in place at all levels throughout the entire structure, coordination and control of the vast politico-military effort was enhanced.
Cadres were expected to be of exemplary proletarian, moral and political character, faithfully implementing the most recent party line, and monitoring assigned areas for erroneous thought. Class background was important with those from the middle and upper-classes receiving less favorable treatment. Of special importance was the activities of cadres in morale building and in organizing the ubiquitous "criticism and self-criticism" sessions.
The cadre system was a constant in both the VC Main Force and NVA formations down to the company level. Cadres had their own chain of command, parallel with that of the military structure. In any disputes between military officers and the political operatives, the political officers generally had the last word.
Widespread use of terror. Murder, kidnapping, torture and general intimidation were a routine part of VC/NVA operations and were calculated to cow the populace, liquidate opponents, erode the morale of GVN government employees, and boost tax collection and propaganda efforts. This extensive use of terror on a daily basis received comparatively little attention from Western journalists occupied with covering the big unit war. Terror was meant to demonstrate that both the rural and urban dweller were powerless against the Viet Cong and that the government could not protect them. Terror extended beyond targeted murders and kidnappings, and included the frequent mortaring of civilians in refugee camps, and the placing of mines on highways frequented by villagers taking their goods to urban markets. Some mines were set only to go off after heavy vehicle passage, causing extensive slaughter aboard packed civilian buses.
Another terror method involved deliberate random shelling of populated areas with 122-mm rockets. Areas victimized included Saigon, Danang and other major cities. At other times the Viet Cong eschewed the use of stand-off weapons and directly attacked villages and hamlets with the express intention of killing men, women and children to sow havoc, panic and insecurity. A 1968 attack on the hamlet of Son Tra in Quang Ngai province for example, used flamethrowers to incinerate 78 civilians, wounded many more, and destroyed most of the hamlet.
Terror via provoking attacks from US/ARVN forces. Terror results could also be achieved by provoking hasty reaction or retaliation attacks by ARVN or American forces on villagers through sniping, raids, or placing of mines and booby traps in and near villages or hamlets. Such reactions had the benefit of sparking potential atrocities that could be used later in propaganda to help mobilize or radicalize elements of the populace. A 1965 Christian Science Monitor article by Japanese journalist Takashi Oka reported on what seemed to be use of the method. The VC entered a village and harangued the local populace about supporting the Revolution before digging in, and passing word to the district capital that they were active in the community. One day later, US planes bombed the village and its Catholic Church. VC operatives emerged after the destruction to tell survivors about the perfidy of the US imperialists. Such methods could sometimes backfire however, with villagers blaming Front forces for the destruction and death brought to their communities.
Atrocities. Several spectacular incidents of terror stand out in VC/NVA operations, although these were not publicized in the Western media to the extent of the American My Lai massacre.
Hit squads and assassinations. During the early years of the war, assassinations and other similar activity was organized via "special activity cells" of the VC. As the conflict extended, efforts were centralized under the VC Security Service estimated to number 25,000 men by 1970. By 1969, nearly 250 civilians were being murdered or kidnapped each week. The total Vietnam War tally of the VC/NVA terror squads stands at over 36,000 murders and almost 58,000 kidnappings according to one US Department of Defense estimate, circa 1973. Statistics for 1968-72 suggest that "about 80 percent of the terrorist victims were ordinary civilians and only about 20 percent were government officials, policemen, members of the self-defence forces or pacification cadres.
Official line on terror. Communist forces and spokesmen consistently denied using any terror, and attributed the mass graves at Hue to spontaneous action by various aggrieved peoples of the city. The use of terror however is encouraged in official NLF documents, such as COSVN Resolution Number 9, published in July 1969, which noted:
Communist forces deployed an extensive and sophisticated intelligence apparatus within South Vietnam, extending from the top echelons of the Southern regime, to village level guerrilla helpers informing on ARVN troop movements. Such was the penetration of the GVN that after the war the Communist government presented a medal to one of the top aides to South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky. Substantial assistance to the southern insurgency was rendered by the North via its Central Research Agency(CRA). This fifth-column built on the anti-French resistance of the Vietminh. The American CIA claimed that by the late 1960s, more than 30,000 enemy agents had infiltrated the GVN's "administrative, police, armed forces and intelligence" operations.
In the South, the NLF's COVSN organization supervised intelligence efforts, deploying a secret police in communist controlled areas, a bodyguard service for VIPs and most importantly, a "People's Intelligence System." Networks of informers were numerous and the system used blackmail, threats and propaganda to secure the cooperation of GVN functionaries, often working through their relatives. One South Vietnamese study of the communist apparatus cited several examples of intelligence gathering for the Front (VC/NVA) forces:
The Communist command structure was complex, with a series of interlocking committees and directorates, all controlled by the Central Committee of Hanoi's Lao Dong (Communist) Party. This same pattern of interlocking groups was repeated further down the chain to the lowliest hamlet- all controlled by party operatives.
This elaborate structure often appears ponderous to Western eyes, but it was extremely well adapted to the demands of the war effort, and its built in overlapping, duplication and redundancy made it resilient and able to adjust to defections, captures or deaths among its members. One American Vietnam War historian calls the Viet Cong "more disciplined and organized than nearly any insurgents in history."
BY michael nguyen
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