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Evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies and tactics used by soldiers
in Vietnam between 1960 and 1975.
The Vietnamese communists and the United States used different strategies to win the
Vietnam War. The communists fought a military and political campaign, in both South
Vietnam and the US itself. The US, on the other hand, concentrated on defeating the
NVA/NLF on the battlefield. It was for this reason that America and its South
Vietnamese ally eventually lost the war.
The North Vietnamese and NLF strategy to win the Vietnam War was to wear down the
enemy’s morale, by waging a prolonged guerrilla war, then deliver a savage military
blow. To do this, they sought to win over the rural population of South Vietnam, enabling
the Viet Cong (VC) to operate freely in those regions and establish so-called ‘liberated
zones’. This strategy was very effective, and by early 1965 victory seemed assured.
The arrival of American ground troops put an end to these gains, and saved South
Vietnam from collapse.
The US had a three pronged strategy to win the war. Firstly, a bombing campaign was
launched over North Vietnam, to try to force Ho Chi Minh to sue for peace. This proved
unsuccessful, since there were few targets of significance in the North to hit. Secondly,
the US tried to stem the flow of weapons to the South by bombing the Ho Chi Minh
Trail. This too proved ineffective, since the VC required very few supplies to maintain
their campaign. Finally, the US launched a series of search and destroy operations in
South Vietnam, in an attempt to wipe out the VC.
The US ground assault was far more successful than the other two elements of the plan,
forcing the communists to change their own strategy. The VC now pursued a policy of
controlling people rather than territory – retreating when the Americans approached and
only attacking when the fight was on their terms. They were well aware that they could
never defeat the United States military. However, they also knew that the US public
would not tolerate a prolonged war in Southeast Asia. If they could hold out for three or
four years, while inflicting serious casualties on the US, pressure would build in America
for an end to the war. They would then hold all the cards in any subsequent peace deal.
As such, they now switched their strategy to one of attrition.
By the end of 1967, neither side had got the upper hand. The US was killing large
numbers of guerrillas, but the destruction in the countryside was driving more and more
peasants into the arms of the VC. The communists they needed a spectacular victory to
break the deadlock. This was the Tet Offensive.
In January 1968, the VC launched a series of attacks on towns and cities across South
Vietnam, capturing key buildings such as the American Embassy. However, the
campaign did not go to plan. The US was able to use its superior firepower to drive the
VC from the cities and re-establish control. 50,000 VC soldiers were killed or captured –
a third of their total number. This broke the back of the VC’s infrastructure in many parts
of the country, and gave the US forces the opportunity to penetrate regions that had been
closed to them to this point.
President Nixon tried to take advantage of this military victory by escalating the war in
1969. The VC guerrillas were forced to retreat underground and into Cambodia, in order
to rebuild. Fighting became less intense, allowing Nixon to begin the process of
Vietnamisation – the handover of combat duties to the South Vietnamese. This had been
made necessary by the shift in public opinion in America against the war.
By 1973, the Paris Peace Agreement had been signed. All American forces had been
withdrawn from South Vietnam, but the communist troops remained. The VC were given
recognition as the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), and given control of 40
percent of the countryside. There, they could rebuild their political and military forces,
ready for a resumption of hostilities. In such a situation, peace could not possibly last.
Both sides violated the truce during 1973 and ‘74, trying to gain the upper hand, but it
was Ho Chi Minh’s successors who initiated the final attack. The NVA swept into the
Central Highlands, cutting the South in two. The ARVN fell back in retreat, plagued as it
was a lack of fuel and supplies, and by poor leadership and endemic corruption. President
Thieu then made a fatal error, ordering his troops to abandon half of South Vietnam.
Panic now set in, and the ARVN collapsed. The NVA and VC were soon in Saigon
Hence, the Vietnamese communists defeated the Americans and the South Vietnamese
in the same way they had defeated the French. They fought a relentless guerrilla
campaign, wearing down their enemies until they lost their will to fight. The Second
Indochina War was won as much on the political front as on the battlefield.