Military


Viet Cong

"Anybody who runs is a VC.
Anybody who stands still is a well-disciplined VC
."
[Stanley Kubrick Full Metal Jacket (1987),
adapted from The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford].

"Viet Cong" is a Vietnamese term, adopted early in the Diem regime and earing a pejorative connotation, for Vietnamese Communisr. Both Americans, who usually abbreviated it to "VC," and Saigon's officials applied it to any member of either the military or the political arm of the indigenous [though Hanoi-directed] Communist movement in South Vietnam. The Viet Cong were called "Victor Charley" by the Americans, for the phonetic alphabet for VC, which was predicably shortened to simply "Charlie".

The VC were distinguished from the integral units of the North Vietnamese Army deployed into South Vietnam after late 1964. The insurgents had organized several companies and a few battalions by 1959, the majority in the Delta and the provinces around Saigon. As Viet Cong military strength increased, attacks against the paramilitary forces, and occasionally against the South Vietnamese Army, became more frequent. Many were conducted to obtain equipment, arms, and ammunition, but all were hailed by the guerrillas as evidence of the government's inability to protect its citizens. Political agitation and military activity also quickened in the Central Highlands, where Viet Cong agents recruited among the Montagnard tribes.

In 1959, after assessing conditions in the South, the leaders in Hanoi agreed to resume the armed struggle, giving it equal weight with political efforts to undermine Diem and reunify Vietnam. To attract the growing number of anti-Communists opposed to Diem, as well as to provide a democratic facade for administering the party's policies in areas controlled by the Viet Cong, Hanoi in December 1960 created the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.

The Viet Cong thrived on their access to and control of the people, who formed the most important part of their support base. The population provided both economic and manpower resources to sustain and expand the insurgency; the people of the villages served the guerrillas as their first line of resistance against government intrusion into their "liberated zones" and bases. By comparison with their political effort, the strictly military aims of the Viet Cong were secondary. The insurgents hoped not to destroy government forces - although they did so when weaker elements could be isolated and defeated - but by limited actions to extend their influence over the population. By mobilizing the population, the Viet Cong compensated for their numerical and material disadvantages. The rule of thumb that ten soldiers were needed to defeat one guerrilla reflected the insurgents' political support rather than their military superiority. For the Saigon government, the task of isolating the Viet Cong from the population was difficult under any circumstances and impossible to achieve by force alone.

Missions were assigned and approved by a political officer who, in most cases, was superior to the unit's military commander. Party policy, military discipline, and unit cohesion were inculcated and reinforced by three-man party cells in every unit. Among the insurgents, war was always the servant of policy.

Until about 1960 the Viet Cong employed small units on missions of terror: assassinations, kidnappings, destruction. In 1960 the first battalion-size attacks were conducted by the Viet Cong; by 1961 the attacks had increased in frequency and had expanded to multi-battalion. To counter the growing insurgency the South Vietnam government set about increasing its regular military forces, its paramilitary forces, and its pacification program. The combined U.S.-South Vietnamese effort seemed to be leading to a shifting of the tide of battle by the end of 1962; however, with the growing political turmoil in the spring of 1963 followed in November by the overthrow of Diem, the bottom fell out of the military efforts of the South Vietnamese forces. Many of the government's strategic hamlets were lost, weapons losses increased, and many local paramilitary units simply faded away.

After 1959, infiltrators from the North also became important. Hanoi activated a special military transportation unit to control overland infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia. Then a special naval unit was set up to conduct sea infiltration. At first, the infiltrators were southern-born Viet Minh soldiers who had regrouped north after the French Indochina War. Each year until 1964, thousands returned south to join or to form Viet Cong units, usually in the areas where they had originated. Such men served as experienced military or political cadres, as technicians, or as rank-and-file combatants wherever local recruitment was difficult. When the pool of about 80,000 so-called regroupees ran dry, Hanoi began sending native North Vietnamese soldiers as individual replacements and reinforcements.

By 1964 Viet Cong battalions were growing into regiments and regiments into divisions. Battles were won by both sides during the year, culminating with the Viet Cong 9th Division's seizure of the Catholic village of Binh Gia east of Saigon on 28 December. Late in 1964, the 271st and 272d Viet Cong Regiments merged and equipped themselves with new Chinese and Soviet weapons, forming the 9th Viet Cong Division. The 9th Division showed the value of this change in a battle for Binh Gia, a small Catholic village on Inter-provincial Route 2, sixty-five kilometers southeast of Saigon. On 28 December and over the next three days the Viet Cong ambushed and nearly destroyed the South Vietnamese 33d Ranger Battalion and 4th Marine Battalion, and inflicted heavy casualties on the armored and mechanized forces that came to their rescue. The reorganized and reequipped Viet Cong were so confident that they stood and fought a four-day pitched battle rather than employ their usual hit-and-run tactics. This battle was a major event for both sides. The enemy considered it the beginning of the final "mobile" phase of the war, and the South Vietnamese saw it as the beginning of a military challenge they could not meet alone.

In 1964 the Communists started to introduce entire North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units into the South. Among the infiltrators were senior cadres, who manned the expanding Viet Cong command system: regional headquarters, interprovincial commands, and the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the supreme military and political headquarters. As the southern branch of the Vietnamese Communist Party, COSVN was directly subordinate to the Central Committee in Hanoi. Its senior commanders were high-ranking officers of North Vietnam's Army. To equip the growing number of Viet Cong forces in the South, the insurgents continued to rely heavily on arms and supplies captured from South Vietnamese forces. But, increasingly, large numbers of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment arrived from the North, nearly all supplied by the Sino-Soviet bloc.

The growth of the insurgency reflected not only North Vietnam's skill in infiltrating men and weapons, but South Vietnam's inability to control its porous borders, Diem's failure to develop a credible pacification program to reduce Viet Cong influence in the countryside, and the South Vietnamese Army's difficulties in reducing long-standing Viet Cong bases and secret zones. Such areas not only facilitated infiltration, but were staging areas for operations; they contained training camps, hospitals, depots, workshops, and command centers. Many bases were in remote areas seldom visited by the army, such as the U Minh Forest or the Plain of Reeds. But others existed in the heart of populated areas, in the "liberated zones." There Viet Cong forces, dispersed among hamlets and villages, drew support from the local economy. From such centers the Viet Cong expanded their influence into adjacent areas that were nominally under Saigon's control.

The situation at the beginning of 1965 was critical. By taking advantage of the civil unrest and political instability that had prevailed since mid-1963, the enemy had grown stronger and tightened his hold on the countryside. Estimates of enemy strength had risen from a total of 30,000 in November 1963 to 212,000 by July 1965.

The Viet Cong launched their first division-size attack against the village of Binh Gia close to Saigon where they destroyed two South Vietnam Army battalions and remained on the battlefield for four days instead of following their usual hit-and-run tactics. North Vietnamese units and reinforcements had now joined the battle and were arriving at a rate of nearly 1,000 men per month. Both the North Vietnam Army and the Viet Cong were now armed with modern weapons such as the AK47 assault rifle, giving them a firepower advantage over the South Vietnam Army which was still fighting with American weapons of World War II vintage. Enemy strategy was evidently based on the assumption that the United States would not increase its involvement and that, weak as it was, the government of South Vietnam would collapse from its own weight if pushed hard enough.

The year 1965 saw the first commitment of regular North Vietnamese Army forces in South Vietnam with their apparent intention of cutting the country in half. By late spring of 1965 the South Vietnamese Army was losing about one infantry battalion and one district capital a week to the enemy. It was then that U.S. ground forces were requested and, starting in July, began to arrive in substantial numbers. By August 1965 U.S. forces were being committed to combat, but in less than division strength. By the end of the year the Viet Cong 9th Division was heard from again as its 272d Regiment overran the South Vietnamese 7th Regiment in the Michelin Plantation.

The Tet offensive began quietly in mid-January 1968 in the remote northwest corner of South Vietnam. On 31 January combat erupted throughout the entire country. Hanoi's generals, however, were not completely confident that the general offensive would succeed. Viet Cong forces, hastily reinforced with new recruits and part-time guerrillas, bore the brunt. Except in the northern provinces, the North Vietnamese Army stayed on the sidelines, poised to exploit success. While hoping to spur negotiations, Communist leaders probably had the more modest goals of reasserting Viet Cong influence and undermining Saigon's authority so as to cast doubt on its credibility as the United States' ally. In this respect, the offensive was directed toward the United States and sought to weaken American confidence in the Saigon government, discredit Westmoreland's claims of progress, and strengthen American antiwar sentiment. Here again, the larger purpose was to bring the United States to the negotiating table and hasten American disengagement from Vietnam.

Once the shock and confusion wore off, most attacks were crushed in a few days. During those few days, however, the fighting was some of the most violent ever seen in the South or experienced by many ARVN units. Stunned by the attacks, civilian support for the Thieu government coalesced instead of weakening. Many Vietnamese for whom the war had been an unpleasant abstraction were outraged. Capitalizing on the new feeling, South Vietnam's leaders for the first time dared to enact general mobilization. The change from grudging toleration of the Viet Cong to active resistance provided an opportunity to create new local defense organizations and to attack the Communist infrastructure. Spurred by American advisers, the Vietnamese began to revitalize pacification. Most important, the Viet Cong suffered a major military defeat, losing thousands of experienced combatants and seasoned political cadres, seriously weakening the insurgent base in the South. Until the weakened Viet Cong forces could be rebuilt or replaced with NVA forces, both guerrilla and regular Communist forces had adopted a defensive posture.

By 1972, although some of the North Vietnamese formations still carried the traditional Vietcong (VC) designations, the divisions were organized and equipped as main-force NVA units manned primarily by North Vietnamese soldiers who had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the north.



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