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Vietnam - Escalation of the War

Total US Military Personnel in Vietnam
DateTotal Personnel
31 December 1960 900
31 December 1961 3,200
31 December 1962 11,500
31 December 1963 16,300
31 December 1964 23,300
31 December 1965 184,300
31 December 1966 425,300
31 December 1967 485,600
31 December 1968 536,100
31 December 1969 474,400
31 December 1970 335,800
9 June 1971 250,900
Under President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1968), US intervention mushroomed both militarily and politically. Johnson asked for a resolution expressing U.S. determination to support freedom and protect peace in Southeast Asia. Congress responded with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, expressing support for "all necessary measures" the President might take to repel armed attacks against US forces and prevent further aggression.

Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson estimated in 1965 that victory would require as many as 700,000 troops for up to five years. Commandant of the Marine Corps Wallace Greene made a similar estimate on troop levels. As President Johnson incrementally escalated the war, neither man made his views known to the president or Congress. President Johnson made a concerted effort to conceal the costs and consequences of Vietnam from the public, but such duplicity required the passive consent of America's generals.

The Johnson administration remained hesitant to raise the American commitment to Vietnam. However, in August 1964, following the reputed shelling of United States warships in the Gulf of Tonkin off the North Vietnamese coast, Johnson approved air strikes against North Vietnamese naval bases. At President Johnson's urgent request, the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the president the power "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." This tougher United States stance was matched in Moscow in October when Leonid Brezhnev and Aleksey Kosygin took over control of the government following the fall from power of Nikita Khrushchev. The new Soviet government pledged increased military support for Hanoi, and the NLF set up a permanent mission in Moscow.

United States support for South Vietnam, which had begun as an effort to defend Southeast Asia from the communist threat, developed into a matter of preserving United States prestige. The Johnson administration, nevertheless, was reluctant to commit combat troops to Vietnam, although the number of United States military advisers including their support and defense units had reached 16,000 by July 1964.

Instead, in February 1965 the United States began a program of air strikes known as Operation Rolling Thunder against military targets in North Vietnam. Despite the bombing of the North, ARVN losses grew steadily, and the political situation in Saigon became precarious as one unstable government succeeded another.

General William C. Westmoreland, commander of MACV [U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] from June 1964 to March 1968 urged the use of United States combat troops to stop the Communist advance, which he predicted, could take over the country within a year. Under the strategy developed by General William C. Westmoreland, American divisions would seek out and destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communist) formations, while air power carried the war to the North, attacking both the will of Hanoi's leaders to continue the fight and, to an increasing extent, their ability to do so. The list of targets expanded to include transportation, oil storage, and the nation's few industries. In theory, Westmoreland's strategy of search and destroy would force the Communists to expend supplies and thus make the logistics establishment in North Vietnam all the more vulnerable to bombing.

The first two battalions of U.S. Marines (3,500 men) arrived in Vietnam in March 1965 to protect the U.S. airbase at Da Nang. The following month, Westmoreland convinced the administration to commit sufficient combat troops to secure base areas and mount a series of search and destroy missions. By late 1965, the United States expeditionary force in South Vietnam numbered 180,000, and the military situation had stabilized somewhat. Infiltration from the north, however, had also increased, although still chiefly by southerners who had gone north in 1954 and received military training. PLAF strength was estimated to be about 220,000, divided almost equally between guerrillas and main force troops, the latter including units of PAVN regulars totalling about 13,000 troops.

In 1966, more than 200,000 troops were committed to Vietnam. The United States escalated its participation in the war to a peak of 543,000 troops in April 1969. American forces in Southeast Asia operated under some stringent restrictions, including being forbidden to invade enemy territory in North Vietnam and, for many years, likewise being barred from ground operations against enemy sanctuaries in bordering Laos and Cambodia. The "body count" of Vietcong killed was the centerpiece of the American approach to waging the war, conducted through search-and-destroy operations in remote jungle regions. By 1966 it became increasingly clear that this strategy of attrition was not working and could not work because of the enemy's capacity to replace losses far higher than those the allies were able to inflict.

Vietnam saw changes in employment tactics of artillery. Front lines common in previous wars were replaced by perimeter defenses. The helicopter became a prime mover for artillery giving increased mobility. Artillery units occupied fire support bases and could fire 360 degrees in support of operations. The ability of the artillery to provide rapid and devasting fire support at critical times often spelled the difference between victory and defeat. Very few major engagements were fought without artillery support.

American tactics in Vietnam relied on overwhelming firepower -- chiefly close air support and artillery -- to reduce friendly casualties while overcoming the enemy's advantage in numbers. While fire support contributed significantly, it proved a two-edged sword. Although American firepower created staggering enemy casualties and limited his ability to mass maneuver forces, preparatory fires seldom neutralized the NVA positions. The dense jungle and the sharp relief of the hill attenuated the concentration of firepower, as did the enemy's weIl-prepared defenses.

The political challenge of the war stemmed from the belief of the rural Vietnamese that the Government of Vietnam will not stay long when it comes into an area, that the Government was indifferent to the people's welfare, that the low-level officials were tools of the local rich; and that the Government was excessively corrupt from top to bottom. The American search-and-destroy military operations didn't solve these problems, and were at best irrelevant to security in rural Vietnamese villages. At worst, indiscriminate aerial attacks and artillery fire exacted a toll on village allegiance to the Saigon government.

By mid-1966 United States forces, now numbering 350,000, had gained the initiative in several key areas, pushing the communists out of the heavily populated zones of the south into the more remote mountainous regions and into areas along the Cambodian border. Revolutionary forces in the South, under the command of General Nguyen Chi Thanh, responded by launching an aggressive campaign of harassment operations and full-scale attacks by regiment-sized units. This approach proved costly, however, in terms of manpower and resources, and by late 1966 about 5,000 troops, including main force PAVN units, were being infiltrated from the North each month to help implement this strategy.

During this difficult period, the communists returned to protracted guerrilla warfare and political struggle. The party leadership called for increased efforts to infiltrate moderate political parties and religious organizations. The underground communist leadership in Saigon was instructed to prepare for a general uprising by recruiting youths into guerrilla units and training women to agitate against the city's poor living conditions and the injustices of the Saigon government. Total victory, according to the party leadership, would probably occur when military victories in rural areas were combined with general uprisings in the cities.

In mid-1967, with United States troop levels close to the half million mark, Westmoreland requested 80,000 additional troops for immediate needs and indicated that further requests were being contemplated. United States forces in Tay Ninh, Binh Dinh, Quang Ngai, and Dinh Tuong provinces had initiated major offensives in late 1966 and in early 1967, and more troops were needed to support these and other planned operations. As a result of these deployments, United States forces were scattered from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta by mid-1967.

Opposition to the war, meanwhile, was mounting in the United States; and among the Vietnamese facing one another in the South, the rising cost of men and resources was beginning to take its toll on both sides. The level of PLAF volunteers declined to less than 50 percent in 1967 and desertions rose, resulting in an even greater increase in northern troop participation. Morale declined among communist sympathizers and Saigon government supporters alike. In elections held in South Vietnam in September 1967, former generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky were elected president and vice president, respectively. A number of popular candidates, including Buddhists and peace candidates, were barred from running, and newspapers were largely suppressed during the campaign. Even so, the military candidates received less than 35 percent of the vote, although the election took place only in areas under the Saigon government's control. When proof of widespread election fraud was produced by the defeated candidates, students and Buddhists demonstrated and demanded that the elections be annulled.

The Vietnam conflict wore many faces. It was at once an insurrection by indigenous guerrilla forces and an invasion by the regular army of a neighboring regime. It was a war of snipers and ambushes, booby traps and pitched battles. The location of the fighting ranged from the densely inhabited rice basket of the Mekong Delta to the remote, jungled mountains of the Central Highlands, It included both platoon-level "pacification" efforts aimed at small bands of Vietcong and corps-level operations targeted against main-force North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments and divisions. A determined enemy and brutally difficult terrain combined to negate the effects of American technology and presented a dramatic challenge to a U.S. Army commander's battle command skills.

The large, multidivision operations into the enemy's war zones produced some benefits for the pacification campaign; by keeping enemy main force regiments at bay, Westmoreland impeded their access to heavily populated areas and prevented them from reinforcing Viet Cong provincial and district forces. Yet when American units were shifted to the border, the local Viet Cong units gained a measure of relief Westmoreland faced a strategic dilemma: he could not afford to keep substantial forces away from their bases for more than a few months at a time without jeopardizing local security. Unless he received additional forces, Westmoreland would always be torn between two operational imperatives. By the summer of 1967, MACV's likelihood of receiving more combat troops, beyond those scheduled to deploy during the latter half of the year and in early 1968, had become remote. In Washington the administration turned down his request for an additional 200,000 men.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 14:05:42 ZULU