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Vietnam - Second Indochina War

The goals of the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam were summarized in Ho Chi Minh's three-point battle cry: "Defend the North, Free the South, and Unite the Country." This simple cry had much patriotic and emotional appeal, particularly since the U.S. forces were described as imperialists who had replaced the French, the former rulers of Vietnam. In the determination of military strategy and tactics and the political maneuvering to attain this goal, simplicity tended to fade away.

As a result of the Second Indochina War (1954–75), Viet Cong—communist forces in South Vietnam—and regular People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces from the North unified Vietnam under communist rule. In this conflict, the insurgents—with logistical support from China and the Soviet Union—ultimately defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which sought to maintain South Vietnamese independence with the support of the U.S. military.

The Vietnam War was really two wars. One was the purely military war pursued by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) against the military forces of the government of South Vietnam (GVN) and the United States of America. The other war was the insurgency waged by the VietCong political apparatus, an extension of the Lao Dong Party in South Vietnam, using local political cadre and guerrillas. These two wars were part of an overall strategy of the North Vietnamese Lao Dong Party to overthrow the GVN and unite all of Indochina, including Laos and Cambodia, under their control. This dual-track strategy by the North Vietnamese Communists modulated between an emphasis on classic Maoist revolutionary war from 1956 to 1968 to a predominantly conventional war strategy from 1968 until the fall of Saigon in 1975. The more central war was the political struggle waged on the communist side by various specially-created organizations collectively (and inaccurately) termed by the world the Viet-Cong. The individual fighting this war was the man in the black pajama of the Vietnamese peasant. His mission was to steal people away from the government. His concern was almost exclusively control of the people, as distinguished from the big-unit war, where the concern was control of the enemy's army.

The Communists never were able to defeat the GVN pacification program and, indeed, by early 1969, the Communists realized that their plan for a "general uprising" using local Viet Cong units in South Vietnam was doomed to failure and that a purely military solution involving Communist forces from North Vietnam invading South Vietnam was the proper strategy to pursue.

At the war’s end in 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist Viet Minh organization, declared Vietnam’s independence in a speech that invoked the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, the French quickly reasserted the control they had ceded to the Japanese, and the First Indochina War (1946–54) was underway. French control ended on May 7, 1954, when Vietnamese forces defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the North from Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, supported by the United States, ruling the South from Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City).

By 1959 some of the 90,000 Viet Minh troops that had returned to the North following the Geneva Agreements had begun filtering back into the South to take up leadership positions in the insurgency apparat. Mass demonstrations, punctuated by an occasional raid on an isolated post, were the major activities in the initial stage of this insurgency. Communist-led uprisings launched in 1959 in the lower Mekong Delta and Central Highlands resulted in the establishment of liberated zones, including an area of nearly fifty villages in Quang Ngai Province. In areas under Communist control in 1959, the guerrillas established their own government, levied taxes, trained troops, built defense works, and provided education and medical care.

In order to direct and coordinate the new policies in the South, it was necessary to revamp the party leadership apparatus and form a new united front group. Accordingly, COSVN, which had been abolished in 1954, was reestablished with General Nguyen Chi Thanh, a northerner, as chairman and Pham Hung, a southerner, as deputy chairman. On December 20, 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, informally called the National Liberation Front (NLF, Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam), was founded, with representatives on its Central Committee from all social classes, political parties, women's organizations, and religious groups, including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, the Buddhists, and the Catholics.

In order to keep the NLF from being obviously linked with the VWP and the DRV, its executive leadership consisted of individuals not publicly identified with the Communists, and the number of party members in leadership positions at all levels was strictly limited. Furthermore, in order not to alienate patriotic noncommunist elements, the new front was oriented more toward the defeat of the United States backed Saigon government than toward social revolution.

In response to increased United States involvement, all communist armed units in the South were unified into a single People's Liberation Armed Force (PLAF) in 1961. These troops expanded in number from fewer than 3,000 in 1959 to more than 15,000 by 1961, most of whom were assigned to guerrilla units. Southerners trained in the North who infiltrated back into the South composed an important element of this force. Although they accounted numerically for only about 20 percent of the PLAF, they provided a well-trained nucleus for the movement and often served as officers or political cadres.

By late 1962, the PLAF had achieved the capability to attack fixed positions with battalion-sized forces. The NLF was also expanded to include 300,000 members and perhaps 1 million sympathizers by 1962. Land reform programs were begun in liberated areas, and by 1964 approximately 1.52 million hectares had been distributed to needy peasants, according to Communist records. In the early stages, only communal lands, uncultivated lands, or lands of absentee landlords were distributed. Despite local pressure for more aggressive land reform, the peasantry generally approved of the program, and it was an important factor in gaining support for the liberation movement in the countryside. In the cities, the Workers' Liberation Association of Vietnam (Hoi Lao Dong Giai Phong Mien Nam), a labor organization affiliated with the NLF, was established in 1961.

Hanoi's response to the fall of the Diem regime was a subject of intense debate at the Ninth Plenum of the VWP Central Committee held in December 1963. It appeared that the new administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson (who assumed office following the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22) was not planning to withdraw from Vietnam but, rather, to increase its support for the new Saigon government. The VWP leadership concluded that only armed struggle would lead to success and called for an escalation of the war. The critical issues then became the reactions of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hanoi clearly hoped that the United States would opt for a compromise solution, as it had in Korea and Laos, and the party leaders believed that a quick and forceful escalation of the war would induce it to do so. Hanoi's decision to escalate the struggle was made in spite of the risk of damage to its relations with Moscow, which opposed the decision. The new policy also became an issue in the developing rift between Beijing and Moscow because China expressed its full support for the Vietnamese war of national liberation. As a result, Moscow's aid began to decrease as Beijing's grew.

Escalation of the war resulted in some immediate success for the struggle in the South. By 1964 a liberated zone had been established from the Central Highlands to the edge of the Mekong Delta, giving the communists control over more than half the total land area and about half the population of the South. PLAF forces totaled between 30 and 40 battalions, including 35,000 guerrillas and 80,000 irregulars. Moreover, with the completion of the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, the number of PAVN troops infiltrated into the South began to increase. ARVN control was limited mainly to the cities and surrounding areas, and in 1964 and 1965 Saigon governments fell repeatedly in a series of military and civilian coups.

The North Vietnamese by December 1964 had reached the decision to escalate their reach for control of the south to the third and final phase of Ho Chi Minh's classical theory of revolution. They shifted from guerrilla warfare to a general offensive using major field maneuver units. The formation of the Viet Cong division and introduction of North Vietnamese Army units into the south were unmistakable evidence of this shift.

The United States decision to escalate the war was a surprise and a blow to party strategists in Hanoi. At the Twelfth Plenum of the Central Committee in December 1965, the decision was made to continue the struggle for liberation of the South despite the escalated American commitment. The party leadership concluded that a period of protracted struggle lay ahead in which it would be necessary to exert constant military pressure on the Saigon government and its ally in order to make the war sufficiently unpopular in Washington. Efforts were to be concentrated on the ARVN troops, which had suffered 113,000 desertions in 1965 and were thought to be on the verge of disintegration.

In early 1965, Hanoi had been encouraged by Moscow's decision to increase its economic and military assistance substantially. The resulting several hundred million dollars in Soviet aid, including surface- to-air missiles, had probably been tied to a promise by Hanoi to attend an international conference on Indochina that had been proposed by Soviet premier Kosygin in February. As preconditions for these negotiations Hanoi and Washington, however, had each presented demands that were unacceptable to the other side. The DRV had called for an immediate and unconditional halt to the bombing of the north, and the United States had demanded the removal of PAVN troops from the South. Although both Hanoi and Washington had been interested in a negotiated settlement, each had preferred to postpone negotiations until it had achieved a position of strength on the battlefield.

By mid-1966 , North Vietnam placed its economy on a war footing, temporarily shelving non-war-related construction efforts. As a consequence of the heavy United States bombing of the North, industries were dismantled and moved to remote areas. Young men were conscripted into the army and their places in fields and factories were filled by women, who also served in home defense and antiaircraft units. Such measures were very effective in countering the impact od the bombing on the North's war effort. The Johnson administration, however, showed no sign of willingness to change its bombing strategy or to lessen its war effort.

Communist leadership both in Hanoi and South Vietnam took a hard critical look at how things were going in the fall of 1967. North Vietnamese combat operations had been largely unsuccessful. Despite his best efforts, his strength was declining, and his control of the population in South Vietnam was decreasing. Approximately 40 percent of the population was under North Vietnamese Army control in 1965, but this proportion had fallen to between 15 and 20 percent by September of 1967. Loss of population control meant a loss in manpower, revenues, and supplies. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong would have to make up this deficit through greater demands on the people still under their control. Such demands would not further endear the North Vietnamese Army to the people.

The January 1968 Tet offensive, whose scope and precise timing the Communists managed to conceal from US and South Vietnamese intelligence, plunged the Saigon government and its adherents into a political malaise that threatened their will to continue. In June 1969, the NLF and its allied organizations formed the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG), recognized by Hanoi as the legal government of South Vietnam. At that time, communist losses dating from the Tet Offensive numbered 75,000, and morale was faltering, even among the party leadership.

To break the negotiations deadlock, the party leadership in Hanoi turned again to the strategy of a general offensive and uprising. Accordingly, the so-called Easter offensive was launched beginning on March 30, 1972, with a three-pronged attack across the DMZ through the A Shau Valley.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:52:13 ZULU