- Published: November 22, 2021
- Updated: December 18, 2021
- Language: English
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The communist won the Vietnam War because of the North Vietnamese luminous strategy. The ultimate goal of North Vietnamese was to unify South Vietnam under communist control. North Vietnam viewed the existence of South Vietnam as an ongoing reminder of the era of colonization after Vietnam’s struggle for independence from France. To accomplish unification, North Vietnam planned a twofold strategy: escalate fighting (dau tranh) and install a communist dominated government. By escalating the struggle, North Vietnam hoped to increase the cost of the war, fuel anti-American war sentiments, instill fear among South Vietnamese masses, and force Saigon to sponsor a massive “ refugee assistance program.” The second strategy was the installation of a respectable South Vietnamese communist dominated government to complete the unification of Vietnam into a single state.
Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world. The Life or death of hundred, a thousand, or tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represents really very little.
General Vo Nguyen Giap
Evey since its beginnings as an organized movement, Vietnam Communism has been distinguished by an extraordinary continuity of leadership, an exceptional ability to outmaneuver and submerge its opponents, a noteworthy flexibility in tactical approaches to unswerving strategic goals, and a remarkable ability to communicate to the Vietnamese people in terms of nationalism. The supreme command for the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) had a coherent strategy for conquering South Vietnam, a strategy that the U. S. neither fully appreciated nor effectively countered. In general terms, Communist strategists followed the Mao Tse-Tung’s principles of guerilla war. However, the Vietnamese Communists adopted strategies that leveraged the vulnerabilities in their opponent’s strategy (Elliot, p. 70). In essence, it proved to be a winning strategy.
Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap developed a winning strategy by ruling out the notion of a noncombatant. Every person became a weapon of war and was considered expendable. According to Douglas Pike, author of PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam, the strategy that Ho Chi Minh and Giap formed was termed dau tranh or, translated in English, to struggle. The strategy is a concept of military strategy employed by the Vietnamese Communist in defeating three of the world’s great powers. These powers were Japan, France and the United States. It is difficult to call the dau tranh strategy exclusively a military strategy, for it consisted of and depended upon much more. The strategy contained two elements, which must operate together. The two elements are the armed dau tranh vu trang and the political dau tranh chinh tri. The dualism of dau tranh is that neither can be successful alone, only when combined. Mao and Giap consider political dau tranh chinh tri and armed dau tranh vu trang as the jaws of the pincers used to attack the enemy (Pike, p. 85). They represent the complete strategy. All actions taken in war, including a military attack, guerrilla ambush, propaganda broadcast, official statement at the conference table, every mission abroad, every decision taken from the Party cell in the village to the Politburo in Hanoi, came within the scope and framework of the two dau tranhs (Pike, PAVN, p. 216-230).
By understanding dau tranh, General Giap and the planners understood the strategic endstate. The endstate for the Tet Offensive was to affect a withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam and to bring about negotiations leading to a new Communist dominated government in the south. To achieve this endstate, the National Liberation Front fought on three fronts: political, military and diplomatic (Giap, p. 24). The political battle involved mobilizing support from the people of South Vietnam while undermining the South Vietnamese government. The military component required confronting the U. S. on the battlefield with the intent to inflict losses. The battlefield had no objectives that were essential to retain. The diplomatic element of the three-pronged strategy focused on mobilizing international opposition to the American war effort and promoting anti-war sentiment in the United States.
The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched a series of widespread and coordinated attacks against South Vietnam and its allies, specifically the United States. Although the U. S. and South Vietnamese troops held fast against the attacks and inflicted massive casualties against the Viet Cong, the overall victory belong to the North because they were able to achieve their objective which was to fuel anti-American war sentiment. The Communist knew that they could not conquer the U. S. on the battlefield so they designed a different strategy; a propaganda war in which they exploited POWs to help fuel U. S. sentiment against Washington. “ Use the enemy to defeat the enemy” – hence the high level focus on the American front. Admiral Stockdale, the highest ranking POW in Vietnam noted that POWs were a major factor in the North Vietnamese strategy (Fanizzi Article).
The failure of the Strategic Hamlet Program also enabled the North to obtain their objective. A comprehensive pacification program intended to counter the insurgency by reestablishing government control in villages, improving the material lives of the peasants and drive communist out of Hamlets. Saigon made several assumptions that needed to be correct for the program to work as envisioned: 1) the communist threat was coming from outside the hamlets; 2) the communist appeal was based on malicious propaganda; 3) peasants would be happy if physical and administrative improvements were made. These assumptions were all incorrect and the program was a complete disaster. Instead of pacifying the people and winning support, the program caused more anger, distrust, and drove a deeper wedge between the people and Saigon (Lomperis, p. 101).
The relocation program was intended to fight the war against communism. In reality, new villages pushed those that were thought to be under government protection into the arms of guerilla rebels. The society created within the new villages of the Strategic Hamlet program actually provided guerilla rebels with fresh propaganda for their rebellion, and thus, was actually counterproductive to the counterinsurgency efforts of the U. S. and the Diem Regime (Jackson Lecture 2010).
The insurgent forces of the Viet Cong knew the results of Hamlets from past experiences and pushed Saigon to opt for the relocation of the scattered South Vietnamese village masses. South Vietnam, unlike the North was more relaxed in an agricultural environment but some of the villages were isolated from the reach of the government security forces. This isolation fostered the guerillas ability to pose taxes upon the peasants since they were not under government protection and also allowed the communist to use the villages as areas of resupply for their revolutionary bases (Lewy, p. 183).
The New Communist Government
The goals of the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam are 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 (Lewy, p16). In the determination of military strategy and the political maneuvering to attain this goal, simplicity tended to fade away. The North Vietnamese had reached the decision to escalate their efforts 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.
North Vietnam was unprepared for the scale of its victory in the South, having anticipated that the path to complete power would require a transition period of shared power with South Vietnam. Two separate governments in North and South Vietnam were planned until the surprisingly swift disintegration of the South Vietnamese government eliminated the need for a lengthy transition. Following the establishment of communist control in the South, the government immediately was placed under a Military Management Commission, directed by Senior Lieutenant General Tran Van Tra with the assistance of local People’s Revolutionary Committees. During a reunification conference, the Party’s announced the plans for uniting and elections for a single National Assembly (Cima Article). The North Vietnamese strategy for a communist dominated government to complete the unification of Vietnam into a single state was realized.
The Fall of Saigon was inevitable and the event marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period leading to the formal reunification of Vietnam under communist rule. “ North Vietnamese troops occupied the important points within the city and raised their flag over the South Vietnamese presidential palace. South Vietnam capitulated shortly after” (Pravett Article). The City was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after communist leader Ho Chi Minh. The fall of the city was preceded by the evacuation of the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. The evacuation culminated in Operation Frequent Wind, which was the largest helicopter evacuation in history (Lomperis, p. 3).
Some argue that North Vietnam did not have a brilliant strategy, but merely benefitted from the South Vietnamese inability to counter grievances of its people and the United States failure to develop an effective strategy. The Vietnam War is characterized as a “ People’s War”, (Jackson Lecture, 2010) – a war to win the hearts and minds of the peasants living in South Vietnam. Illegitimate practices of the Saigon government only served to alienate the peasants and provide propaganda material for the National Libertarian Front (NLF). After the Geneva peace accords, Diem rose to power in South Vietnam with U. S. support and attempted to combat the spread of communism. With the promise of prosperity and reform, it was expected that many non-communist would either support the new government or wait to see if Diem could establish a legitimate government. Diem forcibly moved rural villagers from their ancestral homes and placed them in controlled settlements with the hopes of suppressing communist activity. Diem’s unpopular and repressive measures deepened opposition to his rule and fostered growth of the NLF. The NLF was committed to overthrowing Diem and promoting the unification of Vietnam. The NLF was able to build a strong recruiting and resource base in the villages because they appeared honest and sincere in wanting to improve the conditions of the villagers. The NLF was able to create a catalyst for the war by capitalizing on Saigon’s illegitimate practices thus creating a means for the insurgency (Lomperis, p. 333).
The ARVN had several issues that made them an ineffective fighting force against insurgency. The ARVN was plagued by incompetence, poor leadership and insufficient training. Many of ARVN’s problems were directly related to Saigon’s practice of promoting the politically loyal, wealthy, and inept officers ahead of those more competent. Senior Officers routinely siphoned and diverted funds into the pockets of government officials instead of investing in equipment and training. Rank-and-file members of ARVN were barely paid and miserably poor; it was not uncommon for members to desert their unit in order to feed themselves. The NLF exploited this vulnerability by designing propaganda campaigns that attacked class differences between the officers and enlisted men. The propaganda campaign was very successful; members of the NLF were able to penetrate the ARVN at every level. This gave an advantage to the NLF. The ARVN was disorganized due to low morale and leadership’s singular interest in personal gain. Therefore, the US experienced great difficulty in uniting the army in South Vietnam, and had only one solution – take charge of the situation.
U. S. leadership failed to learn from the lessons of the past during the Vietnam War, by underestimating the enemy and the nature of the war. Collectively U. S. leadership failed to consider the historical context or give adequate consideration to the previous conflicts in Vietnam. Over the centuries, China, Japan, and France have attempted to exert control over Indochina unsuccessfully. Out of this experience, Vietnam forged a strong collective identity. Its leadership demonstrated a strong national resolve and resistance to foreign domination as evidenced by the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. The conflict with the U. S. was seen as a continuation of 2000 years of foreign oppression. North Vietnam was prepared to accept unlimited casualties in its conflict with the United States. Finally, in formulating a strategy to defeat the North Vietnam, U. S. military leaders did not completely understand the nature of the war. The U. S. leadership failed to invoke the national will with a declaration of war, producing a strategic vulnerability that North Vietnam was able to exploit.
Arguably, the US main problem in Vietnam was not poor strategy but rather the underestimation of Viet Cong’s tenacity. Although U. S. leaders did make a series of bad decisions in Vietnam, not every aspect of the U. S. strategy was unsound. Westmoreland’s war of attrition, for instance, did have significant impact. However, Viet Cong’s tenacity enabled it to draw the war out into a prolonged guerrilla conflict that the United States was ill equipped to deal with (Lewy, p. 46). Rather than hold permanent positions and fight along conventional lines, Viet Cong harassed U. S. troops unremittingly in small groups, striking quickly and then disappearing into the jungle or blending in with the peasant population. With this persistent strategy, even a poor third world nation was able to make significant headway against the world’s leading military superpower.
South Vietnam was a sovereign state and solely responsible for addressing the needs and grievances of its people. The United States, as a partner to a sovereign country, provided aid and military advisors however; Saigon maintained control of the policies and direction taken to address the needs of its people and counter the National Liberation Front. When U. S. advisors made a recommendation that Saigon didn’t like, they would simply ignore it. Saigon guarded the political and economic position of the ruling elites. Saigon failed to rally the support of the people, a necessity to win a political war. The NLF was able to exploit this weakness and use it to recruit and gain popular support for the insurgency. By the time the United States took over the war efforts, Saigon had lost the hearts and minds of its people, a critical factor that enabled North Vietnam success.
The communist won the Vietnam War because of the North Vietnamese brilliant strategy. The North was able to achieve their strategic goal of unifying South Vietnam under communist control. They viewed the existence of South Vietnam as an ongoing reminder of the era of colonization after Vietnam’s struggle for independence from France and used the passion of the people as propaganda to succeed. To accomplish unification, North Vietnam planned a twofold strategy of dau tranh and the establishment of a communist government in the South. Both of strategic goals were accomplished through the use of political dau tranh chinh tri and armed dau tranh vu trang.
One can only speculate the outcome of the Vietnam War if the U. S. would have not gotten involved or if they clearly understood the nature of the war in which they were engaged. If the U. S. had taken the time to examine the lessons learned from France, would their approach have been different?
The U. S. involvement did not change the outcome of the war so it is easy to conclude the result would have not changed if the U. S. did not get involved. The U. S. failed to understand the enemy’s goals were as political as they were military. In the future, our leaders should be aware of and take advantage of past experiences. They must also carefully consider, define, and communicate to the American people the U. S. vital interests and which interests are we willing to die for.