US and ARVN Tactics, 1964-8

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • The nature of American tactics – including Rolling Thunder, Search and Destroy and the significance of ‘body count’

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • Attrition strategy;
  • Scorched earth tactics;
  • Operation Rolling Thunder;
  • Napalm;
  • Agent Orange;
  • Target lists;
  • Search and Destroy missions;
  • Body count
  • General Westmoreland appointed in charge of MACV (replaced Paul Harkins in June 1964.)
  • Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) – the North Vietnamese regular army;
  • My Lai
  • Zippo raids
  • Hamburger Hill
  • Operation Cedar Falls
  • Refugees


  • American firepower would be concentrated more on South than on North Vietnam. This was partly because Johnson wanted to fight a ‘limited war’ focussed on protecting the continued existence of an independent South Vietnam, and avoiding confrontation with China and Russia.
  • It was also because of the hidden presence of guerrilla soldiers in the midst of the rural areas and villages of south Vietnam
  • The US made a fateful commitment to ‘scorched earth’ tactics in order to deprive the enemy of the environment it needed to succeed – regardless of the impact it would have on the rural population it was supposed to be defending. General Westmoreland’s overall strategy was – like that of the Vietcong – was ‘attrition’, to wear the enemy down. Where the Vietcong relied on the peasantry, the Americans relied on superior technology.
  • American attempts to win the hearts and minds of the peasantry were limited to aid that rarely reached the peasants for whom it was intended but which was diverted into the pockets of urban elites in Saigon.
  • The methods employed to defeat the enemy alienated friendly and neutral Vietnamese and Americans alike, and played a fundamental role in American failure in Vietnam.
  • A key component of the American strategy and tactics was war from the air. This took two key forms – bombing and helicopter support for ground troops in search and destroy missions. Neither tactic succeeded in their goals of depleting the enemy’s ability to wage war and destroying its morale.
    1. Rolling Thunder
      • Three months after his election as president, Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder into North Vietnam. Unlike the single bombing raid of August 1964, these were to be regular raids; with the objective of destroying the North Vietnamese economy and to stem the supply of soldiers to the Vietcong. But bombing was also directed against areas controlled by the NLF in the South. The Operation was expected to last 8 weeks; it lasted 3 years. The bombs dropped included defoliants such as ‘Agent Orange’, designed to deprive the enemy of cover, and incendiary devices using Napalm.
        • Successes – it damaged North Vietnam’s war effort and disrupted its supply routes; it caused considerable damage to North Vietnamese towns and cities.
        • Failures – Rolling Thunder has been called one of the most ambitious, wasteful and ineffective air campaigns in the history of warfare. One of the key reasons for this was the restrictions placed upon bombers for fear of escalating Chinese involvement (China had its first nuclear missile test on October 16, 1964). There was a 30 mile restriction area around Hanoi and a ten mile restriction area around Haiphong. Dozens of valuable strategic targets were strictly off limits, and pilots were only allowed to bomb what was on the Washington-approved target lists.
        • As a result there were few factories to bomb; the countryside was mostly affected; it encouraged even greater support for the war from North Vietnam; It did not stop the supplies to the Vietcong.
        • The costs to the US often outweighed the benefits: in 1967 the US magazine Life calculated that it cost the USA $400,000 to kill one Vietcong fighter, a figure that included 75 bombs and 400 artillery shells.
        • Roughly 800 tonnes per month failed to explode thus could be used by the NLF to make landmines.
        • Napalm dropped from the air – often mistakenly on innocents – was an exceedingly cruel and indiscriminate weapon; its developers at Dow Chemical Company ‘improved’ it by adding polystyrene so that it could not be removed easily and white phosphorous so that it would continue to burn even under water.
        • The key effect of bombing was to alienate people in South Vietnam and in America.
        • As a result of American dependence on air power, NLF and Vietcong forces developed close-range tactics and attacked American air bases and landing sites necessitating further US escalation and ground cover.
        • Ultimately Rolling Thunder failed because although the Joint chiefs of Staff told Johnson they could destroy North Vietnam’s industrial and economic base and morale, there were relatively few North Vietnamese factories and roads to destroy. Supplies and materiel came from China and the USSR and bombing succeeded only in raising North Vietnamese morale and determination whilst losing hearts and minds in both South Vietnam and America itself.
  1. Search and Destroy
    • In response to attacks on American air bases, General Westmoreland’s strategy on the ground was known as ‘search and destroy’, which involved patrolling American military sites to remove the enemy, but because a mortar attack could be launched from distance, it was not sufficient merely to patrol the immediate perimeter of an air base; the search had to be conducted twenty miles into the wider countryside and the surrounding villages.
    • In a bid to maintain the morale of American troops, ordinary soldiers served 365 days; marines 13 months. But what was saved in morale was lost in valuable experience and unity. Officers only completed five months on the front line before being moved to a training, organisation or desk job. This meant that many of the troops under their command had more experience of combat than they did.
    • American soldiers were at a distinct disadvantage – they did not know the terrain and were constantly in danger of ambush. The hunter became the hunted.
    • Even more important was the fact that American troops found it difficult to distinguish between genuine enemy soldiers and the peasants who they suspected of colluding and protecting them. The result was a break down in trust between the American troops and the civilians they were allegedly there to supposed to protect and led American soldiers to treat peasants with suspicion, fear and eventually, brutality. The most notorious incident came to light in 1969 when news broke that a band of American soldiers had massacred an entire civilian population in My Lai during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
    • The large scale use of helicopters and the blasting of zones where they were to land were not conducive to finding VC who would normally hide when they heard the noise.
    • Between 1967 and 1968, fewer than 1% of the two million small unit operations led to any contact with the enemy.
    • A key example of Search and destroy was in Operation Cedar Falls in 1967, when 20 American battalions entered an area north of Saigon and used defoliants, bombing and bulldozers to clear the land in a bid to deprive the Vietcong of the rural environment they depended upon for their success. The result was 6000 people were evacuated from their homes as their lands were destroyed. Only a few VC were found.
    • As one marine remembered it, after ‘their homes had been wrecked, their rice confiscated – if they weren’t pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left.’
    • In 1967, the CIA reported that ‘less than one percent of nearly two million Allied small unit operations conducted in the last two years resulted in contact with the enemy.’

  2. Body Count
    • Vietnam was a war without frontiers. This had two key consequences. The first was that anyone could come under attack at any time, so although roughly three quarters of the 3 million American citizens employed as soldiers in Vietnam were only supposed to be working in support of the front line, in practice anyone and everyone could become involved in the fighting. The second consequence was that since success could not be measured in terms of land taken, Westmoreland focussed on attrition and body count, believing that at some point the enemy would reach ‘crossover point’ when it could no longer replace its losses.
    • The focus on body count had further consequences for morale – one of these was that US regiments would be involved in bloody battles to take Vietcong positions, only to abandon them and have them immediately reoccupied by the enemy.
    • The most infamous example was so-called Hamburger Hill, fought between 10 and 20th May 1969 during Operation Apache Snow, in which a strategically unimportant fortified hill 937, was taken by a frontal assault at the cost of 72 deaths and over 400 wounded US soldiers, only to be abandoned and re-taken by the enemy almost immediately.
    • Another unfortunate consequence of the emphasis on body count was that all dead bodies began to be counted as enemy kill, and since this became the measure of success – medals, rations, promotions etc. – US soldiers became less discriminating in order to increase ‘body count’. The most notorious example was the massacre at My Lai on 16 March 1968 which resulted in 347 unarmed civilians being beaten and killed by American soldiers and their officers, including, old men, women, children and even babies.
    • Finally, the impact of ‘Zippo raids’ as they became known on the soldiers themselves was to undermine their own belief in the rightness of their cause. Volunteers and draftees alike would begin to question what they were doing.
    • In sum, the presence of American ground troops had three main consequences:
      • It served to undermine the commitment of ARVN troops many of whom preferred to leave the fighting to the Americans
      • It served to undermine the nationalist credentials of the Saigon regime who was depicted by the Vietcong as a puppet of American imperialists.
      • It turned ‘friendly’ civilians into civilians hostile to Saigon and its American ally
  3. ARVN Weaknesses – ‘Search and Avoid’
    • The corruption and mismanagement that characterised the government in Saigon permeated its armed forces.
    • Theft of American supplies, including rifles and ammunition, took place on an industrial scale.
    • Americans took a very dim view of their South Vietnamese allies, whose tactics they called ‘Search and Avoid’.
    • ARVN officers did not get on with the peasants they were supposed to be defending. 80% of peasants in Vietnam were Buddhist, but only 5% of the ARVN leadership were.
    • ARVN wages were so low that soldiers depended upon American surplus and of course the selling of American supplies on the black market.
    • The morale and performance of ARVN another factor in explaining the defeat of the the Saigon government and its American allies

According to the Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo, ‘We carried along with our packs and rifles the implicit convictions that the VC would be quickly beaten and that we were doing something altogether noble and good’ (A Rumor of War). By the end of their tour of duty those assumptions had been seriously undermined. Many returned home to find themselves spat upon and ostracised, and jeered if they wore their uniform. Some even found the families they left behind had been victimised by anti-war protestors. Having lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese, Johnson appeared to be losing the battle for hearts and minds at home. The collapse of the home front damaged troop morale and hamstrung the government in Washington, and provides another reason for American failure overall.


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