Steve Sherman is a former Special Forces Veteran who served in Vietnam as a 1st LT with 5th Special Forces as a Civil Affairs / Psychological Operations Officer from 1967 to 1968. He is known as the Dean of United States Army Special Forces history and their role during the Vietnam Conflict. He is the author and edited numerous books and articles on the Veitnam Conflict and is the founder of Vietnam Veterans for Factual History www.VVFH.org. https://www.vvfh.org/. He offers his cometary and expertise to our discussion. He is also an active member of Special Forces Association Chapter 78 https://www.specialforces78.com/.
Re-examining History by Steve Sherman
Viet Nam – A Theater of the Cold War The Viet Nam War or, more appropriately, the Second Indochina War was a theatre of the Cold War. At the end of World War II, as western powers were divesting themselves of overseas colonies, the U.S.S.R. embarked on an imperialist program to bring as much of the world into their orbit as they could. The countries of Eastern Europe became vassal states, while agents of the Soviet Comintern assisted in gaining control in other parts of the world. Using the lure of a utopian economic Marxism to cover totalitarian Leninist enforcement, they tried to sell their ideology to emerging nations as a formula for economic development.
U.S. Policy 1945-1960 The U.S., despite having been allied with the U.S.S.R. during the War, recognized the dangers that Communism posed and practiced a policy of “containment” to check the Soviet growth. This policy was successful in Greece, Iran, Malaya and ultimately in Indonesia. Ironically, the Communists accused the Western powers, particularly the United States, with being “neo- colonialists.” Communist propaganda regularly accused their opponents of committing the very acts that they themselves were practicing. Perhaps the Soviet’s greatest success and the West’s greatest failure was in China, where the Communists under Mao Tse-Tung (Mao Ze-Dong) defeated the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949.
French Indochina, Colonial History and Society,1850’s-1945 In the wake of Vietnamese prosecution of Christian missionaries and the colonization of Asia by other European nations, and using dynastic conflicts between the Northern Le’s and the Southern Nguyen’s, France annexed increments of what became French Indochina. By 1883, they had established a protectorate over all of Vietnam. French colonialism brought with it a greater emphasis on western education, the translation and codification of Vietnamese law, the migration of the Vietnamese language from ideograms to a phonetic alphabet, the development of large plantations for rice, rubber and coffee and the expansion of the landless peasant class. The turn of the century brought millenarian healers, magicians, Daoist spiritualism, popular religious cults, secret societies and charismatic leaders. It also brought a multiplicity of Nationalist movements. Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, by the Chinese Revolution in 1911, Europe in World War I, the Wilsonian hopes for a League of Nations, and finally the Japanese occupation of French Indochina and later imprisonment of the Vichy administration, the anti-colonial sentiment grew.
The First Indochina War, 1945-1954 Among the Comintern “advisors” in China was a Vietnamese who called himself “Ho Chi Minh.” He had fled Viet Nam after persecution by the French. He traveled in the West under a variety of names, read the works of Lenin and fell in love with Leninism, and helped found the French Communist Party. He spent years in Russia being trained as a Comintern agent and was dispatched to China. He helped found the Indochinese Communist Party and, as WWII drew to a close, went to Viet Nam to continue his subversive activities for the Comintern. Though he did little to oppose the Japanese occupying Vietnam, he convinced the Allies that he was an important player in the region and warranted their support. Shortly after the Japanese surrender, Ho, like his mentor Lenin, declared that he was in charge. When the war ended, Nationalist Chinese troops occupied northern Viet Nam and British Forces occupied the south. Ho Chi Minh went to France to negotiate the status of his “government” while his chief military member, Vo Nguyen Giap, purged the Vietnamese Nationalists who opposed Ho’s Front organization, the Viet Minh. Relations with the returning French soon broke down and the First Indochina War began between the French Colonial government and the Viet Minh. For the next eight years, the conflict continued with atrocities on both sides. Leftist influences in France grew steadily against the war. In 1954 the French built a large garrison near a small village, called Dien Bien Phu. The French strategy was to attract major Viet Minh for mass attrition in a conventional battle in this valley near the Vietnam-Lao border. By this time the Korean War had ended in a stalemate and the Red Chinese, who had entered that war to help North Korea, had captured stocks of U.S. artillery and ammunition. Ho Chi Minh ordered Vo Nguyen Giap to follow Chinese instruction in that year’s campaign. With such help, the Viet Minh were able to force the surrender of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. This demoralized the French and forced them to negotiate a treaty with the Viet Minh in Geneva. It dividing Viet Nam at the sixteenth parallel with the Communists controlling the North and granting independence to the traditional monarchies of Laos, Cambodia and South Viet Nam.
Two Vietnams, 1954-1960 The Geneva agreement called for the voluntary resettlement of people between the two zones of Viet Nam and an election on re-unification in 1956. Bao Dai, the Emperor of Viet Nam, appointed Ngo Dinh Diem, a respected and ascetic Nationalist, as Prime Minister in the South. A million people fled from the Communists in the North in the wake of a “land reform” program, in which the Communists killed an estimated 50,000 “landlords” and other “enemies of the State.” An estimated 90,000 Viet Minh regrouped in the North, but much of the Viet Minh structure remained in place in the South. Bao Dai and the French tried to retain control of the South, but Ngo Dinh Diem conducted a referendum to oust the Emperor and install a semi-republican form of government. Diem also refused to hold the proposed election, because he know that without U.N. supervision, such an election would be a sham. Frustrated by the continuing instability in the South, the U.S. was about to withdraw its support from Diem, when with the help of CIA agent Edward Lansdale and Truong Minh The, an ally from one of the several sects vying for power, Diem was able to defeat his immediate rivals. The Eisenhower administration refused to support the French with the use of nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu, but supported the French forces financially during the First Indochina War.1 The U.S. Government now fully supported the Diem Government. The U.S. established to a Military Assistance Advisory Group and an economic development program in the South to strengthen the fledgling government and its Armed Forces. North Vietnam, now calling itself the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), failed to produce economic development with Marxist theory, turned its attention outward to give its people a reason to tolerate their impoverished state. The Politboro strongly supported the Pathet Lao (Communist) faction in Laos with Vietnamese troops. It also encouraged Communist cadres in South Viet Nam to resume their systematic terrorist activities. It established a covert supply route to the south under the 559 Transport Group2 which became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In Vietnam, one U.S. Special Forces team from Okinawa spent six-months there in 1957. Military advisors in small numbers were sent there throughout the late ‘50’s. The next SF mission to Vietnam was in May, 1960. The U.S. and Thai forces, attempted to counter Communist actions in Laos. The first Special Forces teams arrived in Laos in August, 1959. During this period, the (Communist) Chinese People’s Republic (PRC) began calling the United States a “paper tiger,” a superficially powerful country. __________________________ 1 The argument was that failure to support the French in Indochina would lessen French support for European defense. 2 Named for the month and year it was established.
Viet Nam, 1960-1964 When John F. Kennedy defeated Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard M. Nixon, in the U.S. Presidential Election of 1960, Eisenhower advised Kennedy that the situation in Laos was critical and that Laos, despite the difficulties presented in fighting in a land-locked, mountainous country, was the place where the U.S. must intervene. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address was an inspiring call for pro-active anti-communism and the spread of freedom in the world, which he considered himself elected to lead. Kennedy’s performance as President was less aggressive than his rhetoric, however. When the Royal Lao forces showed themselves to be less than enthusiastic in fighting the North Vietnamese invaders,.Ironically, Kennedy’s election appears to have been secured by fraudulent tallies in Illinois and Texas, which Nixon did not contest in order to retain respect for the institutions of American governance. Had the election gone the other way, Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon’s Watergate debacle and perhaps even the Vietnam War might not have followed as they did. 3 of 6 Kennedy had his senior policy advisor, Averell Harriman, negotiate a neutrality agreement on Laos at a second Geneva Conference, this time in 1962. The Americans withdrew their advisory teams, but the North Vietnamese withdrew only a token number of their 20,000 plus troops from Laos. The repercussions of this agreement were critical for the remainder of the conflict and beyond. The U.S. clung to the façade of neutrality, while the North Vietnamese continued to support the Pathet Lao against the Royal Lao government in the North, and built its network of supply lines into South Viet Nam through the Laotian Panhandle. In Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk determined that this agreement showed that the U.S. could not stop the North Vietnamese. He would established relations with Red China and expelled the U.S. and French embassies from his country. The Thais had a large population of North Vietnamese refugees and a significant interest in events in Laos. The American ambassador, Kenneth Young, convinced the Thai government pf its the inevitable role in the coming Indochina War. In Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem concluded that he could not rely on American judgment and chose to steer a more independent course. That attitude, combined with a manipulated Buddhist crisis magnified by the U.S. media resulted in a U.S. government-supported coup which ended with the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Less than three weeks later, President Kennedy was assassinated and Vice President Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the Presidency.
Viet Nam, 1964-1968, The American War, Phase I The Government of South Vietnam (GVN) went through several years of revolving door leadership. The Viet Cong Communists in the South were controlled and supported by the DRV Politboro. They expanded their terrorism campaign against GVN officials, community leaders, and government outposts. The DRV Politboro in North Vietnam decided to send their regular army South to bolster that campaign.4 Which had not been decisively effective against the decapitated GVN. Johnson’s reluctant strategies was restricted to escalating pressure. In August 1964, DRV attacks on American ships in international waters in the Tonkin Gulf resulted in a Congressional Resolution granting wide war-making powers to the President. A program of bombing in the North became the key element of this strategy. The U.S. election of 1964 confirmed Johnson as the “Peacemaker” versus Barry Goldwater, who was stigmatized as wanting “a wider war.” U.S. Marines arrived in Vietnam in March of 1965, to protect the airbase at Danang. Additional troops were soon deployed for combat operations, and were gradually increased in increments to 549,500 by 1968. Military proposals5 to use those troops to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, were vetoed by President Johnson. The first major clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops was in the Ia Drang Valley in the summer of 1965. It caused the withdrawal of NVA forces into Cambodia sanctuaries. U.S. tactics called “search and destroy operations” attempted to locate enemy formations. Ground operations were supplemented with tactical air support, including the use of B-52 Strategic Air Command bombers. Other Free World Forces, notably Australian, New Zealand, Korean and Thai, joined the effort. Despite the limited effectiveness of the U.S. gradualist military strategy, U.S. civic action programs won many “hearts and minds,” Phoenix, an intelligence program to identify out the VC Infrastructure (VCI) successfully neutralized many VC agents. The Chieu Hoi Program to encourage ralliers to the GVN side succeeded in causing the defection of over 200,000 enemy combatants. GVN elections and reforms made South Viet Nam a freer and wealthier society than the DRV. In 1967, Le Duan, the First Secretary of the DRV Politboro from 1963-1986, planned a nation-wide general offensive in the South, expecting a general uprising to complement it. Despite coordinated attacks in over 100 cities and towns, the predominantly Viet Cong forces were routed, losing nearly 50,000 troops, in many places to local force and CIDG units, whose military prowess had previously been dismissed. The civilian population did not participate in a General Uprising. However, the scale of the attacks, their apparent surprise, and the sensational reporting of western newsmen turned the Communist defeat into an unexpected propaganda victory. When one of the most respected American journalists, Walter Cronkite, went on air suggesting the war had become a stalemate and that the U.S. should enter into a negotiated settlement, President Johnson, in a March 31, 1968 speech stopped the bombing in the North Vietnam hopefully in return for the DRV’s willingness negotiate a mutually acceptable peace agreement and that he would not run for re-election. The Communists interpreted that speech to mean that the Americans were suing for peace, because they were defeated. ___________________________________ 1 The argument was that failure to support the French in Indochina would lessen French support for European defense. 2 Named for the month and year it was established. 3 at the disastrous battle of Nam Tha at the disastrous battle of Nam Tha 4 Decision dated. 5 (Operation El Paso)
Propaganda, Protesters and Public Opinion Communist propaganda both from Hanoi and Moscow had been influencing protesters in the United States for years. Many of these protesters were young men who were afraid of being drafted and sent to Vietnam where they might die in service to their country. These men had girl friends, parents and siblings similarly concerned about their loved one’s physical well-being. The mechanics of the Selective Service (or military draft) permitted exemptions for medical conditions and a deferral for education. Corrupted doctors gave questionable diagnoses to usually well-to-do families and less than arduous graduate schools received an influx of students in teaching, journalism, social work, and law. Those students have strongly influenced those professions up to the present day. Accusations of war-time atrocities re-enforced the protesters self esteem, ignoring the fact that aberrations like the slaughter of 500 civilians at My Lai, paled in comparison to the 5,000 victims murdered in Hue and the tens of thousands of victims of Leninist terror tactics. The American public apparently favored an aggressive policy to end (and win) the war. Johnson’s approval rating went up after passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, but went down when he did not use of his powers effectively. In the New Hampshire primary of 1968, a Peace candidate, Eugene McCarthy made a strong showing against the incumbent President, but that apparently was an anti-Johnson vote rather an anti-war vote. In the General Election, many of those voters switched to support an independent candidate, rather than Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, who lost the election to Richard Nixon. Fueled by money from the U.S.S.R.6 and inspired by propaganda from Hanoi, the protest movements against the American efforts in Vietnam grew on a world-wide scale with ever larger moratoriums and demonstrations, a greater volume of noise and an increasing amount of political influence in the legislature. Even so, the largest demonstration in America was a blue-collar parade in New York to support the troops in Vietnam.7 It validating V.P. Spiro Agnew’s call for the “Silent Majority” to express itself. But workers had jobs to go to, while students were given time off and extra credit for loitering around in the streets.
Viet Nam, 1969-1972, The American War, Phase II The war Nixon inherited from the Johnson administration was constrained. He established a unilateral, phased drawdown of American forces, which brought troop levels down to 159,000 at the end of his first term in 1972. His National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, entered into secret, fruitless negotiations with his DRV counterparts. General Creighton Abrams, who replaced Westmoreland as COMUSMACV, gave more attention to enlarging, arming, and training South Vietnamese forces, which was known as “Vietnamization.” Local forces were greatly strengthened, and the successful “pacification” of the countryside was possible because local guerilla forces were virtually eliminated. With the consent of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, Nixon began a “secret” bombing campaign against the Communist Forces in Cambodia. When Sihanouk was replaced by his Defense Minister, Lon Nol, in April 19708 Nixon sent U.S. and South Vietnamese forces into Cambodia, by invitation, to destroy the Communist bases there. Nixon allowed campus protests in the United States to limit this incursion in both time and depth, but it resulted in for a far less hostile environment for Allied Forces in the southern (III and IV) Corps in RVN. It also eliminated Sihanoukville in Cambodia as the primary entry point for the Communist supplies. The following year, Nixon agreed to a South Vietnamese thrust into Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but he did not allow the remaining U.S. forces or advisors to accompany them. After these incursions Nixon and the Congress terminated the use of American ground forces in Laos and Cambodia, including U.S. efforts to gather intelligence on Communist activities there. The following Spring, North Vietnam launched a massive conventional invasion of South Vietnam with the expectation of achieving a decisive victory before the American Presidential elections. The South Vietnamese forces held their ground while U.S. air power crushed the invading forces. Nixon resumed the bombing against North Vietnam in response to these attacks.
The NVA invasion cost the North Vietnamese an estimated 100,000 troops and 400 tanks, but, the NVA controlled most of the sparely inhabited border areas from the demilitarized zone in I CTZ down to Loc Ninh in III CTZ. Nixon won the U.S. elections by a landslide against anti-war candidate George McGovern, but both houses of Congress remained in the hands of the anti-war Democrat. Negotiations in Paris failed to produce satisfactory results, so Nixon implemented the plan proposed by CINCPAC Commander Admiral Sharp in 1964, to mine Hai Phong Harbor and conduct a sustained strategic bombing campaign in North Vietnam. ____________________________ 6 7 8
Concluding the War 1973-1975 The North Vietnamese agreed to terms close to the status quo before their Easter Offensive. Kissinger concluded the agreements quickly, because the incoming Congress would have unilaterally ended the war without imposing any terms. Saigon was forced to accept the presence of North Vietnamese forces inside their country’s borders (although the North Vietnamese still insisted that these were “regroupees” rather than North Vietnamese Army units.) Kissinger hoped that the agreement as signed would remove North Vietnamese troops from Laos and Cambodia, but, like previous agreements, the North Vietnamese had no intention of doing anything that they had not been forced to do militarily, and they failed to abide by most of the conditions agreed upon. A “war of flags” continued in South Vietnam, with both sides contesting the boundaries of zones of control over the next two years. The U.S. Congress took away presidential powers to use air power in SE Asia, thus eliminating almost all power the U.S. might have had to enforce the Accords. They further limited U.S. funding for South Viet Nam so much that South Viet Nam had to ration its ammunition. Meanwhile the North Vietnamese, fully supported by the U.S.S.R. and the P.R.C. were generously rearmed and resupplied, while improving their supply lines with paved roads and fuel pipelines. As a result of scandals, Vice President Agnew and, later, President Nixon were forced to resign and Nixon was replaced by the unelected Vice President Gerald Ford, who did not have the political onfluence to initiate any decisive action. At the end of 1974, the North Vietnamese tested U./S. resolve by taking the Provincial capital of Phuoc Long. When there was no reaction by the United States, they began their final invasion. Phnom Penh. The Cambodian capital, fell to the Khmer Rouge, on April 15th, 1975. The North Vietnamese rapidly conquered the South, on April 30th despite the ARVN’s valiant last stand at Xuan Loc. About 150,000 South Vietnamese were able to escape from their country in the final days, many of whom settled in the U.S. thanks to the intervention of Gerald Ford. The Cambodians seized a U.S. vessel, the Mayaguez, shortly after the end of the fighting in Indochina. Ford successfully responded to recover the ship by force, but the use of Thai bases for this action damaged U.S.- Thai relations, and U.S. forces were removed from Thailand, ending the U.S. military presence in SE Asia.
After the War – 1975 The North Vietnamese quickly took over control of the South, ignoring the remnants of the Viet Cong, unifying the country as the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (SRV), executing several hundred thousand elite South Vietnamese soldiers and imprisoning as many as a million South Vietnamese military and governmental personnel under the guise of “re-education.” Many were imprisoned for more than 17 years. Many others died in those concentration camps. Lower level personnel and their families were sent to “New Economic Zones” in dangerous, primitive wilderness areas. North Vietnamese confiscated the wealth of the Southerners who fled or were forcibly removed, and took over most administrative positions in local governments. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge killed more than two million of the seven million inhabitants in an effort to create a Communist utopia in their Year Zero. They abolished money and turned the country into a totalitarian concentration camp. In 1977 they invaded Vietnam to take back the southern provinces that had been annexed to Cochin China by the French. It became a ten-year war ending in Vietnamese control of Cambodia under a former KR proxy, Hang Sen. The Chinese, supportive of their Cambodian clients, attacked Vietnam through their Northern border in 1978. Both sides suffered serious casualties (estimated at 50,000 plus on each side) in the three-week war. Afterwards, the CPR withdrew, claiming that they had taught the Vietnamese a sufficient lesson. Incidentally, the Chinese had taken the Paracel Islands from a garrison of South Vietnamese troops in 1972 and had never relinquished control. Their claim to occupation of “islands” in the South China continues to be a source of friction up to the present date. In Laos, the Pathet Lao took over what was left of the Royal Lao Government, imprisoning the King and Queen (who were later killed in prison) and other former officials. Hanoi exercised complete control over the Pathet Lao, placing “advisors” at every level of the new regime. More than two million South Vietnamese fled their country in the aftermath of the Communist takeover. Many were lost at sea or killed by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand. Many were settled in other countries, which caused a major refugee crisis for several of the countries for many years. The Soviet Union took advantage of the isolationist foreign policy of the Carter Administration by invade Afghanistan, which became Russia’s Vietnam. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended that six billion dollar annual subsidy to the SRV, but by that time, transfers of U.S. dollars to relatives in Viet Nam from the successful Vietnamese-Americans had effectively compensated for that loss. In 1993 U.S. President Bill Clinton recognized the government in Vietnam.
The Viet Nam War in Popular Culture Lionized in the media and films of the seventies, the anti-war counterculture became mainstream. Their views of the war became the “orthodox” interpretation and any alternative was labeled “revisionist.” They shut down free speech in academia which they came to control. Leftist leanings and Political Correctness permeated the schools, entertainment, media, law and the Democratic Party. Vietnam veterans were portrayed as violent, drug-dependent, impoverished and crazy. Despite this stereotype, for some reason, twice as many people claimed to have served in Viet Nam than had actually served there.
Reflections and Lessons Learned Given the distorted history promulgated in the U.S., it is no wonder that the wrong lessons were learned. Both Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden stated if the diminutive Vietnamese could “defeat” the Americans they could also do so. The First Gulf War showed how to conduct a war with massive force, no sanctuary zones, quick resolve, and control of the media. Ken Burns was correct to observe that the Vietnam war resulted in the polarization of our society as it exists today, but he was incorrect in crediting the “American” Cultural Revolution with having created a better society by rejecting established American values. Everyone walked away from this war with an enhanced self image; the protesters saw themselves as having brought about an end to the war, the media believed they had done the same, the politicians who believed in their own righteousness, regardless of the policies they espoused, and the Communists of Vietnam who enjoyed the rewards of totalitarian corruption. The only losers were U.S. credibility as an international deterrent force, the Vietnam Veterans who were stigmatized as “losers” and the South Vietnamese who lost everything.