The Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces and the United States military in Vietnam were fighting against not only the Vietnamese Communist forces, but the whole Communist bloc as well.
Why did we lose the second half of Vietnam to the hands of the Vietnamese Communist Party while South Vietnam and U.S. forces were armed with better weapons, more sophisticated equipment, supreme fire power?
This is one of the most controversial issues in the world that could be debated long into the future. Any study of the issue must take all the great many factors into consideration. Therefore, a short article could not cover the entire matter. And a book about it with full details could be of many hundred pages, even a thousand. Viet Quoc Home Page with many articles about the armed conflict in Vietnam is contributing only a little part of the vast domain concerning the Vietnam War.
This article is written to present a general opinion of the Vietnamese nationalist side, in order to present a number of facts especially those have not been taken into consideration by foreigner writers, to help readers with some more information. It is also for many readers who have been asking us the same question, such as high school and college students in their history classes.
1. Most anti-Communist Vietnamese believe that the United States was right when supporting the Republic of Vietnam with aids and soldiers. However, the American and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) governments have lost the war because Washington was lacking in resolution, while South Vietnamese leaders were relying too much on American support and believed that Washington would never accept the dishonor of a total defeat.
North Vietnam Communist regime mobilized its largest resources - especially human - to sustain the war that caused it great losses. Almost a generation of North Vietnamese (born 1940 to 1955) was decimated. Many specialists, teachers and skilled workers were sent to South Vietnam as privates and have never come back.
Such mobilization was done by tightly controlling the human stomach. Hanoi established a distribution system of all basic goods (rice and rice substitutes, meat, clothing...) in scanty rations. With such system, Hanoi could compel its people to contribute their best to the war effort.
The Communist leaders in Hanoi exposed their resolution to fight to the last North Vietnamese to win the war and to maintain the ruling power of their party.
Meanwhile in South Vietnam, despite military situation was critical, the RVN government had to maintain a society as normal as possible, providing its citizens with minimum needs for a minimum standards of living.
2. The RVN and U.S. military forces committed several errors in the war.
The United States Armed Forces relied too much on their great fire power and modern weaponry and equipment. Tactics of conventional battle were mainly applied against the enemy's unconventional warfare, while American leaders seemed to be overconfident in their "know-how" in fighting a war that required the more know-how on psychological strategy than just on modern technology.
The South Vietnamese and the American military leaders tried some effective formulas with limited success. In Military Region I, the U.S. Marines and RVN Popular Force (village militia) joined together in mixed combat platoons which proved significant efficiency in counter-guerilla efforts. But it was difficult for other American infantry units to do the same because of differences in language, command and support system. Moreover, most American commanders seemed reluctant to commit their troops to militia-type activities beside poor Vietnamese. Such attachment posed trouble in control and command on the American side.
3. The air war over North Vietnam could have had desired effects if it had been executed intensively and quick. Escalation of air strikes proved a failure, especially when Hanoi regime didn't have many valuable things to lose in air strikes. It was unreasonable to put a million-dollar jet fighter and a pilot at risk of being shot down just to destroy a bridge that cost a few thousand dollars when no more objectives of higher values existed.
4. The Vietnam War has been the first armed conflict in which political and psychological warfare were the invisible fronts that the United States has ever fought.
Beside pure military failures, the RVN and the United States did achieve some victories in the other fronts. Two of the key strategies of the alliance that proved successful were the Phuong Hoang Campaign (Phoenix) and the Chieu Hoi Program.
The Phuong Hoang Campaign aimed at destroying the Communist infrastructure in South Vietnam. Communist party clandestine organizations were the backbone of the war which provided all kinds of supports including intelligence and transportation of food and ammunition supplies to its combat troops.
During the war, Western media insisted that Phuong Hoang campaign produced insignificant outcome. But recently, top North Vietnamese officials confirmed that the Phuong Hoang dealt fatal blows to the Communist infrastructure in the South.
Unfortunately, the success that nearly paralyzed the whole Communist underground network was not fully exploited.
The other was Chieu Hoi Program, which began in 1963. By April 1975, the program had attracted more than 159,000 soldiers and members of the Communist Party clandestine organizations to rally to the RVN side. Among them, about 15,000 were from North Vietnam Army regular units. Those who surrendered without willing to change side were classified as POWs, not as chieu hoi.
The ralliers received vocational training and got help in finding jobs. A large number enlisted in the RVN army and various paramilitary units. About 700 served American combat platoons as Kit Carson Scouts.
Many of the ralliers contributed their skill and their intelligence information as well as their blood to the just cause of the RVN. Thank to their contribution, the allied forces achieved numerous feats of arms, including destruction of important targets in North Vietnam.
5. On the pure military domain, "body count" has been a wrong way in conducting the war.
Besides, "body count" meant little to the North Vietnamese Communist leaders, two of whom were Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. More than once, they confirmed that their side would decide to sacrifice unlimited human lives for final victory.
Many people were saying that MACV Headquarters lied to the press, exaggerating the enemy losses.
MACV reported that the total loss of lives on the Communist side was about more than 900.000. But a few years ago, the Communist government in Hanoi confirmed that it had lost 1,1 million soldiers. Nearly no one has given MACV retroactive credit for its discretion in reporting enemy dead.
In a related matter, the enemy strength in the MACV's estimate included only Communist troops in various combat units, while civilians serving the supply and transportation tasks - that were done in the RVN and U.S. units by the soldiers - were not counted. If non-military personnel serving Communist units were listed as military members, total strength of the Communist forces in South Vietnam could be at least twice the number 250,000 to 300,000 in the MACV estimate.
6. So far, in comments on the Vietnam War, many people have taken for granted that the only four parties in the war were the Americans, the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese and its disguised subordinate, the so-called National Liberation Front. That was true on the battlefields only.
In fact, the Vietnam Communist Party and its regime were strongly supported by the whole Communist bloc. Immense military aids came from Beijing and Moscow. Unofficial sources estimated that aids from Red China and the Soviet Union had been in tens of billion dollars, not far lower than US aids to South Vietnam and American military expenses in the Vietnam War.
Moreover, the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and possibly Cuba joined North Vietnamese Communist forces in direct fighting the Americans in North Vietnam with their combat pilots, and air defense SAM-6 surface-to-air battalions (Soviet). Beijing also sent some infantry divisions to safeguard the northern mountainous area of North Vietnam and many engineer regiments to repair bombed bridges and road in North Vietnam.
On the other hand, the Vietnamese Communist leaders were certain that American and South Vietnamese forces would not invade North Vietnam. So Hanoi could leave their land undefended against invasion by the Allies to send all their available ground forces to the battles in the South.
All of those proved that the Allies had underestimated the enemy capability.
7. Many South Vietnamese reason that if the U.S. forces had been employed in a cordon at the 17th Parallel from the Mekong River crossing Laotian territory, extending to the South China Sea, sealing off supply and infiltration of troops from North Vietnam and leaving the inner land battles to the South Vietnamese military, the war would have come to a different ending - at a draw if not victory.
It has been unknown whether the American government had any secret limitation in foreign relations that forbade US Army troops from operating on the territory of Laos.
8. The most powerful "weapons" of the Vietnamese Communist Party in war had been "terrorism and psychological warfare."
With terrorism in South Vietnam, the Communists needed only from 2 to 5 guerrillas to control a remote village of 1,000 people though only at night. They imposed severe and prompt punishment ranged from "three-month re-education" to "mutilation" (chopping off one finger if the convicted had intended to join the RVN army). A VC district "security chief" had the competence of giving death sentence to those considered as "incorrigible enemy's collaborators."
Terrorism also helped the Communists with huge cash support. A large number of businesses, large or small, mostly in South Vietnam remote areas that lacked of security protection, had to pay the Communist "kinh tai" (economy & finance) regularly. Failure to pay after repeated warnings or telling on them to the authorities surely brought death sentences to the victims. Many restaurants were attacked by hand grenades, hundreds of cross-country buses and local three-wheeled passengers vehicles were blown up by land mines because of similar reasons.
In several provinces, such kind of contributions that the VC "kinh tai" collected was more than taxes collected by the RVN local government.
Saigon and Washington dared not - and were unable to - possess such weapon.
9. The Vietnam War, by nature, has been a conflict of ideology between the Communism followers and the non-Communist Vietnamese. However much the American military intervention might have been, it was the Vietnamese who played the key role in the war of ideology.
The South Vietnamese soldiers had strong willing to fight, were well equipped with modern weapons, but they were defeated largely on the psychological front, the most effective strategy to win an ideological war.
In the psychological warfare, or psywar, that mostly known in Western countries as propaganda, the Communist leaders paid their greatest efforts and their largest available resources with highest priority to schemes of winning the people's hearts and minds by every means possible, even gross lies. Their schemes included propaganda idolizing Communist leaders (Soviet leaders, Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh) and Communism with tall tales, and slanderous counter-propaganda against everything that belonged to the South Vietnamese government, the Americans and their allies.
The most effective propaganda tactic has been likening American troops to the French in the 1946-1954 War. North Vietnamese people easily believed in trumped-up stories about how American soldiers were committing war crimes much more horrible than the French, whose atrocities were still fresh in their memories after only about twenty years. How could people doubt the allegation when seeing that by facial figures, skin color and uniform, the Caucasian and African American soldiers were not different from the French troops.
The Communist propaganda has been extremely sophisticated and aimed at targets all around the world, not only in Vietnam. Propaganda materials often disguised under forms of short stories, news reports, and topics that seemed to be non-political, were smuggled into Western countries on a large scale.
Total spending for propaganda of the whole Communist bloc is never known, but according to RVN intelligence, the Vietnamese Communist government budget for the whole psychological front must have been multi-million dollars. The budget might have included staggering funds to buy every one who could help Hanoi influence public opinion, especially in America.
Meanwhile, Washington obviously paid very little effort on the same front. The United States Information Service, the Voice of America Radio were the two institutions that took care of "providing accurate information" or to tell "the truth," with some light strokes of propaganda. In a war where truth is elusive, such humble means to fight the lies are too inadequate.
Hanoi took advantage to the most extent the low knowledge of the majority of the North Vietnamese, and forbade them from all access to information from outside. Hanoi was successful in making its people become so credulous that they believed the most barefaced lies fabricated by Hanoi propaganda branch.
10. The average Americans hated propaganda. Therefore, any effort that sounded like propaganda was rejected. The American soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam since 1965 had not been well informed of the conflict history, the right cause of the South Vietnamese people, the Americans' interests in commitment to the war, the true nature of the Communist tyranny and its crimes in Vietnam.
These are not propaganda, but true "information" that any soldier must know if his superiors want him to perform his combat duty with the strongest willing. The Americans were conducting many "civic actions" operations that resulted in excellent success, but they didn't have any considerable attempt in the psychological battles.
The South Vietnamese had profound knowledge about such matter but they got inadequate support to fight their enemy on the psywar front. Take the RVN 1969 budget as an example: only 23 million South Vietnam piasters (about 160,000 dollars) was allocated to the information activities in foreign countries, including personnel salary and office rent.
It could be said that the American and RVN governments were on the defensive in the psywar front instead of offensive. Like in pure military front, attack is the best way to defend. So by "freedom of press," South Vietnam and the United States were open to Communist propaganda while hostile Western media agencies were free to attack Saigon and Washington with ammunition provided by Hanoi. On the same front, the Communist regime in Hanoi only had to confront sporadic small-size attacks from its foes in Saigon and Washington.
Today some people still deny the fact that many American media agencies and defeatists were responsible for a part of Washington's failure in Vietnam and the collapse of the RVN. But realities increasingly support the allegation.
The Americans, like other rich Westerners, haven't had the patience required in supporting such an unconventional war. The Western media and Communist propaganda made them lose patience, especially after the 1968 Tet Offensive, turning a military victory in Vietnam into a morale defeat in Washington.
During the war, every bit of news or statement, especially the unfavorable, published in America and reported via magazines and radios - BBC, VOA - all produced extreme negative effects among South Vietnamese soldiers who were free to listen to the radio broadcast even while they were in operations. A fib fabricated by a third-rated American politician, however silly it might have been, would deal a severe blow to the morale of South Vietnamese troops.
In the 1968 Tet Offensive, Communist surprise attacks at most major cities did promote South Vietnamese soldiers' willing to fight instead of dampening their morale as Hanoi had expected. Their morale only worsened by news and statements from anti-war protests and defeatism from America, that showed a twisted image of the offensive to the American public.
The final days of the republic saw the fatal blows on the troops' morale when Washington had no reaction against the Communist violation of the Paris Agreement in overrunning Phuoc Long, contrary to President Nixon's promise.
11. Someone said, "If Washington had spent some billion dollars to hire a group of advertisement businesses to run a psychological warfare - or simply to tell the 'whole truth' - Vietnam would have been unified years ago under the Republic of Vietnam and the United States wouldn't have suffered the unforgettable disgraceful defeat."
A number of Vietnamese, however, believe that the United States has not lost the war, but only withdrew its troops when the "real and most important objectives" of its global strategy had been gained. Some others even believe that the American people, who had never been vanquished before the Vietnam War, will take revenge on the Vietnamese Communists, one way or another by either military or peaceful means, to relieve the disgrace of defeat in Vietnam.
Thus the South Vietnamese freedom-fighters were defeated
before they were actually exhausted on April 30, 1975.
April 29, 1999.