Please read the course materials for week 4 and then participate in this discussion.
How successful were the tactics search and destroy? Were Search & Destroy missions effective? In your answer, contrast U.S. military tactics with those of North Vietnam.
Between November 1963 and the summer of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson fundamentally transformed the tenuous relationship between the United States and South Vietnam. From a limited commitment of 16,000 military advisors, Johnson began to slowly at first and then rapidly escalate following the November 1964 U.S. elections. He had feared that a rapid escalation would jeopardize his chances at the polls, but the Republican nominee Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater provided an opportunity for the Johnson campaign to supposedly show how dangerous it would be to elect Goldwater, claiming it would lead to World War III. However, Goldwater’s claim that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” spurred Johnson to want to speed up America’s commitment to the South Vietnamese. When Johnson won 61% of the popular vote and 44 out of 50 states, he took that as a sign that Americans largely supported his approach to the war.
Events in South Vietnam motivated Johnson perhaps even more than the domestic political situation. By the end of 1963, the much-ballyhooed Strategic Hamlet program was in shambles. Over 8 1/2 million South Vietnamese had been relocated between 1961 and late 1963, many of them at gunpoint. The South Vietnamese army was too ill-equipped to handle security for the new villages and frequently withdrew from them at night, leaving Vietcong fighters and sometimes North Vietnamese agents and soldiers to infiltrate and provide much needed services at night. Stanley Karnow, a journalist, wrote in Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 335-336:
“In the last week of November, I drove south from Saigon into Long An, a province in the Mekong Delta, the rice basket of South Vietnam where 40 percent of the population lived…. At a place called Hoa Phu, the strategic hamlet built during the previous summer now looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. The barbed wire fence around the enclosure had been ripped apart, the watchtowers were demolished and only a few of its original thousand residents remained, sheltered in lean-tos… A local guard explained to me that a handful of Vietcong agents had entered the hamlet one night and told the peasants to tear it down and return to their native villages. The peasants complied… From the start, in Hoa Phu and elsewhere, they had hated the strategic hamlets, many of which they had been forced to construct by corrupt officials who had pocketed a percentage of the money allocated for the projects. Besides, there were virtually no government troops in the sector to keep them from leaving. If the war was a battle for “hearts and minds,”…the United States and its South Vietnamese clients had certainly lost Long An.”
The political situation in South Vietnam was just as chaotic between 1963 and 1965. Diem’s assassination left a gaping power vacuum in the country; Buddhist and Catholic soldiers frequently fought each other due to Diem’s policies. The secret police apparatus under Nhu (Diem’s brother) broke apart into factions following the military coup. The new military government lasted less than three months before it was overthrown by another group of South Vietnamese army officers in January 1964. The U.S. quickly recognized the new government but had little faith it would last.
After a major policy review written by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in March 1964 (see learning resources below), Johnson issued National Security Agency Memorandum (NSAM) 288 which authorized the increase of U.S. military advisors from 16,000 to 23,000 and increased financial assistance by $50 million. Unfortunately, this seemed to produce meager results. A third South Vietnamese military coup in July 1964 failed only because the U.S. government made it clear to the rebelling generals that they would not be supported.
Meanwhile, the growing presence of American support and the chaos in the south led to a leadership split in North Vietnam. By the end of 1963, a change of power in the north led to Ho Chi Minh becoming more of a symbolic figure rather than someone involved in the day to day planning of politics, economics, and military operations. Communist Party First Secretary Le Duan seized control and ordered a massive increase in supplies to Vietcong units in the south, an expansion of supply lines through Laos and Cambodia (known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail), and a doubling of the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) size in 1964.
Duan also stepped up support for the Pathet Lao, a guerrilla organization in Laos created in 1959 with the aid of North Vietnam to oppose the U.S. and France-backed government. The Pathet Lao had begun more conventional military attacks against Laotion troops in 1961 which prompted the U.S. to provide more support in response. One of the ways the U.S. provided support was through the creation of shadowy CIA efforts such as Air America (made famous in a 1990 movie starring Mel Gibson). The CIA’s private airline, Air America mostly organized supply flights in Laos between 1959 and 1965, but occasionally it flew combat operations for Laotian, South Vietnamese, and later American troops. It also flew secret bombing raids over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
North Vietnamese military leaders like Duan had begun to argue that a rapid escalation of war across Vietnam and Laos would take advantage of weaknesses in South Vietnam and end U.S. military support, while cautious pragmatists like Ho argued the presence of NVA troops in the south rather than Vietcong guerrillas would provoke the U.S. to send in American combat troops and spark a conventional war. This division among North Vietnamese leaders was made even worse by Chinese and Soviet influence; on the one hand, the Chinese encouraged the NVA to begin fighting in the south, while on the other, the Soviets warned against what they saw as a foolhardy tactic which would certainly encourage greater American involvement.
By the summer of 1964, Johnson’s advisors were growing increasingly frustrated. He made several key personnel moves which would become important decisions, including the appointment of Gen. William Westmoreland to lead the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (which had replaced the Military Assistance Advisory Group) and he replaced U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge with Gen. Maxwell Taylor. Both Taylor and Westmoreland aggressively pushed for a much greater commitment of U.S. armed forces. Johnson’s advisors also began proposing limited bombing raids by the U.S. over North Vietnamese targets. Actually, the Americans had been secretly flying with bombing raids by South Vietnamese and Laotian pilots over targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail since 1961, but the presence of American advisors in these raids was kept secret. Now, Johnson’s policymakers were beginning to believe only American pilots could successfully carry out the necessary raids, but they shelved the plan out of fear they would lose American public support and hence the upcoming election. However, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 completely changed their thinking.