You may be familiar with the U.S.’s use of superior firepower and bombings during the Vietnam War, but how much do you know about the U.S. ground war? This lesson explores the military strategy and policies of the U.S.
during the Vietnam War.
Winning the Vietnam War
How do you win a war? This is not a simple question to answer. For U.S.
military leaders and strategists during the Vietnam War, this question proved to be nearly impossible. The American presence in Vietnam began in the mid-1950s but the country was not truly at war until the mid-1960s. Although much of the Vietnam War was waged with American fighting power from the air, the U.
S. also launched an aggressive ground war. This lesson explores the U.S. military strategy, its successes and failures, and American policy towards Vietnamese civilians at the time.
Involvement in Vietnam
Many Americans do not know that the United States maintained a military presence in Vietnam long before the large-scale military conflict that characterized the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Initially, the United States maintained an advisory role in South Vietnam, helping its government to stave off attacks by the Viet Cong (VC), the communist guerrillas fighting for North Vietnam. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese presence continued to grow in South Vietnam, and the government was incapable of containing their attacks.By 1965, American military advisers saw a single option: take matters into their own hands and increase the U.
S. presence in Vietnam. General William Westmoreland requested 150,000 troops that year, and by the end of 1965, over 180,000 military personnel were stationed in Vietnam.
Westmoreland’s early strategy was fairly simple. The U.
S. would wage a war of attrition, a military tactic through which a long series of small-scale attacks gradually wears down the enemy. The goal was to inflict heavy damage on North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, so much damage in fact, that it would be impossible for them to recover and keep fighting. To achieve these goals, the United States carried out bombings in North Vietnam via aircraft. South Vietnam, however, was a different story. Most of the Vietnam War fought below the 17th parallel was on the ground. The 17th parallel was, in effect, the political boundary line between North and South Vietnam.
The ground strategy in South Vietnam was much like the air strategy in North Vietnam: devastate the Viet Cong and pro-communist forces. The unusual feature of the strategy was that the United States did not fight to hold onto territory in South Vietnam. Once American troops engaged with the VC and forced them from the general area, they did not make any attempts to maintain a strong presence in the region.Key elements of the ground war in South Vietnam included search and destroy missions. U.
S. troops used local intelligence to identify VC and pro-communist strongholds, then eliminate them with firepower. From 1966 to 1967, the United States continued to pour troops into Vietnam at the request of General Westmoreland. Over 485,000 troops were stationed in Vietnam by the end of 1967, which was a clear sign that Westmoreland’s ground war was struggling.
Successes and Failures
General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition and the American progress in the ground war was a mixed bag. The United States military was superior to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, but they were still unable to bring the Vietnam War to a swift end.
Part of this stemmed from the challenging Vietnamese climate. American troops were subject to high temperatures, sweltering humidity, and torrential rain during the rainy season. Additionally, the Vietnamese jungle terrain was thick and foreign, which made it easy for the local VC to navigate but extremely difficult for American troops.The American policy of attrition was also not as effective as Westmoreland and other military leaders had hoped. The United States inflicted heavy casualties and material losses on the VC and North Vietnam.
Despite heavy communist losses, the North Vietnamese managed to fight on with the support of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The U.S.
decision to prioritize destruction over territorial gains was also detrimental. Once American troops had driven the VC combatants from the area, the U.S. did not make any concerted efforts to maintain the territory they had gained.
This encouraged the Viet Cong to return to their earlier strongholds.Another major setback of the American ground war was its civilian policy. In 1967, the United States announced the creation of free-fire zones. Civilians and noncombatants were told to evacuate these zones by a certain date; the United States reserved then the right to fire on anyone remaining in the area. This policy had major drawbacks. Countless innocent Vietnamese civilians (including women and children) were killed in the crossfire, a fact that only increased anti-American and pro-communist sentiments.
Other instances of military brutality also marred the U.S. ground war.
In 1968 during a search and destroy mission, American marines killed up to 500 innocent women, children, and old men in their search for Viet Cong combatants and sympathizers. The My Lai Massacre continues to be an ugly scar in American history.Ultimately, the United States government accepted the reality that they were never going to win the ground war in Vietnam. Although the Nixon administration expanded the ground war into Cambodia, it also actively worked to scale back the U.
S. military presence in Vietnam, while turning over control of the conflict to the South Vietnamese. U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1975, marking the end of American participation in the Vietnam War.
While the U.
S. relied mostly on aerial assaults on North Vietnam, much of its strategy in South Vietnam relied on a ground war. In 1965, General William Westmoreland requested an increase in American troops, marking the beginning of serious U.S.
involvement in Vietnam. Westmoreland pushed a strategy of attrition; the U.S. actively worked to inflict heavy casualties and material losses on the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnam so they wouldn’t be able to keep fighting.
However, the U.S. ground war was a mixed bag of success and failure. Superior firepower allowed American troops to drive the VC from parts of South Vietnam. The U.S.
, however, did not prioritize maintaining their territorial gains so the VC often returned to their earlier strongholds. U.S.
civilian policy also hurt the ground war. Creation of free-fire zones led to the death of countless Vietnamese civilians. Meanwhile, during a search and destroy mission, U.
S. marines killed up to 500 noncombatants during the My Lai Massacre of 1968. In 1975, the U.S.
realized that it would never win the Vietnam War and pulled its final troops out in April. On April 30, 1975, the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to the North Vietnamese, and the Vietnam War was over.