The War Begins in Earnest

Some background

Shortly after the Geneva Convention of 1954, CIA director Allen Dulles sent Colonel Edward Lansdale to initiate a series of clandestine operations against North Vietnam.  Lansdale initiated several operations, code named Nautilus, which included South Vietnam manned commando raids and the insertion of CIA recruited spies.  In 1963, the CIA and US Department of Defense jointly agreed that these covert operations should transfer to the DoD.  In January 1964, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG)[1] assumed responsibility for all covert operations in Vietnam[2].

USMACV-SOG-001Once MAC-SOG took control of covert operations in North Vietnam, the Pentagon issued Operation Plan (OPLAN) 34-63, which entailed a continuation of commando raids[3] and the expansion of electronic surveillance through US Navy ships and patrol boats based out of Da Nang.  OPLAN 34-A expanded covert operations with more ambitious missions to offshore assaults on coastal installations.  When US intelligence officers realized that some of their raiders had been turned by the North Vietnamese, US covert operations shifted more toward psychological operations, which involved spreading anti-Communist propaganda and deception.  The effectiveness of these clandestine measures remains questionable, but there was no doubt that both the USSR and China were actively supplying the Viet Cong (VC) with weapons and munitions, or that North Vietnam was funneling men and material into South Vietnam through Laos.

With US Navy ships collecting intelligence off the coast of North Vietnam, it was only a matter of time before the North Vietnamese challenged these encroachments, which were mostly converted minesweepers.  Occasionally, but always between midnight and 0300, North Vietnamese gunboats would approach these ships at high speed and then peel off and return to their island base of operations at a location above the 30th parallel.  North Vietnamese gunboats were threatening, but they never actually attacked the unarmed minesweepers.  Because the minesweepers were defenseless, the Navy decided to replace them with destroyers to continue electronic surveillance.  These were referred to as desoto patrols.  By sending out patrol boats to challenge US navy ships (which were always conducted beyond the internationally recognized 3-mile limit), US intelligence officers were able to collect useful information about North Vietnamese (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) (DRV) military and naval capabilities.  In time, the DRV replaced their gunboats with larger vessels and torpedo equipped frigates.

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, the American presidency passed to Lyndon B. Johnson.  Johnson retained most of Kennedy’s cabinet and advisors —men who had helped craft and manage the Kennedy administration’s policies toward Southeast Asia.  Prior to his vice presidency, Johnson had been a long-serving member of the US Senate and the House of Representatives from Texas —but despite those bona fides, Johnson was uncertain about his own foreign policy credentials and this forced him to rely on Kennedy’s cabinet … men such as Robert S. McNamara[4], Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
President Ngo Dinh Diem

President Kennedy (like his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower), was reluctant to involve the United States in another Asian war.  Neither of these men were hesitant to offer military assistance, in terms of advisors and material support, but neither could see how direct involvement would benefit either South Vietnam or US interests in Indochina.  Kennedy had, with some success, negotiated recognition of the Kingdom of Laos as a neutral state, but this agreement was almost immediately ignored by the DRV, who had previously used Laos to infiltrate men and material into South Vietnam —and continued to do so.  In signing the accord, Kennedy was naïve.  Neither did the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem (or the US Ambassador to South Vietnam), believe that the Geneva Accord was a good idea.  Diem believed that the United States was more concerned about its own interests in Southeast Asia than it was about the security of South Vietnam —and of course, he was right.

Diem had long resented America’s heavy hand in its internal affairs.  For all of his short comings (at least, according to western standards), Diem was an intelligent man who was confronted by a plethora of domestic issues, not the least of which were well-entrenched urban gangsters, rural warlords, Buddhist activists opposing a Catholic head of state, and a determined Communist insurgency.  American diplomats did not seem to appreciate either Diem’s stress level or the fact that he was culturally Vietnamese.  His attitudes toward curtailing dissent were not so far removed from those of his North Vietnamese counterpart, Ho Chi Minh.  Diem was harsh in his suppression of dissidents and Kennedy, believing that Diem’s punitive policies were counterproductive to stabilizing South Vietnam’s (RVN) government, pushed back.  President Diem deeply resented this interference.  The US and RVN were at an impasse —and something had to give.

On 1-2 November 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother (and chief advisor) Ngo Dinh Nhu were assassinated, an operation ostensibly planned and carried out by Diem’s senior military officers.  Almost no one believed that these incompetent generals could have pulled off such an intricate operation without the help of the American CIA.  If South Vietnam was unstable under Diem, his assassination made things worse.  Ho Chi Minh, while stymied by the American-backed event, couldn’t have been more pleased.

Prelude to War

President Johnson soon learned that earlier assurances by McNamara and Bundy that the RVN was making progress against the communist insurgency were ill-founded.  Secretary of State Dean Rusk warned Johnson that in fact, South Vietnam was in a deep spiral.  McNamara and senior DoD officials rejected Rusk’s arguments, but as it turned out, Rusk was right and South Vietnam was in dire straits.  Viet Cong attacks, performed at will, were increasing in frequency and lethality.

In late January 1964, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Khanh overthrew the ruling junta of Duong Van Minh (also known as Big Minh).  It was the second coup d’état in three months.  Amazingly, Johnson, who was not pleased with RVN’s progress in countering the communist insurgency, found encouragement in the coup and sought to bolster the Khanh regime.  In March 1964, Johnson sent McNamara to undertake a fact-finding mission in South Vietnam.  His report pointed to an easily discernible deterioration of popular morale and an acceleration of communist insurgencies.  McNamara advised Johnson to send more US military and economic support.

By this time, President Johnson was convinced that South Vietnam was about to fall into the hands of the communists.  He was determined not to become the first US president to lose the fight against communist aggression[5].  The emerging war in Vietnam became Johnson’s primary focus.  Ultimately, Johnson decided on a series of increasingly aggressive political strategies.

But 1964 was an election year in the United States.  When US Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge resigned his post and announced that he was running for the presidency, Johnson replaced him with retired US Army General Maxwell Taylor, formerly the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  On Taylor’s recommendation, Johnson also replaced General Paul D. Harkins as head of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), with General William C. Westmoreland[6].  In making these changes, Johnson’s signal seemed clear enough: he was leaning toward a military solution to the conflict in Vietnam, rather than a diplomatic resolution.

President Johnson was also challenged for the presidency by Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona.  Johnson was many things (a decent human being not being one of them), but he was a master politician.  With two very substantial challengers, Johnson increased his popularity[7] by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (passed into law on 2 July), but he also understood this alone would not be enough to take America to another Asian war.  Johnson would require the support of Congress to increase US involvement in South Vietnam.  In order to achieve congressional support, Johnson would need to demonstrate that North Vietnam was a bona fide threat to the peace and security of the Southeast Asian Mainland.

On 1 August 1964, South Vietnamese commandos raided a North Vietnamese radio transmitter located on an offshore island.  The very next morning, 2 August, the destroyer USS Maddox (DD 731) while cruising in international waters 28 miles off the coast of North Vietnam, engaged three North Vietnamese Navy (NVN) P-4 Motor Torpedo Boats[8] of Torpedo Squadron 135.  The Commander, Destroyer Division, 7th Fleet, Captain John J. Herrick, was aboard Maddox and exercised command authority over the Desoto mission.  Herrick ordered Commander Herbert Ogier, the ship’s captain, to have gun crews fire on the torpedo boats if they came within 10,000 yards of Maddox.  When the boats encroached upon the Maddox, Ogier ordered three rounds to warn off the NVN craft.

The NVN commanders were brothers, Van Bot, commanding T-333, Van Tu, commanding T-336, and Van Gian commanding T-339.  The attack commenced in numerical order with T-333 spearheading the attack.  The maximum effective range of their torpedoes was 1,000 yards (9/10ths of a mile).  Maddox’ gun range was 18,000 yards.  T-333 pressed home its assault astern Maddox with the two additional boats in trace.  Then, T-333 attempted to run abeam of Maddox for a side shot.  T-336 and T-339 fired first, but Maddox’ five-inch gun fire threatened the torpedo boats.  Both fired their torpedoes prematurely, all four missing their target.  T-333 fired its torpedoes, also without effect, but then fired at Maddox with its 14.5-mm (.57 caliber) deck gun.  The American destroyer received a single hit.  Altering course, crewmen observed torpedoes passing Maddox on her starboard side.

Within short order, four F-8 Crusaders from USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) arrived overhead and promptly attacked the NVN torpedo boats, forcing them to withdraw.  Several NVN crewmen were wounded, four were killed, and all three boats were seriously damaged.  There were no US casualties.  One of the four aircraft sustained damage to its left wing, but all birds returned to Ticonderoga.

On 3 August, USS Turner Joy (DD-951) was ordered to accompany USS Maddox for another Desoto mission.  On 4 August, Turner Joy’s radar picked up a number of blips believed to be approaching small, high-speed surface craft, but at an extreme range.  As a precaution, the two destroyers called upon Ticonderoga to furnish air support.  After nightfall, radar signatures suggested the convergence of patrol boats from the west and south.  Turner Joy reported that she sighted one or two torpedo wakes, ramped up her speed and began evasion maneuvers.  Turner Joy then began firing in the direction of the unidentified surface vessels.  Over the next two and a half hours, Turner Joy fired 220 five-inch shells; aircraft from Ticonderoga likewise fired on “suspected” torpedo boats.

This second attack on 4 August never actually happened[9], but together with the incident on 2 August, President Johnson claimed “unprovoked attacks” upon the sovereignty of the United States.  On 5 August, Johnson ordered bombing raids on North Vietnamese military targets.  Referred to in history as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Johnson asked for and received Congressional approval to escalate US involvement in the Vietnam War.

In North Vietnam, General Vo Nguyen Giap made a disturbing accusation.  Lyndon Johnson, he said, constructed the Desoto patrols in order to provoke North Vietnam into a response, so that Johnson could use such a response as an excuse for escalating the conflict in South Vietnam.  Giap’s allegation is probably true[10].  According to Ray McGovern, a retired CIA analyst (1963-90), the CIA, “not to mention President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy all knew full well that the evidence of an armed attack on 4 August 1964, the so-called ‘second’ Tonkin Gulf incident, was highly dubious.  During the summer of 1964, President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff[11] seemed keen on widening the war in Vietnam.  They stepped up sabotage and hit and run attacks on the coast of North Vietnam.”

James Bamford, author of the book Body of Secrets, who spent three years in the US Navy as an intelligence analyst, agrees with McGovern.  The primary purpose of the Maddox “was to act as a seagoing provocateur —to poke its sharp gray bow and the American flag as close to the belly of North Vietnam as possible, in effect shoving its five-inch cannons up the nose of the communist navy.  The Maddox’ mission was made even more provocative by being present at times that coincided with commando raids, creating the impression that Maddox was directing those missions.”  Accordingly, the DRV had every reason to believe that USS Maddox was involved in the commando raids.

Here’s what we know …

In the early afternoon of 4 August (Washington time), Captain John Herrick reported to the Commander in Chief, Pacific that “freak weather effects” on Turner Joy’s radar had made North Vietnamese attacks questionable.  He was clear in his statement: “No North Vietnamese patrol boats had actually been sighted.”  Herrick urged a full reevaluation of these events before any further action was taken.  It was too late.  President Johnson had already made his televised announcement.

Secretary McNamara later testified that he had read Herrick’s message after his return to the Pentagon in the afternoon of 4 August, but that he did not immediately contact the president to tell him that the premise of his justification for retaliatory air strikes was at that time, highly questionable.  Scholars now argue that had Johnson received accurate information, had he been informed of the Herrick message, he “might have demanded more complete information before proceeding with broadening the war.”  Personally, given what I know of Lyndon Johnson, I doubt it.

LBJ-001
Lyndon Baines Johnson

Johnson was up for reelection.  He informed congress that the USS Maddox was not involved in providing intelligence for raids into North Vietnam.  He stated clearly that North Vietnamese attacks were “unprovoked.”  This was a lie and he knew at the time that it was a lie.  As a result of this testimony, the US Congress passed a Joint Resolution granting Johnson authority to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without the benefit of a declaration of war. Johnson was empowered to “take all necessary steps, including the use of armed forces, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”

Lyndon Johnson’s election as President of the United States in his own right allowed the administration to move forward with a more aggressive policy in Southeast Asia.  Mere days before the election, Communist guerrillas attacked the US air base at Bien Hoa killing four Americans, wounding scores, and destroying twenty-five aircraft.  Johnson decided (politically) not to respond to this attack so close to a national election, but on election day, he created an interagency task force to review US-Vietnam policy.  Chairing this task force was William Bundy (a former CIA analyst), the brother of McGeorge Bundy (serving as chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs).

At the time of the election of 1964, owing to the political instability of South Vietnam, the US Military Assistance Command (USMACV) under General William Westmoreland, had grown to more than 20,000 men.  Of the over 800 Marines in Vietnam, most were assigned to the I Corps Tactical Zone (I CTZ) (Also, I Corps), which consisted of the five northern-most provinces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  Sixty USMC advisors were assigned to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in I Corps.  Aviators assigned to Shufly at Da Nang were reinforced by a Marine rifle company for airfield security.  Additional Marines were assigned to the US Embassy in Saigon and the MACV staff.

In Washington, the government examined the possibility of sending US combat troops to RVN for the defense of critical US installations.  General Maxwell Taylor, serving as US Ambassador to the RVN, warned the administration against over-emphasizing static security and recommended that aggressive ARVN field operations was the best strategy for stabilizing the country.  Taylor was right in his assessment.

The possible employment of US forces was of special concern to the Marine Corps.  In 1964, the most combat-ready Marines in the Far East were those of the 3rd Marine Division, located on Okinawa, and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing at Iwakuni, Japan.  Both commands, under III Marine Amphibious Force, were task organized to support various contingency plans for Southeast Asia.

9THMAB-001Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the US Pacific Command activated the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (9thMAB)[12]under the command of the 3rdMarDiv Assistant Division Commander, Brigadier General Raymond G. Davis[13].  The ground combat element included the 9th Marine Regiment (9th Marines) and three battalion landing teams[14] (BLTs) and a Provisional Marine Air Group (ProvMAG) consisting of fixed wing and helicopter squadrons.  For the first several months, 9thMAB was a pre-positioned (mostly on paper) organization with a small headquarters at Subic Bay, Philippines.  Brigadier General John P. Coursey relieved General Davis in October.

On 22 January 1965, Brigadier General Frederick J. Karch[15] assumed command of the 9thMAB, which now consisted of two BLTs (1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9) and 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines (3/9)), both of which had been serving afloat with the Amphibious Ready Group/Special Landing Force since the beginning of the year.  At this time, the Marine brigade was the US combat force most readily available for deployment to RVN.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Johnson’s working group gave him three options: (1) Continue with the current approach (funding and limited military support); (2) Escalate the war and strike North Vietnam; (3) Pursue a strategy of graduated response.  After weeks of discussions, Johnson endorsed the third option and directed the task force to “flesh out” its implementation.

The Bundy Plan envisioned a series of measures of gradually increasing intensity[16].  (1) An escalation of military involvement and the presence of US military personnel would bolster national morale.  (2) Attack Viet Cong forces operating in South Vietnam.  (3) Pressure Hanoi into ending its support of the Communist insurgency.  The first phase of this plan was Operation Barrel Roll[17].

Johnson’s task force reflected his management style.  He would have none of Kennedy’s lengthy debates with policy staffers.  By tasking subordinates to develop broad planning initiatives, on an interagency basis, and frequently at levels far below that of senior white house officials, Johnson only considered recommendations that had already gained consensus before bringing them to his top aides.  President Johnson would only make key decisions in the presence of a limited number of his closest advisors.  Almost more than anything else, Johnson feared “leaks to the press.”

The problem, however, was that Johnson’s managerial style was frequently overwhelmed by events happening on the ground.  No amount of tinkering would allow his administration to escape the reality of the Vietnam War: unabated political instability in South Vietnam and Communist successes in the field (being fought, of course, in South Vietnam rather than in North Vietnam).  There were two problems with Johnson’s penchant for running the war from the white house: (1) With limited military experience, Lyndon Johnson was out of his depth[18], and (2) his meddling in the prosecution of the war seriously undercut the tactical prerogatives of his senior-most military officers.

The deterioration of South Vietnam’s political structure (and his apparent lack of confidence in his field commanders) led Johnson to take on an even larger role in handing the war.  In February 1965, Johnson dispatched his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, to assess the need for an expanded bombing campaign, which William Bundy’s interagency task force had anticipated a few months earlier.  At the time of Bundy’s visit, nine Americans were killed when VC elements raided Camp Holloway[19] and Pleiku.  This event provided the justification for expanding US military involvement —which of course, Bundy’s task force was already considering.  Another VC assault at Qui Nhon resulted in the death of 23 Americans with another 21 wounded.  Within days, Johnson approved a sustained bombing campaign[20] of North Vietnam that would last for the rest of his presidency.

The attacks on Pleiku and Qui Nhon underscored the vulnerability of bases that US planes would be using in the bombing campaign.  Accordingly, Johnson authorized the deployment of two Marine battalions to Da Nang in March 1965.  It was a decision that caused Johnson great anxiety because he realized the likely impact of sending Marines into a combat environment and its impact in the minds of the American people.

Meanwhile, the bombing campaign did not appear affect Hanoi or the Vietcong in any significant way.  By mid-March, Johnson was considering additional proposals for expanding the American combat presence in RVN.  By 1 April, he decided to increase the Marine Corps footprint in RVN by two additional battalions and changed their mission from static defense of airfields to one of “active defense.”  Realizing that four battalions of Marines would not be a sufficient force to stamp out the VC insurgency, he directed planners to expand the US military in Vietnam to 82,000 men.

Assessment

According to a 2005 article in The New York Times, Robert J. Hanyok, a historian for the National Security Agency, after reviewing all available information, concluded that the NSA distorted intelligence reports passed to policy makers regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident on 4 August 1964.  Hanyok said that “NSA staff deliberately skewed evidence to make it appear as if the attack had occurred.”  According to Hanyok, the incident began at the Phu Bai Combat Base where intelligence analysts mistakenly believed that the destroyers would soon be attacked.  This concern would have been communicated back to the NSA, along with evidence supporting such a conclusion, but the fact was that the evidence did not support their conclusion.  As the evening progressed, signals intelligence did not support a North Vietnam ambush, but NSA analysts were so convinced of an attack, they ignored 90% of the data that did not support their conclusion.  This, too, was excluded from information provided to the President.

Why?

John Hanyok explained, “As much as anything else, it was an awareness that Johnson would brook no uncertainty that could undermine his position.  Faced with this attitude, CIA analyst Ray Cline recalled, “We knew it was bum dope that we were getting from the 7th Fleet but we were told to only give facts with no elaboration on the nature of the evidence.  Everyone knew how volatile Johnson was; he did not like to deal with uncertainties.”  In other words, government bureaucrats wanted to avoid a presidential tantrum directed at them.

None of the foregoing supposes that war in Vietnam could have been avoided, particularly given the United States government’s previous twenty-years of involvement in Indochinese affairs.  Truman’s concerns about a domino effect of global communism were justified by the behavior of Communist states before and after World War II.  By the end of the Korean War, Americans were war weary.  Eisenhower wisely determined that the American people, the US economy, could not sustain another foreign conflict in 1954.  He also had hopes that limited engagement would provide the government of South Vietnam the time it needed to stabilize and solve its own problems.  Both Truman and Eisenhower underestimated the lengths to which Ho Chi Minh was willing to go in unifying Vietnam under the Communist flag —but neither man really knew the Vietnamese, their history or their culture.  John Kennedy’s idealism and naïveté worked against the long-term interests of the United States in Southeast Asia; his acquiescence in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem made things worse.

Lyndon Johnson may be my least favorite character in history.  He was a self-serving gangster, a liar, and lacked the kind of leadership the American people must have in time of war.  Johnson’s war-time decisions traumatized the American people for a full generation —and I never actually touched upon the disaster that resulted from Johnson’s “great society” experiment with socialism.  The American people are still paying for that.

Along with the good they might do, men elected to the presidency have to accept the bad as well.  Presidents are mortal, after all.  The men they select to advise them, in many cases, have much to do with their successes or failures.  Truman’s confidence in Dean Acheson is one example, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s reliance on McNamara is another.

Richard Nixon was a deeply flawed man and did himself no honor in the matter of the Watergate Affair, but he did have an adequate measure of Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong.  Today, we do not give Nixon enough credit for disentangling the United States from a war that could not be won.  But we must also acknowledge that the American people themselves contributed to the evolving disaster of Vietnam.  They, after all, voted in elections that chose such men as Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson; they in turn made bad choices in important cabinet positions.

The costs of the Vietnam War were high.  58,318 Americans died in the Vietnam War; 153,303 received combat wounds; 2,971 of those required hospitalization; 1,587 Americans remain listed as missing in action.  778 Americans were taken as prisoners of war, of those 116 died in captivity.  This should lead a rational person to the conclusion that if the United States is going to involve itself in war, given its costs, then we damn sure need to win it.  The American fighting man won every battle in Vietnam, but politicians in Washington handed the enemy a strategic victory.  Surely the American voter can do better than this …

“Critical analysis,” said Clausewitz, “is the application of theoretical truths to actual events.”  … theoretical truths of the principles of war to the actual events of the Vietnam War to produce an explanation for our failure there.  If we are to profit by our mistakes, we must understand that it was a violation of these truths, not evil or wicked leaders, that was the cause of our undoing.  As David Halberstam pointed out in The Best and the Brightest, one of the saddest aspects of the war is that it was waged by well-meaning and intelligent men doing what they thought best.  The tendency to find devils, however, is still with us.” —Harry G. Summers, Colonel, Infantry, U. S. Army (Retired)

Sources:

  1. Beisner, R.L. Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War.  New York: OUP USA, 2006
  2. Beisner, R. L. Patterns of Peril: Dean Acheson Joins the Cold Warriors, 1945-46.  Diplomatic History, Vol 20, 1996
  3. Berman, L. Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam.  New York/London: Norton & Company, 1989
  4. Courtois, S. and Nicolas Werth, Andrzej Paczkowski (et. al.). The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.  Harvard University Press, 1997.
  5. Freedman, R. Vietnam: A History of the War. Holiday House, 2016.
  6. Hastings, M. Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-75.  Canada: HarperCollins, 2018.
  7. Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History.  New York: Viking/The Penguin Group, 1983
  8. Lacouture, J. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography.  Random House, 1968
  9. McNamara, R. S. and Brian Van De Mark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  Vintage Books, 1995.
  10. Summers, Jr., H. G. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.  Presidio/Random House, 1982
  11. Whitlow, R. H. S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964.  History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1977

Endnotes:

[1] MAC-SOG was a cover name for a multi-service unconventional warfare task force under the direct control of the Pentagon.

[2] The US OSS and CIA knew early on that Ho Chi Minh was a thoroughly nasty man who should be opposed by freedom-loving democracies at every turn.  As outlined in The Black Book of Communism, Ho Chi Minh directed the Viet Minh in the conduct of a ruthless assassination campaign to remove all potential political opponents.  The campaign began around 1944 (although some argue as early as 1941).  Victims included Bui Quang Chieu, leader of the Constitutional Party and Ngo Dinh Khoi, brother of Diem, who headed the Party for Independence in North Vietnam.  Again, with reference to The Black Book, Ho Chi Minh and his successors orchestrated the murder of more than 1 million people between 1941 and 1980.

[3] Commando type insertions involved Vietnamese personnel so that the US could deny involvement.  Most were unsuccessful with the commandos frequently being captured and executed.

[4] If there is one man who is most culpable for America’s failed strategy in the Vietnam War, it is McNamara.

[5] Johnson wasn’t was interested in winning the fight as he was in not losing it.

[6] General Westmoreland was a proficient general, but two factors worked against him.  First, he was political, which is the bane of most senior (three and four star) officers.  Second, he didn’t have the courage to tell Johnson that he didn’t need the president’s help in running the war.

[7] Owing to President Kennedy’s assassination, American voters remained sympathetic toward Johnson.  Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election with 303 electoral votes to Richard Nixon’s 219.

[8] The P-4 was a 66-foot-long aluminum hulled boat armed with two torpedoes each mounted with a 550-pound TNT warhead.  The P-4 was capable of exceeding 40 knots per hour.

[9] Rear Admiral James Stockdale, a veteran of World War II, a naval aviator and prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, testified that the second incident, reported on 4 August, never happened.  Stockdale said, “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there.  There was nothing but black water and American firepower.”

[10] One should ask, What would be the US response to foreign attacks upon coastal military installations inside the territory of the United States?

[11] U. S. Army General Earle Wheeler served as Chairman of the JCS from 3 July 1964 to 2 July 1970.  From 1961-64, he served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army.  Wheeler was regarded by some senior officers as a “yes man,” and exactly what President Johnson was looking for in a JCS chairman —General Curtis LeMay being one of them.

[12] The designation “Amphibious” in task organizations was later changed to “Expeditionary.”  In 1965, the usage was 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade.

[13] Holder of the Medal of Honor.

[14] The BLT is the basic Marine unit in an amphibious or vertical assault.  It is a task organized infantry battalion reinforced with necessary combat support and combat service support elements (artillery, motor transport, tanks, amphibian tractors, engineers, communications, shore party, reconnaissance, and medical teams).

[15] A veteran of several amphibious campaigns in World War II.

[16] Which makes it apparent that no one in the Johnson Administration knew anything about Vietnam, its history, its people, or their culture.  It is equally apparent that few senior military officers were equipped to fight the war in Vietnam, that most accepted the erroneous notion that the United States could defeat North Vietnam through an air campaign, and no one understood the value of defeating an enemy on his own territory.

[17] A USAF and Naval Air campaign designed to disrupt North Vietnam’s logistical corridor, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail from 1964 to 1973.

[18] While serving in the US House of Representatives, Johnson received a direct commission to lieutenant commander in the US Navy Reserve.  He was called to active duty after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and initially assigned to inspect shipyard facilities in Texas and on the West Coast.  Johnson, a trusted ally of Franklin Roosevelt, was later send by Roosevelt to obtain information of conditions in the Southwest Pacific Area.  While serving as an observer aboard a B-26 during a schedule air strike on New Guinea, the aircraft developed mechanical problems and was returned to its base of operations.  According to Johnson, however, his aircraft received battle damage and was forced back to base before reaching its objective.  Flight records reflect that the aircraft never came under enemy fire.  Nevertheless, General MacArthur awarded Johnson the silver star medal for “gallantry in action.”  He was the only member of the flight crew to receive an award.  Returning to Washington, Johnson gave MacArthur’s command a good report.

[19] Named in honor of Warrant Officer Charles E. Holloway, the first Army aviator assigned to the 81st Transportation Company killed in action.

[20] Operation Rolling Thunder.

Counterinsurgency and Pacification

Lessons learned from the Vietnam War

US Special Forces 001Early in US history, American military leaders relied on French and German advisors to help prepare the Continental Army for the American Revolution.  Since then, select members of the US Army have served as military advisors for more than a hundred years, beginning in the early 1900s.  During and after World War II, US military advisors have trained and advised the armed forces of Cambodia, Laos, Nationalist China, South Korea, South Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, and more recently, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  Whenever one thinks about US military advisors, they may envision someone wearing a green beret, and they’d be right.  The green beret is the headgear of the US Army Special Forces.  The basic mission assigned to the Green Berets is to train and lead unconventional or clandestine guerilla forces, but this mission has been expanded to include the training of conventional forces.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, US military advisors were assigned to Military Assistance Advisory Groups (MAAGs).  More recently, advisors are referred to as Embedded Training Teams (ETTs) or Military Transition Teams (MTTs).  ETTs and MTTs are composed primarily of US Marines, Army Special Forces, Navy Seals, and members of the Army national guard serving in the combat arms.  Members of the Air Force, Navy, and Army Reserve serve as advisors in matters and functions of combat service support.

Marines, by the way, have been “military advisors” for a very long time[1].  After the turn of the twentieth century, US Marines were dispatched to the so-called banana republics to protect American interests and restore order out of the chaos caused by rebels and/or bandits (although they were often one and the same)[2].  The process of restoring order frequently caused Marines to establish or reform constabularies, train constables, lead them, and monitor their development.  This was an advisory as well as a counterinsurgency role.  Marine Corps officers and NCOs were frequently assigned away from their regular units to serve in the Haitian gendarmerie, Dominican constabulary, and Nicaraguan national guard.

Background and overview

During the Vietnam War, US civilian and military advisors supported the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in its endeavor to pacify urban and rural areas.  The concept of pacification evolved from counterinsurgency doctrine in the 1950s, which included a wide array of civil and military programs: martial training and readiness, economic development, land reform, and democratization.  None of these efforts could succeed without security forces (and their military advisors) to protect the people by seeking out and destroying communist terrorists.  In the RVN, there were three essential objectives of US/RVN counterinsurgency/pacification: (1) Prevent North Vietnam from conquering South Vietnam; (2) Countering the communist insurgency, and (3) preparing the South Vietnamese to survive on their own merits (Vietnamization programs).  Military and civilian advisors were key to each of these objectives, but none of these were easy to achieve for a wide range of reasons.  Among these difficulties were a lack of coordination between various US efforts, confusion about what pacification was trying to accomplish, an absolutely corrupt Vietnamese government, and a highly dysfunctional military high command.  This is a summary of a rather voluminous history.

First —the Marines

VMC PatchWhen the French colonial army[3] departed Indochina, they left behind a fledgling military force, which included a small riverine navy, and an assortment of army commandos who served as naval infantry.  Together, they constituted the river assault units, which some scholars claim was the only true French contribution to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  In replacing the French, the United States established a robust effort to aid the RVN against the communist bloc-supported People’s Republic of Vietnam (PRV).

In 1954, the Vietnamese Joint-General Staff re-designated these army commando units as Marine Infantry of the Navy of the Republic of Vietnam (NRVN).  Organized into two landing battalions, they were again renamed in 1956 as the Vietnamese Marine Corps of the Navy (VMC).  Four years later, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) (North Vietnam) and the RVN were locked into a deadly conflict that became known as the Second Indochina War, which lasted from 1960-1975[4].  This war employed the full spectrum of armed violence, from individual terrorist acts and assassination and small unit guerilla actions to extensive land, air, and sea engagements.

There was no shortage of “the enemy.” There was the National Liberation Front (NLF) (also, Vietnamese Communists referred to as VC) and regulars of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) (also called People’s Army of Vietnam, PAVN).  The NLF mostly consisted of North Vietnamese communist agents, sent into the RVN between 1954-1956 to destabilize the government through insurgency.  It was also a civil conflict that involved international actors: The Democratic People’s Republic of China (Communist China), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the Kingdom of Laos among them.

In 1961, the VMC was assigned to South Vietnam’s national reserve, used almost exclusively against political dissidents and urban and rural warlords.  In 1962, the JGS formed the VMC into a 5,000-man brigade.  In 1960, 1963, and 1964, the VMC involved itself in several coup d’état.

Several steps were necessary to transform these ARVN-trained men into Marines, chief among them was the authority to do so by the JGS.  Next, it was necessary to establish a boot camp unique to the Vietnamese Marines Corps.  Marines were given their own distinctive emblem that set them apart from the other branches of the South Vietnamese military.  Additionally, officers and enlisted men with promise were sent to Quantico, Virginia for advanced training.  By 1965, the VMC consisted of more than 6,500 men.  The brigade was organized into a headquarters element, two task force headquarters, five infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and several smaller units of engineers, transportation, military police, field medical, and reconnaissance.  Marine headquarters was located in Saigon; its commandant also served as the brigade commander and answered to the JGS.  No longer attached to the Vietnamese Navy, VMC units were based at somewhat austere encampments at Song Than, Thu Duc, and Vung Tau.

Another VMC battalion was formed in 1966, but the Marines still lacked field armor, aircraft, and logistics support.  Within two years a VMC infantry division was formed from two brigades.  Two years after that, the VMC had three brigades (9 infantry battalions and 3 artillery battalions).  By the time American forces were withdrawn in 1975, the VMC had organized four brigades.  These were, in every sense, combat Marines.  During the Easter Offensive of 1972, Vietnamese Marines lost 2,455 killed in action (KIA) and another 7,840 wounded in action (WIA).

Second —VMC Advisors

Crossed Rifles (M1)The first U. S. Marine Corps advisory section was established in 1955.  It consisted of a lieutenant colonel and two captains as senior advisors and assistants attached to the Navy Section, Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (MAAGV).  In 1961, the advisory effort was expanded to include battalion level infantry and artillery advisors, then consisting of eight officers and sixteen enlisted men.

In May 1964, the Marine advisory unit was transferred to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and became the Marine Advisory Unit (MAU), Naval Advisory Group, MACV.  An increase in manning was approved for 20 officers and 11 enlisted men.  In January 1965, the strength of the MAU was 25 officers, 2 enlisted Marines, and a Navy Corpsman.  The Senior Marine was now a colonel, in keeping with the rank of the VMC Commandant.

The mission assigned to the US Marines was ever-evolving.  Its principal effort remained at providing tactical advice and assistance, but the staff and logistical advisors played an important role as well.  In the 14 months between January 1968 and March 1969, the MAU was expanded to 49 officers/10 enlisted men.  In addition to a small administrative section, there were also advisors for principal staff officers, communications, and medical advisory elements.  Field advisors now existed at the brigade and battalion levels.

A drawdown of manpower began in 1972 because it was believed, at the time, that the VMC battalions no longer needed advisors.  The Easter Offensive of 1972 changed that thinking, however.  The advisory unit fully deployed its advisors to support the VMC division in the field.  Additional support was rendered by the 1st Air-Naval Gunfire Company (1stANGLICO), 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron of the U. S. Air Force, and the Army’s 14th Company, 1st Signal Brigade.  This team effort resulted in a victory for the VMC at Quang Tri City.

Subsequently, US Marine advisors performed as liaison officers to VMC battalions on an as-needed basis to coordinate supporting arms (artillery and air support).  By the time the US Marines were withdrawn from RVN, the VMC infantry division was self-sufficient.

Third—the other Marine Advisors

In 1935, US Marines began putting together a doctrinal publication they titled simply Small Wars Manual, published in 1940 as NAVMC 2890/Fleet Marine Force Publication 12-15.  The Marine Corps is well known for its professional reading program, and so, when the Marine Corps was deployed to the RVN, they brought with them the knowledge acquired during pacification programs in Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.  During these earlier operations, the Marines would first pacify the region of operations by locating and killing bandits and revolutionaries.  They would then establish and implement programs to administer local areas and train citizens to take over all such responsibilities.

CAP 001The first undertaking of the Combined Action Program (CAP) originated in the summer of 1965.  LtCol William W. Taylor, commanding 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, had an assigned tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) that included six villages and an airfield within an area of ten square miles.  3/4 was over-extended.  It was more “area” than the battalion could control.  From this situation came the suggestion from the Battalion Executive Officer, Major Zimmerman, that the Marines incorporate local militias into the battalion’s operations.  The idea was passed up the chain of command to LtGen Lewis Walt (Commanding III MAF), and LtGen Victor H. Krulak (Commanding FMFPac), both of whom had fought in the banana wars, who recognized the potential long-term value of such a plan.  Both Walt and Krulak agreed to the proposal.

Four rifle squads were integrated with local popular forces (PFs); assigned Marines were volunteers[5], each of whom were screened to determine their suitability for independent duty, and then assigned to local villages.  The rifle squad, when combined with PFs, would be able to protect the village from low-level VC threats.  It was a workable plan because the poorly trained PFs could learn from the Marines, and the Marines would gain information and understanding about the local population and surrounding terrain.  When the Marines weren’t training PFs, they engaged in local self-help programs and distributed CARE[6] packages, tools, and hygienic supplies.  The squad’s Navy Corpsman became the village “Doc.”  The arrangement produced a win-win situation.

The CAP went through expected developmental problems, of course.  Not every Marine commander supported the program; giving up trained combatants to engage with local populations.  The loss of personnel was painful to the battalions who were tasked to provide them.  The program became “official” in the summer of 1967; a local (inadequate 10 day) school was established near Da Nang.  CAP was one of the US Marine Corps’ signature contributions to the Vietnam War.  By 1969, the CAP involved 102 platoons, 19 companies, and 4 (supervisory) Combined Action Groups.  By the end of 1970, CAP units operated throughout the five provinces of I Corps.  See also: Combined Action Platoon (CAP) Vietnam (in six parts) by LtCol William C. Curtis, USMC (Retired).

Fourth —Everyone Else

As previously stated, the advisory effort in RVN involved far more than tactical advice and training.  There were also civilian advisors[7], for the most part working under a structure known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support).  CORDS was a unique hybrid civil-military structure directly under COMUSMACV.  General Westmoreland’s deputy for CORDS was a civilian by the name of Robert W. Komer[8].  Each Corps Tactical Zone commander, a Lieutenant General, was assigned a deputy for CORDS[9].  Below the Corps were provinces.  In Vietnam, a province might equate to a US State, below the province, districts (similar to counties), and below districts were villages.  A province chief was likely a senior ARVN officer (colonel), assisted by both a US military advisor and a civilian CORDS advisor.  A similar arrangement existed within districts, headed by lieutenant colonels or majors, with advisors.  District chiefs took on the responsibility of coordinating and supervising the combined action platoons.

Civilian advisors at the corps, province, and district levels coordinated among the various agencies working to pacify the RVN.  These included the activities of the United States Agency for International Development and the Central Intelligence Agency.  Because these functions were in many cases overlapping, close coordination was necessary between military and civilian advisors.

Given all this effort, most of it stellar by any measure, then why did the Republic of Vietnam fall to the communists of North Vietnam?  Earlier, I identified three essential objectives of counterinsurgency and pacification.  I also listed four hindrances to achieving the objectives.  What follows is my opinion, most likely useful to no one, except that it might provide a learning moment about our present military ventures, or even those in the future.

Conclusion

The United States overcame the challenge of interagency unity of effort.  The pacification/counterinsurgency/advisory efforts mostly overcame the confusion concerning a rather vague notion of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.  But the United States failed to address the pervasive government corruption, and the US was unable to sort out the dysfunctional chain of command[10].  These last two alone were enough to derail every US effort to help the RVN to save itself.  The United States was unable to prevent a North Vietnamese invasion or its conquest of the RVN.  Part of this is explained by the fact that Republican President Richard M. Nixon made promises to the South Vietnamese that Democrats in Congress refused to honor.  Some might, therefore, argue that the fall of Saigon came as a result of insufficient American aid.  Let’s take a look at that …

The United States was either on the periphery or deeply involved in two Indochina wars.  In the second war, the American people gave up over 58,000 dead.  More than 153,000 were wounded.  Some of our boys are still listed as missing in action.  North Vietnam gave up 1.1 million killed in action; South Vietnam lost 250,000 combatants.  Both countries lost more than two million civilians (each).  Vietnam is the most heavily bombed country in the world’s long history.  More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped compared to 2.1 million tons in World War II.  US planes dropped more than 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle; 5 million acres of forested land was destroyed and a half-million acres of farmland.

The Vietnam War cost the American people $168 billion.  In today’s money, that’s about $1 trillion.  US military operations cost $111 billion; another $29 billion provided non-military aid to the South Vietnamese.  These costs continue.  Compensation and benefits for Vietnam Veterans and their families continue to cost $22 billion annually.  Since 1970, post-war benefits paid to veterans and their families amount to $270 billion[11].

Following the Korean War, the United States entered into a period of economic recession.  In 1964, Congress passed a tax cut.  The next year, war costs along with President Johnson’s war on poverty created what is now referred to as the “Great Inflation.”  The top marginal tax rate[12] in that year fell from 91% to 70% which boosted economic growth sufficiently to reduce the level of US deficit spending.  Also, in 1965, Johnson signed Medicare into law, which helped create a heavier reliance on hospital care —resulting in substantial increases in healthcare costs.

The Vietnam War also accelerated the mechanization of the US agricultural industry.  In 1970, a quarter of the US population lived on farms or in rural communities.  Of those, 2.2 million men were called to the Vietnam Era service.  Farms compensated for this decrease in labor by purchasing larger machines and concentrating on fewer crops.  In the next year, the controversy over the conscription of 18-year old men who could not vote led to two additional changes in America: a voting age lowered to 18 years, and the beginning of an all-volunteer military force.

Finally, as a result of the Vietnam War, Americans began to distrust the federal government.  Americans learned that President Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was the underlying reason in 1965 for sending in Marines and the commencement of a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam.  Americans also learned that the government conducted unauthorized wiretaps on Americans, and it has only gotten worse with NSA data mining, secret FISA courts, and fake news and dossiers.

Most Americans work hard for their living.  Most of us simply want to care for our families, improve our lot in life, and in terms of our obligations to America, we want to do the right thing.  We expect (and should expect) no less of our governments (federal, state, or local).  Our federal government’s decisions, particularly in matters of sending our young men to war, must be moral decisions.  Lying about the need for war is not moral behavior, or of surveilling our citizens, or collecting electronic metadata, or wasting taxes in areas of the world that do not warrant our generosity.  It all comes down to one thing: voting responsibly —because the people we choose to lead us have the power to send our youngsters into harm’s way.  We do need warriors in America; we do not need to waste them.

Sources:

  1. Klyman, R. A. The Combined Action Platoons: The U. S. Marine’s Other War in Vietnam.  Praeger, 1986.
  2. Melson, C. D., and W. J. Renfrow. Marine Advisors with the Vietnamese Marine Corps.  Quantico: History Division, Marine Corps University, 2009
  3. Sheehan, N. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.  New York: Random House, 1988
  4. Stoli, R.H. S. Marine Corps Civic Action Efforts in Vietnam, March 1965-66.  Washington: Headquarters Marine Corps, 1968
  5. West, B. The Village.  New York: Pocket Books, 1972

Endnotes:

[1] Military advising may come somewhat naturally to Marines since it has always been the senior’s responsibility to teach, train, advise, monitor, and correct the junior.  It is a cycle repeated now for going on 245 years.

[2] It remains popular among academics to criticize the so-called Banana Wars and the Marines who were sent into these Central and South American countries.  Criticism of US foreign policy may very well be warranted, but it now seems necessary to remind people that US Marines do not formulate American policy, they implement it.  Moreover, were it not for these banana wars, Marine officers and senior enlisted men would not have been as prepared for World War II, during which time they distinguished themselves by their knowledge, experience, courage, and calmness during times of utter chaos.

[3] Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient

[4] A clasp on the Vietnamese Campaign Medal reflects these dates.

[5] This information is part of the official record, but some Marines were “volunteered.”

[6] Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, an international humanitarian agency.

[7] Some of these civilians were former or retired military personnel or employees of the CIA.

[8] Dubbed “Blowtorch Bob” by US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge because of his brusque management style.  Under Komer, the Phoenix Program intended to identify and destroy VC operatives through counterterrorism, infiltration, assassination, capture, and often torture.  Komer, later replaced by William Colby (later, Director of the CIA), was said to have been responsible for 26,000 deaths and neutralization of over 81,000 VC.  Claims have been made that the Phoenix Program scraped up innocent civilians along with the VC, and whether or not this is true, the program was successful in suppressing VC political and insurgency activity.

[9] One of these advisors was John P. Vann, a retired Army officer.  In 1967, Vann was asked by Walt Rostow, one of President Johnson’s advocates for more troops, whether America would be over the worst of the war within six months.  Vann replied, “Oh hell no, Mr. Rostow.  I’m a born optimist.  I think we can hold out longer than that.”  For more on John Paul Vann, see also A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan.

[10] I returned to Vietnam in 2012.  Eight years ago, corruption was alive and well, and the political structure was as bad as it always was.  It has probably been this way for the past two-thousand years and gives us no hope for Vietnam as a future regional ally.

[11] 2.5 million US servicemen were exposed to Agent Orange, increasing veteran’s probability of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and birth defects.

[12] The rate at which tax is incurred on an additional dollar of income.  In the United States, the federal marginal tax rate for an individual will increase as income rises.  It is also referred to as a progressive tax scheme.  Democrats have never seen a tax they don’t adore.

Hold High the Torch, Part III

The 4th Marines: From Harry Truman’s War to the Street Without Joy

EGA BlackAmong the effects of Harry S. Truman’s presidential incompetence came the Korean War —and along with that, the re-activation of the 4th Marine Regiment.  The war began in late June 1950.  A stalemate in the war two years later resulted in the re-activation of the 3rd Marine Division and within that organization on 2 September 1952, the 4th Marines —Colonel Robert O. Bowen, commanding.  The regiment’s initial units included Headquarters & Service Company (H&SCo), Anti-Tank Company, 4.2-inch Mortar Company, and the 1st Battalion (1/4).  Within a short time, the regiment added 2/4 and 3/4.  A fourth battalion came on line in January 1953 but was deactivated within a period of seven months.

After reactivation, the 4th Marines began a series of pre-combat deployment training; spooling up to speed would take another six months.  The 3rd Marine Division was alerted to its far-east deployment shortly before the Korean Armistice.  Despite cessation of fighting, the 3rdMarDiv relocated from Camp Pendleton, California to Japan.  The regiment’s new home was Nara, on the island of Honshu.  Arriving too late to participate in the Korean War, the 4th Marines became a garrison force whose responsibilities included the defense of southern Honshu and its readiness [1] for rapid deployment to potential hot-spots in the Far East.  In January 1954, 3/4 was assigned to task of escorting former Chinese Communist soldiers who wanted to go to Taiwan (rather than be repatriated to mainland China) from Inchon, South Korea [2].

Eighteen-months later, the 4th Marines (and supporting units) was relocated to Hawaii where the regiment became the principal ground combat element (GCE) of the 1st Provisional Marine MAGTF at Kaneohe Bay. Once established in Hawaii, the regiment began an intensive program of coordinated training with the air combat element (ACE), which at the time was Marine Aircraft Group (MAG)-13.  The MAGTF was redesignated as the 1st Marine Brigade on 1 May 1956.  The advent of combat helicopters led the regiment into vertical envelopment training. The 4th Marines was the first GCE to live and train with a co-located ACE.  As a Pacific area force in readiness, the 1st Marine Brigade (1stMarBde) engaged in rigorous training.  Maneuver areas included the California coast, Taiwan, and the Philippine Islands.  In March 1961, BLT 1/4 was diverted from its original destination (California) to the Far East when a communist insurgency threatened Laos.  The battalion was never sent into Laos, however.

Ngo Dinh Diem 001
Ngo Dinh Diem, 1960 Photo from Public Domain

The President of South Vietnam between 1954 and 1963 was Ngo Dinh Diem, and man whom the United States government decided to support because he was well-educated, smooth in his presentation, a true patriot to his country’s cause, and also because he shared the same religion with the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.  A devout Roman Catholic, Diem was staunchly anti-Communist, a nationalist, and socially conservative.  He also shared the same long-term goals with his enemy in the north: Ho Chi Minh. Both Ngo and Ho wanted to unify Vietnam under their own flag.

Between 1954-1957, South Vietnam experienced a large-scale resistance to Ngo’s policies from the areas outlying the national capital, Saigon.  Dissidents included the thugs in minor cities who fancied themselves as war lords, and Buddhist monks who seemed to keep South Vietnamese peasants in a constant state of instability. Ngo responded rather harshly, as he suspected that the culprits behind these destabilizing demonstrations were North Vietnamese insurgents.  His assumption was mostly correct; when the country was politically divided in 1954, about 90,000 hard-core communists remained in the South and Ho’s government encouraged these to engage in low-level insurgencies.

Upon Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned him against becoming entangled in the Indochinese conflict.  In 1961, the United States had around 50,000 troops based in South Korea.  Kennedy faced a four-pronged crisis in the early days of his administration: Bay of Pigs fiasco, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Pathet Lao movement in Laos, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).  The onslaught of communist schemes to disrupt the world balance of power led Kennedy to conclude that the United States and its free-world allies could not sustain another “failure” confronting global communism. This particular insecurity helped to drive Kennedy’s space program.  Kennedy was thus determined to “draw a line in the sand” to prevent another communist victory in Vietnam [3].

Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam initially mirrored that of President Eisenhower, who saw no benefit to the United States by committing large-scale military forces to solve the Vietnam problem.  Given the poor state of South Vietnam’s military, however, Kennedy did continue Eisenhower’s program to provide US Army Special Forces to help train the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) across a wide range of areas: ground combat, air combat, and logistical resupply.  Kennedy advisors tried to convince the president to send US troops to Vietnam “disguised as flood relief workers [4].”  Others tried to convince Kennedy that sending troops to Vietnam in large numbers would be a tragic mistake.  By late 1963, Kennedy had increased the number of military advisors serving in Vietnam from 900 (Eisenhower) to 16,000.  On 2 November 1963, as the US government officials pretended not to know what was going on, President Ngo and his brother was assassinated and the man ultimately responsible for this was John F. Kennedy.  Twenty days later, Kennedy himself was assassinated and power shifted to Lyndon Baines Johnson.  Johnson wanted an escalation of the war and lied to the American people to achieve it. North Vietnamese patrol boats did not launch assaults against the USS Maddox (DD 731) on 2 August 1964; the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that precipitated War in Vietnam never happened.

Discounting a rather large number of special operations troops serving as advisors to the South Vietnamese government, the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa was the first ground combat force committed to the Vietnam War.  The 4th Marines received their warning order almost immediately after the decision was made to commit the Marines.  Forward elements of the 3rdMarDiv began landing at Da Nang on 8 March 1965; the 4th Marines started arriving from Hawaii (via Okinawa) in mid-April 1965, the first battalion to arrive being BLT 3/4, which deployed to the ancient Imperial City of Hue.  Regimental HQ, 1/4 and 2/4 disembarked at Chu Lai on 7 May 1965.  All 3rdMarDiv units came under the operational control of the III Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF).

In Vietnam, the nature of the war changed the organization of Marine units.  Since the conflict in Vietnam was often fought at or below the battalion level, one or more battalions of a regiment were frequently fighting under the operational control of another regiment.  As an example, a regiment exercising operational control of two or more battalions belonging to another regiment could enlarge its operations to that of a brigade.  In the summer of 1965, the 4th Marine Regiment exercised operational control over its own first and second battalions, but also 3/3 and 3/12 and their supporting elements.  The 3rd Marines, meanwhile, had operational control over 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.

Combat for the 4th Marines in Vietnam arrived on 19 April when 3/4 (assigned Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) of Hue City and Phu Bai) defenses were probed by communist forces.  Two days later, 1/4 and 2/4 (assigned responsibility for Chu Lai) also experienced light probing attacks.  Vigorous patrolling operations were implemented almost immediately. Such activities were variously called security patrols and “search and clear” operations.  They were later expanded to include security operations for other than military installations, and these in turn expanded to a full measure search for the enemy so that he could be destroyed (search and destroy operations).

Combat in Vietnam was limited by its weather, terrain, and the nature of an elusive enemy.  Marines (indeed, all ground forces) were beset with guerrilla warfare tactics, including anti-personnel mines, booby traps, and ambushes combined with the placement of punji-sticks (sharpened sticks dipped in human excrement) —all designed to hamper the progress of Marine operations.   Before the arrival of helicopters, Marines sought out the enemy on foot, and their aggressive operations kept the enemy off balance within the 4th Marines TAOR.

Op STARLITE 001The first major engagement was the regimental sized Operation Starlite —a combined amphibious and vertical assault against enemy fortified positions on the Van Tuong Peninsula, 15 miles south of the Chu Lai air base.  2nd Battalion, 4th Marines was air-lifted into the jump-off point on 18 August 1965 and began a drive to the sea to block off any escape route.  Within nine days, the 1st Viet Cong Regiment was decisively defeated.  The operation prevented the VC from attacking the Chu Lai air base.

In addition to engaging the enemy in small-unit actions, the 4th Marines participated in several major operations in Vietnam, some of these conducted in phases over extended periods of time.  They were Starlite, Hastings (1966), Prairie (1966-67), Deckhouse VI/Desoto (16 Feb-3 Mar 1967), Prairie IV (April-May 1967), Hickory (April-May 1967), Kingfisher (July-October 1967), and Kentucky (November 1967-February 1969).  Elements of the 4th Marines also participated in Operation Jay, Lancaster II, Scotland II, Napoleon/Saline, the Battle of Dai Do (also, Dong Ha).  Most of these combat operations involved several organizations (as previously discussed), including 2/1, 3/3, 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, 2/9, 2/12, and various units of the ARVN and RVNMD [5].

The Dong Ha Combat Base (also known as Camp Spillman) was a joint Marine Corps-US Army multi-purpose base along Route 9 in northwest of Quang Tri in central Vietnam.  The base was first used by 3/4 in late April 1966.  In late May 2/4 was deployed to Dong Ha to support Operation Reno, which was designed to render support to the ARVN forces assigned to this region.  The only US casualties during RENO involved a USAF team of six radar technicians who were ambushed and killed on 5 June 1966.  The Commanding Officer of 2/4 (LtCol P. X. Kelly [6]) offered to provide security for the radar team before it departed from Dong Ha, but this offer was refused.

Beginning in mid-July, Dong Ha also served as a Marine Corps helicopter base of operations for flight detachments of HMM-163 (December 1966-January 1967), HMM-164 (July 1966-March 1967), HMM-263(August 1966-April 1967), HMM-265 (April-June 1967), HMM-361 (June-November 1967), HMM-363 (April-June 1967, August-November 1967), and VMO-2 (July 1966-November 1967).  Dong Ha also served as an advance logistics base.  Army and Marine Corps artillery units used Dong Ha as a fire support base, and in October 1966, Dong Ha became the forward headquarters of the 3rdMarDiv; several operations (listed above) were initiated from the Dong Ha Combat Base. During 1968, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) made repeated attacks against Dong Ha, on one occasion destroying its ammunition depot.  In each attack, NVA forces experienced heavy casualties.

There were many accomplishments of the 4th Marines in Vietnam, a few of which were exceptional examples of Marines thinking outside the box.  Notwithstanding the regiment’s role in finding and killing the enemy, there was another war: the effort to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. The 4th Marines undertook civic action programs almost from the start of their arrival in Vietnam.  In May 1965, the regiment distributed nearly 1,000 pounds of clothing to the villagers at Chu Lai—clothing that had been collected by the dependents of these Marines in Hawaii and sent directly to the regiment. Marines also pitched in with “self-help” projects in Chu Lai and Hue City designed to improve the living conditions of the villagers: digging wells, road-grading, clearing home sites.  The Golden Fleece program aided villagers in the harvesting of rice, protecting them from harassment by the Viet Cong, and protecting the crop from confiscation by local VC thugs.

Operation County Fair was a program that originated within the 4th Marines (with the blessings of the Commanding General, FMF Pacific, LtGen Victor H. Krulak).  Its purpose was to pacify select villages known to harbor elements of the Viet Cong.  3rd Battalion, 4th Marines initiated a Combined Action Company, and from this concept evolved the Combined Action Platoons.  In the summer of 1965, the 1st ARVN Division assigned a number of Vietnamese Popular Forces (PFs) units in the Phu Bai area to operate under the auspices of 3/4.  Integrating Marine rifle squads with PFs initially fell under the leadership and direction of First Lieutenant Paul R. Ek (then known as Joint Action Company). The concept was one way of reestablishing government control over rural villages while freeing the people from the terror and intimidation of local VC elements.  See also: Vietnam Counterinsurgency and Combined Action Platoon (in six parts).

9thMAB 001One an example of the Navy-Marine Corps ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome all obstacles were operations conducted by Amphibious Ready Group (Task Force 76.5) and Special Landing Force (Task Force 79.5) (ARG/SLF). It was a powerful and versatile formation capable of striking along the length of the South Vietnam Littoral and inland.  Initially, the ARG consisted of three to four ships, including an amphibious assault ship (LPH), and dock landing ship (LSD), an attack transport ship (APA) or amphibious transport dock (LPD), and a tank landing ship (LST).  The SLF was composed of a medium helicopter squadron (HMM), a Battalion Landing Team (reinforced with artillery, armor, engineer, and other support units as required).  The SLF came ashore either as part of an amphibious assault (sea-land) or by vertical assault (air), or both.  While at sea, Marines of the SLF came under the administrative control of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade; when gearing up for a landing, they came under the operational control of the senior Marine commander in the area of their operations.

Operation Deckhouse VI/Beacon Hill was the first major operation of 1967 for the 4th Marines.  1st Battalion, 4th Marines (1/4) had been temporarily assigned to Okinawa for rest and refit.  BLT 1/4 was directed to make an amphibious landing near Sa Huyn in the southern portion of I Corps.  The battalion stormed ashore in search of Viet Cong forces on 16 February.  Nine days later, the Marines reembarked aboard ARG shipping and within a few days made another amphibious assault 200-miles farther north, landing near Gio Linh.  After a combined operation lasting 22 days, Marines had located and killed 334 Viet Cong.  The battalion’s casualties were 29 killed, 230 wounded.

3:4 - 001 1967
BLT 3/4 clearing NVA bunkers. DoD Photo.

The northern I Corps region continued to be the scene of heavy fighting throughout the year.  All three 4th Marines’ battalions were deployed against NVA and VC main line units.  Delta Company 1/4  was hit hard at Con Tien on 8 May; following a mortar assault of some 250-rounds, two enemy battalions assaulted the Marine Company.  In spite of these overwhelming numbers, the Delta Company Marines repulsed the NVA/VC attack, and although suffering 49 killed and over 100 wounded, the Marines killed 210 communists and captured ten.  Four days later, the battalion commander was himself wounded three times in successive enemy assaults.  In each instance, the Marines soundly defeated the NVA/VC units.  CG III MAF concluded that the NVA and VC main line units were using the DMZ as a staging area for attacks against US forces.

General Cushman ordered Operation Hickory:  Six infantry battalions with artillery support assaulted the NVA 324B Division within the DMZ.  Marine units included 3/4, 2/3, 1/9, 2/9, 3/9, 2/26, and 1/12.  On the morning of 18 May 2/26 and 2/9 began an advance from Con Thien to press the NVA while 3/4 landed by helicopter on the Ben Hai river as a blocking force.  Five Marine battalions assaulted a complex of heavily fortified bunkers within the so-called demilitarized zone.  At the conclusion of Hickory, 362 additional enemy had been killed with 30 taken as POWs; Marine losses were 142 KIA and 896 WIA.  A separate operation in the area involving the 1st ARVN Division killed another 340 NVA/VC with 22 of their own killed and 122-wounded.  Combined, Operations Lam Son 54, Hickory, Belt Tight, and Beau Charger ended with the removal of the entire civilian populations.  From that point on, the DMZ and northern I Corps became a free fire zone.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the US effort in the Vietnam War would be reduced.  It was time to turn this effort over to the Republic of Vietnam armed forces.  The 9th Marines departed Vietnam in August; the 3rd Marine Division began its stand down in September.  The 4th Marines was ordered to Okinawa, 1/4 departing the combat zone on 22 October. All 3rdMarDiv units were out of Vietnam by November 1969.

The 4th Marine Regiment has a long and proud history of service to the United States of America and her people. Whatever mission assigned, the Marines of the 4th Regiment have distinguished themselves time and again through courage, devotion to one another, and unparalleled sacrifice in the completion of their mission.  Today, the 4th Marine Regiment remains part of the 3rd Marine Division and while its battalions continue to rotate in and out of global hotspots, the regimental headquarters is anchored at Camp Schwab, Okinawa.

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

[1] Readiness infers continual combat training.  During this period of time, the 4th Marines participated in training exercises in Japan, on Okinawa, and on the island of Iwo Jima.

[2] Even peacetime and training duty is hazardous in the military.  During 3/4’s deployment to Inchon, a landing craft capsized in Inchon Harbor resulting in the death of 27 Marines and two Navy Corpsmen.

[3] Kennedy told James Reston of the NYT, “Now we have a problem making our power credible; Vietnam looks like the place.”

[4] Another hair-brained scheme devised by General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow.

[5] Republic of Vietnam Marine Division  (SưĐoàn Thy Quân Lc Chiến) (1953-1975).

[6] Paul X. Kelly served as the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 July 1983 to 30 June 1987.

Hold High the Torch, Part II

The Continuing story of the 4th Marines

EGA BlackThe size and scope of Operation Iceberg —the Battle for Okinawa, given the island’s size and terrain, was massive.  Iceberg included the Tenth US Army’s XXIV Corps (four infantry divisions) and the III Marine Amphibious Corps (1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine Divisions), the Fifth US Fleet (Task Force 58, 57, and the Joint Expeditionary Force), involving a combined force of 541,000 personnel (250,000 of which were combat troops).  Tenth Army was uniquely organized in the sense that it had its own tactical air force (joint Army-Marine Corps aviation).

The Tenth Army faced 96,000 Japanese and Okinawan belligerents.  Between 14,000 to 20,000 Americans died on Okinawa; between 38,000 to 55,000 Americans received serious wounds.  Japanese losses were between 77,000 to 110,000 killed with 7,000 captured alive.  Approximately half of the entire civilian population living on Okinawa were killed out of an estimated island-wide population of 300,000.

Iceberg was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War.  The 82-day battle had but one purpose: seize the Kadena air base for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands.  The Japanese put up one hell of a fight in their defense of Okinawa but in doing so, they sealed their own fate: the ferocity of the Japanese Imperial Army convinced Washington politicians that dropping its new secret weapon (an atomic bomb) was far better than trying to take the Japanese home islands by force of arms —and costing the Americans an (estimated) additional one-million casualties.

The landing force demanded a massive armada of ships.  The Navy would have their hands full with Kamikaze aircraft from mainland Japan. The 6th Marine Division’s mission was to capture Yontan airfield in the center part of the Island.  The first assault wave came ashore at 0837, and the 4th Marines (less its 2nd Battalion, held in reserve) was among the first units to hit the beach.  What shocked the Marines was that they encountered no resistance from Japanese defenders.  Accordingly, the American advance was rapid; significant territorial gains were achieved on that first day.  In the absence of Japanese resistance, 2/4 came ashore at noon and rejoined the regiment. Yontan was taken ahead of schedule and then, according to the game plan, the 6thMarDiv turned north.  Marine progress continued unimpeded until 7 April when the Marines encountered Japanese defenders on the Motobu Peninsula.

The defense of this peninsula included several Japanese obstacles along the Marine’s likely avenues of approach. Terrain favored the Japanese. Mount Yaetake formed the core of the Japanese defense.  The mission of pacifying Mount Yaetake was assigned to the 4th Marines, reinforced by 3/29.  The 22nd Marines and the balance of the 29th Marines moved to seal off the peninsula.  There is no sense in having to fight the same enemy twice.

The 4th Marines attack commenced on 0830 on 14 April.  2/4 and 3/29 made the preliminary assault on a 700-foot ridge.  The Marine advance was bitterly contested until 16 April; it was a classic search and destroy mission but the Japanese weren’t going quietly. On 16 April BLT 3/4 was brought into the line.  Marines from Company A and Company C boldly charged through the enemy’s heavy barrage of mortar and machine gun fires to seize the crest by mid-afternoon.  Once the Marines secured and consolidated their positions, the mission continued to eliminate pockets of resistance. Combined, the two-company assault resulted in the loss of 50 Marines killed and wounded.

The 6thMarDiv pushed on and the peninsula was pacified on 20 April.  Organized resistance in northern Okinawa ended on 21 April 1945.  Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., commanding the division, declared his sector secure and available for further operations.  In the southern sector of the Island, all American progress came to a halt at the Shuri Line [1].

General Buckner ordered III Amphibious Corps (Lieutenant General Roy Geiger, commanding) to redeploy his Marines to the left of XXIV Corps; the US 27th Division replaced the 6thMarDiv in its mopping up operations.  Shepherd’s Marines were in place by 6th May.  Buckner ordered another advance and the 6thMarDiv was tasked with capturing the city of Naha.  4th Marines began their engagement on 19 May after relieving the 29th Marines, who by this time were fought-out.  It was a brutal form of war —up close and personal: Marines had to dislodge the Japanese in hand to hand combat.  By the time the 4th Marines reached Naha, they were ready to come off the line and were replaced by the 29th Marines.

Okinawa 1945
4th Marines assault on Naha, Okinawa. DoD picture from the public domain.

On 4 June, the 4th Marines assaulted the Oroku Peninsula, the location of the Naha airfield. It was an amphibious assault involving BLTs 1/4  and 2/4 under a blanket of naval gunfire and field artillery support.  BLT 3/4  came ashore a few hours later as the reserve force.  That afternoon, the 29th Marines came ashore and lined up next to the 4th regiment.  It was a slug-fest with a well-entrenched enemy; the battle lasted for nearly two weeks. Torrential rains and thick mud hampered the progress of Marines —mud and slime not even tracked vehicles could penetrate.  On 12 June, the outcome of the battle became self-evident.  The Japanese continued fighting, of course, but their back was to the water and there was no possibility of escape.  By this time, the Marines weren’t keen on taking prisoners. The 22nd Marines closed the back door by moving into a blocking position at the base of the peninsula.  The Japanese had but two choices: surrender or die. Most opted for the second option. General Shepherd informed III Amphibious Corps on 13 June that the peninsula belonged to the American Marines.

Following this battle, 6thMarDiv proceeded south to link up with the 1stMarDiv in the final engagement of the battle.  4th Marines returned to the front on 19 June and commenced their advance on the next morning.  The Marines encountered some resistance, but not much —the Japanese were fought out, too.  All organized resistance ended on 21 June 1945.  The 4th regiment’s casualties in the Battle of Okinawa exceeded 3,000 killed and wounded.  With Okinawa in American hands, the 4th Marines headed back to Guam for rest, retraining, and refit.  Everyone was thinking of the planned assault on the Japanese home islands; no one was happy about such a prospect.

US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place in early August.  I’m not sure most Marines knew what an atomic bomb was back then, but even among those who might have had an inkling I doubt whether many were remorseful.  Planners began to consider final preparations for occupation. With Japanese acceptance of the terms of surrender on 14 August, Task Force Alpha began to organize for seizure of key Japanese positions, including the naval base at Yokosuka in Tokyo Bay. The main element of Task Force Alpha was the 4th Marine Regiment.  The decision to assign the 4th Marines to this duty was a symbolic gesture to avenge the capture of the “old” 4th Marines on Corregidor.

The US 4th Marine regiment was the first American combat unit to land on the Japanese mainland.

As the Marines transitioned from transport ships to landing craft at 0430 on 30 August, they no doubt expected treachery from their war time foe.  No matter —the Marines were prepared for any eventuality.  First ashore was BLT 2/4, which landed at Cape Futtsu.  The Marines were the first foreign invasion force ever to set foot on Japanese soil.  Upon landing, the Marines quickly neutralized shore batteries by rendering them inoperable. After accepting the surrender of the Japanese garrison, BLT 2/4 reembarked to serve as a reserve force for the main landing at Yokosuka.  BLTs 1/4 and 3/4 landed at around 0900; 3/4 seized the naval base, and 1/4 took over the airfield.  Demilitarization of all Japanese installations was initiated as a priority; it would be better not to have loaded weapons in the hand of a recently conquered army.  For all of that, all landings were unopposed.  Japanese officials cooperated with the Marines to the best of their ability.

Task Force Alpha was disbanded on 21 September 1945 and all 6thMarDiv units were withdrawn from Japan —except one.  The Fourth Marines were placed under the operational control of the Eighth Army and the regiment was assigned to maintain the defense of the Yokosuka naval base.  This included providing interior guard and the disarming Japanese (who appeared in droves to surrender their weapons).  This duty continued until November.  President Truman had ordered rapid demobilization of the US Armed Forces. Operational control of the 4th Marines passed from Eighth Army to Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific on 20 November. At the end of the month, BLT 1/4 was ordered to proceed to Camp Pendleton, California, where it was deactivated on 29 December 1945.  The regiment’s remaining elements (except for the regimental headquarters and BLT 3/4) departed Japan on 1 January 1946.  These units were deactivated at Camp Pendleton on 20 January.  BLT 2/4 was deactivated on 31 January 1946.  BLT 3/4, still in Japan, was deactivated at Yokosuka and these Marines formed the core of a newly created 2nd Separate Guard Battalion.  They would remain in Japan to guard the naval base.

4th Marines return to China, 1945. DoD Photo from Public domain.

Headquarters 4th Marines departed Japan on 6 January for Tsingtao, China.  After four years, The China Marines had returned from whence they came.  In China, 4th Marines headquarters was re-attached to the 6th Marine Division, but the regiment really only existed on paper until 8 March 1946.  On that date, all three battalions and weapons company were reactivated in China, a matter of shifting personnel from the 22nd and 29th Marines, which were deactivated.

Occupation duty in China presented an uneasy situation for everyone concerned.  Truman wanted a smaller military, and he wanted it now, even as Marines confronted an aggressive Communist Chinese Army in North China.  The 6th Marine Division was deactivated  on 31 March.  All remaining Marine Corps units in China were re-organized as the 3rd Marine Brigade. The core element of the 3rd Brigade was the 4th Marine Regiment.  Initially, 4th Marines was the only Marine Corps regiment to retain its World War II combat organization of three battalions.  Then, on 10 June 1946, the 3rd Marine Brigade was also deactivated; operational control of the 4th Marines was transferred to the 1stMarDiv.

Truman’s reductions kept the Marine Corps in a constant state of flux.  In the second half of 1946, the 4th Marines (less its 3rd Battalion) was ordered back to the United States.  BLT 3/4 was placed under the operational control of the Commander, Naval Port Facilities, Tsingtao.  Meanwhile, the regiment’s arrival at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina on 1 October was the first time the 4th Marines had set foot inside the United States in twenty years.  As most of its veterans were discharged or reassigned, the regiment was once more reduced to a paper tiger.  In May 1947, the 1st Battalion was reactivated.  BLT 3/4, which was still in China was deactivated.  In November 1947, 4th Marines lost its traditional structure and became a four-company size organization: Headquarters Company, Company A, Company B, and Company C.  This significantly reduced structure remained in place for the next two years.  Even so, these rifle companies participated in a number of post-War exercises in the Caribbean.

In September 1948, what was left of the 4th Marines was again sent overseas aboard vessels of the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.  Cold War antagonism between the Soviet Union and United States threatened to erupt into a full-scale war.  By this time, President Truman may have realized that downsizing the US Department of Defense [2] while at the same time challenging the power of the Soviet Union wasn’t a very good idea.  Suddenly realizing the ominous consequences of a Soviet-dominated Europe, Truman began sending military and economic aid to nations menaced by Communist aggression.  Truman also decided to maintain a US presence in the Mediterranean to help ease the pressure on such countries as Greece and Turkey.  In furtherance of this policy, the Marine Corps maintained a battalion landing team (BLT) as part of the Mediterranean fleet.  The 4th Marines was re-activated from this BLT beginning in September 1948 and lasting until January 1949.  America’s “show of force” included a landing at Haifa, Palestine in October.  This detachment was ordered to proceed to Jerusalem to perform temporary guard duty at the American Consulate.

A few months after returning to the United States, the 4th Marines deployed to Puerto Rico for training exercises.  The regiment was once again deactivated on 17 October 1949.  Less than one year later, the military weakness of the United States along with other Truman administration blunders encouraged the North Koreans to invade the Republic of South Korea.

Next week: From Harry Truman’s War to the Streets Without Joy

Sources:

  1. Organization of the United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reference Publication (MCRP) 5-12D. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 2015.
  2. Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the Fourth Marines.  Washington: U. S. Marine Corps Historical Division, 1970

Endnotes:

[1] The Shuri-Naha-Yanabaru Line was a defensible series of positions held by the Japanese Imperial Army. It was so formidable, in fact, that during the contest, Marine Corps Commandant suggested that Tenth Army commander General Simon B. Buckner consider using the 2ndMarDiv in an amphibious assault on the southern coast of Okinawa, thereby outflanking the Japanese defenses.  Buckner rejected the proposal, which left only one strategy: frontal assault.

[2] The Department of Defense was created through the National Security Act of 1947, a major restructuring of the US military and intelligence agencies.  This act merged the War Department (renamed as Department of the Army) and Navy Department into the National Military Establishment, headed by the Secretary of Defense.  It also created the Department of the Air Force and United States Air Force and established the United States Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.

Vietnam Counterinsurgency

Phoenix 001Designed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Phoenix program evolved into a cooperative effort between US, South Vietnam, and the Australian military.  It was designed to identify and destroy Communist Viet Cong infrastructure through infiltration, capture, interrogation, and assassination.  This all may sound hideous now, but in the late 1950s and the next ten years, some of the worst abominations were committed against innocent peasants by the Viet Cong.  To stabilize the South Vietnamese government, it was necessary to find out who these people were, and deal with them.

This is precisely what the Phoenix program did.  By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized a bit under 82,000 suspected Viet Cong operatives, informants, and shadow-government cadres.  Sounds bad, I suppose.  Yet, at the same time, Viet Cong murdered 34,000 South Vietnamese village officials, innocent by-standers, and district or provincial civil servants.  As soon as the NVA and VC units had seized Hue City in 1968, they immediately began rounding up and killing civil servants, priests, teachers, any foreigner they could find, and anyone found at the US Special Forces compound.

History doesn’t change, only man’s perceptions of it.  Those who have never placed themselves in harm’s way are quick to criticize the program’s methods and results, never thinking what a blight upon humanity the Viet Cong were.  And by the way, I was in Vietnam in 2012; the deportment of Vietnamese uniformed personnel toward any and all foreigners hasn’t changed from the days when NVA and VC contemptuously beheaded fallen soldiers and marines.  The communists were then, and remain now, pure evil.

The main players in the Phoenix program were the CIA (in a supervisory role), USMACV (both military and civilian agencies), the government of South Vietnam, and the Australian special forces.  Speaking of this today, there appears three points of view: (1) Phoenix was a low-cost, well-coordinated, targeted effort to eliminate a ruthlessly vile enemy; (2) It was a counterinsurgency program run amok, and (3) A balanced analysis of historical fact.

Let’s take a look at it—because there are consequences to every human decision.  In history, we sometimes refer to these decisions and their resulting actions as “causes and effects.”  There may be one or more causes of an event, and these may produce any number of effects. Whenever we make important decisions, we hope (and sometimes pray) that there are no unintended consequences.  It does happen—and while there is not a lot we can do once Pandora’s box is opened, we should at least learn important lessons from our foopahs.

Background

A sense of nationalism (national and cultural unity) began in Vietnam around 3,000 years ago—at a time when the Vietnamese lived in two independent kingdoms.  Since then, the Vietnamese have constantly rejected (often through war) foreign meddling by the Chinese, Champs, Khmers, Siamese, French (twice), Japanese, internal civil strife, and then finally, the Americans.

Before World War II, Vietnam was colonized and brutalized by France.  By the time the Japanese enveloped Indochina, France was an ally of Japan and Germany.  Throughout Japanese occupation, an official French presence remained in Hanoi (even if it was ignored by the Japanese).  In September 1945, the Japanese Empire was defeated.  France quickly moved to recover its former colony. Vietnamese Nationalists had a different preference.

One of these nationalists was a communist named Ho Chi Minh (not his real name).  He wasted no time announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  It was a short-lived republic, however.  Nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces sided with the anti-communist Vietnamese who, having had enough slavery under French colonialism, rejected slavery under a communist regime.  Anti-communist Vietnamese were well-aware of what Stalin did to the Russian people between 1924 and 1945.

Vietnam held its first national assembly election in 1946.  Central and northern Vietnamese favored the communist ticket [1], those living in the south —not so much.  Then, France attempted to reclaim its previous authority by force —an unpopular move among many (but not all) Vietnamese.  It was the beginning of the First Indochina War and it lasted until 1953.

After the French defeat in 1953, the United States stepped in to help broker an agreement that would bring peace to the region.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation.  Ho Chi Minh ruled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north from Hanoi, and Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the Republic of Vietnam in the south from Saigon.

Between 1953 and 1956, North Vietnam instituted oppressive reforms.  Witness testimony from those living in the north suggested a government run assassination campaign that produced a murder ratio of one for every 160 residents.  If true, then the North Vietnamese regime murdered upwards of 100,000 people.  Today we think this number is a bit high, but it is true that an awful lot of people were brutalized and murdered.

As Ho Chi Minh crushed his people in the north, Ngo Dinh Diem crushed his people living in the south, carrying out murderous campaigns against political and religious opponents.

Today we can conclude that America’s involvement in South Vietnamese affairs was a massive mistake, but we should remember that there were other things going on in the world. President Truman had a lot of irons in the fire after 1946, and he wasn’t all that bright to begin with. The United States became involved with Vietnam as a consequence of its trying to convince France to relinquish its former colonies and to join an emerging NATO alliance.  Ultimately, tens of millions of American tax dollars went to French Indochina and then later, to the newly created Republic of Vietnam.  It was a commitment inherited by President Eisenhower who, to his credit, refused to engage the United States militarily beyond providing arms, equipment, and a small cadre of military and civil advisors.

The Second Indochina War broke out in 1954.  It was more on the order of a civil war between the communist north and the non-communist south.  Ho Chi Minh sought to unify Vietnam under his rule.  Ngo Dinh Diem sought to unite Vietnam under his rule [2].  Vietnam entered into a period of bloody civil war and the United States became South Vietnam’s proxy much in the same way that China became North Vietnam’s source of support.  Of course, there was one difference between the two Vietnam’s: Diem focused on consolidating his power in the south; Ho Chi Minh’s ruthlessness between 1946 and 1957 solved his problem.  Not having a lot of people nipping at his heals allowed Uncle Ho to initiate a communist insurgency in the south.  There are several names for these insurgents.  We mostly remember them as Viet Cong.

The Viet Cong Insurgency

Recall that most Vietnamese from the central highlands who participated in the first national assembly (1946) threw their support behind the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the communist regime). According to the 1954 Geneva accord, the people of Vietnam could relocate to one country or the other, of their choosing, through 1956.  In the mean, the shift in populations north or south was probably even.  Around 90,000 pro-communist Vietnamese relocated to the north; 10,000 of like persuasion remained behind.  Of those migrating south, some percentage were no doubt sent into the south to agitate.

From these pro-communist factions came the Viet Cong, or more formerly, the National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army.  Their task of creating an insurgency was made easier by the fact that Diem was a tyrant [3].  It wasn’t long before the communists began a campaign of assassination and intimidation. They called it “exterminating traitors.” Another euphemism was “armed propaganda.”

The North Vietnamese Communist Party approved a people’s war on the South in January 1959.  Arms began flowing into the south along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos.  A communist command center was created, called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN).  Afterwards, with increasing frequency, communist insurgents began targeting US military and civilian advisors.  Bombings in Saigon were becoming more frequent.

The People’s War was waged primarily in the rural areas, home to a vast majority of South Vietnam’s (then) 16 million inhabitants.  Central to the task of fomenting rebellion and revolution in the countryside was what the Americans called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) —a shadow government called the People’s Revolutionary Party and the National Liberation Front. NLF subcommittees existed in secret alongside South Vietnam’s political entities at the village, district, provincial and national levels.  A key mission of VCI was providing support to local communist military units: recruitment, intelligence-gathering, logistics support, and obtaining needed funds.  To achieve this last task, the VCI imposed taxes on peasant farmers and business owners.  People who refused to pay (or were unable to pay) simply disappeared. It was quite an operation: the Republic of South Vietnam governed during the day, the VCI governed at night.

VCI success depended in large measure on its ability to break the Vietnamese peasant’s strong kinship, adherence to tradition, including literally thousands of demonstrations where the village head man was humiliated in front of his villagers to emphasize the fact that the National Liberation Front would no longer tolerate adherence to the old ways.  Officials disappeared with amazing regularity.

In 1967, VCI teams numbered as many as 100,000 willing insurgents.  Most of South Vietnam’s efforts and resources, and those of the US military, went toward combating guerrillas and main-force units.  Citizen Nguyen was caught in the middle. Something had to be done.

Counter-insurgency

US and allied efforts haven’t all been 007ish.  Beginning in the early 1960s, and with the assistance of the USA, RVN launched a series of programs to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the VC’s shadow-government. Now anyone who suggests that this was a wrong move, or inappropriate, needs a few reality checks.  I wonder what the United States would do today if suddenly an insurgency developed from within our largest (and most dangerous) cities. Slap on the wrist, perhaps?  And, as they tried to destroy the VC shadow government, they stepped up military operations against VC and NVA units. Again, how would the US react to Mexico smuggling dangerous weapons across our border and putting them into the hands of MS-13 thugs?

Here are a few of the programs implemented under the Phoenix umbrella:

(1) The Open Arms program, beginning in 1963.  It offered amnesty and resettlement to encourage defections from the VC.  Through this one program, close to 200,000 people came in and spilled their guts about the VC: who, what, where, and how.  We already knew the why.

(2) Census Grievance Program sought to interview family members to see how the government could be more responsive to the needs of average families. Actually, the questions were asked in such a way as to elicit information about VC activities in that locality.  This ploy generated more information than RVN officials could manage.  It was the time before computers.

(3) Counter-Terror Teams attempted to mirror the VC counterparts.  These individuals were organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA to perform small-unit operations within VC dominated areas.  The teams were to capture or kill members of the VCI.  Success was personality driven.  Some teams were effective, others not so much.  If one looks hard enough, it was possible to find corruption at every level of Vietnamese government and society.  It was true in 1960, its’ true today.  A lot of people died under the auspices of this program.  If someone made a mistake, well … you can’t bring them back.

As previously mentioned, the program was the brainchild the CIA, but Army Special Forces and other snake eaters loved it.  It was great fun.  Thousands of people running around killing other thousands.  But while it did reduce the number of VC (and some of the RVNs as well), it really didn’t do much for the rice farmer who just wanted everyone to leave him alone.  More to the point, Phoenix didn’t save South Vietnam, either.

The Marine Corps had a better idea —one that General Westmoreland, the MACV commander absolutely detested and fought against.  The Combined Action Program (CAP) began in 1965 as an operational initiative/counterinsurgency program whereby a Marine rifle squad of thirteen Marines and one attached U. S. Navy Corpsman was placed within or adjacent to a rural Vietnamese village or hamlet to provide security to the villagers.  The Marine squad was augmented by a Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF) squad consisting mostly of individuals too young or too old for active service with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

CAP was not a perfect counterinsurgency tool, however; there were problems:

  • Training for Marines/Navy personnel assigned to CAP was inadequate. The in-country school consisted of two weeks of orientation to Vietnamese history and culture.  Under the best of circumstances, Marine volunteers spoke only rudimentary Vietnamese, so at the very outset, there was a language deficiency.
  • Marines assigned to the CAP first served half of their 13-month in-country tour of duty with a regular rifle company. Unless these Marines “extended” their tours of duty in Vietnam, they would rotate back to the United States within six or so months.  Frequent turnovers of key personnel resulted in a lack of continuity.
  • The program was personality dependent. Squad leaders who were fully engaged and proactive in this mission helped to produce quality results within the village.  Not every NCO was detail oriented, and these kinds of situations produced villagers who would not cooperate with the Marines and, in fact, may have created the greatest danger to CAP personnel.
  • Not every village could produce a sufficient number of Vietnamese to serve in a PF contingent. Whenever villages communicated apathy to the Marines, too often the Marines developed a “to hell with it” mindset.  It was for this reason that program managers wanted only the best sergeants to serve as NCOIC of the CAP.  This didn’t always happen, however.

The genesis of the Combined Action Program/Platoon was the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940), which was developed over many years from Marine Corps experience in the Caribbean/Central America during the so-called Banana Wars.  Between 1915-1933, Marines learned how to defeat a counterinsurgency —they passed these lesson on to future generations.  Was the CAP successful?  The answer is “mostly,” but the only people who can authoritatively answer this question are those who served in Combined Action Platoons.  I’ve provided a few posts about the CAP in the past:

Go ahead and check them out. I’ll be here if you have any questions.

Sources:

  1. Combined Action Platoons: A Possible Role in the Low-Intensity Conflict Environment, Major Charles W. Driest, USMC, School of Advanced Military Studies, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1990
  2. The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency, William Rosenau and Austin Long, National Defense Research Institute, The RAND Corporation, 2009

Endnotes:

[1] Communist agents employed a wide range of strategies to secure a pro-communist referendum, including the murder of non-communist politicians and intimidation at polling stations.

[2] Lyndon Johnson told the American people that it was necessary to commit US forces in defense of South Vietnam.  It was only partially true.  The series of South Vietnamese presidents following (but also including) Diem had every intention to unify the country under his own flag.  American troops were fighting and dying in Vietnam in furtherance of this goal.

[3] Ngo Dinh Diem had unique problems in the south.  Culturally, they were fiercely independent and wanted to stay that way.  In the vacuum of repatriated Japanese, war lords began taking control of large areas of South Vietnam.  Diem acted harshly to squash these gangsters.  Ho Chi Minh never had these kinds of problems.  The people of North Vietnam were used to doing what they were told.