Shortly after authorizing ROLLING THUNDER, the president initiated an American ground war inside South Vietnam in addition to an enormous air war. The buildup began when two Marine battalions arrived at Da Nang to guard the air base there; and by June 1, 1965, the ground forces approved for Vietnam numbered 77,250. Painting a bleak picture of ARVN, Westmoreland asked for reinforcements to provide “a substantial and hard-hitting offensive capability on the ground to convince the VC that they cannot win.” Johnson asked his military advisers whether the enemy could match an American buildup. The “weight of judgment,” Chairman Wheeler responded, was that the enemy could not. The president also consulted the “Wise Men,” a bipartisan group of elder statesmen who seconded the military in recommending an expanded war. And McNamara believed the only options were to withdraw and be humiliated, continue the same failed strategy, or expand the effort, with the latter option presenting “the best odds of the best outcome with the most acceptable cost to the United States.” Dissenting voices were few, with Under Secretary of State George Ball being a notable exception. He predicted that approving Westmoreland’s request would result in “a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces, mounting U.S. casualties, and no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation [involving the Chinese or Soviets] at the end of the road.”
Johnson chose a bigger war. In late July he authorized 50,000 more men immediately, another 50,000 by year’s end, and, implicitly, still more troops if Westmoreland needed them. Thus began the gradual increase in American military personnel inside South Vietnam that peaked at 543,400 in early 1969. By ratcheting up the war’s scale and intensity, both in the skies over North Vietnam and especially inside South Vietnam, Johnson hoped to find Hanoi’s breaking point. When the destruction reached the right intensity, he believed the enemy would negotiate on U.S. terms to avoid greater suffering.
“This is no longer South Vietnam’s war,” a White House aide wrote in a memo capturing the significance of Johnson’s decision. “We are no longer advisers. The stakes are no longer South Vietnam’s. We are participants. The stakes are ours—and the West’s.” The Communists also recognized how crucial Johnson’s decision was. In their parlance, it marked the failure of America’s “special war.” But rather than negotiate, as Hanoi had hoped, the U.S. was escalating to what North Vietnamese strategists labeled a “limited war,” sending its own forces to rescue a disintegrating ARVN. The North’s gamble that it could defeat Saigon without provoking the U.S. to increase its involvement had failed. America’s escalation compelled the Communists to undertake a strategic reevaluation. During centuries of intermittent warfare the Vietnamese had expelled the Chinese, thrice repelled Kublai Khan’s Mongols, and then whipped France. Now confronting another powerful adversary, they sought to defeat it through revolutionary (or people’s) war, which was neither guerrilla warfare nor conventional warfare, though it incorporated features of both. The Vietnamese embraced a “war of interlocking” in which “the regular army, militia, and guerrilla forces combine and fight together.”
At the apex of the enemy’s military structure was PAVN, a conventionally organized army that grew to eighteen infantry divisions and twenty independent regiments, plus armored and artillery regiments. The VC’s Main Forces, organized into battalions, regiments, and even divisions, were akin to PAVN regulars, while their Local Forces consisted of companies that operated at the province level. Beneath the Main and Local forces was the “militia,” which incorporated part-time guerrillas; self-defense forces that included older people, women, and youths; and secret self-defense forces that were identical to self-defense forces except they lived in hamlets controlled by South Vietnam. The Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) was responsible for gathering intelligence, collecting taxes, recruiting, and conducting sabotage and assassinations. Although the U.S. military considered regular forces distinct from irregulars, Communists perceived them as complementary, like yin and yang, a union of opposites with a synergistic effect that made their combined power greater than either of them alone.
The Vietnamese made no distinction between political and military struggle (dau tranh); the relationship between the two struggles was symbiotic, with political dau tranh being the anvil and military dau tranh the hammer. Their interweaving of political and military dau tranh and their willingness to forego tidy strategic formulas fascinated one American general who observed that the VCNVA conducted “a different kind of war” in each province. One might be relatively peaceful as the enemy stressed political dau tranh, while simultaneously conventional warfare convulsed a neighboring province and guerrilla conflict simmered in another. To the Vietnamese no distinction existed between civilians and combatants, so they enlisted not just battle-age men but women, children, and old folks. One study concluded that women commanded 40 percent of all PLAF regiments, while children served as lookouts, built booby traps, and flung grenades.
Ho and his followers understood that a protracted war might be necessary: Nurturing political support took time, and a powerful adversary was not quickly defeated. But they reasoned that time was on their side since the U.S. had no compelling national interest to fight in Vietnam, while they did. Their goal was to deflate America’s “aggressive will,” to win a political and psychological victory that made the U.S. unwilling to continue fighting. Avoid losing long enough and inflict a drip, drip, drip of casualties, and over time the U.S. would accept defeat.
As a result of their strategic debate the Communists decided to match the U.S. escalation, with the objective of bogging their foes down in a protracted struggle and creating a stalemate that sapped American (and South Vietnamese) morale. Hanoi directed much of its effort to convincing the U.S. that its “limited war” had failed. For the U.S. to win it would have to escalate dramatically, possibly igniting a “general war” involving the Chinese or Soviets. When confronted with a choice between “general war” or de-escalation, most enemy strategists presumed America would choose the latter.
While the adversary wrestled with its strategic options, and with reinforcements on the way, Westmoreland formalized a “Concept of Operations” outlining a three-phase victory plan. Initially the U.S. and its allies would halt the losing trend by year’s end. During Phase Two, spanning the first half of 1966, they would assume the offensive, destroying enemy units in high-priority areas. Phase Three entailed the enemy’s nearly complete destruction by the end of 1967, thus allowing U.S. troops to begin withdrawing. As so often happened, a seemingly good plan did not withstand the test of combat.
Westmoreland’s troop buildup went slowly, with one hindrance being logistical support. Problems began in the U.S., where the production base operated at a low level in 1965. As the war geared up, production lagged behind demand, partly because most strategists assumed the war would be over no later than 1967; due to the lead times involved, many manufacturers feared production would peak just as the war wound down. For some specialized items only a single source existed, and often it could not increase production fast enough to meet requirements. Labor strikes in 1967 at key industries further delayed production, and many industries considered consumer goods more profitable than supplying the military. Critical items such as M-16A1 rifles and M-107 self-propelled gun tubes always remained in short supply.
In Vietnam the U.S. had to build a logistics infrastructure, which eventually included six deep-water ports, seventy-five tactical airfields, twenty-six hospitals, a road network, and several dozen permanent base facilities, from scratch. Despite the activation of the 1st Logistical Command in April 1965 to oversee the effort, requirements often overwhelmed the military’s ability to transport, unload, and distribute supplies. Because the government kept the Military Sea Transportation Service small so that private industry could profit during wartime, MSTS employed hundreds of ships from the merchant marine and the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Mobilizing these ships took time, and even when ships were available port facilities in Vietnam were so limited, and lighters and warehouses so few, that at times dozens of ships waited at anchor to unload, accumulating demurrage charges of from $3,000 to $7,000 per day per ship. Crews frequently unloaded supplies in advance of a system to receive them, preventing the establishment of orderly management procedures. In 1965 the Army was automating its supply system, but a lack of computers and skilled technicians meant using a manual system in Vietnam, which the supply volume overwhelmed. Since MACV did not establish a theaterwide standard of living, each commander strove to give his soldiers the highest possible level of comfort; many units overordered everything from ammunition to ice cream. A tsunami of supplies, much of it resulting from duplicate requisitions and thus unneeded, poured over the port facilities. Some items that arrived in 1965 were still in depots in 1968, never having been identified and cataloged and therefore unusable. Worried that rising costs undermined support for the war, Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson implored MACV to control supply expenditures.
A second factor constraining the buildup was manpower mobilization. All the Pentagon’s war plans were contingent upon calling up the Reserves and National Guard, whose units included logistical and engineering skills that would have eased, though not eliminated, the logistics imbroglio. But the president refused to authorize mobilization. Doing so during Korea and the 1961 Berlin crisis elid public outcries and sapped morale. Also, Johnson could mobilize the Reserves only by requesting a congressional resolution or declaring a national emergency. The former might provoke an acrimonious debate and make a commitment to South Vietnam more difficult. As for a national emergency, it permitted only a one-year mobilization; since Westmoreland expected the war to last longer than that, a call-up was of limited utility. Mobilizing was such a dramatic step that it might increase tensions with the Chinese and Soviets. Finally, Westmoreland assured the president he could win the war without mobilization, and the JCS concurred; when McNamara asked the chiefs in late 1966 whether they favored a Reserve call-up, each said no. For the most part the Guard and Reserves remained safe havens from the war for well-connected men, mostly white and college educated.
Johnson’s decision not to mobilize meant the U.S. fought with an army of draftees and draft-inspired volunteers—60 percent of “volunteers” enlisted to avoid conscription. In general, the Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force (the safest services) and, with some exceptions, the Marines, relied on volunteers; the Army was dependent on draftees and draft-inspired enlistees. Drafting men and converting them into soldiers took time; creating specialist units, such as engineering and communications, took even longer. Since far more men reached draft age between Korea and Vietnam than the armed forces needed, the Selective Service System had liberalized deferments and imposed exacting mental and physical standards for service, which ensured a high rejection rate. Average inductions between 1955 and 1964 were 100,000 per year, but they now rose to approximately 300,000 annually, as the armed forces expanded from 2.7 million in 1965 to 3.5 million by mid-1968. Almost 27 million men reached draft age between 1964 and 1973, and 60 percent of them escaped service. Out of the 40 percent who wore a uniform, only about a quarter (or 10 percent of the available male population) went to Vietnam, and of those approximately 20 percent (2 percent of the entire male age cohort) served in combat.
Through “manpower channeling” the draft encouraged young men into activities deemed essential for the nation’s health and safety, while still providing manpower for induction. Middle- and upper-class whites regularly received deferments or took active measures to avoid service. As the chairman of a Los Angeles draft attorneys panel put it, “Any kid with money can absolutely stay out of the Army—with 100 percent certainty.” They stayed in college; applied for conscientious objector status; filed appeals through lawyers, who were wildly successful because draft boards broke the law with shocking regularity; hired medical specialists who, because of the draft’s physical and mental regulations, invariably found a reason for exemption; or traveled to induction centers known for leniency, such as Seattle, where examiners divided men into those with doctor’s letters and those without, and exempted everyone with a letter no matter what it said. While draft evasion was widespread, draft resistance on moral principles was limited.
Despite the endemic evasion, at no time did a manpower shortage arise. Poorly educated, working-class men who lacked the skills and money to attend college or hire lawyers and doctors bore a disproportionate burden. During the five years of most active fighting, for every volunteer killed or wounded, nearly two draftees became casualties. Blacks bore an especially heavy burden. Although African-Americans comprised 11 percent of the population, they represented 20 percent of Army combat deaths from 1961 to 1966. The reasons for this were complex. For many African-Americans the military (aside from the Guard and Reserves) offered an escape from the unemployment that haunted them in civilian society. They often volunteered for elite units, such as airborne, since that conveyed higher status and provided an extra $55 dangerous duty pay per month; and with fewer opportunities outside the military, black men reenlisted at twice the rate as whites. The result was that in 1965 African-Americans comprised 31 percent of combat infantrymen. Beginning in 1967 the armed forces undertook measures to reduce black casualties, but at war’s end they still comprised 15.1 percent of Army casualties and 13.7 percent of total casualties.
One program that targeted disadvantaged youth was humane in theory but flawed in execution. Project 100,000 lowered entrance standards for the poor on the assumption that military service was a means to social advancement. The armed forces would rehabilitate America’s subterranean underclass by providing education and training in skills transferable to civilian life. From 1966 to 1968 Project 100,000 brought 240,000 men into the military, 41 percent of them black. Few received useful education or training, and a disproportionate number received combat-related assignments; the death rate among Project 100,000 men was twice the overall rate.
Lack of widespread international support was a third factor that, at least to a modest extent, limited the buildup. Johnson instituted a “Many Flags” program to entice other countries to reinforce ARVN and MACV. It turned out to be a “Few Flags” program. Although a political disappointment for the Johnson administration, the failure to attract more international support did not cause universal dismay, since the JCS feared that large allied units would be difficult to maintain and would complicate operations inside South Vietnam. No NATO nation supported the U.S. effort; indeed, Great Britain maintained an embassy in Hanoi throughout the war, and its merchant ships were the North’s leading noncommunist traders. On the other hand, four members of SEATO—Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines—and South Korea sent combat formations. Though the number of foreign flags was small, that did not mean the allied contribution was insignificant.
Collectively, they represented a substantial reinforcement for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.
Washington’s most stalwart ideological allies were Australia and New Zealand, who were linked to the U.S. through both SEATO and the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) of 1951, which was a more binding defense treaty than SEATO. The 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment arrived in the spring of 1965, reinforced by a New Zealand artillery battery. By 1966 the Aussies had committed three battalions, or the equivalent of a full division, with supporting armor and artillery units. By far the largest allied contingent came from South Korea, ultimately consisting of the ROK Capital Division, the 9th Division, and the ROK Marine Brigade. By the end of 1965, 21,000 South Koreans were in Vietnam; a year later there were 45,000; and two years after that their numbers peaked at 50,000. In return for such a major reinforcement, the Johnson administration increased economic aid to South Korea, paid for reequipping the ROK forces that replaced the ones sent overseas, and defrayed the cost of the Koreans serving in South Vietnam. Thailand not only permitted the U.S. to construct numerous bases on its territory, which were vital in the air war over North Vietnam, but also sent an advisory mission to South Vietnam in 1966, a volunteer regiment (called the “Queen’s Cobras”) the next year, and the Black Panther Division in 1969. The Thai contribution peaked at about 11,600 troops in 1969–1970. In addition, Thai pilots flew secret combat missions over northern Laos and, again secretly, Thai artillery supported U.S. efforts in Laos. As for the Filipinos, in 1966 they dispatched the Philippines Civic Action Group of three engineer battalions; this force of slightly more than 2,000 served through 1968, was then reduced to about 1,600, and soon represented little more than a token force.
The allied contribution was not without cost. Out of the 372,853 South Koreans who served in Vietnam during the war, 4,687 were KIA and another 8,352 were WIA. Among the 46,852 Australians who deployed to South Vietnam, 494 were KIA and 2,398 were WIA. Although their contingent never reached more than 552, the New Zealanders still had 35 dead and 197 wounded. And 351 Thais died in combat.
As the buildup commenced, Westmoreland formulated his strategy. Believing “it was the basic objective of military operations to seek and destroy the enemy and his military resources,” he adopted an attrition strategy employing firepower in “search and destroy” operations to kill and wound NVA regulars and VC Main and Local Forces. U.S. forces primarily conducted these operations far away from South Vietnam’s population centers, often in remote border regions. The goal was to reach the “crossover point,” when the U.S. inflicted more casualties than the enemy could replace, insuring the VCNVA’s defeat. A brigade commander captured the Army’s belief that its technological superiority, mobility, and especially firepower would prevail when he wrote that an officer “spends firepower as if he is a millionaire and husbands his men’s lives as if he is a pauper. . . . During search and destroy operations, commanders should look upon infantry as the principal combat reconnaissance force and supporting fire the principal destructive force.” In a mirror image of MACV’s strategy, Hanoi also embraced attrition. Realizing it could not defeat the U.S. outright, it sought to inflict a steady stream of casualties—on occasion, even at substantial cost to themselves—in the belief that the mounting losses would fracture American will as it had the French. In sum, while MACV reduced the VCNVA physically, the North Vietnamese focused on destroying the South Vietnamese and Americans psychologically.