With the previous episode of the podcast, we took a break from the narrative and had a question and answer session. Now with Episode 86, we resume our ongoing narrative about the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War. Today we finish looking at the events of 1967, and that will get us ready for the Tet Offensive next time.
This episode is dedicated to Alexei K., for making a donation to the podcast. Alexei, thank you for doing your part to keep the lights on, figuratively speaking. We’re probably going to get many new listeners while the Corona virus panic is going on, because it is still safe to listen to podcasts, as I will comment about at the end of the show; thank you for helping those listeners as well. With spring about to begin in the northern hemisphere, may you enjoy this season to the fullest. And to anyone else listening to this, I’m glad you’re here. Now let’s go to the regularly scheduled episode.
Episode 86: The Second Indochina War, Part 13
or, Prologue to Tet
Greetings, dear listeners! If you have listened to the previous episodes, you know that lately the podcast has been covering the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War in the United States, and the American War in present-day Vietnam. With Episode 84 we made it as far as the middle of 1967, and then for Episode 85 we took some time out for a question and answer session, where you the listeners decided what I would talk about. Now it’s time to return to the narrative, and finish the events of 1967!
As you heard a minute ago, this is the thirteen episode in the podcast’s series on the war. If you haven’t listened to the other twelve episodes yet, what are you waiting for? Go back to the website or app where you got this episode, and download or listen to the rest! It will take you some time, but the episodes are free! By now we have covered too much material to do a quick recap, and I trust you don’t want to start the story in the middle of it. That would be like watching “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” without watching “Star Wars: A New Hope” first. Still, there were some interruptions to the sequence of episodes, as I inserted some special episodes, so here is the rest of the series:
For the war in Vietnam, Episodes 71, 72, 73, 80, 81, 82, 83, and 84.
And for the war next door in Laos, Episodes 74, 75, 78, and 79.
If you made it this far, I assume you’re ready for today’s show. Let’s go!
In Episode 84, we saw the American strategy for the war: bring in more soldiers, more guns, more bombs, more ironmongery, until the American advantage in numbers and technology shattered communist forces, the way it had shattered the forces of the Axis during World War II. By 1967, the American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, thought he had what he needed to win, and whenever there was a firefight, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suffered more casualties than the Americans and their allies did, but the Communists showed no signs of giving up. Nor did they want to talk peace, which would have allowed the Americans to leave without achieving a victory.
Meanwhile in Hanoi, the North Vietnamese leadership, the Politburo, developed its own plans for the war. This was largely the work of Le Duan, the head of the Communist Party. Le Duan wanted to launch an offensive so big that it would throw the Americans and the South Vietnamese into “utmost confusion.” The main goal was to cause the South Vietnamese government to collapse; failing that, the offensive would convince the Americans that the war was unwinnable. He did not give the offensive a special name, but just called it, quote, “General Offensive, General Uprising.” Unquote.
There was opposition to the plan, especially from Ho Chi Minh and from Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the armed forces. Both of them felt the war was going their way, and they should not sacrifice the lives of their troops to win the war more quickly. In the end Le Duan had his way, because his opponents were ill in the summer of 1967, and they had to go abroad for medical treatment they couldn’t get at home. Giap went to Hungary in July, while Ho Chi Minh was treated in China in September. Other opponents of Le Duan’s offensive, even some decorated veterans of the war with the French, were locked up in the Hanoi Hilton, the same prison that held captured American pilots.
The initial plan for the offensive consisted of three phases. The first phase would be a series of attacks against remote outposts, in an effort to lure American and South Vietnamese troops away from South Vietnam’s cities, especially Saigon. These attacks kept the Americans busy for the rest of 1967, and in that way the North Vietnamese gained the initiative, though the Americans did not know it at the time. The second phase of the plan, what we call the Tet Offensive today, was an attack against the cities themselves by Viet Cong forces aided by North Vietnamese troops, in the hope of “liberating” as many villages, hamlets and towns as possible, thereby igniting a “general uprising” to overthrow the government of South Vietnam. That would set the stage for the third phase, a direct invasion of South Vietnam by troops and tanks coming from North Vietnam. Above all this, the ultimate goal of the offensive was to win the war while Ho Chi Minh, the founder of Indochinese communism, was alive. As an unnamed North Vietnamese officer explained it after the war, quote, “Uncle Ho was very old and we had to liberate the south before his death.” Unquote.
The first battles we will be covering today took place in Quang Tri and Thua Thien, the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam and the two provinces farthest from Saigon. US Marines and one of their partners in the war, South Korea, had nine bases between Quang Tri City and the Demilitarized Zone, which were named Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Con Thien, Cam Lo, Camp Carroll, The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Ca Lu, and Cua Viet. All of them were near Route 9, a road running from Dong Ha to the Vietnam-Laos border; we mentioned that road in Episode 79, when covering the 1971 South Vietnamese invasion of Laos.
This area had been the site of Operation Hastings in July 1966. To prevent further communist infiltration across the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, Operation Prairie was launched here in August. It lasted until the end of January 1967, with the result being that 226 Marines were killed versus 1,397 North Vietnamese killed. It was proclaimed a big success, but with hindsight, it was only a success for the short run. The enemy troops that got away fled across the DMZ to North Vietnam, where they regrouped, re-equipped themselves, and sneaked back into South Vietnam later in 1967. Thus, the Marines immediately had to follow up Operation Prairie with three operations so similar that they were given almost the same name. Operation Prairie II went on from February 1 to March 18, Operation Prairie III lasted from March 20 to April 19, and Operation Prairie IV ran from April 20 to May 17, 1967.
In the middle of all this, on April 6, Quang Tri City was attacked by 2,500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. They briefly overran and occupied the city, holding it just long enough to break into the Quang Tri provincial jail, where they freed more than 200 prisoners.
Next came the first battle of Khe Sanh, also called the Hill Fights. I introduced Khe Sanh in Episode 73, when the American base was built here. Located in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, it is in a hilly area just seven miles from the Vietnamese-Laotian border, and ten miles south of the DMZ. On April 24, North Vietnamese troops started ambushing Americans in the hills around Khe Sanh, hence the name “Hill Fights.” Over the next few days, the North Vietnamese also cut Route 9 more than once, between Cam Lo and Khe Sanh, in an effort to isolate the latter. There were also diversionary mortar, rocket and artillery attacks, on Gio Linh, Camp Carroll, and Dong Ha. The fighting went on until May 11, when the Marines drove the last of the enemy away. The casualty count was 940 North Vietnamese killed, 155 Americans killed and 425 Americans wounded. But we’re not done with Khe Sanh yet; there will be even bloodier battles here later!
Among the Marine bases, the one with the most strategic value was Con Thien, because it was less than two miles below the DMZ, and because it was on top of a hill 525 feet high; this allowed observers to look into much of the DMZ and even into North Vietnam. On May 8, the thirteenth anniversary of the fall of Dienbienphu, the North Vietnamese tried to take this outpost. They were driven off by fierce hand-to-hand combat along the base perimeter. Up until now, Americans had not been allowed in the DMZ, but as a result of the battle of Con Thien, Washington lifted this prohibition. American and South Vietnamese troops entered the Demilitarized Zone for the first time on May 18, in a series of missions called Operations Hickory, Lam Son 54, Belt Tight, and Beau Charger. Over the next eight days, they engaged in several firefights with the North Vietnamese, causing heavy losses for both sides.
More assaults on the bases near the DMZ, especially Con Thien, took place for the rest of 1967. Alas, we don’t have time in this episode to cover all the firefights, or the actions the Marines undertook to hold the bases. I’ll just give the names of the defensive operations conducted in the area: Operation Cimarron in June, Operation Buffalo and Operation Hickory II in early July, Operation Kingfisher from mid-July to the end of October, and Operation Kentucky. Operation Kentucky lasted the longest, from November 1967 to February 1969. It resulted in 520 Marines killed and 2,698 wounded, while 3,839 North Vietnamese were killed, and 117 were captured.
For the Americans, the worst part of the Con Thien siege was the second half of Operation Kingfisher, from September 11 to October 31. That period saw a massive long-range artillery duel between North Vietnamese and American guns, as the North Vietnamese fired 42,000 rounds at the Marines, and the Americans responded with 281,000 rounds and B-52 air strikes to lift the siege.
Podcast footnote: I am trying to imagine what more than a quarter million artillery shells would look like. It reminds me of a World War I photo I saw, where Allied soldiers stood around an enormous pile of shell casings, after an artillery bombardment at the battle of Verdun. End footnote.
The Marine Corps rotated battalions in and out of Con Thien every thirty days. The constant shelling and the threat of assaults took a psychological toll on the Marines; they nicknamed the base “Our Turn in the Barrel” and “the Meat Grinder”, while the DMZ came to be called the “Dead Marine Zone.”
On the political front, the US president, Lyndon Johnson, held another meeting with South Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Cao Ky, this time on the island of Guam in March. Up until now, he had supported the corrupt South Vietnamese government for the same reasons that Washington had supported anti-communist dictators in other parts of the world. His predecessors had explained that policy with these crude words, quote: “They may be sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches.” Unquote.
Podcast footnote: We will see the same US policy in action in a future episode, when we look at the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. Boy, will I have fun telling you that story! End footnote.
When Johnson met Ky in 1966, he got the impression that Ky wanted to turn South Vietnam into a US-style democracy. Now, with growing opposition to the war in the United States, Johnson felt such a transformation would solve South Vietnam’s political problems, and it would justify continued support of South Vietnam. So he told Ky that he wanted to see South Vietnam get a new constitution and hold a truly free election. He put the request in the form of a personal favor, saying, quote: “My birthday is in late August. The greatest present you could give me is a national election.” Unquote.
Work on the constitution was already underway at the time of the meeting. The main changes from the previous constitution were that it created a bicameral legislature, replaced the prime minister with a vice president, and transferred political power to the president. The election was scheduled for September 3, 1967. Nguyen Cao Ky and the latest president, Nguyen Van Thieu, were willing to run together on the same ticket, but they argued over what their roles would be, since both of them wanted to be president under the new system. Eventually South Vietnam’s generals reached a compromise, where Thieu would run for president and Ky would run for vice president; to balance them out, Ky was also put in charge of a secret military council that would shape government policy from behind the scenes.
Thieu and Ky did not rig the election, the way Ngo Dinh Diem did in 1955, but the way it was set up wasn’t fair to the other candidates. Candidates from a civilian background were disqualified if they held pro-communist or neutralist opinions; one of those banned had simply called for a cease-fire. Also, when campaigning, the candidates had to travel together on a plane loaned to them by the generals. When the election took place, 80 percent of the voters participated. As they cast their ballots, their identity cards were punched; that way those who did not vote could be accused of obeying the Viet Cong call to boycott the election.
The Thieu-Ky ticket performed much worse than expected, winning only 35 percent of the vote, and most of those votes came from districts where army officers were managing the election. Ky later wrote in his memoirs that if he had been the presidential candidate, he would have rigged the election, and won with 60 or 70 percent of the vote.
The candidate who came in second place was a creepy lawyer who no one took seriously, Truong Dinh Dzu. This character had once put up his wife as collateral for a loan, and after he was qualified as a candidate, he broke the rules by campaigning with a peace dove as his symbol, and promised negotiations with the Viet Cong if elected. He managed to get 17 percent of the vote, almost half as much as Thieu, and this was seen more as a protest against continued military rule than actual support for his platform. Thieu promptly had Dzu jailed on charges of illicit currency transactions, a crime much of Saigon’s population had gotten away with, and thus was able to become president without the need for a runoff election. Afterwards, Thieu got around the attempt to balance power between him and Ky, by finding ways to concentrate authority in his own hands. Over in Washington, President Johnson could say he had gotten the birthday present he wanted, so US aid continued to go to South Vietnam.
If President Johnson was happy with how things were going in Vietnam, General Westmoreland was not. In July 1967 he requested an additional 200,000 soldiers to be sent as reinforcements. 475,000 had been assigned to go to Vietnam by the end of 1967, so Westmoreland’s request would have boosted the US total to 675,000. In the past, President Johnson gave the general whatever he asked for; this time he only agreed to send 45,000 troops. US involvement in Vietnam has not reached its peak yet, but we’re getting close.
So far in today’s show we have mainly talked about battles near the border between North and South Vietnam. But that wasn’t the only place that saw fighting in late 1967. The communists hadn’t given up on the territory directly north and northwest of Saigon, where major battles had been fought in 1966 and early 1967. At the end of September 1967, the US 1st Infantry Division launched Operation Shenandoah II to secure and repair Highway 13, an important road running from Saigon to the Cambodian border. There was a small battle in mid-October, when two companies of the 2/28th Infantry stumbled upon a Viet Cong camp at Ong Thanh, and were ambushed by VC snipers. They succeeded in killing 56 Americans, but the Viet Cong regiment involved also suffered heavy losses and fled to Cambodia.
A more important battle came near the end of October, when the Viet Cong 9th Division gathered near the towns of Loc Ninh and Song Be. By intercepting radio traffic, South Vietnamese and American troops not only learned about the enemy buildup, but also that the Viet Cong was building a field hospital in the area. This activity couldn’t be ignored, because US Special Forces had a base at Loc Ninh, and an ally of the Americans, South Korea, had a base at Song Be. When General Westmoreland heard about these activities, he suspended some operations and ordered his subordinate to plan for a major defensive operation around Loc Ninh and Song Be. Five days later, on October 27, the Viet Cong attacked Song Be, and were driven off largely by American artillery and armed UH-1B Huey helicopters. The most effective weapons were artillery rounds with proximity fuses, designed to explode just above the trees; the defenders in their bunkers were safe from the shrapnel these rounds produced, but the Viet Cong, caught in the open, had no protection. After the battle, 135 enemy bodies were found, while the defenders suffered eight dead and 33 wounded.
Then on October 29 came the attack on Loc Ninh. At first the advantage was with the Viet Cong; they had two regiments going against 11 Special Forces soldiers, 400 Civilian Irregular Defense Group soldiers, and about 200 South Vietnamese regulars. But then on November 1 reinforcements arrived, from ARVN, the South Vietnamese army, and from the American 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division. On November 7, the Viet Cong abandoned the fight, leaving 850 dead, while the defenders in turn had lost 50.
Another place where American troops could be lured away from Saigon was the Central Highlands. Especially the western part of Kontum province, an area of jungle-covered mountains where the borders of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia meet. Here in the summer of 1967, Major General William Peers launched Operation Greeley, by bringing in troops from the US 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, along with ARVN’s 42nd Infantry Regiment, 22nd Division, and various Airborne units. They carried out search and destroy missions in July and August, and then they stopped finding North Vietnamese units, and assumed the enemy had withdrawn. But then in October the North Vietnamese returned, and built the size of their force in the area up to 6,000. They were back because currently the Ho Chi Minh Trail ended in Kontum province, and they wanted to destroy two Special Forces camps nearby, at Ben Het, about five miles east of the Cambodian border, and at Dak To, some 10 miles east of Ben Het.
To deal with the North Vietnamese buildup, General Peers directed the 3rd Battalion of the 12th Infantry and the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry to launch Operation MacArthur on November 3. He was helped by the defection of a North Vietnamese soldier, Sergeant Vu Hong, who provided key information on enemy unit locations and what they were planning. Around Dak To, the North Vietnamese had prepared elaborate defensive positions on the hills and ridges. To deal with this, massive artillery and air strikes were launched against each unit, followed by an infantry assault to secure the objective. Thus, the battle of Dak To was a series of clashes, not just one. Because of the unforgiving terrain, some of the most difficult fighting in the whole war took place here. For the Americans and South Vietnamese, the worst incident came on November 12, when rockets and artillery destroyed two C-130 Hercules transports and detonated the base’s ammunition and fuel depots, causing the loss of 1,100 tons of ordnance. Then came an especially tough clash from November 19 to 23; during those five days the two sides fought over a single hill, called Hill 875. At the end of November the North Vietnamese withdrew into Laos and Cambodia, and the campaign ended.
Podcast footnote: I said previously in the podcast that I am old enough to remember the Vietnam War. To be exact, I remember the latter part of it, from 1967 onward. The oldest event from the war I remember hearing on the news was the battle of Dak To. Because I was eight years old at the time, Dak To, like Vietnam itself, was only a name to me; it wasn’t until a few years later that I learned what they meant. “And that’s the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite used to say. End footnote.
My sources disagreed on the number of casualties at Dak To, except to say that again the communists got the worst of it. I’ll go with Wikipedia’s numbers here; it states that 361 Americans were killed, and 1,441 were wounded, while among the South Vietnamese, 73 were killed, 290 were wounded, and 18 were missing. Estimates of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong dead range from 1,000 to 1,664, and the wounded were somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000. The US military command in Vietnam, MACV, later declared that of the four North Vietnamese regiments that fought at Dak To, three were so badly battered that they did not take part in the Tet Offensive of early 1968.
Three members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Pfc. John A. Barnes III, Pfc. Carlos Lozada, and the unit chaplain, Maj. Charles J. Watters, all posthumously received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle.
General Westmoreland gave credit to both air power and the infantry for winning the battle. Quote: “Along with the gallantry and tenacity of our soldiers, our tremendously successful air logistic operation was the key to the victory.” Unquote.
Speaking of Westmoreland, he was only in Vietnam for the first part of the battle of Dak To. In mid-November President Johnson called him back to America to give some talks concerning the war. Westmoreland didn’t want to go on a public relations tour, but he obeyed orders. The trip was carefully planned to avoid putting him in front of critics of the war. Instead, he attended a White House banquet with members of Congress who had supported the war before, but were wavering now. Here and at his other stops, Westmoreland gave the perfect optimistic message. At the Pentagon he said, quote, “The ranks of the Viet Cong are thinning steadily,” unquote, while to the National Press Club he promised, quote, “We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view.” Unquote. Johnson said the same thing after Westmoreland’s appearance at the White House, when he went on TV and told the American people, quote, “We are inflicting greater losses than we’re taking…We are making progress.” Unquote.
President Johnson spent the last days of 1967 on a world tour to meet with the leaders of friendly nations. Going to Australia first, he then made a stop in Vietnam on December 23, where at Cam Ranh Bay he was greeted by a crowd of cheering US servicemen. To them he gave another upbeat message. Quote: “…all the challenges have been met. The enemy is not beaten, but he knows that he has met his master in the field.” Unquote. Then he met briefly with Westmoreland, before moving on to a US base in Thailand. This was the President’s second and final trip to Vietnam during his presidency.
The battles at Song Be, Loc Ninh and Dak To encouraged Westmoreland and other American military officials to believe that at long last the enemy was trying to use conventional tactics. Westmoreland said as much during his US tour. In a Time Magazine interview, General Westmoreland taunted the Viet Cong, saying, quote, “I hope they try something because we are looking for a fight.” Unquote.
Little did he know that the communists were preparing for that fight. If Westmoreland felt he had them in the right place, Vo Nguyen Giap felt the same way about the Americans. Although Giap had lost the so-called “border battles,” he had succeeded in pulling the Americans and their allies out of the cities, and into the countryside. Now when the upcoming 1968 offensive took place, it would be possible to inflict more damage in the cities.
When our narrative reached the end of 1965 and 1966, I gave some statistics on the war at that date. Now here are the wartime statistics for the end of 1967. US troop levels reached 463,000, and there have been 16,000 combat deaths among them so far. More than a million American soldiers have rotated through Vietnam; draftees did a one-year term before returning to the United States, and most of the Americans going over served in support units, rather than doing combat duty. An estimated 90,000 soldiers from North Vietnam infiltrated into the South via the Ho Chi Minh trail in 1967. Overall Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troop strength in South Vietnam is now estimated at up to 300,000 men.
Since were are at the end of a year in our narrative, this is a good place to break off the narrative for today. For all of this episode I have been leading up to the Tet Offensive, one of the most important events of the Second Indochina War. Next time we will look at the Tet Offensive, so join me for that. Some people consider it the turning point of the war; do you agree with that statement? And if we get far enough, we will also see how the war affected the United States, by bringing down the Johnson presidency.
If you have paid attention to any news stories lately, you have heard that the whole world is panicking over the Corona virus. As I record this, social events are being canceled or postponed left, right and center, to keep people from being exposed to the virus. To give two examples, schools are switching to online classes, if possible, and the rest of the basketball season – professional, college and even high school basketball – has been canceled. I live in a community that is preoccupied with college sports, especially college basketball, so I know this is going to bring a new meaning to the term “March Madness.”
Personally, I’m beginning to think the virus scare is getting blown out of proportion, when I hear people are emptying store shelves of hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and some have stopped drinking Mexican beer, just because it’s named Corona. I am 61 years old, and during those years I have survived the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, AIDS, the line-up of the planets in the 1980s, multiple announcements of the coming of the Messiah, mad cow disease, Y2K, anthrax, swine flu, bird flu, SARS, the Mayan calendar business in 2012, Ebola, and Justin Bieber.
Now where can you get learning and entertainment at a time like this? Online, of course! As long as you keep your computer or mobile device clean, the only viruses you have to worry about are computer viruses, and you shouldn’t pick up those from any app or website that carries this podcast. So now is the time, more than ever, to support and promote your favorite podcast! And I just heard today that while the virus scare is going on, some Internet service providers won’t disconnect people who are behind in paying their bills. Therefore you should listen and download as much as you like, and don’t worry about how much bandwidth you’re using!
But seriously, if you are getting something out of this podcast and you can afford to support it, please consider making a donation. Lately the number and amount of the donations has been down, so if you have been waiting for a good time to donate, perhaps that time is now. Donations are secure and done through Paypal. Go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button at the bottom of the page, the one that says “Donate.” If you have been getting your episodes from iTunes or some other place besides Blubrry, the website is spelled like “blueberry,” but with no “Es.” So here is the spelling of the URL for the podcast’s homepage: Https://, no wwws, B-L-U-B-R-R-Y, dot-com, forward slash, H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A, forward slash. The last letters are a abbreviation of “History of Southeast Asia,” of course. Thanks in advance for your support.
For those who would rather give a little bit every month, sort of like a subscription, recently I also set up a Patreon page. Since the last episode we have gained a new patron, bringing the number up to four, and this week, at the suggestion of a listener, I added a fourth tier to the ranks of patrons, for those who want to give $10 a month. Thanks to all four of you; you’re wonderful people!
In the past I told you to write a review of the podcast on the website or app where you get your podcasts, and to “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, if you haven’t already. By all means continue to do that. I also want you to keep promoting the show by word of mouth. You may have fewer contacts with other people during the virus scare, but opportunities may still come up. If you hear someone complain that there is nothing to do, say “I know a great podcast to listen to,” and add your own words after that. And if you’re on social media more because you’re interacting less in the real world, promote the podcast there when you get the chance. Okay, that’s all for now. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!