After the French left a divided Vietnam in 1955, the United States government agreed to take over the training of South Vietnam’s troops. The first military advisers found an ill equipped, poorly trained army with an officer corps that was generally inept. Advisers were embedded at every level of the ARVN and officers were sent to the United States and other nations for training. When President Kennedy took office in 1961 he increased the number of American military advisers in country. From December 1961 to the end of the following year American soldiers embedded with ARVN tripled from just over 3200 to in excess of 9000. Almost three years later, when Johnson became president, there were 16,300 military advisers in Vietnam. In 1964, the number was upped to 23,300.
Not only did the Americans find the South Vietnamese military in disarray, but the government was in trouble as well. After the coup that ended Diem’s administration by killing and him and his brother in November 1963, there were two other coups, in early 1964, also controlled by the Vietnamese military that left American officials not sure who they were dealing with. The frustration felt by officials in the Johnson administration can seen in the communications between them and the American diplomats in Saigon in 1964. (1)
In August 1964, the government in Saigon had another crisis. This time the general population rose up after General Khanh restricted civil liberties following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, causing the general to resign. Because the continual upheaval in the government in Saigon was influencing South Vietnam’s war against the Vietcong in a negative way, the Johnson administration came up with a new plan to strengthen the ARVN and the government. General William Westmoreland was appointed to command United States military forces in South Vietnam. At the same time aid was increased by $50 million. (2)
The alleged attack on an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 resulted in more calls for bombing North Vietnam. President Johnson wanted backing from the Congress to increase the military in general against the North Vietnamese and, in particular, the Vietcong in the south. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (Joint Resolution 1145, “To Promote the Maintenance of International Peace and Security in Southeast Asia” as Public Law 88–408. (78 Stat. 384) passed both houses of Congress with only two nay votes on August 7. The resolution allowed, “the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” However, the President postponed further escalation of military action until after the election in November in which he defeated Barry Goldwater.
The spring of 1965 saw a combination of bombing raids by both air forces of South Vietnam and the United States at VC and PAVN targets south of the demilitarized zone and Operation Rolling Thunder by the latter that struck targets in North Vietnam. The VC attacked American bases and military personnel in the south and yet President Johnson would not retaliate. Finally Westmoreland requested and was granted more combat troops be sent to help guard the American base at Danang.
About the same time Gen. Westmoreland, with the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that American combat troops ought to inserted into the war; one division would go to the Central Highlands and one to Saigon. (3) In the middle of November, Henry Cabot Lodge (US Ambassador to SVN) sent his weekly telegram to the president in which he referenced a battle in Central Highlands. Elements of the 1st Cavalry Division, specially 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry was landed at the base of a massif in the Ia Drang Valley, not knowing their landing zone (LZ) was adjacent to a regiment of North Vietnamese regulars. The result was a bloody battle which saw 305 Americans killed in four weeks.(4) The battle of IA Drang proved the worth of UH Huey helicopters for inserting troops directly into combat, a strategy called “Air Mobility” that was used for the rest of the war.
In all major wars United States troops had fought in previously, progress was measured by ground captured from the enemy. In Vietnam this was not the case. On the battle field, as well the evening news back in the states, the enemy’s body count marked the difference between success and failure. In cases where American troops were attacking VC soldiers, who retreated from their positions, the former did not occupy the ground they had seized permanently, but rather held it for a time, then left it for the VC to return. In the Ia Drang Valley the body count ratio 12:1. (5)
In the year following the battle in Ia Drang Valley American commanders realized they needed reinforcements to implement the “search and destroy” strategy. In January 1966 there were 180,000 troops on the ground in Vietnam. Six months later there were 300,000. By January 1967, there were almost 400.000. (6) One the problems with fighting this kind of war was that the enemy was almost invisible. During the day they would seem to be farmers cultivating the fields, not distinguished from the rest of the rural population, then at night they would turn into fighters. The VC fortified hamlets in the countryside by digging tunnels, rigged with booby traps, they could disappear into when the American or ARVN troops entered the villages. (7)
During 1966, search and destroy missions were nowhere as big as the battle in Ia Drang Valley. In Operation Cedar Falls in January 1967, United States forces attacked the village of Ben Suc, a VC command post only 40 miles north of Saigon. The Vietcong deserted the villagers, who were evacuated by the Americans, who set fire to the village after discovering supplies stored there. (8) The war escalated throughout the year with allied forces defending a base at Đák Tô.
The ARVN-American base at Đák Tô in the Central Highlands became a target for PAVN units coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in nearby Laos and Cambodia. There had been skirmishes around the base all year up until November, when the major battle took place. The North Vietnamese had dug into the hills surrounding the base forcing the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies to take the hills using flame throwers and grenades to kill the enemy and destroy their bunkers one by one. Most of the battle took place south of the base with the 503rd and 173rd Airborne Brigades and the 8th and 12th U. S. Infantry bearing the brunt of the fighting, especially on Hill 875, where the enemy suffered over 1600 killed, compared to U.S. losses of 289. (9)(10) Little did commanders of U.S. forces realize the enemy was luring them out of the cities of South Vietnam in preparation for the Tét offensive, planned for the next year.
(1) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume I, Vietnam, 1964 , passim. (https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v01)
(2) Herring, pp. 116-117.
(3) Herring,, p. 133.
(4) The best book on Ia Drang is Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, 1992. The battle is also covered in “Vietnam in HD, Episode 1, The Beginning,” starting at 28:00. (Viewer discretion is advised.)
(5) “Vietnam in HD, Episode 1, The Beginning”: 51:44.
(6) “Vietnam in HD, Episode 2, Search and Destroy (1966-1967)” : 3:43-4:14.
(7) James C. Bradford, Editor, Atlas of American Military History, p.199.
(8) James C. Bradford, Editor, Atlas of American Military History, p.202.
(9) James C. Bradford, Editor, Atlas of American Military History, p. 204.
(10) The battle on Hill 875 is covered in “Vietnam in HD, Episode 2, Search and Destroy” starting 26:00 (Viewer discretion is advised.)
For further reading
Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History, 1975. 2 volumes
David M. Barrett, Uncertain Warriors: Lyndon Johnson and His Vietnam Advisers, 1993.
Mark Bowden, Huế: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, 2017.
James C. Bradford, Editor, Atlas of American Military History, 2003.
David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, 1972.
Robert J. Hanyok, Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975, 2002.
George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 1979.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: a History, 1983.
Lifton, Robert Jay, Home from the War: Vietnam Veterans Neither Victims nor Executioners, 1973.
Langguth, A. J., Our Vietnam: the War 1954-1975, 2000.
Robert S. McNamara with Brian Van De Mare, In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, 1998.
Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, 1992.
John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and Struggle for Power, 1992.
Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, 1988.
For Further Watching:
Vietnam in HD ), 6 episodes Warning: Some scenes of combat in these videos are graphic in nature. Viewer discretion is advised.