This article originally appeared at counterpunch.org.
To mark the 50th Anniversary of the 1968 Têt Offensive, CounterPunch is serializing Wilfred Burchett’s Vietnam Will Win(Guardian Books, New York, 1968) over the next few weeks. Readers can judge for themselves the validity of the facts, observations, analysis, conclusions, predictions and so on made by the author. The books is based on several visits to the Liberated Zones controlled by the National Liberation Front (‘Viet Cong’) of South Vietnam in 1963-64, 1964-65 and in 1966-67 and close contacts with the NLF leadership, resistance fighters and ordinary folk. Wilfred Burchett’s engagement with Vietnam began in March 1954, when he met and interviewed President Ho Chi Minh in his jungle headquarters in Thai Nguyen, on the eve of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. He was also on intimate terms with General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and most of the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during the country’s struggle against French colonialism and American imperial aggression. Wilfred Burchett was not writing history as a historian, with the benefit of hindsight, access to archives etc. He was reporting history as it was unfolding, often in dangerous places. He was an on-the-spot reporter, an eyewitness to history. In his reporting, he followed his own convictions, political and moral. The book he wrote after his first two visits to the Liberated Zones, Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerilla War (International Publishers, New York, 1965) concludes with this short sentence: “The best they [the Americans] can do is to go home.” Vietnam Will Win confirms that.
Unfortunately, it took another seven years (1968-75) of death and devastation – and the extension of the war into Cambodia and Laos – for the U.S. to finally leave Vietnam in ignominy in April 1975. So here, chapter by chapter, Wilfred Burchett exposes the futility of fighting a people united in their struggle for independence, liberty and unity. It also explains, soberly and factually, why they were winning and how they won.
George Burchett, Hanoi
Politics of Strategy
“The political situation in the villages surrounding the target was very favorable,” said Huynh Minh, a sharp featured, wiry man. While talking he was stabbing a bamboo pointer at a large map hung on a tree to indicate an oval shaped area surrounding a large air base-an area in which villages were huddled together so closely and in such a pattern that on the map they looked like tank traps.
“Everyone hated this base,” he continued.
“It was to build it that their original villages had been destroyed, simply razed to the ground-orchards, bamboo, tombstones, everything swept flat as a paddy field, because the Americans wanted another 740 acres of land to extend the airfield and widen the road leading to it. More than 35,000 peasants were expelled from their homes and ancestral villages and herded into about a hundred ‘strategic hamlets’ located around the outer perimeter of the base. The Americans’ idea was that they would serve as human barriers against any possible infiltrations. The ‘strategic hamlets’ were ‘protected’ by a ring of 70 military posts and together they were considered the first line of defense guarding the base. After that, there were five rows of barbed wire, minefields, armored car patrols, sentries with dogs and what the Americans considered impregnable defenses.
“But the people behind the barbed wire of the ‘strategic hamlets’ were boiling with rage. They had waged a furious political struggle to save their villages but in vain. Escorted by troops and tanks, they were taken off, village after village, and put behind barbed wire. A lot of the younger men, including myself, saw that further political protest alone was useless. We took off for the jungle with whatever weapons we could lay our hands on, mainly hoes and knives. In the jungle, we sharpened lengths of bamboo into spears and we used these to stage small ambushes to get arms. Once we had a few firearms, we sent word back into our villages, and more and more young men came out…
“Later on we infiltrated cadres into the villages. They were our own people who were received and protected as sons and brothers, as often they literally were. Instead of being barriers against infiltration, the ring of ‘strategic hamlets,’ with the aroused political consciousness of the people inside, became the greatest factor in making infiltration possible. With the help of old women selling cakes, shoeshine boys polishing officers’ boots, children picking flowers and village youth press ganged into the army and serving inside the base, we gradually built up a complete picture, from exact sketches of the aircraft parking areas and the different categories of planes to the location of minefields and the habits of the sentries.
“Literally hundreds of people had taken part in the work which went on for weeks. But not a word had leaked out. That the enemy never suspected a thing is also a tribute to the high political level of the people, and this was directly related to the bitterness and hatred felt toward the U.S. invaders, especially once the political cadres explained things to them. Their bitterness was increased by the fact that every few minutes they saw and heard planes roaring off the runways to attack their compatriots. It was from here that, for months previously, planes had been taking off to spray poison chemicals on fields and orchards just beyond the perimeter villages and that a terrible attack ‘by mistake’ had been made on a fleet of sampans, killing more titan 400 fishermen. Everyone in the village knew of these things. So when the moment came for us to strike, it was the people of the so-called ‘barrier areas’ that passed us through the first line of defense…”
A few weeks previously Huynh Minh had led a band of guerrillas to unleash a mortar barrage on the pride of the U.S. bomber fleet in South Vietnam, squadrons of B-57 bombers parked wingtip to wingtip on the mighty Bien Hoa air base, just 15 miles north of Saigon. It was just before midnight, and they picked off one after another of the huge bombers, which exploded in enormous spouts of flames and black smoke. At the time, it was the greatest “air victory” in military history. What air force could knock down at least 27 aircraft, 20 of them giant B-57 bombers, within 15 minutes without the loss of a plane or a man? Twenty-seven aircraft destroyed and $15 million damage was the official U.S. figure. NLF reports gave a far higher figure: 58 planes destroyed or damaged. The 36 completely destroyed included 21 B-57s, 11 Skyraiders, one U-2 “spy plane” and three helicopters. At the time of the NLF attack – October 31, 1964 – it was an absolute secret that B-57s were being used in South Vietnam. Even usually well-informed Saigon correspondents did not know that B-57s were based at Bien Hoa until the attack. Several of them later confirmed to me that the total of planes destroyed or damaged was much closer to the NLF figures than the official one. In any case, after that one devastating attack, B-57s virtually disappeared from Vietnamese skies, and when the Americans shortly afterward started using the eight engined B-52s they were careful not to base them on Vietnamese soil. They based them in “sanctuaries” on Guam and in Thailand.
“Due to help from the local population,” continued Huynh Minh, “we withdrew without the loss of a man, our path of withdrawal lit up by the flames devouring planes and barracks. By the time we passed back through the perimeter villages, everyone had climbed onto the roofs to watch the flames… The people were overjoyed. One old man came out with an ox and insisted on our unit taking it to have a good meal back at the base. We have strict orders not to accept gifts so we thanked him but refused. ‘Take it,’ he said, ‘the puppets will eat it anyway if you don’t.’ We refused. But we ate and drank on the spot some of the things the villagers brought out and then got back to our base without incident.
“Every man in our unit, including my deputy commander and myself, were from Bien Hoa. We were on our own soil, among our own people. On the way to and from the perimeter villages, we knew every tree, every stone and even every dog – the latter is very important,” Huynh Minh said, laughing. “But more important still is that once within the perimeter area, we were completely among our own people. Our attack was successful because we had the complete support of the people, and we had that support due to the careful political work conducted for months prior to the attack…”
Political preparation is a key part of planning for every military action by forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF). Even before the NLF’s formation, when central guiding policies were lacking, the resistance paid great attention to the political climate in the target area and to political agitation among enemy troops. This was clearly exemplified in the first large-scale attack by resistance forces at Tua Hai in Tay Ninh Province in late January 1960, during which the guerrillas seized enough arms to equip their own battalion of 350 men and send one weapon to every district throughout central and southern Vietnam.
Quyet Thang (determined to win), the nom-de-guerre of the guerrilla who commanded the attack on Tua Hai, when explaining it to me, stressed that one of the reasons Tua Hai was chosen as the first target was not only because of the existence of a large stock of arms there, but because the population in the surrounding areas was furious with the Diem troops who had been on a kill-and-pillage expedition in late January 1960 and had seized everything the people had managed to save for the Têt, the Lunar New Year celebrations. Many of the rank-and-file troops were repelled and demoralized by this action they had been forced to carry out, and collaborated with the attackers. On a smaller scale, there was the same sort of cooperation between attackers, population and some within the enemy garrison, as at Bien Hoa in October 1964.
On October 17, 1963, NLF forces wiped out a government post at Nha Ngang near Loc Ninh. As the Saigon forces did not react immediately, the next day they destroyed two more bases at Ben Luong and Lai Niem, and for good measure blew up a 100-foot bridge over the Cai Chanh River at Ben Luong. The following day, government troops were sent by road, river craft and helicopter, and a big battle developed at Ai Bai hamlet in Loc Ninh village. It resulted in a crushing defeat for the U.S.-Saigon forces and speeded up the end of the Diem regime, which crumbled just two weeks later.
This was an historic battle because it marked the fullest application till then of an NLF tactic to which neither the Diem army of that time nor the U.S. forces of today has ever found a real answer. The tactic is to “attack enemy posts and annihilate enemy reinforcements.” In other words, the attack on a post is used as bait to bring enemy troops to the rescue at a place and time chosen by the NLF.
The Loc Ninh battle also exemplified the great importance the NLF attaches to the political aspects of a military action, to both its local and broader political implications.
“It [Lac Ninh] was a region well known for the poverty of the people,” explained Khanh Liet, a gaunt political cadre who had participated in the battle. “Before the first resistance, all land was in the hands of the landlords. After the August Revolution of 1945, most of the landlords ran away to Saigon, and the resistance administration distributed their land to the poorest of the peasants, including some of the city poor from Saigon. There was plenty of land available. People’s living standards improved rapidly. There were no taxes or rent to pay, only voluntary contributions to the resistance. After the Geneva Agreements, Diem’s officials came back and tried to grab the land again. They got some of it under nominal control by setting up some military posts in the area. But the landlords could not get their lands back completely, so although the peasants lived a bit worse than under the resistance administration, it was still better than under the French.
“When the armed struggle started, there were no great losses in this area in spite of enemy raids, and living standards remained good. The few landlords who had come back with the Diem troops again fled. Because of benefits gained from the resistance, the fact that the region was not completely under Diem’s control and since there was a nucleus of old guerrillas in this area, we were able to promote an effective guerrilla movement. On the basis of the solid support for the guerrillas, we decided this was a favorable spot for a decisive trial of strength. Results show that our evaluation of the situation was correct.”
Truong Ky, a top staff officer at Liberation Army Headquarters, took the story of the Loc Ninh battle somewhat further.
“At the time,” explained Truong Ky, a former Saigon history teacher, “there were grave differences between the U.S. generals and Diem on the question of the deployment of military forces and on numerous tactical questions. The U.S. wanted to concentrate military forces and use them to hold strategic points and accumulate reserves. Harkinswas very worried about the facility with which our forces were taking outposts in all areas and seizing vast quantities of munitions. He wanted to cut the losses and also concentrate troops for mobile reserves; he wanted to build up a striking force to carry out large-scale offensive operations. Diem opposed this. Harkins tried to prove that such tactics could not fail to be successful, but Diem still opposed them. Diem saw that to abandon posts meant abandoning territory and population; it meant loss of revenue, loss of prestige, loss of popular support. Harkins was not in the least interested in Diem having popular support or taxes. He was only interested in having an efficient military instrument to beat us. Harkins was in a hurry, and he was looking for short cuts. Harkins thought in exclusively military terms and Diem thought in almost exclusively political terms. As for us,” Truong Ky said with a smile, “we think in political and military terms with the accent on the political. That is why we decided to hit hard at Loc Ninh. We considered that to present General Harkins and Diem with a large-scale example of their dilemma in the form of the Loc Ninh battle would force things to a head and deepen the contradictions between them.
“In fact, neither Harkins’ nor Diem’s view was correct,” continued Truong Ky. “Consider Harkins’ strategy first. Accumulation of mobile reserves for bigger aggressive actions against our people will only stiffen resistance and drive more and more people into our ranks. Even the Saigon press writes about the American plan. If carried out, it will further clarify our thesis that our real enemy is U.S. imperialism. Diem realized that withdrawals meant abandoning his plans to defend and extend the ‘strategic hamlet’ system. But Diem was wrong and Harkins was right when the latter said that by scattering forces all over the country, trying to hang on to ‘real estate’ as Harkins expressed it, they would be exposed to certain piecemeal annihilation. In this Harkins was correct. But actually they were both wrong because they were on the wrong side and whatever they did would be wrong.
“On purely political matters, there were also contradictions. The Americans wanted a broader political front, more right-wing elements grouped around Diem to fight against us. But Diem refused because he suspected a U.S. trap to infiltrate elements at the top that would eventually replace him.
“Washington used the Loc Ninh defeat to back up the military argument in favor of concentration rather than dispersal and sent Henry Cabot Lodge to Saigon to organize the overthrow of Diem. As we had foreseen, Saigon was plunged into a very serious political crisis.”
One did not have to spend very much time with a unit of the NLF forces or at NLF headquarters to realize that political factors dominate all others in military planning and execution. The combination of the political and military aspects of strategy and tactics is an absolute constant of the struggle as waged by the NLF. This was true also during the first resistance war. It is one of the special contributions of the Vietnamese to the special type of neocolonialism war waged by the United States.
The political-military strategy guiding the NLF has been summarized by Le Duan as follows:
“… The people having built up their armed forces… are waging simultaneously political struggle and armed struggle … Until the present moment the close combination of politico struggle and armed struggle constitutes the fundamental form of revolutionary violence in South Vietnam … [Emphasis in original by Le Duan.] The South Vietnamese revolution has thus developed by using revolutionary violence of the masses to launch partial insurrections in the countryside; by organizing the revolutionary forces in the countryside as in the towns; by holding firmly to a position of offensive to attack the enemy at all levels, militarily, politically, by propaganda and agitation within the enemy ranks, waging at the same time military activities and political struggle in the three strategic zones, the countryside, the towns and mountainous regions, in order to succeed in smashing all the political and military intrigues of the enemy to pun off the final victory…”
After the overthrow of Diem, Harkins got his way with the various military dictators who replaced Diem. Hundreds of posts were abandoned, especially throughout the Mekong Delta. Platoon and company-sized units were consolidated into battalions, and within a year a sizable number of mobile battalions had been knocked together for the “search and destroy” operations Harkins yearned for as a means of wiping out the “Vietcong” main-force units.
“We are in a region,” said Le Thanh Long, “which the enemy believed to be one of the safest for him in all South Vietnam.” Le Thanh Long was talking to a small group of journalists in a rubber plantation about 25 miles southeast of Saigon.
“It is an area largely populated by Catholic peasants and fishermen whom the U.S.-Diem officials tricked into leaving the North, just after the Geneva Agreements went into force. The Saigon puppets have assured the Americans that these are the most loyal subjects of the Saigon regime. They may have been in the first few months when they were still under the spell of all the promises that had been made. But neither the Americans nor the puppets seemed to have bothered to find out what the former refugees really think.
“They are embittered and full of hatred toward Diem and the Americans. They were promised rice fields and fishing equipment, good homes and a good life. In fact, they are locked up in the concentration camp ‘strategic hamlets’ like everyone else. In the early days those who went into Saigon and demanded repatriation to the North were shot down in the streets. Many of them think with longing of the coastal villages they abandoned because they fell for the U.S.-Diem propaganda… Many of those who came had helped us in the old days of the anti-French resistance. They left the North because they were tricked and it was easy for us to make contact with them again.
“A second favorable factor was that there are rubber plantations in this area and most of the plantation workers are from the North, indentured in the French days on contracts that were for a few years only, after which they hoped to go back with lots of money. But they also were tricked because things were so arranged that they could never get out of debt to return home. They had been strong supporters in the first resistance war. Refugees from the North who got no land at all also went to work as coolies on the rubber plantations.
“For years past we have had solid political bases established among the plantation workers and refugees. We had guerrilla bands organized and we had great difficulty in persuading them not to go into action quickly, but recently they had their chance.
“Our first action was at the Binh Gia ‘strategic hamlet,’ in which there were 6,000 peasants, most of them Catholic refugees, but also a thousand from the national minorities, with whom we also had excellent contacts. We wanted to take the enemy really by surprise,” said Le Thanh Long. “They were used to us attacking ‘strategic hamlets’ by night and from the outside. This time, because of our political bases, our men got into the hamlet and we attacked from the inside at dawn on December 5, 1964. The garrison of three platoons (about 90 men) panicked and offered no resistance. The people helped us to round them up and we collected all their arms. At the same time we attacked and wiped out a company of Rangers and a platoon of Civil Guards to the north of Binh Gia, preventing any immediate intervention…”
Harassing actions, developing in size and scope, continued for more than three weeks as the guerrillas quickly got accustomed to military action. The situation developed to the point at which Harking decided to make an example of the Binh Gia guerrillas and use some of his reserve battalions to teach them a really sharp lesson.
On December 29, General Khanh (the “strong man” of the day in Saigon) sent in the 33rd Ranger Battalion, one of the 11 elite units of Saigon’s “strategic reserve.” It was for this that the NLF regular forces had been waiting. Late on the afternoon of the 29th, they launched a furious assault and in a battle that lasted just one hour, the 33rd was put out of action to a man, including the commander and deputy commander killed and two U.S. advisers captured within minutes of the first assault directed against the battalion command position. Because it was almost dusk by then and the Saigon generals never liked risking their troops away from bases at night for fear of the famous NLF night attacks, no reinforcements were sent that evening. The dead and wounded lay on the battlefield all night, the NLF medics giving first aid to the wounded, the local guerrillas picking up the entire equipment of the 33rd Rangers, handing over heavy weapons to the regular forces and keeping the rest for themselves.
Early the following morning a battalion of regular troops with more than 100 helicopters was sent in to pick up the dead and wounded. “But they didn’t dare to pick up the bodies,” said Le Thanh Long. “They feared an ambush or mines and tried to force the Binh Gia inmates to do the job as they knew we wouldn’t attack civilians. The latter refused. ‘We’re civilians’ they said. ‘It’s your job.’ In the end, the battalion commander sent for planes to bomb the whole area, including the battlefield. Many of those men died twice, and plenty of their own wounded, bandaged up by us, were killed by U.S. bombs. During the whole day of the 30th, bodies and wounded were ferried back. We didn’t attack this rescue battalion because it was not what we were after.
But toward the end of the day, we rushed and captured one helicopter in which they had just loaded two American bodies. The ferry operation ended then, but we knew they would make exceptional efforts to get the helicopter back. All night long, helped by the Binh Gia people, we dug trenches and tunnels, the younger people helping us dig, the others bringing us food and tea.
“On the morning of December 31st, a battalion of marines was helicoptered in. We made one feint attack killing about 20 and then pretending to withdraw. Toward midday the whole battalion in close formation started moving cautiously toward the helicopter. Our troops waited till they got very close, then swarmed up out of the ground with supporting fire from the jungle perimeter and flanking attacks by our guerrillas armed with weapons picked up the previous night. Again we wiped out the whole battalion, including six U.S. advisers killed and one captured. By 4 p.m. we had complete mastery of the battlefield. We thought the enemy would send in more troops but they didn’t, and as on the 29th, the dead and wounded were left all night on the battlefield. We took only the heavy equipment and the local guerrillas picked up the rest, down to the last pistol. The regular enemy troops were completely demoralized. Everything took place before their eyes but they did not dare intervene. On January 1, planes bombed the whole area again and on the evening of that day, several battalions of shock troops were parachuted in to protect the operation of evacuating the dead and wounded. We knew a proportion of those parachuted in must move back over the main road. There were not enough helicopters to take them all. The highway ran through the ‘strategic hamlet’ of Binh Bo and there we prepared an ambush. Although there was an enemy post at one end of the hamlet, the local inhabitants smuggled our men in at night and helped us dig trenches and fire positions. Our target was the 35th Ranger Battalion, another of the ‘strategic reserve’ units. We let the first few trucks pass through and opened up when all the rest of the convoy was completely within our positions. They never had a chance. Two of the battalion’s three companies were put out of action. It was typical that, those whom we let through did not bother to turn back to help their comrades when the firing started, nor did troops from the local post intervene.”
That action took place on the night of January 3, 1965. As Le Thanh Long explained it to us the following day, he considered this the end of the main part of the Binh Gia action, a victory of unprecedented dimensions for the NLF forces.
“The basic reasons for our victory,” said Le Thanh Long, “are the following:
“The policy of the NLF leadership of constantly raising the material and cultural standards of the Liberation Army which fights for the aspirations of the whole Vietnamese people.
“The role and support of the people in the Binh Gia area in fighting shoulder to shoulder with us and lending every imaginable aid in transporting supplies, bringing us food and water, helping the wounded, at times helping us prepare our attack positions, protecting us from enemy observation and other support. We prepared our ambushes under the very eyes of the population, but they never revealed a word to the enemy. They helped dig trenches and cut branches to camouflage our positions. All this was due to the patient political work of our cadres.
“The great efforts made by our local guerrillas, whose heightened political consciousness resulted in great improvements in their tactics and technique.”
Back at Nguyen Huu Tho’s headquarters, staff officer Truong Ky had some observations about the significance of Binh Gia: “It marks another historic phase in the war,” he said.
“For the first time the NLF forces have engaged the enemy’s elite battalions in classic daytime battles and inflicted a most serious defeat, despite their monopoly of air power. As at Loc Ninh, we chose the terrain only after careful political analysis of the local situation and that in Saigon. The conclusion for the enemy is obvious. The Liberation Army has now come of age and is capable of defeating the best troops the enemy can field against us. Of a total of 11 strategic reserve battalions, two have been wiped out and a third was put out of action in this one battle. Khanh and the Americans know that the days of the puppet army are numbered.
“We selected Binh Gia because of the favorable local political conditions and also because the enemy considered it one of their greatest strongholds, which made the political impact in Saigon so much the greater. We destroyed their crack battalion in their ‘safest’ area. We chose the time because of the great political demoralization and confusion in Saigon at the moment and because some new contradictions have emerged between the Americans and their puppets. It is a moment of coups and counter coups between the military and civilian puppets and it is useful to discredit the military at this time, to show up the ‘strength’ of the so called strong man, General Nguyen Khanh, for what it is. It is necessary to show the Saigon puppets that their situation is hopeless, that despite all the American strength, they have neither political, popular nor military support. It is up to the enemy to draw the conclusion.”
On January 4, 1965, there were renewed Buddhist and student riots in Saigon, followed by riots in Hué three days later on such a scale that the city was brought to a standstill. Throughout January the riots continued in all major cities. For the first time anti-American slogans and the demand to “let Vietnamese settle their own problems” were voiced. On January 11-12 there was a general strike in Hué. In Saigon on January 20, paratroopers were called out to deal with mass demonstrations which were taking on more and more the form of organized street fighting. The U.S. Information Service (USIS) library in Hué was sacked on January 23 and two days later a crowd of more than 20,000 attacked the homes of the chief of police in Hué and the head of the USIS library. The city was placed under martial law and the following day the death penalty was announced in Saigon for anyone engaged in “terrorist” activities. The end of everything that Washington had set up in South Vietnam was clearly in sight. The death blow to “special war” had been dealt at Binh Gia and the political backwash was reaching tidal wave proportions, threatening to sweep away the debris of the U.S.-backed Saigon regime at any moment. “Strong man” Khanh “resigned” on February 22 and went into an exile from which he has never returned. Washington decided the only way to save the situation was to take over the war and as the speediest symbol of this, to start bombing North Vietnam. And so on February 8, 1965, the system a tic bombing of the North was initiated.
The bombings of the North were intended to be a terror weapon against the South and a symbol of further intervention to come; they were intended to inject some new note of authority into the feeble voice of the Saigon dictator of the moment. Just one month later U.S. combat troops landed in South Vietnam and the United States began the process of transferring from “special war” policies in which South Vietnamese combat troops under U.S. command played the major role, to “limited war” in which U.S. combat troops would constitute the Expeditionary Corps of a classical colonialist enterprise.
 For a detailed description of the attack at Tua Hai see the author’s Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War, International Publishers, New York, 1965, pp. 109-121.
 Not to be confused with the Loc Ninh north of Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border, scene of an important battle between NLF and American forces at the end of October 1967.
 General Paul Harkins, who then headed the U.S. Command in Saigon.
 Le Duan, a southerner, is secretary general of the North Vietnam Lao Dong (Workers) Party and is considered an outstanding communist theoretician.
 Translated from: En Avant sous le glorieux drapeau de la Révolution d’Octobre, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, 1967.
 Le Thanh Long means the Blue Dragon, and like almost all other names which NLF officers used in introducing themselves, it was obviously a pseudonym.
 U.S.-trained commando type troops, better trained and armed than the regular Saigon army.
 Paramilitary formations used for garrisoning “strategic hamlets” and the posts set up to guard the latter.
 National Route No. 15 linking Saigon with Vungtau – formerly Cap St. Jacques – an important port 37 miles southeast of Saigon.
NEXT: Chapter Two – Making of a Soldier