The full-scale phase of the Vietnam War began in early 1965, a year that started with about 23,000 U.S. servicemen in Vietnam. At that time, anti-Communist forces in Asia were being pressed on many fronts including Vietnam, but also in Indonesia where Sukarno left the United Nations on 8 January 1965, and allied with Hanoi, Peking and the local Communists.
General William C. Westmoreland, Commanding General, MACV, watches the ceremonies on the arrival of the Royal Thai Volunteer Regiment in Vietnam, 21 September 1967.
On 7 February 1965, the Viet Cong attacked the U.S. helicopter base at Pleiku in the Central Highlands, followed by a bombing at Qui Nhon on 10 February. Pres. Johnson, who until now had hesitated to escalate the war, accepted the advice of his military strategists and launched retaliatory strikes. U.S. air strikes began and further ground action followed.
Operation Rolling Thunder, a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam, began on 2 March 1965 and continued until October 1968. While the bombing generated massive protests in the U.S. it was successfully resisted by North Vietnam and had minimal effect on the ground war. The ground force escalation commenced on 8 March 1965 with the landing of 3,500 Marines of the 9 MEB at Danang, soon reinforced by larger Marine contingents. By the end of 1965 American troop strength reached 184,300.
Westmoreland's Plan for Vietnam
President Lyndon B. Johnson with General William Westmoreland in M151 jeep, visiting troop units in Vietnam, 26 October 1966.
General William Westmoreland took command of MACV in June 1964, replacing Gen. Paul Harkins, with the responsibility for preventing a Viet Cong takeover in the south. In early 1965, Gen. Westmoreland recommended to Pres. Johnson that five divisions of international troops to be deployed to secure the perimeter along the DMZ and the border with Laos, isolating S. Vietnam. One U.S. division would be deployed to the Central Highlands to counter the NVA there. He requested authority to mount aggressive "Search and Destroy" operations against the Viet Cong and their NVA comrades, crossing borders as necessary. This would be coupled by an improved program of defended enclaves to replace the corrupt strategic hamlet effort. The alternative, Westmoreland argued, was a collapse of the ARVN.
At the same time, the U.S. ambassador to S. Vietnam, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, made a less aggressive recommendation, focused on defending the strategic hamlets and restricting engagement with the enemy unless unavoidable. Johnson liked Taylor's milder option and ordered Westmoreland to follow that course and distribute his troops to the established enclaves. The Joint Chiefs of Staff went along with these Presidential directives passively and were ineffective in developing better alternatives or in strongly positioning the consequences of the options and alternatives.
The VC quickly upset this ineffective policy, however, by attacking ARVN units away from the enclaves, bypassing the U.S. positions. In order to prevent the destruction of the S. Vietnamese Army, on 6 April 1965, President Johnson authorized U.S. ground forces in Vietnam to engage in offensive operations, a modified policy that effectively gave Westmoreland the authority for his "Search and Destroy" approach. After June 1965, Westmoreland directed all U.S. air and ground operations in Vietnam with the objective of finding and destroying so many of the Communist forces that they could not sustain themselves and would collapse.
During 1965 General Nguyen Van Thieu and Air Marshall Nguyen Cao Ky, both with solid combat credentials, ousted Nguyen Van Khan from power, ending the chronic instability which followed the overthrow of the Diem government in Saigon.
Strategy and Tactics in the Vietnam War
"Search and Destroy" was supported by Defense Secretary McNamara and other important voices in the U.S. government and was the unquestioned American policy from June 1965 through 1972. The lethal combination of airmobile U.S. ground troops, with supporting artillery and airpower, was devastating against the VC/NVA at first but they soon adopted effective counterstrategies. They learned to stay close to U.S. units to limit the use of area weapons. Their use of jungle cover and networks of underground tunnels frustrated U.S. operations. While the U.S. and allied troops consistently won engagements, overall the attrition of war and destruction of South Vietnam's countryside and civilian population inflamed negative public opinion outside Vietnam and worked against the Americans.
For example, the battle in the Ia Drang Valley (23 October to 20 November 1965) was a decisive American victory that also taught the enemy important lessons. 7th Cav Regiment troops of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), just arrived in Vietnam, were airlifted into an area of dense concentration of NVA. While troops engaged with rifles at close range, American B-52s and tactical aircraft pounded enemy strongpoints and dropped bombs right on top of threatened 7th Cav positions. The NVA were finally pushed out of the area, retreating across the Cambodian border, leaving 3,500 dead against a loss of 500 Americans. To Westmoreland, the Ia Drang victory meant that his attrition strategy was working, but the Communists learned from this to minimize such large scale battles, instead emphasizing guerilla tactics and small unit actions that made it difficult to ever crush the NVA/VC opponent. They would attack then melt into the jungles before an effective counterstrike could be organized.
During 1966 and 1967 "Search and Destroy" continued with U.S. troops joined by Australians, South Koreans and other allied nations. As allied troop strength increased, the initiative in the war passed to them and NVA/VC victories were few. In 1967, large "clearing operations" were mounted as both offensive operations and local security operations, finding and destroying enemy troops, their weapons and infrastructure. An estimated 70,000 Communist soldiers were killed in 1966 and as many as 133,000 in 1967 while substantial areas of S. Vietnam were deemed "pacified." In late 1967 some of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the war took place at Loc Ninh and Dak To (Hill 875), involving heavy casualties for the Communist forces with much smaller U.S. losses.
The Vietnam War at the Beginning of 1968
By the end of 1967, Gen. Westmoreland believed that his "Search and Destroy" strategy was working. In November 1967, he returned the U.S. to testify before Congress and provide support for the Johnson Administration. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, he said, "With 1968 a new phase is starting .. we have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view." At a news conference, he used the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" to describe the outlook for the war, repeating almost word-for-word the doomed May 1953 prediction of French General Henri Navarre.
Westmoreland's optimism was justified. By the end of 1965, he had achieved a stalemate on the ground. In 1966 about a million Vietnamese civilians were added to those under the protection of the Vietnamese government, a positive trend that continued for most of 1967. U.S. losses were approximately 6,000 dead in 1966 and 11,000 in 1967, about one tenth of the Communist toll. The enemy seemed to be suffering unsustainable losses while S. Vietnam forces grew ever more capable. At the end of 1967, most U.S. forces were directed against guerrillas and local forces, while NVA main forces had been defeated or held at bay in their sanctuaries. However, this palpable American success led N. Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap to decide that a change in tactics was necessary, to engage the major population centers and to deal a knockout blow against the S. Vietnam government and their supporters, no matter what the cost. Using sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, he prepared what became known as the January 1968 Tet Offensive.
In April 1968 General Westmoreland directed that the use of the term "Search and Destroy" be discontinued. Although the operations continued, they were denoted by descriptive military terms, e.g. "reconnaissance in force". Whereas in the early stages of the war -- 1964-1967 -- the terms "clearing," "securing," and "search and destroy" had shown the relationship between military operations and the pacification effort, by 1968 civilian agencies and military units had very effective cooperation and success with pacification that no longer required the old naming conventions.
Change of Command: Westmoreland Leaves Vietnam
Following the Tet Offensive, Westmoreland asked Washington for 206,000 additional troops to continue the campaign South Vietnam and to initiate operations in North Vietnam, north of the DMZ. But Johnson and his civilian advisors were shocked by Tet and support for the war was undermined by negative assessments from the CIA that indicated that the Communists were far stronger than believed in 1967. The U.S. public was mounting increasing political pressure against the war and former supporters were turning away.
Rather than grant Westmoreland's requests for more troops, which would have required a politically unacceptable reserve call-up or draw-down in Europe, Johnson recalled Westmoreland to Washington, replacing him with General Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland's deputy commander, in July 1968. With Abrams U.S. policy went into reverse, moving toward a return to the pre-1965 arrangement of U.S. advisors with the main fighting the responsibility of the ARVN. Under the new name of "Vietnamization" the objective was to withdraw Americans from Vietnam.