Vietnam: U.S. Advisors 1955-1965

The U.S. military advisory effort in Vietnam had a modest beginning in September 1950, when the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), Vietnam, was established in Saigon. Its mission was to supervise the issuance and employment of $10 million of military equipment to support French legionnaires in their effort to combat Viet Minh forces. By 1953 the amount of U.S. military aid had jumped to over $350 million and was used to replace the badly worn World War II vintage equipment that France, still suffering economically from the devastation of that war, was still using.

US Military Advisor Captain Willem Hamel, 1st Special Forces Group (1st SF/A-123 Team) working with ARVN soldiers in Hoa Cam training center, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, March 1962
US Military Advisor Captain Willem Hamel, 1st Special Forces Group (1st SF/A-123 Team) working with ARVN soldiers in Hoa Cam training center, Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, March 1962.

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Political Background to American Advisors in Vietnam

In September 1954, right after the Geneva Accords were signed on 20 July 1954, dividing Vietnam into north and south at the 17th parallel, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to the new Prime Minister of the Bao Dai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, promising United States support to ensure a noncommunist Vietnam. Following through on that commitment, direct United States aid to South Vietnam began in January 1955, and American advisors began arriving in February to train the South Vietnamese army.

By early 1955, Diem had consolidated his control by suppressing the religious sects in the Mekong Delta and brutally suppressing unrest in Saigon. He also launched a campaign against Communists in South Vietnam, in which 25,000 Communist sympathizers were arrested and more than 1,000 killed according to claims by the Communists. In August 1955, Diem issued a statement formally refusing to participate with the North Vietnamese in consultations to prepare for national elections as called for by the Geneva Agreement. In October, he easily defeated Bao Dai in a seriously tainted referendum and became President of the new Republic of Vietnam.

Partly in response to Diem's anti-Communist campaign, the Vietnamese Communists stepped up terrorist activities in the South, assassinating several hundred officials of the Diem government. In 1957, Diem' Saigon government arrested another 65,000 suspected Communists and killed more than 2,000. Repression by the Diem regime led to the rise of self-defense units in various parts of South Vietnam, units often operating on their own without any Communist party direction, in armed opposition to Diem.

During 1955-1956, North Vietnam concentrated on political struggle, still recovering from the war with the French and influenced by the Soviet Union, then in a period of peaceful coexistence with the West under General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. However, by 1957, with the reunification elections called for by the Geneva Accords overdue, observing that a potential revolutionary situation had been created by popular resentment of the Diem government, and fearing that the government's anti-Communist policy would destroy or weaken party organization in South Vietnam, the Communist leadership determined that the time had come to resort to violent struggle.

Early Phase of the Second Indochina War

Late in 1954, after the Geneva Accords, about 90,000 Vietminh troops returned to North Vietnam. By 1959, they began filtering back into the South to lead the insurgency. In the initial stages, the Communists organized mass demonstrations along with a few raids on vulnerable South Vietnamese installations, but this was quickly followed by a Communist led uprising in the lower Mekong Delta and Central Highlands that took control of "liberated zones", including an area of nearly fifty villages in Quang Ngai Province. The North Vietnamese Communists cleverly organized a shadow government, the National Liberation Front (NLF), staffed by officials not obviously linked to the Communist north, but dedicated to the defeat of Diem's U.S. backed Saigon government. The NLF took over in the areas of Communist control, levied taxes, trained troops, built defense works, and provided education and medical care.

During this period -- from 1955 through 1960 -- the U.S. had between 750 and 1,500 military advisors assisting the Diem government to establish an effective army, organized as the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG), Vietnam. By 1960 MAAGV was training more than fifty ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Ranger units. At almost the same time, from 1954 to 1959, the Navy Section of MAAGV, worked to develop a viable navy for South Vietnam. Lt. General Samuel T. Williams served almost five years (1955-1960) as chief of MAAG, based in Saigon.

Formation of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV)

By 1961 the steady progress of the insurgency was near crisis levels. The new Kennedy administration increased American support for the Diem regime to prevent a collapse. By December of 1961, 3,200 U.S. military personnel were in Vietnam as advisors, supported by $65 million in military equipment and $136 million in economic aid. Military assistance was reorganized as the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), formed under the command of General Paul D. Harkins in February 1962. MACV was there to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to defend the country. MACV included Army Special Forces (Green Beret) instructors and CIA personnel organizing the Montagnards in the mountains.

The U.S. led counterinsurgency effort was based on the strategic hamlet program. The plan was to consolidate 14,000 villages in South Vietnam into 11,000 secure hamlets, each with its own houses, schools, wells, and watchtowers, to isolate the villages from the guerrillas. As the program got underway, there were not only frequent attacks on the hamlets by guerrilla units, but the self-defense units for the hamlets were often poorly trained, and ARVN support was inadequate. Corruption, favoritism, and resentment of the forced resettlement undermined the program. Of the 8,000 hamlets actually established, only 1,500 were viable.

U.S. Special Forces Deployment 15 October 1962
U.S. Special Forces Deployment in Vietnam, 15 October 1962. Click for larger image.

As the U.S. involvement increased, the Communists responded in 1961 by reorganizing all armed units in the south into the People's Liberation Armed Force (PLAF), with about 15,000 troops. Many in this force were from South Vietnam, trained in the North and then reinfiltrated, often in political roles as liaison with the southern population. By late 1962, the PLAF was large and capable enough to mount battalion-size attacks. At the same time, the NLF expanded to include 300,000 members and an estimated one million sympathizers while they instituted land reform and other popular measures in controlled areas.

As the NLF grew stronger, Diem reacted with more repression, especially against Buddist's, led by his brother and chief adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu. On 8 May 1963, ARVN troops fired into a crowd of protesters in Saigon, killing nine. Hundreds of Buddhist priests (bonzes) staged peaceful demonstrations and fasted to protest. In June a bonze set himself on fire in Saigon as a protest, and, by the end of the year, six more bonzes had committed self-immolation. Violence escalated on August 21 when special forces under Ngo Dinh Nhu raided pagodas in major cities, killing many bonzes and arresting thousands of others. Demonstrations at Saigon University on August 24 were crushed with the arrest of an estimated 4,000 students and the closing of universities in Saigon and Hue.

By 1963, U.S. military advisors in Vietnam had grown to 16,000 and the Americans were firmly identified with the oppressive Diem regime. Outrage over the Diem regime in Washington was communicated to South Vietnamese military leaders, indicating U.S. support for a new government. The Kennedy administration, through the CIA and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, encouraged a coup in early November 1963 in which Diem and Nhu were assassinated. General Duong Van Minh took over the government and the U.S. was obligated to support him and the series of weak governments that followed. Later than same month, President Kennedy was himself assassinated in Dallas, TX and President Johnson assumed office. Hanoi thought that the new President might be looking to exit Vietnam and calculated that an increase in violence would be the lever to push the U.S. out.

Escalation of the War

Escalation of the war beginning in December 1963 resulted in some immediate success for the Communists in the South. By March 1964 they controlled over forty percent of the country, a liberated zone from the Central Highlands to the edge of the Mekong Delta containing half the population. The PLAF forces, now called the "Viet Cong" -- short for "Viet Nam Cong San" meaning "Vietnamese Communist" -- had grown to 35,000 guerrillas and 80,000 irregulars. They were supplied and augmented by the completion of a route through Laos, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Despite an ARVN force of 300,000 soldiers, U.S. aircraft over South Vietnam were fired upon by Chinese and Soviet anti-aircraft artillery, terrorist bombs were exploding in Saigon, and the area controlled by the Viet Cong continued to increase. Further destabilizing the situation, governments in Saigon that controlled only the urban zones changed repeatedly in a series of military and civilian coups.

South Vietnam was going to fall to the Communists unless the U.S. intervened, but Pres. Johnson hesitated to increase the commitment of troops, trying to balance his interest in big domestic programs against the mounting crisis in Southeast Asia. Then came an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, 2 August 1964.

Recommended Books about Vietnam in 1955-1965