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How effective do you think these tactics were?
During the Vietnam War, the United States took a completely different approach than the National Liberation Front (NLF) when it came to tactics. America was more modern in their attacks, using their air force and heavily armed ground troops. Whereas the NLF only had guerrilla fighters, who stayed on the ground and attacked quickly.
The first tactic involved the US air force strategically bombing North Vietnamese targets. This included bombing army bases, bridges, railways and factories, even though North Vietnam didn’t have many factories to bomb. US panes were flying 164 flying missions a day on average in early 1966. Bombs often missed their target. Hospital patients and school children were among those killed. This bombing campaign had limited success.
Part of this massive bombing campaign was called “Operation Rolling Thunder” – which also took place over North Vietnam. It was only meant to last for eight weeks, but finally ended after three years. This is a symbol of how much America struggled to pick out the communists, and this statistic alone implies how the U.S was finding this War harder than it first appeared.
The Americans knew that they had to try and destroy the Vietcong’s supply routes. They were receiving weapons from the North, along the 17th parallel, but in particular along the Ho Chi Rail. This road linked the South and the North, and was also densely covered by forest. This meant that it was easy for the South to be supplied, and made it even harder for the Americans to spot the transactions. Due to this, America decided that the only way that they would be able to stop weapon supplies along this road and through the forests would be to use bombs. They did this by dropping chemical bombs that defoliated the vast amount of trees. This chemical became known as “Agent Orange”. This now meant that American helicopters were able to spot the enemy more easily.
Although “Agent Orange” worked, it did effect the Vietnamese people. One effect of this chemical was that it caused cancer amongst those who used it or were affected it. It also had an effect on pregnant woman who ended up giving birth to seriously deformed children or stillborns. The war also had many psychological effects. The North Vietnamese used this as propaganda against the Americans, suggesting that they had done it deliberately to harm innocent people. But aside from this, the Americans were still struggling to have a clear view of the enemy. Because of this, they introduced another chemical bomb – Napalm. Napalm is a thick liquid, which usually contains petrol and is used in firebombs and flame-throwers. It cleared the undergrowth, which gave the US more chance of being able to spot the Vietcong from the air.
Although, there was one major problem. Napalm also sticks to human skin, and gradually burns away the flesh. The Americans simply dropped it on forest, possibly forgetting that innocent peoples lives were at risk. Unsurprisingly, people were hurt- killed. In December 1966, the North Vietnamese finally permitted an American journalist to visit North Vietnam. They had let American news reporters into the country deliberately. They did this, as they knew that any problems that may arise in Vietnam would instantly be broadcasted back in America.
This was proved correct as, during the Napalm attacks, graphic images and videos were sent back home to the U.S showing how America had killed innocent civilians and destroyed thousands of homes. An example of this is a video, which shows a set of children running from a Napalm attack with Napalm itself attacking their bodies. The children are crying and are obviously in extreme pain. The American reporters, as well as the communists in Vietnam, knew that these stories would most definitely touch the American peoples hearts. It would also inevitably anger them. This sort of footage would also make the Americans question why children were being hurt and whether this war was really worth fighting. From the communist’s point of view, this had the desired effect. Morale in America was beginning to crumble.
Another tactic used by the U.S was ‘strategic hamlets’. The Americans were aware that the peasants from the South predominately supported the NLF. Due to this, they knew that they had to restrict the influence that the NLF had on these peasants. They decided to introduce ‘strategic hamlets’, where they moved thousands of peasants out of their homes. These were areas controlled by the Americans and surrounded by barbed wire. Around 40% of the Vietnamese were moved in this way, but all this scheme achieved was making the Vietnamese detest the Americans even more.
Ground troops were also sent into South Vietnam. These troops were under orders to defend only their air bases. They also protected the ports where supplies and troops arrived. These troops were allowed to patrol up to a maximum of 80 km around the bases to make sure that there were no Vietcong in the area. Johnson believed at this time that if he adopted a basically defensive strategy, that this would convince the American people that the U.S were indeed only there to try and protect South Vietnam. Although just a few months later, Johnson told commander of the American Forces in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, that his troops could now follow more aggressive tactics.
The U.S used another tactic. They were only interested at this time in searching out and destroying the big enemy forces at this time. In other words, they were trying to eliminate regular or professional troops of the North Vietnamese Army (also known as the NVA). If they were able to do this then they would have to deal with the less well-trained guerrilla forces or Vietcong. Westmoreland was confident that America would defeat the enemy as they were better equipped and more trained.
During this period the war seemed to be going well for the U.S. Troops would track down Vietcong members before inflicting heavy casualties on them. Air strikes were also proving particularly effective. Propaganda in the United States was becoming more positive. For every American that died at this time, another seven communists would also suffer the same fate. The American leaders now believed that the North Vietnamese wouldn’t be able to suffer casualties like this for long. But he was very wrong.
The US believed the troops could defeat the NLF because they had modern and superior fighting equipment. Whereas the NLF had no tanks, no aircraft and no artillery. But they did have experience in fighting guerrilla wars. They had had to do so against the French from 1946 to 1954. The same tactics were carried out against the Americans. This was a major handicap against the U.S, as they had had no experience in guerrilla warfare and did not know the country very well at all.
The NLF avoided fighting in open battle with the US troops, because the Americans were better armed. Instead, they mingled with peasants in the rice-fields or hid in the jungle. This made it impossible for American troops to distinguish between the peasants and the guerrilla fighters. The NLF wore no uniform and simply dressed in normal clothes – so they looked just like the peasants. They also spoke the same language as the peasants, so they sounded just like the them and could act normally around them. On top of this, many knew every detail of the jungle, and were very aware of their surroundings.
The NLF knew that they were unlikely to survive above ground with the huge amounts of bombs that were being dropped. Because of this, they built 200 miles of underground tunnels underneath South Vietnam itself. This meant that they could take cover whenever a bombing raid was in process, as well as being able to jump out of the ground and surprise the Americans. They were able to deceive the Americans. This also meant that that even if the NLF soldiers were spotted, they could quickly jump back into the ground and make their escape. Due to all of this, the Americans found it very hard to pick out, find and stop the mobile enemy. The NLF also had an underground hospital system as a defence against bombing campaigns and chemical warfare by the US.
NLF guerrillas also set up thousands of booby-traps all around the jungles. The U.S soldiers did not notice these traps until it was too late. All of the tactics used by the NLF were to avoid direct confrontation with the U.S soldiers. They knew that if they did do this then they were certain to lose. So instead they cleverly mingled with the peasants and hid themselves away from the limelight. They then struck in groups in the jungle, which they knew best. This meant that the chances of them winning their small individual battles was much higher, and so doing this meant that they could gradually pick off parts of the American soldiers. This, in my opinion, is the reason that they won.
As well as this, the NLF knew when it was right to strike out at the Americans. They were also winning the propaganda war, and managed to make the American people aware that the U.S government had lied about what was going on in Vietnam. They knew that if they were able to attack American morale then it was almost as good as winning the war.
The NLF decided to go for one final surge, just to make the Americans clearly aware that they had no chance of winning this war. American taxes had just been raised due to the huge strain on the economy of the war, and morale was already quite low. So the NLF launched the “Tet Offensive”, where in January 1968 they captured 75% of the main towns in South Vietnam.
This was the first time during the War that they had been involved in full on fighting with the U.S. But yet again, the surprise element had worked in the NLF’s favour and they quickly managed to capture town after town. Pictures and video clips were soon sent back to the U.S.A and propaganda was again damaged. President Johnson now realised that it was his prerogative to end the war, other it would result in a loss for the U.S. Peace talks were then held.
The communists in Vietnam had not only survived, but had defeated arguably the strongest nation in the world.