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Assessing Pacification in Vietnam: We Won the Counterinsurgency War!
Originally published by Small Wars Journal on 23 March 2012.
This essay provides the perspective of a Foreign Service Officer who was involved in Vietnam in several capacities, including Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS), during 1965-75. He maintains that the South Vietnamese, with massive U.S. assistance, were decisively winning the counterinsurgency war by 1970 and had essentially won it by the time of the ceasefire. This was confirmed by a thorough study undertaken by the National Security Council’s Vietnam Special Studies Group (1970) and subsequent developments and assessments. By 1972, the war had become overwhelmingly conventional in nature, and the Viet Cong insurgents did not play an important role in determining its final outcome in 1975, when the South Vietnamese forces were overwhelmed by the North Vietnamese Army. Whether or not the South Vietnamese could have prevailed in the conventional war that followed the insurgency, had the U.S. continued to provide air and logistic support, is a “counter-factual” question that cannot be answered.
Few people realize that our side – the South Vietnamese, with massive assistance from the United States – actually won the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. Pacification, the term we generally used in those days for counterinsurgency, was a success! Some “revisionist” scholars, such as Lewis Sorley, Mark Moyar, and others, have come to understand this. I have believed it since the early 1970s.
Following my 1965-68 assignments as vice consul in Hué, staff aide to Ambassador Lodge in Saigon, and assistant province senior advisor with the pacification program in Quang Tri, the State Department sent me to another war zone: Cambridge, Massachusetts, where student anti-war protesters brought Harvard to a standstill for several days. I was there to get a master’s degree at the Kennedy School of Government, and one of my professors was Henry Kissinger, whom I had first met during one of his visits to Vietnam. He left Harvard in January 1969 to become National Security Advisor in the new Nixon administration. After I had completed my studies that spring and returned to the State Department to work as a Vietnam analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in October I managed to get myself seconded to the National Security Council as the State representative on the newly-created Vietnam Special Studies Group (VSSG). I welcomed this opportunity to work for my former professor.
A Change in Strategy
Until 1968, although U.S. forces won all their battles, and South Vietnamese conventional combat forces won most of theirs as well, the pacification effort had met with little success in wresting control of the countryside from the Viet Cong. In the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, however, with enemy forces weakened by their heavy losses, there was an intensified focus by the U.S. and South Vietnamese commands on pacification. This involved a new population-centric strategy in which clear-and-hold operations replaced search-and-destroy operations, progress was measured by improved security in the villages and hamlets rather than by body counts following battles, and the previously disjointed U.S. structure for implementing pacification was unified into a much more effective civil-military organization called CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). Soon, there were signs of progress, and by 1969, the change was noted in Washington. However, there was still considerable mistrust of the official reporting from Saigon, which had long been viewed as overly optimistic, especially after the shock of Tet made General Westmoreland’s 1967 claims of steady progress and diminishing enemy capability look out of touch with reality.
Kissinger and the new administration recognized the critical importance of pacification and control of the countryside in successfully implementing their strategy of gradually withdrawing U.S. combat forces, strengthening the South Vietnamese government, and achieving a ceasefire that would leave the South Vietnamese in a position to maintain their independence. Thus, Kissinger ordered a thorough study of the situation in the Vietnamese countryside to be undertaken by the NSC, and the VSSG was created for this purpose. Managed by a senior NSC staff member, the study team included two CIA officers, three military officers, a Defense Department civilian, and me, representing State. All of us had Vietnam experience. It was made clear to us from the beginning that we were to conduct the study and develop our conclusions as independent analysts working for the NSC, not as representatives of our home agencies.
(Experienced bureaucrats will recognize that this mandate was more problematic than it might seem, and in fact I soon found myself in conflict with my boss at the State Department, a career civil servant who had strong opinions about the Vietnam War even though he had never so much as visited the country. For the purposes of the VSSG project, which for seven months became my full-time job, he was not in practice my boss, although he didn’t see it that way. Forced to choose between his instructions and those of Henry Kissinger, I chose the latter. This worked out fine until my annual performance evaluation, which nearly ended my Foreign Service career.)
Measuring Population Control
We began the study with a thorough review of pacification-related reporting from all the agencies involved. The objective was to develop an accurate picture of the degree of actual control by each side of the populated rural areas of South Vietnam, beginning in January 1967 and continuing through December 1969. Using data from the Hamlet Evaluation System (monthly reports on security, governance, and socio-economic factors prepared by U.S. advisors in each district and province), and validating it for relevance and accuracy with other reporting and observations, we developed a “VSSG control indicator” that assigned the population of each hamlet to South Vietnamese Government (GVN) or Viet Cong (VC) control only if the security organization of one side was strong enough to exclude the other side from any practical control of that population. (South Vietnam was administratively divided into 44 provinces, each of which had about 6-8 districts. The districts were divided into a dozen or so villages, each of which contained perhaps 8-10 hamlets. Hamlet populations varied from a few dozen people to several hundred.)
Specifically, a hamlet was considered under GVN control if:
- It was protected by security forces evaluated as adequate by the U.S. District Senior Advisor (normally an Army captain); and
- A fully functioning GVN administration was resident 24 hours a day.
A hamlet was rated under VC control if:
- It contained resident VC guerrillas or if it was subject to attack from within the village or nearby areas; and
- The VC political infrastructure was resident or able to inhibit GVN activity.
Hamlets that did not meet the criteria for control by either side were rated under the influence of the stronger side or of both sides.
Following this development of a conceptually sound way of defining control of the countryside and analysis of the data and reporting available in Washington, which was completed in December 1969, the next phase of the project consisted of in-depth studies of 12 key provinces, including field visits to these provinces by the VSSG analysts. The province studies and visits continued through March 1970. In addition to further validating our control indicator and developing a comprehensive assessment of pacification in these provinces, we were asked to examine the implications of our findings for U.S. troop withdrawals, which were then getting underway, and for a potential ceasefire then being discussed.
The final VSSG report was completed on April 15, 1970. This now-declassified report, entitled “The Situation in the Countryside,” should be available in manuscript form in at least some archives of Vietnam War material. I obtained a copy from the library of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. Here are its principal conclusions:
- During 1967, VC control of the rural population dropped only slightly, from 52% to 49%, while GVN control inched up from 16% to 20%. The remainder was contested, under varying degrees of influence by both sides. (The GVN had control of all the urban areas, which contained about 38% of the total population.)
- With the Tet Offensive in January 1968, VC control of the rural population jumped to 55% while GVN control fell to 14%, as South Vietnamese forces were withdrawn from rural areas to defend cities.
- By the summer of 1968, the respective control figures had returned to pre-Tet levels and the GVN began to make rapid progress in the pacification struggle. This progress continued throughout the rest of 1968 and all of 1969.
- In December 1969, the VC controlled only 8% of the rural population, while the GVN controlled 62%. Adding in the urban areas, this meant the GVN controlled 76% of the total population, the VC controlled 5%, and 19% was under some degree of influence by both.
- This rapid rate of progress was slowing in late 1969 and early 1970, as new North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces were being introduced while U.S. units had begun to withdraw.
- GVN territorial forces (Regional Force, Popular Force, and People’s Self-Defense Force) had increased substantially in size and had become more effective, and GVN administrative leadership had improved, although serious weaknesses remained in both.
- While the VC had lost much of their previous popular support, this was mostly the result of the enemy’s declining military position rather than a cause of it. Popular support generally followed rather than led control, and current majority support for the GVN remained subject to reversal if enemy military fortunes improved.
- Despite the impressive gains in pacification, the enemy was not near defeat in early 1970. He had adopted a protracted war strategy, building up NVA forces in remote base areas and cross-border sanctuaries while awaiting an advantageous political settlement or, failing that, planning an escalated military strategy following withdrawal of U.S. forces.
- GVN regular and territorial forces were not yet sufficiently strong to maintain the current level of control without substantial U.S. assistance.
The war’s trajectory from 1970 to its end in 1975 generally bore out the accuracy of the VSSG assessment.
Soon after conclusion of the VSSG project, I departed the State Department for an assignment in Chiangmai, Thailand; but I was called back to Washington in 1973 to serve as political officer on the Vietnam desk in State’s East Asia Bureau. In that capacity, I had access to the relevant data and reporting as well as the opportunity for extended visits to Vietnam, so I tried informally to follow up on the VSSG findings. I reached the following conclusions:
- From 1970 until the 1973 ceasefire, pacification progress had continued but much more slowly than previously, and after the ceasefire, the struggle for control of the countryside was essentially stalemated.
- At the time of the ceasefire, the GVN controlled close to 80% of the rural population plus all the urban population, or about 90% of the total. Enemy control was about 5%, with the rest contested.
- The regular South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and territorial forces had continued to improve under the “Vietnamization” program as U.S. forces were withdrawn. This was demonstrated when they successfully turned back the all-out enemy offensive of 1972 without the assistance of U.S. ground combat forces (albeit with massive U.S. air and logistic support).
- After the ceasefire and the drastic reduction of U.S. military and economic assistance which shortly followed, the strength and effectiveness of the South Vietnamese forces declined rapidly during 1974 and early 1975. In contrast, the North Vietnamese regular forces during this period had fully recovered from their 1972 defeat and were stronger than ever before. The Ho Chi Minh trail had become a highway, bringing almost all the North Vietnamese Army into base areas in or near South Vietnam, where they were preparing another all-out offensive.
- The Viet Cong insurgency had been weakened to the point that it was no longer a major element in the war, which by 1972 had lost almost all the characteristics of an insurgency. It had become overwhelmingly a conventional war fought by conventional forces, and it remained so after the ceasefire (which was never effectively observed by either side).
On my last visit to Vietnam, in late 1974, I spent three weeks traveling in Quang Tri, Hué, and Danang as well as consulting in Saigon with Vietnamese friends and Americans in the U.S. Mission. Even though the government was still in control of an overwhelming majority of the population, it was clear that the situation was becoming desperate. While NVA attacks were increasing and intelligence pointed to strong and rapidly growing North Vietnamese forces preparing for a massive general offensive, supply shortages were forcing the South Vietnamese to reduce military operations and curtail training; lack of fuel and spare parts had essentially grounded the air force; some units at the end of long supply lines were literally running out of ammunition; and – not surprisingly in such circumstances – morale was declining rapidly.
Combining these findings with data available in Washington, I wrote a report that drew considerable attention in the State Department, including from Secretary Kissinger. Contrary to the still-optimistic reports coming from Ambassador Graham Martin and the U.S. Embassy, I concluded that in the absence of immediately and massively renewed American support (which had become politically impossible because of Congressional opposition) South Vietnam would fall and the war would be lost not later than the summer of 1975.
In his memoirs (Years of Renewal, Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 483), Kissinger discussed my report and quoted from it:
On December 20, 1974, the State Department’s Vietnam desk officer, James R. Bullington, wrote a moving and extraordinarily prescient report after a visit to Saigon….Interspersing his report with human interest vignettes of the growing despair among South Vietnamese, Bullington concluded that, without the supplemental [appropriation from Congress], South Vietnam’s position was hopeless. We had reached the point where, if the supplemental failed to materialize, only one option would be left to mitigate our country’s dishonor:
If the supplemental fails, we should also consider ways and means of saving as many anti-Communist South Vietnamese as possible. For example, do we not have a certain obligation to those many thousands of Vietnamese and their families who are present or former employees of the USG? To fail to help such people escape would, I believe, add considerable dishonor to our defeat in South Vietnam.
The counterinsurgency we waged in Vietnam was failing prior to 1968, but thereafter the new population-centric strategy, the increased support for South Vietnamese forces, the heightened focus on pacification, and the improved effectiveness achieved with the CORDS reorganization, all combined to bring success during the 1968-72 period. By the time of the ceasefire, the Viet Cong insurgents were no longer capable of playing a major role in determining the outcome of the war. In 1975, it was not insurgents, but the regular army of North Vietnam, operating in division-size formations and supported by armor and artillery, that defeated the armed forces of South Vietnam, which had been crippled by drastic cuts in U.S. funding and supplies. The North Vietnamese were forced to adopt this conventional war strategy because of the failure of the insurgency they had sponsored in the South.
Whether or not South Vietnam could have prevailed in the conventional war with North Vietnam that followed the insurgency, had we continued to provide air support plus sufficient aid and logistic assistance after 1973, is a question of counter-factual history that can never be answered.