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Why Military Advising Was So Successful in Vietnam…for the Chinese: And What the US Can Learn From It
In post-World War II Vietnam, the fact that the Vietnamese Communists consistently demonstrated more motivation to fight and maintained greater popular support than their adversaries leads many to conclude that the communist victory was inevitable and no military action would change what was ultimately a political situation favorable to the communists. It is true that the Vietnamese Communists did enjoy these advantages over the French and later the South Vietnamese government and its poorly motivated military forces. But military action was necessary for the Vietnamese Communists to force out the French and later to force out the South Vietnamese government. No popular uprising was sufficient to create the unified Vietnamese state under communist control without the military victory.
The Vietnamese Communist government and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) received some material assistance from the Soviet Union, but were primarily advised and assisted by People’s Republic of China (PRC) throughout most of the Indochina Wars. Those Vietnamese troops decisively defeated the French, survived a war of attrition against the US, and completely overran the South Vietnamese forces that had received decades of French and US assistance. It seems the Chinese must have done something right in their military assistance effort. There are undoubtedly many contributing factors that led to the success of the Chinese assistance effort in Vietnam. The three most significant of those factors will be examined to see how they facilitated such a success, and why it seems the US continues to have difficulty finding similar success.
The Historical Relationship Between Advisors and the Advised
The first key factor contributing to China’s successful assistance to the Vietnamese Communists was the dynamic of the relationship between the two countries. The Vietnamese Communists and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shared a common brotherhood from their leaders’ mutual involvement in the communist movements of the early twentieth century. Additionally, both countries had recently emerged from struggles against the Japanese and had both been the victims of western imperialism. But perhaps even more important, the two countries shared a much longer historical relationship. The Chinese empires had always exerted a significant cultural and philosophical influence on Vietnam, a country on the periphery of the old Chinese tributary system. But Vietnam also had its own unique heritage and with it a history of resisting Chinese interference in Vietnamese affairs[I].
This created a situation where some cultural similarities mixed with the shared communist ideology and resistance to colonialism would facilitate a mutual understanding and a good working relationship. Yet this was balanced by a history of Vietnamese independence and mistrust toward their larger neighbor. This second element of the relationship is important because though Vietnam and China quickly established an effective cooperative relationship, this sense of Vietnamese independence helped Vietnamese Communist leadership resist attempts by the Chinese to play too active a decision making role in what was after all a Vietnamese struggle.
In contrast, the US advisors shared no historical background with their South Vietnamese counterparts, and there was a complete lack of cultural understanding between the two. American advisors were confident in their experience from World War II and the Korean War, and any reluctance by their Vietnamese counterparts to do exactly as the Americans would do was often perceived as laziness or incompetence[II]. The foundational relationship for a successful military assistance partnership was simply not strong as it was for the Chinese and the Vietnamese Communists.
The Assistance and Mentorship Was Appropriate
The second key factor in China’s military assistance success was the nature of the support given. They say that generals go to war attempting to fight their last war. Likewise, advisors enter into their missions attempting to advise the supported military based on how the advisors fought their last war. But in this case it just so happens that the doctrine of China’s People’s War along with the lessons learned fighting the US in Korea were strategically and tactically an effective fit for the Vietnamese struggle against the French, the US, and western supported Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces.
Additionally, the type of materiel supplied by China was a good fit for the situation. China, and to a growing extent later the Soviet Union, supplied all of Vietnam’s sophisticated equipment including vehicles, artillery, and aircraft. Both countries also provided anti-aircraft forces to defend North Vietnam. Yet despite the weaponry provided by China and The Soviet Union, the PAVN remained and infantry-centric army, and the vast majority of weaponry provided was small arms[III]. The limited amounts of aircraft, tanks, and artillery served to support the capabilities of a jungle fighting infantry force that was not afraid of taking heavy casualties[IV]. This is what the PAVN were already accustomed to.
The PAVN, were effective with their small arms equipped large formation infantry attacks, coordinated with the southern Viet-Cong insurgency, and Chinese advisors and arms enhanced this capability. They were then able to augment that capability by incorporating some modern weapons into their forces with some effective tactical and strategic benefits[V]. But the Chinese advisors did not break down what the Vietnamese were already good at and then attempt to rebuild them into an industrialized force with no industrial foundation. Nor could they had they tried, as the PRC itself was only a partially industrialized nation. The PAVN would go on to win with mostly infantry forces, finally rolling their tanks triumphantly into a Saigon city that had already been defeated by infantry and insurgency.
This is in stark contrast to the ARVN forces who, as US support decreased later in the war, complained that their way of fighting had become dependent on massive amounts of supply and ammunition and significant air support[VI]. They had become accustomed to fighting a materiel and ordnance heavy fight like their US advisors, which was not at all suited to the nature of counterinsurgency warfare fought among the civilian population. Nor were such methods of fighting suited to the ARVN forces capacity to sustain it.
Advising and Assisting Without Creating Dependency
These first two factors facilitated the third and possibly most significant factor contributing to China’s successful assistance mission; advising and assisting a weaker less experienced military without creating a dependency. If one were to ask Ho Chi Minh or Vo Nguyen Giap during the 1950s or 60s how desperately they needed Chinese support, they undoubtedly would have answered “very desperately.” This was especially true during the war against the French where the Chinese played a more significant leadership role for the fledgling PAVN forces. Mao’s CCP and PLA provided this support both inspirationally through example and communist teachings, and militarily with equipment and advising. But if given less or no support at all, the Vietnamese Communist struggle would not have ended; rather they would have simply taken on a more protracted approach, digging in for the long war. The burden of this struggle was on the Vietnamese Communists and PAVN forces. They had the will to endure this struggle and the Chinese support under Mao’s guidance managed to assist this Vietnamese struggle while deliberate taking measures to avoid shifting the burden of that struggle to the Chinese. This empowered the Vietnamese ownership and built their confidence.
As the Vietnamese gained more experience and confidence, their willingness to reject Chinese advice also became emboldened. China was against the Vietnamese decision to launch large conventional attacks and against negotiating with the Americans in the late 60s and early 70s. Though Mao’s model was an effective foundation for the Vietnamese struggle, it needed to be adapted to the situation, not blindly followed dogmatically. Additionally, as it became clear that China’s priority was what was best for China and not what was best for Vietnam, confident Vietnamese leadership was needed to see the war through to completion and negotiate with the Americans unrestricted.
This relationship where the weaker military was able to receive guidance and assistance yet keep their feeling of ownership was possible because despite China’s advising or even the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) direct participation in the air defense of North Vietnam, Chinese forces never took on an active ground fighting role in the wars[VII]. To be clear, China’s assistance was critical. As Seals[VIII] points out, China provided professional advice, weapons, logistics, and a strategic deterrence against a US invasion of the North Vietnam. But the fighting was always left to the PAVN and thus China never took the feeling of ownership of away from the Vietnamese.
This is again in contrast to the American advisory mission in the south, demonstrated most clearly by the “Vietnamization” effort late in the war under President Nixon, which attempted to transition the ownership of the fight from the US back to the South Vietnamese. For the Communists there was no need for “Vietnamization”. It was always their war, not China’s. In the end, China’s advise and assist effort may have been too successful, as the Vietnamese Communists and the PAVN grew confident and strong enough to become a strategic threat to China by the late 1970s.
Conclusions and Lessons for the US
To summarize, China was successful in assisting the Vietnamese because of their existing relationship with the Vietnamese Communists, because the Chinese provided assistance and advice that was appropriate to the PAVN situation, and because the Chinese did not take the ownership of the fight away from the Vietnamese. The conclusion here is not that the Chinese were geniuses in their ability to analyze and match their advisory and assistance strategy perfectly to the Vietnamese situation, though they did demonstrate some skill. But moreover the success of their advisory effort seems to be the result of a natural fit between the Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds and situations, and the nature of how the CCP and PLA fresh off of their civil war and battles in Korea were inclined to try to apply those lessons learned to the next war. Those methods worked in Vietnam, especially early on. Additionally, the Vietnamese Communists were motivated for their cause and while China assisted their struggle, ownership remained with the Vietnamese who were able when necessary to reject China and press on to their final victory.
The difficult take away here is how can the US make use of these lessons. China’s success as advisors was heavily dependent on that particular situation. Much of the methodology could not be boiled down to a checklist and applied to another situation. If Mao and his 1950s era PLA attempted to take on the role of advisors to the struggling 21st century Iraqi military, for example, they might find themselves culturally, institutionally, and doctrinally mismatched for the role. That is the position the US repeatedly finds itself in while attempting to advise and assist allied militaries with which they have no shared history, philosophy, or cultural identity. To make matters worse the way the US is inclined to fight, and thus the way it is inclined to advise, its definition of “what right looks like,” is usually a poor match for the culture of the advised military and their industrial and institutional foundation. It is a poor match for the reality of their situation, as it was in Vietnam.
Acceptance of this fact then is the lesson, and the US needs to have realistic expectations. The exact factors will vary by situation but the US needs to recognize in each situation what can make a successful military assistance effort. If the US takes on a military assistance mission to a country whose culture, disposition, and capacity make it likely to absorb, make use of, and sustain US methods, they can expect some success. When circumstances are not so favorable, US forces will need to adjust their culture and doctrine and even the material assistance to try to assist in a way that fits the host forces situation. Unfortunately, this is something the US seems incapable of doing, at least on any large scale.
The Chinese may have simply been lucky to support a motivated and culturally compatible Vietnamese military. Given less favorable circumstances the task would no doubt have been exponentially more difficult. Could Mao’s PLA have advised the Vietnamese, if necessary, in a strategy other than People’s War? Could it have successfully advised a military with which it shared no culture or history if the situation required it? Could Chinese encouragement have provided the necessary enthusiasm for the cause if the Vietnamese Communists were reluctant? One can only speculate. More importantly, can the US advise any of its allies in anything other than its own methods and doctrine if the situation requires something different? Can it tailor advising and assistance to a military that culturally is a poor fit for US institutions? Can the US encourage host nation ownership? Judging from the current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the answer unfortunately seems to be no.
[I] Zhai, Qiang. (1993 ). Transplanting the Chinese Model: Chinese Military Advisers and the First Vietnam War, 1950-1954. The Journal of Military History. 57: 689-715.
[II] Hickey, G. C. (1965). The American Military Advisor and his Counterpart: The Case of Vietnam. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
[III] Zhai, Qiang. (2000). China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. See Table 1
[IV] Dukier describes how late in the war North Vietnam was still plagued by logistical problems and lack of experience effectively utilizing tanks and artillery. Additionally Vietnam failed to secure what it considered “substantial” Soviet and Chinese assistance to help launch their final campaigns.
Additionally, Boniface and Toperczer both recorded firsthand accounts from North Vietnamese MiG pilots who describe how North Vietnamese airpower was limited based on the small numbers of available aircraft and pilots. Knowing they could not gain air superiority over the Americans nor defeat their bombing campaigns, the Vietnamese used guerilla-type tactics in the air to minimize their losses while attacking American aircraft when they were most vulnerable. This fit within the overall Vietnamese Communist strategy of making the war costly for the Americans in order to eventually persuade them to withdraw.
All of this is meant to reinforce the point that the Vietnamese Communist forces could make some use of modern military equipment when available, but that that the limited quantity and their limited capacity to sustain and incorporate modern equipment to its full potential kept infantry as the centerpiece of their military strategy.
Boniface, Roger (2010). MIGs over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat 1965-75. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Dukier, William J. (1981). The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Toperczer, István. (1998). Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. Carrollton TX: Squadron/Signal Publications.
[V] The effectiveness of Russian and Chinese supplied artillery under Chinese guidance at the battle of Dien Bien Phu is a well-known example of the when modern weapons made a tactical impact for the Vietnamese Communists that led to a strategic victory.
[VI] Dukier, William J. (1981). The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
[VII] Xiaobing Li describes at its peak 170,000 Chinese troops, mostly anti-aircraft forces, were present in North Vietnam. While this helped defend North Vietnam and thus free up more Vietnamese troops to invade south, there is no indication that Chinese troops participated south of the border.
Li, Xiaobing. (2007) A History of the Modern Chinese Army. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.
[VIII] Seals, Robert. (2008) Chinese Support for North Vietnam during the Vietnam War: The Decisive Edge. MilitaryHistoryOnline.com. http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/20thcentury/articles/chinesesupport.aspx