James Long, Ph.D., P.E. Retired Analog and RF Consulting Engineer
What Really Happened in Vietnam
"What the fuck, over. What the fuck, out." Commonly heard on tactical radio nets in Vietnam.
If you arrived here from a search engine, you will probably be interested in other similar pages.
FTA (F-word The Army), James Long, late Captain, USAR
US Army Airborne, Electronics, and Special Warfare Board, Fort Bragg
361st Signal Battalion, Vietnam
143rd Field Artillery Group, Camp Irwin
Over the years I have come in contact with strange and wonderful people (and books) that supplied me with the pieces that are fit together below along with my personal experience there. The phrase contracted to FTA is commonly heard in the army.
If you think this description is drastic, you should read A Rumor of War for someone Else's view of the military side, Decent Interval for someone Else's view of the CIA, and Henry Kissinger's memoirs for the political side.
Vietnam has a long history of invasions by foreigners who settled and pushed the previous wave of foreigners further inland. (England has a similar history.) The French, read that Michelin tire company, were among the last wave of invaders. The French were worse than the NAZI SS in brutality to people who objected to their coming in and taking over their country. The Japanese came after them and the French abandoned the Vietnamese people's fate to the Japanese war criminals. The US send soldiers to help defend the Vietnamese. This impressed the Vietnamese leaders.
After the war, the Michelin tire company moved back in even though the writing was on the wall about the inferiority of rubber for tires. The Vietnamese leaders appealed in person to president Eisenhower for help in forming a democratic country modeled after the US. Charles de Gaulle threatened to pull France out of NATO if the US helped the Vietnamese. (They pulled out of NATO anyway.) This is a classic example of trading short term gains for long term losses. Expediency never pays in the long run. The Vietnamese leaders thought that they had no choice but to go from the frying pan into the fire with the Soviets.
All of the players traded modest short-term gains for disastrously large long term losses. This is invariably the choice government ministers take. Government ministers commonly optimize their narrow field to the detriment of all others for a net loss to society. With the growing role of government in society, more problems will be inflicted on society by government ministers while the segment of society that produces a surplus that could have relieved the victims of government ministers will be made smaller.
The U S Military was affected by the victory in WWII. Glory hounds and lazy lay abouts looking for a safe job were the people attracted to the military. Since there were no wars to weed out the lesser talented people, it was the lesser talented people who rose to the top by flattery and boasting. [In Dante's Inferno flatterers and boasters are put pretty far down in the hotter parts of Hell. Dorothy L. Sayers was considering writing a sequel to Inferno in which the bottom part of Hell was drastically enlarged to hold journalist and advertisers.]
The U S Politicians, notably presidents Kennedy and Johnson were true bureaucrats. That is, they never admitted a mistake no matter how obvious it was or how man people suffered from it. One example was that president Eisenhower and premier Khrushchev talked big but did not authorize much military equipment. President Kennedy won the election based on the US having a deficiency of rockets and atomic bombs. After he came to power, he realized differently. However, he went ahead with the production of more and more atomic bombs and rockets. The USSR had to keep up. This put the arms race into overdrive.
Both presidents were totally lacking in military skills. President Kennedy would have been court martialed for dereliction of duty which caused his PT boat be run over by a larger ship if his father were not a prominent politician (and a NAZI supporter before that became unpopular). His decision on the Bay of Pigs was the worst of the possible selections. From all indications, it was probably made by his wife while he was on a drug high.
The U S Intelligence agencies were staffed with people who were more interested in their promotions and pensions than anything else. When presidents Kennedy and Johnson made serious, elementary blunders, the agency did not make much of a fuss.
All U S entities listed above held the logical fallacy that since the north had limited physical resources, they must be mentally deficient and easy to overcome. The other problem was that, at least initially, Europe was the primary focus of the organizations. The first string players were assigned to Europe, the second string to other places.
The North was in the usual position of danger, and thus the leaders, military and political, were purged of lazy lay abouts, boasters, and flatterers to leave the talented people who made the best use of their limited resources. This included a superb intelligence system.
The South had its leaders chosen by outsiders. The criteria used was conformity to western social customs. One leader had been a professional student and had no leadership experience. His wife's favorite amusement, after becoming first lady, was to watch staged performances of women beating up men.
Basic War Conduct
Because of the swift communications, this was the first war that was conducted in paper work fairy land. That is, what was reported in memos and reports was more important than what happened in the real world. The people in the field had their activities micro managed on a continuous basis by their superiors via radio.
The US Air Force was scored on how many bombs they dropped. They maximized this by flying the same direct routes to each target to minimize fuel consumption. The superb intelligence system of the north spotted this and had fishing trawlers on each route to report, with 12 hours advanced notice, which target areas were to be bombed. This 12 hours gave the target area to prepare and minimize the effects of the bombing.
Another US Air Force story involved their automated target detection system along the infiltration routes. The claims for trucks put out of working order were so large that these routes should have resembled the Los Angeles freeway system at gridlock. Photo reconnaissance revealed no damaged trucks. US policy continued to be based on the air force reports. It was a standing joke that there were these microbes that came out each night and ate up the damaged trucks.
The US Intelligence Agencies knew about this, but could do nothing because presidents Kennedy and Johnson would not admit a mistake and would be angered and penalize the intelligence agency for disturbing their world view from their ivy league ivory towers.
Garbage In Garbage Out
Secretary of Defense McNamara was enamored with operations research, but did not understand its limitations. He had an analysis done of small unit formations and the casualties taken in each. They then specified a formation that had the overall smallest casualties. They did not realize that terrain, day/night, and weather had their own optimum formation. The north caught on and held ambushes only in situations that were the worst for this formation. The lieutenants notices this and used the formations that were the best in each situation. The military leaders found out and started forcefully to enforce the formation directives. No one wanted to be the one to upset Secretary of Defense McNamara by telling him that his pet project was causing unnecessary casualties and minimizing the effectiveness of the army.
Both the secretary of defense and President Johnson did not like to be shown to have made any mistakes. Their subordinates felt that these two were so vindictive that they never showed evidence of the pet projects not working in fear that they would never be promoted for the rest of their careers. Here are some examples of projects that did not work but were continued. Supply roads were bombed so that trucks could not use them. People pushing bicycles did use them. Supplies were never interrupted. Ground sensors could and were fooled by cheap easy countermeasures. These sensors were continually used to direct resources that were wasted on empty fields.
Every facet of the south was penetrated by northern intelligence agents. The CIA knew this, but nothing was done about it. Wave after wave of agents were sent into the north into the hands of reception committees. No POWs were ever rescued. Major military operations produced few results.
No one wanted to upset the apple cart and jeopardize their promotions and pensions by telling president Johnson that his idea of "Vietnamization" of the war did not work.
Several War Stories
from my personal experience:
Here is an example of the type of talent in the US Army back then. Some of the NCOs of our unit were towing a trailer designed for a 3/4 ton truck with a 1/4 ton truck. The trailer was also overloaded. On a freshly graveled level city street within the city limits they went off the road into a drainage ditch and turned both trailer and truck on their side.
In order to prevent future accidents of this kind, our unit commander, a lifer with a regular army commission, published a driving regulation. You will never guess what it contained. You would expect such things as not overloading trailers and only pulling trailers with trucks they were designed for.
The regulation said that all vehicles on the mountainous road south of town would always go 15 mph or slower. The Vietcong controlled the surrounding mountain sides and took pot shots at the passing vehicles. No one in their right mind was going to slow down and allow them to take better aim.
This same commander managed by secret knowledge. He would not tell anyone what was going on. When his superior officer came to inspect, he would save the day when his subordinates did not function with full knowledge.
from a former CIA field agent I know:
The air force flew straight lines from their bases to the targets in Vietnam. Soviet trawlers were placed along each route and radioed the flight information to the north. This allowed them to know when a target would be bombed, and they made preparations with 12 or more hours notice.
from a South Vietnamese Army Captain I know:
[This person did such dangerous missions for six years that he had a cyanide capsule in one of his teeth so that he could kill himself if captured.] He would radio back the location of targets, such as a group of 50 - 100 tanks parked in the Ho Chi Minh trail. The USAF would wait three days to bomb the area and by that time the tanks had left. On other occasions he would radio in sightings and was told to not mention them on his written report. He was ordered to do no damage to the equipment and infrastructure of the other side. There was a hostile reception at the insertion or extraction point of secret missions. He reported that the service was infiltrated, but nothing was done. Time and time again agents were sent to their deaths. A competently run service would have started a new organization with new people.
from one of my friends with contacts:
The US Air Force would run their tactical fighter bomber missions on a strict schedule so that the other side would know when they were coming and have their anti aircraft artillery and rockets in readiness. The only result of the bombing campaign was the death and capture of US pilots. No one corrected this situation.
from another source:
An example of the talent in the State Department people was the aggressive advertising campaign and the provision of free transportation for people in the North to go South when the country was partitioned in 1954. This eliminated all of the potential intelligence assets in the North. This lack of assets was a major contributor to the loss of the war.
from what I was told while sitting around the campfire on Special Forces operations:
President Kennedy did not understand how Special Forces worked and mistook quantity for quality. He ordered their expansion even though it caused less talented, motivated, and morally upright people to be included. President Kennedy then ordered them on operations that were politically unwise and immoral.
from some of my readings:
President Johnson micromanaged the war even though he was totally incompetent as a military leader. (He was very immoral and dishonest. He was in Hawaii planning the bombing of the North while at the same time condemning the opposing presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, for advocating the bombing of the North.) He had the CIA draw up a list of 500 possible bombing targets in the North, ranking them in importance. President Johnson ordered their bombing starting at the bottom of the list. This produced an unfavorable return on the losses of aircraft and aircrews which were shot down on the raids to the unimportant targets. All epxerts on war claim that the other side will quit the soonest if the greatest damage is done to them in the shortest time period. This was born out with the interviews of the surviving German leaders about the different air raids in WWII.
Legacy of the War
The war left many subtle legacies. The draft deferment system caused many marriages of convenience and misery. It also produced many unwanted children that suffered from the results of lack of love of their parents.
Illegal drugs became popular with their medical effect on society. The demand financed crime.
The worst tragedy of the war occurred in the surrounding nations. There were forces poised to commit genocide in such places as Cambodia and it was only the implied threat of the US armed forces that held them in bay. The antiwar forces in congress were so committed to reaping the political advantages of opposing the war that they proposed to introduce legislation to keep the US out of all of the surrounding nations. There were on going negotiations with the genocide forces, but once they heard of the proposed legislation, the started their work. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had asked that the announcement be delayed a few days so that the treaty could be signed, but people like Senator Hatfield of Oregon and Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts were more interested in grand standing before the public than they were in millions of other peoples' lives. For more details, read Years Of Upheaval by Henry Kissinger.
One interesting aspect was revealed in The Pentagon Papers. While president Johnson was in Hawaii planning the bombing of the north, he was making campaign speeches denouncing candidate Barry Goldwater for advocating the bombing of the north. This was reported in one of the chapter summaries of the book. This serious stain on president Johnson's character was ignored by the journalists when discussing the book. This is not surprising. Denial is a part of human nature and journalists are not going to admit their reporting errors. An even larger set of errors is revealed by the recently declassified decodings of Soviet messages to their spies in this country during WWII. These show that all of the government officials publicly accused of being soviet agents just after the war were full time Soviet agents under the direction of Soviet case officers. The journalists of the time claimed that they weren't, even when physical evidence was shown in court.,
What made it worse, was the way President Johnson ordered the military to use the absolutely worst method to implement the bombing. A method that is opposite to classical theorists and recent experience in WWII. The president ordered that the lowest priority (out of 500 targets) be bombed first.
Honorable Soldiers from WWII Japan and Germany And a Dishonorable US General
First a memorial to two unknown soldiers. One of my clients comes from China. During WWII his family became refugees in order to escape from the fighting. One day they were in a remote area and were hungry and cold. A Japanese soldier came upon them and gave them his rations.
One of my relatives spent the last year of WWII in a German prison camp. Things were very grim. One of the guards was a veteran of WWI. He was kind to the prisoners whenever no one was looking. This raised their spirits so that they had the will power to continue living and were still alive when General Patton liberated them.
The moral to these two stories is that you never know what great benefits your small acts of kindness will produce. Never pass up an opportunity to be kind to others.
A post script to my relative's story. His only comments about his imprisonment during most of his lifetime was his thankfulness for the cold which kept disease down and the kindness of this one guard. In 1977 he died of a disease which affected his mind and not his body. During the last few days of his life he thought that he was still in the prison. From what he said, the cold and hunger were unbearable and the guards frequently performed impromptu acts of brutality on the prisoners to pass the time of day.
And a memorial of infamy for a US Army General in Italy during WWII. Italy has many easily defendable mountain ranges running across the peninsula. The German Army was going to move out of Rome and go north to the next mountain area. The Allies had previously landed north of Rome. The code breaking revealed the exact timing of the withdrawal. The General in charge of the landed force was ordered to move east to capture the German Army. Instead, he moved south to get the glory for "liberating" Rome. As a result of this fit of the mental illness of egomania and moral vice of vain glory, the German Army was able to pass safely north into a new defensive position. It took the Allies another year or two to defeat this German Army. During that time the Nazi death camps were in full production and killed a majority of their victims. Had the German Army been captured, the Allies would have marched North and ended the war a year or two earlier, the death camps would not have been able to kill so many people, and the Soviet Army would have been kept out of Eastern Europe.