The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 6 - June 1970

South Vietnam - Profit or Loss?

A talk given to the South African Military History Society



Bryan Chilvers, a News Editor of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, was selected "Newsman of the Year" in 1968. His reward was a trip to the United States. From there he was sent by the S.A.B.C. to South Vietnam to compile a series of reports on the war. This is a synopsis of his views as given in an address last year to our Society.

In May last year I spent a fortnight in South Vietnam, traipsing that beautiful country from the demilitarised zone in the north, to the swamplands of the south. After long briefing sessions, first in Washington and then in Saigon, I mingled with the fighting men of the armed services, not only of the United States, but of South Vietnam and their other allies. In addition, I spent many hours in the company of newsmen and "Saigon warriors". Although I merely had a kaleidoscopic glimpse of the South Vietnam picture, it upset all my preconceptions gained by reading news agency reports in my Johannesburg office half a world away from the battle scene. In advance of my Vietnam visit, U.S. involvement in that foreign field seemed an exercise in futility; I now regard it as an exercise in nobility. I went to Vietnam as a dove; I returned as a hawk.

In London, and wherever I went in the States, and then in Saigon, I was warned by Pressmen that I would be brainwashed and conned by the sharp guys of the State Department, and by professional briefing officers of the U.S. armed forces, that the whole operation was proving more than worth while, that South Vietnam had been saved, and that the Communists were as good as licked. To be sure that was the line taken by the briefing officers, and they were the sharpest, the most articulate and convincing band of dedicates I have met in a long career in journalism. Their enthusiasm was refreshing after the cynicism of the corps of Pressmen covering the war, and in my view covering it badly. Humanity is a vulture which feeds on sensation, and the Press corps in Saigon certainly provides the carrion. Their editors demand it.

Generally, they are blood and guts writers, and their collective efforts have contributed in large measure towards turning nearly half the great American public against the war. The positive aspects, the very objectives of this multi-billion dollar exercise, receive little or no coverage, and through their pens, and the lenses of TV cameras, Uncle Sam is made to look like the bully boy of the Orient. It is doubtful whether one in a hundred Americans realises just what their administrations have done and are doing to give the Vietnamese people a better and fuller life under a system of government of their choosing. I for one -- and through the years, I have been at the receiving end of millions of words of news copy; datelined "Saigon" -- had not read the words "pacification programme" in umpteen thousand dispatches. And yet it is the pacification effort which makes sense of the long and bloody clash of arms.

My visit to the States coincided with one of the (almost weekly) anti-war demonstrations. The TV cameras focussed on gnashing teeth and brandished fists. It was powerful stuff. Treated to such weekly fare, it is little wonder that the American conscript or recruit has no heart in the fight when he wings or sails eastward to do a year-long tour of duty in South Vietnam.

Like such recruits, TV, radio and press coverage of the war had left me with misgivings (despite a long Pentagon briefing) before I soared in comfort to Tan Son Nhut Airport, Saigon (the busiest airport in the world, and quite the most horrible).

I expected to rub shoulders with demoralised and sloppy soldiery. But I found just the reverse.

It seems to me that there is metamorphosis during that long haul across the Pacific. It is as if the fighting man realises that he has a grim job to do, and that the only course open to him is to make the best of it. Academic arguments about U.S. involvement dissipate in slipstream or wake.

What are these academic arguments, and how did the United States get mired in the Vietnam quicksand? Forty-two years ago, Communists under Ho Chi Minh began planning the take-over of the whole of South East Asia, beginning on home ground. In Vietnam, their first step was to seize leadership in opposing French rule. Vietnam was part of French Indo-China at the time, and the French administrators personified colonialism at its worst. They were loathed by the peasants, and hate is a great catalyst. Few Vietnamese shed tears when the Japanese moved in after the fall of France in 1940 and occupied Indo-China. The Vietnamese reasoned that eastern imperialism was, at least, better than western imperialism represented by France, but to Mr. Ho neither was acceptable and he kept on plotting.

The tide of war turned, and back came the French in 1945 to pick up the threads. By this time, Ho had completed the groundwork, and was leader of an all-party alliance -- "the League for the Independence of Vietnam", better known as the "Vietminh".

This group launched a political and military campaign against the French and this ended with the French eclipse at Dien Bien Pho in 1953. A loathing for the French still lingers. As one South Vietnamese leader put it to me, "the French legacy was two-fold -- mistrust of the westerner, and the brassiere!"

It was at this time that the best laid schemes of Hanoi went wrong. Hatred had unified the country, but with the humiliation of the oppressor, gone was the catalyst. North and South did not unite under the Ho banner. In terms of the armistice agreement, the people of Vietnam, split down the middle at the 17th Parallel, were allowed to move to whichever half of the divided country they preferred. A million moved south, and a mere 90-thousand north. But, as a form of insurance against any shocks there might be in proposed Vietnam-wide elections, tens of thousands of hardcore Communists and huge stocks of arms and ammunition stayed under cover in the south.

A South Vietnamese Government entrenched itself, cocked a snoot at Uncle Ho, and said words to the effect, "rule your own domain, we'll rule ours; we want no part in a Vietnam plebiscite." That was the beginning of the sneaky civil war which has been going on since 1956 and escalating year by year. Ho apparently believed that the well-organised, highly motivated, well-armed undercover force in the south would by painful persuasion bring the southerners into the northern fold.

There is little doubt that Hanoi's dream of unity under the red banner, and then the gobbling up of neighbouring territories would have come true had the United States not responded to the southerners' appeal for help. Had Hanoi succeeded in its design, there is also little doubt that, by the time of his death, Uncle Ho would have presided over an empire extending westwards for thousands of miles. The fact is that President Eisenhower did respond to an appeal for help. His gunboat diplomacy did not work; the gunboats were fired upon, and so was the token force of U.S. soldiers sent out to do little more than show the flag. Uncle Sam, whose beard had been well and truly tugged, sent out more troops, but the more he sent, the greater became Vieteong resistance. At no time since 1956 has a face-saving withdrawal been possible, and so the United States has had to go in boots and nearly all.

On reaching South Vietnam, G.I. Joe joins the most sophisticated fighting force in history, and he is the most molly-coddled soldier since the beginning of time. He has superb equipment, tasty chow, and field pay which permits near-luxury living half a world from home. The soldier hit and hurt is whirled out of the combat area in no time flat, and the death rate of battlefield casualties in this war is less than two per cent of those wounded, a far lower percentage than in any war yet fought. This has been made possible through the fantastic MEDIVAC system which ensures that no casualty in even the remotest part of the country is more than an hour away (by helicopter) from an air-conditioned hospital.

In the field, no commander is more than 15 minutes from air support. A radioed cry for help and, within a quarter of an hour at the outside, helicopter gunships and/or fighter bombers are overhead, and their fire power is indescribable. The Allies have complete mastery of the skies and of the seas; every square inch of South Vietnam is within range of Allied heavy artillery; and an elaborate Radar network ensures additional protection. These factors, plus the knowledge that, under political pressure, field commanders take pains to minimise casualties, contribute to the surprisingly high morale of the G.I.s. Soldiers have never had it so good, but I feel the American serviceman in that spooky land has disproved the theory that to be tough, a soldier must be made to pig it! For a force made up for the most part of fairly raw soldiery its battlefield performance has been remarkably good. As an old gunner and member of a team firing a museum piece which could be trundled into action at no more than six miles an hour, a point of amazement to me was the fantastic mobility of the U.S. forces in Vietnam. Shortly before my arrival, a complete armoured division, personnel as well as all equipment from tanks to teaspoons, had been moved from the "J" Corps Zone in the North down to the Delta. Within 15 hours of the order to move, this force was in action in the Delta 400 miles to the south. And, I am told, not a teaspoon was lost. This super force is only one of the armies operating on the Allied side. It is operating in closer and closer concert with the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN for short).

The role being played by this Army has been underplayed by Western newsmen who concentrate almost exclusively on U.S. field engagements. There are 1,800,000 South Vietnamese (one tenth of the population) bearing arms against the Communists. They range from rugged veterans of the French campaign to boys and girls on guard in the hamlets. Pro rata they have suffered double the casualties of the Americans. At the time of my visit to Vietnam, ARVN pilots were flying one in four of the aerial sorties against the enemy, and were taking charge of more and more sophisticated weaponry, from guns to gunboats. A fighting force is only as good as its officers, and until a few years back, the quality of the ARVN officers left much to be desired. Much of the American expertise has brushed off on the new crop, and the all-round competence of the army has improved dramatically in recent years. All this is in accordance with the American policy of "Vietnamisation" of the war. Senior U.S. commanders consider that the ARVN forces (backed by the civilian militia) will be a match for the Communists when the United States finally disengages ... a process which I believe will take three or four years more if the sacrifice in blood and dollars is not to be negatived. It speaks volumes for the Communist opposition that, although battered and bashed for years by the U.S. forces, ARVN and units from Australia, the Phillipines Thailand and South Korea, it is still full of fight.

The North Vietnamese Army (the NVA) is made up of conscripts, recruited (I am told) not by age, but by weight. When a youngster tips the scales at 50 Kgs he is deemed capable of bearing a load of 25 Kgs. This load, made up as often as not of an AK-47 rifle, 200 rounds of ammunition, spare uniform, rice ration, rice bowl, and (strangely) a gas mask, is carried often for hundreds of miles down the Ho Chi Minh or Cambodian trails to the battle areas. For the NVA years go by without any luxury and under rigid discipline. In some units drug-taking is punishable by death, and so is sexual dalliance in the units which contain girls. The task of the NVA soldier must be the most unenviable in the world. He never knows where his next meal is coming from as there is always the chance that the hidden food cache to which he is marching may have been discovered and destroyed. And even in the triple canopy forests, there is threat of death from the skies, for the bombloads from the B-52's smash giant trees to matchwood. He knows that his enemy has overwhelming superiority in weaponry, and that his forces have taken terrible punishment, but still he fights doggedly, ruthlessly.

More than half a million Vietcong and NVA soldiers have been killed so far, but the bottom of the barrel has nowhere near been reached, and it is a chilling thought that the infiltration rate has not been checked. Furthermore, intelligence reports say that 3 1/2 times more weapons reached the enemy in 1969 than in the previous five years. NVA recruits are better uniformed and better equipped than their predecessors.

The enemy fighting machine was severely damaged during the Communist TET offensive of 1968, and in the two diminuendo offensives later that year. Since then, the Allied forces have encountered fewer and fewer big enemy formations. The battalions have split up into small, hard hitting packets operating largely by night. Unlike their western counterparts, they wage total war, women, children and oldsters too are all legitimate targets, and the more bloody the death, the greater the satisfaction. If they have an edge on the Allies it is in their effective use of terror as a weapon. There have been a thousand My Lai's in reverse, but these have barely rated a mention by the Saigon Press corps.

The use of terror as a weapon was amply illustrated after the Vietcong seized the ancient city of Hue. They selected upwards of 2,000 of the leading citizens, and marched them away to schools on the outskirts of the city, ostensibly to reindoctrinate them. Then, in squads of between 30 and 60, the intelligentsia were marched with picks and shovels into the gray dunelands, and there they were made to dig trenches as a toughening-up exercise. Only when they were trussed together like so many fowls and thrust to the edge of the pit did the awful truth dawn. No bullets were wasted on them: the executioner walked down the line clouting each victim at the base of the skull with a heavy hoe. At the end of the grisly business the holes were filled in, and those not already dead suffocated beneath the sand. The hidden grave sites were discovered because fertilization made the grass grow greener above the graves. During my tour of the sites, 809 bodies had been found, and the stench of death cloyed the duneland.

A rugged, ruthless foe is far from licked ... but he could be. As one American senior officer put it to me: "We are being forced to play to "Charlie's' rules in Charlie's ball park. I am having to fight a war without casualties. I sure as hell hate to fight a war we're not allowed to win.

There is a degree of frustration among the Allied fighting men, and with good reason. It makes no sense to them (and to me it seems a gross error of judgement) that the United States has called a halt to the bombing of targets north of the 17th Parallel. And so factories in the Communist North are able to produce all the hardware for the war and civilian machines; ships from Communist countries are allowed to berth unmolested in northern harbours; and convoys of troops are brought over undamaged roads to disembarkation points along the demilitarised zone. It simply doesn't make sense, and undoubtedly has prolonged the war and added to the misery of the South Vietnamese which the United States came to succour.

I gained an impression that the professional soldiers out East feel that they are in "Never-Never land" when enemy targets up north, and enemy troop concentrations in Cambodia and Laos are immune from attack. It seems crazy that the enemy should be allowed sanctuary on three sides. Notwithstanding these seeming follies of the politicians, 70 per cent of the surface area of Souths Vietnam is marked on maps as "pacified". In these pacified zones, refugees are returning, and reconstruction is in full swing.

This very fact is a signal of success. The object of the whole American exercise was to help smash the enemy's field forces operating in South Vietnam; to help destroy the "fifth column"; to make the country secure. It is axiomatic that people living in terror in a climate of anarchy (and that has been the plight of the South Vietnamese for many, many years) cannot progress in any way. They have needed a shield, and Uncle Sam has provided a shield behind which the South Vietnamese can pull themselves together and begin the task of nation-building. To this end, the Americans in South Vietnam are divided into two groups: the destroyers and the rebuilders.

It came as a surprise to me to hear many-starred generals talking with greater pride of the number of returning refugees and hamlets re-settled in areas under their command, than of the numbers of enemy killed in combat.

I was guest for a day of Lieutenant-General Clifford Drake, U.S. Marines, who is in charge of the pacification programme in the northernmost area of South Vietnam, fringing on the Demilitarised Zone. In an aerial tour of the Province of Quang Tri I was given a bird's eye view of pacification at work. In his personal helicopter, we flitted, hovered and landed finally on the island of Vin Loc. The entire province had been bomb-blasted. From the air it looked like a lunar landscape; bomb holes within bomb holes within bomb holes. But along the fringes of areas of total destruction, the brassy sun helioed off countless shiny tin roofs.

"That," he said, "is the glint of success, they're coming back, and they are rebuilding. . . and the Communist border is 20 miles away." We landed, and I saw for myself

Six months beforehand, Vin Loc had been a Communist stronghold. The fishing boats were rotting on the beaches, and the paddy fields were rank with weeds. The people were hopeless, helpless and on the brink of starvation. Then came a combined forces operation in which U.S. and ARVN forces wiped out an enemy field force, the islanders "fingered" all those with Communist leanings, and they were spirited away. Then, under the U.S. aid programme, the fishermen were provided with new nylon nets (many times more durable than those used through the centuries), and with cold boxes for storing their catch. The cold boxes enabled the boats to remain at sea almost indefinitely. The paddy fields were cleared and then planted with American-developed "wonder rice" which nearly doubles the yield per plant. Clinics were being built by the islanders to be stocked with American-provided medicines, and on that lazy Saturday afternoon, a sampan regatta was being held on the River of Perfume which separates the island from the mainland. On guard here and there were boys and girls carrying carbines.

I believe that Vin Loc is a microcosm of modern Vietnam. The people there have been given a chance, are seizing it and are happy, all through the munificence of Uncle Sam. This benevolent Uncle has spent an estimated $400,000 to kill one Vietcong. He is spending almost as much in helping each South Vietnamese to a fuller life.

Saigon is being virtually rebuilt at American expense. Roads, sewers, power-stations and so on are being constructed, and so are schools and colleges and railways and hospitals. Vietnamese teachers and medical personnel are being trained in the United States or in South Vietnam itself, and the U.S. is picking up the tab. Thousands of American doctors have voluntarily left thriving practices back home to earn an allowance of ten dollars a day to help not only the American war wounded, but the sick and suffering of all nations. American scientists have developed new drugs to eliminate the twin scourges of South Vietnam, malaria and bubonic plague, and from their pay packets the G.I.s contribute to a fund which gives security to war widows and orphans.

Behind the shield which the United States has provided, President Thieu and his government have launched the biggest do-it-yourself campaign in the history of his country. Free elections have been made possible, and every elected official from each of the 44 provinces has been made to attend a period of training in administration in the Revolutionary Development School in Vung Tau. Young men, selected for their leadership qualities, go through the same school. At Vung Tau, people from all parts of the land, the leadership structure, communicate with each other for the first time in history, and learn the art of administration in peace and in war.

The Revolutionary Development School is only one of several nation building institutions, and there are signs that communities throughout Vietnam are beginning to pull together instead of going their own sweet ways as they have done through the centuries.

The success of an experiment in South Vietnam can be gauged by Communist reaction to it. Youth graduates from the R.D. School wear their black pyjama outfit and slouch hats when they return to their villages and hamlets. These black uniforms are to be seen throughout the country. They are natural prey for the Vietcong, and casualties in this group are higher than in any front-line unit. Yet the youngsters persist in wearing their uniforms. Their attitude us a morale booster to their fellow peasants.

Slowly but surely the tide seems to be turning. This is evidenced by the increasing number of Vietcong who have taken advantage of the Thieu Government's Chieu Hoi programme. The rough translation of the words "Chieu Hoi" is "come uphill", but the Amencans call it the "Open Arms" programme. There are Chien Hoi camps all over the country where defectors from the Communist's side are received with open arms. Vietcong are now arriving in droves at these camps where they are sheltered, fed, taught a trade, brainwashed, and then, if of fighting age, conscripted into the South Vietnamese Army. So countless thousands of turncoats are now fighting side by side with loyalists in the ARVN forces. "It's a darned sight better way of doing things" an American officer told me, "than putting them against the wall, and surprisingly few 'Chieu Hois' again switch sides." The intake ot such defectors is used as a barometer to gauge the success of the pacification programme, and the barometer shows fair weather ahead.

A reason for Allied rejoicing with the arrival of each defector is that, almost without exception, they sing like canaries (give information freely). The wealth of information they disclose about enemy activities and plans is collected, collated and checked by members of "Operation Phoenix", and such has been the wealth of information received in recent times that the Allies have been able to uncover thousands of arms and food caches, and to nab thousands of V.C. agents throughout the country. It has also become easier to predict where the enemy will strike next and to prepare a welcome for him. So President Thieu's intelligence service which was appalling a few years back, is becoming more efficient by the day.

Withal, the Communists are now finding the going extremely tough. The pendulum is slowly swinging from left to right.

It is difficult to strike a profit and loss account for the Vietnam business, but one thing is sure -- there is plenty on the profit side for the West.

To be sure, there has been blundering through the years; political, military . . . all along the line. But, where there was chaos, there is now growing order; where there was destruction, there is now reconstruction. Firm direction has replaced woolly thinking. Where there was division and bickering between the South Vietnamese civilian and military leaders on the one hand, and their American counterparts on the other there is now greater unity of purpose. Despair has been replaced by something akin to hope.

Throughout the country -- even in battle zones -- the Hoa Ky (the "Flag of many colours") flies side by side with the yellow and red flag of South Vietnam. "Old Glory" will not be hauled down until the South Vietnamese are equipped militarily- and administratively to counter the Communit threat which will be there for many many years to come. And when the Stars and Stripes is struck for the last time, I am sure no South Vietnamese will cheer. I applaud Uncle Sam and his fighting men.

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