Hau Nghia Part 2; John P. Vann

As part of the early 1965 policy review that had occasioned McNaughton's declaration of support for a revived nation-building effort, President Johnson had criticized the military for talking only of bombs and more bombs and failing to give him "any solutions for this damn little piss-ant country." Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson responded to the President's comments by creating a team charged with "developing new sources of action to be taken in South Vietnam by the United states and its allies which will . . . lead in due time to successful accomplishment of U. S. aims and objectives." This study, ultimately entitled The Program for the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam (PROVN), was based on an evaluation of the war in Hau Nghia on the grounds that a survey of an extreme worst case would best suit the purposes of gaining a fresh look at the problem. The study concluded that as "the problems facing the GVN [the Republic of Vietnam] were due more to deeply rooted social and political difficulties than to communist subversion or North Vietnamese aggression," the war against communism in Vietnam could be won only by reforms in the delivery of government services and other efforts that secured the good will of the peasantry. It warned that:
People are the decisive elements of that `object which lies beyond' this war. The GVN, with U. S. support, must orient on this point of decision. This fact, too often mouthed without real understanding in the now trite phrase `winning the hearts and minds of the people,' must guide all our future actions . . all other military aspects of the war are secondary.
Least this point be misunderstood, PROVN explicitly cautioned against any tendency to allow military operations, even those conducted ostensibly to provide local security, to obscure the fact that rural reconstruction or pacification efforts would ultimately decide the outcome of the struggle. While PROVN conceded that the bulk of American and South Vietnamese forces would be directed against formations of enemy troops, the "remainder of allied assets must ensure adequate momentum to activity in priority Rural Reconstruction areas." PROVN identified general and specific steps that had to be taken to achieve its goals. It recommended, for example, that the office of the South Vietnamese province chief be strengthened and empowered to punish or remove underperforming or corrupt Vietnamese soldiers and officials and to reward or promote those Vietnamese judged best-suited to the task before them.

The three great questions PROVN hoped to resolve were those that had already come to trouble Wells. Could the necessary socio- economic reforms be implemented in Vietnam without violating both the spirit and the letter of the Lansdale-Thompson-Hilsman tradition by short-circuiting and thereby undermining both the authority and sovereignty of the Saigon regime? Could these reforms be achieved without converting America's limited advisory mission into a "powerful American presence in Vietnam for an indefinite period?" Could the requisite local security for pacification operations be achieved without militarizing rural development operations and thus rendering them counter-productive? Wells independently set about to resolve these issues two months before the PROVN team arrived in Hau Nghia and six months before the PROVN final report, published in March 1966.

Wells broached his own gestating concerns and ideas during his infrequent conversations with his colleagues, particularly with one of the few real "buddies" he had in Vietnam, the chief USAID official in Hau Nghia, John Paul Vann. Unlike Wells, this former American army colonel was neither a moral paragon nor a selfless leader. His "love" for the Vietnamese was chiefly carnal; Vann's biographer, Neil Sheehan, suggests that the only positive thing that could be said about Vann's sexual appetites in Vietnam was that his behavior was discreet. Sheehan further suggests that Vann's personal ambitions usually came before his concerns for the plight of Vietnamese people. Vann also had a penchant for confrontation and for slyly manipulated American reporters, half of whom the more consensus-seeking and straightforward Wells regarded as "pink." Nonetheless, Wells and Vann had much in common. Vann, like Wells, was a veteran of the Second World War who had risen through the ranks and was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam; Vann's first tour coincided with Wells's own. Vann was Wells's equal as a student of counterinsurgency tactics and as critic of the prevailing political and military culture in Indochina, both American and Vietnamese. Finally, while each now served USAID, Vann and Wells were consummate professional soldiers.

The conversations between Wells and Vann helped clarify their positions on how the war could be more successfully prosecuted. Both men were tinkering with the approach ultimately recommended by PROVN, which, after all, was to base its conclusions on the study of their own situation in Hau Nghia. The results of Vann's work, a report entitled "Harnessing the Revolution," cleverly cast a provincial reorganization plan similar to that later envisioned by PROVN as little more than an experimental streamlining of command and service elements in select provinces whose success could be repeated under Saigon's aegis. Wells greatly admired the skill with which Vann constructed this report, whose tenor approximated his own maturing ideas on the subject. However, while Vann was a man in a hurry, one who tended to thrust his ideas on his superiors, Wells was set on advancing his views the way he always had. He would attract the attention of his superiors through the successful employment of his ideas. They would then come to him to learn something they hoped to use to advance themselves, a posture that would make them far more receptive to what he had to say than if he sought to press forward against the prevailing current.

It was, however, hard to be a American Taoist in Vietnam. As time passed, his reports of American and ARVN failings grew critical enough to warrant efforts by his superiors to suppress them. He made no friends by his refusal to become what one of what Vann called "bright and shining lies," field officers who offered optimistic briefings for touring American officials who, for reasons of their own, were determined to find success even where there was only failure. His briefing to three visiting generals in the fall of 1965 was conducted along the lines of telling them what he thought and "leaving the chips fall where they may." And what he thought was that "the army isn't doing a damn thing [as far] as I can see." Much to his own embarrassment, he began to give in to his hot temper. He publicly berated both an American Colonel and a Vietnamese Major for doing so poor a job that they might as well have been working for V. C." In this case, his anger was justified: the major was a double agent for the National Liberation Front, one of the estimated 30,000 penetration agents that South Vietnamese generals believed to have made their defeat inevitable. In September of 1965, Wells confessed to his wife that he had become so desperate to make his views known that, upon leaving church in Saigon, he cornered fellow parishioner Henry Cabot Lodge and poured out his heart.

He needn't have bothered, nor had Vann. Vann's machiavellian methods got "Harnessing the Revolution" in Lodge's hands at about the same time as the Ambassador's meeting with Wells, but, by that time, Lodge had been appraised by Washington that Westmoreland's build-up and war of attrition was ascendent. Henceforth, Lodge, once the foremost advocate of pacification, placed priority on destroying "the main force enemy first, pacify, second." Accordingly, he made no use of Wells' suggestions and joined Westmoreland in politely filing away for the duration of their tenures in Vietnam both Vann's program and the subsequent PROVN report. Lodge would later regret his failure to understand how divorced Westmoreland's command was from the political realities of Vietnam. The general had more reason to be unrepentant and acted upon it. As it "forthrightly attacked [Westmoreland's] search and destroy concept", it is not surprising that PROVN itself was destined to be "treated with such delicacy that Army officers were forbidden even to discuss its existence outside DOD [Department of Defense]." It so discomfited Westmoreland that he refused even to mention it in his memoirs. Edward Lansdale, then in Saigon as an adviser to Ambassador Lodge, but isolated from the Embassy by wide political and personal disagreements, continued to urged anyone who would listen "to do something for the folks," and to never forget that Vietnamese culture and society held the key to the war. However, as PROVN's coordinator, Lt. Col. Donald Marshall, observed at the time, the pressure for results generated by the then growing number of enemy victories in the field overrode any remaining value his own or Lansdale's advice might have had. The time of Roger Hilsman's "fighting the guerrilla by adopting the tactics of the guerrilla" had passed and the day of the big battalions had arrived.

The Way of the Tiger

The beginning of this new era came on a Sunday morning, November 14, 1965, when a few battalion-size units of the First Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) did battle with the North Vietnamese 33rd and 66th regiments in the Ia Drang Valley. This engagement was less than the overwhelming victory touted by Westmoreland, who later confessed that battle privately convinced him that the war could not be won by force of arms alone. Nonetheless, MACV publicly interpreted it to mean that the revolution in Vietnam had reached its third and decisive stage--a main force, non-guerrilla struggle--for which traditional American conventional warfare tactics were ideally suited. The president was not entirely convinced of this and even Robert McNamara doubted that the enemy would complete its rush to destruction before American public opinion turned against the war. Nonetheless, the fear of failure that had led to the July decision to commitment American combat troops ultimately drove Johnson and McNamara to accept Westmoreland's assertions that America was not about to get bogged down in George Ball's a dirty war that would end in humiliation, but was about to fight its way into a relatively clean conventional struggle it could not fail to win. In Hanoi, the lessons of the battle of the Ia Drang Valley were interpreted differently.

The expansion of the American presence in the South that occurred in the spring and summer of 1965 had led to a reevaluation of Hanoi's war effort. For them, the war's goals of national reunification, social revolution and independence were immutable: it would remain a revolutionary struggle against what many Vietnamese, communist and non-communists alike, regarded as an unjust, foreign-backed regime. The success of the war in the villages from 1963 to 1965 had convinced them that, while hope of a quick victory faded with the arrival of the Americans, Saigon had no hope of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people and continued to exist only because of the presence of foreign military forces. It was thus deemed proper that their principle target should shift from undermining Saigon's army and socio- political infrastructure to the destruction of the political support and martial resources of fresh American and allied foreign forces. It was judged that, like the French before them, American troops would prove highly vulnerable to protracted warfare. It only remained to be determined which combination of elements of the Vietnamese version of protracted war and associated political- military struggle (dau tranh) was most appropriate to the task of compelling an American withdrawal. These elements were arranged in a seeming parallel to the Maoist three stages of revolutionary warfare--from political struggle to political struggle gradually supplemented by armed guerrilla struggle, and hence to large scale operations combined with mass action. The elements of Vietnamese war-fighting strategy, however, were at once more complex and interchangeable than their Chinese counterparts, as the Chinese themselves have found to their cost. The Vietnamese were to prove as adept at using guerrilla formations to draw enemy conventional forces away from their own endangered regular forces as they were at using conventional formations to tie down opposing regular forces so that their guerrillas could mount a campaign of their own, as at Khe Sanh in 1968.

After the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, Nguyen Chi Thanh, the Politburo's own Westmoreland in the South, pushed for the all-out commencement of third stage main force operations. North Vietnamese casualties in the battle had been high, but Nguyen Chi Thanh believed that the more than 250 Americans lives taken in the battle proved the utility of his strategy. He correctly judged that the 2,000 men of his own command killed in action had bled the Americans more than he believed the American war machine could sustain over a long period of time, or, rather, would be allowed to sustain by an American public whose latent antipathy for imperialist interventionism was expected to be awakened by the war's increasing costs. The Politburo had itself recognized that the American intervention had raised the ante beyond their victories in the guerrilla war, but Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh were able to use the losses in battle to encourage their commander in the field to preserve the strategic flexibility that had served them so well against the French and thus far, against the Americans. Nguyen Chi Thanh and his lieutenants proved agreeable to the pursuit of big unit operations only when favorable terms of battle could be secured. They acknowledged the strengths of small unit operations and had never underestimated the advantage of minimizing the superior U. S. firepower and their own casualties by the Vietnamese traditional guerrilla "clinging to the belt" strategy. Their forces would also henceforth pursue "the way a tiger leaps at it prey," employing their full strength only when success was within their reach. When the odds ran in favor of the Americans, they would rely on guerrilla forces whose casualties, when necessary, could be made up from regular army units detailed for training in the South by guerrilla cadres. Wherever possible, regular and guerrilla units would be brigaded together to optimize operational unity and flexibility. The capacity for syncretism that had enabled the Vietnamese people to blend Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism with indigenous folk culture and to leaven main force units with guerrillas in their long struggles against the Chinese enabled Hanoi to leaven ideologically rigid modern revolutionary theory with their own time-tested pragmatic war-fighting strategy and decision-making during its struggle with the French, with Diem and with the Americans.

Advisers like Wells, who were keyed to the enemy's mindset, were adamant that the Vietnam War would always be a social revolution that could be, in their view, best achieved by delivering the fruits of that revolution through government- sponsored democratic, non-violent socio-economic change. Politics mattered more than body counts and the civil war in Vietnam had to take priority over the international dimensions of the war. So long as the revolution remained unfinished in Vietnam, the menace of communist subversion from within and invasion from without would persist.

These concerns, continually voiced by Lansdale in Saigon and Hilsman in Washington, were shared by Hau Nghia veteran Daniel Ellsberg, who was filing increasingly pessimistic reports with Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. They ultimately were also expressed by the third highest-ranking general in the Marine Corps, Victor "Brute" Krulak, formerly a bitter critic of the "other war." After the Ia Drang campaign, Krulak accurately diagnosed that enemy would henceforth "seek to attrit U. S. forces through the process of violent close-quarters combat which tends to diminish the effectiveness of our supporting arms." He also accurately assessed Giap's thinking: that the cost of protracted war had led the French to gamble and lose at Dien Binh Phu and into surrender at Geneva would also produce an American withdrawal. Only by winning the war in the villages by its own small unit operations in support of aggressive pacification program did America stand any chance success. With the help of Marine Commandant Lewis Walt, Krulak managed to present his views to President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The command position in Washington and at Westmoreland's headquarters, however, was unshakable. The war was merely the result of an extension of the Asian tentacle of the Soviet communist octopus. The so-called "social revolution" seemingly sought by the guerrillas, like their publicly touted goals of anti-imperialism, unification and independence, were mere figments of communist propaganda. The only value associated in mastering the communist tactics of the so- called Vietnamese "people's war national liberation" was to detect and exploit weaknesses in what were assumed to be typically communist and thus rigid modus operandi, such as the seeming shift toward third stage warfare in 1965. In their view, the moment regular forces of the People's Army of North Vietnam began to shoulder more combat responsibilities than the guerrillas, the war ceased to be a revolutionary struggle and became a conventional war in which guerrillas were irrelevant. This confusion of the enemy's ends with its means led Westmoreland, President Johnson and Robert McNamara to believe that bombing the North and the Ho Chi Minh Trail could bring the war to a halt, for it was erroneously assumed that the enemy in the south, like any conventional American force, could not long survive with its supply lines thus severed. It also locked Westmoreland into a search and destroy campaign against a force that used guerrilla tactics to avoid his searches and employed conventional forces when the terms of engagement enabled it, not the Americans, to be the destroyer.

Westmoreland announced his war of attrition by declaring that "We'll just go on bleeding them until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations." Yet, it was his command, as Krulak predicted, that first forced to scramble for resources. The costs of the war of attrition put an end to all alternative strategies. MACV had little choice but to relegate the ostensibly parallel nation- building campaign to oblivion. Westmoreland needed the men and he did not need an alternative policy distracting his subordinates or his superiors from the increasingly arduous task at hand. Under Westmoreland's authority, the counterinsurgency-pacification campaign was largely handed over to Saigon's forces, where they no doubt properly belonged, but ARVN's past poor performance in the "other war" had only worsened with exposure to recent American operations in the villages. Over Krulak and Walt's vigorous objections, the major legatee of America's classical counterinsurgency tradition, the relatively successful Marine Combined Action Platoon (CAP) program, was radically curtailed. Further, the chief hard-won legacy of PROVN, the American Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program was militarized and placed directly under MACV. The Phoenix Program, tasked with coordinating operations against revolutionary cadre, shared the same fate. When directed by hand-picked American and Vietnamese officers, Phoenix may have been as legitimate in its tactics and as effective as some of its early practitioners claim. Once rapidly expanded and militarized to meet MACV's push for higher body counts, however, it clearly ceased to be either. Finally, the entire advisory effort was relegated to "a permanent back seat in the American war effort."

The coup de grace to nation-building was delivered by Robert McNamara. McNamara returned from a visit to Vietnam in November of 1965 with little hope of a "favorable outcome" as defined by McNaughton earlier that year, but he nonetheless endorsed Westmoreland's view that the failure of the South Vietnamese to achieve any permanent gains in local security could be made up by more American troops and more bombing. The results of America's emphasis on a big unit war of attrition supported by a stepped-up aerial campaign were exactly as Wells and Vann had feared: the peasantry were betrayed into the hands of forces better calculated to generate refugees and guerrillas than supporters of the government in Saigon, further undermining the South Vietnamese authority in the countryside without which the war effort, as originally defined, was doomed to failure. Moreover, as McNamara himself had feared after the Ia Drang, the American war effort would not annihilate the enemy fast enough to coopt the growing anti-war movement at home. As Hanoi anticipated, America would withdraw bleeding, leaving the field at last clear for the general offensive composed of guerrillas, regular army units and the masses that would bring about the final victory almost exactly as described in their own revolutionary manuals. Only the brightest and most shinning lies could conceal these truths, but they ultimately proved plentiful.

In the Name of Love and Understanding

Wells was not present to see his work evolve into what some of his colleagues described as an effort to build a house with a bulldozer and a wreaking crane. He had always entertained the idea that, if he became too closely identified as a critic of the war instead of a valued reformer, he either would be fired or promoted. But there was another option, as Vann, at least, was well aware. In March of 1965, Vann had waged an anti-corruption campaign that targeted a leading Catholic South Vietnamese business man, a campaign that seriously violated protocol in such matters. When Vann's charges reached the higher levels of government, Vann's nemesis decided that enough was enough, and probably arranged though his partner, Hau Nghia's Cu Chi District Chief, for the Viet Cong to get a copy of Vann's travel itinerary. By quirk of fate, the Viet Cong assassination team's first bullets hit the window of Vann's International Harvester pick-up truck, forcing him to drive blindly off the road and directly into the hit squad's position, scattering them and saving his life.

Wells seemed to lead an equally charmed life. Viet Cong cadres had long been trying to neutralize him, which he rightly took as a compliment. He knew the enemy only targeted those officials who were effective, and was proud of this proof that the enemy regarded him "for the people." Ever the optimist, Wells relied on his long practiced skills to survive the ever-increasing ambushes and land mines laid in his path. However, as with Vann, the combination of South Vietnamese self-interest and Viet Cong efficiency proved difficult to surmount. In September of 1965 Wells's final, critical report on the refugee problem reached the Ministry of Interior. Wells was required to supply this ministry's officials with a copy of his well-guarded travel itinerary. There is little doubt that these travel plans were leaked to the Viet Cong in the hope that they would put an end to his embarrassing allegations. Wells had always carefully disguised his movements: he concealed them even from his friends. He also varied the timing of his visits to Hau Nghia and the type of aircraft he used. Nonetheless, on September 27, 1965, as the single-engine Air America plane in which he was the lone passenger was about to touch down on the runway at Bao Tri in Hau Nghia, it came under fire from a pre-positioned team of Viet Cong. The plane crashed in a ball of flames. Determined to insure that Wells would perish within, the V. C. team defended their position around the crash site against a determined assault by airport rescue and security teams. They departed only after fire had consumed the aircraft. The intensity of the fighting may be measured by the seven ARVN lives lost in the struggle. When allied forces finally gained possession of the wreckage, they found Wells dead with burns over 100 percent of his broken body.

Wells had accepted the possibility that he might die in Vietnam and the war effort might fail. Yet, in a sentiment so often found among his Vietnamese friends, Wells faced death and defeat hoping that even these might someday generate "love and understanding." His remains were flown to Atlanta for burial, where his internment was televised along with a moving tribute by Tom Brokaw, then the anchorman of the Atlanta NBC affiliate. Brokaw lamented the death of a man whose devotion to freedom had lead him to volunteer to complete the work left unfinished after his first tour of duty in Vietnam; assisting a people to develop in the face of war.

In a sense, Brokaw's words could have been the eulogy for the entire counterinsurgency-pacification program in Vietnam. Wells's death had come just before the Ia Drang campaign that had marked the beginning of the end of the Landsdale-Thompson-Hilsman tradition of counterinsurgency by nation-building. The impact of the new American strategy and the subsequent coverup of its failure was put on display one year to the day after Wells' arrival in Hau Nghia. Between June 13 and July 4, 1966 the 2nd Brigade of 25th Infantry Division swept through Hau Nghia during Operation Santa Fe. Its targets were the small, but active, guerrilla teams and the local Viet Cong militia that had killed Wells. These units were then, as always, seriously harassing local military formations and road travel. The results of the operation were four Viet Cong killed at the cost fourteen American lives. Thirty Americans were wounded. The villagers swept up into the maelstrom of the fighting were judged pacified by handouts of medical supplies and toothpaste. The after-action report concluded that this successful search and destroy operation ". . . through balanced combination of tactical operations and civic action programs was able to dominate the terrain and population." Vietnam veteran and military analyst Larry E. Cable, a leading critic of such operations, has cited the Santa Fe after-action report as an excellent example of the delusional reporting that helped keep the Johnson administration wedded to big unit warfare long after its failure was apparent. There were many other examples, as one of the heroes of the Ia Drang, Lt. General Harold Moore, reminds us in his recent account of the operations of the First Cavalry on the Bong Song plain in early 1966.

End Hau Nghia Part 2; John P. Vann

Copyright © Marc Gilbert and James Wells 1995. All rights reserved.