In Hack’s Hardcore Hints series, David Galster shares some of his scenario design toolkits for Campaign Series: Vietnam, a work-in-progress tactical platoon-scale wargame.
It’s a pleasure, Campaign Series Wargamers,
The year of 1964 came on the heels of a very tumultuous time in Vietnam. As we will see, the US and South Vietnamese faced many critical political and military challenges.
Ngo Dinh Diem Coup and Kennedy Assassination
The brutal coup and murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was shocking enough, but the assassination of US President Kennedy magnified the situation tremendously. These events brought in a new Vietnam war era, with much chaos.
South Vietnamese generals planned a two-tiered government structure with a military committee presided by General General Duong Van Minh. They oversaw a mostly civilian cabinet, with Nguyen Ngọc Tho as prime minister. (Former Vice President under Diem.) US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge met with Minh, and made some requests regarding treatment of the Diem and Nhu families. Lodge believed US aid should be increased to indicate support for the new government. However, US officials had concerns about the how deeply the military council intended to involve itself in running the country rather than Prime Minister Tho. This was not resolved and contributed to another coup in January 1964.
Lodge later met with the new US President Johnson and cabinet members at the November 20 Honolulu Conference, and wrote NSAM 273. (National Security Action Memorandum)
President Johnson Inherits Vietnam War
Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), as he took over the presidency after the death of Kennedy, initially did not consider Vietnam a priority, and was more concerned with “Great Society” social programs.
But, as he became more involved with discussions about the situation, Johnson gained a greater commitment to fighting the war. NSAM 273 directed the concentration of US and Vietnamese military, political, economic, and social efforts to improve the counterinsurgency campaign in the Mekong Delta. It directed economic and military aid be maintained at the same levels as during Diem’s rule. And in conclusion, plans were requested for clandestine operations by South Vietnam against the North, and also for operations up to 50 kilometers into Laos. The State Department was directed to develop a strong, documented case “to demonstrate to the world the degree to which the Viet Cong is controlled, sustained and supplied from Hanoi, through Laos and other channels.”
On 24 November 1963, Johnson said, “The battle against communism… must be joined… with strength and determination.” The pledge came at a time when the situation in South Vietnam was deteriorating, especially in places like the Mekong Delta, because of the recent coup against Diem.
January 1964 Coup
The new South Vietnamese government was weak, and failed to set firm national policies, and issue detailed instructions. At lower levels, it was in complete turmoil because of the turnover of personnel following the coup, and lack of firm leadership.
The military revolutionary council, meeting in lieu of a strong South Vietnamese leader, was made up of 12 members headed by General Minh—whom Stanley Karnow, a journalist on the ground, later recalled as “. . . a model of lethargy.” Lodge, frustrated by the end of the year, cabled home about Minh: “Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?”
On the internal political front, 1964 began with increasing criticism of the Minh government by accusations of discrimination from both Buddhists and Catholics. Buddhists attacked Prime Minister Tho. Catholics accused the Minh government of having gone too far to placate the Buddhists in reaction to Diem repressions.
General Minh also was reluctant on US advisor involvement. He stressed the undesirability of Americans going into districts and villages. He feared it would play into the hands of the VC, and make Vietnamese officials look like lackeys. There would be a colonial flavor to the pacification effort.
Although Lodge tried to reassure General Minh, and worked to resolve issues with American advisors, political tensions increased. Then on 28 January 1964, General Nguyen Khanh informed Lodge that Minh was plotting with the French to stage a “pro-neutralist” coup. Ostensibly, this would end US involvement in South Vietnamese affairs. Khanh asked whether the US would support a counter-coup. There is no record of US reply. On 30 January, General Khanh took over.
Khanh wanted to try four Generals, including Minh, for conspiring with the French, and this intrigue continued into September 1964. Ultimately, the government made the cabinet more representative of all political and religious groups, and included 17 generals and 32 other officers. As a concession to US conciliation requests, General Minh travelled around the country, and reportedly gained public confidence.
Khanh’s government was receptive to top-level US advice and advisors at lower levels. The US was encouraged by the performance of the Khanh government, which was highly responsive to US advice, and had a grasp of elements needed to fight the Viet Cong. For the time being, the US was content to work with the Khanh government.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
On 2 August 1964, the USS Maddox, (DD-731) on an intelligence DESOTO patrol along North Vietnam’s coast, fired upon and damaged several torpedo boats that had been stalking it in the Gulf of Tonkin. A second attack was reported two days later on the USS Turner Joy (DD-951) in the same area. The circumstances of the attack were murky, and there was US confusion about what really happened. Lyndon Johnson commented to Under Secretary of State George Ball that “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish.” However, the USS Maddox did fire on three North Vietnamese torpedo boats with its 5-inch guns, severely damaging them.
The second attack led to retaliatory air strikes, prompted Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, signed by Johnson, and gave the president power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war. Although Congressmen at the time denied that this was a full-scale war declaration, the Tonkin Resolution allowed the president unilateral power to launch a full-scale war if the president deemed necessary.
From a strength of approximately 5000 at the start of 1959 the Viet Cong’s ranks grew to about 100000 at the end of 1964. Between 1961 and 1964 the Army’s strength rose from about 850000 to nearly a million men. The numbers for US troops deployed to Vietnam during the same period were quite different; 2000 in 1961, rising rapidly to 16500 in 1964. By early 1965, 7559 South Vietnamese hamlets had been destroyed by the Viet Cong.
The National Security Council recommended a three-stage escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam, on 2 March 1965. This followed an attack on a US Marine barracks at Pleiku, and as a result, Operation Flaming Dart, Operation Rolling Thunder, and Operation Arc Light commenced.
After several attacks upon them, it was decided that US Air Force bases needed more protection as the South Vietnamese military seemed incapable of providing security. On 8 March 1965, 3500 US Marines were dispatched to South Vietnam. This marked the beginning of the American ground war. US public opinion overwhelmingly supported the deployment. The Marines’ initial assignment was defensive. The first deployment of 3500 in March 1965 was increased to nearly 200000 by December.
The US military had long been schooled in offensive warfare. Regardless of political policies, US commanders were institutionally and psychologically unsuited to a defensive mission.
Increased Viet Cong Attacks
Turmoil in the South Vietnamese government only encouraged greater Communist aggression. Viet Cong attacks against ARVN occurred at Thanh-Phu Island, Mo Cay, and Binh Gia in 1964. Particularly in the case of Binh Gia, ARVN forces suffered heavy losses that both sides viewed as a watershed. Previously, Communist forces only employed hit-and-run “guerrilla” tactics. However, at Binh Gia, they defeated a strong ARVN force in a conventional battle. More information will be provided on these battles in the next article.
Vietnam War, Wikipedia
USS Maddox (DD-731), Wikipedia