5 Major Battles of the Vietnam War

5 Major Battles of the Vietnam War

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Unlike, for example, the First and Second World Wars, where thousands of large set-piece battles defined the conflict, the US war in Vietnam was typically characterised by small skirmishes and attritional strategies.

Nevertheless, there were several large offensives and battles that did much to sway the progression of the war. Here are 5 of them:

Battle of la Drang Valley (26 October – 27 November 1965)

The first major meeting of US and North Vietnamese troops resulted in a two part battle that raged across the La Drang valley in Southern Vietnam. It caused huge casualties on both sides, and was so fluid and chaotic that both sides claimed victories for themselves.

However, the battle’s importance lay not in the body count but the fact that it defined the tactics of both sides for the war. US forces opted to focus on air mobility and long-range combat to wear down to NV forces.

The Viet Cong learned that they could negate US technological advantages by engaging their forces in close combat. The VC had an unparalleled understanding of the terrain and so were able to mount rapid raids before melting into the forest.

Battle of Khe Sanh (21 January – 9 April 1968)

Journalist Donald Macintyre recalls the anti-Vietnam protests in London in 1968 and reflects on how they compare to protests today.

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Early in the war US forces had established a garrison at Khe Sanh in Quang Tri province, in the Northern area of South Vietnam. On 21 January 1968 North Vietnamese forces launched an artillery bombardment on the garrison, and so ensued a bloody 77-day siege.

The battle was eventually brought to a close by Operation Pegasus, which involved airlifting US troops out the base and ceding it to the North Vietnamese.

This was the first time US troops had given major ground to their enemy. The US high command had anticipated a huge attack directed at the Khe San garrison, but it never came. Instead the smaller siege was a diversionary tactic for the upcoming ‘Tet Offensive.’

Tet Offensive (30 January – 28 March, 1968)

With US and South Vietnamese attention and forces were focused on Khe San, North Vietnamese forces launched a massive series of co-ordinated attacks against over 100 South Vietnamese stronghold on 30 January, the Vietnamese New Year (or the first day of Tet).

The Tet Offensive was initially very successful, but in a series of bloody battles, US forces were able to regain ground lost to the communists. Although most of these recovery battles were over very quickly, a few were more protracted.

Saigon was only taken after 2 weeks of fierce fighting, and the Battle of Hue – during which over the course of a month US and SV forces gradually expelled the occupying communists – went down in infamy not only for the ferocious fighting (captured superbly in Don McCullin’s photography) but for the massacre of civilians that took place in the month of NV occupation.

In terms of raw numbers, the Tet Offensive was an enormous defeat for the North Vietnamese. However, in strategic and psychological terms, it was a runaway success. US public opinion turned decisively against the war, as embodied by newscaster Walter Cronkite’s famous broadcast.

Hamburger Hill (10 May – 20 May 1969)

Hill 937 (named because it is 937 metres above sea level) was the setting and object of a 10-day battle between US forces and the North Vietnamese in May 1969.

As part of Operation Apache Snow – which had the objective of clearing the North Vietnamese from the A Shau Valley in Hue province, South Vietnam – the hill was to be captured. Despite it having little strategic significance, US commanders took a bull-headed approach to capturing the hill.

US forces suffered unnecessarily heavy casualties. The fighting itself gave the hill its iconic name – ‘Hamburger Hill’ derived from the grinding nature of the fighting.

Extraordinarily, the hill was abandoned on 7 June, highlighting its lack of strategic value. When the news of this reached home it caused public outrage. It occurred at a time when the public opposition to the war was solidifying and mutating into a broader counter-culture movement.

It bulwarked the perceptions of the US military command as ignorant, throwing away the lives of brave, often poor Americans in the name of an empty, pointless war.

Anti-war pressure was so piqued that General Creighton Adam placed his support firmly behind a ‘protective reaction policy’ designed to minimise casualties, and the first troop withdrawals began soon after,

A final note – the poignant deaths of US soldiers on that hill struck such a chord that it inspired the film ‘Hamburger Hill.’

The Fall of Saigon (30 April 1975)

Between 1968 and 1975 the war had turned totally against the US, with public support fading rapidly and the prospect of any success dwindling along with it.

The Easter Offensive of 1972 had been a crucial turning point. A string of co-ordinated attacks by US and SV forces again resulted in heavy forces, but the North Vietnamese had held onto valuable territory, and so held out during the Paris Peace Accords.

From that point they were able to launch their final successful offensive in 1975, reaching Saigon in April.

By 27 April, PAVN troops had encircled Saigon and the 60,000 remaining SV troops were defecting in droves. It was soon apparent that the fate of Saigon was sealed, and so the hurried process of evacuating what US citizens remained began.

Operation Frequent Wind was the name given to the iconic airlifts of US diplomats and troops, carried out as desperate Vietnamese attempted to break down the gates of the US embassy.

Space was so tight on the air carriers to which evacuees were lifted that helicopters had to be cast into the sea.

By 1964 America was deeply embroiled in a conflict in Vietnam that would, over the next decade, claim millions of lives including almost 60,000 US servicemen. But how did the war come about? Who were its major players? Why did the actions and attitudes of US presidents differ? And how did Americans at home shape the outcome of the war. Rob Weinberg asks the big questions to Kevin Ruane, Professor of Modern History at Canterbury Christ Church University.

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Despite the Vietnam War being almost universally condemned as an unnecessary war that the USA and South Vietnamese lost comprehensively, you may notice that there is little from this list to suggest that US troops were crushed in battles by their opponents.

Instead, their resolve was worn down by a canny enemy, and the sense that anything meaningful could be achieved died as the war was drawn out.

The Vietnam War: Eleven Major Battles

The Vietnam War lasted from 1 November 1955 to 30 April 1975, officially between North Vietnam (North Vietnam) and South Vietnam (South Vietnam). In reality, it was an international war between the French at first and then the United States and its allies on the side of South Vietnam, and the Communist Bloc on the side of North Vietnam

The US believed it was saving Vietnam from Communism while North Vietnam saw it as an extension of their fight for independence against colonial rule.

To counteract the superior armed and technology of the United States, North Vietnam combined modern weaponry with guerrilla tactics to deadly effect.

The most notable battles in that conflict are as follows.

Key Battles

Vietnam, unlike many other wars, was not a conflict defined by a series of pitched battles. Prolonged, limited engagement was a frequent occurrence for many American troops, who faced a recurring danger in patrols and search-and-destroy missions. Nevertheless, a few specific engagements did shape the course of the war:

Battle of Dien Bien Phu

March 13 - May 7, 1954 – While fought years before American troops would be involved in Vietnam in any significant way, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu would have a profound effect on American involvement in Vietnam. French Union forces had been engaging Viet Minh forces for nearly a decade when General Henri Navarre took command of the Indochina War in May 1953. Navarre began preparing a strategy whereby the French would establish a fortified airfield near the village of Điện Biên Phủ along the Laotian border, with the hope of impeding Viet Ming supply routes and luring the communist forces into attacking the well-defended French position. In November 1953, the French moved to occupy the valley and begin fortifying their position, while the Viet Minh forces under Võ Nguyên Giáp methodically built up their strength as well. The French occupied the valley area, while Giáp built his strength in the hills around them. Slowly but surely, he amassed huge quantities of supplies and weaponry, including heavy artillery and anti-aircraft weapons. Many artillery pieces were secretly dragged up the hills surrounding the base, until they could fire down from concealed positions on to the French. While the French amassed around 15,000 troops at Dien Bien Phu, they were outnumbered by nearly 50,000 Viet Minh who had encircled the base. On March 13, a massive bombardment signaled the start of the attack. The French were unable to maintain counter-battery fire on the Viet Minh positions, and the airfield was quickly rendered unusable. Air resupply was impeded by the powerful air defenses the Viet Minh had amassed, and the French were whittled away within their fortress. American officials considered intervening, but the Eisenhower Administration opted against involvement. On May 7, the base finally surrendered, just as negotiations began in Geneva on the fate of French Indochina. Dien Bien Phu would loom large for the rest of the war, especially during the Battle of Khe Sanh. Learn more about Dien Bien Phu.

Gulf of Tonkin Incident

August 2 - 4, 1964 – On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was on patrol preforming intelligence collection on the North Vietnamese. Sailing in the international waters of the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of North Vietnam, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats confronted and attacked the Maddox. The attack was driven off with assistance from carrier-based aircraft. USS Turner Joy joined the Maddox in her patrols, which resumed on August 3. On the night of August 4, in poor weather conditions and limited visibility, both ships reported that they were under attack. Radar and sonar signals seemed to suggest that the ships were under attack, though the captain of the Maddox did send a second report urging caution in regard to the accuracy of the initials reports. Officials in Washington were aware of the less-than-certain nature of the August 4 incident, but on August 5 ordered retaliatory limited air raids against North Vietnamese naval facilities. On August 7, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed the House of Representatives unanimously, and passed in the Senate with a vote of 98-2. President Johnson was authorized “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” This act would form the legal basis for the American war effort in Vietnam. Shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed and in the years since, many have questioned the events of August 4, 1964. For many, the events in Tonkin Gulf continue to be a subject of great speculation and controversy. Learn more about the Gulf of Tonkin.

Battle of Ia Drang Valley

November 14 - 17, 1965 – The first major battle between American and Vietnamese forces, the Battle of Ia Drang Valley would be claimed as a victory by both sides and would offer important lessons for each army. Located in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, the valley was seen as a crucial The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) supply route into the South. American commanders, namely General William Westmoreland, decided to test a new battle tactic of “air mobility” by deploying American forces largely by helicopter. On November 14, the U.S. First Calvary Division established landing zones in the valley and immediately came under fire from PAVN forces. Continual reinforcements via helicopter and sustained aerial bombardment decimated the Vietnamese positions. By the end of fighting, 305 Americans had been killed compared to at least 1,000 plus PAVN troops killed. General Westmoreland and much of the American leadership viewed the casualty statistics as a vindication of their planning – air mobility, immense bombardment, and a focus on creating mass enemy casualties would become the central focus of American tactics moving forward. Meanwhile, PAVN commanders learned to avoid attacking in large formations and to engage the Americans at close range to mitigate any artillery advantages. Ia Drang set the course for the war to come, and would serve as a taste of future conflict for both sides. Learn more about the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.

Battle of Khe Sanh

January 21 to July 5, 1968 – The U.S. first established a special forces base at Khe Sanh in 1962, and it remained one of the westernmost American bases near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Located in South Vietnam just fourteen miles south of the border with North Vietnam and six miles east of the border with Laos, the base gradually grew in importance until 1967 when General William Westmoreland stationed 6,000 U.S. Marines there to interdict the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Parts of three PAVN divisions, around 15,000-20,000 men, began to surround the base before launching an assault on January 21. The Marines at Khe Sanh were placed under siege, with aerial resupply and massive aerial firepower keeping the base afloat. The White House was keenly aware of the legacy of Dien Bien Phu, and Westmoreland offered assurances that the base would not fall. A relief operation began on April 1, and the siege of Khe Sanh was lifted by April 15. After the immense effort to defend the base, it was abandoned by American forces in June 1968 as plans for a raid on the Ho Chi Minh Trail were abandoned. There remains a strong controversy as to the overall North Vietnamese objective at Khe Sanh: historians argue as to whether General Giáp (the overall strategist behind the campaign) hoped to win another Dien Bien Phu like victory, or whether the Khe Sanh operation was a diversion for broad communist action throughout South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Regardless, 205 Marines died at Khe Sanh, physically counting around 1,600 dead North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers and estimating North Vietnamese losses between 10-15,000. Learn more about the Battle of Khe Sanh.

Tet Offensive

January 30 to March 28, 1968 – Tet, a traditional Vietnamese holiday celebrating the beginning of a new lunar year, had normally been observed as an unofficial cease-fire. However, in late 1967, several North Vietnamese leaders had decided that the military deadlock needed to be broken and hypothesized that a massive offensive throughout the urban centers of the Republic of Vietnam could usher in a general uprising amongst the war-weary South. As such, early in the morning on January 30, 1968, thirteen cities throughout the central portion of South Vietnam were attacked by Viet Cong forces. Within 24 hours, further coordinated attacks were launched on military bases, government facilities, cities, and towns throughout South Vietnam. While the American Marine base at Khe Sanh continued to fight off attackers, the city of Huế was stormed by North Vietnamese forces. In one particularly daring assault, a Viet Cong assault team breached the walls of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon. Although all of the attackers were killed, the embassy attack was well-publicized. The overall Tet Offensive was turned back with substantial losses for the North Vietnamese, and the campaign ended by late March. Although many American and The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) servicemen (along with thousands of civilians) were killed or wounded, the personnel losses for the North Vietnamese were far greater. The Viet Cong and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) suffered around 45,000 casualties combined during the Tet Offensive, with the Viet Cong being so hard hit that it often had to rely on PAVN reinforcements for much of the remainder of the war. Nevertheless, for an American public growing tired of the continual fighting in Vietnam with no end in sight, Tet was a turning point. Any expectations that the war was close to ending were shattered, and past reassurances from the Johnson Administration and General Westmoreland about the coming victory in Vietnam seemed dubious, to say the least. Heeding public pressure, President Johnson announced on March 31 that he would limit the bombing of North Vietnam, call for negotiations – and most surprisingly – not run for re-election in 1968. Learn more about the Tet Offensive.

Battle of Huế

January 31 to March 2, 1968 – South Vietnam’s third-largest city, an ancient royal capital, and located near to the DMZ, Huế had remained relatively free of conflict during much of the early war. The city was largely under the protection of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops, who were in turn spread out along the main highway from Huế to the DMZ. On January 31, with the start of the Tet Offensive, a powerful PAVN and Viet Cong assault quickly pushed back the scattered ARVN and U.S. Marine forces. The North Vietnamese established control over much of the city, while the Marines fell back to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) compound south of the Perfume River. Reorganizing, a combined American/ARVN counterattack began to push the North Vietnamese forces back. Increasing American reinforcements, including elements of the First Cavalry Division supplemented by offshore naval artillery, land-based howitzers, and air strikes, proved instrumental in retaking the city. However, fierce house-to-house fighting slowed conflict on the ground as North Vietnamese troops dug into the urban environment. It would take a month to clear the entire city – with extra effort being paid to the entrenched North Vietnamese troops occupying the walled citadel of the imperial city – and around 700 ARVN and American forces would be killed, with thousands more wounded. The North Vietnamese would lose 5,000 in Huế proper and up to 3,000 more in the surrounding area. The city was left in ruins, with around 50% of its buildings destroyed and the ancient citadel ruined. Thousands of citizens were left homeless. Moreover, in addition to the multitudes of civilians killed and wounded in the fighting, thousands of civilians were systematically executed during the brief communist occupation of the city. Around 5,000 civilians were listed as dead or missing in the aftermath of the fighting, scarring Huế for the duration of the war. Learn more about the Battle of Huế.

Cambodia Incursion

April 29 to June 30, 1970 – Cambodia had long been a launching point for communist attacks on South Vietnam. Cambodia itself was in the midst of its own civil strife, with the Khmer Rouge fighting against government forces with help from the North Vietnamese. In the past, the Kingdom of Cambodia under Norodom Sihanouk had tried to stay neutral and did not openly oppose the communist bases in their country. In March 1970, Sihanouk was removed from power by Prime Minister Lon Nol, and the new government began attacking Viet Cong positions in Cambodia. Sensing an opportunity to prove his resolve to Hanoi, buy time for his Vietnamization (the training and transfer of power to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and other South Vietnamese forces) programs, and relieve pressure on South Vietnam generally, President Nixon opted to invade Cambodia. On April 30, Nixon announced in a televised address that American and South Vietnamese troops would enter Cambodia as a response to North Vietnamese aggression. 12,000 U.S. Army troops and 8,000 Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops attacked along a large 100 mile front. Nixon spoke of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN, a supposed “Jungle Pentagon” where all Viet Cong actions in South Vietnam were planned) and said it would be found and destroyed. Debate still exists as to whether COSVN existed and what form it took. The invasion resulted in around 2,000 enemy fatalities and a large amount of equipment captured, but no central planning center was found, nor was there a long term strategic gain. However, the invasion did cause massive protests in the U.S., including a confrontation and shooting at Kent State University in early May. Additionally, the invasion further destabilized Cambodia and weakened the central government’s fight against the Khmer Rouge. Learn more about the Cambodia Incursion.

Lam Son 719

February 8 to March 25, 1971 – In an effort to prove the capability of the armed forces of South Vietnam, Lam Son 719 was planned as a significant raid on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Legally prohibited from entering Laotian territory, American forces provided logistical support within South Vietnam but the main effort was carried out by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and several units of South Vietnamese marines. American forces occupied the abandoned base at Khe Sanh and established a staging area for the South Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese objective was to drive into Laos along the rugged Route 9, cut into the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and raid the administrative center of Tchepone before returning back to South Vietnam. 16,000 ARVN troops were equipped with American supplied tanks and helicopters, with thousands of American troops operating in support from South Vietnam and American aircraft providing vital air support. While the initial push met little resistance, around 30,000 PAVN troops soon organized to meet the incursion. Outfitted with heavy Soviet weaponry, North Vietnamese forces halted the South Vietnamese push. Organizational and command issues among the South Vietnamese compounded the attack. Heavy fighting on the ground risked a complete South Vietnamese defeat, resulting in President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu ordering a helicopter assault on Tchepone. Seizing the abandoned city (which was not the sole objective of the assault) and declaring a “victory,” the South Vietnamese moved to withdraw. Stymied by fierce resistance along the road home, the South Vietnamese suffered a casualty rate of nearly 50%, with the United States suffering nearly 1,500 casualties as well. Overall, the South Vietnamese armed forces proved ineffectual, and their morale plummeted. Learn more about Lam Son 719.

Easter Offensive

March 30 to October 22, 1972 – Launched a few days before the 1972 Easter holiday, the Easter Offensive was a massive North Vietnamese push against South Vietnam utilizing conventional forces supplied with tanks and artillery. A three-pronged attack using most of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), four divisions were sent across the DMZ and two more divisions were deployed from positions in Laos towards Huế and Da Nang. Another powerful thrust utilizing three divisions from Cambodia sought to sweep across the Central Highlands and cut the Republic of Vietnam in half. The third prong of the offensive was focused on the far south, with three divisions attacking the town of An Loc just 70 miles north of Saigon. The offensive, organized by Võ Nguyên Giáp and Văn Tiến Dũng, calculated that a large assault would topple the government of President Thiệu. Less than 100,000 Americans were still stationed in South Vietnam, but under President Nixon’s Vietnamization program their focus had switched to training the South Vietnamese forces. American officials had expected a significant offensive, but were left surprised by the scale and ferocity – South Vietnamese forces were initially stunned by the massive assault. However, ARVN forces rallied and pushed back the attack. The offensive ended by May as the South Vietnamese were left to roll back Northern gains. By October 1972, fighting related to the Easter Offensive had ended. North Vietnamese forces suffered massive material and personnel losses, with anywhere between 40-75,000 killed and another 60,000 wounded. Yet, however well South Vietnam seemed to have performed on its own, this success was tempered. While suffering less significant casualties (around 10,000 dead), ARVN units had only turned back the attacking PAVN forces with massive American air support. The heavy reliance on American airpower was an ominous sign for Vietnamization and for the future of South Vietnam. Learn more about the Easter Offensive.

Linebacker Operations

May 9 to October 23, 1972 and December 18 - 29, 1972 – Although the United States never made any substantial effort to invade North Vietnam by land, the war was continually brought to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from the air. Operation Rolling Thunder had carried out select bombings in North Vietnam from March 1965 to October 1968 when the bombings were ended by President Johnson. Operation Linebacker began as a response to the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive in March 1972. The conventional invasion of South Vietnam by the North created clear supply routes and mass troop formations, which were easy targets for American airpower. American Air Force, Marine, and Navy aircraft carried out a sustained bombing campaign against these targets, flying more than 41,000 sorties. Mine-laying aircraft attacked Haiphong harbor, strategic B-52 bombers hit large facilities, and tactical bombers hit smaller targets. Linebacker played a large role in turning back the Easter Offensive, but 75 American aircraft were lost. In October 1972, as peace negotiations in Paris began to make substantial progress, the bombings were cut back. However, when negotiations broke down in December 1972, Linebacker II was initiated. Announced by President Nixon as a full-scale air campaign, it included a concentrated use of B-52 bombers and tactical aircraft. About 700 B-52 sorties and 1,000 fighter-bomber sorties were flown in a campaign lasting less than two weeks. The “Christmas Bombings” targeted areas in and around Hanoi itself. Around 30 American aircraft were lost during the operation. While there is still debate as to the ultimate effect of Linebacker II, the North Vietnamese did return to the negotiating table less than a month after the bombings ended. Learn more about the Linebacker Operations.

5 Major Battles of the Vietnam War - History

During a speech before the 93rd annual conference of the American Legion on Aug. 30, 2011, President Barack Obama praised the Vietnam War veterans in the audience for their service and achievements.

"You, our Vietnam veterans, did not always receive the respect that you deserved — which was a national shame," Obama said. "But let it be remembered that you won every major battle of that war. Every single one."

When we noticed Obama’s claim, we were skeptical. Was it really true that the United States, even as it lost the Vietnam War, actually won every major military battle?

We checked with a variety of historians specializing in the period, and 10 of them responded to our inquiries. Combined, their responses provoked a lively and nuanced debate, which we’ll recap here.

Here are some issues to consider:

What constitutes "winning"? It’s not as easy to answer this question as one might think.

Lance Janda, a professor of history at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., said that "our strategy in Vietnam did not revolve around taking and holding terrain. In fact, we often captured and then abandoned key positions over and over again, and measured our progress in the war through a body count."

By that measure, Janda added, "it’s certainly true that we consistently inflicted far greater casualties on the Viet Cong and North Vietnam than we suffered, and if that’s the only gauge one uses to measure ‘victory,’ then we really did win in Vietnam."

On the other hand, he said, "if you argue that the North Vietnamese learned how to fight us in the early major battles of the war and then developed superior tactical and strategic plans for prolonging and ultimately winning the war, then you can plausibly make the case that they were winning a lot of battles from the beginning, regardless of the body count."

What constitutes a "major" battle? There is no official list of "major" battles of the Vietnam War. Some battles could plausibly be classified as either major or minor, or else be classified as one battle within a broader campaign.

Some observers have suggested that the U.S. actually lost more than two dozen battles during Vietnam. But the 10 historians we contacted agreed that most, and possibly all, of the major battles were won by the U.S.

The biggest battles, including Tet and Khe Sanh, "took place in the first half of 1968 and all were clearly American victories," said Edwin E. Moise, a Clemson University historian. But if you expand the universe of battles that qualify as "major," two in particular might be considered U.S. defeats, he said.

One likely loss was the battle at Landing Zone Albany, in November 1965. An American battalion of about 400 men was ambushed by the People’s Army of North Vietnam -- the North Vietnamese army -- and parts of the battalion were overrun, Moise said. The preliminary count of American casualties was 151 killed, 121 wounded and 5 missing.

Since defensive perimeters were established and a majority of U.S. troops did survive the battle, some might not consider it a defeat, but Moise is among those who do. Maj. Steven M. Leonard wrote in the journal Army Logistician that "inevitably, there were those who would draw comparison to" the wipeout of Gen. George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn.

The second likely loss was the battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord in mid 1970, which was largely unknown by the public into the mid 1980s.

The United States established Ripcord to help launch attacks in the A Shau and Da Krong valleys, Moise said, but the North Vietnamese army attacked it "so strongly that the American command decided it had better get the U.S. troops out fast if it was to get them out alive. The withdrawal on July 23 was so hasty that the withdrawing troops were not able to take along all their artillery pieces. I would have to call this an American defeat."

Richard H. Kohn, a historian at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), added that the South Vietnamese Army lost battles even with the benefit of U.S. advisers and air power, such as Operation Lam Son 719, the incursion into Laos in 1971 that led to heavy casualties.

Is winning military battles the appropriate yardstick to judge the Vietnam War? Ultimately, this is the question that matters. If you assume that the U.S. really did win all the major battles of the war on military terms, how does one square that with the reality that the U.S. lost the war as a whole?

"For the most part, Vietnam was not a war of ‘major battles,'" said Andrew Bacevich, a career Army officer who now teaches international relations at Boston University. "What matters is a war's outcome. Therefore, the president's claim is largely beside the point -- not unlike advocates of the 'Lost Cause' citing Robert E. Lee's victories as evidence of the superiority of the Confederate army."

To better analyze this paradox, let’s look at a couple of examples of military victories that were losses in the bigger picture.

One example is the Tet Offensive, which is often considered the turning point of the war.

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese army launched a surprise attack during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Militarily, it was a major defeat for the Communists, but in the public relations sphere, it was far from a victory for the United States. The offensive, Moise has written, undercut U.S. claims that the Communists were weak, brought the brutality of the war to American television screens, and led to the highest U.S. casualty rates of the war.

"It was a tactical victory for the U.S. in the sense of casualties inflicted and a strategic victory in the military sense, because it defeated the enemy's plan in the field," said James C. Bradford, a Texas A&M University historian. "But the North Vietnamese won a strategic political victory in the sense that the campaign eroded support for the war in the U.S. and contributed directly to President Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to not seek re-election."

Meanwhile, in the battle for "Hamburger Hill" in May 1969, 46 Americans died and 400 were wounded. Enemy losses were much higher -- the number of dead was estimated to be 673 -- and the U.S. seized the hill in question. So by body counts and tactical achievements, the battle for Hamburger Hill was a U.S. victory. But within days, the U.S. decided to abandon the position it had seized, for tactical and operational reasons. And the victory came at a steep price back home.

As the late Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. wrote in 1999, "war is first and foremost a political act, and in the view of politicians in Washington the 101st Airborne Division's assault on Hamburger Hill had been a disaster. As Hedrick Smith reported in the May 23, 1969, New York Times, a number of civilian officials in the Nixon administration were afraid such Pyrrhic victories would undermine public support for the war and thus shorten the administration's time for successful negotiations in Paris."

The historians we contacted largely agreed that the president was technically right, or at least close to right, in saying that the U.S. won the war’s major battles.

Author Doris Kearns Goodwin noted that Obama’s comments were targeted directly to veterans. "The responsibility for the eroding support for the war falls on the political leaders, not on the veterans," she said.

At the same time, while Obama's comment may be technically accurate, several historians added that it may be irrelevant because it does not address the larger factors that had a more dramatic impact on the conduct and outcome of the war.

Before his death in 1999, Summers liked to tell about a meeting he had with a North Vietnamese colonel named Tu while he was with a delegation visiting Hanoi in 1975. At one point, Summers told Tu, "You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield." Tu paused for a moment, then replied, "That may be so. But it is also irrelevant."

Obama’s claim, said Cameron University’s Janda, "is ultimately emotional and defies logic."

3. Battle of Van Tuong

Viet Cong prisoners under guard by US Marines on 1 August 1965 south of Chu Lai. In the background is a Sikorsky UH-34D Seahorse helicopter

Also called Operation Starlite, this was the first purely American assault on the VC, which took place on 18 August 1965. A VC defector claimed that North Vietnam was planning to attack the American Chu Lai Air Base from Van Tuong, so it was decided to launch a preemptive strike.

The Americans launched their assault near the border with North Vietnam using helicopters, tanks, and naval ships. Fighting ended on August 24 with a US victory after killing 614 VC, while the Americans lost 45.

North Vietnam claimed that it had won, however, since they kept the US forces out of their territory.

Vietnam War timeline: 1965 to 1967

This Vietnam War timeline has been compiled by Alpha History authors. It spans the period from American escalation to the anti-war movement. If you would like to suggest an event or date or this timeline, please contact Alpha History.

January 1st: The Viet Cong launches a month-long offensive in South Vietnam, inflicting heavy casualties in Binh Gia, a town outside Saigon.
January 8th: South Korea agrees to send 2,000 military advisors to South Vietnam, to support American training programs there.
January 13th: The United States Air Force announces that two of its jets have been shot down over Laos by communist insurgents.
February 3rd: National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy visits South Vietnam. He later provides President Johnson with a pessimistic report on the situation there.
February 10th: A Viet Cong bomb kills 23 American servicemen in Qhi Nhon, central Vietnam. The Americans respond with another wave of air strikes.
February 12th: Four days of anti-US protests around the world sees American embassies, consulates and other buildings picketed or invaded.
February 13th: Operation Flaming Dart, another series of American bombing runs against North Vietnamese bases, is launched in retaliation for Viet Cong attacks.
February 15th: The communist government in Beijing promises to become involved in the war if American troops invade North Vietnam.
February 18th: South Vietnamese military officers stage a coup against General Nguyen Khanh. After several days of negotiation, Khanh agrees to step aside as head of the ruling military junta.
February 25th: The warring parties discuss terms for a possible peace deal. North Vietnam says it will negotiate peace only if US troops are withdrawn from South Vietnam. Saigon refuses to negotiate with Hanoi until it has ceased supplying the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
March 2nd: The beginning of Operation Rolling Thunder, a campaign of sustained US bombing runs over North Vietnam. They would continue until late 1968.
March 5th: During talks with the South Vietnamese government, US general Harold Johnson tells them he has a “blank cheque” to defeat the communists in Vietnam.
March 6th: The first American combat troops – two battalions of Marines – arrive in Vietnam at ‘China Beach’, near Da Nang. More continue to arrive over the next 48 hours, bringing the total number of US Marines in Vietnam to 5,000.
March 9th: President Lyndon Johnson signs an order authorising the use of napalm in Vietnam, ostensibly to clear vegetation.
March 26th: Alice Herz, an 82-year-old woman from Detroit, commits suicide by self-immolation in protest against the Vietnam War.
April 7th: Johnson delivers a public speech and promises $US1 billion of economic aid if North Vietnam agrees to a negotiated peace deal. Hanoi later rejects this offer.
June 8th: HMAS Sydney arrives at Da Nang, carrying a large contingent of Australian combat troops.
June 27th: US combat troops launch their first major ground offensive, into Viet Cong-held territory north of Saigon.
June 27th: A group of artists and writers publish an open letter in the New York Times, protesting against the war in Vietnam.
May 3rd: Cambodia severs diplomatic ties with the US.
August: South of Da Nang, a joint US-ARVN offensive called Operation Starlite inflicts heavy Viet Cong casualties.
October 15th: A series of anti-US protests take place in several cities around the world including London, Rome, Brussels and Stockholm.
November 2nd: Anti-war protestor Norman Morrison, 32, commits suicide outside the Pentagon.
December: President Johnson orders a pause in bombing runs against North Vietnam, to encourage negotiations.

January 8th: Operation Crimp, a joint US-Australian operation in Saigon, locates a Viet Cong tunnel network.
January 26th: Harold Holt becomes prime minister of Australia, after the retirement of Robert Menzies.
March 25th: A coalition of student, socialist and anti-war groups begin a series of protests against the Vietnam conflict. Dozens of cities around the world are affected, with up to 25,000 protesting in New York.
July 3rd: More than 4,000 protestors demonstrate outside the US embassy in London, leading to scuffles and arrests.
August 18th: The Battle of Long Tan, between Australian forces (17 dead) and the Viet Cong (245 dead).
November: A poll in Australia shows that 63% of people support conscription, but only 37% support sending conscripted soldiers to Vietnam.

January 8th: US forces launch Operation Cedar Falls, an attempt to shut down Viet Cong activity north of Saigon.
March: American aid to South Vietnam increases to $US700 million per annum.
April 4th: Civil rights leader Martin Luther King speaks against the Vietnam War in New York, telling church parishioners that “somehow this madness must cease”.
April 15th: An estimated 300,000 protestors attend the ‘Spring Mobe’ anti-war demonstration in New York.
June 1st: The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) group is formed by several returned soldiers.
July: A report claims that of 464,000 US troops in Vietnam, barely one-tenth can be used for offensive operations.
September 3rd: Nguyen Van Thieu is elected president of South Vietnam.
October 21st: The ‘March on the Pentagon to confront the War Makers’ begins in Washington. As many as 100,000 demonstrators participate over the next three days.
November: General William Westmoreland tells the media that the enemy in Vietnam is “certainly losing”.
December: US troop numbers in Vietnam reach almost 487,000 men.

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As many as 500 unarmed villagers are killed by U.S. Army troops in the hamlet of My Lai. Groups of women, children, and elderly men are shot at close range by elements of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade. Attempts to cover up the massacre begin almost before the shooting stops, and only one American, Charlie Company’s 1st Platoon commander, Lieut. William Calley, will be found guilty of any crime in connection with My Lai. In November 1974 Calley will be released on parole after serving just three and a half years under house arrest.

Millions of people across the United States take to the streets to protest the continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The antiwar demonstrations represent the largest public protests in U.S. history to date.


Lasting 77 days, the siege of Khe Sanh saw American and South Vietnamese forces suffer. In the end, there were 703 killed, 2,642 wounded, and 7 missing. PAVN losses are not known with accuracy but are estimated at between 10,000 to 15,000 dead and wounded. Following the battle, Lownds' men were relieved and Westmoreland ordered the base occupied until he left Vietnam in June. His successor, General Creighton Abrams, did not believe that retaining Khe Sanh was necessary. He ordered the base destroyed and abandoned later that month. This decision earned the ire of the American press, who questioned why Khe Sanh had to be defended in January but was no longer needed in July. Abrams' response was that the then-current military situation no longer dictated that it be held. To this day, it is unclear whether PAVN leadership in Hanoi intended to fight a decisive battle at Khe Sanh, or if operations in the area were meant to distract Westmoreland in the weeks before the Tet Offensive.

Commanders of Chaos: The 5 Worst Generals in U.S. History

These American commanders have lost the battle for history.

It would be nice if all American generals were great. How might Vietnam or Iraq have turned out if a George Washington, a Ulysses Grant or a George Patton had been in command?

Alas, call it the laws of probability or just cosmic karma, but every nation produces bad generals as well as good ones—and America is no exception.

What is a bad general? Defining that is like defining a bad meal. Some would say that failure on the battlefield warrants censure. Others would say that it is not victory, but success in fulfilling a mission that counts.

But for whatever reason, some American commanders have lost the battle for history. Here are five of America's worst generals:

Horatio Gates:

Great generals have great talents, and usually egos and ambitions to match. Yet backstabbing your commander-in-chief in the middle of a war is taking ambition a little too far. A former British officer, Gates rose to fame as Continental Army commander during the momentous American defeat of a British army at Saratoga in 1777.

Many historians credit Benedict Arnold and others with being the real victors of Saratoga. Gates thought otherwise, and fancied himself a better commander than George Washington. It's not the first time that someone thought he was smarter than his boss. But Gates could have doomed the American Revolution.

During the darkest days of the rebellion, when Washington's army had been kicked out of New York and King George's star seemed ascendant, the "Conway cabal" of disgruntled officers and politicians unsuccessfully schemed to out Washington and appoint Gates.

How well that would have worked can be seen when Gates was sent to command American troops in the South. His poor tactical decisions resulted in his army being routed by a smaller force of Redcoats and Loyalists at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780.

Washington also suffered his share of defeats. But his persistence and inspiration kept the Continental Army in the field through the worst of times, which is why his face is on the one-dollar bill. If Gates had been in command, we might be paying for our groceries with shillings and pence.

George McClellan:

The American Civil War was a factory for producing bad generals such as Braxton Bragg and Ambrose Burnside.

But the worst of all was McClellan, the so-called "Young Napoleon" from whom Lincoln and the Union expected great things. McClellan was a superb organizer, a West Point-trained engineer who did much to build the Union army almost from scratch.

But he was overly cautious by nature. Despite Lincoln's pleas for aggressive action, his Army of the Potomac moved hesitantly, its commander McClellan convinced himself that the Southern armies vastly outnumbered him when logic should have told him that it was the North that enjoyed an abundance of resources.

Men and material the Union could provide its armies. But there was something that not even the factories of New York and Chicago could produce, and that was time. As Lincoln well knew, the only way the Union could lose the war was if the North eventually grew tired and agreed to allow the South to secede. Haste risked casualties and defeats at the hands of a formidable opponent like Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The alternative was to split the United States asunder.

Ulysses S. Grant, who replaced McClellan, understood this. He gritted his teeth and wore down the Confederacy with incessant attacks until the South could take no more. McClellan was a proto-Douglas MacArthur who bad-mouthed his president and commander-in-chief. Grant left politics to the politicians and did what had to be done.

Had Lincoln retained McClellan in command of the Union armies, many former Americans might still be whistling "Dixie."

Lloyd Fredendall:

Not that Fredendall didn't have real issues that would have tried any commander. Woefully inexperienced U.S. soldiers found themselves against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps veterans. The Americans lacked sufficient troops, supplies and air cover (when was the last time an American general had to fight a battle while being pounded by enemy bombers?)

Yet Fredendall's solution was to order an Army engineer company to build a giant bunker a hundred miles from the front lines. He also issued orders to his troops in a personal code that no one else understood, such as this gem of command clarity:

Move your command, i. e., the walking boys, pop guns, Baker's outfit and the outfit which is the reverse of Baker's outfit and the big fellows to M, which is due north of where you are now, as soon as possible. Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with J at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M.

The Kasserine disaster had repercussions. It was a humiliating baptism of fire for the U.S. Army in Europe, and more important, caused British commanders to dismiss their Yank allies as amateur soldiers for the rest of the war.

Douglas MacArthur:

Listing MacArthur as one of America's worst generals will be controversial. But then MacArthur thrived on controversy like bread thrives on yeast.

He was indeed a capable warrior, as shown by the South Pacific campaign and the Inchon landing in Korea. But he also displayed remarkably bad judgment, as when he was commander in the Philippines in 1941. Informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and were certain to attack the Philippines next, MacArthur failed to disperse his aircraft—the only force that could disrupt the Japanese offensive in the absence of the American fleet—and to attack Japanese airfields before the enemy wiped out his air force.

But his crowning achievement was bad generalship in Korea. Yes, the landing at Inchon unhinged the initial North Korean offensive. But the rash advance into North Korea was a blunder of strategic proportions. Advancing in dispersed columns across the northern half of the peninsula was an invitation to be destroyed piecemeal. Advancing to the North Korean border with China also was a red flag for Mao-Tse Tung, who feared that American troops on his border were a prelude to U.S. invasion.

Perhaps Mao would have intervened anyway. But MacArthur's strategy certainly helped unleash 300,000 Chinese "volunteers" who inflicted significant casualties on United Nations forces. Instead of holding a natural defense line around Pyongyang, which would have given the United Nations control of most of the peninsula, the UN troops retreated all the way back into South Korea in a humiliating reverse for U.S. power after the crushing victory of World War II.

Finally, there was MacArthur's insubordination. He called for bombing China, as if liberating Korea was worth risking 550 million Chinese and possibly war with Russia as well. Whatever its military wisdom or lack thereof, it was a decision that should not have been made by generals under the American political system. When he made public his disagreements with President Truman, Truman rightfully fired him.

Tommy Franks:

The early days of the 2003 Iraq War were bound to be a graveyard for military and political reputations, given the misperceptions and misjudgments behind America's ill-fated adventure in regime change and nation-building. But Franks, who commanded the invasion, made a bad situation worse.

Critics say that Franks and senior officials, such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, concocted an invasion plan that used too few troops. It wouldn't take a large force to slice through the ramshackle Iraqi army and topple Saddam Hussein, but securing a country the size of Iraq required a larger force.

And what then? There appeared to be little serious planning for what would happen the day after Saddam was gone. Like it or not, the U.S. military would become the governing authority. If it couldn't or wouldn't govern the country, who would? America, the Middle East and the rest of the world are still reaping the consequences of those omissions.

Finally, when it comes to bad generals, let us remember Truman's immortal words about firing MacArthur:

I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for War Is Boring. Follow him on Twitter:@Mipeck1.

America’s ‘Last Battle’ of the Vietnam War was a Fiasco

The humiliating April 29, 1975, image of U.S. helicopters evacuating Americans and Vietnamese from Saigon rooftops as North Vietnamese troops overran South Vietnam to win the Vietnam War was a political-military disaster damaging America’s global prestige. Two weeks later, the U.S. endured another humiliation in Southeast Asia. On May 12, the genocidal communist Khmer Rouge, who had conquered Cambodia on April 17 (and renamed it “Kampuchea”) seized the SS Mayaguez, an American container ship. They had attacked in small “swift boats” and were armed only with AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

The attackers captured Mayaguez Ca pt. Charles T. Miller and 38 crewmen. Over the next three days, President Gerald R. Ford and his senior advisers wrestled with America’s response. U.S. forces ultimately recaptured the Mayaguez, and concurrently Cambodian officials released all the crewmen unharmed. However, during that operation the U.S. military lost 41 lives, including 23 Air Force support personnel accidentally killed in a helicopter crash—a total loss larger than the number of Mayaguez personnel “rescued.”

Christopher J. Lamb’s superbly researched book, The Mayaguez Crisis: Mission Command and Civil-Military Relations, is the definitive account of what happened, how it happened and played out, and what lessons should have been learned.

The Mayaguez incident is billed, Lamb notes, as “the last battle of the Vietnam War.” Actually, the incident is only peripherally connected to the Vietnam War, and linking the Mayaguez ’s seizure to the war is a stretch, considering that all U.S. combat units had withdrawn by 1973.

The connections are merely coincidental: Chronologically, the Mayaguez captur e was two weeks after Saigon’s fall geographically, it was in Southeast Asian waters and politically, regional disruptions facilitated the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian conquest. But the Mayaguez incident was no more related to the Vietnam War than was North Korea’s 1968 capture of U.S. spy ship Pueblo .

The Mayaguez seizure more precisely represents the “first battle” of today’s ongoing “war on terrorism” promulgated by rogue states and nonstate terrorist groups—indeed, Mayaguez ’s capture foreshadowed the tactics of today’s Indian Ocean pirates.

Revealingly, Lamb explains the true significance of the Mayaguez incident in relation to today’s global conflicts:

[A]n example of the courage and fortitude of American servicemen…an enduring symbol of what can go wrong in the planning and execution of military operations…[Importantly, U.S.] national security leaders have to decide between prioritizing the welfare of a small group of citizens or the broader national interests as a whole. This difficult choice arises not only when hostages are seized by foreign powers, but tacitly every time diplomats, intelligence personnel, and other national security officials, and especially military personnel are sent beyond the bounds of our own body politic and its laws and authorities. These personnel constantly accept risks on behalf of the larger community.

Lamb’s book describes the U.S. response to the Mayaguez seizure, recounted in blow-by-blow detail, as confusing and clouded by the chaotic invasion of the unexpectedly heavily defended Koh Tang Island off Cambodia’s southern coast, where American officials wrongly believed that Mayaguez crewmen were being held. More than 240 members of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, prematurely assaulted Koh Tang in Air Force HH-53 helicopters and fatally less-armored Marine CH-53 choppers.

Several hundred determined Khmer Rouge defenders (the enemy’s unexpected high numbers yet another CIA intelligence failure), well-armed with heavy weapons, overwhelmed the American assault forces on Koh Tang’s impossibly narrow east and west landing beaches. The Marines’ mantra, “Leave no man behind,” was put aside as an impossibility. Suffering heavy casualties and susceptible to many more, the Marines left their fallen comrades’ bodies on the island and, unconscionably, abandoned three live Marines: Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall and Pfc. Danny Marshall—all brutally executed by their Khmer Rouge captors.

Despite popular misconceptions that presidential “micromanagement” caused the fiasco that resulted in the number of rescuers killed being higher than the number of people rescued, Ford gave military commanders wide leeway in planning, coordinating and implementing the rescue operations, Lamb reveals. But the U.S. military effort was amateurish and badly botched. The Mayaguez rescue operation—and five years later the almost criminally incompetent failed April 1980 joint military Operation Eagle Claw to rescue American hostages in Iran—ushered in the much-needed 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act fundamentally reforming U.S. joint military operations.

Readers looking for a dramatic, compelling story of the Mayaguez action will find Lamb’s account, while superb, also somewhat “dry.” Lamb’s research, however, is impeccable, and his conclusions are spot on:

Only good fortune and the skill, initiative, and valor displayed by US forces prevented much higher casualties and a complete disaster … it is clear US leaders pursued geostrategic goals and that they successfully conveyed their deterrent message and the sacrifices made by US servicemen…might have been avoided, but they were not in vain.

Watch the video: Battlefield Vietnam Part 04 Showdown in the Iron Triangle (July 2022).


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