Assessing Pacification in Vietnam: We Won the Counterinsurgency War!

by J.R. Bullington
Journal Article | March 23, 2012 - 9:00am

VSSG Conclusions

The final VSSG report was completed on April 15, 1970. This now-declassified report, entitled “The Situation in the Countryside,” should be available in manuscript form in at least some archives of Vietnam War material. I obtained a copy from the library of the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk. Here are its principal conclusions:

  • During 1967, VC control of the rural population dropped only slightly, from 52% to 49%, while GVN control inched up from 16% to 20%. The remainder was contested, under varying degrees of influence by both sides. (The GVN had control of all the urban areas, which contained about 38% of the total population.)
  • With the Tet Offensive in January 1968, VC control of the rural population jumped to 55% while GVN control fell to 14%, as South Vietnamese forces were withdrawn from rural areas to defend cities.
  • By the summer of 1968, the respective control figures had returned to pre-Tet levels and the GVN began to make rapid progress in the pacification struggle. This progress continued throughout the rest of 1968 and all of 1969.
  • In December 1969, the VC controlled only 8% of the rural population, while the GVN controlled 62%. Adding in the urban areas, this meant the GVN controlled 76% of the total population, the VC controlled 5%, and 19% was under some degree of influence by both.
  • This rapid rate of progress was slowing in late 1969 and early 1970, as new North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces were being introduced while U.S. units had begun to withdraw.
  • GVN territorial forces (Regional Force, Popular Force, and People’s Self-Defense Force) had increased substantially in size and had become more effective, and GVN administrative leadership had improved, although serious weaknesses remained in both.
  • While the VC had lost much of their previous popular support, this was mostly the result of the enemy’s declining military position rather than a cause of it. Popular support generally followed rather than led control, and current majority support for the GVN remained subject to reversal if enemy military fortunes improved.
  • Despite the impressive gains in pacification, the enemy was not near defeat in early 1970. He had adopted a protracted war strategy, building up NVA forces in remote base areas and cross-border sanctuaries while awaiting an advantageous political settlement or, failing that, planning an escalated military strategy following withdrawal of U.S. forces.
  • GVN regular and territorial forces were not yet sufficiently strong to maintain the current level of control without substantial U.S. assistance.

The war’s trajectory from 1970 to its end in 1975 generally bore out the accuracy of the VSSG assessment.

Post-Ceasefire Perspective
Soon after conclusion of the VSSG project, I departed the State Department for an assignment in Chiangmai, Thailand; but I was called back to Washington in 1973 to serve as political officer on the Vietnam desk in State’s East Asia Bureau. In that capacity, I had access to the relevant data and reporting as well as the opportunity for extended visits to Vietnam, so I tried informally to follow up on the VSSG findings. I reached the following conclusions:

  • From 1970 until the 1973 ceasefire, pacification progress had continued but much more slowly than previously, and after the ceasefire, the struggle for control of the countryside was essentially stalemated.
  • At the time of the ceasefire, the GVN controlled close to 80% of the rural population plus all the urban population, or about 90% of the total. Enemy control was about 5%, with the rest contested.
  • The regular South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and territorial forces had continued to improve under the “Vietnamization” program as U.S. forces were withdrawn. This was demonstrated when they successfully turned back the all-out enemy offensive of 1972 without the assistance of U.S. ground combat forces (albeit with massive U.S. air and logistic support).
  • After the ceasefire and the drastic reduction of U.S. military and economic assistance which shortly followed, the strength and effectiveness of the South Vietnamese forces declined rapidly during 1974 and early 1975. In contrast, the North Vietnamese regular forces during this period had fully recovered from their 1972 defeat and were stronger than ever before. The Ho Chi Minh trail had become a highway, bringing almost all the North Vietnamese Army into base areas in or near South Vietnam, where they were preparing another all-out offensive.
  • The Viet Cong insurgency had been weakened to the point that it was no longer a major element in the war, which by 1972 had lost almost all the characteristics of an insurgency. It had become overwhelmingly a conventional war fought by conventional forces, and it remained so after the ceasefire (which was never effectively observed by either side).

Final Visit
On my last visit to Vietnam, in late 1974, I spent three weeks traveling in Quang Tri, Hué, and Danang as well as consulting in Saigon with Vietnamese friends and Americans in the U.S. Mission. Even though the government was still in control of an overwhelming majority of the population, it was clear that the situation was becoming desperate. While NVA attacks were increasing and intelligence pointed to strong and rapidly growing North Vietnamese forces preparing for a massive general offensive, supply shortages were forcing the South Vietnamese to reduce military operations and curtail training; lack of fuel and spare parts had essentially grounded the air force; some units at the end of long supply lines were literally running out of ammunition; and – not surprisingly in such circumstances – morale was declining rapidly.
Combining these findings with data available in Washington, I wrote a report that drew considerable attention in the State Department, including from Secretary Kissinger. Contrary to the still-optimistic reports coming from Ambassador Graham Martin and the U.S. Embassy, I concluded that in the absence of immediately and massively renewed American support (which had become politically impossible because of Congressional opposition) South Vietnam would fall and the war would be lost not later than the summer of 1975.
In his memoirs (Years of Renewal, Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 483), Kissinger discussed my report and quoted from it:
On December 20, 1974, the State Department’s Vietnam desk officer, James R. Bullington, wrote a moving and extraordinarily prescient report after a visit to Saigon….Interspersing his report with human interest vignettes of the growing despair among South Vietnamese, Bullington concluded that, without the supplemental [appropriation from Congress], South Vietnam’s position was hopeless. We had reached the point where, if the supplemental failed to materialize, only one option would be left to mitigate our country’s dishonor:
If the supplemental fails, we should also consider ways and means of saving as many anti-Communist South Vietnamese as possible. For example, do we not have a certain obligation to those many thousands of Vietnamese and their families who are present or former employees of the USG? To fail to help such people escape would, I believe, add considerable dishonor to our defeat in South Vietnam.

The counterinsurgency we waged in Vietnam was failing prior to 1968, but thereafter the new population-centric strategy, the increased support for South Vietnamese forces, the heightened focus on pacification, and the improved effectiveness achieved with the CORDS reorganization, all combined to bring success during the 1968-72 period. By the time of the ceasefire, the Viet Cong insurgents were no longer capable of playing a major role in determining the outcome of the war. In 1975, it was not insurgents, but the regular army of North Vietnam, operating in division-size formations and supported by armor and artillery, that defeated the armed forces of South Vietnam, which had been crippled by drastic cuts in U.S. funding and supplies. The North Vietnamese were forced to adopt this conventional war strategy because of the failure of the insurgency they had sponsored in the South.
Whether or not South Vietnam could have prevailed in the conventional war with North Vietnam that followed the insurgency, had we continued to provide air support plus sufficient aid and logistic assistance after 1973, is a question of counter-factual history that can never be answered
J.R. Bullington

Commentary: Bill Laurie

Author argues pacification war was won against diminishing indigenous VC forces, only to be lost under sledge hammer of massive superior NVA conventional firepower:

Note comments at end of article, some of which are simply inane, proving lingering effectiveness of Hanoi propaganda and pseudo-historians(sic) mesmerized, almost gleefully so, by Hanoi myths.

Left unmentioned is any discussion of what happened after "liberation." RVN, Laos and Cambodia were "liberated" just as Poland was "liberated" by Hitler in 1939, leaving a socio-economic abyss of corruption, poverty, malnutrition and death, an abyss from which these three countries have yet to climb out of. Case in point:

Comparative per capita annual income, 2010-2011 data:

                            Viet Nam $1,168                                                 Malaysia $9,204
                                      Laos 1,050                                                   Thailand   4,716
                              Cambodia 830                                                    Indonesia 4,668
                                                                                                          Philippines 2,007

                        Average $1,016                                                          $5,149

Averaged (unweighted) per capita income Hanoi/Hanoi-influenced countries is 19.7% of of non-communist neighbors.

According to World Bank and U.N. data, circa 2000, the unweighted average infant and maternal mortality rates of the three communist Indochinese countries is twice that of unweighted average for four nearby non-communist countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines. Same with malnutrition rate. In RVN alone, infant mortality rate doubled after Hanoi took over. Today, Hanoi ranks among the top 20 offenders suppressing religious freedom, and near the bottom of 179 countries surveyed measuring press freedom...or lack thereof.

At present growth rates and levels, SE Asia communist or Hanoi influenced economies will not catch up to their non-communist neighbors in our lifetime. Recall that in 1950 (RPT: one-nine-five-zero), when Viet Nam was embroiled in war against the French, Viet Nam's per capita income was 80% (RPT: eight-zero) of Thailand's. So, just what has "liberation" wrought?