The forces opposing the Saigon government and its American backers during the Vietnam War were unlike any opponent the latter had ever encountered. Unwilling to engage in decisive battles, capable of vanishing into impassable terrain at a moment’s notice and having no distinct markings to isolate them from local populations the Vietcong (VC), or National Liberation Front were perhaps the most difficult enemy the US army has ever contested. While in the past US forces had engaged regular forces who wore uniforms and fought in the Prussian tradition, the VC was a popular resistance movement with widespread support which masqueraded as an unorganized guerilla movement while in truth was extremely conscious of objective, plan and tactics. The VC formed into a cohesive fighting force when assaulting but was capable of breaking down into smaller cells and scattering when encountered by a superior enemy, without panic, collecting in a preconfigured safe area. In this fashion the VC greatly frustrated the American forces, those of which would never come up with an effective strategy for completing annihilating Communist presence, and ultimately relied on the trump card of technological awe to fatigue their determined foes. Behind the faÃ§ade of the unorganized bandit gang was meticulous planning, mobility and tactical cunning, the summation of which would result in decisive victory for the VC.
The Geneva Accord of 1954 had, in the wake of French defeat, divided the region of Vietnam into two separate regions: the North was occupied by the Communist government based in Hanoi while the South was occupied by the Republican government based at Saigon. It is from this time that the VC have their origins, although at that time they were not referred to as either VC or as the National Liberation Front, but rather were Communist political supporters who had legally stayed behind in the South to organize popular support for the coming reunification referendum, as promised in the Accord. Ngo Dinh Diem, then President of the Republic of Vietnam, refused to permit a national election in 1956, citing that the Saigon government had never signed the Accord and thus was not required to participate. Diem also simultaneously attempted to completely eradicate Communist influence by staging a countryside arrest, torture and execution campaign. It is at this point that the Communist supporters in the South, with Hanoi’s consent and support (although minimal at the onset) turned into a resistance movement and began to garner larger popular support, as the people were so disgusted with Diem’s tyranny and rampant corruption. The VC offered an alternative to foreign influence and the millennia-long oppression of feudal landlords, promising land reforms, representation for the underprivileged and a more compassionate approach to everyday plights of the farmer. VC sentiments were also sympathetic to the nationalistic spirit of the general Vietnamese people, who had for centuries resisted foreign intervention, the Communists offering self-government and freedom. This attractive platform, combined with the failures of the Diem government, the realm duress brought about by numerous coups and the brutal and unrestrained countryside patrols by the ARVN security forces, which left victimized innocents, burnt hutches and molested women in their wake, would serve as catalysts to greatly expand VC membership. Where the VC could not win the hearts and minds of the people, they struck with fear, assassinating local government officials in rural provinces and attacking provincial police stations, all the while attempting to scavenge for war materiel and supplies. In this fashion those who did not outright join the VC did not dare support the Saigon government, else they be targeted themselves. Lastly, the VC were increasingly reinforced by Northern volunteers, who readily responded, outraged after hearing of the atrocities of the Diem government and the fates that had befallen their families still living in the South. In the end the VC transformed from a small group of demilitarized political activists to a widespread shadow government and popular resistance movement which was represented at every level of power.
The VC themselves were indistinguishable from the typical citizen of South Vietnam, wearing not even armbands or discreet symbols, fighting with no battle kit save his rifle, a few magazines of ammunition and a pouch of rice. Enemy forces entering into a VC-infiltrated village could expect to be fired upon in approaching the community and to find no combatants upon entry, as the Communists either hid their arms or scattered into the countryside. The subsequent and all too common abuse of the Vietnamese people in such hamlets, by both ARVN and US forces, in ransacking, burning and raping, became a very useful tool for the VC organizers, as the people were increasingly estranged from the Saigon government and it’s US backers, and made easy prospects recruited for the resistance.
Ultimately the VC objective for their labors was to reunify the region under one government. This monumental task, opposed by the largest and most technologically advanced army the world had yet seen, seemed to be a fantasy and a means of propaganda to US war planners who failed to take the Communist designs seriously. The US planners observed the movements of the VC as unorganized and random, unable to see under the illusion played to them, all the while the enemy massed and slowly eroded away at their positions. The Communists did not however take the deaths of their comrades and the long and freezing nights of trudging through jungle terrain all the while being battered by relentless barrages of napalm to be for nothing, but was instead a long and gradual process leading to victory, spanning over a decade. The Communist plan for victory included slowly and meticulously building up popular support in the South while funneling in materiel and men from the North, intended to eventually enable total and sustained war against the Saigon government through a massive and unexpected assault, reaching maturation through the Tet Offensive.
On the local level VC forces attempted to infiltrate villages in an attempt to both secure supply caches for the eventual total war as well as to recruit popular support and additional membership. They accomplished this task by assassinating landlords and Saigon government officials and by pandering to the indigenous dissent of the people. Entire villages were trained to make simple booby traps, explosive devices and weapons and began operations to expand adjacent tunnel complexes and connect them to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. In this fashion the Ho Chi Minh trail expanded from an old supply road used during the Indochina War to an expanding and complicated network of interconnected roads and villages, laying the logistical groundwork for the later large scale offensives. Another local objective, especially early in the conflict during which time material support from Hanoi and other Communist governments was minimal, was to capture ammunition, weapons and supplies by any means necessary. Early VC units were armed with primitive weapons such as sharpened sticks and antique swords, relying almost exclusively on shock, surprise and cunning to overcome their superior foes. Communist forces raided local police stations, fortified hamlets and supply depots, counting the seizure of small amounts of weapons and ammo as victories. When basic firearms were seized and complete companies of soldiers were constituted the VC began to skirmish with local ARVN and US forces, the intent being to inflict maximum casualties and consternation, breaking off in the event of contest by an organized relief force. The Communist forces were successful in this regard to their superior mobility, not being bogged down by muddied APCs, heavy equipment and excessive personal gear, and having a knowledge of the countryside, they were able to quickly strike at enemy positions and to scatter before organized reprisals could be mounted.
The US and ARVN forces responded to these attacks by Search and Secure and Search and Destroy missions, supported by massive overhead firepower support. This tactic, covered in a previous essay, decisively turned out to be a failure, and was not successful in either containing or in defeating VC regional influence, as Operation Rolling Thunder was ineffective in cutting off supply to South Communist forces, and no alternatives to bombing campaigns were attempted. The military failure of the US forces was only compounded by the political and moral failures of the corrupt Diem government and the military administrations to follow; the unstable culture of Saigon instilled no relief in the hearts of the countryside people. Ultimately the Communist revolution transformed from a civil war to a unified resistance against a foreign power, and the Americans were unwilling and unable to wage a colonial war.