America’s Vietnamese Allies

They were small, talked in sing-song squeaks, put a smelly fish sauce on their food, and often held hands with each other. It is not surprising that some American troops sent to Southeast Asia -- mostly young, indifferently educated, and molded by a society with too much self-esteem and too little understanding of other cultures -- found it hard to empathize with South Vietnam's soldiers.

The smiles of the best Airborne soldiers. These are not the faces of "puppet" troops as the VC and NVA proganda would have you believe the ARVN forces were. These are the faces of proud, brave, and dedicated men.

Unfortunately, many veterans of the Vietnam War have joined radical agitators, draft dodgers and smoke-screen politicians to besmirch the honor of an army that can no longer defend it. It is contemptible and unworthy of American soldiers and the American public to slander an army that died in battle because America abandoned it.  Some have mistakenly or intentionally said that South Vietnam's soldiers were incompetent, treacherous, and cowardly.  Of course, the South Vietnamese forces were imperfect. They had their share of bad leaders, cowardly troops, and incidents of panic, blundering and brutality—just as some American forces had in Southeast Asia.  

A brave soldier of ARVN (The Army of The Republic of Viet Nam) in battle.

Some of  South Vietnam's armed forces’ organization, logistics, staff work and leadership did lag behind U.S. forces, but South Vietnam was a developing nation that had just emerged from colonialism and was suddenly plunged into a war to the death against a powerful enemy supplied by the Communist bloc. Many of the weaknesses exhibited by the South Vietnamese forces were identical to the ones the U.S. armed forces had during the American War of Independence, even though late 18th-century America had several advantages: the whole scale of the Revolutionary War was smaller and easier to manage; America's colonial experience, unlike Vietnam's, had fostered local self-government and permitted the country to develop some truly outstanding leaders; the British were less persistent than the North Vietnamese; and the French allies did not abandon young America the way the U.S. government abandoned South Vietnam.

The proud and dedicated soldiers of the Army of Republic of Viet Nam.

But the issue of organization, logistics, staff work and even leadership are not the basis of the slandering of the South Vietnamese forces.  Two questions touch on the real issue. Were South Vietnamese fighting men so lacking in character, courage, toughness and patriotism that Americans are justified in slandering them and assigning them all blame for the defeat of freedom in Southeast Asia? Were U.S. soldiers so much better than their allies that Americans can afford to treat the South Vietnamese with contempt? The answer to both questions is a resounding "No!"

A military parade performed by ARVN on June 19, 1972.

The great leaders of the Army of Republic of South Vietnam, from left to right:  General Nguyen Van Minh, Colonel Bui Duc Diem, General Cao Van Vien, General Le Van Hung, President Nguyen Van Thieu and Colonel Tran Van Nhut.   The Tet Offensive of 1968 was supposed to crack South Vietnam's will to resist. Instead, South Vietnamese forces fought ferociously and effectively: no unit collapsed or ran. Even the police fought, turning their pistols against heavily armed enemy regulars. Afterward the number of South Vietnamese enlistments rose so high, according to reports at the time, that the country's government suspended the draft call for a while. In the 1972 Easter tide Offensive, isolated South Vietnamese troops at An Loc held out against overwhelming enemy forces and artillery/rocket fire for days, defeating repeated tank assaults. A U.S. adviser described how a South Vietnamese infantry squad in his area was sent to destroy three enemy tanks. The members of the squad dutifully destroyed one tank, and then decided to capture the other two. They got one, but the other made its escape with the South Vietnamese chasing it down a road on foot. The soldiers got chewed out upon returning--for letting one tank get away. The squad's performance may not be the best demonstration of military discipline, but the incident demonstrates the high morale and initiative that many South Vietnamese soldiers possessed. Certainly it does not support charges of cowardice. During South Vietnam's final moments as an independent nation in 1975, when justifiable despair gripped the country because it became clear that the United States would provide no more help (not even fuel and ammunition), one division-sized South Vietnamese unit held off four North Vietnamese divisions for some two weeks in fierce fighting at Xuan Loc. By all accounts, that battle was as heroic as anything in the annals of U.S. military history. The South Vietnamese finally had to withdraw when their air force ran out of cluster bombs for supporting the ground troops. There was a television documentary about an Australian cameraman who had covered the war. Unlike U.S. reporters, he spent much of his time with the South Vietnamese forces. He attested to their fighting spirit and showed film footage to prove it. He also recalled visiting an enemy-controlled village and being told that the Communists feared South Vietnamese troops more than Americans. The principal reason was that Americans were noisy, so the enemy always heard them coming. But that would have been immaterial if the South Vietnamese had not also been dangerous fighters. HUYNH The most important evidence of South Vietnamese soldiers' willingness to fight comes from two simple, undeniable, "big-picture" facts -- facts that are often ignored or disguised to cover up North Vietnam’s invasion and takeover of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).  
  • First: The war began seven years before major American combat forces arrived and continued for about five years after the U.S. began withdrawing. The South Vietnamese were doing the fighting.
  • Second: The South Vietnamese armed forces lost about a quarter-million dead. In proportion to population, that was equivalent to some 2 million American dead (double the actual U.S. losses in all wars combined). You don't suffer that way if you're not fighting.

The Army of The Republic of Vietnam in 1964.

How, then, did the South Vietnamese get a bad reputation from some in the United States? Certainly there were occasional displays of incompetence and panic by South Vietnamese forces just as with U.S. forces. An American artillery commander’ gunners once had to defend their firebase by firing canister point-blank into enemy ranks because the U.S. infantry company "protecting" them had broken in the face of the enemy assault and was huddling, panic-stricken, in the midst of the guns. That incident does not mean the whole U.S. Army was cowardly, and occasional breakdowns among America's allies (South Vietnamese) did not mean all South Vietnamese soldiers were cowards. Yet one would think so, the way the story gets told by some veterans -- and by the political apologists for a U.S. government that left South Vietnam in the lurch. Author S.L.A. Marshall describes how one American rifle company in World War II fled in panic from a screaming Japanese banzai charge: a second unit fought on, quickly killing every Japanese soldier involved (about 10), and discovered that most of them were not even armed. If the same thing had happened to a South Vietnamese unit, it undoubtedly would have been cited repeatedly by self-appointed pundits as incontrovertible proof of the cowardice of all South Vietnamese troops. The ugly truth is that the South Vietnamese forces' false reputation is rooted in American cultural chauvinism and perhaps a tinge of racism. In 1969, there were continuous displays of ignorance and contempt by some Americans toward the Vietnamese people and their armed forces. White troops, black troops, and civilian Americans such as journalists -- all were equally afflicted. This passionate hatred of Vietnam and its people had an astonishing power to become contagious. Imagine the feelings of the undereducated masses of American troops faced with a strange culture in a high-stress environment! Perhaps one cannot blame the troops for their ignorance. The U.S. command made only the most perfunctory effort to educate them about Vietnam and the nature of the war. However, that is no excuse for veterans to pretend that they understand what they saw in Vietnam. America's Vietnam veterans must be honored for their courage, sacrifice and loyalty to their country, but courage and sacrifice are not the same as knowledge.     What most U.S. soldiers did there taught them little or nothing about South Vietnam's culture, society, politics, etc. Few Americans spoke more than a half-dozen words of Vietnamese; even fewer read Vietnamese books and newspapers; and not many more read books about Vietnam in English. Except for advisers, few Americans worked with any Vietnamese other than (perhaps) the clerks, laundresses and waitresses employed by U.S. forces. Few U.S. troops ever observed South Vietnamese forces in combat. Even the ones who did rarely considered the attitude differences that must have existed between soldiers like the Americans, who only had to get through one year and knew their families were safe at home, and troops like the South Vietnamese, who had to worry about their families' safety every day and who knew that only death or grievous wounds would release them from the army. The Vietnamese  naturally used a different measuring stick to determine what was important in fighting the war. Journalists were no better. Consider a biased TV report in which a reporter denounced South Vietnam's air force because -- despite Vietnamization -- it "let the Americans" fly the tough missions against North Vietnam. In fact, it was the United States that would not let the South Vietnamese fly into North Vietnam (except for a few missions in the early days of the bombing). The American leaders wanted to control the bombing so that the United States could use it as a negotiating tool. Not wanting the South Vietnamese to have any control over bombing policy, the U.S. forces deliberately gave them equipment unsuited for missions up North. South Vietnam did not get the fighter-bombers, weapons, refueling aircraft or electronic-warfare equipment necessary for such missions. It was an American decision. Another example of media bias came during the Khe Sanh siege. If you asked a thousand Americans which units fought at Khe Sanh, most of those who had heard of the battle would probably know that U.S. Marines did. But it would be surprising if more than one out of the thousand knew that a South Vietnamese Ranger battalion had shared the rigors of the siege with American Marines. Other South Vietnamese units took part in supporting operations outside the besieged area. The U.S. media just did not consider the American allies worthy of coverage unless they were doing something shameful, so these hard-fighting soldiers became quite literally the invisible heroes of Khe Sanh.   All this -- soldier and media bias -- came together clearly during news reports of the 1972 incursion into Laos. Consider a TV documentary that included film of some American GIs being interviewed during the Laotian fighting. These GIs safely inside South Vietnam were "explaining" the South Vietnamese army's struggle in contemptuous, racist remarks. The reporter then suggested that these American GIs understood the situation better than the American generals. Colonel Robert Molinelli, an American officer who witnessed the action, described it in the Armed Forces Journal of April 19, 1971: "A South Vietnamese battalion of 420 men was surrounded by an enemy regiment of 2,500-3,300 men for three days. The U.S. could not get supplies to the unit. It fought till it ran low on ammunition, and then battled its way out of the encirclement using captured enemy weapons and ammunition. It carried all of its wounded and some of its dead with it. Reconnaissance photos showed 637 visible enemy dead around its position. The unit was down to 253 effectives when it reached another South Vietnamese perimeter. Some 17 of those men did panic and rode helicopter skids to escape. The rest did not. Now, some might consider dangling from a high-flying, fast-moving helicopter for many miles, subject to anti-aircraft fire, to be a pretty gutsy move. But, aside from that, how can such an isolated incident -- during a hard-fought withdrawal-while-in-contact (universally acknowledged to be just about the toughest maneuver in the military inventory) -- be inflated into condemnation of an entire army, nation and population? The answer is racism. The guys hanging from the helicopter skids were funny-looking foreigners. If they had been Americans, or even British, the reaction undoubtedly would have been one of compassion for the ordeal they had been through. It is certainly true that South Vietnamese forces gave an undistinguished performance in the final days, with the exception of the incredibly heroic defense of Xuan Loc. Yet, there are reasons for that. And there are reasons to believe that, with more loyal support from the Americans, the South Vietnamese could have turned in more Xuan Loc-style performances and perhaps even have saved their country.

The ARVN troop walked pass a village destroyed by North Vietnamese bombs.

The real issue again is not just how the South Vietnamese performed; it is how their performance compared with the way Americans might have performed under similar circumstances. And the truth is that American troops -- if they were abandoned by the U.S. the way South Vietnamese were -- probably would perform no better than the South Vietnamese did.

American soldier took shelter in a sandbagged bunker when North Vietnamese rockets

hit US Marine Base in Khe Sanh on Feb. 24, 1968.

Remember: the United States had cut aid to South Vietnam drastically in 1974, months before the final enemy offensive. As a result, only a little fuel and ammunition were being sent to South Vietnam. South Vietnamese air and ground vehicles were immobilized by lack of spare parts. Troops went into battle without batteries for their radios, and their medics lacked basic supplies. South Vietnamese rifles and artillery pieces were rationed to three rounds of ammunition per day in the last months of the war. The situation was so bad that even the North Vietnamese commander who conquered South Vietnam, General Van Tien Dung, admitted his enemy's mobility and firepower had been cut in half. Aside from the direct physical effect, one must take into account the impact this impoverishment had on South Vietnamese soldiers' morale. Into this miserable state of affairs the North Vietnamese slashed, with a well-equipped, well-supplied tank-and-motorized-infantry blitzkrieg.

The ARVN soldiers were still fighting to stop North Vietnamese army from attacking Saigon.  Photo was taken on April 28, 1975 on Van Thanh bridge.

  For a while the South Vietnamese hoped the American B-52s would return and help stem the Communist tide. When it became clear they would not, understandable demoralization set in. The fighting spirit of the forces was sapped, and many South Vietnamese soldiers deserted -- not because they were cowards or were not willing to fight for their country, but because they were unwilling to die for a lost cause when their families desperately needed them. Would Americans do any better under the conditions that faced the South Vietnamese in 1975? Would U.S. units fight well with broken vehicles and communications, a crippled medical system, inadequate fuel and ammunition, and little or no air support -- against a powerful, well-supplied and confident foe? Would the South Vietnamese have won in 1975 if the U.S. government had kept up its side of the bargain and continued matching the aid poured into North Vietnamese by the Communists? At least one foreign policy expert says. YES”.  It is too late for Americans to make good the terrible injustice committed in abandoning the South Vietnamese people to Communism. But it is not too late to acknowledge the error of American insults to their memory. It is not too late to begin paying proper honor to their achievements and their heroic actions to defend their liberty.   [Primary Source: “Heroic Allies”, Harry F. Noyes III, Vietnam Magazine; additional information provided by Bruce Herschensohn, Foreign Policy Expert; Colonel Joseph E. Abodeely, USA (Ret), former combat unit commander with 1st Air Cavalry Division -- worked with ARVN units]  

Author: Chau Pham

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