NORTH VIETNAMESE FORCES IN THE VIETNAM WAR---THE VIET CONG, NVA, PAVN—AND THEIR SUPPORTERS AND STRONG WILL TO FIGHT

NORTH VIETNAMESE IN THE VIETNAM WAR

The historians consider the North Vietnamese effort against the United States to be a true collective effort with Ho Chi Minh as its spiritual and political leader, Giap as the military strategist and countless others who worked together with them as equals behind the scenes.

For the Vietnamese what the Americans called the Vietnam War was part of the Second Indochina War (1954–75), In that war Viet Cong—communist forces in South Vietnam—and regular People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces from communist North Vietnam—with logistical support from China and the Soviet Union—fought and ultimately defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnam’s military), which was supported—and sometimes dominated—by the U.S. military. The Vietnamese estimate that they lost nearly 3 million lives and suffered more than 4 million injuries during the U.S. involvement in the war.

Le Duan, the de-facto leader of North Vietnam during the war became considerably more radical the death of Diem and the Gulf of Tonkin incident."Unlike Ho, who wanted a peaceful resolution, Le Duan was far more militant. He wanted, in his own words, "final victory". He dismissed Ho's position, as did the majority of the Politburo, calling him "naive". When Ho called for the establishment of a neutral South Vietnamese state in 1963, Le Duan responded by making overtures to the Chinese, who rejected the Soviet position of peaceful coexistence. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hanoi's response to the fall of the Diem regime in 1963 was a subject of intense debate at the Ninth Plenum of the Vietnam Workers Party (VWP) Central Committee held in December 1963. Escalation of the war resulted in some immediate success for the struggle in the South. By 1964 a liberated zone had been established from the Central Highlands to the edge of the Mekong Delta, giving the communists control over more than half the total land area and about half the population of the South. PLAF forces totaled between 30 and 40 battalions, including 35,000 guerrillas and 80,000 irregulars. Moreover, with the completion of the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, the number of PAVN troops infiltrated into the South began to increase. ARVN control was limited mainly to the cities and surrounding areas, and in 1964 and 1965 Saigon governments fell repeatedly in a series of military and civilian coups. [Source: Library of Congress]

With the increased involvement of the United States military in 1965, the North's military strategy was forced to change. As North Vietnamese Le Duan leader noted in a letter to Nguyen Chí Thanh, the war would become "fiercer and longer". He believed the fundamentals of the conflict had not changed; the South Vietnamese regime's unpopularity remained its "Achilles heel" and he continued to advocate a combination of guerilla warfare and NVA offensives. The communist commanders in the South were to avoid large attacks on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), but instead focus on many small attacks to demoralize the enemy. Le Duan believed that the key to victory was for the NVA had to keep the initiative. He dismissed the possibility of an attack against North Vietnam by American forces, claiming that an attack on North Vietnam would be an attack on the entire socialist camp.[Wikipedia]

North Vietnamese and Their Desire to Win

The North Vietnamese saw the South Vietnamese government as a "puppet regime" corrupted by American imperialists. The Americans to them were just another colonial power, as the French had been before them, trying to deprive the Vietnamese of their sovereignty. Robert G. Kaiser wrote in the Washington Post, "The Vietnamese communists had key advantages that the U.S. side couldn't match: a better army, more determined and more competent leaders, and a political legitimacy that they had earned by expelling the French colonizers. And they were fighting for a unified Vietnam. [Source: Robert G. Kaiser, Washington Post, January 14, 2007]

The North Vietnamese were strongly committed to winning to the war. After a 1,000-year occupation by the Chinese and a 100 years of French rule the last thing many Vietnamese wanted was a bunch of Americans running their country. Ho Chi Minh said, "It was patriotism, not communism that inspired me." When General Vo Nguyen Giap Giap was asked by Stanley Karnow in 1990, howlong his army would have fought, he said, "twenty years, maybe 100 years—as long a sit took to win, regardless of cost."

Giap later wrote in Newsweek, "During the American war, Ho was only responding to American action. When the Americans began to intervene by sending in military advisors in the early 1960s. he convened the Politburo and said we now had to send our military cadres, weapons and ammunition to the South and we had to improve the small Ho Chi Minh Trail network.... I think our most difficult moment came in 1965," Giap wrote, "when Johnson changed strategy from a limited war with advisors and began bringing in combat divisions. But Ho wasn't shaken. He was very decisive, very confident. He called a special political congress and ordered our infantry o move south and match the pace of the American escalation."

"Ho said the American can pour in 1 million troops, " Giap wrote, "but there is no reason to be afraid. He mobilized the country around the saying that nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." In the 1974 film Hearts and Minds , Gen. Westmoreland said: "The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." In 1997, Giap said, "I told McNamara … the US lost in Vietnam because the US did not understand Vietnam."

Viet Cong, NVA (North Vietnam Army), People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)

The terms Viet Cong, NVA (North Vietnam Army) and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) are routinely tossed with explaining what they were—so what actually were they. The Viet Cong were irregular or guerilla forces in South Vietnam. They wore no uniforms and melted into the local population during the day time. The NVA were regular army forces of North Vietnam. The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) grew out of the Vietnam Liberation Army (VLA), the military wing of the Indochinese Communist Party, the original Vietnamese communist party that was founded in the 1920s and later transformed by Ho Chi Minh into the Communist Party that rules Vietnam today. It embraced—and overlapped with—the NVA. The current military of Vietnam is called the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN).

Originally the NVA were supposed to soldiers of North Vietnam supporting the rebellion in South Vietnam and the Viet Cong (VC) were supposed to be natives of South Vietnam fighting against the South Vietnamese government. But in reality the two groups were not so clear with people from North Vietnam and South Vietnam fighting on both sides. About the only difference between VC and NVA, was the uniforms. The NVA operated in larger numbers and were a military unit while VC were guerrilla fighters, squad and platoon strength normally, usually locals from the villages, but could also be regional.

The Viet Cong (members of the National Liberation Front, NLF) were originally insurgents trained, armed, and infiltrated into South Vietnam to attack the South Vietnamese government. When the North ran out of expatriate South Vietnamese Communists that had moved north in 1954 when the country was divided they started supplementing them with regular troops from the North Vietnamese Army. Eventually they stopped making any pretense that the VC were South Vietnamese trying to overthrow their own government, and started sending regular NVA units south. During the Tet Offensive the Viet Cong, and their shadow government counterpart the National Liberation Front, were mostly wiped out by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). From 1968 on the war was fought by regular units of the NVA. When the North finally overran the South it was the NVA in Russian tanks and trucks, fueled by Russian gas, shooting Russian assault-rifles, supported by Russian artillery, and covered by Russian antiaircraft weapons.

The NVA or North Vietnamese Army was seen as a real fighting force. They didn't play hide and seek like the V.C. when the NVA attacked they attacked in force. When they defended they defended in place. Some VC were south Vietnamese Buddhist who hated the South Vietnam regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was a Catholic, which brutally cracked down on Buddhist Vietnamese in the south in the early 1960s. After the north took over the south many of these were put in re-education camps.

And there’s the difference between The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the People's Liberation Army (PLAF). Both consisted of Vietnamese from the north and the south who fought against the soldiers of the so-called "Republic of Vietnam" (South Vietnam) and the Americans. The PAVN were organised into divisions and equipped and armed in the north. The PLAF were not a "Special Forces" group — they were largely peasants who either joined voluntarily or were recruited to defend their villages against the corrupt and brutal regimes of the RVN, or the American invaders. The PLAF were different from the PAVN, had different arms, different training, were farmers by day and guerrillas by night, and often took part in propaganda acts in order to raise awareness and recruit more soldiers and supporters for the revolution. [Source: 'Inside the VC (PLAF) and the NVA (PAVN): The Real Story of Vietnam's Armed Forces' Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg, Fawcett and Columbine, 1992]

According to Wikipedia: The National Liberation Front, (NLF) identifies an umbrella of front groups, sympathizers and allies set up by the rulers of North Vietnam to conduct the insurgency in South Vietnam. The NLF also included fully armed formations- regional and local guerrillas, and the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). The PLAF was the "Main Force" – the Chu Luc or full-time soldiers of the NLF's military wing. Many histories lump both the NLF and the armed formations under the term "Viet Cong" or "VC" in common usage. Both were tightly interwoven and were in turn controlled by the North. Others consider the Viet Cong or "VC" to primarily refer to the armed elements. The term PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam), identifies regular troops of the North Vietnamese Army or NVA as they were commonly known by their Western opponents. Collectively, both forces- the southern armed wing and the regulars from the north were part of PAVN. [Source: Wikipedia]

Campaign to ‘Liberate’ the South Begins in 1959

The North Vietnamese campaign to ‘liberate’ South Vietnam began in 1959. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which had been used for several years to supply insurgents in Laos and sympathizers in South Vietnam, was expanded. By 1959 some of the 90,000 Viet Minh troops that had returned to the North following the Geneva Agreements had begun filtering back into the South to take up leadership positions in the insurgency apparat.

In 1960, Vietnamese in the south who hated the Diem regime began to take up arms against the South Vietnamese government. They were supported by the North Vietnamese government, who began feeding them supplies and irregular troops along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The United States responded by sending in advisors and army trainers o assist the Diem government.

For many Vietnamese Communism was an expression of nationalism not a political ideology. Ho Chi Minh originally pleaded with the United States and the West for support but his please were rejected. This gave the North Vietnam little choice but to fall into the open arms of the Soviet Union and Communist China. The North Vietnamese welcomed tanks, airplanes, missiles and other weapons from the Soviet Union and China but refused offers to have foreign combat troops stationed on Vietnamese soil and for the most part refused Soviet and Chinese advise on how to conduct the war. The Soviets were against war because they didn’t want to antagonize the United States and the Chinese didn’t want to have a protracted guerilla war near their borders.

"By the fall of 1961," McNamara wrote, "guerilla infiltration from North Vietnam had increased substantially, and the Viet Cong had intensified their attacks on President Ngo Dihn Diem's government." The infiltration occurred as Diem's hold on power was becoming more tenuous.

Establishment of the Viet Cong

In April 1960 universal military conscription was implemented in North Vietnam. In December of the same year Hanoi announced the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a political-military group whose objective were the reunification of Vietnam and the ouster of foreign troops. In the south, the NLF was derogatorily called the Viet Cong (VC for short), a shortening of "Viet Nam Cong San" (Vietnamese for "Vietnamese Communist"). American GI's later called them "Charlie."

The National Liberation Front (known in Vietnamese as Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam), was founded, with representatives on its Central Committee from all social classes, political parties, women's organizations, and religious groups, including Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, the Buddhists, and the Catholics. In order to keep the NLF from being obviously linked with the Vietnam Workers Party (VWP) and the North Vietnam, its executive leadership consisted of individuals not publicly identified with the Communists, and the number of party members in leadership positions at all levels was strictly limited. Furthermore, in order not to alienate patriotic noncommunist elements, the new front was oriented more toward the defeat of the United Statesbacked Saigon government than toward social revolution. *

In response to increased United States involvement, all communist armed units in the South were unified into a single People's Liberation Armed Force (PLAF) in 1961. These troops expanded in number from fewer than 3,000 in 1959 to more than 15,000 by 1961, most of whom were assigned to guerrilla units. Southerners trained in the North who infiltrated back into the South composed an important element of this force. Although they accounted numerically for only about 20 percent of the PLAF, they provided a well-trained nucleus for the movement and often served as officers or political cadres. By late 1962, the PLAF had achieved the capability to attack fixed positions with battalionsized forces.

Expansion of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Forces in South Vietnam

The NLF was also expanded to include 300,000 members and perhaps 1 million sympathizers by 1962. Land reform programs were begun in liberated areas, and by 1964 approximately 1.52 million hectares had been distributed to needy peasants, according to Communist records. In the early stages, only communal lands, uncultivated lands, or lands of absentee landlords were distributed. Despite local pressure for more aggressive land reform, the peasantry generally approved of the program, and it was an important factor in gaining support for the liberation movement in the countryside. In the cities, the Workers' Liberation Association of Vietnam (Hoi Lao Dong Giai Phong Mien Nam), a labor organization affiliated with the NLF, was established in 1961. *

The NLF launched its campaign as the Diem government was rapidly losing control of the countryside. In an effort to prevent infiltration, South Vietnamese villagers in areas of guerrilla activity were rounded up and forcibly placed in "strategic hamlets" where they could watched. The Strategic Hamlets Program, which was implemented in 1962, was based on British tactics in Malaya and similar to the French strategy of creating protected enclaves like Dien Bien Phu. Initially the program was deemed a failure. The villages were infiltrated anyway and the program was dropped after Diem's death. But years later the North Vietnamese admitted that the program did cause them major problems. [Source: Lonely Planet =]

The battle at Ap Bac in January 1963 has been called "the turning point of the early stages of the war" because it showed the Viet Cong were intent on winning the war and the South Vietnamese army was weak and more concerned about saving its ass than keeping Diem in power and fighting. At Ap Bac, for the first time, the Viet Cong fought at battalion strength and won a decisive victory against Vietnamese troops supported by American helicopters, armored vehicles, and artillery. Two Viet Cong soldiers received North Vietnam’s highest military-exploit medal for winning this battle. One was the commander of the Communist forces. The other was Pham Xuan An (See Spies), who devised the winning strategy.

North Vietnam’s Response to U.S. Escalation of the War in Vietnam

The United States decision to escalate the war was a surprise and a blow to party strategists in Hanoi. At the Twelfth Plenum of the Central Committee in December 1965, the decision was made to continue the struggle for liberation of the South despite the escalated American commitment. The party leadership concluded that a period of protracted struggle lay ahead in which it would be necessary to exert constant military pressure on the Saigon government and its ally in order to make the war sufficiently unpopular in Washington. Efforts were to be concentrated on the ARVN troops, which had suffered 113,000 desertions in 1965 and were thought to be on the verge of disintegration. In early 1965, Hanoi had been encouraged by Moscow's decision to increase its economic and military assistance substantially. The resulting several hundred million dollars in Soviet aid, including surface- to-air missiles, had probably been tied to a promise by Hanoi to attend an international conference on Indochina that had been proposed by Soviet premier Kosygin in February. As preconditions for these negotiations Hanoi and Washington, however, had each presented demands that were unacceptable to the other side. The DRV had called for an immediate and unconditional halt to the bombing of the north, and the United States had demanded the removal of PAVN troops from the South. Although both Hanoi and Washington had been interested in a negotiated settlement, each had preferred to postpone negotiations until it had achieved a position of strength on the battlefield. [Source: Library of Congress *]

By mid-1966 United States forces, now numbering 350,000, had gained the initiative in several key areas, pushing the communists out of the heavily populated zones of the south into the more remote mountainous regions and into areas along the Cambodian border. Revolutionary forces in the South, under the command of General Nguyen Chi Thanh, responded by launching an aggressive campaign of harassment operations and full-scale attacks by regiment-sized units. This approach proved costly, however, in terms of manpower and resources, and by late 1966 about 5,000 troops, including main force PAVN units, were being infiltrated from the North each month to help implement this strategy. At the same time, North Vietnam placed its economy on a war footing, temporarily shelving non-war-related construction efforts. As a consequence of the heavy United States bombing of the North, industries were dismantled and moved to remote areas. Young men were conscripted into the army and their places in fields and factories were filled by women, who also served in home defense and antiaircraft units. Such measures were very effective in countering the impact od the bombing on the North's war effort. The Johnson administration, however, showed no sign of willingness to change its bombing strategy or to lessen its war effort. *

During this difficult period, the communists returned to protracted guerrilla warfare and political struggle. The party leadership called for increased efforts to infiltrate moderate political parties and religious organizations. The underground communist leadership in Saigon was instructed to prepare for a general uprising by recruiting youths into guerrilla units and training women to agitate against the city's poor living conditions and the injustices of the Saigon government. Total victory, according to the party leadership, would probably occur when military victories in rural areas were combined with general uprisings in the cities. *

Viet Cong Fighters

Viet Cong were technically Communist guerilla in South Vietnam. They were tough, sneaky and committed but according to some American soldiers they "were the worst shots known to mankind." The best soldiers were season processionals in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Many Viet Cong fighters wore black pajamas, rubber sandals and straw hats or modified pith helmets. Some had the Vietnamese flag tattooed on their arm with a sewing needle and ink. NVA soldiers wore green uniforms and green, modified pith helmets. Some had the Vietnamese flag tattooed on their arm with a sewing needle and ink.

Viet Cong fighter were difficult to distinguish from villagers. Their straw hats and black pajamas, which almost identical to what villagers wore in the villages and hamlets they melted into. American soldiers by contrast were easy to spot, plus they made a lot of noise. Viet Cong units contained women and children, making fighters even harder to distinguish from villagers. Village sympathizers who were not soldiers assisted the Viet Cong by offering support and intelligence.

Many North Vietnamese fighters—and South Vietnamese ones too—would be classified as child soldiers today. Some of these passed from adolescence into adulthood during the war without seeing their families for four or five years. Describing a Viet Cong prisoner Nicholas Tomalin wrote, "Our captive can not be more than 16 years old...He resembles a tiny, fine-boned wild animal...Around the prisoners belt, with four clips of ammunition, is a water bottle (without stopper), a tiny roll of bandages, and a propaganda leaflets which later turns out to be a set of Viet Cong songs, with a twenty pastre note folded in it."

As was the case in the American Civil War, brothers fought on different sides. When a Viet Cong soldier died an effort was made to make sure he was buried near water in sight of mountain in accordance with Chinese and Vietnamese burial customs.

North Vietnamese Female Fighters

According to David E. Jones in his book "Women Warriors." A unit of markswomen supporting the South Vietnamese government had a policy of wounding Viet Cong fighters with a single shot, then beating them to death with their rifle butts to save bullets. Ming Khai, an anti-French Vietnamese fighter in the 1940s, wrote a poem in blood on her prison cell wall. The last lines were: "The sword is my child, the gun is my husband." [Source: Mark Jacob, Chicago Tribune, April 15, 2007]

North Vietnam put together one of the largest female armies the world has ever known. They were put to work carrying supplies, working as spies and informers, worked in hospitals and doing manual labor but some distinguished themselves as fierce fighters and killers. These women went on patrols with men, did sniper duty, manned anti-aircraft guns and endured all the same hardships that men did. [Source: David Lamb, Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2003 **]

More than a million Vietnamese women fought against the French in the 1950s and the United States in the 1960s and 70s. In the Vietnam War more than 40 percent of the region commanders were women. Most of the fighters were young and single. They were often in the same units with men. One former fighter told the Los Angeles Times, "We lived and slept together but did not touch. I don’t know of a single pregnancy in our unit. We thirsted for love, but only in our hearts." **

There was no shortage of commitment and enthusiasm to supporting the North Vietnamese side. One fighter told the Los Angeles Times, "I weighed 35 kilos when I went to enlist, and the army said I was too small. I told them, I would throw myself off the bridge and commit suicide if they didn’t take me. Finally, they said OK." Unfortunately for these women, many were not regarded as marriageable material after the war was over. Many Vietnamese thought the diseases and physical hardships they endured in the war would make it difficult for them to bear children or be good mothers.

Leader of a Viet Cong Cell in Saigon

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Nguyen Kim Bach "is one of the last living members of the secret F100 Viet Cong cell that planned and helped carry out Saigon's part in the January 1968 Tet offensive, using the noodle shop as their base. Nguyen's role began in 1965, when he married the eldest daughter of the noodle shop's owner, Ngo Toai. Ngo had brought his noodle recipe from the North more than a decade earlier. He had a street stall for years, eventually saving enough money to open the restaurant. It didn't take long for Nguyen to realize there was more than noodle-pulling going on in the cafe, which was popular with both Vietnamese and American troops. Encouraged by his father-in-law, Nguyen soon joined the F100 cell, which was responsible for ferrying weapons from northern strongholds to 13 basement caches around Saigon. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 04, 2010]

One of the basements, a few miles from the noodle shop, was in a building bought by a North Vietnamese agent named Tran Van Lai. He bought the building on Vo Van Tan Street and four others in 1965. Tran posed as a rich contractor and spent a year renovating the house, adding secret escape routes through the roof, sewers and adjoining buildings. A dark-haired beauty posed as his mistress to bolster his cover. The 5-by-30-foot, concrete-lined basement hid 800 pounds of B-40 antitank weapons, AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, dynamite and C-4 explosive. Upstairs, a Sharp Multiband Deluxe radio the size of a small suitcase allowed Tran to communicate with Hanoi and with the Cuchi tunnels, a vast network of underground passageways that served as supply routes and hiding places for Viet Cong fighters.

Nguyen and other F100 members helped transport the weapons to Tran and others on carts pulled by buffalo. The arms and explosives were hidden beneath fruit, potted plants and straw mats and secreted in the carved-out base of a traditional Vietnamese bed. Most were moved during holiday rushes to avoid suspicion. The open peasant carts, unlike trucks, were rarely searched. "We never lost a shipment," Nguyen said proudly. "When we started in 1965, we didn't know the exact date of the offensive but figured it would take a few years," Nguyen said. "Secrecy was so tight, we rarely met.... Most communication was by secret message."

Leader of a Viet Cong Cell in Saigon and the Tet Offensive

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Finally, in late January 1968, the unit got word that the long-awaited offensive would begin in three days. Nguyen and his father-in-law closed the noodle shop, stocked up on food and held strategy sessions in a second-floor back room. Over the three days, more than 100 Viet Cong fighters passed through the noodle shop, some picking up their orders and moving on, others hiding in the attic, where space was so tight that the men slept sitting up. They barely moved and never talked, sustained by steaming bowls of soup. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, May 04, 2010]

At 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 30, they got orders to attack designated targets, including the U.S. Embassy and Independence Palace, the seat of the South's government, early the next morning. Fighters fanned out across the city. Shocked South Vietnamese and U.S. troops managed to rebuff the Viet Cong. A few days later, police arrived at the noodle shop and arrested 13 people, including Nguyen, his wife and his in-laws.

When the captured North Vietnamese agents were frog-marched to police headquarters, enraged South Vietnamese officers summarily shot the first two. Nguyen was third in line, a pistol at his temple, smoke curling from its barrel, when the order came to stop shooting. This would seem to have been the luckiest moment of his life. "It was the unluckiest," he said. "The torture that followed was so unspeakable. I wished I'd joined them," he said, referring to his executed comrades.

The family managed to pull together $3,000 for bribes that secured the release of Nguyen's wife and mother-in-law, he said. But he and Ngo endured two months of daily torture. Small pins were hammered under each fingernail, Nguyen said, until they came out the other side. Then they were pulled out, slowly and in a twisting motion. Nguyen was hung from the ceiling by his handcuffed arms. His heels were battered with baseball bats. Most unbearable, however, was the water torture. "It starts as a drip," he said. "But by the 100th time it feels like a hammer blow to your head."

But when police went to the building on Vo Van Tan Street to arrest Tran, his ingenious renovations paid off. As authorities fired at the green iron gate — the bullet marks are still visible — he fled via one of his escape routes. Ngo and Nguyen were released in 1973 under a general amnesty, part of the Paris Peace Accords. Ngo returned to his cafe in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and continued serving noodles to Vietnamese and, later, American customers until his death in 1994.

Soviet and Chinese Aid to North Vietnam

The Soviet Union and China, huge industrial powers at that time of the time, provided North Vietnam with tons of weapons and ammunition and to some degree whatever material support it needed. In the mid 1960s, the Chinese government supported the Communist insurgents in Vietnam, Cambodia Burma and Laos. Cam Ranh under the Soviets never seemed to have enough fuel. The Soviet Union and China also trained the North Vietnamese and sent advisors to North Vietnam but stopped short of sending combat troops—as the U.S. did in the early 1960s—or at least so it was said.

After the Sino –Soviet split in the 1950s and 60s, the Vietnamese communist leadership divided into pro-China and pro-Soviet factions. Initially Le Duan, the de-facto leader of North Vietnam, was labeled pro-China, because of his hawkish policies towards South Vietnam. After reunification he was referred to as pro-Soviet. From 1956–63, Le Duan played a moderating role between the two factions, but with the death of Diem and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, he became considerably more radical. The Chinese continued to support them throughout the war, with Liu Shaoqi, the President of the People's Republic, in 1965 stating, "it is our policy that we will do our best to support you." When Ho called for the establishment of a neutral South Vietnamese state in 1963, Le Duan responded by making overtures to the Chinese, who rejected the Soviet position of peaceful coexistence. [Source: Wikipedia]

When Lyndon B. Johnson became the U.S. president in 1963 and increased support for the new Saigon government, the Vietnam Workers Party (VWP) leadership in North Vietnam concluded that only armed struggle would lead to success and called for an escalation of the war. Hanoi's decision to escalate the struggle was made in spite of the risk of damage to its relations with Moscow, which opposed the decision. The new policy also became an issue in the developing rift between Beijing and Moscow because China expressed its full support for the Vietnamese war of national liberation. As a result, Moscow's aid began to decrease as Beijing's grew. [Source: Library of Congress]

With the increased involvement of the United States military in 1965, the North's military strategy was forced to change. As North Vietnamese Le Duan leader noted in a letter to Nguyen Chí Thanh, the war would become "fiercer and longer". He believed the fundamentals of the conflict had not changed; the South Vietnamese regime's unpopularity remained its "Achilles heel" and he continued to advocate a combination of guerilla warfare and NVA offensives. The communist commanders in the South were to avoid large attacks on the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), but instead focus on many small attacks to demoralize the enemy. Le Duan believed that the key to victory was for the NVA had to keep the initiative. He dismissed the possibility of an attack against North Vietnam by American forces, claiming that an attack on North Vietnam would be an attack on the entire socialist camp.[Wikipedia]

Soviet and North Korean Soldiers in North Vietnam

In 2008, Russian Today reported: "More than 3,000 Soviet soldiers fought in the conflict despite years of government denials that they were ever involved. Most still think of Vietnam as a war the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies fought against the North. But Soviet Union’s men were there, too, doing their part to advance the spread of communism. They are some of the Soviet Union’s forgotten soldiers, veterans of a war their government denied involvement in for almost twenty years. It was only after the regime collapsed in 1991 that officials admitted more than 3,000 Soviet troops fought against the Americans in Vietnam. [Source: Russian Today, February 16, 2008]

Nikolay Kolesnik, a Vietnam veteran, said, "Officially we were known as a group of Russian military experts. The commander was referred to simply as the senior expert. Thus, technically, there were no Russian units in Vietnam. The only thing we knew was that we were Soviet people, Soviet soldiers, and that we had to do whatever it took to stop air raids, which is what we did. "

"Soviet expertise played a vital part in training Vietnamese forces and Soviet anti-aircraft missiles to inflict heavy damage on American planes. Those who fought alongside the Russians say it’s difficult to overestimate the impact they had. "The Soviet Union was a huge help in the war. We have a lot of respect for Russian equipment and Russian experts. Their equipment was better than what the Americans had. That’s why we were able to win," Lee Cong Niem, Vietnam veteran, said. Saturday's ceremony was a chance for the next generation of soldiers to meet the men who have done it all before and for a grateful nation to thank the veterans who were its unsung allies for so long.

Some North Korean soldiers fought on the side of North Vietnam too. In 2000, Reuters reported: A "local government official at northern Bac Giang province said North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun had visited a grave containing the bodies of 14 North Korean soldiers during a recent visit to Vietnam. Asked to comment on a report by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency that most of the 14 were fighter pilots, the official said he could only confirm the soldiers had fought in the Vietnam War. [Source: Reuters, March 31, 2000]

The official said, "It's not a newly-found place. We built the grave a long time ago and every year people from the North Korean embassy in Hanoi come here to pay homage to the martyrs. The official said the grave was in Tan Dinh commune, Lang Giang district, some 60 kilometers (37.5 miles) from Hanoi. It was unclear how many North Korean soldiers fought during the decade-long conflict.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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