Viet Cong

Summary

Viet Cong (in Vietnamese Việt Cộng) was the name commonly used particularly in the Western Bloc to refer to the armed Vietnamese resistance group against the pro-U.S. regime in South Vietnam that played a key role during the Vietnam War.

The term is an abbreviation for Vietnam Communist, by virtue of the fact that the People”s Revolutionary Party of Vietnam was the most important component of the resistance. The term, with derogatory connotations, appeared in Saigon newspapers in early 1956 and is a contraction of the term Việt Nam Cộng-sản. The first mention for “Vietcong” was in 1957. U.S. soldiers referred to the Vietcong using the word Victor Charlie or V-C.

Officially, the guerrilla forces fighting during the Indochinese conflict were called the South Vietnam People”s Liberation Armed Forces; in Vietnamese: Quân Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam. Viet Cong fighters depended organically on the leadership of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front (Mặt trận Dân tộc giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam), which led politically and militarily the fight against the Americans and the nguy (“puppets,” the derogatory designation for South Vietnamese loyal to the pro-U.S. regime); the most important military leaders, however, were experienced and determined senior officers sent from North Vietnam.

They successfully fought the U.S. and South Vietnamese collaborationists for nearly twenty years and remained a major military force until the end of the war in 1975 when the National Liberation Front, which became the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam in 1969, merged into the new state of reunified Communist Vietnam.

The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam was the fundamental component of the resistance movement (it included important nationalist currents and it brought together different ideological and political components, both communist and non-communist. In addition to the communists of the Lao Dong (“workers” party”), two other parties were part of the Front, the Democratic Party of Vietnam and the Socialist Party of Vietnam; there were also representatives of some religious sects persecuted by the regime and ethnic minorities, including some tribes of the mountainous territories of central Vietnam.

The Front was officially constituted on December 20, 1960, starting from the central nucleus formed by the elements still present in the south of the Viet Minh organization that had directed and won the war of independence against France. The Viet Minh still active at the time of the beginning of the resistance activity, were about 10,000 who immediately constituted the most solid and reliable element of the movement. In fact, the resistance movement against the dictatorial and reactionary pro-U.S. regime of Ngô Đình Diệm had begun even earlier, in 1957, after the decision of the Hanoi leadership, spurred mainly by Lê Duẩn, to resume the revolutionary struggle against the Saigon government especially in the areas of the Mekong Delta.

During 1957, pro-communist guerrillas killed more than 400 government officials and began undermining the authority of Diệm”s government in many peasant areas. Further directives from the Hanoi government were sent in 1959 to intensify the “armed struggle” in South Vietnam in order to weaken Diệm”s regime politically. Terrorist attacks and bombings increased dramatically and the number of government officials killed increased from 1,200 in 1958 to 4,000 in 1960. Finally, in December 1960, it was decided to create a centralized political-military body to direct the growing resistance movement and the National Liberation Front was established.

The objectives of the Liberation Front were independence, the defeat of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and his successors, the realization of a government that would rebuild on a democratic basis South Vietnam both politically and economically and socially, before the peaceful reunification with North Vietnam. These objectives were set out in detail in the manifesto of the Front drafted in 1960. The flag of the Liberation Front was based on that of North Vietnam with two horizontal bands red, upper, and blue, lower, and a five-pointed yellow star in the center.

The Viet Cong were basically the military fighters of the Vietnam National Liberation Front. The fighting forces, globally called “Popular Liberation Forces of South Vietnam” were made up of two distinct components: the irregular units, made up of volunteers from the villages, which were mainly dedicated to intelligence gathering, sabotage and collection of supplies, while the regular formations, organized on a regional basis, which were militarily framed and well armed, carried out the attacks and the main military actions, being able to oppose the units of the South Vietnamese army and also U.S. troops. The regular units grew numerically in a constant way during the first years: in 1965 the guerrillas actually fighting were about 50,000-80,000.

During the war the Liberation Front received constant political and military support from the Republic of North Vietnam and enjoyed widespread popular support; within South Vietnam, in fact, a large part of the population, particularly in the countryside, supported the positions and demands of the resistance movement.

Nguyễn Hữu Thọ, a non-Communist politician, was officially the president of the National Liberation Front, while Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Bình, who was entrusted with foreign relations, exercised an important propaganda role in the face of world opinion. The principal military leader of the Viet Cong was actually General Trần Văn Trà; the latter was the military head for most of the war of the so-called “Central Office for South Vietnam,” known in U.S. bureaucratic terminology as the COSVN, officially Trung ương Cục miền Nam.

Trần Văn Trà was the field representative of North Vietnam: he directed the main operations of the resistance and followed the directives given by the Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of North Vietnam. Trần Văn Trà maintained the leadership of the Front”s fighting forces from 1963 to 1967 and again from 1973 until the end of the war in 1975, while from 1967 to 1973 the military chief was General Hoàng Văn Thái; other important political-military leaders of the Viet Cong over the years were General Nguyễn Chí Thanh, who from 1964 to 1967 was actually the political-military head of the COSV directly linked to the Communist Party in Hanoi and therefore even more important than Trần Văn Trà, and Trần Độ, deputy military commander of the COSVN.

Relations between the Viet Cong and the government in Hanoi were very controversial during the Vietnam War. Communist spokesmen and those who were against the war claimed that the Viet Cong were a resistance that originated totally from South Vietnam. Anti-communists, on the other hand, viewed the Viet Cong as a mere emanation of Hanoi. Numerous communications from communist leaders in the 1980s and 1990s confirmed Hanoi”s tight control over communist forces in the south. After the end of the conflict, relations between the Provisional Revolutionary Government, organized by the Front, and North Vietnam changed completely, and the communist leadership in Hanoi assumed complete direct control of the entire country.

The Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (GRP) was established on June 8, 1969, as a political-administrative structure capable of exercising power in the liberated territory of South Vietnam. The components of the Provisional Government, led by President Nguyễn Hữu Thọ and Prime Minister Huỳnh Tấn Phát, would later take part in the peace talks, albeit in a secondary role to the North Vietnamese representatives. The Provisional Government had been founded during the period spent in the jungle by resistance leaders of the National Liberation Front and the so-called Communist Central Office in South Vietnam (identified by the Americans as COSVN, Central Office for South Vietnam).

After the end of the war, the Provisional Revolutionary Government was considered a hindrance by the communist leadership of North Vietnam; the future political life of South Vietnam was decided only by the North Vietnamese leaders (who were therefore in practice the real winners of the war), in fact they went directly to a forced reunification of Vietnam, in which the Provisional Government could have only a propaganda utility.

Composition

Recruited among the poor peasants of South Vietnam and led by leaders mainly linked to the communism of North Vietnam, the Vietcong proved, despite the limited means and harsh living conditions on the ground, to be disciplined fighters, aggressive, resilient and extraordinarily skilled in guerrilla warfare that put the South Vietnamese regime in great difficulty, forcing the United States to a massive and unsuccessful military intervention to prevent the collapse of the collaborationist government.

Activities

The fighting formations of the National Liberation Front were the so-called “People”s Liberation Forces of South Vietnam” (the enemies they had to face consisted of the regular army of South Vietnam, trained and equipped by the United States and, starting in 1965, the ultra-modern U.S. ground forces of MACV, reinforced by powerful air and naval forces; in addition to these concrete adversaries, the Viet Cong also had to survive in the hostile environment of the jungle; according to some, the most dangerous enemy militarily was not so much the enemy armies as enduring the enormous hardships caused by the jungle.

Whoever took part in the resistance struggle lost direct contact with his family members (thus lacking moral support), in some cases the guerrillas saw their families only after the end of the war, while generally the guerrillas coming from the countryside managed to see their families when they were granted leave, by going to the countryside themselves. As far as the guerrillas coming from the cities were concerned, the situation was much more complicated, in fact often in these cases the families came to the jungle (sometimes these visits turned out to be dramatic).

Finally, it must be said that a good part of the Vietcong fighters did not have strong ideological and political motivations, in fact there were many who joined the guerrillas only for strictly personal reasons, to improve their own and their family”s living conditions. In some cases the fighters sided with the Vietcong to take revenge for the destruction of their villages by the pro-United States forces. For this reason, some believed that the Vietcong sometimes induced the U.S. to attack a village; after suffering attacks on their outposts, the U.S. in some cases carried out violent reprisal raids against some particular village in the area, accentuating the hatred and resentment of the local peasant populations.

Living in the jungle represented a real problem for the Vietcong. In fact, some of the greatest military concerns of the conflict came from living in the jungle: “in the jungle, the first enemy was not the Americans or the nguy (“puppets”, the term they used to refer to the Saigon government and its troops), but malaria, which very few were able to avoid” (Truong Nhu Tang: 2008). In fact, the bombing of the B-52, although it caused damage certainly not negligible, between 1968 and 1970 did not kill any civilian or military leader. The main problems were represented by malnutrition and diseases, such as malaria, diarrhea or dysentery.

As for nutrition, the daily rations included a few grams of rice, water, and an absolute lack of meat, therefore the nutrition provided by the rations was lacking both in quantity and quality. In order to fill this lack, many guerrillas tried to raise chickens or pigs, if events allowed them to do so. In other cases, malnutrition led the guerrillas to look for food in the jungle, and therefore to hunt (and eat) exotic animals such as elephants or leopards. In the luckiest cases some special supplies would arrive from Cambodia.

The presence of poisonous snakes, to whose bite the Vietcong were particularly exposed because of their light footwear, also represented a serious problem. The most lethal reptile was the “cham guap” (Banded Bungarus): its venom was almost instantaneous, thus requiring excellent timing in the application of the antidote.

The armament

The Viet Cong resistance movement lacked the modern weaponry to compete on par with the arsenals of the U.S. armed forces and the regular army of South Vietnam, which was abundantly supplied by the United States.

Weapons and supplies for the Viet Cong arrived through clandestine channels, passing through the territory of Cambodia and Laos; weapons and equipment came from China and the Soviet Union that supplied North Vietnam that in turn transferred materials to the south, especially through the famous “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. In addition, the Viet Cong used weapons and equipment taken from the enemy; in particular, the units of the South Vietnamese army did not show great combativeness and especially in the early years of the war suffered continuous defeats with the loss of large quantities of weapons that ended up largely in the hands of the formations of the Liberation Front. The corruption present within the Saigon army also favored illegal transactions with the sale of weapons of the regular forces to the resistance fighters; there was a very active trade between the guerrillas and some of the highest ranking officers of the South Vietnamese army.

However, the Viet Cong”s arsenal of weapons and equipment was always limited in comparison with the enemy”s modern weaponry, but despite this obvious inferiority, the fighters always showed high morale, strong determination and great ingenuity, succeeding in overcoming their seemingly unbridgeable gaps from a conventional military point of view.

In many cases the guerrillas armed themselves as best they could, also recovering ammunition and weapons among the fallen enemies. The guerrillas also had real laboratories for the recovery of unexploded bombs. The guerrillas also used unconventional weapons, in particular traps of various kinds. In addition to simple mines (sometimes made using unexploded grenades), they made traps out of bamboo that were triggered and pierced the bodies of the victims. In order to prevent the Viet Cong guerrillas themselves from falling into these traps, the areas infested with hidden devices were marked with appropriate means of recognition, diversified in the various territories and not easily identified and understood by enemy troops.

Tactics

As for the military clashes with the Saigon army and the Americans, the problem of air raids, artillery fire and enemy helicopter actions was felt among the Vietcong ranks. Initially, the guerrillas found themselves in difficulty; the rudimentary shelters easily collapsed even from the explosion of a bomb at a distance of one kilometer, while the massive American search and destroy operations, supported by airplanes and a large number of helicopters, caused heavy losses not so much in direct close combat as from the devastating effect of artillery fire and aerial bombardments in the so-called “free fire zones”.

The Viet Cong were able to cope with these difficulties; the guerrillas reinforced their shelters, built complex underground networks and trained intensively to hit the helicopters, which in the long run proved to be very vulnerable. The Viet Cong also applied the tactic they called “grabbing the enemy by the belt”; the Front fighters constantly sought close combat in order to limit the possibility of intervention by enemy aircraft and artillery afraid of hitting their own units, and to inflict losses on the Americans and the South Vietnamese with rapid and sudden attacks in which the guerrillas” individual automatic weapons could make use of their firepower at short range. Primarily equipped with AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, mortars, recoilless cannons, and rocket launchers, the Viet Cong were not outnumbered by U.S. forces if they were able to fight short, close-range engagements by exploiting the effect of surprise and better knowledge of the terrain.

From a tactical point of view, the guerrillas preferred to launch small attacks, mainly at night, against isolated units unaware of the enemy, followed by quick retreats to avoid the devastating reactions of the American firepower. In the course of these surprise attacks, the Viet Cong regularly showed extreme determination and great aggressiveness without granting any mercy to the enemy; as a rule, they tried to kill as many Americans as possible, counting on the fact that the increase in losses would have long shaken the morale and cohesion of the enemy. In fact, the Viet Cong”s objective was not to conquer the territory, which would have been impossible to defend against the overwhelming adversary forces, but to inflict continuous local chess and losses on the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The Viet Cong in practice fought the so-called “war of the flea” or “tiger and elephant”, the pachyderm represented the enemy and would be slowly bled by the many small wounds inflicted on him.

In order to achieve local success, the Viet Cong, exploiting the darkness of the night and the surprise, concentrated numerically superior forces in the area of attack; it was required by Viet Cong tactics that the guerrillas had a numerical superiority of at least 5 to 1; a battalion of 500 men that would attack 100-200 enemy soldiers. The attack was launched at the closest possible distance, with sudden massed infantry assaults with the tactic of successive human waves trying to overwhelm with the force of numbers the adversary positions. In this phase the Viet Cong was willing to suffer heavy losses in order to reach the objective. The Americans considered the tactic of the human wave a sign of the ideological fanaticism of the guerrillas and of the contempt for the human life of their leaders, but in reality the Viet Cong paid great attention to carefully plan the operations, to obtain precise information and to minimize the losses.

From the theoretical point of view, the combat method of the Viet Cong consisted of “one slow part and four fast parts.” The first phase of the operation, the “slow part”, was characterized by the detailed and accurate collection of information about the enemy, its defenses and positions, provided by the irregular elements of the resistance movement present in all villages. Numerous reconnaissances were carried out on the ground and preliminary theoretical exercises were carried out on models of the target of the attack; finally, before the assault, the Viet Cong trained, controlled the terrain and organized advanced positions for weapons and food. After this slow part followed the “four fast parts” that instead followed with the maximum rapidity. Initially there was the transfer in small groups separated from the bases of departure to the area of the objective. After the concentration of the Viet Cong units, which took place only in the imminence of the action to avoid detection by the enemy, the second fast part was the attack on the objective, carried out rapidly and brutally. In the third fast part, the Viet Cong quickly abandoned the combat terrain and, above all, recovered the weapons taken from the enemy and rescued the wounded and the bodies of their dead, trying not to leave anything to the enemy. Finally, the fourth fast part consisted of the actual retreat, which was planned in detail right from the planning stage and which, in order to be successful, required discipline and perfect knowledge of the terrain and of the adversary”s deployment.

Political Commissioners

By policy resolution in January 1961 by the General Military Commission of North Vietnam, this position was officially named “Secretary of the Military Regional Commission” with direct command responsibility over the battlefields of South Vietnam; by 1964 the area of operations was code-named “Sector B2.”

Other key executives

Sources

  1. Viet Cong
  2. Viet Cong
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