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The Vietnam Ground War: U.S. Military Strategy & Policy

The Vietnam Ground War: U.S. Military Strategy & Policy
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  • 0:00 Winning The Vietnam War
  • 0:42 U.S. Involvement In Vietnam
  • 1:38 The Strategy
  • 3:20 Successes And Failures
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You may be familiar with the U.S.'s use of superior firepower and bombings during the Vietnam War, but how much do you know about the U.S. ground war? This lesson explores the military strategy and policies of the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

Winning the Vietnam War

How do you win a war? This is not a simple question to answer. For U.S. military leaders and strategists during the Vietnam War, this question proved to be nearly impossible. The American presence in Vietnam began in the mid-1950s but the country was not truly at war until the mid-1960s. Although much of the Vietnam War was waged with American fighting power from the air, the U.S. also launched an aggressive ground war. This lesson explores the U.S. military strategy, its successes and failures, and American policy towards Vietnamese civilians at the time.

U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

Many Americans do not know that the United States maintained a military presence in Vietnam long before the large-scale military conflict that characterized the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Initially, the United States maintained an advisory role in South Vietnam, helping its government to stave off attacks by the Viet Cong (VC), the communist guerrillas fighting for North Vietnam. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese presence continued to grow in South Vietnam, and the government was incapable of containing their attacks.

By 1965, American military advisers saw a single option: take matters into their own hands and increase the U.S. presence in Vietnam. General William Westmoreland requested 150,000 troops that year, and by the end of 1965, over 180,000 military personnel were stationed in Vietnam.

The Strategy

Westmoreland's early strategy was fairly simple. The U.S. would wage a war of attrition, a military tactic through which a long series of small-scale attacks gradually wears down the enemy. The goal was to inflict heavy damage on North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, so much damage in fact, that it would be impossible for them to recover and keep fighting. To achieve these goals, the United States carried out bombings in North Vietnam via aircraft. South Vietnam, however, was a different story. Most of the Vietnam War fought below the 17th parallel was on the ground. The 17th parallel was, in effect, the political boundary line between North and South Vietnam.

The ground strategy in South Vietnam was much like the air strategy in North Vietnam: devastate the Viet Cong and pro-communist forces. The unusual feature of the strategy was that the United States did not fight to hold onto territory in South Vietnam. Once American troops engaged with the VC and forced them from the general area, they did not make any attempts to maintain a strong presence in the region.

Key elements of the ground war in South Vietnam included search and destroy missions. U.S. troops used local intelligence to identify VC and pro-communist strongholds, then eliminate them with firepower. From 1966 to 1967, the United States continued to pour troops into Vietnam at the request of General Westmoreland. Over 485,000 troops were stationed in Vietnam by the end of 1967, which was a clear sign that Westmoreland's ground war was struggling.

Successes and Failures

General Westmoreland's strategy of attrition and the American progress in the ground war was a mixed bag. The United States military was superior to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, but they were still unable to bring the Vietnam War to a swift end. Part of this stemmed from the challenging Vietnamese climate. American troops were subject to high temperatures, sweltering humidity, and torrential rain during the rainy season. Additionally, the Vietnamese jungle terrain was thick and foreign, which made it easy for the local VC to navigate but extremely difficult for American troops.

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