Escalation

General Westmoreland had conceived a long-range strategy even before Lyndon Johnson fulfilled his request for more American battalions. He would first deploy the American troops to protect the U.S. air and supply bases along the South Vietnamese coast and around Saigon. At the same time, he would send units into the central highlands in order to block any attempt made by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to sweep across to the sea and slice the country in two. Then, having gained the initiative, he planned to launch a series of “search-and-destroy” op¬erations in which the American forces, with their vastly superior mo¬bility and firepower, would relentlessly grind down the enemy. And finally, as he put it, he would “mop up” the remaining Communists to achieve “victory.” Meanwhile, he counted on two further efforts to contribute to success.
One was the intensive bombing of North Vietnam. The other was “pacification,” an ambitious military, economic and social program pursued under American tutelage, which would help the Saigon gov¬ernment to control South Vietnam’s rural population. Official pro¬nouncements still paid lip service to the need to “win the hearts and minds” of the people. But the new approach was essentially predicated on muscle. Or as American officers irreverently summed it up: “Grab ’em by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow. ”
So American soldiers went into action in Vietnam with the gigantic weight of American industry behind them. Never before in history was so much strength amassed in such a small corner of the gobe against an opponent apparently so inconsequential. If Ho Chi Minh had described his war with France as a struggle between “grasshoppers and elephants,” he was now a microbe facing a leviathan.
As a correspondent, I observed the change with astonishment. Dur¬ing the late 1950s, when I began to report from Southeast Asia, the American imprint on South Vietnam was barely visible. Saigon still resembled a French provincial city—its acacia-shaded streets lined with quiet shops and sleepy sidewalk cafes, its residential district of hand¬some villas wallowing in lush tropical gardens of jasmine, mimosa and brilliant red and purple bougainvillea. Danang and Nhatrang and Vung Tau were lovely little seaside towns, scarcely bigger than fishing villages, and the towns of the Mekong Delta, like Mytho and Cantho, stirred only once a week, when peasants brought their rice and veg-etables and pigs to market. But starting in the summer of 1965, as American troops landed, South Vietnam underwent a convulsive transformation.
Westmoreland gambled by bringing in his forces before he had developed a system to support them. The gamble paid off. Within two years, he had achieved a logistical miracle.
American army engineers and private contractors labored around the clock, often accomplishing stupendous tasks in a matter of months. Their giant tractors and bulldozers and cranes carved out roads and put up bridges, and at one place in the Mekong Delta they dredged the river to create a six-hundred-acre island as a secure campsite. They erected mammoth fuel depots and warehouses, some refrigerated. They constructed hundreds of helicopter pads and scores of airfields, including huge jet strips at Danang and Bienhoa. Until their arrival, Saigon had been South Vietnam’s only major port, and its antiquated facilities were able to handle only modest ships. Now, almost over-night, they built six new deep-draft harbors, among them a gigantic complex at Camranh Bay, which they completed at breakneck speed by towing prefabricated floating piers across the Pacific. They con¬nected remote parts of the country with an intricate communications grid, and they linked Saigon to Washington with submarine cables and radio networks so efficient that U.S. embassy officials could dial the White House in seconds—and President Johnson could, as he did frequently, call to check on progress.
By 1967, a million tons of supplies a month were pouring into Vietnam to sustain the U.S. force—an average of a hundred pounds a day for every American there. An American infantryman could rely on the latest hardware. He was transported to the battle scene by helicopter and, if wounded, flown out aboard medical evacuation choppers known as dust-offs because of the dust kicked up by their rotors as they landed. His target had usually been “softened” before¬hand by air strikes and artillery bombardments, and he could summon additional air and artillery assistance during a fight. Tanks and other armored vehicles often flanked him in action, and his unit carried the most up-to-date arms—mortars, machine guns, grenade and rocket launchers, and the M-16, a fully automatic rifle.
With the exception of the nuclear weapon, nearly every piece of equipment in America’s mighty arsenal was sooner or later used in Vietnam. The skies were clogged with bombers, fighters, helicopters and other airplanes, among them high-altitude B-52s and such con¬trivances as “Puff the Magic Dragon,” a converted DC-3 transport outfitted with rapid-fire machine guns capable of raking targets at the rate of eighteen thousand rounds per minute. So dense was the air traffic, in fact, that South Vietnam’s airports became the world’s bus¬iest. In addition to flying from bases inside the country, the air armada operated out of Guam and Thailand and from carriers in the South China Sea. And the U. S. flotilla deployed off Vietnam also included cruisers, destroyers, patrol boats, tankers, hospital ships and light craft to penetrate the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta. Every service sought to be represented in Vietnam because, as American officers explained at the time, “it’s the only war we got.”

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