LBJ Goes to War 3

In Vietnam itself, though covert Vietcong agents may have been exacerbating the chaos then engulfing Saigon, the Communists in Hanoi were not counting on the disarray in the south to gain their objectives. For one thing, they tended to trust only movements that they themselves had organized and disciplined, and they were reluctant to associate with the unruly factions defying the South Vietnamese government. More important, their basic strategy stemmed from Mao Zedong’s famous dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The real arena was the battlefield. Throughout 1964, they buttressed their forces with that in mind.
They built the Ho Chi Minh trail into an elaborate logistical network that could funnel modern equipment into the south. Vietcong battal¬ions that until then had relied mainly on old French and Japanese weapons or on U.S. arms captured from the South Vietnamese were now strengthened with mortars and rocket launchers, automatic rifles and machine guns using the same caliber ammunition. The sophisti¬cated weaponry, provided by the Soviet Union and China, at first made for resupply problems, but that drawback was more than offset by its superior effectiveness.
Vietcong strength during 1964 doubled to a total of one hundred and seventy thousand men, most of them recruited in the south. About thirty thousand were incorporated into fifty hard-core battalions, elite units equipped with the new modern weapons and stiffened by north¬ern veterans. Their objective was to chew up the South Vietnamese army. And they hoped that by shattering the Saigon regime, some of its leaders would concede to the formation of a coalition government containing Vietcong representatives—its aim to break with the United States and create a neutral state that could eventually come under Communist tutelage.
The Hanoi regime also sent seasoned officers to the south, among them General Tran Do, one of North Vietnam’s most distinguished soldiers, then a mysterious figure cloaked in pseudonyms who was reported to have been killed several times.
During an interview in Hanoi in 1981, Tran Do recalled to me the Communist strategy of the period. I discerned in his tone the regional tensions that still divide northern and southern Vietnamese despite their common allegiance to national unity. The Vietcong guerrillas, he explained, lacked the skill and experience to wage the conventional war the Communist leadership then foresaw. By the fall of 1964, northern troops infiltrating into the south were enlarging the Vietcong contingents and strengthening them with commanders, political com¬missars, communications experts, ordnance technicians and other spe¬cialists. The first complete North Vietnamese unit, a regiment of the 325th Division, had already departed for the south, and the overall Communist command structure was tightened. The Vietcong forces, officially entitled the People’s Revolutionary Army, were responsible to a headquarters in the south known in Vietnamese as the Truong Uong Cuc—the Central Office for South Vietnam, or COSVN. But, Tran Do told me, instructions came from the Communist hierarchy in Hanoi. He thus dispelled the myth, in which many Westerners then believed, that the Vietcong was essentially an indigenous and auton-omous insurgent movement.
American officials, characteristically committing the error of as¬cribing their own practices to the enemy, often envisioned the Com¬munist headquarters as a miniature Pentagon, hidden away in the jungle like a sort of Shangri-la. Some even naively imagined that it was staffed by platoons of bureaucrats and stenographers and furnished with desks and typewriters and filing cabinets and duplicating ma¬chines, as their offices were. In fact, as Tran Do described it, the Communist command base was a shadow flitting from one tiny hamlet to another to elude detection. When he first reached South Vietnam at the end of 1964, it was located in a corner of Tayninh province, conveniently near the Cambodian border.
We slept in hammocks in small thatched bamboo huts, and we held our meetings in deep underground tunnels, which also served as shelter against air raids. Informers in Saigon passed us intelligence, so we were able to decamp whenever the Americans and their South Vietnamese puppets planned operations in the area. Anyway, we could hear them coming, because big modern armies cannot move quietly. Still, we had some close shaves. Once, soon after I arrived, American airplanes dropped thousands of tons of bombs around us, but we weren’t even scratched.
American intelligence experts were “almost certain” that the U.S. air strikes against North Vietnam would deter the enemy. The CIA estimated that the Communists, though they would exploit the chaos in Saigon, would “probably avoid actions” that might bring “the great weight of U.S. weaponry” down on them. On November 1, 1964, three weeks after that confident forecast, the Vietcong was to prove the CIA wrong and, for the first time, stage a major attack against the Americans.
Three months earlier, the joint chiefs of staff had ordered a squadron of vintage American B-57 jet bombers from Clark Field in the Phil¬ippines to Bienhoa air base, twelve miles north of Saigon, for the purpose of training South Vietnamese pilots. State Department offi¬cials had protested that the introduction of jets into Vietnam would further destroy the already tattered Geneva accords of 1954, which the United States theoretically claimed to respect. McNamara shared their misgivings, but he was preoccupied by so many other disputes with the joint chiefs that he preferred to sidestep this one. The B-57s had been duly flown to Bienhoa and, as a precaution against sabotage, lined up in the open like sitting ducks.

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