The Commitments Deepen 6

The trail, which threaded through southern Laos and northeastern Cambodia into the highlands of South Vietnam, was not a single track, but a complex web of jungle paths. When I frequently scanned the region from helicopters during the 1960s, nothing was discernible, even at low altitudes, beneath the green canopy that seemed to stretch on endlessly. Aboriginal tribes who had inhabited the area for cen¬turies, hunting its tigers, elephants and other wild beasts, had carved out the paths in their migrations, and for millennia they had also served traders, as caravans of coolies transported gold and opium from China to the cities of Southeast Asia. The Vietminh had used the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a communications link in the war against the French and, in the initial stages of the southern insurgency, it became the route through which North Vietnam infiltrated cadres as well as mod¬est shipments of arms, ammunition and other materiel to the Vietcong. Later, it grew into a highway, but when Bui Tin and his comrades embarked on their march, the artery was still primitive.
They traveled by foot, sweating as they plodded through damp forests and shivering as they forded icy mountain streams. They were plagued by mosquitoes and leeches and other insects that they could not even identify, and some came down with malaria. They carried socks of rice wrapped around their torsos, and each bore a knapsack with thirty or forty pounds of food, medicine, extra clothes, a ham¬mock and a waterproof sheet. There were few villages in the waste¬land, but they could replenish their supplies from stocks stored for that purpose at isolated outposts. They sometimes spent the night at these dismal spots, which were manned by lonely North Vietnamese or Vietcong soldiers or their Laotian allies. More often they slept in jungle clearings. After five weeks, they reached their destination inside South Vietnam—a strategic hamlet in Quangngai province that had fallen into Vietcong hands. There the group split up.
Donning’black pajamas to avoid detection, Bui Tin went farther south, furtively moving from one Vietcong unit to another to conduct his investigation. He found them unprepared for an intensive cam¬paign. They had lost ground in several areas following Diem’s col¬lapse—partly because the government army had regained a measure of morale and partly because peasant grievances against the regime had diminished. They were also poorly organized and lacking in lead¬ership; the Vietcong ranks thinned as many youths dropped out to work with their families in the rice fields. To train the Vietcong for a larger conflict would have been impossible. Bui Tin concluded that the only choice for the Communists was to send sizable North Vi¬etnamese contingents into the south. “We had to move from the guerrilla phase into conventional war,” he explained to me. “Oth¬erwise, our future would have been bleak.”
In the spring of 1964, after five months in the south, Bui Tin la¬boriously retraced his footsteps back to Hanoi. Like the many Amer¬icans who returned to Washington with reports on their “fact-finding” missions to Vietnam, he merely confirmed a decision that had already been made by his superiors. North Vietnamese troops were mobilized for deployment in the south, and their units were laced with southern Vietminh veterans to guide them in the unfamiliar area. In order to furnish the force with hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons, ammunition, food and the other necessities vital for major battles, the Hanoi high command set in motion a vast and ambitious scheme to turn the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a modern logistical system. As Bui Tin put it: “We would no longer carry supplies into the south on our backs and shoulders, like ants filling anthills.”
The immense project, which began in the middle of 1964, continued until hostilities ceased a decade later. Its architect was Colonel Dong Si Nguyen, who was to become minister of construction in Hanoi after the war, and he spared no expense. He brought in engineer battalions equipped with up-to-date Soviet and Chinese machinery to build roads and bridges that could handle heavy trucks and other vehicles. Anticipating the likelihood of relentless American bombings, he erected sophisticated antiaircraft defenses. He dug underground barracks, workshops, hospitals, storage facilities and fuel depots— further precautions against air raids—and platoons of drivers, me¬chanics, radio operators, ordnance experts, traffic managers, doctors, nurses and other personnel were recruited to support the North Viet¬namese army in the field.
The few thousand Communist soldiers and civilian cadres who had infiltrated into South Vietnam during previous years had mostly been indigenous southerners, returning home to aid the Vietcong. By April 1964, northern regulars were headed down the enlarged trail, and they were followed by the first complete North Vietnamese tactical units before the end of the year. Throughout 1964, an estimated ten thou¬sand North Vietnamese troops went south—a trickle compared to the numbers three years later, when they were pouring into South Viet¬nam at the rate of twenty thousand or more per month. The Com¬munists had added a new and significant dimension to the struggle. Henceforth, in their view, there could be no substitute for military victory: the strategy that had succeeded against the French would work again. As General Vo Nguyen Giap asserted at the time: “The most correct path to be pursued by the people to liberate themselves is revolutionary violence and revolutionary war. . . . Only by revolu¬tionary violence can the masses defeat aggressive imperialism and its lackeys, and overthrow the reactionary administration to take power. ” Throughout the Vietnam war, as in all wars, the protagonists per¬sistently perceived their fortunes differently. So while the Communist leaders in Hanoi felt in 1964 that only a swift military triumph could crush their South Vietnamese enemies, the view from Washington during the same period was that the tottering Saigon government would crumble at any moment in confused turmoil. Neither side was willing to consider a compromise, since each sought to improve its bargaining posture. Each escalated in hopes of negotiating from strength and imposing its conditions on the other.

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