Vietnam’s Forgotten Army

GS Andrew Wiest,

University of Southern Mississippi

 

Address to The Vietnamese American Community of
Greater Dallas, Fort Worth, and Vicinity April 26, 2008


First please allow me to offer my thanks to The Vietnamese American Community of Greater Dallas and Vicinity, and Mr. Cung Nhat Thanh, for inviting me here to talk today to such a wonderful gathering.

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I was only 14 years old when Saigon fell in 1975, and was thus too young to take part in America's Vietnam War. However, I witnessed the war on television, and the older brothers of my friends did fight in the war. Although I was too young, the Vietnam War was in many ways the war of my generation.

After high school I went to university to study military history, but at that time nobody taught courses on the Vietnam War. As a result, I became a historian of World War I - but understanding the Vietnam War remained my secret passion.

In 1997, I first began to teach classes at my home university, the University of Southern Mississippi, on the Vietnam War. In preparation for the class, I read quite widely on the war, and did my best to master the topic. Something, though, seemed to be missing from my understanding of the Vietnam War. Still searching for answers, I decided to take a group of students and US veterans to learn about the Vietnam War in Vietnam.
We traveled from Saigon, to Can Tho to Hanoi, and I learned a great deal, but still something was missing.

Then we journeyed to Hue, where I met Pham Van Dinh, who had achieved great things as a commander within the Army of the Republic of Vietnam
(ARVN).

However, I also learned that Pham Van Dinh had surrendered his entire regiment and defected to the enemy during the Easter Offensive of 1972.

Upon returning home I met Tran Ngoc Hue, who had once been Dinh's friend and comrade, and also had achieved great things as an officer in the ARVN.

However, Hue fought until the end, being severely wounded and captured during the Lam Son 719 invasion of Laos in 1971, and then served 13 years in North Vietnamese prisons.

The stories of Pham Van Dinh and Tran Ngoc Hue captivated me; they were stories that needed to be told.

I had gone to Vietnam in search of the American War there. What I found, though, was a Vietnamese War.

I immediately began to research everything I could find on the ARVN. To my surprise, I found very little. It quickly became apparent that South Vietnam and its military were only footnotes in the American and western histories of the Vietnam War.

At that point I realized something; that writing a book about Pham Van Dinh and Tran Ngoc Hue would not only be of great personal interest to me but also, by using their careers as a narrative structure, I would be able finally to write South Vietnam and the ARVN into the history of the Vietnam War.

The only views of the ARVN that I discovered in most American literature characterized the South Vietnamese military as fatally flawed and predestined to failure at the hands of the communists. However, the facts that I was discovering disputed this traditional vision of ARVN.

I discovered that ARVN fought hard, struggling against the communists for 25 years, losing more than 200,000 dead. As a reflection of this fact, the two main focuses of my research, Pham Van Dinh and Tran Ngoc Hue, each fought for a decade in service of their country before their careers came to such different ends. It was obvious that the story of ARVN had to be re-written. My book, Vietnam's Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN, focuses on the lives of two men in the I Corps area of South Vietnam.

For that reason it cannot pretend to present the entire history of an institution as complex as the ARVN. However, I hope that it is a good start, a step toward rescuing ARVN from historical invisibility.

In the next few minutes, I will attempt to outline the basic conclusions of my research.

It is my opinion that ARVN fought its war within a flawed strategic structure. Americans then, like so many today, viewed the war in Vietnam as a military exercise with an American military solution.

Instead of working with ARVN, the mighty American forces tended to shove ARVN to one side in an effort to win the war single-handed. The American military effort, though well intentioned, had the effect of stifling ARVN independence and tied South Vietnam to an American style of war.

Perhaps General Ngo Quang Truong, the legendary commander of the 1st ARVN Division, put it best when he stated: Entering the war with the posture and disposition of a fire brigade, the Americans rushed about to save the Vietnamese house from destruction but took little interest in caring for the victims. Only after they realized that the victims, too, should be made firefighters to save their own houses, did Americans set about to really care for them. Valuable time was lost, and by the time the victims could get onto their feet and began to move forward a few steps after recovery, the fire-brigade was called back to the home station. Within this flawed overall structure of the war, ARVN fought long and hard - achieving much more success than most American histories of the conflict indicate. From 1965-1969 US and ARVN forces took part in the most famous, and in some cases infamous, battles of the Vietnam War. From the Tet Offensive 1968 to clashes in the A-Shau Valley, these battles are very well known in American history. However, the histories as they stand are wrong, for in these books ARVN is usually absent from those battles. It is my belief that to gain a fuller understanding of the conflict, history must begin to include ARVN in the story.

My research was wide ranging and covered the entire war. However, I will allow two examples to stand as representative of why ARVN must be written into the history of the Vietnam War.

Pick up any book on the Tet Offensive, and you will read that it was the US Marines who played the major role of retaking the famed Hue Citadel in 1968. However, on further reflection, although the US Marines fought bravely, it was the men of the ARVN 1st Division, led by the Hac Bao Company commanded by Tran Ngoc Hue, that first defended and then did the most to recapture the Citadel.

In another example, most westerners will have heard of Hamburger Hill, a battle in which the American airborne seized a forlorn jungle hilltop from fierce communist resistance. However, what most people do not know is that it was Pham Van Dinh and his ARVN battalion of infantry that first reached the top of Hamburger Hill in that pivotal battle. Thus it is my contention, that even in such small matters of tactics only by writing the ARVN into the history of the Vietnam War will we actually understand how the conflict progressed. Another interesting fact is that most western books on the Vietnam War give only cursory coverage of anything that happened after 1968. By that time American interest in the conflict had waned, and the process of disengaging from Vietnam had begun.

It is a great flaw in the historical coverage of the war, for while America's national tragedy was nearing its end, the national tragedy of South Vietnam had only just begun. Trained and equipped to exist as an important part of an American war in Vietnam, the ARVN suđenly found itself almost alone in some of the most important, but under reported, battles of the entire war.

The Lam Son 719 invasion of Laos in 1971 figures quite prominently in my book. It was a campaign that demonstrated that ARVN had great strengths. ARVN fought bravely on enemy territory against heavy odds.

However, it was also a campaign that demonstrated that ARVN would still need American support for some time before becoming fully independent. However, instead of pausing to take stock of the lessons of Lam Son 719, the American withdrawal from the conflict only gained speed.

Next came the Easter Offensive, an all out attack by the North Vietnamese, which came after virtually all of the US combat forces had left the country.

In the early stages of the battle, some ARVN units faltered, notably represented by Pham Van Dinh's surrender at Camp Carroll.

However, with the aid of US air power, ARVN held firm in titanic struggles in places like the Quang Tri Citadel and An Loc - epic battles that are almost ignored by most western histories of the Vietnam War.

The history of the war, when ARVN is taken into account, thus makes up a story that is different than what you will find in most books.

ARVN, though it had its faults, fought long and hard and was capable of and deserving of victory. ARVN, though, had too long existed as an adjunct to a flawed American definition of the Vietnam War. Within the structure of the American war in Vietnam, ARVN had performed well, in battles too often ignored by history from Tet to Hamburger Hill.

However, fighting in Laos and in the Easter Offensive indicated that ARVN still needed time to redefine its war and to become independent - something that ARVN deserved. But, sadly Americás patience with the Vietnam War had run out, and the American withdrawal from the conflict was too quick and too total for ARVN to survive on its own. It is time to write the history of ARVN into the history of the Vietnam War.

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Only by understanding the ARVN will we ever be able to understand the true history of the conflict in Vietnam, and be able to learn from the experience. One thing that I hope that my book does is demonstrate that ARVN fought long and hard in the cause of Freedom, and that ARVN deserved a better fate. Again, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak here today, and I would like to close by saluting the veterans of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces. You, my friends, are the heroes. And I am honored to be your reporter.