As the US Marine Corps helicopter lifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon at daybreak on April 30, 1975, I thought about the carnage that would result from a heat-seeking missile fired by Vietnamese Communist forces gradually encircling the besieged capital of the dying Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Exhausted by a lack of sleep for the previous several days, I no longer felt fear, only curiosity. Tears welled in my eyes, perhaps due in part to the anguish of witnessing the tragic events unfolding before me, but also from caustic smoke belched out of rooftop incinerators glowing cherry-red from reams of frantically burned secret U.S. Government documents. Feeling a sense of relief, I nevertheless harbored an even stronger sense of guilt. On the Republic of Vietnam’s final day, as I looked down into the gradually diminishing compound and into the terrified eyes in the upturned faces of hundreds of Vietnamese nationals and citizens of other countries friendly to the United States, who were being left behind, I knew that I would be haunted for many years to come. As the venerable ‘Sea Stallion’ throbbed its way through the damp morning air toward a helicopter carrier anchored off the coast at Vung Tau, blazing tracers rising from the dark-canopied jungle below bade farewell to America and to an era known as the Vietnam War. During the more than 30 minute flight into the future I sat angry and confused after some 10 years of involvement with a faraway place called Vietnam. I wondered whether the sacrifices in lives and national treasure made by America and its allies had been worthwhile or in vain. After contemplating the issue for many years, I believe it is now time to take stock of the American War in Vietnam so that Americans, especially those of us who served there, can finally decide whether or not we now have cause for a celebration or the lingering agony of defeat.
There are several salient points that need to address in our 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the American War in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). For example, the communists in Vietnam were very cunning in convincing uneducated, ill-advised Americans, including some professional analysts, we had two separate forces opposing us in Vietnam during our long war there. Viet Cong means “Vietnamese Communist,” nothing more, nothing less. Any Vietnamese person, man woman or child, who is a communist, is by definition also a Viet Cong. There is not now/never was a category of “NVA.” According to American analysts, both military and civil-service, NVA is an acronym meaning “North Vietnamese Army.” In the Vietnamese language it is “Quan doi Mien Bac Vietnam,” or “Bo doi chu luc mien bac.”). At times people in the South referred to Communist troops in the north as “North Vietnamese Regulars” (Chinh quy Bac Viet). In reality, however, there was no “North Vietnamese Army.” Units referred to by Americans as “NVA” were comprised of both northerners and southerners. The only actual distinction between communist forces in Vietnam during the war was “regular forces or militia.” Militia forces, throughout Vietnam, were also referred to as “Guerrilla Forces” (Quan du kich) in the south and local militia (Tinh doi/Huyen doi/Xa doi) (Provincial, district, or village level) in the North. But the mission and composition were similar. All regular Communist forces operating in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were in reality personnel of the “Peoples Army of Vietnam, (PAVN)”, or “Quan doi Nhan dan Vietnam).” Founded in December 1944, the PAVN included personnel from all provinces and regions of the country. One primary reason Hanoi’s negotiators adamantly refused to withdraw “North Vietnamese Forces” from the South as a condition to the 1973 Peace Agreements was because the forces contained as many southerners as it did northerners. To insist that Hanoi withdraw all “North Vietnamese Troops” was considered a joke to the Politburo in Hanoi, heavily weighted with members from the same central and southern regions from which the forces originated. The forces stationed in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not “NVA” but, rather Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) troops from all parts of the country. Most of the senior Communist personnel born in South Vietnam were actually “Regroupees” (Tap ket), meaning people who were born in the South but regrouped to the North after the country was divided in 1954. This mass regrouping of both military and civil service personnel from South to North was completed in May 1955. Although a small number of senior cadre and specialists began infiltrating back into to the South shortly after the country was divided the bulk of these forces did not begin to return in large numbers until 1960.
The communists used a similar ruse to convince the media, as well as some analysts, to believe a “civil war” (Noi chien) raged in wartime Vietnam. Actually the so called-National Liberation Front (Mat tran Giai phong Quoc gia) was merely a propaganda organization, and an outlet for foreign affairs representation in Cuba and elsewhere. This organ was extremely important in turning what was a military defeat into a political victory for the communists during the 1968 “Tet” offensive. The NLF actually operated under the “Re-unification Committee” (Uy Ban Thong Nhat) co-located with the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN/Trung uong cuc Mien nam), which was nothing more than a foward operating base for the Politburo (Bo Chinh Tri) in Hanoi. PAVN forces operating under the NLF, which evolved into the Provisional Revolutionaly Government of South Vietnam, (Chinh phu Cach mang Lam thoi Cong Hoa Mien nam Viet nam), were referred to as National Liberation Forces “Quan doi Giai phong Mien nam Viet nam” and founded in January 1961. The COSVN headquarters was located on the northern bank of the Chhlong River in eastern-central Cambodia. The headquarters for the National Liberation Forces was called “Region” (Mien) and located near the Bo Tuc Bridge in northeastern Tay Ninh province.
Another reason for writing “Leave No Man Behind” is to counter the “loser” mentality displayed today by many American veterans, because I believe that there is compelling evidence of what I have long held to be a “victory” by American and allied vets, not a “lost war” as described by liberals like Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda and much of the media. At the close of World War II the mission of the U.S. Government was “containment” of communism. This policy was labeled as a “Cold War.” The first battlefield of the Cold War was Korea, where U.S. and allied forces were left with what was described by the media as a “Stalemate.” The second battlefield of the Cold War was Vietnam, where according to the media, the U.S. lost its first war. Although it is true that we lost some 58,000 troops, we nevertheless killed 1.3 million communists, including some 300,000 KIA body not recovered, 150,000 of which still remain unaccounted-for today. We literally “killed them over there so our children and grandchildren would not have to fight them over there”. Our greatest mistake in Vietnam was our strategy. Amazingly, this is one particular aspect of the war that has been almost totally ignored. We went to Vietnam and entered combat with the basic tactics of Forts Benning, Knox and Sill. We used combined arms tactics while our adversary fought an insurgency. After we realized our mistake we did have the sense to evolve to a counterinsurgency, but unfortunately, by that time Communist forces were already using large scale combined arms attacks with Soviet and Communist Chinese supplied aircraft, tanks, artillery and SAM missiles. With the smell of victory strong, the Russians, the Communist Chinese, the Soviet Bloc and the Cubans were all too willing to increase the pace of aid and assistance in order to sound the final death knell to the weak and dying RVN.
Some historians will argue that one major reason for the failure of the Republic if Vietnam to persevere was the geography of the country. According to them, due to lengthy borders with neighboring countries, such as Laos and Cambodia and a long, irregular seacoast on the eastern seaboard, the forces of the RVN were constantly challenged by the difficult terrain. In looking at the situation of the defeated Chams, a people who controlled the entire land and sea area of Vietnam for centuries, one can see that in the war with Vietnam the terrain definitely did not favor the Vietnamese. This is especially true regarding Hai Van Pass and Danang, the traditional bottleneck plaguing forces attacking south along the eastern seacoast. Through political, military and diplomatic maneuvering, the Vietnamese were able to bypass this choke point and ultimately enjoyed clear sailing on into southern Vietnam. In evaluating the victory of communist forces over noncommunist forces , however, rather than casually blame it on the geography, to be fair one must also consider the degree of success achieved by the Vietnamese forces, both northern and southern, against the Chams, the Chinese, the Japanese and the French long before the advent of Communism. Aside from geographic conditions some historians will also place the blame for the defeat of noncommunist forces in Southeast Asia on the U.S. Congress. Often cited is the congressional legislation curtailing all U.S. military action in Southeast Asia beginning in August 1975.
This situation is described generally as a cut-off of assistance, both monetary and military, essentially abandoning the financially strapped RVN, left with no funding for continuing the war effort. While it might not be important, an anomaly in this case is the overall economic situation on the ground in Vietnam at the time. While it might be true that the government of RVN was broke, at the same time if one were able to persuade the owners to part with it, one could have collected enough gold and precious gems from any given city block in the southern capital of Saigon sufficient to provide enough funds to support continued combat for a considerable time. How such riches could have been voluntarily collected is another matter and I do not want to give the impression that such an effort would have been an easy or simple task. I merely seek to put forth one additional point for scrutiny in the overall evaluation of the situation at the time of the collapse of the GVN. Not being an economist it is difficult for me to summarize this precarious situation but it can only be considered an anomaly when the military forces of a country are defeated due to the lack of funding while such forces are literally surrounded by vast treasures held by citizens who are essentially leaderless, powerless and distrustful of the military forces tasked with providing their security.
Unlike the French before us we did not go to Vietnam to open coal mines or gold mines, or tea or rubber plantations. We went there to close with, and kill, destroy or capture the enemy. This was our mission and we definitely accomplished it. We did not go to Southeast Asia in order to conquer Vietnam or make it a colony of the United States. We all knew we would be coming home, we simply didn’t know when. Due to the efforts made by Vietnam Vets, today one quarter of the population of the earth is living under democratically elected governments. Radical Muslims who call for Jihad against Americans should remember that due to the efforts made by Vietnam veterans while fighting against counterinsurgencies throughout Southeast Asia during the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s., today citizens of two of the world’s largest Muslim nations, Malaysia and Indonesia, are able to freely worship Islam.
During the American War in Vietnam our military forces never lost a major battle and the USSR’s involvement in supporting the communists while we were fighting there led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disbanding of the Communist Party and a clear victory of the Cold War for Vietnam war vets. America’s Vietnam Vets can hold their heads high and be proud for their service during one of the most critical periods of American history. The struggle is not over, the two most important issues remaining are a full and transparent accounting for our unreturned veterans and democracy for the Vietnamese people.
Garnett ‘Bill’ Bell, a native of Texas and a retired GM-14, DoD, went to Vietnam as an infantryman in 1965 and served four tours there. Bell was awarded 20 individual decorations and numerous unit awards.
Bell later served as an instructor in the Department of Exploitation and Counterintelligence, U.S. Army Intelligence Center and school. During his career Bell served in the 327th Airborne Battle Group, 101st Airborne Division, the 1/35th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, the 2/506th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the 101st MI Company, the 525th Military Intelligence Group, the Defense Language Institute, the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, the 6th Special Forces Group, the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), the Four Party Joint Military Team (FPJMT) and the Joint Task Force Full-Accounting (JTFFA).
Bell’s wife and son were killed and a daughter critically injured in April 1975, when the families of U.S. officials assigned to the American Embassy in Saigon were evacuated in conjunction with the ‘Operation Babylift’ program. After being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy on the final day of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) (30 April 1975), Bell returned to postwar Vietnam as the first official U.S. representative after the war ended when he was assigned as the Chief of the U.S. Office for POW/MIA Affairs in Hanoi. He served more than 12 years on the POW/MIA Search Teams.
An Airborne-Ranger and Jumpmaster, Bell eventually became a member of the Congressional Staff, U.S. House of Representatives. Fluent in Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian, Bell is a graduate of Chaminade University and the author of ‘Leave No Man Behind.’ Bell is a life member of the DAV, VFW, Combat Infantrymen’s Association (CIA) and the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH). Bell is employed as an investigator in the 12th Judicial District Western Arkansas.