The Emergence of the Viet Cong

  The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF), known as the Viet Cong , was a political organization and army in South Vietnam and Cambodia that fought the South Vietnamese government and its allies during the Vietnam War (1955Ė1975). It consisted of both guerrilla and regular army units with a network of cadres charged with organizing peasants throughout the territories it controlled. Most of the Viet Cong's core members were "regroupees"; southern Viet Minh who had resettled in the north after the Geneva Accord (1954), but some of them were attached to the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), the regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Hanoi gave the regroupees military training and sent them back to the south along the Ho Chi Minh trail in the early 1960s. The NLF called for southerners to "overthrow the camouflaged colonial regime of the American imperialists" and to make "efforts toward the peaceful unification." The Viet Cong's best-known action was the Tet Offensive, a massive assault on more than 100 South Vietnamese urban centers in 1968, including an attack on the US embassy in Saigon. The offensive riveted the attention of the world's media for weeks, but also overextended the Viet Cong. Later communist offensives were conducted predominately by the North Vietnamese. Throughout war, communists and anti-war spokesmen insisted the Viet Cong was an insurgency totally indigenous to the south but, the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments disputed this and stated the Viet Cong was under command of the Hanoi government. However, after the war, it was confirmed the Viet Cong was always under the command of Hanoi. The Viet Cong was dissolved in 1976 when North and South Vietnam were officially unified under a communist government.

  The Viet Cong, by 1959, organized several companies and a few battalions with the majority of them in the Mekong Delta and the provinces around Saigon. Viet Cong units mainly staged attacks against the south's Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps, with occasional confrontations with the South Vietnamese Army. The guerrillas conducted most early operations in order to seize equipment, arms, and ammunition and flaunted successes as evidence of the governmentís inability to protect its citizens. Political agitation and military activity increased around the Saigon area and in the Central Highlands, where Viet Cong agents recruited among the Montagnard tribes. In 1959, after assessing conditions in the south, the Hanoi government decided to increase their military presence there; putting the military effort on a par with their political efforts to undermine Diem and reunify Vietnam.

  The National Liberation Front (NLF) was officially established in 1960 to attract the growing number of anti-Communists opposed to Diem and to provide a democratic facade for administering the partyís policies in areas controlled by the Viet Cong. As it turned out, the upsurge of guerrilla warfare in the south found the South Vietnamese Army ill prepared to react effectively. In their efforts to train and strengthen Diemís army, U.S. advisers had concentrated on meeting the threat of a conventional North Vietnamese Army invasion as opposed to a strong guerilla effort. The South Vietnamese Armyís earlier anti-guerrilla successes had been against a relatively weak effort at insurgency and armed confrontation. The Civil Guard and Self-Defense Corps, which bore the brunt of the Viet Congís attacks, proved unable to cope with the Viet Cong. Diemís regime, while stressing military activities, also neglected political, social, and economic reforms which allowed the Viet Cong to gain a foothold throughout the countryside. American officials disagreed over the seriousness of the guerrilla threat and the need for special counter-guerrilla training for the South Vietnamese Army and few of the American advisers had experience in counter-insurgency and guerilla warfare. Victory over the political/military insurgency by the north would require Diemís government not only to overcome the north's military effort but to also compete successfully with the north's efforts to organize the population in support of the governmentís cause.

  The local population provided enormous resources for the Viet Cong both economically and personnel wise. Villagers seved as the VC's main line of resistance to the South Vietnamese government's ability to regain control of various VC "Liberated Zones" and bases. The military aims of the Viet Cong were considered secondary to politically winning over the local people. Prior to the '68 Tet Offensive, the VC usually only confronted government military forces when they could isolate and, hopefully, defeat weaker forces. The Viet Cong disadvantages in numbers and in material were largely offset by the strength of their influence over the population. The Saigon government was unable to break the political ties between the VC and the people by force and had realized it too late; they needed the support of the people above all else. Viet Cong military forces ran the gamut from hamlet and village guerrillas, farmers by day and fighters by night, to full-time professional soldiers. Organized into squads and platoons, part-time guerrillas had several military functions. They gathered intelligence for district and provincial authorities, promoted propaganda, recruited, and provided security for local cadres. They reconnoitered the battlefield, created diversions, evacuated wounded, retrieved weapons, and served as porters and guides for supplies and troops infiltrating into the south. Their mere presence in and around hamlets and villages proved to inhibit the local population from aiding the government.

  Local and main-force Viet Cong units consisted of full-time soldiers, most often recruited from the area where the unit operated. Forming companies and battalions, local forces were attached to a village, district, or provincial headquarters. Often they formed the protective shield behind which a Communist Party cadre established its political infrastructure and organized new guerrilla elements at the hamlet and village levels. Locals served as a reactionary force for the guerrillas and as a pool of replacements for the main-force units. Having limited offensive capability, local forces usually attacked poorly defended, isolated outposts or weaker government forces, often at night and by ambush. Main-force units were organized as battalions, regiments, and, as the insurgency increased, divisions. Subordinate to provincial, regional, and higher commands, such units were the strongest, most mobile, and most offensive minded of the Viet Cong forces; their mission often was to attack and defeat a specific South Vietnamese unit. Missions were assigned and approved by a political officer who, in most cases, was superior to the unitís military commander. Party cells within every unit provided and reinforced policy, military discipline, and unit cohesion. Among the insurgents, war was always the secondary to political policy.

  As the Viet Congís control over the population increased, their military forces grew in number and size. Squads and platoons became companies, companies formed battalions, and battalions were organized into regiments. This process of creating and enlarging units continued as long as the Viet Cong had a base of support among the population. After 1959, infiltrators from the north became more important and Hanoi activated a special military transportation unit to control overland infiltration along a complex of roads and trails from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia: this came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The north also put together a special naval unit to conduct sea infiltration along the coasts and via the waterways that transversed the countryside. As stated previously, the initial infiltrators were southern-born Viet Minh soldiers who had regrouped in the north after the French Indochina War. Each year until 1964, thousands returned south to join or to form Viet Cong units, usually in the areas where they had originated. Such men served as experienced military or political cadres, as technicians, or as rank-and-file combatants wherever local recruitment was difficult. When the pool of about 80,000 "regroupees" began to run dry, Hanoi began sending native North Vietnamese soldiers as individual replacements and reinforcements. In 1964 the Communists started to introduce entire North Vietnamese Army units into the South. Among the infiltrators were senior cadres, who manned the expanding Viet Cong command system of regional headquarters, interprovincial commands, and the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the supreme military and political headquarters. As the Southern branch of the Vietnamese Communist Party, COSVN was directly subordinate to the Central Committee in Hanoi. Its senior commanders were high-ranking officers of North Vietnamís Army. To equip the growing number of Viet Cong forces in the south, the insurgents continued to rely heavily on arms and supplies captured from South Vietnamese forces. But, increasingly, large numbers of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment arrived from the north, nearly all supplied by China and Russia.

  From a strength of approximately 5,000 at the start of 1959, the Viet Congís ranks grew to about 100,000 at the end of 1964. The number of infiltrators alone during that period was estimated at 41,000. The growth of the insurgency reflected both North Vietnamís adeptness in infiltrating men and weapons and South Vietnamís inability to control its porous borders. Diemís failure to develop a credible pacification program to reduce Viet Cong influence in the countryside, and the South Vietnamese Armyís difficulties in reducing long-standing Viet Cong bases and secret zones were also primary in allowing this insurgency to occur basically untouched. The trails facilitated infiltration and served as staging areas for operations: they contained training camps, hospitals, depots, workshops, and command centers. Many bases were in remote areas the South Vietnamese Army seldom visited, such as the U Minh Forest or the Plain of Reeds. The U Minh Forest, located in the far southwestern province of Kien Giang, is the largest mangrove forest in the world outside of the Amazon basin and was a favorite hideout for the VC. US patrol boats were frequently ambushed there and the VC regularly planted mines in the canals. The Plain of Reeds is a vast wetland depression of about 13,000 sq. km encompassing the provinces of Dong Thap, Tien Giang, and Lang Sen in Viet Nam, and parts of Svay Reang in Cambodia. Many other bases and camps were dispersed among hamlets and villages in the heart of populated areas (Viet Cong "liberated zones") and drew support from the local economy. From such centers the Viet Cong expanded their influence into adjacent areas that were nominally under the South Vietnamese governmentís control. The Viet Cong was disbursed in 1976 shortly after the fall of Saigon./p>