If at the height of the Vietnam War (1965-76) you had asked an American who their country was fighting in Vietnam, most would have said the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong was a network of communist agents and subversives, supplied and controlled by North Vietnam but active within South Vietnam. The origins of the Viet Cong begin with the Geneva Accords of 1954. Under the terms of the Accords, military personnel were ordered to return to their place of origin, either North or South Vietnam. Many Viet Minh soldiers and sympathisers, however, stayed in South Vietnam and remained ‘underground’, mostly in rural or remote areas. Their reasons for doing this are in dispute. Some historians suggest that indigenous communist groups in South Vietnam chose to remain there, rather than shift to the North. Others claim they did so under orders from Hanoi, which wanted to disrupt the development of the South and prepare for a future war. Whatever the reasons, by 1959 there were as many as 20 different communist cells scattered around South Vietnam. In total these cells contained as many as 3,000 men.
The formation of an organised communist insurgency in South Vietnam was masterminded by Le Duan. A native of Vietnam’s southern provinces, Le Duan was active in communist groups in the Mekong region in the 1940s. By the mid 1950s he was a high ranking member of the North Vietnamese government, occupying a seat in the Lao Dong Politburo. In 1956 Le Duan developed a plan, the ‘Road to the South’. In it he called for communists to rise up and gather support, overthrow South Vietnam’s leader Ngo Dinh Diem and expel foreign advisors and businessmen. Le Duan presented this plan to members of the Politburo but they did not support his call for a full scale war. The Politburo considered North Vietnam’s domestic policies, such as economic and military reform, to be more pressing. It would be better, they said, to wait three years for attempting to facilitate a revolution in South Vietnam. Nevertheless the Politburo authorised communist insurgents in the South to begin a limited campaign of violence.
This began in mid 1957 with a few units carrying out acts of terrorism against foreigners, foreign sympathisers and government targets. South Vietnamese communists called this campaign of violence the “extermination of traitors”. In 1957 alone there were more than 150 assassinations attributed to communist subversives. In July, 17 people were killed by the Viet Minh underground in Chau Doc. A police chief and his family were murdered in September. The insurgents also carried out bombings of hotels and cafes in Saigon and other cities. Many of these locations were frequented by foreigners and several Americans were injured during these attacks. Newspapers in Saigon began referring to the insurgents as Viet Cong, a shortened form of Viet Nam Cong San (Vietnamese communists). The insurgents continued their violence between 1958 and 1959, while improving their organisation and command structures and obtaining the backing of Moscow.
Under international pressure to rein in this violence, the North Vietnamese government continually stressed that southern communists were acting independently, not under instruction from Hanoi. By mid 1959, however, the North was providing obvious support to the Viet Cong. The revolutionary movement in South Vietnam was formalised on December 20th 1960, with the formation of Mat Tran Dan Toc Giai Phong Mien Nam (the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam). Westerners came to know it as the National Liberation Front (NLF). Shortly after its formation the NLF issued a ten point program that called on the Vietnamese people to “overthrow the camouflaged colonial regime of the American imperialists and the dictatorial power of Ngo Dinh Diem”. Membership of the NLF grew rapidly, filled both by southern sympathisers and thousands of communists who streamed down from the North. The NLF also adopted its own anthem called Giai Phong Mien Nam (Liberate the South):
“To liberate the South we decided to advance.
To defeat the American Empire and destroy the country-sellers.
Oh bones have broken and blood has fallen, the hatred is rising high.
Our country has been separated for so long.
Here the sacred Cuu Long river.
Here glorious Truong Son Mountains
Are urging us to advance to kill the enemy,
Arm by arm under a common flag.”
By 1961 the NLF’s internal organisation had evolved further and resembled the structure of the Lao Dong. Major decisions were made by a Presidium (in effect, a mini Politburo) and implemented by a Secretariat. On the ground the NLF adopted its own “shadow government”, which operated across 20 regions and was commanded by a party official. Within each region there were several districts and villages, overseen by one or more NLF cadres. The role of these cadres went beyond military and guerrilla operations. The NLF was also a political movement tha worked to attract and build popular support. NLF teachings stressed two important concepts: dan tranh (‘struggle’) and giai phong (‘liberation’). Its cadres circulated these ideas by organising political education forums, youth groups and women’s groups. The NLF also disseminated information and propaganda that praised communist ideas and values, as well as communist land reforms in the North. Cadres also informed people about the crimes and exploitations of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and his followers.
The NLF’s military arm was called the Quan Doi Giai Phong (Liberation Army). South Vietnamese and Westerners knew it as the Viet Cong. Its members were given extensive political and historical training, including sessions about the failure of the Geneva Accords, American double standards and the excesses of the Diem regime. For obvious reasons, most NLF operations could not be conducted in the open. In most parts of South Vietnam the NLF remained an underground organisation; its movements and activities were often described as “ghostly”. There was no NLF uniform or insignia, so most Viet Cong were indistinguishable from ordinary South Vietnamese. There was also no official NLF headquarters or even a particular area where NLF officials could be found. Presidium members held their meetings in remote locations, rarely meeting in the same place twice. Their decisions were passed along the chain of command either by word of mouth or on scrawled notes written in code.
Thousands of South Vietnamese, marginalised and dispossessed by the corruption and brutality of the Diem regime, enlisted to fight with the NLF. Those unable to fight – including women, children and the elderly – gave support in other ways, promising to provide food, safety and information about enemy troop movements. Buddhist monks, former members of religious sects like the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, displaced peasants and urban workers could be found in NLF ranks. Support did not only flow one way, however. The NLF’s bombings, sabotage and assassinations also generated considerable opposition. These attacks, though aimed at foreign or South Vietnamese government targets, often killed innocent civilians, destroyed private property and disrupted business. As a consequence there were many South Vietnamese who supported neither the Diem government or the NLF.
By 1960, the NLF had grown and evolved into a sophisticated communist insurgency. With the approval of Hanoi, the NLF increased its terrorist activities in the South. In October 1961 there were 150 NLF bombings and attacks, triple the number of the previous month. This escalation prompted US president John F. Kennedy to increase the number of American military advisors in South Vietnam, with several thousand arriving over the next six months. One of the most successful Viet Cong operations occurred in January 1963 when around 1,500 South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers, along with American advisors, tracked down 300 Viet Cong near Ap Bac in the Mekong delta. As the ARVN soldiers approached the enemy across rice fields, the Viet Cong were able to inflict heavy casualties from concealed positions. The ARVN had the advantage of American helicopters, however even these proved ineffective at locating and eliminating the enemy. Around 200 ARVN troops were shot, almost half of them fatally, while three US advisors were also killed. In contrast the Viet Cong lost only 18 men. The tactics they employed at Ap Bac – stealth, concealment, patience, discipline and teamwork – had withstood the most modern weaponry in Vietnam. It was not the last time these tactics would prove successful.
After the American military escalation in 1965, eradication of the Viet Cong became the number one objective for the US military. The Viet Cong were both featured and demonised in the American press. They were painted as communist revolutionaries and heartless terrorists, responsible for every act of carnage in South Vietnam. American military personnel serving in Vietnam knew them as “VC”, “Victor Charlie”, “Charlie” or “Chuck”. The attitude of most American soldiers towards the Viet Cong evolved into a combination of hatred, fear and begrudging admiration. The Viet Cong were cursed and condemned for not following the Western conventions of war. They were labelled cowards for refusing to fight in open battle. Instead, the Viet Cong relied on elements of speed and surprise. Ambushes, lightning raids, sniping, tunnel warfare, land minds and booby traps became their preferred tactic. Viet Cong soldiers were subversive, evasive and crafty, hiding among civilian populations, taking shelter in thick jungle, moving only in the dead of night. As the Vietnam War unfolded, the world’s strongest military power found itself at war with an enemy that could scarcely be found.
1. The Viet Cong was the military arm of the National Liberation Front (NLF), an underground communist insurgency formed in December 1960 and active in South Vietnam.
2. The seeds of the NLF were several thousand communists who defied the terms of the Geneva Accord (1954) and remained underground in South Vietnam.
3. As support for the NLF grew it adopted organisation and command structures similar to those of the Lao Dong, as well its own a military arm, the Viet Cong.
4. The NLF and Viet Cong were shadowy organisations that blended into rural life but remained politically and militarily active, recruiting and disseminating propaganda.
5. Viet Cong bombings and operations increased from late 1961. Using guerrilla methods they targeted foreign and government personnel, buildings and facilities.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Viet Cong”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/viet-cong/.
Military Tactics used by the USA and the Vietcong in Vietnamin
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Military Tactics used by the USA and the Vietcong in Vietnamin
During the Vietnam War there were two main sides (other countries were
involved, giving financial support etc). There was the ARVN (Army of
the republic of Vietnam) and the U.S. who were capitalist. Against the
NVA (The North Vietnam Army) and the Vietcong (people based in South
Vietnamwho supported the NVA). Both sides used different military
tactics during the war.
At the start of the war both sides used a similar tactic: to gain the
trust of the South Vietnamese people and convince them to support
their own side. The Vietcong used infiltration; they spread the idea
of revolution and at the same time signed up new recruits. The
Vietcong were more appealing to the peasants as they spoke the same
language and offered free land by doing this they gained control of
the countryside in south Vietnam.
The US used a similar idea called 'Pacification'. They said this was
to 'win the hearts and minds' of the people of S.Vietnam. It was a
policy where they provided schools and clinics and built houses,
roads, canals and bridges. This was to gain their trust because they
were afraid of scaring the people while they were attacking the
Vietcong in the countryside. This however did not succeed as the US
lost their trust when they started bombing and the amount of violence
caused by the US increased. The scheme was abandoned when money and
soldiers were needed to fight the Vietcong.
The Vietcong did not have the modern equipment and weaponry that the
US had. But they had a huge advantage over the US; they knew the
jungle and countryside they were also well suited to it. They could
easily hide amongst the trees from the US trees and aircraft. It was
easy because of their well developed Ho Chi Minh trail (the hidden
network of paths used by the Vietcong). The Vietcong used Guerrilla
tactics; they would use their knowledge of the jungle to their
advantage and would go around in small group's surprising and
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attacking American soldiers with grenades and booby traps. The
Vietcong would never come out in the open so it was difficult for the
US soldiers to fight back or defend themselves.
I mentioned earlier the during Guerrilla warfare the Vietcong would
build booby traps to kill Americans. They used a lot of trip wires;
they would either attach a trip wire to a grenade and when a soldier
tripped on a wire the grenade would explode, killing him and soldiers
nearby. Or they would use a tin can trap where they would take the pin
out of the grenade and put the grenade inside a can then when the
soldier tripped on the wire, the sudden jolt would set the grenade
off. They also used a lot of other types of booby traps, they used a
Bouncing Betty trap, a fuel tank trap, a punji trap and they would
These sorts of techniques irritated the US greatly because they could
not avoid the booby traps and were loosing vast amounts of soldiers to
these sorts of traps. It was also difficult for the US soldiers to be
transported in other ways, other then helicopters but even then they
couldn't land in dense areas of the forest. This was quite a problem
for the US they started the policy of Attrition, where they would wear
the Vietcong down. In 1964 they started selective bombing where they
would bomb places like bridges, railways and supply dumps etc. this
made it difficult for the enemy to fight. But this was awkward as it
was difficult for the helicopters to aim. It was yet again another
failure of the US; the Vietcong were succeeding in most areas of the
In 1965 Conventional warfare began. The NVA (North Vietnamese army)
became more heavily involved because they had received financial
support from China so were able buy more machinery. They started
fighting the US out in the open with high tech weaponry and tanks.
The US realised that the war wasn't going well for them so they
invented a new technique; Search and destroy missions. Because the
Vietcong had succeeded in Infiltration and were now hidden amongst the
South Vietnamese people it was difficult for the US soldiers to detect
them. In Search and destroy missions they would hunt down and kill any
Vietcong members. They would look for any signs of the Vietcong
(excess food, hidden supplies and weapons or Vietcong documents). They
would destroy all evidence and kill any suspected Vietcong members.
They would often be wrong and wipe out whole villages when the
suspects were innocent. The soldiers were angry with what the Vietcong
were doing to their colleagues and kill people just because they
wanted to take their anger out on someone. One example of this was the
Mai Lai massacre, 1968. This was where a village was attacked and
there were "piles of innocent bodies were strewn across the path".
The Vietcong continued to use Guerrilla tactics to kill the US
soldiers and were becoming more and more successful. But the US
weren't prepared to surrender yet; they came up with a new idea: to
use chemicals to wipe out the forest and Vietcong at the same time.
Because there would be no trees the environment would be less humid,
so it would be easier to work in. By doing this the US hoped to expose
the Vietcong Ho Chi Minh trail. Also they would be able to move around
a lot more easily because they would be able to use their tanks. To do
this they would use Agent Orange and Napalm. Agent Orange is a
powerful weed killer that stripped away leaves and undergrowth. Napalm
is jellied petrol that sticks to everything it comes into contact with
and explodes on impact. They also used giant bombs to splinter all the
trees in the forest into pieces. But this failed like many of their
other tactics because the jungle was massive and they could never
destroy all off it. The Vietcong simply moved to other parts.
The war had now intensified and selective bombing had failed but in
1966 they increased the level of bombing and started 'saturation
bombing' where they would bomb everything in sight. To do this they
used B-52 bombers which flew at 50,000 feet and couldn't be seen or
hears from the ground. They did this to try and get North Vietnamto
negotiate with the USA as they were desperate to win the war and end
all the suffering.
In 1968 both sides wanted the war to end as it had been going on for a
long time and neither side could see the war ending. So the Vietcong
took a step forward: they launched a massive surprise attack on the
US. It was to be a surprise as the US had expected North Vietnam to be
celebrating the annual Tet festival, but they weren't. Also the US
didn't think that the Vietcong had so much equipment. They did because
they had joined with the NVA to attack over 100 targets. The Vietcong
had never fourth in the open before so for them it was a big strategy
change. The attack was named the Tet offensive.
It was not a complete success for the Vietcong as over 30,000 people
died in the attack; this meant that the NVA had to take over the
majority of the fighting in S. Vietnam. To the Americans it was a
great shock as they thought that they were winning. As a result they
increased the mount of saturation bombing and Search and Destroy
missions. The NVA were not used to fighting in S. Vietnam but the
Americans were experience so USA were hopeful but at the same
desperate to win the war and for it al to be over.