Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975 – Net Assessment

Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975 – Net Assessment – Book Review

Col Darrel Whitcomb

Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975 by the Military History Institute of Vietnam, translated by Merle L. Pribbenow. University Press of Kansas (, 2501 West 15th Street, Lawrence, Kansas 66049-3905, 2002, 512 pages, $49.95 (hardcover).

Victory in Vietnam is a translated and updated version of the official history published by the Military History Institute of Vietnam, Ministry of Defense, Hanoi, Vietnam, 1988, and revised in 1994. Merle Pribbenow is well qualified for this task, having served as a Central Intelligence Agency officer and interpreter in Vietnam for five years during the war. Up front, I highly recommend this book to any serious student of the war. At times it is tedious and dry, full of political bombast and outright bragging. But it contains some very revealing information, especially for airmen, and offers a view of American airpower through the eyes of an enemy.

This “official” history of the war assumes the perspective of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), a term used by the North Vietnamese for their army and, by extension, the Vietcong. They claim that, in toto, the two made up the larger army of the Vietnamese people. To buttress this fiction, they declare that the PAVN consisted of three components: the main force, local force, and militia and guerillas. The North Vietnamese revile those who fought against them, referring to all South Vietnamese troops as lackeys or puppet troops of the French and then the United States. The book reveals the skillful use of all three components to carry out the strategy of liberating Vietnam from all “foreign intrusions,” unifying it under the control of the Communist Party, and ultimately establishing hegemony over Southeast Asia. The PAVN served as the main tool for achieving these objectives.

Victory in Vietnam describes the various stages of the war as seen from Hanoi, discussing in detail several particularly difficult times during the struggle:

* 1955-59, when South Vietnam almost destroyed the Communist movement in the South.

* 1961-62, when American-supported helicopter assaults and M-113 armored personnel carriers inflicted serious losses on North Vietnamese forces.

* 1966, when US troop strength and airpower increased dramatically, and sustained air strikes against the North began to seriously damage North Vietnam’s economy.

* 1969, when Gen Creighton Abrams, the US commander, directly attacked the PAVN and almost destroyed it.

* 1971, when South ‘Vietnamese forces attacked the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.

* 1972, when South Vietnamese ground forces and US airpower killed over 100,000 PAVN troops.

This book, the definitive statement of the Vietnamese Communist point of view, reveals that many of the accepted truths in our own histories of the war are simply wrong. For example, we saw the conflict as the Vietnam War–a self-imposed limitation–and considered the fighting in Laos and Cambodia separate struggles. To the North Vietnamese, though, it was a regional conflict that raged across Cambodia and Laos, involving all of the nations in the area. They did not hesitate to send “volunteers” to Laos or Cambodia to do their “international duty.” Such a perspective gave them great flexibility and strategic advantage.

From 1959 on, the North Vietnamese built a great network of roads through the interior of Laos to tie all of the fronts together with the “rear area” (i.e., North Vietnam). They called this complex the Trung Son Road, named for the range of mountains that ran down the western spine of North Vietnam into Laos and the south. We called it the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This book clearly reveals in some detail the tremendous effort the PAVN put into building and defending the trail.

Recognizing the value of this artery, we expended a vast number of men and amount of materiel to shut it down. For almost 10 years, we attacked the trail with endless air strikes, using B-52s, AC-130 gunships, and a host of other weapons systems in the effort. At several points, the narrative reveals the heavy price we extracted from the PAVN:

Because of our difficulties in obtaining supplies and replacements and because the enemy was conducting ferocious counterattacks against us, after the summer campaign of 1969 a major portion of our main force army was forced to withdraw to our base camps to regroup…. By the end of 1969 the enemy had retaken almost all of our liberated zones…. Units were forced to begin alternately eating rice for one meal and manioc for the next. Some of our cadre and soldiers became pessimistic and exhibited fear of close combat and remaining in the battle zone. Some deserted their units to flee to rear areas, some even defected to the enemy (p. 246).

At several points, our efforts came close to closing the trail. But the North Vietnamese managed to keep it open. As an airman who flew against the trail in 1972, I was simply amazed to read how the enemy overcame our efforts. We expended almost two million tons of bombs, rockets, napalm, and so forth against the trail and lost far too many men. North Vietnamese casualties were heavy, but they realized that the road had to be kept open, whatever the cost. This vital link gave them the strategic mobility necessary to move the PAVN from front to front. Some of the battles fought for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, both on the ground and in the air, determined the outcome of the war-and the PAVN won them.

I found it illuminating to read how the PAVN feared the B-52 and especially the AC-130 (they called it the “thug”), which prowled the roads at night. To counteract these aircraft and airpower in general, starting in 1970, the enemy built an entirely new “secret” road and traveled during daylight. That road was so effective that it enabled them to move several mainline divisions south in 1971-72 for what became the Easter offensive. That movement even included T-54 tanks, which showed up in the battle for An Loc, just 40 miles north of Saigon.

But the most revealing fact about the trail dealt with how the PAVN built a whole new series of roads after our withdrawal in 1973, when it used the entire complex to move massive amounts of supplies and whole divisions of troops south for the battles of 1975:

The volume of supplies sent down the strategic transportation route from the beginning of 1974 to the end of April, 1975 totaled 823,146 tons, 1.6 times larger than the total volume shipped during the previous 13 years combined. Of this total, 364,542 tons were delivered to the different battlefields, 2.6 times the total for the previous 13 years…. These projects, and the motorized force of 6,770 trucks, ensured that our army could conduct large-scale combined-arms combat campaigns. . . . This supply stockpile was sufficient for us to support large forces conducting protracted, continuous combat operations as called for in our strategic combat plan (p. 350).

Not mentioned in this boasting is the fact that their “international brothers” in the Soviet Union and China supplied all of this military largess. Victory in Vietnam would have us believe that the factories of North Vietnam produced all of this equipment. At the same time, the United States reduced its support of the forces of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Given such a shift in the correlation of forces and the political atmosphere in the United States, the events of March and April 1975 were inevitable.

The book’s discussion of US attacks on Hanoi/ Haiphong in the winter of 1972 was also riveting. The North Vietnamese take great pride in the fact that they successfully fended us off, disregarding the massive damage we did to their country. They see their “victory” in that battle as a second Dien Bien Phu and claim to have shot down 34 B-52s. Our records put the losses at 17. Indeed, throughout the book, North Vietnamese claims of aircraft downed and enemy (US, Korean, South Vietnamese, and Laotian) forces destroyed appear grossly inflated. But this is their perspective, their military history-and they did prevail. The North Vietnamese did in fact achieve their objective of reunifying the country under their control and driving out “foreign influences.”

The PAVN won the war for the North-always, of course, under the control of the Communist Party. But PAVN forces were the instrument of victory. Victory in Vietnam makes that point brutally but effectively. This is their history, and they have a right to tell it.

COPYRIGHT 2003 U.S. Air Force

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group