The other side: The Vietnamese communists and ‘the American War’
The Americans and their allies saw the Vietnam War as part of a struggle against international communism. Those on the other side, however, thought of themselves more as nationalists fighting against foreign invaders and colonialists. The war against the United States was, therefore, seen by many Vietnamese as another in series of conflicts for independence dating back almost a thousand years.
Vietnam was ruled by China for almost a millennia before gaining independence in the tenth century. During the centuries that followed the Vietnamese repelled three invasions by the fearsome Mongols and resisted further Chinese attempts to regain control, finally defeating a vast invasion force sent by the Chinese Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century. Following this victory, Vietnam itself began to expand southwards at the expense of Champa, a kingdom whose remnants were ultimately incorporated into Vietnam by the early nineteenth century.
Further Vietnamese expansion was halted only by the French, who forcibly established themselves as colonial masters at the end of the nineteenth century. French colonial rule was in turn interrupted in 1940 when the Japanese invaded Vietnam. The Vietnamese endured terrible hardships during the Japanese occupation, which lasted until the end of the Second World War in 1945.
After the war the French tried to regain control of Vietnam despite local and world-wide anti-colonial sentiment. Eight years of war followed before the French were defeated by the Viet Minh, or the League for the Independence of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh who became president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). The Vietnam People’s Army existed within the Viet Minh movement and lasted until the Vietnam War and beyond. Between 1946 and 1972 the Vietnam People’s Army was commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho Chi Minh’s military strategist since the early 1940s and a veteran of the struggle against the Japanese. Much of the credit for the defeat of the United States and before them the French has been given to Giap, a brilliant but ruthless commander who was prepared to expend as many lives as were necessary to achieve victory.
Ho Chi Minh, was a communist. But in the early stages of the Vietnam War he instructed his lieutenants to make sure the Vietnamese people understood that they were fighting for Vietnam, not for communism itself. In a critique of continuing United States aid to the South during the final period of the war, General Giap commented that ‘even when they withdrew their troops they would still continue to transform Vietnam into a new colony of theirs.’ And when Saigon fell to the Vietnam People’s Army in 1975, Giap spoke publically of Vietnam’s ‘tradition of fighting against foreign invasion.’
The Vietnamese thus thought of the Americans as they had of the French, the Japanese, and the Chinese, as colonialists who sought to occupy their country. They called their struggle against the most recent invaders ‘the American War’.
The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army The word “Viet Cong ” was first used in the late 1950s. It appeared in South Vietnamese newspapers as an abbreviation of cong san Viet Nam, which simply meant “Vietnamese communist. ” Many of the original Viet Cong were from the south of the country, they had gone north after 1954 when Vietnam was divided. There they received political and military training before being sent back to the south.
In the 1960s American soldiers began referring to the Viet Cong as the VC and, more colloquially, as ‘Charlie’, which derived from the phonetic alphabet’s rendering of the letter C in VC. The slang term ‘Charlie’ quickly came to include all communist forces. According to the Vietnamese themselves, however, the Viet Cong were part of the North Vietnamese Army or Vietnam People’s Army, commanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap. The Viet Cong based in South Vietnam included both guerrilla and regular formations, with even the guerrillas possessing a regular-army structure. In addition, the Viet Cong consisted of a ‘main force’ of permanent troops, as well as cadres for recruiting and ‘organising’ South Vietnamese peasants.
Rather confusingly, the Viet Cong often called themselves the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in order to maintain the appearance of being a nationalist, southern-based movement, rather than a communist and North Vietnam-controlled organisation. Communist propaganda therefore played a part in creating the impression that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were separate entities.
The Americans in turn usually thought of their Vietnamese foes as being either Viet Cong guerrillas or North Vietnamese regular troops. Although this distinction between guerrillas and conventional soldiers does not entirely reflect how the Vietnamese either thought of themselves or operated, it became widespread. This perception also determined how most westerners understood – and continue to think about – the communist forces in the Vietnam War.
The Viet Cong fought as guerrillas or regular soldiers according to the circumstances. In 1963 they won a notable victory at Ap Bac in a set-piece battle with South Vietnamese forces. But, perhaps inevitably, the Viet Cong are better remembered for guerrilla-style operations such as ambushes, sabotage, and assassinations conducted against the Americans and their allies. At times the Viet Cong also engaged in extortion and inflicted terror on South Vietnamese peasants, and there is evidence of Viet Cong massacres of local Catholic and Montagnard communities.