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Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam: A Heroic Army Unjustly Abandoned and Left For Dead

Tác giả: Lâm Vĩnh Thế (LPK 1953-60)

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Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam – A Heroic Army Unjustly Abandoned and Left for Dead

by Vinh The Lam | Feb 25, 2022

Foreword

            We are delighted to introduce to you this well-researched book by author Vinh-The Lam about the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).  As former Head, Library Science Department, Vạn Hạnh University in Saigon, South Vietnam, before 1975, and Head, Technical Services Division, University of Saskatchewan Library in Canada at his retirement, author Vinh-The Lam has conducted research and published two books on the Republic of Vietnam.  Both the Vietnamese version, titled “Việt Nam Cộng Hòa,1963-1967: Những Năm Xáo Trộn” and the English version, titled “Republic of Vietnam, 1963-1967: Years of Political Chaos” were published by Hoài Việt Publishing House in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 2008.  The second edition of the English version, under the new title “History of South Vietnam: The Quest for Legitimacy and Stability, 1963-1967,” was published by the British publisher Routledge in 2021.  His book by Routledge is currently the only study on this very special period in the history of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).   

The book you have in hand is a compilation of the author’s several earlier-published articles on different aspects of the ARVN and the Vietnam War.  In this book, based on numerous American and Vietnamese documents, Vinh-The Lam tries to find the answer to some of the most puzzling questions about the history of the Vietnam War.  Why was the RVN defeated if the ARVN were not coward and incompetent as portrayed by the U.S. media and argued by authors in the “orthodox” camp in the debate on the Vietnam War? And why the ARVN, who had won important battles like An Lộc, Quảng Trị, and Xuân Lộc, completely disintegrated in less than two months after the loss of Ban Mê Thuôt?  As the sub-title of the book encapsulates, the answer is: the ARVN was a heroic army but was abandoned by the U.S., its ally, leading to its unexpected death.   

            For the “ARVN as a heroic army” theme, the book provides several interesting details on the Air Divisions of the South Vietnamese Air Force, on four distinguished generals, and on the two famous battles the ARVN was engaged in.  For the second theme of “the ARVN abandoned,” the book shows that the changes in U.S. policy have led to the signing of the 1973 Paris Accords, which were deeply disadvantageous for the Saigon government, and to the U.S. Congress’ decision to drastically reduce military aid for the RVN.  The author also presents many persuasive arguments to rebut “orthodox” authors’ judgment that the Vietnam War was “an unwinnable war.”  Finally, the author analyzes President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s wrong decision to abandoning the highlands and the ill-prepared troop withdrawal from II Corps by General Phạm Văn Phú.  He reaches the conclusion that these two actions were the main reasons for the rapid collapse of the ARVN in less than two months (March-April 1975).  

            The conclusion of the book elicits larger questions on the role of the armed forces in the life of the RVN as a nation.  In a nation having just escaped from colonialism and threatened by a new war, the ARVN became an important organization with a mandate of achieving stability and fighting the enemy.  The larger the war became, the more militarized the Vietnamese society grew.  Volunteered or drafted, millions of young men went to the army.  The budget appropriated for the army was the largest part of the government budget.  Even before they made the coup overthrowing the civilian government of President Ngô Đình Diệm, the military had already been involved in local administration at different levels.  After the coup, the generals took turn to lead the central government.  

            The politicization of the military had begun under the First Republic when Mr. Ngô Đình Nhu tried to develop his Cần Lao Party in the army and the government.  Although from the appearance this policy was not different from the Communist method of organizing and controlling their army, the Cần Lao Party did not have a robust structure and instead only relied on factors such as personal relationships and personal loyalties to the leader, and, thus, hindered the development of a professional army.   

            The struggle for political power among the RVN generals through quite a few military coups happened not only in South Vietnam but also in neighboring countries, such as Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, Pakistan and South Korea during that time.  Unlike the armies of those countries, the military governments in the RVN were weaker and also less dictatorial, permitting the growth of a civil society and a freer press.  Under the Second Republic, the government of General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu also implemented many promising programs to develop and stabilize the economy similar to those in South Korea and Thailand at the time.  

            On the one hand, the political involvement of the military strengthened the power of the army in society. On the other hand, it also brought significant negative publicity on the army’s involvement in corruption, and on cases in which military personnel abused power and displayed dictatorial tendencies, despite the fact that the bad generals were not the majority.  More important, the involvement of military officers that officers in politics was detrimental to the professional organization of the army as political relationships and calculations unduly affected professional standards, weakened discipline, and generated uneven leadership capability.  Unlike the military regimes in neighboring countries, the Second Republic of the RVN was in a war and, therefore, this weakness was a fatal one.  

            Another special characteristic of the ARVN was its enormous size (almost one million soldiers at its peak for a population of 14 million), its high specialization (including all services, and also special units such as Paratroopers and Marines) and its reliance on sophisticated arms (fighter jets, helicopters, tanks).  This special characteristic was born out of history and necessity but led to its heavy reliance on American military aid, especially for weapons, fuels, and the strategic air force.  For example, for the Air Divisions of the VNAF, not only the aircrafts but also parts and fuels were totally dependent on American supplies.  In terms of the strategic air force, the carpet bombings by B-52 flying fortresses played a significant role in the ARVN’s victories in An Lộc and Quảng Trị.  

            Although generally speaking, people, not weapons, determined the outcomes of battles, in modern warfare both factors have the same level of importance.  Communist propaganda claimed revolutionary heroism as the deciding factor in their victory, but, in reality, we have witnessed the tragic failure of that revolutionary heroism in the 1968 Tet Offensive (within the first month, Communist forces suffered a casualty of 40,000 dead or wounded soldiers, and were pushed out of most of the cities and towns of South Vietnam).   The 1975 victory of the North Vietnamese army was brought about by modern weapons, including tanks, big guns, and the world’s most sophisticated air defense system (SAM) supplied by the Soviet Union.

            Modern weapons helped the ARVN win the great battles of An Lộc and Quảng Trị.  But the military expenses of the RVN exceeded the country’s economic and technical capabilities.  Communist North Vietnam also relied heavily on its allies for weapons, fuels, and even for dried foods and clothing for its soldiers.  The difference was the Soviet Union’s and China’s assistance to North Vietnam were steady and discreet, in sharp contrast with the American assistance to South Vietnam, which was highly volatile and almost always in the open.  The difference between the two methods of intervention reflected the characteristics of the political regimes of the U.S. and the Communist countries and their strategic intentions.  The end results of this difference became obvious after the signing of the Paris Accords, with clear advantages for North Vietnam.  

            Although the ARVN no longer exists, we need to know more about it in order to more clearly understand the history of Vietnam.  Scholars of the Vietnam War are indebted to the valuable contributions by Vinh-The Lam.  The image of the ARVN he provides in this book is completely different from what we commonly read in books on this subject by American authors (except for a few such as George Veith and Andrew Wiest).  We hope that this book will get the attention of readers and inspire new research in the future on this important subject.   

Dr. Tuong Vu

US-Vietnam Research Center 

Political Science Department

University of Oregon


Contents

Acknowledgements

List of Abbreviations

List of Illustrations

Foreword

            Dr. Tuong Vu, Ph.D.

            Department Head, Political Science, University of Oregon, USA

Author’s Biographical Sketch

Introduction

Part One: A Heroic Army

Chapter One: The Air Divisions of the ARVN                 

Chapter Two: The Four Incorruptible Generals of the ARVN: First Thắng, Second Chinh, Third Thanh, Fourth Trưởng”

Chapter Three: Heroic Defense of An Lộc in Summer 1972

Chapter Four: Recapture of Quảng Trị: The Bloodiest Battle of the Vietnam War  

Chapter Five: Vindicating and Honouring the ARVN

Part Two: An Army Unjustly Abandoned and Left for Dead

Chapter Six: “Vietnam War Was an Unwinnable War”: Right or Wrong?

Chapter Seven: President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and the Paris Peace Talks

Chapter Eight: Autopsy of the Disastrous Retreat from II Corps in March           1975

Chapter Nine: Abandoning of the Republic of Vietnam by the US: Who was to Blame?

Epilogue

Notes

Bibliography

Index