"Enormously illuminating. . . . John Prados can lead a reader, from the battle buff to the expert, through the series of campaigns near the DMZ and along Route 9 better than any other author I have read. . . . His understanding of the decision-making process in Hanoi is nuanced and sophisticated. . . . A first-rate book from a first-rate scholar." Robert K. Brigham, Vassar College
"The most comprehensive treatment yet of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its place in the war." Washington Post
"An excellent book about one of the most important facets of the Vietnam War. . . . From now on it will be irresponsible for any Vietnam War scholar to deal with the strategy for this still controversial conflict without referring to The Blood Road, a thoughtful, painstakingly researched book." The Quarterly Journal of Military History
"A valuable work of interest to all scholars of the Vietnam War." Journal of Military History
Could the United States have won the Vietnam War if it had been able to cut off the Viet Cong from their North Vietnamese support by severing the Ho Chi Minh Trail? Acclaimed historian John Prados tackles this crucial question in this elegant, unprecedented, and exciting work of historical scholarship. Aided by recently declassified government documents and previously unavailable oral histories, memoirs, and interviews, Prados explores all sides of the conflict, providing details of the action in Hanoi and North Vietnam and avoiding the narrowly focused battle histories, atomized individual accounts, and overly generalized visions dominating previous histories.
A History Book Club Selection
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About the Author
JOHN PRADOS, Ph.D., is the author of nine other books on military history, including Combined Fleet Decoded, Hidden History of the Vietnam War, Valley of Decision, Keeper of the Keys, and Presidents Secret Wars.
Read an Excerpt
"Plainly a Gateway to Southeast Asia" 1954-1960
For a time Comrade Phong became the watchmaker of Dien Bien Phu. Driver of a truck used to drag heavy cannons up the difficult roads to this mountain valley, Phong had less to do once the artillery got their guns into caves and deep dugouts. Phong acquired the tools of a watchmaker and set himself up in one of the caves to fix timepieces. Huu Mai, political officer of a front-line Viet Minh battalion, met Phong when he stumbled into the watchmaker's cave while walking among the antiaircraft positions. Mai's watch had broken; he missed it sorely, for Mai's job was to keep his unit on schedule whenever engaged in operations. Mai had tried everything to get his watch fixed, down to making deals with supply drivers who hauled from the big bases in the rear. Nothing worked. Red tape or lack of spare parts blocked every repair scheme. Now Mai met Phong.
Comrade Phong took the watch and agreed to fix it. He told Mai to come back in four days and lent him a replacement. Mai felt grateful. Four days later he got the watch back, but not from Phong. The artillery had gotten orders to move to fresh positions. Phong went to help. The morning fog cleared, with trucks and gunners on the move in plain sight of the enemy. The vehicle in front of Phong blew up under fire; by veering his truck dangerously, Phong managed to avoid the wreck and reach his destination. He succeeded on a second trip, too. On the third try the enemy brought Phong down. Huu Mai heard the story when he went for his watch, remembered Phong through all the adversities of the campaign, and recounted it later for posterity.
This was the big battle at last, a defining moment for heroes and knaves, for empires and independent nations. Dien Bien Phu became the final act of the French war in Vietnam. In the mountain valley, snug up against the border of Laos, both sides risked everything in a cataclysmic bid for victory. The French fought to preserve Vietnam as part of what they called the French Union, a liberalized incarnation of a colonial empire. Their Vietnamese opponents, known at that time as the Viet Minh, fought for independence and the reunification of their country, which had been divided under French colonial rule.
The battle at Dien Bien Phu should have been impossible. For the French that mountain valley lay two hundred twenty miles from their command center at Hanoi, the intervening land wholly controlled by the Viet Minh. The French depended on technology. They used airplanes to fly supplies and reinforcements to Dien Bien Phu; relied on tanks and artillery to defeat any Vietnamese who attacked; and, before that, on warplanes to prevent the Viet Minh from even concentrating in the uplands. French intelligence was reading a significant portion of the Viet Minh radio messages. The French were formidable; they had many reasons to expect success. Holding Dien Bien Phu, the French command believed, would bar the door to Laos.
The Viet Minh were also far from their supplies-150 miles-and, unlike the French, had little technology. What the Viet Minh had was people like Phong, determined and numerous. There was some artillery, which, if it could ever be gotten up into the mountains and supplied continuously with ammunition, could cause a great deal of trouble. There were some trucks that could pull guns, like those of Phong's unit. But the roads were poor, in many places little more than tracks, and all were watched by the French air force with its infernal technology.
Throughout what the Vietnamese later called their "anti-French war," the Viet Minh always laid stress on people, depending on them for the mobility of the army. Typically the peasants in villages along the path of marauding armies were dragooned to work as porters, carrying for a week before returning home. Since the amount a man or woman could carry was limited, and because the porters had to eat, too, only a small portion of a load would actually be delivered. The turnover in porters was huge. It has been estimated that to feed a 10,000-man Viet Minh division on the march for twelve days, 50,000 porters were necessary. In one campaign northeast of Hanoi in 1950 there had been 130,000 porters, while 95,000 had worked with the Viet Minh in 1953 when they first operated in Laos.
Dien Bien Phu involved the largest Viet Minh field army yet, and its remoteness meant the old ways could not suffice. Viet Minh commander General Vo Nguyen Giap assembled 55,000 troops for the battle. There were not enough villagers in all the sparsely populated mountains of northern Vietnam to furnish porters to such a force. The solution lay in creativity. The Vietnamese, then as later, adapted simple technologies for ambitious roles. Bicycles could negotiate all but the worst mountain tracks. With extra suspension plus widened handlebars fitted with pallets, the bicycles could carry three hundred to four hundred pounds, ten times the load of a porter. Even with two peasants as a team to walk the bike, the amounts moved were much greater than before; the porters delivered more than they consumed. For the first time, supply arrivals could be calculated in tons, not pounds.
At the same time, the Vietnamese set about improving the roads. These were smoothed, widened for trucks, and given bypasses at places where bridges could be bombed out or roads blocked by rock and obstacles. Some 20,000 tribesmen and peasants worked on the last stretch of road alone. General Giap also diverted two engineer regiments to road improvement, at key moments used replacement soldiers en route to the battle, and added some of his front-line infantry when required. The result was good enough for trucks like Phong's. This was striking, especially given the fact that there had been no regular vehicular traffic over these roads since 1945, and in view of the Viet Minh's complete dependence on manual labor for heavy construction work.
In addition, the French were completely aware of what these Vietnamese were trying to do. The French air force set about frustrating that goal, flying from fields at Hanoi and nearby Haiphong, sometimes from as far south as Da Nang,* or from aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. French aircraft bombed places they estimated the road could not be by-passed, or the planes flew along above the roads, shooting machine guns and automatic cannons when they encountered Viet Minh supply columns. The Vietnamese countered with deception and defenses. Viet Minh convoys hid during the day, moving mostly at night, concealing parts of the road under canopies of foliage where the tops of trees were tied together. As for defenses, by the end of 1953, French intelligence detected four times as many antiaircraft gun positions in northern Vietnam as there had been a year earlier.
Dien Bien Phu became a struggle between French attempts to shut the supply lines and Vietnamese ones to keep them going. Defending routes or laboring on them were a core of 23,000 Viet Minh; moving supplies were 800 trucks and 75,000 porters. Hundreds of tons of French bombs failed to stem the flow. Arrival of those supplies meant that General Giap's artillery could close the airfield at Dien Bien Phu, greatly restricting French supplies and reinforcements, while Giap's infantry battered the perimeter of the French fortress. Gradually the French were strangled until, on May 7, 1954, their last positions fell to the Viet Minh.
The French people were not passive observers of these events. Frustration and war-weariness led many Frenchmen to demand an end to the fighting. There were antiwar demonstrations in Paris, Lyons, Marseilles, and elsewhere. At the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, when the French prime minister arrived to lay a wreath in memory of war dead, Indochina veterans jostled him. Negotiations on Indochina at Geneva, greatly affected by the fall of Dien Bien Phu, resulted in agreement for a French withdrawal. Hanoi would become capital of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Issues left behind from the French war had much to do with America's Vietnam war. Ho Chi Minh defined the French struggle as that of an elephant with a tiger. The elephant would be immensely powerful, but the tiger would not stand still, lurking in the jungle by day to emerge at night. Others, such as the novelist Jean Lartéguy, preferred the simile of the ant, and that proved peculiarly appropriate both at Dien Bien Phu and in the American war. The elephant would be capable of stamping ants to death by the thousand. But the ants would pursue their goal with a purposefulness that would drive the elephant to distraction, then defeat. The elephant would tire and be overwhelmed. Ants. No more, no less. The French fighting in Indochina never believed it. Then came Dien Bien Phu. Ants.
Americans forever insisted that their involvement in Vietnam would be nothing like that of the French. The United States was not out to acquire colonies, so colonialism was not a factor. Busily denying any similarities, Americans failed to learn from the Franco-Vietnamese war, including its metaphors. This was true in 1955, in the immediate aftermath of Geneva, when Washington collaborated with a new government in the southern part of the country, now styled South Vietnam. It remained true in 1965, when South Vietnam seemed at the point of collapse. In 1955 Washington and South Vietnam evaded the provisions of the Geneva agreements providing for reunification of Vietnam and universal elections within two years. In 1965 Washington stood at the brink of active military intervention to shore up the faltering South Vietnamese government.
Analogy to the French experience proved rather important in 1965, when Washington decided to move to full-scale war in Indochina. Lyndon B. Johnson, president of the United States, had been in the thick of the Dien Bien Phu crisis, as a key American legislator at the moment when American air strikes were suggested as a means to save the French. LBJ saw the French defeat. George W. Ball, one of President Johnson's senior diplomatic advisers in 1965, opposed any American decision for war on the basis of arguments drawn from the French failure.
President Johnson, assailed with doubts, would be reassured by his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy. Attempting to derail Ball's logic, "Mac" Bundy questioned whether France in 1954 was at all a "useful analogy" for the United States in Vietnam in 1965. According to Bundy, France had been "a colonial power seeking to reimpose its overseas rule, out of tune with Vietnamese nationalism, deeply divided in domestic opinion, politically unstable at home, the victim of seven years of warfare-the last four marked by military engagements on a scale far greater than anything yet encountered by the United States." Mac would come to rue those words, as would one of his key allies in this round of bureaucratic infighting, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. In 1965 neither of them questioned whether the American citizen was any more "in tune" with Vietnamese nationalism than had been the French. In a 1995 memoir, however, McNamara proceeded to argue that the Vietnam War became a tragedy for America precisely due to a failure to appreciate Vietnamese nationalism. But in 1965, before this introspection, McNamara sided with Mac Bundy's analysis that the United States remained politically strong and had options not available to the French in 1954. Lyndon Johnson accepted their thinking.
Like top American leaders, military men, diplomats, and intelligence officers, with a few notable exceptions, resisted the notion that the United States had anything to learn from the French experience. Thinking themselves innovators, Americans evolved many of the same tactics and techniques the French had used before them. This became ironic as the American war progressed, for Ho Chi Minh and his generals faced much the same problem as they had at Dien Bien Phu-the necessity to support warfare on remote battlefields-and their solution would be identical. As the indigenous guerrilla resistance in South Vietnam gained momentum, rekindled as early as 1958-1959, the situation increasingly commanded Hanoi's attention. At the time of Geneva a number of the Viet Minh in the South had elected to go North to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Now it seemed important in Hanoi to get those Southerners back into South Vietnam. Hanoi's device for doing so would create a fulcrum upon which hung the balance of the American war in Vietnam.
South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem had little good to say about French rule in Vietnam. Take roads, for example. Diem once told American officials that the French built roads in the interior only to serve their rubber plantations. There had been no meaningful development of transportation for the nation. Diem's remarks are not surprising, considering he had beat out a French-backed coup d'état in 1955 and that Diem's lack of a French colonial background was the strength that brought him to power in Saigon. The French had not only failed to build roads, they also had never provided the equipment necessary to maintain those that existed. "Every new road," Diem said, "opens up Vietnam economically and provides more benefits to the people." Meeting with Americans in Saigon and Washington, and with World Bank officials, Diem's agents constantly harped on bulldozers and dredges. Scooping out paths, reclaiming land to make them, as well as new Mekong River delta passages, seemed to be Diem's vision of the new Vietnam.
Ngo Dinh Diem could talk roads militarily, too. For the South Vietnam of that era, before the great guerrilla threat, the main danger was supposed to be a conventional attack down the spine of the Indochinese peninsula. Such an attack could come straight across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), or it could angle through Laos and Cambodia (see Map 1). Diem pushed for the improvement of Route 9, the lateral road behind the South Vietnamese side of the DMZ, as well as Route 14, a major thoroughfare in the Central Highlands, the most likely target in case Hanoi attacked farther to the south. Diem's army, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), kept two of its seven divisions below the DMZ, and another pair of these scarce units in the Highlands. In April 1960, when the question was the location of a new regimental base camp in the highlands, Diem involved himself directly with the American military advisory group, advocating a specific site in Kontum Province over another that was backed by a river. When Saigon learned that guerrillas were beginning to gather in areas along the Cambodian border, in late 1959 and 1960, Diem told the Americans he needed a road paralleling that border, which meant a construction project from the Gulf of Siam to the wilderness of the Central Highlands.
One of President Diem's pet projects, in the summer and fall of 1959, was a road linking Kontum with the Laotian provincial capital of Pakse. A river town on the middle Mekong, Pakse was the economic engine of lower Laos, dominating trade on the water as well as that of the upland tribes inhabiting the Bolovens Plateau. Pakse was home to one of the three schools in Laos offering a postprimary education, and to one of the most accessible airfields. The market town had good road links with the Bolovens and north and south in the Mekong River valley. Diem's vision was a road connecting Attopeu, at the eastern base of the Bolovens, with Route 14 in the Central Highlands. Only thirty miles separated the two places, and there was already a trail capable of improvement that entered South Vietnam in the vicinity of Dak To. The problem, Eisenhower administration officials told Diem's chief of staff, was that the bulk of the roadwork would be in Laos, and neither the Laotians nor United States aid had funds for such a project. Diem's road came to naught, victim of the realities of America's then-meager interest in Southeast Asia.
The dream, however, went on to become a nightmare. Diem and his successors wrestled with the thought that the other side, Hanoi, might complete the road and make it a boulevard to the overthrow of Saigon. Their apprehension was justified: it was a process that began immediately. Soon Saigon was detecting movements of persons and equipment through the Laotian panhandle southward. They understood that this could only be sustenance for the Viet Cong movement.
Expressions of concern showed in American exchanges with the South Vietnamese. The specter of a Hanoi march on Saigon colored thinking for the duration of the conflict. Perhaps the first words of terror were those of Nguyen Dinh Thuan, Diem's chief of staff, visiting Washington in April 1960. Thuan told U. S. diplomats of guerrillas infiltrating into South Vietnam from lower Laos, and of others carried past the DMZ in boats. The traffic had to be stopped. Thuan attributed Viet Cong successes to this support. His remarks reinforced concerns expressed by Diem himself, meeting the American ambassador before Thuan's trip. President Diem stressed the need to block Northerners crossing into South Vietnam-by building roads, airstrips, and waterways in inaccessible places along the borders.
At lunch on April 8 with the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Nguyen Dinh Thuan went farther in his dark recitations. Thuan told Charles P. Cabell and other CIA officers that lower Laos had gone "completely rotten." During French days the phrase Thuan used, "complètement pourri," had been regarded with particular fear. Nguyen Dinh Thuan, not to say Ngo Dinh Diem, would have been especially concerned to learn what North Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong had told the French consul in Hanoi a few months before. "You must remember we will be in Saigon tomorrow," Pham had said in September 1959, then repeated, "we will be in Saigon tomorrow." No one then knew how much lay behind that declaration.
Only those who made the decision can say what really happened in Hanoi. Everyone else is a mirror watcher. In Washington and the American press, some saw Hanoi's choice to back rebellion in South Vietnam as a result of struggle between pro-Chinese and pro-Russian factions of the ruling Lao Dong (Vietnam Workers') Party. Others viewed events as a competition between intellectual and agrarian party members; or the military versus the politicians; or said that none of this truly mattered. Whatever the actual cleavages among the authorities, the fact remains that Hanoi's choice came in the face of rival demands for scarce resources in the wake of the 1954 Geneva agreements.
Tonkin and the southern panhandle, the nucleus of what became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), had been heavily damaged during the French war and were not well developed even before it. Construction-Lao Dong ideologues called it "socialist rehabilitation"-and investment became keys to the future of the republic. This led to the disastrous land reform of 1955-1957, when forced collectivization, army security measures, and plain disorganization killed or starved 55,000 peasants, especially in the DRV panhandle, Ho Chi Minh's own birthplace. The glaring need for investment in North Vietnam also gave Hanoi reasons to reach out to China and Russia, each on one side of a deepening hostility transcending their political affinity.
Anything that happened in South Vietnam-even violation of the Geneva commitment to reunification of Vietnam-took place against the backdrop of the demands of development. Hanoi discounted in advance the failure to hold stipulated free elections by 1956. A Lao Dong Party plenum that April, several months ahead of the Geneva deadline, recognized that the schedule set in the agreement would not be met, that a new timetable was necessary, but that rural reconstruction remained the main priority. The Lao Dong specifically rejected violence as a strategy. A half dozen party convocations over the next several years reemphasized the needs of North Vietnam, advising southern cadres to bend their efforts to organizing peasants in the villages of South Vietnam.
The Saigon government did not just sit back to wait for things to happen. Military operations aimed at former Viet Minh were easy to tag on to those against armed religious sects that had threatened the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem. Specially targeted operations began in December 1955-there would be some activity of this kind under way somewhere in South Vietnam, at all times, for the next twenty years. The very phase "Viet Cong" originated during this period, a contraction of the words for Communist and the nation, Viet Nam Cong San, a pejorative label. Between late 1957 and early 1959 the Viet Cong lost half or more of all those killed, missing, or arrested in the years since Geneva. It has been estimated that attrition cut the ranks of southern cadres by two thirds, from 15,000 to 5,000. Regional party committees in the Far South and, in 1958, the central regional committee as well, appealed to Hanoi for instructions to resume former guerrilla ways. After mid-1958, Lao Dong party histories affirm, local cadres made practically no headway in South Vietnam.
Despite all pleas from the South, as late as December 1958 DRV prime minister Pham Van Dong still declared prospects improved for peaceful reunification, supposedly due to a more relaxed international climate. The DRV offered to negotiate arms reductions with Saigon, but the Diem government dismissed such diplomacy as propaganda. In retrospect it seems that the pressure on Hanoi to act on the cadres' problems had become intolerable and that a final gambit was being made to avoid confrontation with Diem. Hanoi's dilemma was further sharpened in that its ally in Laos, recently forced out of government, had also begun to beg for assistance.
Just a month later, a new Vietnamese party conference adopted a resolution calling for support to the revolution in the South. "Resolution 15," this product of the fifteenth plenum of the Lao Dong Party, amounted to a decision to help the Viet Cong even if that meant fighting Diem's South Vietnamese army. Not only that; by now the United States had become well established in Saigon. Pham Van Dong did not care. There was surprising vehemence in the words Pham uttered to a Western diplomat, who promptly passed them along to Washington. Firmly and evenly Pham Van Doing had said, "We will drive the Americans into the sea."
It was a Tuesday, a few months after "Resolution 15," that Colonel Vo Bam sat in his office, plodding through the monotony of the day. Bam was anxious to get through the routine-it was Ho Chi Minh's birthday, May 19, festivities had been prepared. A supply specialist with the Ministry of Defense, Vo Bam was senior enough to be invited to some of the more interesting receptions. Suddenly the telephone rang on his desk. Colonel Bam found himself summoned to the Party Central Military Committee. There Bam found Major General Nguyen Van Vinh, a permanent member of the committee. After a few moments exchanging pleasantries and light banter, Vinh got down to business.
"Under instructions from the Political Bureau and on behalf of the Party Central Military Committee," General Vinh declared, "I hereby entrust you with the task of organizing a special military communication line to send supplies to the revolution in the South and create conditions for its development."
Colonel Bam was startled at this mandate and impressed with its seriousness. He began to take out his notepad to record the specifics of his assignment, only to be stopped by Vinh.
"Don't take notes," said the general. "From now on, you'll have to commit to memory all briefings about your work."
The supply line was to be created outside the normal chain of command, and directly under the Central Military Committee. Nguyen Van Vinh told Vo Bam the committee would put him in contact with people and units necessary to the mission, that the men who would work for him (no more than five hundred to start) were to be selected from Vietnamese who had regrouped to the DRV after Geneva, and that any weapons had to be taken from stocks captured from the French during the 1945-1954 war. The words "special trail" were used, and General Vinh envisioned this as an avenue to move not only arms and medical supplies but also soldiers and cadres. Initially The Trail was to be confined inside the borders of Vietnam proper; that is, it had either to cross the Ben Hai River or another sector of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Vietnams.
Vo Bam had fought during the anti-French war in Annam, the central portion of Vietnam, an area the Viet Minh had called "Interzone 5," which made him familiar with the terrain now become the DMZ. Being a veteran of many unusual assignments, Bam was also familiar with the requirements of special operations. Bam began that very afternoon with a further briefing from an old Interzone 5 commander, Tran Luong, now in charge of helping build the Viet Cong under supervision of DRV Politburo member Le Duan. Luong told Vo Bam the immediate need for 1959 was to move 7,000 weapons, including light machine guns, and 500 persons, among them soldiers up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Again Luong put emphasis on secrecy.
"This route must be kept absolutely secret," Luong ordered. "It must not be allowed to become a beaten path-that is, not a single footprint, cigarette butt, or broken twig may be left on it after the men's passage."
Vo Bam began by selecting his driver and was given a Vietnam People's Army (VPA) command car, a GAZ-69 of Russian manufacture. He used the vehicle to visit various VPA military zone commanders as well as those units composed of Southerners. Only commanders and their political officers were told the purpose of the visits. Colonel Bam soon chose the VPA 305th Division to furnish his initial manpower.
Stationed north of Hanoi and the Red River delta, the VPA 305th Division (some sources identify it as a brigade) numbered among six large Vietnam People's Army units created after Geneva and formed from the 90,000 Viet Minh who had regrouped to the DRV. The 305th had originally been stationed in the Vietnamese panhandle-an area important to Vo Bam-but had moved to the more northerly base as early as February 1956. Division commander Colonel Nguyen Minh Chau and his political commissar, Colonel Nguyen Duong, conducted vigorous jungle training, combat tactics, farm construction, agricultural work, and military modernization. Vo Bam's assignment would take away a significant portion of their manpower, yet the unit commanders did not mind-as the VPA organizer recalled, he had only to mention his purpose was to help the comrades in the South, and all objections melted away.
Nguyen Danh was a political officer with the division when Colonel Bam visited in May 1959. Danh liked to look at the brick houses perched on the hillsides north and east of Phu Tho, the division base; he thought them a romantic and beautiful tableau, perhaps also a symbol of permanence and stability. He had been admiring that vista when called to the commander's office, where he found his political officer in the anteroom. The commissar introduced Danh to another colonel, a man from Hanoi, Vo Bam. It soon became clear that Bam's orders represented the end of stability and the beginning of a great adventure, for Nguyen Danh was to help open The Trail.
Political officer Danh and a friend, unit commander Chu Dang Chu, were given the pick of the division's personnel and settled on 308 men for a new VPA 301st Battalion, the first formation assigned to the Central Military Committee's secret operation. The 301st members were issued uniforms different from those of the VPA-pajamalike costumes, Vo Bam recounts-and scored village flea markets for backpacks, canteens, and other items left over from the French war. Chu and Danh marshaled their men within a week and got them aboard a train to Thanh Hoa. From there the 301st moved by truck to Vinh Linh, a village on the Ben Hai River just above the Demilitarized Zone. Headquarters of the VPA 341st Division, then busy cutting firewood, Vinh Linh at first seemed to hinder the assignment. Men of the 301st were obliged to chop wood also, but matters were quickly straightened out, and the wood details continued just for physical hardening as Vo Bam's confederates awaited the results of preliminary scouting parties.
Colonel Vo Bam personally came to Vinh Linh to study the situation. Among others he met with two Viet Cong comrades from the South named Hanh and Quyet, who briefed Bam on conditions in Quang Tri and Thua Thien Provinces below the DMZ. Vo Bam began with the idea that supplies would be handed over to the Viet Cong at a point north of the Ben Hai (see Map 2), but Comrade Hanh swiftly disabused the Hanoi colonel of any such notion. The Viet Cong had no porters, scouts, liaison men, or rice to feed them, Hanh argued, so leaving weapons where the Viet Cong would have to move them would be no better than giving nothing at all.
Vo Bam quickly revised the plans. Initially men were to enter South Vietnam and follow Route 9, the road past Khe Sanh, which links the Vietnamese coastal plain with the Mekong River Valley at Savannakhet in Laos. Southern cadres worried, however, that Saigon's soldiers patrolled Route 9 day and night, and that Protestant missionaries with the Bru tribesmen around Khe Sanh would discover the 301st Battalion supply parties and betray them to local ARVN commanders. Vo Bam knew that during the anti-French war leaders of Interzone 5 had created a supply line called the "Reunification Trail" along the western boundaries of Vietnam from the Central Highlands north. Something like that now seemed necessary, although Bam worried that ARVN possessed a "fairly dense network" of outposts in the region and sent police spies to watch the borders. A few trips a year, well organized and carefully prepared, could work. In June 1959 Bam planned a system that would cross Route 9 and leave it behind, with weapons actually handed over to the Viet Cong at a point three "stations" farther south. There would be nine such stations, or way points, at which infiltration parties could halt and rest, two of them inside the DRV and the others successively farther south.
Equipping infiltrators with local clothes and possessions, palm hats to pajamas, stories and dialects, became the rule as The Trail system took root. But even at the beginning there was great care taken by the bo dois, the VPA soldiers, who were making the supply marches down The Trail. The relay stations were nothing more than clearings in the woods, and these had to be changed every few days to prevent the South Vietnamese from discovering their presence. Supplying the bo dois on the march, as at Dien Bien Phu, was an exceedingly thorny problem. At first Chu Dang Chu's unit resorted to starting each stage by carrying only rice to the next relay station. Then they would march back to pick up their load of weapons or ammunition-each man carried a bundle of four rifles or a forty-four-pound box of ammunition. The first infiltration down The Trail began on June 10, 1959. It was the height of the rainy season in this part of Vietnam, which usually lasts from June through September. The bo doi had nothing more than sheeted plastic over his head to keep out the rain, and it was the same sheeted plastic the VPA soldiers used to cover their tracks whenever they crossed a road, such as Route 9. General Nguyen Van Vinh had approved Vo Bam's recommendation that The Trail cross Route 9, and the North Vietnamese were going to make sure those supplies reached the Viet Cong. Nevertheless, the first Trail mission proved a miserable affair.
Determination paid off. On August 20, Hanoi received a message from the South that said simply, "ALL GOODS DELIVERED SAFELY." Later, the detailed report added an account of the meeting between the 301st Battalion patrol and a member of the standing committee of Interzone 5, a meeting at the head of the A Shau valley, a point roughly a hundred miles' march from Vinh Linh. This supply trek at the height of the rainy season marked the beginning of what became infamous during the Vietnam War as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail."
None of the bo dois, neither Vo Bam the careful planner, nor the operators Chu Dang Chu and Nguyen Danh, nor their scouts, laborers, security men, or liaison personnel, knew they were creating in the wilds of the Demilitarized Zone a road to Saigon. What began here grew more important than anyone could have dreamed that high rainy season. The trailblazers focused on their immediate world, the grueling necessity of taming the wilderness, the special demands of doing everything in secret. So careful were the North Vietnamese they restored the leaves on the ground to their previous pattern to mask their passage.
Le Duan was only one among Hanoi's leaders mightily pleased when Vo Bam completed his first mission to succor the Viet Cong. Soon afterward, on September 12, Vo Bam's unit was given a name, the 559th Transportation Group, the numerals being those of the month and year the orders were issued to help the South. More elements of the Vo Bam plan were adopted by the Central Military Committee, including the need to have a seaborne finger to the infiltration system. Hanoi now created a parallel Transportation Group, to handle movement by sea. Near Dong Hoi a fresh secret unit, the 603rd Battalion, began building boats that could pass for typical South Vietnamese fishing craft. Unfortunately for Hanoi, there was just no way to disguise the impact of its help for the Viet Cong. Actual discovery of a VPA presence in the South could only be a matter of time.
The trailmakers worried about standard security matters. One was the South Vietnamese Army's patrols along Route 9 below the Demilitarized Zone. This was a false issue, for the ARVN did nothing more than sporadic patrolling into this country, and Saigon had stopped maintaining Route 9 itself. The westernmost district, the one that included the coffee plantations of Khe Sanh, mostly sold its coffee to the markets at Savannakhet, at the Laotian end of Route 9. Another Hanoi worry, avoiding use of equipment attributable to the DRV, would be obviated because the South Vietnamese, once they discovered infiltration, would be in no doubt whence it came. The main effect would be to delay the day Saigon had concrete evidence of a North Vietnamese presence.
Meanwhile, Vo Bam again visited Chu Dang Chu's 301st Battalion zone to measure progress of the supply effort. Colonel Bam traveled with one of the columns to see conditions for himself. The 301st Battalion main base was at a village called Khe Ho, west of Vinh Linh. There was also an alternate center disguised as a state cattle farm at Bang, in westernmost Quang Binh Province. Chu's 301st had a dozen platoons, several manning posts extending through the DRV, most of the rest distributed on the network into South Vietnam. A few consisted of scouts, reserves, and selected specialists. There were seven way stations inside South Vietnam.
Vo Bam's infiltration party walked four days just to reach the last relay station before the DMZ. That part of the inspection was easy, since within the Democratic Republic the Chu unit had the use of trucks, thirty horses, and three elephants to move food and the heaviest equipment. Crossing the DMZ and Route 9 was done at night, and the infiltrators watched breathlessly for a long time before setting out. Like the others, Bam trod over a sheet of plastic, which the patrol then reeled up behind them. Bam found the "stations" were merely places where people had agreed to meet. Colonel Bam returned to Hanoi convinced the 301st Battalion needed more men to work effectively. Hanoi readily agreed.
Disaster struck near Khe Sanh early in 1960. North Vietnamese parties were accustomed to cutting across Route 9 there, where coffee plantations permitted a concealed approach to the road that was not too arduous. One night the men of Station 5, worn out from a lengthy trek, marched through a plantation but left behind a bundle of four French-made MAS-36 rifles. The next morning the woman owner of the plantation and her overseer, walking their grounds, found the lost rifles. South Vietnamese troops moved to Khe Sanh and began a regiment-sized clearing operation. The 559th Group instantly halted all infiltration activity.
For Hanoi the halt could not have come at a worse time. The Lao Dong Party stood on the verge of deciding to support creation of a National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam. Southern guerrilla forces were recovering from recent losses, and had picked up their pace of kidnappings and assassinations of Diem government local officials. Le Duan, Politburo member for the South, advised that the Viet Cong had become strong enough to carry out guerrilla warfare in South Vietnam's Central Highlands, but could move to open armed struggle in the region of the DMZ and the old imperial capital of Hue.
Hanoi's leaders gave new orders when Colonel Vo Bam reported on the obstacles facing the 301st Battalion. It was Le Duan who suggested finding a passage that would not attract Saigon's attention. Vo Bam realized a supply route could also run down the western side of the Truong Son mountain range, the Annamites, entering South Vietnamese territory from Laos, avoiding all the problems of DMZ infiltration. Such a route simply required going through the panhandle of lower Laos. By January 1961 southern organizer Tran Luong could tell Vo Bam he had instructions to clear the idea with the Laotian Communist Party.
While political decisions were made, the 559th Group continued to solve practical difficulties. One of the biggest was ensuring weapons arrived in good condition despite monsoons or other weather and physical conditions. The group took over a former French post in Kim Lu village at the edge of Hanoi. With a central blockhouse and some smaller bunkers, Kim Lu became the warehouse for supplies to The Trail. As for weapons in good working order, Vo Bam's group, about to begin experiments, heard that a cache of old French weapons had just been found that the former adversaries had left behind; these could be used for the new guerrilla movement. The 559th asked for some of the guns and ammunition, then analyzed how these had been packed. Vo Bam's men carefully packed some of their own equipment the same way, then deliberately dropped the boxes into the waiters of an isolated river. Fished up a month later, the bullets and guns were found in fine condition. There was no rust. Vo Bam had solved his packing problems.
In early 1961, with approval from the Laotian Communists, Hanoi made its final decision to extend The Trail into Laos. Vo Bam's transport group would march in behind a major Vietnam People's Army foray that removed any threat from Royal Laotian Army outposts in the region. The Dien Bien Phu campaign happened to be the closest available model to what the VPA was about to do. There was also a parallel in the French war for a military drive through lower Laos. That was the 1953-1954 march of two Viet Minh regiments through Laos into Cambodia. The troops had crossed the Annamite Mountains, trekked through lower Laos, and finally entered northern Cambodia. The path taken by this expedition-passes used, staging areas, water points, roads and trails followed-provided the first kernel of knowledge the VPA used to create its Ho Chi Minh Trail, known in Vietnam as the "Truong Son Strategic Supply Route." Once Vo Bam and the other VPA unit commanders called for the earlier records, the data were revealed to them. Vietnam People's Army combat units duly swept into lower Laos in the spring of 1961. Major Laotian army garrisons were left in place, but the countryside between them passed into the hands of the North Vietnamese.
Leaders of the 301st Battalion soon reconfigured The Trail to pass through Laos. Conditions were harsh and remained so. Nguyen Danh spent three years with the 301st, suffering through the forest clearing "stations," miserable monsoons, the malaria, the constant hunger. There were no houses, tents, or even roofs, except at the base camps in North Vietnam. Food invariably consisted of rice and salt, nothing more. Letters home were collected but once a month, and were trekked back to the post office at Quang Binh; replies posted to bo dois on The Trail were returned care of the postmaster at Quang Binh. Exchange of a letter could take a season or more. Yet morale stayed high. Danh and the other men of the 559th Transport Group felt they were liberating the South.
The weapons and supplies beginning to filter around Vietnam's Demilitarized Zone were not all that much for desperate southern cadres beset by President Diem's troops. By Nguyen Dang's own account the first shipment could not have amounted to more than a few hundred rifles plus ammunition. Among an active Viet Cong resistance movement of perhaps 5,000, spread throughout South Vietnam, the effect was psychological more than anything else. Arrival of new weapons had a direct impact only in the regions where the equipment was distributed-below the DMZ and in the provinces just south-Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, and those of the Central Highlands. There the Viet Cong made a start with raids on outposts and isolated units of the ARVN.
As early as January 1960 the American consul at Hue encountered widespread fear when he visited Kontum in the highlands. The chief of Kontum's northernmost district told the consul that within a three-week period Viet Cong had persuaded to move or forcibly ejected several tribal villages in his area. The Kontum Province militia chief and the district boss both felt the Viet Cong were establishing a big jungle base in the mountains beyond the point where Route 14, the high road through the Central Highlands, wound to its end. The American official tried to see for himself, but could not reach the village at the end of the road, because a militia unit patrolling ahead of him came under fire from Viet Cong in the surrounding hills.
These kinds of concerns cast in doubt President Diem's ambitious plans for new roads such as a Kontum-Pakse highway. Work on that road ceased somewhere west of Dak To, short of where it would have crossed the Laotian border. On Route 14 itself, fairly heavily traveled, there were fewer problems and a lot more ARVN troops around, so the threat of the Viet Cong at first seemed remote, a specter deep in the hills, not a present danger on the road and in the village.
But while ARVN soldiers in the highlands might still take a relatively relaxed view of what was happening, in Saigon both Diem and the higher levels of the U. S. embassy and military advisory group exhibited growing concern. There had been confidence in 1959 and even early 1960, but a startling incident occurred in late January in the Mekong River delta area, where four separate Viet Cong companies coordinated their actions to overrun the headquarters of the ARVN 32nd Regiment. Officers and officials, both American and South Vietnamese, were soon trading accounts of disturbing incidents and trends.
"The Communists," Nguyen Dinh Thuan told a group of American diplomats in April 1960, "have started a major offensive in Vietnam." Diem's troubleshooter attributed recent Viet Cong successes not to conditions in the Mekong delta but to "the deterioration of the military situation in southern Laos." Just a few days later, Thuan met a group of CIA officers and remarked on "the ease with which Viet Minh agents could infiltrate by various routes."
Diplomatic channels brought further intelligence from French sources in Hanoi. Given the isolation of foreign embassies in the North Vietnamese capital, much such information proved little better than rumor, but in early 1960 the French reported VPA troop movements west of Vinh, in the panhandle area and toward Laos. Needless to say, Vo Bam's trailblazers had gone right through Vinh on their way to the DMZ operating area, and Hanoi was by this time assembling and dispatching units of infiltrators to march South. That the intelligence was more than apocryphal is indicated by further similar reports the French furnished toward the end of 1960, when the North Vietnamese were indeed shifting forces prior to a decision to expand and regularize the communications network they were creating.
One major alternative to The Trail through Laos was the possibility of bringing people or supplies into the South by sea. This also would be recognized by many as a threat from this early date. Not only Nguyen Dinh Thuan but also Diem personally pressed the United States for large numbers of patrol boats the South Vietnamese could use to, in effect, blockade their own coast. Lieutenant General Samuel T. Williams, the senior U. S. military adviser in South Vietnam, did not believe coastal patrols (even with much larger numbers of boats) could be effective without coastwatchers on shore, but he acknowledged the need and supported that request in Washington. Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow was also doubtful. "I recalled we had not been able to control bootleggers," Durbrow reported to Washington, "because [our] population was against [the Prohibition] law." A plan for counterinsurgency in Vietnam proposed by the commander in chief Pacific (CINCPAC) later spoke of "border and coastal patrol operations" as being "fundamental to the campaign to prevent insurgents receiving support from areas outside South Vietnam."
Whatever the cloak of secrecy Hanoi used to shroud its support for the southern cadres, by 1960 this had worn exceedingly thin. At the beginning of the year ARVN Rangers surprised one of the North Vietnamese scouting parties, a cell of three men, and wounded and captured Truong, the VPA soldier who stayed to cover his comrades' retreat. Superiors are confident that Truong revealed nothing before his death, and have memorialized this man as the first to die on the road South, but it did not matter. Not long afterward, a Viet Cong company commander, as well as a senior sergeant of the 603rd Battalion, both captured in Quang Ngai Province, not only spoke of a communications network with the North but also revealed the identity of Group 559, the top-secret unit led by Colonel Vo Bam. Group 959, the parallel naval unit that handled Hanoi's maritime infiltration program, also became known during 1960. The North Vietnamese special units, as well as the date of May 1959 in connection with Hanoi's decision to establish an infiltration network, were being discussed in U. S. military documents before the end of 1960. So much for Vo Bam's secrecy.
Knowledge of the nascent North Vietnamese infiltration network on the American side was extensive enough that it became a subject for intelligence predictions. The CIA on August 23, 1960, released one in its series of Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIE) that dealt with short-term trends in South Vietnam. The SNIE observed: "Support from North Vietnam appears to have increased over the past several months. In particular, senior cadres and military supplies such as communications equipment are believed to be moving south through Laos and Cambodia and by junk along the eastern coastline."
President Diem had spent much of 1959 and 1960 trying to win U. S. approval of, and aid money for, a 20,000-man increase in the size of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. American advisers had had varying opinions, and were most united behind another project, one to establish a special ARVN Ranger force. Before the end of 1960, however, Diem was using the infiltration problem as justification for a troop increase, and the Americans were explicitly linking the postulated large expansion in the ARVN Ranger program with the need to control South Vietnam's borders.
Saigon's dilemma was larger than whether it ought to field some new troops. Planners with the military advisory group put it well:
The Viet Cong infiltrate into South Vietnam by use of overland trails through Laos and Cambodia as well as seagoing junks and sampans from North Vietnam to transit the coastal waters into inland rivers, staging or regrouping areas. To prevent this infiltration, the [Diem government] must have a firmer control of its frontiers. Frontiers which, because of the great length, ill-defined boundaries, and the nature of the terrain coupled with the political failure of the countries concerned to reach agreement on policing of borders make the military task of preventing infiltration almost insurmountable . . . this infiltration of both land and sea frontiers must be prevented by use of military land, sea, and air action together with political action if the [South Vietnamese are] to be expected to successfully deny the use of these access routes.
Aside from lumping together the Vietnamese of the DRV and those of the growing Viet Cong movement, this opinion from the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), which Ambassador Durbrow forwarded to Washington on November 30, 1960, captured the essence of the problem that was to confront Hanoi's adversaries for the next fifteen years.
It is significant that the problem of the frontiers was posed at the very outset of the Vietnam War. This would not be some conundrum stumbled upon inadvertently, at the last moment, once the situation was critical and it was too late. Rather, American leaders, generals, and civilian strategists knew of the problem of the frontiers from the outset and literally spent years devising programs to seal South Vietnam's borders and coast. In fact, the generals and strategists held a view of guerrilla warfare that actually conditioned them to focus more sharply on the frontiers. Theories of insurgency popular at the time held that successful guerrillas were not simply angry men and women with a cause, but local movements that relied on outside support. To evoke anew the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, who argued that revolutionary forces were like fish swimming in the sea, if one could dam up the water, the fish would then flop uselessly in the mud of the ocean floor. Americans set out to do just that-to isolate the revolutionary Viet Cong from the base of support in North Vietnam. In a very real sense the course of the Vietnam War became a competition between Hanoi's efforts to create and sustain an umbilical cord and American attempts to cut that cord or at least obstruct it.
Capture of Saigon would be the goal, which meant reunification of the nation in the minds of Northerners, the overthrow of a despotic regime according to the lights of many Viet Cong. The Diem government and several successive South Vietnamese juntas saw Hanoi's umbilical cord, and the breaching of the frontiers, as the approach of a terrifying nemesis. South Vietnamese governments would struggle to avoid Hanoi's conditions of victory, and would watch the growth of the umbilical cord with swelling horror.
It is ironic, of a piece with much of what happened in Vietnam, that the American MAAG planners of 1960 had no illusions regarding South Vietnamese ability to halt the infiltration from the North. "Better utilization by the [South Vietnamese] of current military resources can somewhat diminish this traffic but cannot stop it," the planners had written. In 1960 the key elements of the dilemma seemed to be increasing military effectiveness to counter the frontier's porousness, and inducing the Diem government to take diplomatic initiatives with neighboring Cambodia and Laos that might lead those nations to help seal the borders. Over time the components of the dilemma would change, but the border problem as a whole did not. American strategy throughout the Vietnam War would wrestle with the border problem, making the frontiers as expensive to cross as possible for Hanoi, as impermeable as possible, in essence an effort to isolate the battlefield. American strategy would become isolation of the battlefield plus something else, that something being whatever panacea leaders and generals agreed on at the moment. The effort to bar the frontiers would be a constant in U. S. strategy.
On the other side of the hill the ants, once embarked on their task, difficult as it was, worked with steady, painstaking effort. Constantly reminding themselves of the dream, reunification of Vietnam, the historic mission, the ants overcame obstacles one after another. Vo Bam and his cohorts started with a primitive trail and way stations, but it was a functional umbilical susceptible to improvement. The U. S. military and CIA quickly took notice that infiltration was becoming a real factor. American diplomats, too, reported in the same vein; lower Laos was "plainly a gateway to Southeast Asia." The competition between Hanoi's plans to improve The Trail, and American plans to bar the frontier, very quickly became rather fierce.
Table of Contents
"Plainly a Gateway to Southeast Asia": 1954-1960.
Ants and Elephants: 1961-1962.
The Watershed: 1962-1963.
The Battle Joined: 1963-1964.
Dark Road Ahead: 1964-1965.
The World and The 'Nam.
Squeezing Hanoi: 1965-1966.
Indian Country: 1966-1967.
Forks in the Road: 1967.
Fire in the Night: 1968.
Pinball Wizards: 1968-1969.
A Strategy of Force: 1969-1970.
No Plug in the Funnel: 1971.
The Road Turns South: 1971-1975.