The Control War: The Struggle for South Vietnam, 1968-1975

The Control War: The Struggle for South Vietnam, 1968-1975

by Martin G. Clemis

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The Vietnam War—a conflict defined by an ever-evolving mixture of conventional and guerrilla warfare and mass politics—has often been called a “war without fronts.” In fact, Vietnam had a multitude of fronts, as insurgents and counterinsurgents wrestled for control throughout 44 provinces, 250 districts, and more than 11,000 hamlets. In The Control War, Martin G. Clemis focuses on South Vietnam, where a highly complex politico-military struggle fragmented the battlefield along countless divergent points of conflict as both sides sought spatial and political hegemony.

Complicating the conventional view that the Vietnam War was about winning “hearts and minds,” Clemis argues that both sides were more interested in asserting control over the people—and resources—of the countryside. As in other revolutionary civil conflicts, the key to winning political power in South Vietnam was to control the physical world of territory, population, and resources, as well as the ideational world of political organization and long-term legitimacy. Despite their countervailing purposes, both insurgency and pacification provided the means to exert this control. Proponents of each approach pursued the same goals, relying on a blend of military force, political violence, and socioeconomic policy to achieve them.

Revealing the unique spatiality of the Vietnam War, The Control War analyzes the ways that both sides of the conflict conceptualized and used geography and the environment to serve strategic, tactical, and political ends. Clemis shows us that the operational environment of Vietnam, both natural and human-made, was far more than a backdrop to two decades of war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806161204
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/26/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Martin G. Clemis is Assistant Professor of History and Government at Valley Forge Military College and a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. His articles have been published in Army History Magazine and Small Wars and Insurgencies.

Read an Excerpt



Control of a geographic part of the state is a manifesto proclaiming: "We have arrived. We are ready to replace the existing government."

— Robert McColl, The Insurgent State, 1969

Communist revolutionary warfare relied heavily on the strategic use of geography and the environment. In Southeast Asia, Hanoi and the National Liberation Front incorporated lessons from the communists' struggle for power in China as well as from Vietnam's long history of war and resistance against foreign invaders into their own method of revolution. The result was a unique strategy that conceptualized space and shaped the operational environment to serve political, military, and strategic objectives. During the Second Indochina War, the Vietnamese communists pursued a territorial imperative to produce, expand, and ultimately control politico-military space and the operational environment through the development of base areas, war zones, communist-dominated villages and hamlets, and other forms of insurgent terrain. The purpose of this spatial approach was to create and grow an insurgent "antistate" within the national boundaries of the RVN, one that would "liberate" South Vietnam by gradually expanding communist influence and control over territory and population while simultaneously shrinking Saigon's hold on the countryside. The overall objective was to overthrow the existing regime by steadily eroding government control over the state.


Control of the operational environment and the places where physical and human geography merge had been a central tenet of communist revolutionary warfare since its inception. In the 1930s and 1940s, as the Chinese communists struggled against both the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) and the Japanese, Mao Zedong developed an ad hoc theory of revolutionary war founded on mass politics and the peasantry. This theory hinged on three sequential stages that progressed upward from grassroots political organizing to insurgency to conventional war. Mao's theory was unique not only because of its synthesis of political and military action and fusion of Marxism-Leninism, guerrilla warfare, and peasant-based rural revolution, but because the successful execution of an agrarian "people's" war rested on intangible as well as material factors. The production of politico-military space and control of the environment lay at the core of these intangibles. "When the invader pierces deep into the heart of the weaker country and occupies her territory in a cruel and oppressive manner," Mao wrote, "there is no doubt that conditions of terrain, climate, and society in general offer obstacles to his progress and may be used to advantage by those who oppose him. In guerrilla warfare, we turn these advantages to the purpose of resisting and defeating the enemy."

Mao believed revolutionary guerrilla warfare was the key to enabling a relatively weak and undeveloped power the means to defeat a much stronger and well-equipped adversary. "Guerrilla warfare," he wrote during China's War of Resistance against Japan, "is a weapon that a nation inferior in arms and military equipment may employ against a more powerful aggressor nation." Because revolutionary or anti-colonial wars of national liberation were by nature asymmetrical, Mao emphasized spatial and immaterial factors in addition to measurable factors such as weapons systems, supply, and manpower. As Harvard University professor Edward L. Katzenbach noted in 1956, Mao constructed his blueprint for revolutionary guerrilla war on three primary intangibles: space, time, and will.

The first of these, space, involved the development of guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines and the establishment of a network of guerrilla bases throughout enemy territory. The purpose of these two elements, Mao argued, was to "dominate the spaces"— that is, to geographically grow guerrilla territory while shrinking areas occupied by the enemy. According to Mao, base areas were an indispensable and fundamental part of revolutionary war. To begin with, they allowed insurgent forces to survive and carry out protracted warfare against a well-armed and entrenched occupying force. Base areas, he wrote, "are the strategic bases on which the guerrilla forces rely in performing their strategic tasks and achieving the object of preserving and expanding themselves and destroying and driving out the enemy. Without strategic bases, there will be nothing to depend on in carrying out any of our strategic tasks or achieving the aim of the war. ... Guerrilla warfare could not last long or grow without base areas." A system of interlocking rural base areas also opened up venues for attacking the enemy by allowing insurgent activity to develop throughout enemy-occupied territory. Such a system transformed the enemy's "rear" into a fighting "front" and forced him to fight ceaselessly throughout the territory he controlled. Moreover, it preserved guerrilla forces while simultaneously overextending and exhausting the enemy through incessant attack and harassment at multiple geographical points. "The establishment of innumerable ... bases behind the enemy's lines," Mao declared, "will force him to fight unceasingly in many places at once, both to his front and his rear. He thus endlessly spends his resources. ... We must make war everywhere and cause dispersal of his forces and dissipation of his strength." Aside from protecting revolutionary forces and providing a platform for launching offensive military operations, rural base areas and other terrain provided the means to marshal resources and grow the revolution. The ability to control China's operational environment and build base areas provided Mao and the communists the manpower and material resources necessary to raise an army and fight the Kuomintang; it also established an appropriate space to build a mass political movement throughout the countryside, one based on the tenets of Marxism-Leninism and built on the widespread support and participation of the peasantry.

The spatial techniques developed by Mao had become fundamental tenets of revolutionary warfare during the "long twilight struggle" of the Cold War. As Robert Taber famously noted in 1965, "Analogically, the guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog's disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. If the war continues long enough ... the dog succumbs to exhaustion and anemia without ever having found anything on which to close his jaws or to rake with his claws." Base areas and insurgent-controlled terrain formed the terrestrial foundation on which the "war of the flea" was fought, and the means for guerrillas to exploit the "dog's disadvantages" and exhaust their enemies through incessant attack at innumerable geographical points. This held true both for Mao and for those that adhered to his theory of revolutionary warfare in the decades that followed.

The second intangible, time, rested on space. The construction of an interlocking and expanding system of rural base areas, along with the establishment of guerrilla warfare throughout enemy-occupied territory, allowed the revolution to survive and grow despite its material deficiencies and in spite of concerted counterrevolutionary efforts to destroy it. The perseverance of the revolutionary movement stretched the conflict out across time and created the conditions for what Mao coined "protracted war." Protraction of the conflict, in turn, facilitated the development or erosion of political will, Mao's third intangible factor. As the war turned into a prolonged struggle, and territory under the control of the revolution expanded, popular support for the movement, along with the will of the people to resist and fight the enemy, would grow stronger. In this way, the revolution gathered strength and propagated. Conversely, incessant guerrilla attacks throughout enemy-occupied territory overextended the enemy's forces, weakened his strategic posture, and eroded his will to fight. Thus, while communist guerrillas were materially weak, at least initially, they were able to overcome this handicap and grow stronger as the conflict progressed. The presence and political will of their adversary, meanwhile, atrophied. In China, the ability to control both the operational environment and the tempo of war proved key to the Chinese Communist Party's transition from a small and relatively weak assemblage of guerrillas and political cadres to a well-organized, well-equipped, and viable politico-military movement with a large conventional military. Ultimately, the ability to control these two factors created a favorable set of conditions that allowed the Chinese revolution to grow in strength, build the Red Army, transition from a guerrilla to a conventional war, defeat its enemies (both foreign and domestic), and seize political power through armed force.

Space, time, and will were profoundly important to the Vietnamese communists and their revolution as well. As pointed out by former British officer turned counterinsurgency pundit Sir Robert Thompson, Mao's three intangibles were fundamental to the VWP's approach to people's war. Building revolutionary space through a network of base areas and developing an insurgency throughout South Vietnam, Thompson argued, laid the foundation for prolonging the war and subsequently breaking the political will of the RVN and its American ally. The spatial objective of Hanoi and the NLF, Thompson noted, was to expand the communists' presence and/or influence "throughout the length and breadth of Vietnam and into every element of its society so that the government [was] threatened in every quarter." Similarly, communist pronouncements argued that the objective of revolutionary forces was to spread insurgency everywhere. "The only way to cope with an enemy who has a large number of troops," read a 1969 resolution issued by the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), the organ in charge of the southern insurgency, "is to wage guerrilla warfare throughout the three strategic areas [mountains, lowlands, cities], to wear down and destroy the enemy on a continuing basis; to compel the more than one million enemy troops to stretch thin, to reduce the enemy to a situation where his troops are thinly dispersed, his forces and war facilities are decimated, his fighting stamina is worn out, and his morale and organization collapse." This statement not only supported Thompson's claim that the territorial aim of the insurgency was to extend itself everywhere; it also validated Mao's dictum that the key to revolutionary guerrilla warfare was exhausting and disintegrating enemy forces through constant pressure over a wide geographical area.

Base areas and other revolutionary terrain provided a foundation for prolonging the war and stretching it out over time. During the Second Indochina War, the protection and concealment they provided allowed the NLF to survive despite its material deficiencies. Survival, in turn, allowed them to sustain the revolution. Time also allowed for a measure of strategic flexibility by enabling the techniques of guerrilla warfare. When an opportunity presented itself, the Vietnamese communists advanced. When the strategic situation was unfavorable, they took one step back. American analyst Thomas C. Thayer argued that the communist insurgency survived a grueling war of attrition against two militarily superior powers because it followed this formula. In the end, the ability to control when, where, and under what conditions combat would occur enabled the communists to control their losses and endure. "They held the initiative in this respect, not the allies," he wrote. The "vastly superior" military forces of the RVN and the United States, he argued, "found it impossible to pin down and defeat an enemy who chose to avoid combat." The Vietnamese communists' capacity to wage protracted guerrilla warfare and survive depended on their use and control of the operational environment. Hanoi and the NLF's extensive and frequent use of base areas, sanctuaries, and other forms of insurgent terrain was a key aspect of their ability to avoid destruction and sustain the revolution.

As in other revolutionary conflicts, the political will of the powers fighting in Vietnam relied on time and protraction of the war. The longer the fighting stretched out in Southeast Asia and a decisive outcome remained elusive, the greater the levels of impatience, frustration, and war-weariness, both in South Vietnam and in the United States. During the Second Indochina War, political will was synonymous with patience, and as the war dragged on, it was the United States that increasingly lost this virtue. In the end, the American decision to withdraw its military forces from Southeast Asia and leave the RVN to assume the burden of its own defense was the result of a loss of political will in Washington and among the American people owing to a long, costly, and inconclusive conflict. As noted by former RAND analyst turned historian David W. P. Elliott, the aim of the communists during the Second Indochina War, particularly after U.S. intervention, was not to shatter the enemy's military forces in an "apocalyptic counteroffensive," but to bring about a psychological defeat that would prompt the United States, first, to avoid deeper involvement in the war; and second, to withdraw its forces in the face of a strategic and political stalemate. "The fundamental objective of the strategic model used by Hanoi in the Second Indochina War," Elliott wrote, "was to understand the options open to the United States for maintaining its interests in South Vietnam and formulate ways of eliminating these options. The emphasis was not on a military defeat for the United States, but, rather, on exhausting the strategic possibilities open to it." According to another authority, Vietnamese communist strategy was not aimed at "the positive objective of inflicting a decisive defeat on its enemies," but rather on "the negative one of undermining their enemy's morale to such a point that he gives up the struggle as much because of the unpopularity of the war on the civilian front as of war weariness in the field." Although the overthrow of the Saigon regime remained the single primary objective of the war, Hanoi and the NLF devoted much of their strategic attention on the United States. This was because they knew that the fulfilment of the revolution and destruction of the RVN could only be achieved after American forces had been withdrawn from Southeast Asia, and after the "limited war" that had arisen due to the active but restricted intervention of U.S. combat forces reverted back to a direct confrontation between the contending Vietnamese factions. The strategic use of space to buy time and erode the political will of their enemies was the key to the communists' victory in Vietnam.


The revolutions in China and in Vietnam demonstrated that intangibles, particularly protraction of the war and the gain or loss of political will, could prove decisive. They also revealed that time and will were founded on space, or to be more specific, that the development of base areas and other insurgent terrain provided the foundation for exhausting the enemy through a long and drawn-out guerrilla war. Lin Biao, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and minister of national defense under Mao, argued that the party's ability to produce politico-military space and control the operational environment in China had played a quintessential role in its ascension to power. "The base areas established by ourParty became the center of gravity in the Chinese people's struggle to resist Japan and save the country," Lin wrote in 1966. "Relying on these bases, our Party expanded and strengthened the people's revolutionary forces, persevered in the protracted war and eventually won the War of Resistance against Japan. ... Revolutionary base areas established in the War of Resistance later became the springboards for the People's War of Liberation, in which the Chinese people defeated the Kuomintang reactionaries. In the War of Liberation we continued the policy of first encircling the cities from the countryside and then capturing the cities, and thus won nationwide victory." In the eyes of Lin and others, the use of rural base areas to foster revolutionary guerrilla warfare and surround and eventually capture the enemy's urban power base possessed a utility that transcended the communist experience in China. The ability to defeat one's adversary by controlling space and the environment, he asserted, was "of outstanding and universal practical importance" for other revolutionary movements, particularly those that were unfolding in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the 1960s against "imperialism and its lackeys."


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Table of Contents

List of Maps,
List of Abbreviations,
A Note on Nomenclature,
Prologue: The Road to Tet Mau Than,
Part I. Theoretical Dimensions of Revolutionary Conflict and the Operational Environment,
1. Communist Revolutionary Warfare and Insurgent Geographies,
2. Pacification and Counterinsurgent State Building,
3. Competing and Incompatible Visions,
4. Violent Pacification and Revolutionary Repression,
Part II. The Control War in South Vietnam, 1968–1975,
5. Peace Politics and the Transformation of the Second Indochina War: The Impact of the 1968 Tet Offensive,
6. Allied Ascendance and the Crisis of the Insurgent State, 1968–1971,
7. The Tenacious Revolution and Revival of the Insurgent State, 1969–1972,
8. Triumph of the Insurgent State, 1972–1975,

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