This article is divided into three parts: The War, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam.
The War in Vietnam
On the night of February 7, a Vietcong squad staged a daring attack on a U.S. air base near Pleiku in South Vietnam's central highlands, killing 8 American servicemen and wounding over 100. In retaliation, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered 49 American aircraft to bomb barracks and staging areas in North Vietnam which, a White House statement charged, were used for 'supplying men and arms for attacks in South Vietnam.' On February 11 the guerrillas killed another 23 Americans in a raid on a U.S. Army barracks in the port city of Quinhon. Once again the United States retaliated against the North—this time with a 160-plane raid. These Vietcong attacks and the U.S. ripostes unmistakably signaled an escalation of the war. And although President Johnson solemnly declared that the United States sought 'no wider war,' it soon became clear that the whole military complexion of the conflict had changed.
The gravity of the situation was underscored by two significant factors. First, during the initial U.S. air attack on North Vietnam, Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin was visiting Hanoi. Promising that Moscow would help strengthen the defense potential of North Vietnam, Kosygin offered to send Soviet antiaircraft guns, MIG jet fighters, surface-to-air missiles, and, presumably, Soviet rocket crews to man them. This raised the chilling specter of a direct confrontation between U.S. pilots and Soviet ground forces. The second factor weighing in the strategic balance was the danger that the Vietcong, having effectively established control over a majority of South Vietnam's villages, would make a serious bid to cut the country in half at about the 14th parallel by a major offensive during the monsoon season. To U.S. military strategists, then, the possibility of increased Soviet—and, perhaps, Communist Chinese—intervention was seen as a risk that had to be faced in order to stave off imminent defeat.
In late February and March, therefore, the United States took the decision to build up its ground forces in the South and, simultaneously, bring pressure to bear on the North with the use of air power. On March 2 the United States began its regular, daily air strikes north of the 17th parallel. And on March 6 the Pentagon announced that two battalions of U.S. Marines were being sent to South Vietnam to strengthen the security of the Danang air base and to relieve South Vietnamese troops so that they could be used for more active duty.
The U.S. justification for these actions was spelled out in a Pentagon news conference by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara on April 26. Declaring that 'the great bulk of the weapons which the Vietcong are using ... come from external sources,' McNamara went on to charge that for the first time in the war North Vietnam had sent a regular army combat unit into South Vietnam.
The pace of the buildup continued in May when 3,500 paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived from Okinawa to guard the U.S. military complex at Bien Hoa and Vungtau. In addition, three Marine battalions, including 3,000 Seabees, of the Third Marine Amphibious Force were sent to the coastal enclave of Chulai to build a landing strip for the increasing number of American aircraft.
The massive influx of American personnel soared to some 75,000 through the months of June and July as thousands of additional Marines and paratroopers and the First
The Air War.
The use of American air power against Vietnam was at first confined to military staging areas and barracks in the narrow strip of land between the 17th and 20th parallels. In early March the Johnson administration launched the first air attack against the North without citing any specific act of provocation. In the following months U.S. planes attacked North Vietnam regularly from a variety of airfields in South Vietnam, from aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, and from secret bases in Thailand. On April 4, two F-105's were shot down over North Vietnam by far slower Russian-built MIG-15's and MIG-17's— the first such dogfight of the war. In May the air strikes were temporarily halted for five days to test Hanoi's willingness to start peace negotiations. The suspension of bombing raids produced no visible response from Hanoi, and the air war was renewed. Week by week the strikes crept closer to the Hanoi-Haiphong industrial complex, and by mid-April U.S. planes were dropping bombs only 50 miles from Hanoi. During a 'routine' strike against a munitions plant 55 miles from Hanoi in August, a U.S. Phantom jet was downed by a Soviet SAM-2 missile. Nevertheless, U.S. planes continued to thrust deeper into North Vietnamese territory until they were bombing rail lines near the Chinese border in October. Late in December U.S. jets destroyed the Uongbi generating plant near Haiphong, which supplied Hanoi with 25 percent of its electrical power. This was the last significant air action against the North before bombings were suspended for the second time in the year. The pause began Christmas Eve and extended into 1966.
The intensity of the air war in South Vietnam also increased in 1965. On April 15 the United States and South Vietnam launched the biggest air strike of the war, dropping 1,000 tons of bombs on a suspected Vietcong concentration in Tayninh province In June Guam-based B-52 heavy bombers flew their first mission of the war. Some critics described the use of the strategic bombers against guerrilla forces as 'using a baseball bat to swat a fly.' But the Air Force defended the use of B-52's on the grounds that they effectively penetrated heavily forested areas. Be that as it may, there was no doubt that American air power was one of the decisive factors in turning the tide against the guerrillas.
By year-end some 700,000 refugees had fled the countryside, largely because of the saturation bombing of Vietcong-held territory. By the end of the year the official toll of U.S. air losses over both North and South Vietnam was placed at 159 planes.
The Ground War.
The expected Vietcong monsoon offensive was blunted largely as a result of the devastating effect of U.S. air power and the immense buildup of American ground forces. In the central highlands the monsoon season runs from May through November. By the early summer U.S. strategy had taken shape and was based on a two-staged plan: first, American troops would seize and hold key coastal enclaves—from the city of Hu‚ in the north to the capital, Saigon, in the south; then from these enclaves, which were presumably immune to encirclement since they could be supplied from the sea, U.S. troops would be capable of striking out at Vietcong concentrations and of coming to the aid of South Vietnamese troops when they ran into trouble. A variation on this strategy took shape when the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was stationed inland at Ankhe in October to guard vital Route 19, running from Quinhon to Pleiku.
On May 11, for the first time in the war, the Vietcong seized a provincial capital—Songbe, 52 miles north of Saigon. Striking with a force of about 2,000 men, the Vietcong held Songbe for seven hours until repeated U.S. air strikes forced them to withdraw. At the end of May the guerrillas' monsoon offensive went into high gear, with simultaneous attacks against several central highlands outposts. In a period of a few short days the Vietcong launched successful raids in five provinces—Pleiku, Phubon, Darlac, Kontum, and Quangngai. In a number of cases reinforcements sent to relieve the besieged garrisons fell into well-planned guerrilla ambushes. By the second week in June the Vietcong had chewed up several South Vietnamese battalions and were challenging U.S. troops in relatively large stand-up battles. This was especially true of U.S. Special Forces camps near the Cambodian border. For example, the guerrillas laid siege for nearly two months to the Special Forces camp at Ducco on Route 19, seven miles from Cambodia, until units of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the First Infantry Division were flown in. By the end of the summer, American forces were striking back. Late in June, U.S. units for the first time participated in offensive operations against the guerrillas, under authority given by President Johnson earlier that month. On August 18 the Marines launched Operation Starlight, a three-pronged attack on the Vantuong peninsula, south of Chulai, which resulted in the deaths of 560 guerrillas. On November 14 a battalion of the Airmobile division was airlifted into the Iadrang Valley and proceeded, with the support of tactical fighter-bombers and B-52 heavy bombers, to engage thousands of the North Vietnamese regular troops in a prolonged six-day battle.
Despite their heavy casualties, the Vietcong continued to increase their strength throughout the year. In January the Pentagon estimated that there were 34,000 'hard-core' guerrillas and 80,000 part-time guerrillas in the South. By the end of the year those figures had grown to 80,000 hardcore and 120,000 part-time guerrillas. Partly responsible for this dramatic growth was an intense Vietcong recruitment program among eligible village youths. Also responsible, however, was the increased infiltration rate of trained guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars from the North, which reached an estimated 2,000 men a month.