Unlike, for example, the First and Second World Wars, where thousands of large set-piece battles defined the conflict, the US war in Vietnam was typically characterised by small skirmishes and attritional strategies.
Nevertheless, there were several large offensives and battles that did much to sway the progression of the war. Here are 5 of them:
Battle of la Drang Valley (26 October – 27 November 1965)
The first major meeting of US and North Vietnamese troops resulted in a two part battle that raged across the La Drang valley in Southern Vietnam. It caused huge casualties on both sides, and was so fluid and chaotic that both sides claimed victories for themselves.
However, the battle’s importance lay not in the body count but the fact that it defined the tactics of both sides for the war. US forces opted to focus on air mobility and long-range combat to wear down to NV forces. The Viet Cong learned that they could negate US technological advantages by engaging their forces in close combat. The VC had an unparalleled understanding of the terrain and so were able to mount rapid raids before melting into the forest.
Battle of Khe Sanh (21 January – 9 April 1968)
Early in the war US forces had established a garrison at Khe Sanh in Quang Tri province, in the Northern area of South Vietnam. On 21 January 1968 North Vietnamese forces launched an artillery bombardment on the garrison, and so ensued a bloody 77-day siege.
The battle was eventually brought to a close by Operation Pegasus, which involved airlifting US troops out the base and ceding it to the North Vietnamese.
This was the first time US troops had given major ground to their enemy. The US high command had anticipated a huge attack directed at the Khe San garrison, but it never came. Instead the smaller siege was a diversionary tactic for the upcoming ‘Tet Offensive.’
Tet Offensive (30 January – 28 March, 1968)
With US and South Vietnamese attention and forces were focussed on Khe San, North Vietnamese forces launched a massive series of co-ordinated attacks against over 100 South Vietnamese stronghold on 30 January, the Vietnamese New Year (or the first day of Tet).
The Tet Offensive was initially very successful, but in a series of bloody battles, US forces were able to regain ground lost to the communists. Although most of these recovery battles were over very quickly, a few were more protracted.
Saigon was only taken after 2 weeks of fierce fighting, and the Battle of Hue – during which over the course of a month US and SV forces gradually expelled the occupying communists – went down in infamy not only for the ferocious fighting (captured superbly in Don McCullin’s photography) but for the massacre of civilians that took place in the month of NV occupation.
In terms of raw numbers, the Tet Offensive was an enormous defeat for the North Vietnamese. However, in strategic and psychological terms, it was a runaway success. US public opinion turned decisively against the war, as embodied by newscaster Walter Cronkite’s famous broadcast.
Hamburger Hill (10 May – 20 May 1968)
Hill 937 (named because it is 937 metres above sea level) was the setting and object of a 10-day battle between US forces and the North Vietnamese in May 1968.
As part of Operation Apache Snow – which had the objective of clearing the North Vietnamese from the A Shau Valley in Hue province, South Vietnam – the hill was to be captured. Despite it having little strategic significance, US commanders took a bull-headed approach to capturing the hill.
US forces suffered unnecessarily heavy casualties. The fighting itself gave the hill its iconic name – ‘Hamburger Hill’ derived from the grinding nature of the fighting.
Extraordinarily, the hill was abandoned on 7 June, highlighting its lack of strategic value. When the news of this reached home it caused public outrage. It occurred at a time when the public opposition to the war was solidifying and mutating into a broader counter-culture movement. It bulwarked the perceptions of the US military command as ignorant, throwing away the lives of brave, often poor Americans in the name of an empty, pointless war.
Anti-war pressure was so piqued that General Creighton Adam placed his support firmly behind a ‘protective reaction policy’ designed to minimise casualties, and the first troop withdrawals began soon after,
A final note – the poignant deaths of US soldiers on that hill struck such a chord that it inspired the film ‘Hamburger Hill.’
The Fall of Saigon (30 April 1975)
Between 1968 and 1975 the war had turned totally against the US, with public support fading rapidly and the prospect of any success dwindling along with it.
The Easter Offensive of 1972 had been a crucial turning point. A string of co-ordinated attacks by US and SV forces again resulted in heavy forces, but the North Vietnamese had held onto valuable territory, and so held out during the Paris Peace Accords. From that point they were able to launch their final successful offensive in 1975, reaching Saigon in April.
By 27 April, PAVN troops had encircled Saigon and the 60,000 remaining SV troops were defecting in droves. It was soon apparent that the fate of Saigon was sealed, and so the hurried process of evacuating what US citizens remained began.
Operation Frequent Wind was the name given to the iconic airlifts of US diplomats and troops, carried out as desperate Vietnamese attempted to break down the gates of the US embassy.
Space was so tight on the air carriers to which evacuees were lifted that helicopters had to be cast into the sea.
Despite the Vietnam War being almost universally condemned as an unnecessary war that the USA and South Vietnamese lost comprehensively, you may notice that there is little from this list to suggest that US troops were crushed in battles by their opponents.
Instead, their resolve was worn down by a canny enemy, and the sense that anything meaningful could be achieved died as the war was drawn out.