Polwar in the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces

Michael Do’s Paper presented at the 4th Triennial Symposium on Vietnam. Texas Tech University, Lubbock, April 11-13, 2002

A. Introduction

The rise of Communism marked a great turning point of human kind. The Russian October Revolution in 1917 and later the creation of the Soviet Union opened a new “Sad and Bizarre Chapter of World History”, as described by President Ronald Reagan.
Thanked to the victory over the Nazi in 1945 and the occupation of Soviet army in Eastern Europe, half a dozen new Communist countries formed a bloc that challenged the Western democracies led by the United States. In their relentless efforts to conquer the world, the Soviets poured in military and economic assistance to other continents to help in their ideological war against the Free World. Later, in 1949, Mao Tse Tung, the Chinese Communist Party, and the People’s Army defeated the Nationalist Chinese and gave birth to the People’s Republic of China. With nearly one billion people, red China posed a clear and great threat to the security of all other Asian nations.wLubbock02
In 1923, a young ambitious Ho Chi Minh traveled to Moscow and was assigned the work in the Far East Bureau (Byuro Denego Vostoka, or Dalburo in short) at Communist International (Comintern) headquarters. He became a leading Vietnamese Communist and a founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in 1930. Subsequently, Ho and his comrades unleashed the long lasting and bloody Indochina War -under the banner of patriotism- to end French colonial rule in 1954 and later defeated South Vietnam in 1975; and established a communist totalitarian government fulfilling his task of expanding Communism to Southeast Asia.

B. Vietnam War: An Ideological War
B.1. Prior 1954: How was the nation divided?
The war in Vietnam, no matter how it was named by historians and the parties involved, was unquestionably an ideological war between North Vietnamese Communists and South Vietnamese Nationalists. During the anti-colonialism war, knowing that the Allied nations and the people would not support Communism, Ho Chi Minh dissolved his Indochinese Communist Party and later renamed it Worker’s Party. He also founded the Vietnam Independence League in 1941 (Viet Minh) to include all nationalist factions in the struggle against French domination. At the end of World War II, when Japan surrendered in September 1945, Ho took advantage to proclaim independence, creating the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. No sooner than he had power, Ho carried out series of terrorist acts, even collaborated with the French and Chinese to eliminate all nationalist elements in his front. The mass assassinations were carried out while HCM was conducting negotiations with the French government, represented by Jean Sainteny, in Paris and Fontainbleau. At the same time in South Vietnam, existed the State of Vietnam under ex-king Bao Dai. With enormous military assistance from the new Communist China, Ho Chi Minh finally defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.
Vietnam was then temporarily divided into two parts according to the Geneva Accords signed in July 1954; Communists troops were to retreat to North of 17th parallel and the French to the South where they later rendered the power to the newly established Republic of Vietnam.

B.2. Post 1954: How was the Vietnam War started?
At the 25th hour of the Indochina War, Ho left behind thousands of cadres in South Vietnam countryside. Many infiltrated into South Vietnam governmental structures and military. They married local women to build the strong familial bond and political infrastructure at village level for future uprising. In late 1950s, they surfaced in remote countryside to start the guerrilla war against the existing government. On order from Hanoi, in October 1957, thirty-seven armed companies were organized. In December 1960, the 3rd Communist Party Congress in Hanoi passed a resolution focusing on three strategic tasks: (1) to establish Socialism in the North, (2) to start the liberation war in the South, and (3) to reunite the nation. This resulted in the creation of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFL). This puppet front consisted of three bodies: (1) the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), commonly known as Viet Cong (2) the People’s Revolutionary Party, and (3) the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG). Leaders of those organizations were chosen from South Vietnamese dissidents to bear the mask of a movement of South Vietnamese people who revolted against the government and American imperialism. The real and absolute power lied in the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). The COSVN was directly subordinated to the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Worker’s Party. It was led by members of Worker’s Party Politburo (such as Le Duan, Pham Hung, and Nguyen Chi Thanh); its members were also Worker’s Party Central Committee members. After 1960, Hanoi sent regular army troops to South Vietnam via Ho chi Minh trail at the rate of thousands per month, along with unlimited supply of weapons, ammunition and other military equipment.

B.3. Who stole the noble causes?
Despite the war was initiated by the Communists to serve their goal to redden the southeastern part of the globe, it was hidden under the banner of patriotic war against Western invasion.
The common people did not know about Communism or Capitalism. To them, the departed French expeditionary troops and the arriving American advisors looked alike. Although the government of the Republic of Vietnam had tried so hard to lay out a new foundation of democracy; although the 1956 constitution paved the road to freedom and great opportunities to the people to start new life in happiness and prosperity, we could not make the guerillas understand the real nature of the war, and could not convince the countrymen to stop supporting the Vietcong. Besides, the non-catholic peasants who made up 80% of the population would not support President Diem who is Catholic. Eighty years under French colonialism resulted in division of the people in regard of religions, localities, and ethnic and social groups. This is why President Diem rejected the general election in 1956 as stipulated in Geneva Accords.
The Mao-authored “People’s War” involved the regular armies, militiamen, and the whole population. Communists mobilized all human and national resources to serve the war that occurred in all aspects of life; whereas, South Vietnamese troops, trained to fight a conventional warfare, were unable to approach the people in the enemy-controlled territories. Even the people in the government-controlled were indifferent to the common cause.
In many of his publications, Ho Chi Minh stated that the Vietnam War “is an inseparable part of the world proletarian revolution.” Until their victory in 1975, North Vietnamese Communists always denied their presence in South Vietnam. The Provisional Revolutionary Government of Republic of South Vietnam survived only 14 months before it was dismissed by Hanoi when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed on July 2, 1976. In its fourth National Congress in December 1976, the party renamed itself Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and decided to develop socialism throughout the country. A long and gloomy night fell upon the lives of tens of millions of South Vietnamese people. For those who had ever questioned about the noble causes, it was too late.
Soon after the fall of Saigon in May 1975, not only the common people, but those who had supported the Viet Cong began to realize that they were losing the most precious thing: freedom. With hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese troops deployed throughout South Vietnam territory, the Provisional Revolutionary Government could foresee the end of their days. The final objective of the 21-year long anti-American war was nothing more than to establish a socialist state under the dictatorship of the Communist party. Except for some Viet Cong who were party members, others were very disappointed and thought they had been cheated and betrayed.

C. Polwar Activities in Vietnam War
Realizing the weakness, in 1965, South Vietnam Armed Forced adopted the Polwar concept and structure from Republic of China Army. But this was not enough when in the international communities and even the American public, there were lots of misinformation and misinterpretation on what had been going on in Vietnam. The lack of an efficient and thorough propaganda machine was one of the main causes that led to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Communists were much more successful than South Vietnam in claiming the patriot flag thanks to the experienced political system in their government and the Armed Forces. As stated by the Communist leaders after their victory in 1975: “We did not win the war on the battlefields, but in Washington D.C.”

C.1. Role of Polwar in Communist Armed Forces
From a small insurgent group of 40 men that was named Armed Propaganda Team in 1944, incorporated with various nationalist military units during the anti-colonialism war, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) became one of the largest armies in the world in the last third of the 20th century. Since it was the armed tool of the party, it has undergone consolidation to ensure its absolute loyalty to the Party. Prior to Dien Bien Phu campaign and parallel to the land reform program in the North Vietnam countryside, the party carried out political indoctrination to remove from the army the officers who were from social classes other than landless peasants and laborers. Ironically, most (if not all) of the party politburo members were from bourgeoisies and landowner classes.
Head of PAVN was a Commander-in-Chief who must be one of the top five in the Communist Party Politburo. The Joint General Staff consisted of three general departments: Staff, Logistics, and Politic. Beside the C-in-C, the Central Military Commissariat was the party body in the armed forces. While the Political General Department was in charge of administration, this Central Commissariat was in charge of insuring the armed forces to comply with the party policy. Below it, the party was organized into commissariats from Regional/Corps level to district/battalion level, and cells at village militia/company levels. The secretaries of the cells and the commissars were also political officers of the units who were responsible for the troops’ morality. Party commissars at any level had the absolute power over all military commanders. It was they who made decisions in the units. They gave extensive motivation training, presided over the criticism and self-criticism sessions, and conducted propaganda programs toward the enemies and the people. The social and military activities resulted in a tightly knit, intensely cohesive force. There was no separation between military and political objectives in Communist army. According to Douglas Pike, most of NVA and Vietcong were not Communists; and they didn’t have any knowledge of Marxism. The Political officers taught them the history of people’s struggles against foreign invasions to boost their patriotism. They believed they were fighting for independence of the motherland and freedom of the people. Prior to any attack, they were very much well prepared. They were motivated with heroism and examples of their comrades who had fought bravely although seriously wounded. They were taught that they would be tortured and brutally killed if captured. They all knew that their families back in North Vietnam would be in big trouble if they deserted or defected to the South government. Suffering years hiding in the jungles and swamps with primitive living standards, they had nothing save some rice, salt, and rare fried fish. They faced everyday poisonous snakes, mosquitoes. Terror from the skies could come at any moment unannounced and with ferocious violence. They had no hope to return home and see their loved ones. To them, if they won, they would have everything; but if they died, they would only lose their miserable life. In other word, there was only one choice for the NVA troops: death or victory.
The South Vietnam People’s Liberation Army organization was similar to PAVN except for the names and titles since the Communist party members hid their identities. Those poor soldiers did not like Communists, but they did not know they were fighting for Communism. In rare cases, some leaders in National Liberation Front mixed up Nationalism with Communism. They had dreamed of an independent South Vietnam with a much better society until they woke up after 1975.

C.2. The US Army’s Psychological Operation
In early 1956, the United States began a training program to build South Vietnamese Armed Force as a copy of its own military, mainly to prepare this young army to fight a mid-intensity conventional war instead of a counterinsurgency war as later occurred. The Military Advisory Group (MAG-V) or later the Military Advisory and Assistance Group (MAAG) was the only American military presence until the first combat troops landed in 1965. The number of US advisors increased from hundreds at the beginning to 23500 by the end of 1964; and combat troops grew to 525000 by the end of 1968.
Although the Vietnam War was the longest and most controversial in U.S. history, there were not appropriate political activities targeting the American soldiers as they were removed from their comfortable life and thrown into the bloodiest and messiest war zone. The troops, though well motivated before departing to Vietnam, at times wondered whether or not, their country was involved in the just cause. Trained to fight the war that there was line between friends and enemies, they had to face the real people’s war where their enemy might be the man they just gave medicine, or the girl they slept with, or even the little boy who asked them for candies. A peasant who just waved hand to greet them would send a bullet to their chest from their back. The cold war they vaguely knew did not make sense as they were sent thousands of miles away from their home to fight against the people who they thought were doing no harm to them.
In addition, the American mass purposely presented the war information with bias to favor the public that became more and more impatient and anti-war movement that was poisoned by Communist propaganda. They exaggerated our allied forces mistakes while covering up the enemies’ wrong doings. They altered the result of some decisive battles. Our great victory in Communist “Tet Mau Than General Offensive” was reported as the failure in prevention of the enemy’s attack.
Back to Vietnam, well aware of the important role of propaganda to “win the hearts and minds of the people” in the war, U.S. commanders strongly supported Psychological Operations (PSYOP) that were first co-operated with Joint U.S. Public Affairs Organization (JUSPAO). The two missions of PSYOP were to bolster the image of South Vietnam government and to carry out the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program.
Basically, PSYOP targeted (1) the Vietcong in the South, (2) North Vietnamese regular troops, (3) civilians of North Vietnam, and (4) civilians of South Vietnam.
In 1967, the 4th PSYOP group became active with four battalions directly supporting U.S. and Allied forces in each of four tactical zones. These units got involved in pacification and stability operations by providing the people with medical assistance, distributing leaflets and posters, showing movies, conducting public opinion polls and gathering information on enemy weapons, food caches and intelligence on the local Vietcong infrastructure. The U.S. Special Forces played an important role in PSYOP among the indigenous Montagnard tribes of Central Highlands.
In “Cease Resistance: It’s Good for You,” Stanley Sandler pointed out weaknesses in U.S. PSYOP. Less than 40% of PSYOP personnel were PSYOP trained; U.S. soldiers served a one-year tour and returned to the States just as they began to understand how things worked in Vietnam; and the combat commanders were often unaware of the mission or value of PSYOP. He concludes, “The U.S. PSYOP effort in Vietnam can be termed a substantial, albeit temporary, success.”

C.3. Polwar in South Vietnamese Armed Force
From 1949 to 1955 (Vietnam National Army)
Vietnam National Army (VNA) was established in 1949 to fight against the Communist-controlled Vietminh. The army of 150000 men initially was controlled by the French and equipped with obsolete weapons. Despite the history of a thousand years of fighting the Chinese to survive, a military career in Vietnam was ranked at the bottom layer of the five social classes (scholars, farmers, workers, merchants, and soldiers). Those who served the VNA neither liked the French, nor the puppet chief of state Bao Dai. During this period, the only PSYOP was Action Morale conducted by French Army J5.
From 1955 to 1965 (The Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces)
In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem ousted Bao Dai after a referendum and proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam. Vietnam National Army was transformed and renamed the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces. When the French left, this army had to rebuild from only four indifferently trained divisions and a small group of inexperienced officers and NCOs. The Americans took over the training programs and provided generous military assistance to model Vietnamese Armed Forces after the U.S. Army.
The French army’s J-5 (Action Morale) was the only body responsible for psychological activities. In 1954, Lt Colonel Edward Lansdale, well known for his success in resisting “People’s War” in the Philippines, was accepted by Vietnam as principal advisor. Lansdale defined civic action as “essentially the brotherly behavior of troops along lines taught by Mao and Giap to their troops.” (232) He also “stressed the fundamental importance of constructing ‘a sound political basis first’ to give meaning to the other required actions.” (Spector, 356) Lansdale suggested extra and special efforts from the U.S. and Vietnam in psychological warfare in order to win the war. He later became an advisor to and friend of President Diem.
One of Lansdale works was the establishment of the Psychological Warfare Directorate under South Vietnamese Department of National Defense.
The Joint General Staff (JGS) was the highest body that carried out administration and planning functions of the ARVN. At all levels of the ARVN hierarchy, there were Psywar offices (J-5) and sections (S-5) to carry out the psychological operations. But those activities were limited to news broadcasting, publication, movie showing, and cultural performance. The Psywar officers were selected from the disfavored and incompetent from the commanders’ viewpoint.
From 1965 to 1975 (The Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces)
Since 1965, the armed forces were reorganized. The Joint General Staff (JGS) still consisted of five functional elements. But they were now each headed by a deputy Chief of JGS: Operations, Personnel, Logistics, Training, and Political Warfare. The last three elements were organized into General Departments and had their own staffs and sub-organizations.
Based on the concept of Political Warfare that consisted of six formats of war: Ideological warfare, Organizational warfare, Psychological warfare, Intelligence warfare, Stratagem warfare, and Masses Motivation warfare, Political Warfare General Department (PWGD) was organized with its five departments, a Polwar College each functioning as follow:
1.- Political Indoctrination Department took charge of boosting morale and patriotism of the troops. It oversaw a Polwar cadre training center and a dozen of action teams that provided the troops with political education incorporated in short entertainment programs.
2.- Psywar Department focused on the enemy propaganda and civic actions. Its activities also included news and entertainment programs for the military. It had a Central Cultural Group with about one hundred men and women, many of them were famous singers, actors, actresses, dancers drafted into the armed forced.
3.- Social Service Department was responsible for housing, school, and medical programs for the troop families. It had a Women Social Service Assistant School with both officer and NCO programs. At the family quarters, these women assistants took good care of the wives and children of the soldiers. They frequently visited the wounded soldiers at hospitals and helped the families of the KIA’s. This department oversaw three Chaplaincies (Catholic, Buddhist, and Protestant)
4.- Military Security Department supervised all counterintelligence and security activities. Although it was under the Polwar General Department, it acted independently and was the most powerful body in military community. It focused more on domestic security to prevent the infiltration of the enemies into the armed forces and failed its mission to an appalling degree.
5.- Army Post Exchange and Commissary provided the troops with tax-free necessary goods. Servicemen and women, depending on his/her family status, could buy food, cigarettes, and household utensils at prices from 30 to 50% lower than the market prices.
6.- The Polwar College, established in late 1966 when the leadership realized the urgent need for a young generation of polwar cadres who would handle effectively the political activities in the armed forces. Prior to the Polwar College, there was a Polwar Training Center for existing soldiers who had been or would be polwar cadres.
The Polwar College recruited young men who had High School Diploma through an entry examination. It conducted a two-year program and awarded graduates a regular commission and the rank of second lieutenant. The curriculum heavily focused on social and political sciences. The cadets were trained at National Military Academy with platoon leader program and some company level tactical training. They studied Marxism, Communism, contemporary history of conflicts and Polwar techniques. After graduation, the young lieutenants were assigned double tasks as vice-commander and Polwar officer at combat companies, or chief of Polwar section at district level military sub-sector. The first class graduated in May 1969 followed by 5 more classes before the war ended in 1975. Polwar College produced about 200 officers per class every other year.
The Polwar College also provided with different levels of training sessions from basic to advanced to existing Polwar officers.

D. Advantages and Disadvantages
D.1. Advantages
The Polwar organization was reformed thanks to assistance of advisors from Chinese Nationalist Army. The defeat in 1949 taught the Chinese bitter lessons on how to deal with Communism and they were eager to pass them down to Vietnam, their closest ally. Also, thanks to Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program, we could learn valuable lessons from defectors who had been high-ranking officers in Communist army intelligence and political services.
There were notable progresses after Polwar activities were initiated. Regional and Popular forces became more active and efficient in pacification campaigns to uproot the Vietcong infrastructure. Prior to the beginning of Paris Peace Talks, the first class cadets were sent to work with all four tactical zones regional forces to boost their morality to back the government stand point.
South Vietnam infantry, being free from territorial defense, could take part in big offensive operations with the air support from U.S forces. Fifth Infantry was a proof of the change. The “Chan Troi Moi” (New Horizon) campaign starting 1968 reversed this weakest division into the second strongest one thanks to the talented commanding officers and the first wave of Polwar College graduates. Graduates from Polwar College were well trained and motivated. They were capable both in military and Polwar careers. Many of them became successful combat unit commanders.

D.2. Disadvantages
Lack of support from the U.S.
Since Polwar had no equivalent in U.S. Armed Forces structure, there was little money allocated to Vietnamese Polwar General Department from U.S. military assistance budgets for Psyop. That was why Vietnam army incorporated PX and Commissary into Polwar in order to get more financial support. The differences in cultures prevented the U.S. advisors from understanding what were going on out there in the so-called people’s war invented by Mao and Giap. Lacking financial and advisory support from the big ally made Polwar inferior to other branches in the armed forces and also prevented it from implementing many important projects.
Responsibilities vs. authorities
For nearly half of a century, the South Vietnamese soldiers had been at war. They fought the French, Japanese, Viet Minh, and then the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Though they were drafted for a three-year term, they kept fighting long after their American counterparts had gone home after a one-year tour in Vietnam. Tim Page was right when he described in The Vietnam Experience: “Conditions of service were poor. Their diet consisted of rice, dried fish and vegetable soup. For amusement, there was once in a while some rice brandy, playing the lottery, the occasional movies etc” (99) The soldiers were underpaid and had burden of their families that totally depended on this small amount of money. There was little thing that the Polwar officers could do. The housing and schooling programs could help only a very small percent of the needy.
Beside 15 days of annual leave, the soldiers were entitled to occasional leave for family problems. But in reality, these privileges were restricted due to the need of strength for operation or fear of desertion. In 1966 the desertion rate was the highest (20%). A South Vietnamese infantry company, at its peak, had about 100 men, of them a dozen had not been recovered from wounds or serious illness. Thus it had to perform the task of a unit with full strength.
Unlike in North Vietnamese army where the political officers were Communist party members and had power that superseded the authority of the unit commanders, South Vietnam army Polwar officers did not affiliate to any party and hence had no authority. At company level, they were second to the commanders; but at higher levels, their voice was the weakest one in the staff. The majority of the commanding officers were not aware of the importance of Polwar activities. Besides, the old Polwar officers who had little knowledge of political problems were another obstruction to the new officers’ innovative and proactive projects. Polwar officers also were very anxious about their promotion and advancement compared to officers of other branches.
Political disorder – Corruption -Leadership Incompetence
Although in the wartime and facing the dangerous enemies, the South Vietnamese leaders were unable to establish stability in domestic politics. They fought each other for power, and put in high positions those who they favored instead of those who were competent. Thieu, right after ARVN victories in summer 1972, headed the spear against his political opponents. He founded Vietnamese Democratic Party as the ruling party although it had no foundation and supports. Corruption was so serious in all levels of the armed forces. Good and safe positions could be bought with money. Consequently, those people would abuse power to take back money, or worse, to make their own fortune. The phenomenon of “ghost soldiers” was not uncommon in infantry and regional forces. The graduating cadets of 4th Polwar class who were sent to 4th Corps tactical zone did an excellent job to audit and investigate throughout the regional force that resulted in removal of the corps commander and his accomplices. In these situations of corruption and power dispute, it was difficult to convince the soldiers that they were fighting for the country and the people.

E. Conclusions

Compared to the experienced political system in North Vietnamese army, the Polwar organization in ARVN was loose and inefficient. The cadres were powerless and were not supported by the leadership. Even with the superior military and efficient Polwar action, we could hardly win the war if the inner enemies gained ground from our mistakes. Polwar must go along with a strong and stable political system.
For both America and Vietnam, misinformation was the serious problem that caused the governments to lose the support of the people. Communists took advantage of our freedom of speech to launch psywar campaign right on our soil while their society was inaccessible to our polwar activities.
The Republic of Vietnam government information system and the armed forces Polwar failed to unmask Ho Chi Minh and his followers. More seriously, we made a lot of mistakes that altered the situation. After the Tet Mau Than general offensive, especially the early years of 1970s, the South Vietnam Armed Forces was in its maturity. Eighty to ninety percent of Vietcong infrastructure was exposed and destroyed; tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops killed in the bloodiest battles throughout the country. The survivors were pushed back to their secret zones in Cambodia. If the government took advantages of the victory to consolidate, improve the social security system to serve the people better, improve the living standard of the soldiers and their families, treat the “Hoi Chanh Vien” (Vietcong defectors) nicely, Communist troops would have had no place to set their feet.
In his 1973 report, Professor Nguyen Van Canh – one of the highest Dai-Viet party members – gave an urgent warning to the government that the Vietcong in 4th tactical zone had regrouped. Their units, not heard for years after 1968, now reinforced by hundreds of “Hoi Chanh Vien” and South Vietnamese infrastructure agents who had become victims of the unjust treatment by the local authority. His warning fell on the deaf
ears of President Nguyen Van Thieu who was more interested in defending his own political image and influence instead of defending the nation toward a more serious threat. Thieu ignored the warning because he was dealing with anti-corruption movements led by the press and his rivals in the congress.
Corruption was another reason that weakened the armed forces. The North Vietnamese had their own problems that were not less serious; but they could cover up these thanks to the state-controlled information system.
In late 1972, Hanoi almost collapsed after the intense Linebacker bombing. Nixon’s decision to stop bombing and resume peace talks gave North Vietnam a golden chance to rebuild its forces and reverse the situation. Honestly speaking, the U.S. and South Vietnam did not know the enemy enough to have the timely decisive action to win the war.
However, political warfare is always an essential factor in wars that involve ideologies. It is an issue that must be addressed and strongly supported by the leadership.

I would like to thank ex-Colonel Hoang Minh Hoa, Christopher Jenner, and my former Polwar schoolmates for their advice and support. Special thanks to Dr. James Reckner and his staff at Vietnam Center, Texas Tech University, who provide good opportunities for South Vietnamese to present their perspective on the Second Indochina War.

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