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Armed Forces of the Vietnam War

While national leaders decided the direction the war would take, the soldiers on the ground enacted their policy. Far from being monolithic, the Vietnamese and American armed forces were each comprised of men of differing talents and abilities. 

North Vietnamese Armed Forces

People's Army of Vietnam

The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), popularly known as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), was the main branch of the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Like the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the PAVN was divided into regular, regional, and security forces that each received different degrees of training and supplies. Additionally, officers, reinforcements, and supplies from PAVN forces were often funneled to the Viet Cong, which operated with PAVN troops frequently. Nevertheless, the two forces remained distinct. The People’s Army of Vietnam traces its lineage back to the Viet Minh fighters organized by Võ Nguyên Giáp during the war with France, with the formal separation of the PAVN coming by the end of 1950. Soviet and Chinese advisers and supplies enhanced the fighting strength of PAVN forces. The army was well-motivated and politically indoctrinated, and often employed a mix of regular and irregular (guerilla) operations. With the coming American withdrawal, PAVN forces employed more conventional attacks, as was seen in the 1972 Easter Offensive. However, American airpower and ARVN resistance stifled this attack. Three years later, however, PAVN forces had recovered from their earlier offensive, and now stood strong with 685,000 troops. Armed with tanks and artillery marched successfully on the South, ending the Vietnam War. PAVN troops suffered a significant amount of the North’s wartime casualties, with hundreds of thousands dead. PAVN troops earned no respite from conflict, however, and in 1978 were on the frontlines of Vietnam’s war with Cambodia. Learn more about the People’s Army of Vietnam.

Viet Cong

The Viet Cong (VC), or the National Liberation Front, was the main political and armed communist opposition operating within South Vietnam. Although the group named its own soldiers the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), the National Liberation Front has been memorialized by the American public as the Viet Cong, a name derived from Việt Nam Cộng-sản, or “Vietnamese communist.” The Viet Cong were a continuation of the Viet Minh, and many VC leaders had fought against French forces during the First Indochina War. Initially composed of forces and leaders largely drawn from South Vietnam (where many desired to overthrow the regime of Ngô Đình Diệm), the Viet Cong were increasingly supplied and directed by North Vietnamese forces in Hanoi, especially after the Tet Offensive. Supplies were funneled to the Viet Cong through the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which allowed VC forces to operate over the breadth of South Vietnam. As guerilla soldiers, Viet Cong forces often hid amongst the local populace, and were hard to identify. Many VC soldiers intimated or attacked South Vietnamese citizens who aided the Americans, further complicating identification. The VC were prone to staging small ambushes before quickly withdrawing. Making use of traps, tunnel systems, and a variety of insurgent tactics, the Viet Cong were a powerful enemy for much of the war. Learn more about the Viet Cong.

South Vietnamese Armed Forces

Army of the Republic of Vietnam

The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was the main fighting force of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam, during the war. Established on the republic’s founding in 1955, ARVN began with 150,000 troops, and by 1975 included over one million men-at-arms. At the height of its strength, ARVN forces included thirteen regular divisions and special forces, the Regional Forces (RF) assigned to the four tactical corps of South Vietnam, and the Popular Forces (PF) which led security operations. The RF and the PF in particular were less trained than the regular forces. The United States supplied a dizzying amount of firepower and equipment to ARVN forces, providing everything from tanks, APCs, and helicopters to bullets, small arms, and rations. American training further enhanced the ARVN troops. Despite this support, ARVN troops were often poorly led and suffered from internal strife amongst the South Vietnamese high command. Additionally, low morale plagued the troops and desertion was a continual problem, as was corruption among the officers. ARVN troops did take part in a number of American led operations, and were tasked with defending the nation when the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. The ARVN suffered over 200,000 fatalities by the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, and thousands more would die by the end of the war. In all, ARVN troops fought effectively when well-led, but tragically never seemed to have good commanders. Learn more about the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

Montagnard Forces

Popularly called Montagnards (French for “mountain people”), the Degar people are the native inhabitants of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The Montagnards are an ethnic minority within Vietnam and have a history of conflict with the Vietnamese, who historically viewed them as inferiors. The tension between the two groups was seized upon by French and American forces, who allied with the Montagnards. This alliance was made more important during the American involvement in Vietnam as the Montagnard’s position in the Central Highlands gave them great control over a troublesome part of the South Vietnam and a key ending point for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. American special forces began training Montagnard forces in the early 1960s. American forces supplied and advised these Montagnard troops, hoping to count on their support against communist infiltration. Additionally, their familiarity with the hilly, jungle terrain made them ideal guides and trackers for American patrols. In all, tens of thousands of Montagnards assisted the American war effort.  However, continued animosity between the South Vietnamese government and the Montagnards complicated their cooperation with the Republic of Vietnam. While relations eventually improved between the two, thousands of Montagnards fled when Saigon fell in 1975, fearful of communist reprisals for their role in aiding the American war effort. Learn more about the Montagnards.

American Armed Forces

United States Marine Corps

The Marine Corps had begun providing assistance and advisement to the South Vietnamese in the late 1950s, and their mission expanded gradually through the early 1960s. Marines were soon deployed to defend the vital airbase at Da Nang near the DMZ. In 1965, the involvement of the Marine Corps was escalated greatly and the Marines made substantial landings around the port at Da Nang as their role expanded beyond advisement and base defense. By the end of 1965, around 40,000 Marines would be deployed in Vietnam. One year later, 70,000 Marines were stationed in country. In the northern region of South Vietnam, Marines fought along the DMZ while attempting to interdict supplies flowing in from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the south, Marines carried out search-and-destroy missions, attempting to locate Viet Cong insurgents hidden in South Vietnamese villages and jungles. In 1968, Marines nationwide fought back against the Tet Offensive with success, but the battles at Huế and Khe Sanh proved much more difficult. The Marines at Khe Sanh were locked in a 77 day siege, while the Marines in Huế suffered through brutal urban fighting as they worked to retake the city. Through the 1972 Easter Offensive, Marine aircraft remained and soldiers on the ground provided training and fire support. With the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, the U.S. departed from Vietnam, but the Marines' involvement in the nation was not yet over. In 1975, Marines were instrumental in the evacuation of Saigon, while Marines also carried out the final combat operation of the Vietnam War as they retook the cargo ship SS Mayaguez in May 1975. In all, nearly 500,000 Marines were deployed in all of Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1975. The Marines fought valiantly but suffered greatly:  over 13,000 would be killed, while another 88,000 were wounded. Learn more about the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam.

United States Army

Army personnel formed the core of the Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam in the 1950s, and played a large role in creating the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). In February of 1962, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was created as the successor to MAAG, and MACV took charge over all American military operations in Vietnam. Led at first by General Paul Harkins, who was succeeded by General William Westmoreland in 1964, MACV’s mission expanded from advisement to defense in 1965 as President Johnson began to change the U.S. mission in Vietnam. Army forces poured into Vietnam throughout 1966, 1967, and 1968, as troops engaged in search-and-destroy missions that often put the overwhelming firepower of the American military to use with great effect. During the Tet Offensive, Army units helped repel the overall communist attack while playing a key role in the Battle of Huế . As Tet prompted the withdrawal of American forces and General Creighton Abrams replaced Westmoreland as head of MACV, Army forces gradually decreased while still carrying out search-and-destroy missions and assisting South Vietnamese forces. Army units were involved in the Cambodian Incursion in 1970 and assisted in the South Vietnamese led Lam Son 719 all while continuing to train their South Vietnamese counterparts per President Nixon’s Vietnamization program. The withdrawal of American forces continued until March 29, 1973, when the last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam and the last commander of MACV, General Frederick C. Weyand, oversaw the command’s deactivation. In all, Army soldiers received 160 Medals of Honor for their actions in Vietnam, but paid a heavy price: of the nearly 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, around 38,000 were Army servicemen. Learn more about the U.S. Army in Vietnam.

United States Air Force

Air Force advisers had served in Vietnam as part of MAAG in the 1950s, but the primary Air Force role in the war would come with full-scale American combat operations in the mid-1960s. President Johnson began Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, instructing the Air Force to bomb North Vietnamese industrial and supply sites. However, the growing air campaign confronted an expanding North Vietnamese air defense system. Supplied by the Chinese and Soviets, the North Vietnamese soon developed a complex and comprehensive system armed with surface-to-air missiles. The Air Force conducted re-supply missions, medical evacuations, and rescue missions, but the most crucial part of their involvement in the war was their bombardment of enemy positions. Utilizing modern fighter-bombers, strategic B-52 bombers operating from Guam, and a varied collection of other attack aircraft, American airpower devastated North Vietnamese troop, infrastructure, and supply positions. Air Force bombardment sustained the Marines under siege at Khe Sanh, Operation Menu attacked positions in Cambodia, and the two Linebacker operations in 1972 stopped the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive and helped return Hanoi to the negotiating table, respectively. The combat mission in Vietnam ended in 1973, but Air Force units played a large role in the evacuation of South Vietnam in April 1975. In all, American airpower was a defining aspect of the Vietnam War and proved decisive on numerous occasions. However, hundreds of Air Force aircraft would be shot down during the war, and hundreds of airmen would suffer tortuous conditions as prisoners in North Vietnam. Around 2,500 American Air Force personnel would lose their lives in Vietnam. Learn more about the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam.

United States Navy

The role of the Navy in Vietnam is sometimes overlooked, but Navy units played a major role in the American combat mission during the war. Naval advisors were present in Vietnam from the 1950s, and during the war the Navy conducted a variety of operations. From two staging posts in the South China Sea, aircraft carriers provided air support to ground forces; among other campaigns, Navy units worked in partnership with the Air Force during Rolling Thunder and during the Linebacker operations. During Linebacker I in 1972, the Navy flew nearly 4,000 sorties per month in order to stop the North Vietnamese attack. Naval gunfire from offshore cruisers, destroyers, and even the reactivated battleship New Jersey provided additional artillery support for the duration of the war. Furthermore, the Navy blockaded North Vietnam, and worked to stop the flow of supplies both into the North and into the South by running patrol missions along the coastline. Additionally, working with the Army, Navy patrol boats operated on the river systems of South Vietnam – especially in the Mekong Delta – to inspect shipping and support combat operations. Navy Seabees constructed a host of infrastructure and bases across South Vietnam, while the Navy itself oversaw vast the supply and logistical operations needed to sustain the American war effort. Floating hospitals like the USS Sanctuary provided important medical equipment and care close to the war zone. Finally, the evacuation of South Vietnam and the rescue operations that saved tens of thousands of civilians fleeing from the North Vietnamese advanced in spring 1975 could not have succeed without the U.S. Navy. More than 2,500 sailors lost their lives in Vietnam, but their actions of the Navy ensured the continued operations of the American military. Learn more about the U.S. Navy in Vietnam.

It is important to note that several other armed forces do not appear on this list. Additionally, the nations of Cambodia and Laos fought parallel wars that often intersected with the Vietnam War, while Australia, South Korea, and other allied nations also deployed substantial forces during the war.