Vietnam 1965-1975: building a history

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(This is the third entry in a weekly (or so) game diary by Bruce Geryk and Patrick Mullen about the boardgame Vietnam 1965-1975. The series starts here.)

For this American former fourteen-year old boy, invoking the Lens of History (the game seen through a historical lensas an alternate history) while playing Vietnam 1965-1975 begins the moment I start thinking about set up.

After the jump, starting at the beginning

…it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think: This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain…

–William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

Setup seems simple from a game standpoint. For the US Player, the US 3rd and 4th Marine Regiments start in Da Nang. South Vietnamese Supply points are available to build Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces; leaders are drawn at random for South Vietnam (SVN). The NLF Player has one North Vietnamese Army (NVA) division which may be deployed anywhere on the map and may use supply points to build Viet Cong (VC) units wherever he chooses, in locations not occupied by the US/ARVN. Then, after setup, in the Pre-Summer Interphase both players will also commit and build units before Summer Operations commence.

The blending together of Setup and the Summer Interphase at game start, and the freedom to build whatever you can during setup is what makes me ponder the game as history from the get-go. Because this is where history starts to change.

Background, Strategy and Operational Plans

“The Crisis”

Briefly, the SVN government and military had been resisting a NVN-led and USSR/China sponsored and supported insurgency, with US aid and support. South Vietnam was a US-sponsored client in the US’s attempt to contain the spread of USSR/Chinese communist client states in Asia. While the SVN Government had been successfully resisting the communist insurgency, the government was destabilized by factional resistance groups intriguing against the authoritarian government of SVN led by Ngo Dinh Diem, who was overthrown in a military coup in November, 1963.

Throughout 1964, the SVN government was unstable, and this allowed the communists to make major gains. As a result of attacks on US Air Bases in South Vietnam, in March 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized the deployment of the 3rd and later the 4th Marine Regiments to South Vietnam to provide security to these bases. Finally, in June, 1965, the SVN government had stabilized, but the war effort was flagging, and the communists seemed to be gaining the upper hand. As well, intelligence estimates indicated the NVN were preparing to aid the VC in conducting major offensive operations in SVN (remember that NVA Division in the setup?). It was at this point that the Johnson Administration decided to commit US Force to actively engage the VC and NVA in SVN, moving from aid and assistance to Combat Operations.

So as setup occurs, the Marines are on the ground, and the drawing of leaders is the establishment of a new government. The question is, what are we going to do in Vietnam? Well, as the Theater Commander my mission is to:

Strategic Guidance: Aid the Republic of South Vietnam so that it may maintain the integrity of its borders, protect its population and resist aggression.

Given the current situation, the government is recently stabilized and the ARVN are weak. The VC are strong and an NVA Division has just infiltrated into the theater. I want to hit the NLF soonest and sharply to both prop up and stabilize the SVN Government and aid Pacification (bringing the population under government control) while increasing ARVN capabilities to ensure long term success.

Operational Concept: Deploy a large multi-division US force to aid SVN as quickly as possible while engaging in a massive effort to expand and upgrade ARVN forces. US firepower and mobility will be utilized in force and as soon as possible to end the current crisis and provide gains in the Pacification effort. NLF gains in Chinese and Soviet aid will mitigated by unrestrained bombing of NVN and the trail during the rapid buildup of US forces and ARVN materiel. The rapid buildup combined with unrestrained bombing will have the secondary effect of boosting SVN morale, aiding in the pacification effort and bringing stability to SVN’s political infrastructure.

To do the above, I plan to:

* Deploy the US Military in force much more quickly than occurred historically. I don’t want to arrive in penny packets throughout 1965 and 1966.
* This will be a long war, though, and I want to stay well below the historical high water mark of US commitment of mid-1968. I want to do everything possible to ensure that the US can leverage troops and support beyond the historic 1973 withdrawal date.

* I want to build up the ARVN and use them as an active partner earlier than the US did historically. This will aid me in accomplishing the first two goals.

Point of Divergence


Determining what you want to do with setup and in the Summer as the US Player is where the Point of Divergence occurs. I am not doing what the Johnson Administration did.

When SVN was going to heck in a hand basket, the Johnson Administration sent Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and later Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson to SVN to assess the situation and receive recommendations from the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Commander General William C. Westmoreland on what he thought he needed to actively aid the ARVN in Combat Operations. General Westmoreland came up with a number 44 Battalions to start by late Spring 1966, and ultimately 24 more through 1966, along with Airpower, transport assets and support troops to sustain those battalions. That equals roughly four Divisions to start, and another two through 1966. The Secretary McNamara concurred as did General Johnson. That plan was submitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who concurred. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, submitted this to the President. President Johnson concurred. However, he made one change.

The plan called for the call-up of Army Reserve and National Guard Units. This was intended to allow the US military to maintain a Strategic Reserve of ground forces in the US, as well as let the US Army adjust to the expansion and stress it would undergo due to the commitment of a large force overseas. You see, having divisions to send somewhere is not the same as maintaining divisions overseas in a combat theater. General Johnson was of the opinion that if the call up did not occur, the need to send replacement personnel over time would break down the unit cohesion of deployed battalions and rapidly replace experienced personnel with inexperienced personnel.

President Johnson did not want to call up any Army Reserve or National Guard units. In council with his National Security Advisors, he stated that he was concerned that it would provide the Chinese and Soviets an excuse to escalate their support to the NVN government. Venal political calculations also weighed in the decision. President Johnson had been elected 7 months prior saying things like “we are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” He also had an ambitious domestic agenda involving a War on Poverty and the creation of a “Great Society”. Congress had granted the President a blank check in August 1964 (with the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution) to “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” by North Vietnam against its neighbors. But Congress was a little more pensive when it came to a call up. LBJ didn’t want to spend any political capital on this commitment of force nor highlight it to the press, beyond the commitment of active duty forces. He lightly rapped Secretary McNamara’s knuckles, that part was struck out of the plan and the plan was handed back to General Wheeler for the Joint Chiefs to begin its execution.

The Honorable Warrior


“I remember the day I was ready to go over to the Oval Office and give my four stars to the President and tell him, `You have refused to tell the country they cannot fight a war without mobilization; you have required me to send men into battle with little hope of their ultimate victory; and you have forced us in the military to violate almost every one of the principles of war in Vietnam. Therefore, I resign and will hold a press conference after I walk out of your door.'”

Then, added General Johnson with a look of anguish, “I made the typical mistake of believing I could do more for the country and the Army if I stayed in than if I got out. I am now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage on my back.”

“To Change a War: General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study”, Lewis Sorley

For our game, in June 1965 General Johnson did walk down the hall to General Wheeler’s office and closed the door. They had a “free and frank exchange of views”. After about an hour, they made a visit to Secretary McNamara, and then they all went to the Oval Office. The President, sensing the potential political ramifications of the Army Chief of Staff’s resignation while committing forces to active combat operations in Vietnam, softened his stance. The plan is changed again. A temporary call up of select Army Reserve and National Guard Divisions would be authorized. Unrestrained bombing of NVN and the Ho Chi Minh Trail would be authorized through Summer 1966 at least to mitigate against any potential increase in commitment by the Chinese or Soviets in reaction to the US escalation. ARVN forces would be expanded and augmented. As well, the total 68 US battalion force would be available for operational use by MACV by Spring 1966.

Building a History — Initial Setup

I spent all supply and increased the SVN draft level to eight. I built all available ARVN Independent Battalions (BN) (18 Infantry BNs, 12 Armor BNs, and 6 Armored Cavalry BNs) and augmented all but one Armored Cav BN. In addition, I built 4 ARVN 105mm (Light) Artillery BNs. Finally, I built elements from every ARVN Division (11 Armored Cav BNs and one Brigade from of the Marine and Airborne Divisions, respectively). I did this for a few reasons. Firstly, this occupies every major city and provincial capital in SVN, and wouldn’t allow the NLF Commander to build any units at setup in those locations (which would hurt US and SVN morale as well as pacification efforts). Secondly, building an element from every division at minimal cost (for most, just the Armored CAV BN) would allow a Divisional Leader to be drawn for all ARVN Divisionsgiving me an idea of how good (or bad) they are before I invest further resources in any divisions.

I Corps — 3rd and 4th Marine regiments of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force (Division) are in Da Nang.


II Corps North — All Capitals and Major Cities are occupied. Nothing else of note.


II Corps South — All Capitals and Major Cities are occupied. Nothing else of note.


III Corps and Saigon/Gia Dinh Zone — Two Brigades are here; 1st RVN Marine Brigade in Saigon and the 1st Airborne Brigade in Bien Hoa.


IV Corps — All Capitals and Major Cities are occupied. Nothing else of note.


ARVN Leader Random Selection: As you can see below, History teases me with the Three Star Leader, Nguyen Cao Ky. He was historically the SVN Head of Government on June 28, 1965. He gives a -2 to SVN Morale and no modifier to US Morale every turn, so he is a mediocre leader. Neither good nor bad.

For the Two Star Leaders the selection was pretty good overall. The I Corps Commander has a high effectiveness rating of “4”. As well, the Chief of Staff is a “3”, a relief, given the impact he has on the game. “0” s and “1” s for the others aren’t too bad either. The Navy and Air Force Chiefs have no impact other than on Coup Determination (which we’ll discuss later).

Finally, the One Star Leaders, the Division Commanders. From Left to Right. Given their Corps Commander, the 1st Division Commander is workable. Then we have horrifically incompetent leaders until we get to the 9th Division Commander, who is fantastic. From that point on they are all decent or great. This bodes well for my plan to build and augment ARVN early and use them as an active partner offensively against the Communists from the start.


Building a History — The Other Side of the Hill
“Please Play This Music While Reading”

Communism is not love. Communism is a hammer which we use to crush the enemy.
–Mao Zedong

The next step is up to my opponent, Comrade Geryk. He will likely build VC Battalions and perhaps some VC Regiments which will give him some extra push on the battlefield. He may attempt to secure safe zones in the mountains. He may attempt to occupy towns in SVN which I could not garrison, and, if I want to succeed at Pacification, I must retake. Regardless, I have my Strategic Vision and Operational Concept of how to achieve it. If I begin to fail, I really won’t even be able to be aware of that that until we are well into 1966. What we will begin to see if this Strategic Vision surprises him at all. We will have signs of that only when we get to the Operations of Summer 1965. That will be my first sign.

NEXT: commitment, effectiveness, and other double entendres!