Why did US tactics fail in Vietnam?

A list of reasons the US tactics in Vietnam failed

Failures for the USA

  • Failure of Operation Rolling Thunder: The bombing campaign failed because the bombs often fell into empty jungle, missing their Vietcong targets. The Vietcong guerrillas knew the jungle and made use of elaborate underground bases and tunnels to shelter from US bombs, and often re-used unexploded American bombs against US soldiers.
  • Failure of Search and Destroy (My Lai Massacre): Search and Destroy missions were often based on poor military intelligence. The brutal tactics used by US troops often drove more Vietnamese civilians to support the Vietcong. In 1968 American soldiers, searching for Vietcong guerrillas, raided the village of My Lai, killing around 300 civilians, including children. The My Lai Massacre severely damaged America’s reputation and undermined support for the war at home.
  • Role of the media: Events like the My Lai Massacre were reported in the US press leading many ordinary Americans to question the war. Film footage of US soldiers burning homes and of the effects of napalm all turned public opinion against the war.
  • Lack of support back home: As the war dragged on more and more Americans began to oppose the war in Vietnam. Many people began to oppose the draft, and public figures, like the boxer Muhammad Ali, risked prison because of his refusal to go to Vietnam. In 1970, officers from the National Guard shot at anti-war protestors at Kent State University, killing four students. More people questioned the lengths their government would go to in support of this unpopular war.

Vietcong successes

  • Guerrilla warfare: The Vietcong used the cover of the jungle, which they knew well, to their advantage. They fought a hit-and-run guerrilla war against inexperienced American soldiers, many of whom were young conscripts. The threat of an invisible enemy and hidden traps like punji sticks – sharpened sticks of bamboo which were laid in traps - had a demoralising psychological impact on US troops.
  • Ho Chi Minh Trail: Vietcong guerrillas were kept well supplied by a constant stream of weapons from the North. These were carried on foot, by bicycle and mule along the Ho Chi Minh Trail - a jungle trail which wound through the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia and which was bombed by the US Army but never fully disrupted.
  • Tet Offensive: In 1968, the Vietcong used the cover of the Buddhist New Year (Tet) celebrations to change tactics and launch a massive attack on US-held areas across South Vietnam, including the US Embassy in Saigon. The attack was a success for the Vietcong and although ultimately they were driven back by the US Army, it showed the Americans that despite all the soldiers, bombs, and money spent in Vietnam, they were not making progress against the Vietcong or communism. Many historians see the Tet Offensive as a turning point in America’s mission in Vietnam. After it, President Johnson said that if the North Vietnamese launched another attack, Many men – on both sides of the struggle – will be lost… There is no need for this to be so. It’s likely to have been a factor in President Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election in 1968. He had often voiced concern about the rising number of American casualties of the War.