On January 2, 1963, the 7th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) engaged the 261st Main Force Battalion near the village of Ap Bac and the 415th Regional Battalion in Ap Tan Thoi. The American advisor to the 7th ARVN Division, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, had encouraged the move in order to achieve a quick and decisive victory against an enemy that had hurt the morale of the ARVN forces earlier in an October 1962 defeat of an ARVN ranger platoon. . . . In previous encounters with helicopters, the troops of the National Liberation Front (NLF) had fled or exposed themselves to ground and air fire . . . In this instance, the NLF practiced strict fire discipline and stood its ground along a tree and canal line, maintaining a strong defensive position. . . . It was not until early evening that the ARVN forces reinforced the troops fighting on the ground to such an extent that they forced the NLF to leave the battlefield. . . . Ap Bac was a lesson for the South Vietnamese military and American advisers who were filled with frustration at opportunities lost. It also marked the beginning of more pronounced media criticism of the ARVN and the American military role in the war after Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, commander General Paul Harkins declared that the operation was a success, because the ARVN had secured Ap Bac. (54-55)During the half century since that battle, American military advisors in Vietnam, journalists on the scene, and historians of the war have weighed in on a number of related questions. What exactly happened at Ap Bac? Why did the engagement unfold as it did? What were the keys to the Viet Cong victory? Why was the ARVN so soundly defeated in spite of its having what seemed to be every advantage? How did Gen. Harkins’ ridiculous, upbeat reports on the battle expose and perhaps reinforce inconsistencies within both the ARVN and American military? And how did those inconsistencies damage the relationship between American military leaders and the international press?
In what follows, my goal is to discern some answers to at least a few of those questions by exploring an array of important contributions to the historiography of the battle of Ap Bac, and to see how each source compares to and contrasts with the others. Is it possible to see a defined picture, one that fits with a coherent interpretation of the rest of the war?
A good place to begin is with the Pulitzer-prize winning book A Bright Shining Lie, by journalist Neil Sheehan. First published in 1988, Sheehan’s work is essentially two books which the author names in the subtitle: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Basic to his widely-read account is Sheehan’s idea that the life of John Vann, an incredibly talented yet deeply flawed American military officer, is a powerful lens through which to view the much larger landscape of the war.
For my purposes here, the most significant aspect of Sheehan’s work is that he devotes all of Book III to “The Battle of Ap Bac.” Beyond that, the first several pages of Book IV, “Taking On the System,” recount the aftermath of the battle. In all, Sheehan provides 80 pages directly focused on Ap Bac (i.e., 203-83). Something else makes his narrative especially important: Sheehan was himself part of the press corps in Vietnam at the time, and actually traveled to the scene the morning after the battle. Years later, along with his interviews with several military leaders who were involved in the battle, the author consulted the finest of primary sources: “John Vann’s exhaustive after-action report” and “the equally thorough Viet Cong report that was later captured,” which, Sheehan notes, “tended to corroborate each other” (805-06).
Sheehan’s account establishes, or at least identifies and reinforces, several important particulars associated with the Battle of Ap Bac. First, regarding its relative significance, Sheehan not only devotes an entire section to Ap Bac, he calls it “the first great battle of the American war in Vietnam” (199), one “that would affect the course of the war” (205).
Second, the Viet Cong at Ap Bac had the advantage of excellent intelligence. They “knew that an attack was coming on the morning of January 2, 1963” (206). Consequently, according to Sheehan’s account, they had established the best possible positions. They were dug in so deeply and camouflaged so well that not even their muzzle fire revealed their positions. To top it all off, they also had a solid escape plan. By contrast, the American planner who served under Vann estimated that there would be no more than 120 Viet Cong regulars, if that many, protecting the target, a VC radio transmitter located at nearby Tan Thoi. In fact, there were approximately three times that many guerillas waiting (205).
Third, by the time of Ap Bac the Viet Cong were trained in tactics designed to neutralize the ARVN advantage of using American helicopters and M-113 armored personnel carriers. They had been training to lead and shoot moving aircraft (218-19), a technique at which they apparently had become well-practiced. From Sheenan’s description it also seems clear that the VC had some idea of how they might slay the “green dragons,” their name for the feared M-113s. Their tactic was to shoot at the exposed, unprotected machine gunners and drivers of the M-113s once they came within range. Then, after the machines had stopped, the guerillas would explode grenades thrown onto or just above the carriers, wounding and demoralizing the troops inside (255-57).
Fourth, a hesitancy that often appeared to stem from sheer cowardice undermined the ARVN “attack” throughout the day. Sheehan tells, for example, how ARVN lieutenants refused to allow American advisor Sgt. 1st Class Arnold Bowers to use their radios, sometimes feigning that they could not understand English. It became clear to Bowers that if he were allowed to use the radio, the lieutenants might be ordered to do something they didn’t want to do (224-25).
Fifth, in the aftermath of the Ap Bac catastrophe, the relationships between the American military, the press, and the American people began to change. Hours after the Viet Cong had been permitted to make a clean getaway, John Vann did not attempt to hide his rage, even in the presence of the international press. What made matters even worse was that Gen. Harkins seemed to believe the duplicitous reports of the ARVN’s General Huynh Van Cao. Too, Harkins did not appreciate Vann’s withering post-battle write up, and he resented the colonel’s angry conviction that what the ARVN turned in at Ap Bac was “a miserable damn performance” (277). It soon became clear to some observers that, although Harkins was not the only one, he was the most prominent example of an American military leader involved in Vietnam who saw only what he wanted to see. Sheehan, speaking for himself and other representatives of the American press in Vietnam, says that until that time, they “believed in what our government said it was trying to accomplish in Vietnam, and we wanted our country to win this war just as passionately as Vann and his captains did” (271). But by then, things had changed: “Ap Bac was putting Vietnam on the front pages and on the television evening news shows with a drama that no other event had yet achieved” (278).
On the question of relationships between the American people, the press, and the U.S. military in Vietnam, perhaps no other scholar has conducted more research than William M. Hammond. In two early books, Hammond provided exhaustive treatments of the military and media in Vietnam during the years 1962-68 and 1968-73. Later, he condensed all the material from those two previous volumes and produced a smaller, more manageable work designed for a broader audience: Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War, published in 1998. Hammond relates that in the aftermath of the battle of Ap Bac, editorials and commentaries that appeared in American newspapers “were biting.”
"The Washington Daily News, for example, termed Ap Bac a ‘humiliation.’ The Baltimore Sun described the enemy ‘slipping away . . . ahead of a half-hearted Vietnamese pursuit.’ The Detroit Free Press wondered how Diem’s harsh dictatorship could give peasant soldiers any motive to fight at all" (9).
Consequently, in spite of Gen. Harkins’ defense of the ARVN and his upbeat assessment of the progress of the mission in Vietnam, Ap Bac “marked a divide in the history of the war. . . . After it, [American reporters] decided their government was lying and withdrew” (9).
In an environment that became more and more poisonous over time, the U.S. government held at least a temporary advantage: the administration largely controlled the information on which the news media depended. Hammond observes that what eventually broke the ensuing stalemate between the government and the news media was the American public, which chose to go “its own way.” Americans, he says, followed “their own third course, exercising their own independence of mind, and displaying a substantial measure of contempt for all those in the press and government who had sought to manipulate them over the years.” The American people, weary of reading about the “many deaths and contradictions . . . moved to repudiate the earlier decision.” When they did, it was relatively easy for the American press to follow. By contrast, the U.S. military “lacked the ability to do the same.” Wanting to retain whatever honor they could, emotionally tied to the prospect of some sort of victory, leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces “fixed their anger on the press, the most visible element of the society that appeared to have rejected them” (296). A disappointing story, Hammond’s account basically confirms Sheehan’s view that the battle of Ap Bac marked a true turning point in America’s involvement in Vietnam.
When it comes to the question of how and why the Viet Cong could have been so well prepared at Ap Bac, very few other books would be able to match the penetrating insight provided by Larry Berman’s, Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnamese Communist Agent, published in 2007. Berman, a good researcher and a fine writer, tells the riveting story of Pham Xuan An, a bright young Vietnamese who officially became a Communist in 1953, and was sponsored and guided by the party to become a spy, likely the best to ever work for the North Vietnamese government. After he attended Orange Coast College in California during the late 1950s, An returned to Saigon and developed relationships with a large number of Americans as well as high-ranking officials in the Diem regime and the South Vietnamese army. Having gained the trust of so many important, well-connected people, An was able to learn the information that only they would know, and acquire copies of documents that he would, in turn, pass along to fellow spies who eventually delivered it to Hanoi. It was in this context that An was able to provide the Viet Cong with the information they needed in order to learn how they could fight against the helicopters and armored personnel carriers which the Americans were providing to the ARVN. “For weeks beforehand,” says Berman, “in order to calculate the most effective shooting range, [the People’s Liberated Armed Forces] had been practicing in the nearby Plain of Reeds by attaching to bamboo poles cardboard models of Shawnee and Huey helicopters that emulated their flight characteristics” (141). Three months after Ap Bac, the CIA observed that “the Viet Cong evidently have been able to maintain intelligence coverage of virtually every level in the South Vietnamese military and civil establishment” (143). An’s clandestine work in behalf of Hanoi was the essential substance behind that report.
Interestingly enough, however, An himself attributed the VC victory at Ap Bac to more than the preparations of the underdogs. He suggested that the Diem regime’s paranoid emphasis on loyalty to the virtual exclusion of professional competence was the undoing of the ARVN. “Diem had generals who should have never received their assignments,” said An, “but they were promoted because they kissed the hand of Nhu and Diem” (142). Here we see a corroboration of especially two parts of Sheehan’s extended narrative. First, the Viet Cong at Ap Bac were prepared far better than anyone among the ARVN or American military ever would have guessed. Berman’s account provides a large part of the explanation for how they could have achieved such a high level of preparedness. Second, Berman’s book also corroborates and helps to explain the obstinate, sluggish responses of ARVN commanders and troops, as well as the frustrations of American military advisors like Vann and Bowers.
Among the more-recent accounts of the Vietnam War, perhaps no project has been more controversial than the one initiated by Mark Moyar in Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1968. The author explains that this book, published in 2006, is the first in a proposed two-volume work covering the entire war. The division between the two comes at July 28, 1965, when President Johnson announced a massive American build up in Vietnam (xi). Moyar candidly explains that his work represents a particular, minority view of the war known as the revisionist school. Orthodox, conventional scholars, who make up the majority, see the war as “wrongheaded and unjust.” Moyar and his revisionist cohort, on the other hand, see it as “a noble but improperly executed enterprise” (xi).
Within this context, Moyar goes to great lengths to overturn the typical reading of Ap Bac. Still in the “Preface,” he asserts that John Paul Vann, the central figure in Sheehan’s Bright Shining Lie, “was more dishonest in dealing with the press than Sheehan ever acknowledged” (xvi). As part of his project to dismantle the reigning orthodox view of the war, Moyar insists that Ho Chi Minh was not a frustrated Vietnamese nationalist who hated the Chinese and adopted Communism only after he was rebuffed by the Americans. In fact, Ho became enamored with the dream of international Communism when he studied and worked in France and Russia while still a young man (1-31). Ngo Dinh Diem, by contrast, was a bright cultural conservative who welcomed advances in technology. Diem was a great man who bravely endured culturally-insensitive, dim-witted Americans (37-38), who turned out to be disloyal to him (115-16). Had it not been for their treacherous meddling, Diem likely could have led South Vietnam to victory. “Supporting the coup of November 1963” which resulted in the deaths of Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, “was by far the worst American mistake of the Vietnam War” (xvi). And, the much-maligned domino theory expressed by President Eisenhower and adopted by his successors was essentially sound (138-39).
Given his very different take on the main outline of the Vietnam War, it comes as no surprise that Moyar also reads the Battle of Ap Bac in a contrasting light. In his chapter devoted to the battle, Moyar offers an alternative view of at least four features in the story. First, John Paul Vann’s strategy for the battle was deeply flawed from the beginning. In the hours and days after the battle, Vann, a deceitful self-promoter, placed virtually all of the blame for the loss on the ARVN leadership and troops in order to cover his own responsibility. The Saigon troops were not guilty of complete cowardice and ineptitude. Second, when Vann bitterly complained about the ARVN, and also about his superior officers, young newsmen like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, none the wiser, took in his half-truths and reported the misrepresentation to the world. Moyar points out that journalist Richard Tregaskis, who had become famous for his World War II diaries, offered a different, much more positive and accurate view on what was happening in Vietnam. But tragically, the reports that came from the likes of Halberstam and Sheehan were read and believed by a large majority of Americans. This marked a significant difference between the foreign press that American military leaders dealt with during the Second World War and in Korea. While still a U.S. Army General, Dwight Eisenhower preferred to keep the news upbeat and optimistic, and the press, for the most part, cooperated. By contrast, the representatives of the press in Vietnam assumed that U.S. military leaders were either deluded or were cynically attempting to pull the wool over their eyes. Third, says Moyar, in spite of their victories at places like Ap Bac, the Viet Cong would never be strong in the Mekong Delta. Going up against superior fire power in rice paddies added up to an insurmountable problem for the VC. Moyar insists that the real theater of potential victory for the Communists was in the central highlands, much closer to North Vietnam (186-205).
Moyar concludes that, as it was with the entire Vietnam War, so it was with Ap Bac: the problems did not relate to the legitimacy or the fundamental goals of the United States. Rather, the decisive problems related to the execution of the war and its portrayal in the popular media.
With his title, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War 1945-1975, published in 2009, John Prados unmistakably identifies himself as an orthodox historian of the war. What’s more, Prados insists that the critical points in his three-decade span of time were the early years:
"As will become evident, the core argument advanced here is that, whatever the intentions and aims of American leaders, the United States acted within a context defined along political, military, foreign policy, social, and economic dimensions--in effect, an “envelope”--and that envelope narrowed over time due to developments in all those fields" (xi).
Prados also believes that the wide variety and large number of histories related to the Vietnam War are essentially "atomized." They do not report a "unified field theory." Instead, one discusses U.S. presidential politics, another deals with a certain important battle, another examines the Diem regime, and so on. (In his bibliographical essay at the end of his book, Prados seems to indicate that if one of his predecessors had done a good job of writing something that approximated a unified field theory, it was the late Stanley Karnow).
Because Prados is convinced that whichever way the war turned, it was largely doomed by the end of the Eisenhower years, he does not give nearly as much attention to Ap Bac as does Moyar. Prados situates Ap Bac in the context of Diem’s incompetent behavior and decline, which led to his being murdered as U.S. officials stepped away from him:
"In January 1963 a fight took place at a village called Ap Bac in the delta. This time, despite ARVN’s considerable numerical superiority, as well as mechanized troops and helicopters courtesy of the United States, the PLAF unit not only stood its ground but actually defeated the attackers, who suffered many casualties. . . . Diem replaced neither of the responsible commanders. Kennedy had to notice. If strategic hamlets were to work, they had to be shielded by the ARVN. As for the adversary, the Liberation Front wasted no time exploiting Ap Bac as a psychological success, with propaganda to emulate, or replicate, the victory. . . . Had Diem spent as much effort prosecuting the war and making his government a dynamic alternative to the NLF as he did countering antipathy toward the Ngo family, the military would have been no problem. Instead, the palace openly played with officer assignments and posts made desirable by opportunities for corruption" (75).
In this way, then, Prados’s discussion both assumes and advances his unequivocal judgment about the war in general. Clearly speaking directly to Moyar, he writes: “Triumph was not forsaken in Vietnam, nor victory lost; there was no day that the war was won, except for Hanoi on April 29, 1975, when its troops marched into Saigon” (546).
Historians will continue to debate the event and significance of the Battle of Ap Bac. It is also certain that they will continue to see the battle as either a turning point in the war or, giving it less significance, at least a reflection of larger, even more important movements as a tragic story in twentieth century military history unfolded.
Berman, Larry. Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent. New York: HarperCollins/Smithsonian, 2007.
Frankum, Ronald B., Jr. Historical Dictionary of the War in Vietnam. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Hammond, William M. Reporting Vietnam: Media and Military at War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Moyar, Mark. Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Prados, John. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2009.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 1989.