From the birth of NFLSV in 1960, Washington policymakers claimed that Hanoi alone directed the armed struggle in South Vietnam. Key members of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations argued that the flow of troops and supplies from North to South kept the revolution alive. This remained the underpinning of the official explanation for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and provided its justification. Stop this externally supported insurgency, U.S. officials believed, and South Vietnam could be stabilized. Those who opposed U.S. intervention argued on the other hand that the insurgency was essentially a civil war. They suggested that the NFLSV was a southern organization that had risen at southern initiative in response to southern demands.
The NFLSV, known as the Viet Cong by its enemies, was a classic Communist front organization comprised of Communists and non-Communists. It was organized with the purpose of mobilizing the anti-Diem forces in southern society. As with its predecessors, the Viet Minh and Lien Viet fronts, the NFLSV made temporary alliances with all elements of southern society who opposed American intervention and the Saigon regime. Nguyen Van Thieu, supposedly a non-Communist, presided over the NFLSV. But it clearly was dominated by Communist Party members.
The NFLSV's military arm was the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF). PLAF attacks against U.S. Army installations at Pleiku and Quy Nhon in February 1965 convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson and members of his administration that something had to be done to stop the infiltration of soldiers and supplies. It was impossible, the president concluded, to build a stable government in Saigon while the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and its Communist supporters waged a war of aggression. Johnson therefore ordered retaliatory attacks on North Vietnamese targets that paved the way for Operation ROLLING THUNDER, the sustained bombing policy that many of his advisors had long advocated. Punishing the DRV for NFLSV military action in the South became standard U.S. policy. PLAF attacks also changed the scope of U.S. military requirements on the ground. In late February 1965 Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) commander General William Westmoreland requested two U.S. Marine battalions to protect the air base at Da Nang from NFLSV reprisal attacks. President Johnson approved Westmoreland's request, and the first U.S. ground troops came ashore in Vietnam in March 1965.
Over time, the mission of the U.S. troops changed from protection of air bases to interdiction and combat against combined PLAF and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces. The U.S. strategy was based on attrition—Westmoreland hoping he could inflict a higher casualty rate among the PLAF and the PAVN than either could replace. Theoretically, the end result would be a diminishing of Communist will and a negotiated settlement.
The NFLSV reached its zenith during the 1968 Tet Offensive when the Communists launched a coordinated attack against key urban centers throughout the South. Although it suffered tremendous military losses, the NFLSV, many scholars have concluded, gained a tremendous psychological victory over the Americans and their Saigon allies. The Front had demonstrated its ability to attack heavily guarded cities, long thought of as the base of support for the Saigon regime. In addition, the PLAF attack on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon produced political upheaval in Washington and caused many longtime supporters of the war to question the Johnson administration's optimistic predictions. Shortly after the Tet Offensive, peace talks opened in Paris and the NFLSV sent its own representatives, Nguyen Thi Binh and Tran Buu Kiem, to the conference.
In 1969 the NFLSV oversaw the creation of a government-in-waiting, the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). The PRG hoped to come to full power in the South after the political and military struggles were concluded. As the war dragged on, PAVN conventional forces played a more active role in the southern strategy. Eventually, this created a great deal of tension between the NFLSV and northern party leaders in Hanoi. After the fall of Saigon, only a handful of NFLSV officials were incorporated into the new national government. Robert K. Brigham
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Robert K. Brigham