The Tet Offensive and the Media
Teaser Image

People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, NVA): Vietnam War

Military establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), comprising regular and reserve ground forces and small naval and air components. Over a 30-year span, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) evolved from a small insurgent group into one of the world's largest armed forces. The PAVN's roots can be traced to the various nationalist military units that battled the French and Japanese during the 1930s and 1940s. The impetus to build an army came with the Viet Minh resistance during World War II. Originally an umbrella organization that included non-Communist elements, by 1944 the Viet Minh was dominated by Ho Chi Minh's Communist Party. On December 22 of that year, the party laid the foundation for what would become the PAVN with the establishment of the first Armed Propaganda Team. Comprised of 31 men and 3 women and commanded by Vo Nguyen Giap, this unit became the party's first full-time formation and served a political as well as military role. Supplied with only a few old weapons, including muzzle-loading flintlocks, the Armed Propaganda Team provided the model for future units.

Under Giap's leadership, the task of army building went forward. Armed Propaganda Teams, various guerrilla bands, and other independent resistance groups were combined in May 1945 to form the Vietnam Liberation Army with Giap in overall command. Later that year, this small force of only a few thousand people spearheaded the August Revolution, after which Ho proclaimed Vietnamese independence and the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).

Renamed the Vietnam National Defense Army, the force remained largely a guerrilla army, capable of only small-unit operations as practiced during the struggle against the Japanese. But with the DRV's formation came an aggressive drive to expand the army. This coincided with the French decision to reassert primacy in Vietnam and the resultant Indo-China War (1946-1954). The fledgling DRV military force was soon designated the People's Army of Vietnam.

Although the army grew steadily during the war, initially it lacked organization, training, and weapons. Forced to rely on captured French and Japanese equipment, the PAVN fought a largely defensive guerrilla war. Victories along the northern border with China allowed the establishment of staging areas and training bases in that country. It also opened the door to increased assistance from the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Viet Minh prosecuted the war in various phases, building to large-scale conventional warfare. The first PAVN infantry division, formed in 1949, went into action in 1951 and was followed by five more, but throughout the war most of the fighting was done by regional or local forces while the regulars were used sparingly and withheld for major actions such as the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Local units supplied reconnaissance and logistical support and often bolstered combat formations; regional forces carried out much of the everyday fighting. The acquisition of field artillery (captured French and recently supplied Chinese guns) to augment heavily employed mortars led to the advent of heavy divisions and helped facilitate the shift to conventional warfare and the 1954 victory at Dien Bien Phu that prompted the French withdrawal from Vietnam. Throughout the Indo-China War, a lack of transport vehicles forced the Viet Minh to rely almost exclusively on thousands of porters to supply forces in the field. At war's end, the PAVN numbered some 380,000 soldiers, of whom approximately 120,000 were considered regulars. The Viet Minh had been nominally a united front organization, and the PAVN reflected this on a small scale.

With victory over the French came a rapid consolidation by the Communists of both political and military organizations. The Communist Party held sway in the DRV as the PAVN's composition boldly illustrated; an overwhelming majority of PAVN officers were party members, and most of the soldiers had received political indoctrination.

The 1954 Geneva Accords that mandated a partition of Vietnam allowed a 300-day regroupment period during which almost 1 million people fled the North for the South. Some 80,000 Viet Minh soldiers, mostly regional and local troops who had carried the bulk of the fighting in the South, returned to the North. Some 10,000 veterans remained in the South and would form the core of the future People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF).

The unification of Vietnam became the Communist Party's overriding goal. In 1956 Le Duan, an influential member of the party's Central Military Committee, went to the South to assess the situation and prepare for the job of unification. The following year, PAVN guerrillas attacked Minh Thanh in Thu Dau Mot Province, signaling the beginning of the Vietnam War.

DRV leaders now focused on the modernization and professionalization of their army. The government mandated compulsory military service and intensified training for all officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). It also instituted uniform regulations and formalized the command structure. It established formal ranks and insignia for a force that had operated without these mainstays of Western armies. The influx of war materiel from the PRC and the USSR—namely artillery, T-34 medium tanks, and airplanes—led to the formation of artillery and armor units and a small air force. The army still lacked adequate transport and remained heavily infantry oriented.

Unification drove military planning in the late 1950s. The Fifteenth Party Plenum in May 1959 determined that the time was ripe to press the initiative. Acting on Le Duan's recommendations, the party moved to build an army in the South based upon the Armed Propaganda Team that could evolve into a conventional force. The 1954 Geneva Accords restricted the PAVN to areas north of the 17th parallel; therefore, the chief instrument of insurrection in the South became the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam or National Liberation Front (NLF), a nominally indigenous united-front organization that opposed the U.S.-supported Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and its President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Although the DRV denied any involvement in the southern insurrection, it was clearly involved. The NLF's military branch—the People's Liberation Armed Forces (known to the United States as the Viet Cong)—was comprised largely of southern volunteers and carried out most of the fighting against RVN and U.S. forces prior to 1968. It contained main force and guerrilla components and reached a total strength of almost 400,000 before the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Although Hanoi insisted that the southern guerrilla war be self-sufficient, it provided vital assistance in the form of experienced leadership, technical support, and supplies. The DRV directed the southern effort through its command apparatus, later known as the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). Additionally, PAVN soldiers who had gone north during the regroupment were infiltrated to the South, forming the bulk of PLAF main force units. Still, throughout the Vietnam War, the PAVN and the PLAF viewed themselves as separate entities. After the war, Hanoi claimed sponsorship of the PLAF—much to the disgust of many PLAF veterans.

The most important aspect of the DRV's early involvement was logistical support. The 1959 commitment to escalate its involvement in the South led to the creation of Group 559 to infiltrate troops and supplies southward on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was constantly expanded and improved by PAVN engineers and defended by PAVN infantry and antiaircraft units. Group 759 was charged with supplying southern forces by water, while Group 959 was developed to support the Pathet Lao in Laos. These efforts, especially that of Group 559, contributed hugely to the Communist victory.

Until 1965 the PLAF conducted a usually low-level "people's war," employing its guerrilla forces against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and its Regional and Popular Forces. Political action was equally important to the southern effort, and NLF and Communist Party cadres worked to exploit local dissatisfaction with the Saigon government. But with the commitment of U.S. combat troops, the DRV found it increasingly necessary to augment PLAF formations and finally to commit regular units. The PAVN initially operated in the Central Highlands south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to keep U.S. and ARVN forces from concentrating PLAF activities further south. This was especially the case prior to the 1968 Tet Offensive, as entire PAVN divisions moved below the DMZ in a diversionary effort to draw U.S. and ARVN attentions from the targeted areas in the South.

Tet became a military disaster that destroyed the fighting effectiveness of the PLAF, who bore the brunt of the fighting and took devastating losses. Thereafter PAVN regulars assumed the leading combat role and took on an increasingly conventional profile with a large influx of tanks, artillery, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The regular PAVN divisions, which mainly conducted the 1972 Spring Offensive in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops, were beaten back by the ARVN with the aid of substantial U.S. air support. After almost three years of preparation that included massive troop and equipment buildups, the PAVN unleashed its final offensive—the 1975 Ho Chi Minh Campaign directed by Senior General Van Tien Dung—that overpowered ARVN defenders and culminated in the fall of Saigon.

The PAVN was also responsible for the DRV's defense. PAVN regional and local forces augmented by as many as 2 million civilian militia stood guard against ground attack and staffed coastal defenses. The PAVN, with substantial technical assistance from the PRC and the USSR, operated what became one of the worlds heaviest air defense systems, including tightly arrayed radar-guided SAM and antiaircraft gun sites. A small PAVN naval contingent operated a few dozen small craft—mostly patrol and torpedo boats—and devoted itself to coastal defense. Its most notable Vietnam War participation came during the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incidents. The PAVN's air branch grew steadily during the conflict—thanks to the influx of Soviet warplanes—but never assumed more than a limited defensive posture against the U.S. Air Force.

PAVN tactics were dictated by its various stages of engagement and ranged from guerrilla to big-unit conventional warfare. "Death Volunteer" units attracted much attention. These pressed the close-in battle against French strong points, especially at Dien Bien Phu, but against the Americans, all troops pressed in close. Such "hugging tactics" were intended to place PAVN troops too close for U.S. forces to risk using artillery for fear of killing their own personnel. These tactics achieved mixed success against U.S. forces but proved eminently effective against all but the most elite ARVN troops.

Strengths and Weaknesses
Training and combat cohesion were critical elements of PAVN success. Its conscripts were highly motivated and received nearly four months of basic training before reporting to their units for specific training requirements. More importantly, in contrast to their counterparts in the South, PAVN NCOs and technical personnel received extensive military and political motivational training as well as technical instruction. The result was an army of conscripts led by a technically competent and highly motivated noncommissioned officer corps. The officers corps received even more intensive training. All activities, social and military, were centered around the unit. The result was a tightly knit, intensely cohesive force. Additionally, all PAVN units contained both military and political leaders of equal stature. Military and political objectives were inseparable.

Logistics were key to PAVN success. Its units were weapons-intensive formations with few logistics and support personnel. Thus, supplies were husbanded carefully and dispersed in hidden caches around likely operating areas and stockpiled near the objective well in advance of an offensive. When necessary, local labor was recruited or conscripted to haul supplies to new locations or units in the field. For example, tens of thousands of porters were recruited to transport supplies and heavy weapons used at Dien Bien Phu. Likewise, the deployment of regular forces to South Vietnam was preceded by logistics preparations along the deployment route. The construction of barracks and rest facilities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail began in 1965, each base being about one day's march apart. The PAVN ultimately constructed two fuel pipelines along the trail before it dispatched tanks to the South. Storage areas were built underground in staging areas within PAVN sanctuaries inside Cambodia and South Vietnam's A Shau Valley, from which supplies were then transported to caches deeper in South Vietnam. Sea and river transport was used whenever possible. Communist flag merchant ships also carried supplies to Cambodia's Sihanoukville (Kompong Som) for transport into South Vietnam. In fact, this was the most common delivery means for heavier materials prior to 1970. Cambodia's entry into the war in 1972 cut this supply route. Supplies were also smuggled through Vietnam's coastal waters until 1975, although U.S. and RVN interdiction efforts proved increasingly successful. By 1973 the bulk of PAVN supplies entered South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Equipment was initially a PAVN weakness. Regular divisions were equipped with a homogenous array of weapons after 1951. Originally the small arms were of Japanese origin, but French small arms predominated in the regular infantry until 1960.

Artillery and mortars initially came from surrendered French and Japanese stocks, but beginning in the early 1960s they were gradually replaced by Soviet and Communist Chinese weapons. By 1965 PAVN divisions contained artillery regiments equipped with Soviet 122-mm guns and howitzers, in addition to a wide range of mortars (60- to 160-mm) and rocket launcher systems (120- to 130-mm).

Small arms were standardized around Communist-bloc models as numbers became available. The 7.62-mm SKS carbine and AK47 assault rifle were the standard infantry weapons, while the Soviet RPD light machine gun or its Chinese version provided the squad's automatic fire support element. Every platoon had Soviet-psoduced rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPG-7s) after 1965. These supplemented the battalions 57-mm and 75-mm recoilless rifles. Soviet and American heavy machine guns (12.7-mm and .50-caliber, respectively) could also be found in the battalion's heavy weapons company, but mortars were the primary heavy support weapon below division level.

Tanks were introduced in the 1950s. Captured French and Japanese models were discarded after 1954 and were replaced in limited quantities by Chinese and Soviet light and medium tanks. The PT76 was the first tank the PAVN deployed southward. It was relatively easy to infiltrate into South Vietnam because its light weight and amphibious capabilities enabled it to cross rivers and use all but the most primitive roads. The heavier and more powerful T54 medium tank was not deployed until after the Ho Chi Minh Trail was improved in 1968. Organized into independent battalions, tanks were deployed against key objectives and astride critical lines of communications. The movement of its armored units signified PAVN intentions after 1970. Since the DRV did not produce its own tanks, these almost irreplaceable weapons were husbanded even more carefully than were supplies, and they were held in reserve for decisive battles. During the 1972 Spring (Easter) Offensive, the PAVN used T54s for the first time (at Dong Ha). But PAVN commanders seemed not to grasp the importance of combined armor-infantry tactics. Several tanks moved forward to attack without any infantry support and were destroyed easily by ARVN M72s. Heavy losses in the failed 1972 Spring Offensive put a temporary halt to offensive operations until more tanks could be acquired. The PAVN employed nearly 400 medium tanks in the vanguard of the final offensive that conquered Saigon in 1975. That drive marked the PAVN's successful transition to a highly trained mechanized infantry force equal to all but the world's very best conventional armies.

The PAVN was General Giap's creation. Its tactics, strategy, and organizational structure all emanated from his genius. His protégés and assistants served him well, if not perfectly. General Nguyen Chi Thanh ably commanded the PLAF and the war effort in the South from 1965 until his death in 1967. But he and General Giap grossly overestimated the South Vietnamese people's desire for "revolution" and his forces suffered accordingly. The 1968 Tet Offensive was a major military disaster, but it paid unexpected political dividends.

Giap and his generals learned from their mistakes. They modified their tactics to minimize their exposure to U.S. firepower. Few can fault Senior General Van Tien Dung's 1975 drive on Saigon. More significantly, PAVN military strategy was integrated with that of their political leaders and diplomats. Thus, the DRV's military and diplomatic activities were mutually supporting, something that their opponents never achieved during either the Indo-China or Vietnam War. The PAVN could also rely on the excellent Communist support system that provided food, labor, and military intelligence.

At war's end in 1975, the PAVN numbered nearly 1 million troops, despite loses announced in April 1995 at 1.1 million Communist fighters killed between 1954 and 1975—a figure that includes both Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam and PAVN personnel. PLAF formations were either disbanded or absorbed by the PAVN. But the fighting was far from over. In 1978 the PAVN invaded Cambodia and occupied the country until 1989. In response to this, PRC forces attacked into northern Vietnam in early 1979 but withdrew after intense resistance from PAVN regular and regional forces. By the mid-1980s the PAVN represented the world's third largest standing army, trailing only the PRC and the USSR. Severe economic conditions and the loss of Soviet aid prompted dramatic force reductions, but the PAVN remains a formidable armed force.

Carl O. Schuster and David Coffey

Further Reading
Lanning, Michael L., and Dan Cragg. Inside the VC and the NVA. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.; Miller, David. "Giap's Army." War Monthly 28 (July 1976): 26–33.; Pike, Douglas. The People's Army of Vietnam. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1986.; Terzani, Tiziano. Giai Phong: The Fall and Liberation of Saigon. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.; Vo Nguyen Giap. Big Victory, Great Task. New York: Praeger, 1968.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

ABC-cLIO Footer