This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most consequential battles in American history. Most Americans have probably never heard of the Ia Drang Valley, the site of the first major encounter between the regular armies of the United States and North Vietnam. Yet that forgotten battle at Ia Drang in mid-November 1965 probably changed world politics more than any other military engagement since World War II.
Following the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the United States began sending men and materiel to South Vietnam. For over a year, American troops served primarily as advisors to the South Vietnamese Army fighting Viet Cong guerillas. Although over a thousand Americans were killed during that time, most deaths occurred in brief skirmishes with the guerillas.
That changed in November 1965, when North Vietnam infiltrated thousands of crack soldiers through the Ho Chi Minh trail into the rural Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Using tactics similar to those used successfully against the French a decade before, the North Vietnamese prepared a deadly ambush in the Ia Drang Valley for the undermanned battalion of the American 7th Cavalry Division. Several thousand against several hundred.
In a brutal four-day battle, the badly outnumbered Americans were surrounded and nearly annihilated. The 7th Cav was saved, barely, by brilliant leadership, last-minute reinforcements, and a new weapon of war – the armed helicopter. The helicopters, or Hueys, were used day and night to transport troops and supplies, evacuate wounded, and launch withering fire on the enemy. The battle of Ia Drang marked the beginning of airmobile infantry warfare.
The mop-up lasted more than a month but after four days each side took stock. Although little territory actually changed hands, both sides claimed victory. In reality, each army suffered horrific losses. The United States lost nearly 250 men and had 250 wounded during the heaviest fighting. For America, November 1965 became the deadliest month of the Vietnam War to date, and Americans became familiar with the term “body bag”. North Vietnamese losses were staggering – perhaps ten times greater than American casualties.
The most important implications of Ia Drang, however, were the lessons the military and political leadership of both countries drew from the battle. In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson sent Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Saigon to assess conditions. McNamara prepared a memo informing Johnson the North Vietnamese were far stronger than earlier assessments. McNamara presented two options – either quick diplomatic settlement and withdrawal from Vietnam, or a major escalation of American troops. Johnson and his advisors including McNamara chose the latter, a fateful decision for America, with implications that still resonate today. Within a year, the draft was expanded and American troop strength in Vietnam doubled.
The American general responsible for prosecuting the war, William Westmoreland, shaped his overall strategy based on events at Ia Drang. With 200,000 fresh troops at his disposal, he believed that, based on the ratio of North Vietnamese casualties to American casualties, he could successfully wage a war of attrition. If enough enemy soldiers were killed, North Vietnam would capitulate. Thus was born the “body count”.
It was a foolish, and self-defeating, strategy. Too often, engagements had no strategic purpose other than to inflict losses. Of course, this meant more American deaths as well. When the stubborn Westmoreland informed a senator they were killing the enemy at a 10:1 ratio, the senator replied, “The American people don’t care about the ten. They care about the one.” Two years later, with victory nowhere in sight, Westmoreland was sacked after requesting more troops, and President Johnson declined to run for another term.
The North Vietnamese absorbed their own lessons from Ia Drang. Despite heavy casualties, they had fought the vaunted American Army, and its awesome airpower, to a standstill. Because the Americans were ordered not to pursue the enemy into Cambodia, the North Vietnamese could choose where and when to fight, and then simply break off the encounter by retreating into Cambodia to rest and regroup.
General Vo Nguyen Giap, Westmoreland’s North Vietnamese counterpart, quickly grasped the significance of the helicopter as a tool of war. Giap, one of the 20th Century’s most brilliant generals, masterminded victory over the French in the 1950’s and the Americans in the 1960’s. Dubbed Vietnam’s “Red Napoleon”, he realized American airpower could be partially neutralized by close quarter fighting, which made the Americans reluctant to risk killing their own troops. Years later, Giap said, “It takes very decisive tactics to win a strategic victory…if we could defeat your tactics –your helicopters –then we could defeat your strategy. “
The seminal account of Ia Drang was written by one of the battles’ heroes, Lt. General Hal Moore, along with the superb war reporter Joseph Galloway. Entitled “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young”, it is a gripping account of heroism, courage, and tragedy - required reading for students of history.
As veterans of the battle die off, Ia Drang should be remembered in the annals of American military history alongside Yorktown, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Normandy. Despite the uncommon valor of our veterans, Ia Drang marked the beginning of the end of American military supremacy in the 20th Century.
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