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71 CHAPTER THREE The Balance of Forces Before tracing the course of Operation Washington Green, it is essential to understand the balance of forces that existed in Binh Dinh when it began. There are two key points that must be stressed. First, since only a handful of NVA troops remained in AO Lee, the operation would, in its initial phases, be opposed solely by the NLF insurgency. At this stage in the war, the NLF’s guerrilla and regular military units were still manned almost exclusively by local recruits and native-born returnees from North Vietnam. Second, since an insurgency is fundamentally a contest for popular support, the contending parties’ relative strengths were determined more by political dynamics than by military factors such as troops, supplies, and firepower. The incumbent regime generally enjoys the advantage that no matter how flawed or unpopular it might be, it already has a firm grip on the population through its political parties and organs of local government. The insurgents must therefore fight an uphill battle against social and political inertia in order to win a popular following and establish their own covert “shadow government” to compete for control of the people. The GVN Unfortunately for the GVN, circumstances conspired to deny it most of the advantages that usually accrue to an incumbent regime. First and foremost , the Communists had a full decade’s head start in nation building, and the GVN never really caught up. The Communist-dominated government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was established in August 1945, four years before the French allowed the creation of the nominally independent State of Vietnam as an alternative to it. But this new regime was, in fact, merely a tool of French imperial policy; this point was underscored when it was compelled to join the French Union, where the fledgling government’s powers were closely circumscribed. From 1949 onward, the titular head of state was Bao Dai, last of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and a Westernized playboy who spent much of his time abroad. The regime’s constituency was very limited, consisting primarily of those segments of the population that had benefited from French colonial rule, and most of its supporters came 72 Chapter Three from Vietnam’s cities. Its small rural following was drawn mostly from the wealthier classes or from staunchly anti-Communist religious minorities. Furthermore, as the First Indochinese War progressed, GVN influence in the countryside declined as more and more territory fell under Vietminh control. By the time fighting ended in 1954, the Communists had built a pervasive shadow government throughout South Vietnam and won the loyalty of most of its population. The GVN, in contrast, had little popular support, its armed forces were inept and demoralized, it had almost no police force worthy of the name, and its bureaucrats were unaccustomed to functioning without French oversight. Worst of all, the GVN hierarchy was riddled with personal and ideological animosities that kept it in a state of turmoil as various individuals and factions constantly jockeyed for power and influence in an atmosphere of Byzantine intrigue. Cabinet ministries were operated almost like personal satrapies by the officials who headed them, making it extremely difficult to coordinate policies among the several branches of government . These weaknesses were reduced but hardly eliminated after Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem deposed Emperor Bao Dai in 1955 and established the Republic of Vietnam with himself as president.1 All these shortcomings paled, however, in comparison to the taint of illegitimacy that dogged the GVN from the instant of its conception. Although the Republic of Vietnam became truly independent in 1956, many perceived it as “little more than an attenuated French colonial regime.”2 With some notable exceptions (such as Diem himself), its leaders had served either in the colonial army or in the wartime State of Vietnam, which had been dominated by and beholden to the French. Their collaboration with French colonialism dealt a severe blow to popular perceptions of the GVN’s legitimacy, particularly in the countryside, where the Vietminh were almost universally respected as patriotic heroes for expelling the hated French. Nowhere was this truer than in Binh Dinh, where Vietminh rule had been virtually unchallenged in the nine years between 1945 and 1954. The GVN was unable to escape its association with Western imperialism because it had replaced its former reliance on the French with an allencompassing dependency on the United States. Without American money, arms, advisors, and economic assistance, the GVN could...


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