Reconsidering US Marine Corps Involvement in the Vietnam War

by Lt Col EDWARD T. NEVGLOSKI, USMC

In the 50 years since US Marines first landed at Da Nang on the morning of 8 March 1965, the history of their involvement in the Vietnam War has been one of the most misunderstood and sometimes contentious topics in modern military history. In most cases historians assert that the Marines had neither a clear understanding of the conflict nor the American military strategy to contain the spread of Communism in South Vietnam. By extension, the Marines’ involvement from 1965 to 1968 is often depicted as a series of unplanned and isolated events, demonstrating a divide between the Marines’ long-term vision and operational approach and the overall American military strategy in Vietnam. This interpretation, whilst enduring, has come to obscure the centrality of the Marines’ approach to implementing American strategy.

The landings at Da Nang, exemplify this problem. Nearly every study on American military intervention in South Vietnam opens with the Marines seizing Red Beach just outside Da Nang before quickly moving inland. Historians describe the landing as a hastily organized operation, conducted with insufficient regard to broader strategic requirements. Mike Gravel’s Pentagon Papers is typical in this regard:

 The landing of the Marines at Da Nang … represented a major decision made without much fanfare – and without much planning. Whereas the decision to begin bombing North Vietnam was the product of a year’s discussion, debate, and a lot of paper, and whereas the consideration of pacification policies reached talmudic proportions over the years, this decision created less than a ripple.

Yet, whilst the insurgency around Da Nang had intensified only weeks before the landing, senior American military officials had already been decided to land Marines before circumstances created an impulse for immediate action. This can be seen in the numerous plans developed in the preceding months and years.The only difference between these plans and the actual landing were the political and security conditions prompting intervention and the degree of intervention required. Moreover, Da Nang was a key strategic location within the context of the broader campaign. The city was a principal beachhead and major entry and pivot point for American combat forces in the northern provinces. Its situation placed it second only to Saigon in terms of political and military significance and the city was also an economic hub and the epic-center of the insurgency in the country’s northern region. Yet, despite access to recently declassified operation plans and planning documents, historians have yet adequately to explore the tactical and operational logic behind landing Marines at Da Nang and the landing’s connection to the Marines’ plan to carrying out the American military strategy in the northern provinces.

A second example is the misinterpretation presented by historians regarding the decision to assign the responsibility of containing Communism and defeating Communist forces in the northern provinces to the Marines. It of charged that the imminent threat of invasion posed by several North Vietnamese Army (NVA) divisions monitoring the NLF’s progress from just across the demilitarized zone in North Vietnam created a need for a larger and more conventional US Army force, instead of Marines, to deter the NVA. However, the geography of the northern provinces was more suited for a lighter and more agile amphibious force, a fact keenly appreciated by senior commanders. Thus, far from the Marines’ naturally assuming responsibility for the northern provinces after the Da Nang landing because there was already a small Marine advisory presence there, the northern provinces were always the intended area of operations for the Marines even before they moved into that area in 1962. Here, again, the Corps’ actions supported overall US military strategy.

A third and even more disconcerting misinterpretation is that of the Marines’ operational approach after the Da Nang landing and commitment to the northern provinces. Their plan from the very start consisted of a gradual and deliberate build-up of air, ground, and logistics forces, first along the coast within the beachheads or “amphibious enclaves” and then into the interior. The movement into the interior consisted of a methodical expansion of the beachheads. The Communists’ reaction, the progress of pacification, and the reliability of intelligence dictated the speed in which the expansion occurred. Their operational approach focused on each aspect of the operational environment the Marines expected to confront in the northern provinces.

Not long after landing at Da Nang, the Marines began a firsthand study of the operational environment to validate their original assessment and to address their immediate tactical and operational concerns. These studies validated the initial plan. However, the operational environment created new tensions. The array of Communist forces, and more precisely the NVA positioned within striking distance of the northern provinces compelled the Marines to keep in mind the potential for general, or big unit war, even though the environment suggested a limited war. Any plan to win the trust of the people and defeat the insurgency obviously had to include aggressive small unit actions and a pacifying methodology simply due to the operational environment. Nevertheless, after winning the trust of the people, what were the Marines to do about the well-organized and equipped insurgent main forces and the NVA? Defeating both required a larger general purpose force capable of waging a big unit war more in common with general war. The Marines devised a “balanced” operational approach to expanding their beachheads and deliberately deployed air and ground forces to not only meet any potential threat, they did so to aggressively and purposely engage all threats.

These conflicting requirements are not acknowledged or fully understood in the existing scholarship. As Neil Sheehan has claimed:

There was a school of pacification strategists within the upper ranks of the Marine Corps because of its institutional history. The decades of pre-World War II pacifying in Central America and the Caribbean, codified in the Corps’ Small Wars Manual, were a strategic precedent which ruled that wars like Vietnam were wars of pacification. The Marines had adopted an approach that emphasized pacification over big unit battles.

Sheehan’s perspective on the Marines’ approach is misleading and inaccurate. The Marines, clearly influenced by their history, organizational thinking, and doctrine deliberately designed a flexible approach to carry out small unit actions against insurgents and to implement pacification programs for the people while at the same time recognizing the conventional threat presented by the NVA and as outlined in military plans. To cope with the multiple threats and complexities presented by the operational environment of the northern provinces the Marines knowingly incorporated big unit war in their approach to take on the larger and more capable NLF and NVA formations. Their approach required a deep appreciation of the American military strategy for South Vietnam, the operational environment, and a sensible application of all aspects of military power. Countless studies on the war suggest the Marines’ own misunderstanding of the conflict and the operational environment and their lack of an appreciation for the operational art of war and military strategy led them to design an incompatible and fragmented approach centered on a limited defensive strategy when, in fact they envisioned the need for big unit war.

The historiography of the Vietnam War thus mischaracterize the Marine Corps involvement in the northern provinces. Adding to the confusion is the Marine Corps’ own official history, which fails to place the Da Nang landing in its proper context, explain why the Marines were in the northern provinces, and even argues that although the Marines did indeed engage in big unit war; they did so only as a second thought and after ordered to against their better tactical judgement. While a correlation can be made between these misunderstandings and limited access to sensitive and classified documents and official reports, this nonetheless calls into question the full body of literature responsible for enabling the decades of unchallenged assumptions and imprecise conclusions plaguing our understanding of the war. Why Da Nang? Why Marines? Why the northern provinces? Why did the Marines fight as they did in the northern provinces? Until historians accurately depict the Marines’ involvement, the confusion and misunderstandings will persist.

About the Author: LtCol Nevgloski, assigned as the operations officer of The Basic School School, Quantico, VA, is completing his doctoral thesis on the US Marine Corps planning for Vietnam in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Image: Marines from Battalion Landing Team 3/9 coming ashore at RED Beach 2 northwest of Da Nang on 8 March 1965, via Wikipedia.

4 thoughts on “Reconsidering US Marine Corps Involvement in the Vietnam War

  1. Reblogged this on JDB Communications, LLC and commented:
    One of the problems with “accuracy” in historical accounts is that without a time machine, such things are impossible. I have to agree with the idea that poor scholarship on Southeast Asia has clouded most studies, but looking for “accuracy” here I believe to be wrong-headed.

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    1. Perhaps, but historians still have the obligation to tell the entire story and with as accurate an approach to what happened as possible. The historiography of the war has yet to provide us with the full picture and often regurgitates past ideas. Time for a fresh — not a revisionist one — but a fresh look at what the Marines’ true intentions were. Does it change the outcome of the war? No. However, it does provide a more accurate presentation of what happened.

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    2. Perhaps, but historians of the war still have the obligation to tell the entire story and with as accurate an approach to history as possible. The historiography of the war has yet to provide us with the full picture — a new picture — and often regurgitates past ideas. Time for a fresh — not a revisionist one — but a fresh look at what the Marines’ true intentions were. Does it change the outcome of the war? No. It is not intended to. However, it does provide a more accurate representation of what happened. This should be the goal of every historian.

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      1. Thank you for this. So many layers of the “story” already exist, mostly infused with particular points-of-view. I hope a fresh look helps; my fear is that, like Iwo, the fresh look will vary as time goes on.

        Tom Eiff, member of USMC Heitage Foundation Board, 2001-2010

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