The South Vietnamese Army (SVA) had been financed by America throughout the late 1950’s, 1960’s and as a result of Vietnamisation, to an even greater degree from 1970 to 1975. The South Vietnamese Army first took shape after the 1954 Geneva Agreement when the American Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) commanded by Lieutenant General John O’Daniel set about creating a modern military force, funded by the US, that was capable of defending South Vietnam against an invasion by troops from North Vietnam.
The SVA, on paper, was a formidable force. By the mid-1950’s it numbered 150,000 men and had all the modern equipment that an army could require. Trained to fight a conventional war, however, it soon became apparent that it would need full US military support if it was to survive against the forces from North Vietnam. Despite both Kennedy and Johnson pouring more and more US ‘military advisors’ into South Vietnam to support and train the SVA, US Marines landed in South Vietnam in 1965 to effectively lead to campaign against the North while the SVA assisted it.
By 1968, the SVA was a potent force – 250,000 men armed with modern tanks and artillery. It could also call on both South Vietnamese and US aerial support and, if fighting near to the extended South Vietnam coastline, naval support. A reserve militia of about 250,000 men also supported the SVA. This militia force was made up of small rifle units and it was equipped with modern radios, vehicles and small arms.
The organisation of the SVA and the militia was very similar to the organisation of the American military. A military general staff commanded the South Vietnam military but this was answerable to the Ministry of Defence that was staffed by civilians. In 1964, the militia – technically known as the Territorials – was made a formal part of the armed forces of the South. They were apportioned out to provincial chiefs – forty-four of them – who were the main administrators of South Vietnam.
In theory, South Vietnam was very well equipped to defend itself. In the mid-1960’s it had a large, modern and well-equipped army and a similar militia both of which were equipped and funded by the world’s most powerful nation – America. In 1965, the Americans added their huge military prowess to assist South Vietnam. Despite this, by 1975, the SVA was in tatters and the North had defeated the South. What, therefore, had the SVA failed to do despite its apparent strengths?
Whereas the forces of the North – and their supporters in the South – had become masters of guerrilla warfare, the SVA were trained to use conventional tactics. In the physical environment of South Vietnam this proved to be a weakness. Peasants in South Vietnam invariably had a choice as to who they would support – members of the Viet Minh who were expected to help the peasants in their day-to-day life or members of the SVA who frequently did little to endear themselves to peasant communities as they accompanied US ground forces in what became known as ‘zippo’ raids when whole peasant villages were burnt to the ground. The SVA had also been involved in ‘Operation Strategic Hamlet’ whereby whole communities were moved against their wishes to protected villages to ‘save’ them from the threat of the NLF. In many cases, villagers did not want to go and the SVA had to resort to using force to ensure ‘Strategic Hamlet’ was carried out. In some cases, villages that had existed where they were for several centuries were emptied out. ‘Operation Strategic Hamlet’ was an American idea and to many peasants in the South, the SVA was seen as being nothing more than an American lackey carrying out American orders for an American master. This failure to win the hearts and minds of the rural community in South Vietnam was a major reason why the SVA failed in the long run. It is also one of the reasons put forward during Vietnamisation why men in the SVA should be based as near to their homes as was feasible so that they might show a pride and determination in defending their own homeland against an expected all-out attack by Northern forces.
When this attack did occur in Easter 1972, the North crossed the DMZ and defeated the SVA forces based there. Other units of the NVA attacked across the borders from Laos and Cambodia and once in South Vietnam joined forces with the Viet Cong that dominated the countryside. The SVA, equipped with modern American military equipment given as part of Vietnamisation, inflicted heavy casualties on the North. On a map, the North had conquered much land in South Vietnam – but it was sparsely populated land. They had only captured two major towns – Loc Ninh and Dong Ha. As a result of these losses, the North and South agreed to a ceasefire on January 23rd 1973, which took effect on January 28th.
Few believed that the ceasefire would last. When it was broken by the North towards the end of 1973, the SVA numbered about 550,000 men with slightly less in the reserve militia. At this time the army of the North was estimated to be between 500,000 and 600,000. As the North moved to Saigon, so the SVA started to disintegrate. When the tanks if the North drove into Saigon city centre, they found piles of SVA uniforms littering the streets as thousands of SVA men simply deserted to merge with the citizens of Saigon.