The same events and pressures that shaped directly or indirectly the major part of American foreign policy during the last twenty years led to the formation and activation of the U.S. Army Special Forces.
In February of 1950 the United States recognized a quasi-independent Vietnam within the French Union and first began to consider granting aid to the French forces fighting against Communist insurgency in Indochina. In May of the same year the United States agreed to grant military and economic aid. American involvement in post-World War II Southeast Asia had begun. Four years later, in May 1954, the French Army was defeated by the Viet Minh-the Communist-supported Vietnam Independence League- at Dien Bien Phu, and under the Geneva armistice agreement Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam. In the course of those four years the policy-makers of the United States had an opportunity to observe the struggle of France with the insurgents and to become familiar with the political and military situation in Vietnam. It was also during those years that the U.S. Army Special Forces came into existence.
Origin of the Special Forces
The 1st Special Service Force of World War II is considered the antecedent of the present U.S. Army Special Forces. In the spring of 1942 the British Chief of Combined Operations, Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, introduced to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall a project conceived by an English civilian, Geoffrey N. Pike, for the development of special equipment to be used in snow-covered mountain terrain. This plan, named PLOUGH, was designed for attack on such critical points as the hydroelectric plants in Norway upon which the Germans depended for mining valuable ores. American manufacturers working on equipment for the project developed a tracked vehicle known as the Weasel and eventually standardized as the M29.
General Marshall concluded that an elite force recruited in Canada and the United States would be the best military organization for conducting the raids and strikes; he selected an American, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tryon Frederick, to assemble, organize, train, and command the U.S.-Canadian 1st Special Service Force.
Made up of three regiments of two battalions each, the unit became a separate branch of the service, with the crossed arrows of the Indian Scouts, by then inactivated, as its insignia. The men were trained in demolitions, rock-climbing, amphibious assault, and ski techniques, and were given basic airborne instruction. They fought under Allied command with great bravery and considerable success in the Aleutians, North Africa, Italy, and southern France. The 1st Special Service Force got its nickname, “The Devil’s Brigade,” during the Italian campaign from a passage in the captured diary of a dead German officer who had written: “The black devils are all around us every time we come into line and we never hear them.” The force was inactivated in southern France near the end of World War II.
On 20 June 1952 the first of the Special Forces groups, the 10th Special Forces Group, was activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; it became the nucleus of the Special Warfare Center, now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, at Fort Bragg. The next unit to be formed was the 77th Special Forces Group, which was also activated at Fort Bragg, on 25 September 1953.
By July 1954 the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam, numbered 342. In October of that year President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised direct aid to the government of South Vietnam, headed at that time by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. From 1954 to 1956 Viet Minh cadres were forming action committees to spread propaganda and to organize the South Vietnamese to oppose their own government. In July 1955 the People’s Republic of China announced an agreement to aid the Viet Minh, and the Soviet Union announced aid to Hanoi. In August Diem’s government rejected for the third time Hanoi’s demands for general elections throughout the two Vietnams, and in October South Vietnam was proclaimed a republic by Premier Diem, who became the first president.
U.S. Special Forces troops actually worked in Vietnam for the first time in 1957. On 24 June 1957 the 1st Special Forces Group was activated on Okinawa, and in the course of the year a team from this unit trained fifty-eight men of the Vietnamese Army at the Commando Training Center in Nha Trang. The trainees would later become the nucleus, as instructors and cadre, for the first Vietnamese Special Forces units.
In 1959 and 1960 the insurgents in South Vietnam, known to the South Vietnamese as Viet Cong, a contraction for Vietnamese Communists, grew in number and in power to terrorize the people. Clashes between government forces and armed Viet Cong increased in number from 180 in January 1960 to 545 in September of that year. Thirty Special Forces instructors were sent from Fort Bragg to South Vietnam in May 1960 to set up a training program for the Vietnamese Army. President John F. Kennedy announced on 21 September 1961 a program to provide additional military and economic aid to Vietnam. The government of the United States was by this time deeply concerned over the insurgency in South Vietnam and the necessary steps were being taken to help the republic to deal with it.
On 21 September 1961 the 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces, which would eventually be charged with the conduct of all Special Forces operations in Vietnam, was activated at Fort Bragg. It was at this point, in the fall of 1961, that President Kennedy began to display particular interest in the Special Forces. His enthusiasm, based on his conviction that the Special Forces had great potential as a counterinsurgency force, led him to become a very powerful advocate for the development of the Special Forces program within the Army. President Kennedy himself made a visit to the Special Warfare Center in the fall of 1961 to review the program, and it was by his authorization that Special Forces troops were allowed to wear the distinctive headgear that became the symbol of the Special Forces, the Green Beret.
Up to 1961 the government of South Vietnam and the U.S. Mission in Saigon in dealing with the insurgency had placed primary emphasis on developing the regular military forces, which for the most part excluded the ethnic and religious minority groups. Under the sponsorship of the U.S. Mission in Saigon, however, several programs were initiated in late 1961 to broaden the counterinsurgency effort by developing the paramilitary potential of certain of these minority groups. Special Forces detachments were assigned-to the U.S. Mission in Saigon to provide training and advisory assistance in the conduct of these programs, which eventually came to be known collectively as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program. The development of paramilitary forces among the minority groups became the primary mission of the Special Forces in Vietnam.
Originally attention was concentrated on the Montagnards, who lived in the strategic Central Highlands. The first step was taken in October 1961 with the beginning of a project designed to prevent the Rhade tribesmen in Darlac Province from succumbing to Viet Cong control. Exploratory talks were held with Rhade leaders in Darlac to seek their participation in a village self-defense program. One Special Forces medical noncommissioned officer participated in that first effort. Early in 1962 the government of the United States under President Kennedy began to set up the actual interdepartmental machinery for aiding South Vietnam. The Executive Branch, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States Information Agency, the Agency for International Development, and the Central Intelligence Agency were all involved. Because of the nature of the growing conflict in Vietnam and because the Special Forces was designed for unconventional warfare, it was inevitable that the Special Forces would play a conspicuous role. It was also plain that the actions and suggestions of the various government agencies would heavily influence that role.
The Unconventional Requirements
In 1961 a serious examination of the responsibility of the U.S. Army in the cold war had been instituted at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The strategy of “wars of liberation” as practiced by the Communists was analyzed in detail, lessons learned were reviewed, and a comprehensive assessment of U.S. Army capabilities was prepared to show the resources available to the United States for resisting insurgency. Doctrinal gaps were identified, mission statements amended, and training requirements defined.
The initial efforts of the United States to counter subversive insurgency in Vietnam quickly became a co-ordinated departmental endeavor at the highest national level. In addition to mustering the talent, technical ability, and equipment of the military, the government called on each department to nominate certain units and numbers of forces which it considered best prepared to deal with the peculiarities of countering insurgencies. The U.S. Army chose as its vanguard unit the Special Forces, whose highly trained group of combat specialists numbered at the time approximately 2,000 men.
An assessment of insurgent strategy, particularly as it was being practiced at the time in the Republic of Vietnam, indicated that good use could be made there of the U.S. Army Special Forces. The requirement for a unit that was combat-oriented, capable of performing with relative independence in the field, ruggedly trained for guerrilla operations, and geared for co-operation with the Vietnamese was admirably met in the organization, training, equipment, and operational procedures of the U.S. Army Special Forces.
In November 1961 the first medical specialist troops of the Special Forces were employed in Vietnam in a project originally designed to provide assistance to the Montagnard tribes in the high-plateau country around Pleiku. Out of this modest beginning grew one of the most successful programs for using civilian forces ever devised by a military force-the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Eventually the organization, development, and operation of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group proved to be the chief work of the U.S. Special Forces in the Vietnam War.
Despite the size and complexity of the program, however, the U.S. “Special Forces participated in a number of other activities in the course of their stay in Vietnam, including training, advisory, and operational missions. Any comprehensive story of what the Special Forces did in Vietnam must include some account of these missions. The nature, scope, and success of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program will nevertheless occupy a substantial part of this study.”
U.S. Special Forces occupied a somewhat unusual position vis-a-vis the Vietnamese Army, the Vietnamese Special Forces, and the indigenous population involved in the program. The rules of engagement specified that in most instances the U.S. Special Forces would serve, technically at least, in an advisory capacity to the Vietnamese Special Forces, which was charged with the direct command responsibility for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group. There were exceptions to this. For instance, the troops known as the mobile guerrilla forces were originally commanded and controlled directly by soldiers of the U.S. Special Forces. For the most part, however, the Vietnamese were in command; the Americans were there to assist them-not to assume any command. In practice, as will be seen, this arrangement was not firmly and universally adhered to from the start. There were degrees of compliance that varied considerably from one case to the next. Many of the early problems encountered by the Civilian Irregular Defense Group came from the U.S. Special Forces-Vietnamese Special Forces command and control structure imposed upon it. The obvious dilemma of two command figures, each with his own judgments, arose. No less a factor, especially in the years 1962 and 1963, was the mutual mistrust and dislike between the civilian irregulars, especially the Montagnards, and the Vietnamese military men who were commanding them.
The U.S. Special Forces had been created by the Army for the purpose of waging unconventional warfare, which by 1964 was defined in the Dictionary of united States Army Terms as “The three inter-related fields of guerrilla warfare, evasion and escape, and subversion against hostile states. Unconventional warfare, operations,” the dictionary stated, “are conducted within enemy or enemy-controlled territory by predominantly indigenous personnel, usually supported and directed in varying degrees by an external source.”
The Special Forces was defined in Field Manual 31-21, Special Forces Operations, in terms of its role, mission, and capabilities. Its role was to assume any responsibility and carry out any mission assigned to it by the Army. Its missions were many and varied because of the Special Forces’ organization, flexible command arrangements, tailored logistical and fiscal procedures, and highly trained men. Chief among them were planning, conducting, and supporting unconventional warfare and internal security, or “stability” operations. Special Forces troops were capable of training, advising, and providing operational, logistical, and fiscal support for foreign military or paramilitary forces. They were able to infiltrate by air, land, or water, sometimes penetrating deep into enemy territory for the purpose of attacking strategic targets, rescuing friendly troops, or collecting intelligence. Special Forces troops also trained other American and allied forces in Special Forces techniques. To a large extent these definitions were determined by the problems that faced the Army and how the Army used the .Special Forces to solve them. The Special Forces units evolved in response to the demands placed upon them.
The basic structure of the Special Forces Group (Airborne) consisted of a headquarters and headquarters company, three or more line Special Forces companies, a signal company, and an aviation detachment. The headquarters and headquarters company encompassed all the usual staff sections for command and control, as well as the major portion of the group medical capability and the parachute rigging and air delivery elements. The line Special Forces company was commanded by a lieutenant colonel and was normally composed of an administrative detachment and an operations detachment C, which commanded three operations detachment B’s, each of which commanded four operations detachment A’s. The A detachment was the basic twelve-man unit of the Special Forces. Supporting the entire group with communications was the signal company, which, in terms of personnel, technical equipment, and communications capabilities, resembled a battalion more than it did the usualsignal company.
In the early years of Special Forces involvement in Vietnam, 1961-1965, the concept of how best to employ the forces was developed, put into practice, and adjusted empirically. The government of the United States and the government of South Vietnam were dealing with a Communist-inspired insurgency, and for the United States it was a new experience. Many local tactics were attempted on a “let’s-try-it-and-see-what-happens” basis. If something worked, then it became an acceptable counterinsurgency tactic; if it did not, it was dropped.
During these formative years, it became clear that the part the U.S. Special Forces was to play would differ from the role foreseen for it when it was created in the 1950s. At that time, the troops of the force as organized were capable of waging unconventional war under conventional war conditions. The war in Vietnam, however, never fell smoothly into the conventional category. In Vietnam “enemy or enemy-controlled territory” was the countryside of South Vietnam, the government of which had invited U.S. military presence. The enemy insurgents were guerrillas themselves. Instead of waging guerrilla warfare against conventional forces in enemy territory, the U.S. Special Forces troops were to find themselves attempting to thwart guerrilla insurgency in “friendly” territory.
At first the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program was concerned with what was called area development. The goal was to provide an area with security from Viet Cong influence and terror, to help the people develop their own self-defense program, and, if possible, to enlist support for the government of Vietnam from its own citizens. Operations took an offensive turn only because many of the areas involved were already effectively controlled by the Viet Cong.
In late 1960 the response of the governments of Vietnam and the United States, whose military involvement at that time consisted of the presence of a Military Assistance Advisory Group, to the mounting Communist insurgency was to increase the size and effectiveness of Vietnam’s conventional military forces. For the most part, these did not include the ethnic and religious minority groups in the highlands of the central and northern portions of South Vietnam and in the rural lowlands of the Mekong Delta.
Under the sponsorship of the U.S. Mission in Saigon several programs were initiated in late 1961 to keep these minority groups from falling under the control of the Viet Cong. U.S. Special Forces detachments were assigned to the U.S. Mission to provide training and advice for the programs, the first of which was among the Montagnards. Based primarily on the success of a pilot project involving the Rhade tribe around the village of Buon Enao in Darlac Province, the principal program centered on establishing area development centers in remote areas where there was little government control.
The area development centers were bases of operation at which Special Forces detachments, working through Vietnamese Special Forces counterparts, assisted in the establishment of village defense systems based on elementary training in small arms and mortars, with minimum tactics designed for squads and with occasional platoon maneuvers. The purpose of the program was to extend government control into areas where it was lacking and to generate in the local populace a more favorable attitude toward the government.
It should be clearly understood that the United States initiated this program and encouraged it. The government of Vietnam participated by employing the Vietnamese Special Forces, but the program was essentially an American project. In the beginning the local Vietnamese province-sector officials were less than enthusiastic.
In 1963 the area development program expanded toward the western borders of Vietnam. In 1964 the Civilian Irregular Defense Group assumed other missions calling for operations against Viet Cong war zones or so-called safe havens and the interdiction of Viet Cong infiltration routes in Vietnam. The Special Forces continuing commitment in terms of men involved in the CIDG program grew from one medical noncommissioned officer at Buon Enao in October 1961 to the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), numbering over 1,200 in October 1964.
In terms of program management and control, the early years can be divided into three periods: from November 1961 to November 1962 when the U.S. Mission was responsible for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program; from September 1962 to July 1963 during which responsibility for operations was gradually turned over to the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and the Army; and, finally, from July 1963 to the spring of 1965, when the conventional U.S. buildup began during which the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, bore full responsibility for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program. Throughout the early years, the Special Forces effort with civilian irregulars was characterized by rapid expansion, was dispersed over a wide area, and was subject to changing emphasis in missions. The program developed along largely unplanned lines in response to changing needs and opportunities.
From 1961 to 1965 more than eighty CIDG camps or area development centers were established. Many were built from the ground up (and down) in areas where the government had no effective control. Each camp was a self-contained and comprehensive counterinsurgency effort. U.S. Special Forces men provided advice and assistance in all aspects of camp administration and operations throughout each project site’s existence, from initiation to turnover of the camp and its paramilitary assets to local Vietnamese authorities.
When the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, began to assume responsibility for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program in the fall of 1962, Special Forces detachments made the first assessments of areas in the selection of proposed campsites. Security was the prime consideration when the irregulars arrived at a new site. Often security forces from established camps were brought in until local forces could be recruited and trained.
Camp security occupied a major portion of the Special Forces detachment’s time and effort. Few fortified camps were built in the early part of the program, but as it evolved the new camps were placed in “hot areas” and therefore required much more attention in both defense and security. Throughout the period, the Viet Cong harassed campsites and attacked several in reinforced battalion strength, with occasional success. After the successful attack on the camp at Hiep Hoa in November 1963, more emphasis was placed on making the camps strongly fortified positions.
One of the primary missions of Special Forces men at a camp was to advise and assist in the training of paramilitary forces recruited in that area. The Special Forces training program generally concentrated on strike force troops, although the Special Forces did participate in the training of hamlet militia, mountain scouts, and other irregular forces. The main problem in training civilian irregular troops was establishing the respective roles of U.S. Special Forces and Vietnamese Special Forces. Theoretically, all training was a Vietnamese Special Forces responsibility, but most Vietnamese detachments were either unwilling or unable to undertake it.
Strike force operations consisted for the most part of patrols. Hundreds of contacts with the enemy occurred, and many small actions were fought. There was also a fair number of joint operations with regular Vietnam Army and Regional Forces units, particularly in 1964.
In most operations, the major hindrance to success was the lack of accurate and timely intelligence. The U.S. Special Forces men, aware of the importance of gathering intelligence, tried to emphasize that aspect of their missions and to set up intelligence nets that would produce information on the location of Viet Cong units and members of the local Viet Cong political organization. At the beginning of the program, there was no standing operating procedure for the procurement of intelligence. Each Special Forces detachment commander found it necessary to make working arrangements with his Vietnamese Special Forces counterpart with regard to intelligence.
Even after an agreement was finally reached in the spring of 1964, the Vietnamese Special Forces units were slow to accept U.S. Special Forces participation in intelligence operations. The language barrier proved to be a major obstacle to the U.S. Army in recruiting agents and acquiring information.
Perhaps the major problem encountered by U.S. Special Forces men in carrying out their mission with the civilian irregulars was their relationship with their Vietnamese counterparts. From the beginning of the program the role of the U.S. Special Forces detachment commander was to have been strictly advisory. All important responsibilities were to be assumed by the Vietnamese Special Forces, but unfortunately these were rarely shouldered by the Vietnamese Special Forces alone. To complicate the problem there were two vertical chains of command, with appropriate levels of horizontal counterpart co-ordination required up through the two commands. U.S. Special Forces men at this time, moreover, had received little training or indoctrination on what to expect from their Vietnamese counterparts, how to get along with them, and how to accomplish the operational mission through them.
The logistics involved in administering and resupplying the widely dispersed camps required unorthodox requisitioning and procurement procedures. The command and control structure up until May 1964 was unique because the nature of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program demanded it. When conventional forces worked in conjunction with civilian irregular forces, however, this unconventional structure placed an exceptional burden of co-ordination on the Special Forces.
Counterguerrilla operations by strike force units were only a part of the counterinsurgency program at Civilian Irregular Defense Group sites. Civic action and psychological operations were also conducted as part of the Special Forces mission. Their objective was to raise the living standard of the people, to develop their identity with and their loyalty to the government, and to enlist their active support in defeating insurgents. The work of the detachment medical men was a major contribution to this effort. Throughout the period, however, these programs were hampered by the inability of Civilian Irregular Defense Group and other security forces to provide adequate protection to the local population against Viet Cong attacks and terrorism, poorly motivated local government representatives, and the lack of professionally qualified U.S. soldiers who knew the area to augment the Special Forces detachment for its civic action and psychological operations mission.
In spite of these problems, Special Forces men on their own initiative accomplished many worthwhile civic action projects in this period. Emphasis is usually placed on the role the Special Forces played as soldiers in Vietnam. They were soldiers and good ones. But they were more than soldiers; they were, in a way, community developers in uniform too. The civic action accomplishments of the Special Forces are as much a source of pride to them as their accomplishments in the military arena, and justifiably so.
U.S. Army Special Forces
CMH Publication 90-23
Department of the Army
Washington, D.C. 1989 (First Printed, 1973)