Chapter XV: 
Search and Destroy
Among the most important differences between the war in Viet­nam and earlier wars was the effect of U.S. military operations on the people in the theater. In earlier wars, U.S. commanders were charged with the humane treatment of civilians and with minimizing the impact of their units' operations on the people. In Vietnam this obligation became more important than in any previous war. Winning over the hearts and minds of the people was fundamental to the U.S. effort; therefore, U.S. commanders were necessarily involved in helping the people to achieve a new life.
The increased involvement of military commanders with the local population led to many innovations in the war. The 1st Infantry Division's "county fair" operation was an excellent example of an ef­fective response to a population control problem that was new to U.S. commanders. Another and more far-reaching innovation was the op­erational terminology developed to express the new relationship be­tween military operations and the people. The three most basic op­erations or missions were search and destroy, clearing, and security. These terms and the concepts they described were new, and like most new names and ideas, they were understood by some and misunder­stood by others. Best known and most misunderstood was search and destroy. Some insights into the conflict about search and destroy op­erations can be gained by relating them to other operations and to the strategy as it developed during the war.
In Vietnam, conventional operations were described in traditional military terms. For example: the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, defended critical installations at Tam Ky; the 11th Armored Cavalry provided convoy security at Suoi Cat; and the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Division, interdicted enemy routes on the Khe Sanh plateau. Securing, clearing, and search and destroy operations, however, were unique to the war in Vietnam.
Search and destroy operations began in 1964, before U.S. ground forces were committed. These operations were conducted to locate the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong main force units in and around their base areas and to attack them by fire and maneuver. Since enemy infiltration of the populated areas depended heavily on

the availability of base areas near the population centers, destruction of close-in base areas received priority attention.
The mission to search for and destroy the 5th Battalion, 95th NVA Regiment, carried out by the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 502d In­fantry, exemplified many search and destroy operations of the war. The activities of the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized Division, on_ the Khe Sanh plateau were also search and destroy operations even though the brigade's mission included interdiction of a North Viet­namese Army infiltration route.
The second of the three basic missions was clearing. Clearing op­erations were conducted to drive enemy forces away from populated areas and to allow small units to carry on securing activities among the people. These operations upset the pattern of mutual support that was essential to the enemy's integrated main force-local force effort. Operation IRVING demonstrated the clearing of the central coastal area of Binh Dinh Province and the effects of the operation on the inhabitants.
Securing operations, the last of the three missions, were directed at the enemy in the hamlets-at the infrastructure and the farmers by day and at the Viet Cong guerrillas by night-who operated individ­ually as well as in squads and platoons. These enemy elements re­quired tactics that were different from those used against the main forces. Saturation patrols and squad-size ambushes, which were highly risky in the jungle against the main forces, proved to be effective against the local guerrillas. During securing operations, U.S. and allied forces maintained a respect for private property and for the people whose hearts and minds were the objectives of the enemy forces. An example of securing operations were those conducted by the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) mentioned earlier.
Each of the three missions supported the pacification program, but to a different extent. Securing operations directly supported paci­fication and required close and continuous integration of military and civilian efforts. Clearing operations indirectly supported pacifi­cation and required a lesser degree of co-ordination with civilian agencies. Search and destroy operations generally required no co­ordination with civilian agencies. They were aimed at destroying the enemy's main forces in uninhabited areas and in his base areas, his logistic resources in particular.
Under some circumstances in Vietnam the distinction between the types of operations was extremely important. For example, when units, especially large units, moved into new areas the definitions were essential. They were the basis for each element's understanding its own tasks and the tasks of neighboring units. They were particularly important to government civilians in establishing the relationships between their agencies and the military forces.

After units had been in operational areas for a time and had es­tablished working relationships with other government agencies in the vicinity, the classification of day-to-day operations became less im­portant. An example is the 1968 battle of Loc Ninh near the Cam­bodian border, in which the 1st Infantry Division was involved. The mission was the defense of Loc Ninh. The enemy's attack on the district headquarters provided a tactical opportunity to destroy a major part of the 9th Viet Cong Division. The 1st Infantry Division responded to the need to defend Loc Ninh and seized the opportunity to engage the Viet Cong division. To the extent that the battalions of the 1st Infantry Division denied the enemy access to the several thou­sand people living in and near the district town, their activities were clearing operations. To the extent that the battalions' objective was the destruction of the enemy's forces, their operations were search and destroy. The lack of a precise distinction between clearing and search and destroy operations resulted in many clearing operations being re­ported as search and destroy and contributed to the misunderstanding of the terms. Another contributing factor was the identification of all three missions as search and destroy in the 1968 Combined Campaign Plan. The necessary distinction between the three was finally made by describing securing as search and destroy (local), clearing as search and destroy (provincial), and combat operations against the main forces in the uninhabited areas as search and destroy (regional).
Regardless of the terms, all three missions contributed to the same objective, that is, a sense of security and confidence for the South Vietnamese people. Since these operations competed for the same resources, senior commanders in Vietnam were required to achieve and constantly adjust a balance between them. The principal vari­ables that influenced the balance were intelligence, weather, terrain, and availability of trained troops and support. Some knowledge of the changes that affected these variables during the different phases of the war is essential to an understanding of the shifting balance.
Four phases of the Vietnam strategy have been described by Gen­eral Westmoreland. All four phases emphasized strengthening the Republic of Vietnam armed forces. In addition, during the first phase, from mid-1965 to mid-1966, the enemy offensive was blunted.. The second phase, from mid-1966 to the end of 1967, saw the mount­ing of major offensives that forced the enemy into defensive positions and drove him away from the population centers. In phase three, beginning in early 1968, the Vietnamese armed forces were addition­ally strengthened, and more of the war effort was turned over to them. (Chart 1) The final phase called for further weakening of the enemy and strengthening of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam as the U.S. role became, in the words of General Westmoreland, "pro­gressively superfluous."

Phase I
 Phase II   
Phase III
Mid 65-Mid 66   
Mid 66-Late 67   
• Build up to 400,000   
• Successful defense of RVN   
• Drove enemy into sanctuaries   
• Destruction of enemy forces
• Revitalization and expansion of ARVN   
• Improved and expanded ARVN   
• Continued upgrading of ARVN and territorial forces
• Development of adequate logistical base   
• Encouraged combined ARVN-US operations   
• Preparation of ARVN to accept ever increasing share of combat
• Entered base areas, destroyed supplies, raised enemy losses beyond his input capabilities   
• Continue to isolate guerrilla from people and help GVN destroy shadow gov't
• Saw free election, installation of civilian a   
• Help GVN to enhance law and order and to respond government to popular aspirations

The central reality of the first phase was the threat to the existence of South Vietnam posed by the Viet Cong main force units and the North Vietnamese Army. The threat was apparent in late 1964 and in early 1965, when Viet Cong tactics took a more menacing turn, During the battle for Binh Gia, a small village southeast of Saigon, the 9th Viet Cong Division stood and fought for four days and inflicted heavy casualties on the Republic of Vietnam forces. This action was a significant change from the enemy's normal hit-and-run tactics. The battle and a series of large-scale actions in the Mekong Delta in early 1965 pointed toward the enemy's escalation to the third step of Mao Tse-tung's formula for insurgencies: major combat by organized mil­itary forces. The situation in 1965 was further illustrated by the Com­munists' stated objectives: "strangulation of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) at its narrow waist south of Hue; seizure of one or more prov­inces in the central highlands and establishment of an autonomous, Communist-controlled government; [and isolation of] Saigon, the political capital and military nerve center, from the rest of the country."
The commitment of U.S. forces in 1965 prevented the enemy from attaining his objectives and averted collapse in the south. In this environment of impending disaster U.S. units were first ordered to search for and destroy or neutralize North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces, base areas, and supply points. During this phase of the U.S. troop commitment, the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) fought the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. The 1st Cavalry Division decisively defeated three North Vietnamese Army regiments and killed over 3,500 enemy soldiers in thirty-five days. In this and sub­sequent battles in which major U.S. formations were committed, the aim was to blunt the enemy offensive and gain time for the South Vietnamese to rebuild their forces. By the end of the first phase, the enemy threat had been offset by the improvement in the South Vietnamese armed forces and the continued buildup of U.S. forces. (Chart 2)
The beginning of the second phase was signaled by a re-establish­ment of a military balance and a clear indication that the initiative was passing to the allies. This phase was a period of developing strength and accelerating effort. The strategy became one of a general offensive and the maximum practical support of the Revolutionary Development Program. Since the U.S. forces were uniquely qualified for area warfare, they were given the mission of carrying the battle to the enemy's main forces, while ARVN concentrated its efforts on revolutionary development, a task for which it was far better suited than U.S. troops. Although over half the U.S. combat force during 1967 was employed in or near the populated areas, spoiling attacks and search and destroy operations in the enemy's base areas were a

PICTURE: Infantry Troops Searching Enemy Base Area
fundamental part of the strategy. Search and destroy continued as a principal operation, and the time spent in search was generally in proportion to the validity of the ever-improving intelligence concern­ing the enemy.
Early in the second phase, the U.S. command was faced with the dual requirements of maintaining an offensive against a substantial enemy threat gathered in the base areas and in sanctuaries across the Cambodian and Laotian borders and, at the same time, providing se­curity to protect the pacification program. Operations CEDAR FALLS, JUNCTION CITY, and MANHATTAN illustrated how the balance between offensive operations and local security operations was achieved north­west of Saigon in early 1967.
CEDAR FALLS was a clearing operation in the Iron Triangle just north of Saigon. The 1st Infantry Division, the 173d Airborne Bri­gade, the 1st Armored Cavalry, elements of the 25th Infantry Divi­sion, and several ARVN units sealed off and searched the base area, which had served as a logistic base and headquarters for the Viet Cong's Military Region IV. The operation, which lasted for nineteen days during January 1967, resulted in 720 enemy killed, 213 enemy captured, and hundreds of tons of rice destroyed or confiscated. Equally important were the discovery and destruction of a vast under­ground headquarters and the capture of thousands of pages of enemy documents. The real success of the operation lay, however, in the dis­ruption of enemy plans for the Saigon area, a disruption that permit­ted a significant acceleration in the pacification program in areas close to the capital.


JUNCTION CITY was a search and destroy operation begun in Feb­ruary 1967 by the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions, the 1ST Armored Cavalry, the 173d Airborne Brigade, the 196th Light Infantry Bri­gade, elements of the 4th and 9th Infantry Divisions, and several ARVN Units. JUNCTION CITY, the largest operation of the war until that time, brought the battle to the enemy in the War Zone C sanc­tuary, which had been virtually unchallenged before. The operation lasted until mid-May and resulted in over 2, 700 enemy killed. In ad­dition, to prevent the enemy from rebuilding his base by making U.S. re-entry into War Zone C relatively easy, three C-130 airstrips were built and two Civilian Irregular Defense Group camps were estab­lished in what had been clearly recognized as enemy-held territory.
Operation MANHATTAN immediately followed JUNCTION CITY. Elements of the 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions, the 11th Armored Cavalry, and ARVN forces conducted clearing operations in the Long Nguyen base area north of the previously cleared Iron Triangle.
CEDAR FALLS, a clearing operation, JUNCTION CITY, a search and destroy operation, and MANHATTAN, also a clearing operation, were typical of U.S. efforts to insure a balanced strategy, striking out at the enemy in his border base areas periodically but returning to zones near the population center in order to maintain a secure environment for the pacification program.
Both clearing and search and destroy operations were essential to the war effort. Pacification could not proceed unless the enemy's main forces were defeated or held at bay in their sanctuaries. As Lieu­tenant General Richard G. Stilwell wrote: "Large unit operations . . . [were] the precondition for the shield behind which proceeded all other actions to bring security to the people. With the big battalions isolated, the remaining and smaller elements of the total communist structure [could be] subjected to widespread attack by something approaching saturation tactics."
As the second phase drew to a close, less than 50 percent of all U.S. combat elements were deployed against the enemy's main forces in his base areas. Most U.S. forces were directed against the guerrillas and local forces. This distribution of forces, which had been main­tained throughout 1967, caused the enemy to revise his tactics. He was convinced that keeping his main forces close to major population centers was no longer a tenable tactic and that he must make more use of the Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries. In fact, from base areas in Cambodia, the enemy prepared for his 1968 Tet assault against Saigon, thirty miles away. (It was 1970, however, before U.S. entrance into these sanctuaries was authorized.)
In September 1967, General Vo Nguyen Giap predicted heavy fighting as the North Vietnamese decided to change their tactics, to move out from the sanctuaries, and to bring their waning military

power to bear on the government and people of South Vietnam: to deal a knockout blow no matter what the cost.
The third phase of the war began in early 1968. Although the ob­jectives of the second phase included wearing down the enemy and driving him away from the population centers, they did not take into consideration that the enemy was a victim of his own propaganda, that he was irrational, or that he was prepared to pay an awesome price to enter the cities of South Vietnam. Enemy losses from the beginning of the Tet offensive until the end of February 1968 far ex­ceeded the total U.S. losses in the war up to that time. In this single offensive, the Communists lost 45,000 men killed in action-more than the U.S. losses in the entire Korean War. Clearing operations in­creased significantly during and after Tet. U.S. units were committed in the populated areas to oppose the enemy units that had penetrated and in the uninhabited areas to block the enemy's withdrawal and to prevent reinforcement of his battered forces. By June 1968 the en­emy's losses resulting from these and the other allied operations were estimated to be 170,000 men. By the end of 1968 the level of security known to the South Vietnamese people before Tet had been restored.
As the third phase progressed, more U.S. forces were committed to missions supporting the pacification program. Even in the north­ernmost corps zone, the only zone in Vietnam where enemy main force battalions outnumbered friendly battalions, the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) was able to commit two of its nine battalions exclusively to the pacification effort. Other battalions, although they continued to operate in the mountains in mobile defense of the popu­lated seacoast area, supported specific districts. This support took various forms, for example, continuous liaison, training teams, civic action support, and quick reaction operations of company and bat­talion size.
Early in the third phase the U.S. command recognized that the term "search and destroy" had unfortunately become associated with "aimless searches in the jungle and the destruction of property." In April 1968 General Westmoreland therefore directed that the use of the term be discontinued. Operations thereafter were defined and discussed in basic military terms which described the type of opera­tion, for example, reconnaissance in force. Besides avoiding the mis­understanding of search and destroy operations, the change expressed the difference between U.S. operations in the early stages of the war and those conducted during the third phase. In the early stages, the terms "clearing," "securing," and "search and destroy" had served as doctrinal teaching points to show the relationship between military operations and the pacification effort. They had been adopted in 1964 for use by military and civilian agencies involved in pacification. By 1968, when the terms were dropped, the pacification program had

developed to the point where civilian-military co-ordination was routine. Vietnamese and Free World field commanders understood the capabilities and limitations of the civilian agencies, and the civil­ians had a similar grasp of the military contribution.
Search and destroy operations, by any name, were the tactics by which U.S. units engaged the enemy. They were the right operations at the time, and they contributed to the essential function of shielding the pacification effort from the enemy's main forces. Without the shield, the South Vietnamese would not have had the opportunity to rebuild their forces, and the pacification effort in Vietnam would have been impossible.

page created 15 December 2001

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