South Vietnam - Army

Army

Main article: Army of the Republic of Vietnam

On 26 October 1956, the military was reorganised by the administration of President Ngo Dinh Diem who established the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, pronounced "arvin"). Early on, the focus of the army was combating the guerrilla fighters of the Vietcong, or National Liberation Front, an insurgent movement supplied by North Vietnam. The United States, under President Kennedy sent advisors and a great deal of financial support to aid ARVN in combating the Vietcong. ARVN and President Diem began to be criticised by the foreign press when the troops were used to crush southern religious groups like the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao as well as to raid Buddhist temples, which Diem claimed were harboring Communist guerrillas.

In 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a coup d'état carried out by ARVN officers led by Duong Van Minh ('Big Minh'), supported by the CIA. In the confusion that followed Big Minh took power, but was only the first in a succession of ARVN generals to assume the presidency of South Vietnam in a period of intense political instability. During these years, the United States began taking full control of the war against the NLF and the role of the ARVN became less and less significant. They were also plagued by continuing problems of severe corruption among the officer corps. Although the U.S. was highly critical of them, the ARVN continued to be entirely U.S. armed and funded.

The value of the ARVN was highly questionable in this period. In 1963, at the Battle of Ap Bac, some 1,400 ARVN troops were defeated by only 350 Vietcong guerrillas. The battle of Dong Xoai in 1965 was another humiliating ARVN defeat. Generals tended to be political appointees and corruption was rampant.

Starting in 1969, President Nixon started the process of so-called "Vietnamization", withdrawing American forces and leaving the ARVN to fight the war against the North Vietnamese. Slowly, ARVN began to expand from its counter-insurgency role to become the primary ground defense against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. From 1969–71 there were about 22,000 ARVN combat deaths per year. Starting in 1968, South Vietnam began calling up every available man for service in the ARVN, reaching a strength of a million soldiers by 1972. In 1970 they performed well in Cambodia and were executing 3 times as many operations as they had during the American war period. However, the officer corps was still the biggest problem, and after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the ARVN lacked necessary military supplies and weapons as a result of a cutback of U.S. financial aid and assistance.

Relations with the public also remained poor as their only counter to Vietcong organising was to resurrect the Strategic Hamlet Program, which many peasants resented. However, forced to carry the burden left by the Americans, the South Vietnamese army actually started to perform rather well, and in 1970 was winning the war against the Communists, though with continued American air support. The exhaustion of the North was becoming evident, and the Paris talks gave some hope of a negotiated peace, if not a victory for the North Vietnamese. Since 1973, the war shifted in favor of the Viet Cong, who were well-equipped, funded and aided by their communist allies, the USSR and the China, than the South was by the Americans.

The most crucial moment of truth for the ARVN came with General Vo Nguyen Giap's 1972 Easter Offensive, the first all-out invasion of South Vietnam by the communists. It was code-named Nguyễn Huệ after the Vietnamese emperor who defeated the Chinese in 1789. The assault combined infantry wave assaults, artillery and the first massive use of tanks by the North Vietnamese. ARVN took heavy losses, but to the surprise of many, managed to hold their ground.

U.S. President Richard Nixon dispatched more bombers to provide air support for ARVN when it seemed that South Vietnam was about to be overrun. In desperation, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu fired the incompetent General Hoàng Xuân Lãm and replaced him with ARVN's best commander, General Ngo Quang Truong. He gave the order that all deserters would be executed and pulled enough forces together so that the North Vietnamese army failed to take Huế. Finally, largely as a result of U.S. air and naval support, as well as determination by ARVN soldiers, the Easter Offensive was halted.

After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, all U.S. military forces withdrew from South Vietnam and theoretically the war officially ended, however clashes between ARVN and Vietcong forces continued.

In 1975, the North Vietnamese again invaded the South. Lacking U.S. air support, the ARVN could not hold them back. City after city fell to the Communists with ARVN soldiers joining the civilians trying to flee south. The North called this the "Hồ Chí Minh Campaign". All resistance crumbled. Faced with few viable options, the South tried to form a coalition government that would be palatable to the Communists, one that favored negotiated peace and neutrality. The new coalition government was headed by General Duong Van Minh (Big Minh), one of the organisers of the coup in November 1963, with the full support of the CIA and President Kennedy, that killed President Ngo Dinh Diem. General Cao Van Vien, then Colonel and Commander of the Airborne Brigade, had been captured and held by the Big Minh faction and threatened with execution unless he ordered his troops to join the coup. He refused and was held captive until the end of the coup and was released only because of his close friendship with one of the coup leaders.

Because the new coalition government would be headed by Big Minh, General Vien immediately submitted his resignation to then President of South Vietnam Tran Van Huong, who succeeded President Thieu as President. President Huong, knowing the 1963 coup history, granted General Vien's resignation request, (Vien had submitted his resignation to President Thieu many times and had always been turned down). General Vien then escaped to the U.S. as a civilian once his resignation was effective and formalised.

The situation in South Vietnam further deteriorated. The ARVN tried to defend Xuan Loc, their last line of defense before Saigon. The ARVN forces were greatly outnumbered by the advancing North Vietnamese army. Xuan Loc was taken and on 30 April 1975, initiated the Fall of Saigon. The North Vietnamese army captured the city, placing the Vietcong flag over the Independence Palace. General Duong Van Minh, recently appointed president by Tran Van Huong, unconditionally surrendered the city and government bringing the Republic of Vietnam and also the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to an end.

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