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Strategic Thinking

The central factor in Hanoi's strategic thinking, applicable to both external and internal threats, is the VCP's concept of dau tranh (struggle). Briefly stated, dau tranh strategy is the sustained application of total military and nonmilitary force over long periods of time in pursuit of an objective. Its chief characteristic is its conceptual breadth, for it is of greater scope than ordinary warfare and requires the total mobilization of a society's resources and psychic energies. The strategy, it is held, is unique to Vietnam because of its close association with the sources of Vietnamese national security strengths. Since the mid-1970s, journals published in Hanoi on military theory have defined these strengths as the heritage of unity and patriotism, the supportive collectivist state system, the technologically and "spiritually" developed armed forces, a superior strategy (the dau tranh strategy), the undeviating justice of Vietnam's cause, and the support of the world's "progressive forces." The leadership's faith in these strengths emboldens it to take an implacable approach to world affairs and to treat external activities, such as diplomacy, like quasi-military campaigns.

The aim of the dau tranh concept is to put warfare into a new conceptual framework. Its essence is the idea of people not merely as combatants or supporters but as weapons of war to be designed, forged, and hurled into battle--hence the term people's war. All people, even children, are regarded as instruments of dau tranh. Operationally the strategy has two arms or pincers--armed dau tranh and political dau tranh. The two always work together to close on and crush the enemy. Political dau tranh is not politics but a mobilizing and motivating program operating in a gray area between war and politics. Specifically, it consists of three van (action) programs: the all-important dich van (action among the enemy) includes activities directed against the foreign enemy in his home country, the dan van (action among the people) includes activities conducted in a liberated area, and the binh van (action among the military) includes nonmilitary activities against the enemy's military forces. Of the three, the dich van program is particularly novel because it seeks to shape outside perception and, beyond this, to persuade outsiders not only that the Vietnamese will be successful in their struggle but that they deserve to be. Strategically, it seeks to undercut the enemy's war effort at home and its diplomacy worldwide. Tactically, it attempts to limit the enemy's military response by inhibiting the full use of his military potential.

Dau tranh strategy defines the enemy narrowly--imperialists, militarists, landlords--but does not tar all in the enemy camp. Some are considered merely to have been misled, while others are regarded as foreign patriots who nevertheless support Hanoi's cause. In this way, dau tranh not only changes the definition of a combatant but also revises the rules of warfare. It asserts that the final test need not be military, and that the decisive action may take place away from the battlefield.

The strategy requires the support of tremendous organizational resources as it seeks always to realize the ideal of total mobilization and motivation. It also requires meticulous attention to the mundane details of war and politics, such as logistics and administration.

The great utility of dau tranh strategy, as evidenced by forty years of use against the French, the Americans, and the Chinese, is two-fold: it can cloud the enemy's perceptions and it can nullify his power. In the judgment of the Vietnamese leadership, it has proved to be highly effective in confounding the enemy's strategic response because it engenders misperception in the enemy camp. Vietnam's leaders have said that the nature of the Second Indochina War was never seen clearly either by the South Vietnamese or by the Americans. Dau tranh strategy, in effect, dictates the enemy's counterstrategy, even to the extent of forcing him to fight under unfavorable conditions. In circumscribing the enemy's military response by altering his perception of the war, dau tranh's guiding principle is that military force must always be politically clothed. Every battle must be cast in terms of a political act. When this is not possible--as in a purely tactical engagement, such as that with United States forces at Khe Sanh in early 1968--the attack must be made to seem a military action for a political purpose (see The Second Indochina War , ch. 1). Theoretically, violence or military action defined or perceived as political becomes more acceptable to all parties, participant and onlooker alike.

After the Second Indochina War, the dau tranh concept served the Vietnamese less well. It was employed, more by accident than by design, against the invading Chinese during the brief border war in 1979 and worked fairly well. It did not prove workable in Cambodia, however, and was for the most part abandoned there. Interestingly, many of its techniques were borrowed by the Cambodian resistance forces and used against the Vietnamese-supported Khmer People's Revolutionary Armed Forces (KPRAF), as well as against PAVN forces in Cambodia. Vietnam's experience in Cambodia inspired Hanoi to scrutinize the strategy more closely in order to assess its application to future needs. However, the strategy's past success weighed heavily in the assessment, and Vietnamese leaders in 1987 continued to place confidence in its viability.

PAVN generals, in 1987, were in the process of evaluating Vietnam's position in the world and reviewing the nature of its future strategic requirements. Vietnamese publications on the subject in the 1980s stressed continuity in strategic thinking and the need to treat the future as a logical extension of the past. The twin pillars with which the strategic planners sought to serve future national interests were, first, to exploit Vietnam's innate skill in strategic defense and, second, to capitalize on the party's ability to anchor the strategic process successfully in the people.

Four major themes could be discerned in Hanoi's strategic thinking in the mid-1980s. The first was the recognition that PAVN must be prepared to fight both limited, small-scale, orthodox wars and protracted, guerrilla wars. As a practical matter, renewed attention was given to preparing for warfare in mountainous terrain (Vietnam is 40 percent mountainous and 75 percent forested--see Geography , ch. 2).

The second theme was an increasing emphasis on military technology. This resulted from PAVN's experience with the United States military machine in the Second Indochina War and with the war in Cambodia, as well as from the influence of Soviet military advisers.

The third theme was a return to orthodox dau tranh strategy. This occurred partly as a result of the successes scored by Pol Pot's Cambodian guerrillas and partly as a result of the success of PAVN paramilitary forces against the invading Chinese. The counterinsurgency effort in Cambodia, for example, was regarded as simply a limited, small-scale, high-technology war. Another war against China, according to Vietnamese definitions, would require (as, indeed, the previous one had required) a mixture of orthodox limited-war strategy and elements of dau tranh strategy. The PAVN high command, in opposition to earlier practice, appeared increasingly to believe that high-technology warfare in the mountains was possible.

The fourth theme was the acknowledgment that the strategy in Cambodia and the strategy designed for use against China depended on continued support from the Soviet Union. In order to meet Vietnam's future external security needs, Hanoi's leadership probably will be led to conclude that it must eventually develop a new or revised strategic concept that is not overly dependent on past strategies or simple alliance with the Soviet Union. At the end of 1987, however, the leaders in PAVN and the Political Bureau appeared to have undiminished faith in the efficacy of their past doctrines and in the connection with Moscow. As long as they remained in power, a markedly new Vietnamese strategic approach to national security seemed unlikely.

Data as of December 1987

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