Vietnam ’67. Historians, veterans and journalists recall 1967 in Vietnam, a year that changed the war and changed America
With 11,000 men killed and little to show for it, 1967, in retrospect, is remembered as a year of concern for the United States in the Vietnam War. But at the time, optimism reigned. The offensive operations by American military forces throughout 1966 had halted the gains of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (known to its enemies as the Viet Cong). Those gains, combined with mounting efforts to “pacify” the civilian population, seemed to point the way toward victory — if not in 1967, then soon after.
Pacification involved various strategies to remove Communist influence from rural South Vietnam. And in some ways this was the real heart of the American efforts in Vietnam: For all the emphasis that popular memory places on combat, the fighting was often in service of making room for pacification teams to do their work.
General William C. Westmoreland’s “big unit war” placed considerable attention on pacification. “Search and destroy,” the method by which American Army units located and engaged enemy forces, functioned as a form of pacification. Indeed, pacification required improved security — a task search and destroy achieved.
“The added military strength and expanded area of operation is creating a climate which will allow expansion” of such programs “into areas which were not formally considered secure enough for satisfactory progress,” according to a report by advisors from the Army and the Agency for International Development working in Phu Yen Province, on the Vietnamese coast, in 1966. And at least on paper, extensive operations in Phu Yen — with code names like Van Buren, Fillmore and John Paul Jones — produced a security situation markedly better than the one Saigon faced before the deployment of American combat forces.
Pacification received further attention, and improved cooperation between civilian and military advisors, at a 1966 meeting between American and South Vietnamese officials in Honolulu. After deliberating between February and March, the United States announced a new civilian-military advisory organization: Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, known by its acronym Cords.
While previous advisory groups had helped the South Vietnamese with improving the governance and control of the countryside, Cords finally placed civilian and military personnel together under one structure. By 1967, Cords operated advisory teams in each of the Republic of Vietnam’s provinces. Tasked with helping their South Vietnamese counterparts to improve provincial governance, the arrival of the teams gave the false impression that the war now entered a more peaceful, less destructive phase.
In 1965, the People’s Army of Vietnam and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces had made significant inroads in Phu Yen, isolating the provincial capital of Tuy Hoa City and controlling much of the vital rice harvest. Yet operations by American, South Korean, and South Vietnamese units in 1966 pushed the Communists into the province’s mountainous interior.
While American forces went after North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, it also recognized that control of the rice harvest was the linchpin in Saigon’s control of the entire province. With conventional military operations, the United States advanced pacification in 1966 by protecting the rice fields from the Communists.
Rice harvest protection operations continued into 1967 with Operation Adams, running from October 1966 to April 1967. Units from the 4th Infantry Division sought to trap and annihilate Communist forces as they tried to escape the fertile Tuy Hoa Valley. Doing so gave the South Vietnamese government room to assert control over rice production — and therefore cement the allegiance of area farmers — and had the added benefit of keeping rice out of the stomachs of the enemy’s best trained soldiers.
At least initially, Operation Adams appeared successful. Many Communist units retreated to base areas in the remote reaches of Phu Yen. But such movement did not mean the enemy had abandoned the Tuy Hoa Valley. On March 9, 1967, a sizable enemy force overran an Army platoon. In response, a week later Army forces launched a helicopter assault into an area of suspected enemy activity, and hit them again three days later. In the eyes of the 4th Infantry Division, these two contacts secured the Tuy Hoa Valley. Indeed, “this area was one of the worst enemy infested areas and now it is the most cleared,” claimed the operational summary for Adams. Yet such progress lasted only as long as operations continued.
On Sept. 17, 1967, elements of the 173d Airborne Brigade began yet another effort, Operation Bolling, to protect the fall rice harvest. Like Adams, Bolling centered on the safeguarding of the rice harvest and engaging North Vietnam’s 95th Regiment, should it venture into the Tuy Hoa Valley. This time the operation used fewer troops, yet remained focused on protecting farmers during their harvest as well as using search and destroy. Yet, more so than any previous effort in Phu Yen, Bolling revealed the limits of conventional warfare as pacification.
As battalions of the 173d Airborne Brigade swept the Tuy Hoa Valley, Communist forces simply avoided contact. Instead, enemy units quietly occupied hamlets, and conducted an effective propaganda campaign that presented Saigon’s opponents as having largely survived American efforts to rid Phu Yen of their presence. Enemy bunkers, tunnels as well as food and weapon caches found by America’s D/16th Armor in the Tuy Hoa Valley made it clear the war was far from won.
Still, the apparent success of the conventional forces, when they did engage with the enemy, made it look like pacification was working. Through the fall, American forces pushed into Phu Yen’s remote Ky Lo Valley and engaged the 95th Regiment of the People’s Army of Vietnam. But every step forward seemed to result in a step back: On Dec. 27, American Army units and North Vietnamese regulars fought an intense battle a mere 35 miles from Tuy Hoa City, in the Ky Lo Valley. The North Vietnamese forces eventually melted away — and then returned to rebuild as soon as the Americans left.
Pacification rooted in conventional warfare made the war in Vietnam seem simple, and winnable. Through search and destroy, Army units secured the rice harvest in the Tuy Hoa Valley, thus advancing toward the goals of pacification — even as it obscured the strategy’s hard, non-military parts.
It obscured something else, too. Conventional warfare made Phu Yen appear more secure than it had in 1965. In retrospect, signs of continued enemy activity reflected an enemy far from defeated — and pointed to plans by the Communists to topple Saigon’s control over Phu Yen. Indeed, the 1968 Tet Offensive would undo much of the pacification gains made by American and South Vietnamese forces across the Republic of Vietnam, Phu Yen included.
Robert J. Thompson has a doctorate in American history from the University of Southern Mississippi.