[November 14, 2015] It was once written by military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” We should remember the truth in that statement when the Battle of Ia Drang is reviewed for its origins and aftermath. Like any battle, it cannot be viewed in isolation, nor can the importance of the battle for its influence on America and its military.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Ia Drang. The battle was the first major engagement fought between North Vietnamese regular troops (the People’s Army of Vietnam) and the United States military (elements of the 1st Cavalry Division). What is so important about it was that it supported the political position of U.S. President John F. Kennedy who promised in his 1961 inaugural address to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”1
The Kennedy administration had already faced a number of crises when it committed to support South Vietnam; the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba, the construction of the Berlin Wall by the Soviet Union, and a settlement between pro-Western Laos and its communist movement. Those were the days that Communism was seen as a threat to liberty and democracy around the world. Today many see this view of communism as false but such is only revisionists that ignore history and the real threat of nuclear annihilation of the times.
Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore’s unit conducted a air assault into Landing Zone X-Ray at noon and was almost immediately attacked by a North Vietnamese regiment; greatly outnumbering the American forces. The fighting was bitter but the 1st Cavalry battalion of Moore’s received tactical air strikes and artillery support that took a toll on the enemy.2 Both sides declared the battle a victory.
Although a clear tactical victory for the Americans, for the North Vietnamese leadership it showed that their regular troops could stand toe-to-toe with well equipment and supported American forces. For the Americans it meant they could fight and win against a numerically superior force in a classic defensive battle of their choosing, anytime, anywhere. The courage of Lt. Col Moore and his men were of the highest order and they deserve the respect of all of us.3
U.S. President Johnson who became president after the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963 continued the foreign policies of Kennedy. Johnson increased the size of the troop commitment and was instrumental in seeing that communism was opposed. The backdrop to the battle was the Cold War and a rising “anti-war” movement that was to pressure the U.S. government to withdraw its support from South Vietnam.4
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- As a side note, I had the pleasure of having dinner with U.S. Army Lieutenant General Harold G. “Hal” Moore, Jr. a few years ago. I thanked him for his service and asked if the movie We Were Soldiers (2002) – which is based on the Battle of Ia Drang – was accurate. His answer was interesting. Of course, I read the book which is written by Moore and by journalist Joseph L. Galloway and is on my recommended reading list.
- For those who supported the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam they remain, even today, morally blind and intellectually bankrupt to the destructive consequences of their acts on ordinary people like the Vietnamese and Cambodian peasants who were slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.