1. Editorial Note
On January 2, 1963, regular army and civil guard forces of the Republic of Vietnam engaged a Viet Cong battalion at the village of Ap Bac in Dinh Tuong province, 35 miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta. The South Vietnamese forces enjoyed a 4-1 numerical advantage in the battle, and, unlike the Viet Cong, were supported by artillery, armor, and helicopters. Despite the disparity of numbers and weapons, the Viet Cong battalion inflicted heavy casualties on the government forces and escaped with minor losses. Three American advisers were killed in the fighting and five helicopters were shot down.
The United States Army Command in the Pacific reported the battle to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as “one of the bloodiest and costliest battles of S. Vietnam war” and noted that the battle “will provide enemy with morale-building victory”. (Summary telegram 677 from ARPAC to JCS, January 4; Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 1/63) Lieutenant Colonel John P. Vann, senior United States adviser to the Seventh Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, filed an after-action report on the Ap Bac operation which concluded that the operation was a failure. Vann attributed the failure to the poor state of training of the South Vietnamese units, a system of command which never placed a Vietnamese officer above the rank of captain on the battlefield, a reluctance to incur casualties, an inability to take effective advantage of air superiority, and a lack of discipline in battle. (After-Action Report by Senior Adviser 7th Infantry Division, January 9; JCS Files) Information obtained from a captured Viet Cong assessment of the battle indicated that the Viet Cong attributed their success at Ap Bac to preparation, motivation, and [Page 2] discipline in the execution of small-unit tactics. (SACSA Briefing, April 24; Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, ORG-3 WG/VN Mtgs with Other Agencies)
The battle of Ap Bac was reported in the press in the United States as “a major defeat” in which “communist guerrillas shot up a fleet of United States helicopters carrying Vietnamese troops into battle”. (The Washington Post, January 3, 1963; The New York Times, January 4, 1963) On January 7, The Washington Post printed a front-page assessment of the battle by Neil Sheehan in which he wrote that “angry United States military advisers charged today that Vietnamese infantrymen refused direct orders to advance during Wednesday’s battle at Ap Bac and that an American Army captain was killed while out front pleading with them to attack.” An assessment done in the Department of State on January 15 of press reaction across the country to the battle of Ap Bac noted that “since Ap Bac the complaint has been increasingly heard that the American public is not ‘getting the facts’ on the situation in Viet-nam, even at this time when American casualties are mounting.” (“Alert” on Viet-Nam: Current American Concern and Misunderstanding; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Files of the Office of Public Opinion Studies, U.S. Policy on S. Vietnam, April-Dec. 1963)
The Department of State and the White House expressed concern over the reports printed in the press on the battle of Ap Bac. (Telegram 662 to Saigon, January 7; Department of State, Central Files, 951K.6211/1-763) On January 3, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric forwarded to the White House a memorandum prepared for the President by the Joint Staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff which suggested that the press was painting the battle in misleading colors: “It appears that the initial press reports have distorted both the importance of the action and the damage suffered by the US/GVN forces. Although unexpectedly stiff resistance was apparently encountered, contact has been maintained and the operation is being continued.” (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 1/63) On January 7, President Kennedy expressed concern about the Sheehan article published that day which indicated that the South Vietnamese troops involved in the battle lacked courage. (Telegram CAP 63037 from General C.V. Clifton at the White House to General Godfrey T. McHugh with the President at Palm Beach, January 7; ibid.) A copy of a report on the battle prepared on January 4 by General Paul D. Harkins, Commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, was forwarded to President Kennedy on January 7 in response to his concern. (Attached ibid.) General Harkins noted that the South Vietnamese forces at Ap Bac had made a number of errors, but he characterized them largely as errors of courage rather than cowardice. “It took a lot of guts”, he wrote, “on the part of those pilots and [Page 3] crews to go back into the area to try to rescue their pals.” “Like any engagements in war”, Harkins concluded, “there are days-and there are days. This day they got a bear by the tail and they didn’t let go of it. At least they got most of it.” Harkins’ assessment closely paralleled that of Admiral Harry D. Felt, Commander in Chief, Pacific, who sought to put the battle into perspective in telegram 100910Z to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on January 10. Felt noted that it was “important to realize that bad news about American casualties filed immediately by young reporters representing the wire services without careful checking of the facts.” He conceded that the South Vietnamese forces had made mistakes at Ap Bac based upon faulty intelligence and inexperience, but he added “along with the bad news of damage to helicopters and three Americans lost, there is good news which you may not read about in The Washington Post.” He pointed to a number of other military operations being undertaken successfully by South Vietnamese forces, and concluded: “It also hurts here when irresponsible newsmen spread the word to American public that GVN forces won’t fight and, on the other hand, do not adequately report GVN victories which are occurring more frequently.” (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T-182-67)
On January 7, the Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized Army Chief of Staff General Earle G. Wheeler to lead a team of officers to Vietnam to investigate conflicting reports on military problems and report on future prospects for the war. For text of the Wheeler report, submitted to the Joint Chiefs at the end of January, see Document 26.