Insurgencies wars have been waged throughout history. The United States is no stranger to having been involved in insurgency campaigns. The nation itself was founded on an insurgency campaign against the British. Of all the insurgency campaigns the United States has found itself involved, the most bloody were those dealing with the US involvement in Vietnam and in the Indian Wars of the 19th century.
While both the Vietnam War and the Indian Wars can be defined as insurgency campaigns, there are radical differences between the conflicts. In the landscape of Vietnam, the country had been split into two separate entities: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. North Vietnam developed into a communist totalitarian police state allied with China and the Soviet Union while South Vietnam developed into an incredibly corrupt and mismanaged capitalist country allied with the United States.
The corruption and problems with the government running the South lead to the significant growth of an anti-government communist group dubbed the Viet Cong (a corruption of the words Vietnamese Communists) developed into an insurgency group that sought to overthrow the government of the South as the Viet Cong agreed with North Vietnam’s assertion that Vietnam was one country and not two and supported a North Vietnamese invasion to unify the country.
This situation was further compounded by the fact that there were millions of people in the South that did not wish to fall under communist rule and supported the maintenance of a separate South Vietnamese government. Furthermore, the United States had vital interests in the form of free market investments in the South (this was a major reason the United States funded France’s war with Vietnam prior to French defeat) as well as a defense treaty with the South Vietnamese government which pledged protection to the South Vietnamese government.
In the years following the French defeat in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese had a “buffer” period where they were able to set up an insurgency group in the South in a manner of foresight designed to set in motion a group that would be able to provide internal instability in the case military conflict would have been required if the unification of the North and South would require military action. It is equally clear that North Vietnamese communists operated some form of subordinate apparatus in the South in the years 1954-1960.
Nonetheless, the Viet Minh “stay-behinds” were not directed originally to structure an insurgency, and there is no coherent picture of the extent or effectiveness of communist activities in the period 1956-1959. From all indications, this was a period of reorganization and recruiting by the communist party. No direct links have been established between Hanoi and perpetrators of rural violence. Statements have been found in captured party histories that the communists plotted and controlled the entire insurgency, but these are difficult to take at face value.
Bernard Fall ingeniously correlated DRV complaints to the ICC of incidents in South Vietnam in 1957 with GVN reports of the same incidents, and found Hanoi suspiciously well informed. He also perceived a pattern in the terrorism of 1957-1959, deducing that a broad, centrally directed strategy was being implemented. However, there is little other corroborative evidence that Hanoi instigated the incidents, much less orchestrated them. Eventually, military action did occur as the North sought to reunify the country of Vietnam by force. The situation further complicated itself as Pres.
Lyndon Johnson, realizing that US abandonment of an ally during the height of the Cold War would send a dangerous message of cowardice to the Soviet Union. There was also the matter of the very liberal Johnson needed to capture the votes of conservative democrats and his belief was that showing the world he was tough on communism would provide the answer to that quandary. This lead to escalated US involvement in Vietnam to the tune of 500,000 US ground troops and this, to the Viet Cong and other insurgents, was not the presence of defenders of the South, but rather foreign imperialists looking to colonize the nation.
Hence, the seeds to a protracted insurgency campaign were set. In the Indian Wars, the landscape was much different. First and foremost, the USA expansion on the continent of North America was designed to annex and absorb the land to expand the homeland of the colonizing nation. South Vietnam was a foreign nation where the goal was to preserve the sovereignty of the South Vietnamese government as a (flawed) democracy. In North America, the goal was not to preserve an ally or maintain the sovereignty of a third nation.
The goal was to annex territory and dissolve the Indian territories and expand the territorial boundaries. This creates a huge problem for the Native American insurgents. In Vietnam, a war for attrition was undertaken hoping that the will of the American people would be broken down in terms of the ability to continue to fight with the ultimate result that they Americans would return to their home country. In North America, the Americans did not have to “go home” because they were already home as the Indian territories bordered American territory.
Furthermore, since the United States was absorbing Native America, it was also absorbing the indigenous peoples and essentially “re-educating and re-programming” the Native Americans as a means of eliminating their culture. This protracted re-education program essentially undercut most future resistance movements since the children of the Native Americans were no longer identifying with other Indians, but rather with the colonizer. “In psychological terms, the regimen was deliberately and relentlessly brutal.
From the moment the terrified and bewildered youngsters arrived at the school…a comprehensive and carefully-calibrated assault on their cultural identity would commence. ” (Churchill, Kill The Indian, Save The Man. Pg 19) Such tactics were not possible in Vietnam, as the United States was not absorbing Vietnam into its territory. This absorption did, however, create a unique dynamic that did not exist in Vietnam. Since the Native Americans were being absorbed into American civilization, the Native Americans sought to use the courts as a means of insurgency in order to gain their land rights back.
“American Indians have suffered greatly and consistently in their efforts to hold on to their territory, not infrequently experiencing outright genocide in the process of confronting Euro-American invaders. Nonetheless, the survivors have consistently sought to recover their homelands” (Churchill, Struggle For The Land, pg. 113) Needless to say, however, court challenges to reacquire lost territory was almost always failed efforts. The use of the invader’s court system as a last resort during the waning days of the Indian Wars was a failed, last gasp desperation attempt to salvage a win.
In Vietnam, the independent nations of Cambodia and Laos were “off limits” to the United States and provided safe havens for the Vietnamese in terms of their ability to attack the South and the American troops. (Yes, the US has conducted illegal covert operations in those countries, but due to the restrictions of not having actual authorization to attack, the US could not bomb to the degree the North was bombed nor could it commit tremendous ground troop movement) The Native American insurgency did not have the geographic benefit of sovereign nations bordering their territory to provide support in the manner the Viet Cong had.
The Vietnamese insurgency had several benefits that the Native American insurgents did not have. Namely, the Vietnamese had significant military and financial backing from the Soviet Union and China. Without Soviet weapons, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong would have been crushed under superior American military firepower. Furthermore, there was an expansive “New Left” Marxist movement in the United States that helped foster sympathy for the Vietnamese and undermine the flawed American war effort.
The major reasons the United States did not launch a nuclear strike against the North or use tactical nukes against the Viet Cong was concern over a Soviet/Chinese nuclear response or wide scale “New Left” orchestrated massive domestic rioting. (From 1968 onward, serious consideration was given numerous times to using nukes) Native Americans insurgencies did not have these luxuries. There was no superpower providing them with arms (at least not to the degree that would have made a difference) nor was there wide spread support for the Indian Nations on the part of millions of Americans.
Furthermore, there were very little qualms against using methods of mass destruction against Indian nations including enforcing and orchestrating mass starvation and deliberately setting forest fires designed to kill indiscriminately. The essential paradigm of the War of Terror — us (the attacked) against them (the attackers) — was no less essential to the mindset of white settlers regarding the Indians, starting at least from the 1622 Indian massacre of 347 people at Jamestown, Virginia.
With rare exceptions, newly arrived Europeans and their descendants, as well as their leaders, saw Indians as mortal enemies who started the initial fight against them, savages with whom they could not co-exist. The Declaration of Independence condemned “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. ” When governor of Virginia (1780), Thomas Jefferson stated: “If we are to wage a campaign against these Indians the end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal beyond the lakes of the Illinois River.
The same world would scarcely do for them and us. (Brown) In other words, the American response to the Indian Wars was a scorched earth campaign stripped down to its barest essentials. The Indian insurgency was facing the incredibly daunting task of facing an opponent that was looking to eradicate every vestige of Native American sovereignty and was not seeking to establish a distinct hegemony in one specific sphere of North America unlike Vietnam, where the establishment of the protection and stability of the South was the primary goal.
Brown, John. (19 January 2003) Our Indian Wars Are Not Over Yet. 10 January 2007 https://www.globalpolicy.org/