During their inspection, they recovered over forty pounds of documents and maps, including maps that showed the locations of U.S. billets in Saigon, indicating heavy surveillance by the Vietcong. They encountered few Vietcong throughout the operation, and only small numbers of soldiers were killed. Ultimately, the tunnel rats who scoured these tunnels helped form a band of tunnel rats that were used throughout the country to infiltrate and destroy Vietcong tunnels throughout the war.
There were some Vietcong left inside the tunnels, and those that did not give up were shot on sight. There are some accounts that there were people in the hospital too, including nurses, when the tunnels were destroyed, but that has not been verified. Before entering the tunnels, the tunnel rats would spray them with machine gun fire, and usually the Vietcong left to guard them were killed in the barrage.
B-52 bombers and other aircraft supported soldiers on the ground. In Vietnam: A history, the author notes, “American aircraft bombed its hamlets and denuded its rice fields and surrounding jungles with herbicides before the infantry, accompanied by tanks and bulldozers, moved in to eradicate a reported enemy web of bunkers and tunnels.”
The operation was over by January 26, but it did not result in large numbers of Vietcong casualties or captures. Another author states, “In Operation Cedar Falls . . . The U.S. armed forces in effect drove a steamroller over the densely populated area of the Iron Triangle, flattening the villages with five hundred pound bombs . . . And destroying the jungle cover with herbicides.”
A French journalist witnessed the B-52 operations first hand. He wrote, “In all my life, I have not heard such a roar. When the B-52s bombard South Vietnam, all of Indochina trembles. Cambodians have declared to me that the tremors reverberate even to Phnom Penh, and that windowpanes rattle there.”
The operation officially ended in late January, but even after eight months, the entire Iron Triangle was still under constant bombardment by the Americans. The danger was so great that an American professor was not allowed to land a helicopter in Ben Suc after his investigation of the area. It was still considered a “hot” zone to the military, and refugees could not return to their destroyed villages with the military still in control of the area.
The U.S. military called the operation a great success. Author Karnow continues, “The U.S. command hailed the operation as a triumph. But, by the end of the year, the Communists had returned to the devastated region and reconstructed their sanctuary, which they used as a springboard for their assault against Saigon in the Tet offensive of early 1968.”
This is what makes the operation so significant in Vietnam War history. While it did accomplish some of its goals, it displaced several thousand people, destroyed their villages, and the bases were rebuilt, anyway, after the Vietcong returned from Cambodia. In that respect, the operation was a failure, and because the Army did not return to the area to eliminate the Vietcong again, and they quickly gained new ground. Ultimately, their remaining presence led to the deadly Tet offensive in Saigon.
The Aftermath of the Operation
The operation lasted less than a month, but it devastated the Iron Triangle and its residents. Two editors note, “The Iron Triangle took a heavy reckoning, 500 dead — without counting the victims of the B-52s that one cannot see — among whom are women, children, and especially, the adolescents who serve in the ranks of the Vietcong.”
The refugees settled in the refugee camp of Phu Cong, where over 6,500 were forced to live in close proximity. They had no homes to return to, and they had no jobs, so they really had nothing to keep them busy or active. Some people continued to live in the camp, while others drifted away to Saigon, which was already stuffed with refugees from the countryside.
A firsthand observer of the camp said the women have little choice but to become prostitutes, they have no other way to support themselves, and their husbands are absent. He says, “I have seen them sell themselves for 100 piasters to the G.I.s who pass in front of them — no other solution for survival is available to them. The mothers and the elder daughters often have to care for eight or ten children. As for the men in the camp, there are none under the age of 50: they are dead, prisoners, or in the Resistance.
The refugees really faced a hopeless future, and because of their treatment, many of them formed a resentment toward the United States and its military, leading them to become Vietcong supporters even if they had not been before the relocation.
The operation created resentment among the people of the Iron Triangle, but it drove a wedge between the military and local authorities, too. Author Hunt notes, “The operation also strained relations between the American military and the Saigon government. South Vietnamese authorities apparently had no voice in the decision to evacuate and destroy several villages — actions that clearly denigrated the governments sovereignty.”
The South Vietnamese thought that General Westmorland, the commander of the forces involved in the Iron Triangle, should have surrounded Ben Suc and protected its residents, rather than destroying it and other villages. Westmorland said he didnt have enough forces to do that at the time, but the relationship remained strained.
There are also many allegations that civilians in the Iron Triangle were killed along with Vietcong. Many did not leave the area when they were contacted by the military, and the military operations, such as the B-52s, would have killed anything or anyone in their path. One journalist talked with a captain who had been in the operation. The captain “estimated that despite the evacuation, almost half the casualties inflicted by the massive U.S. air strikes and ground fire were “simple villagers — VC sympathizers, probably, but not hard core.”
This also created great resentment among the South Vietnamese government and people, and it gave the military a bad reputation in the United States, too.
There were also other disturbing reports from reporters embedded with the Operation Cedar Falls troops. A French reporter states, “A village of straw huts was attacked and set afire without anyone taking the trouble to see if there were anyone in the houses. I learned then from the paratroops that several women had been burned alive, but I did not see this in the sector where I happened to be.”
Despite this, no formal charges were ever filed regarding Operation Cedar Falls over civilian casualties that could have been avoided.
Cedar Falls and other atrocities that came out in the press helped fuel anti-war sentiment in the United States and around the world. The treatment of the refugees, along with the killing of innocent civilians, did not set well with people, and there were some simple investigations after the war. Many journalists and historians point to the operation as a failure, because it failed to keep the Vietcong out of the area, so the civilians really died for no good reason.
In conclusion, Operation Cedar Falls was momentous for many reasons. It was the largest ground operation of the Vietnam War, it was the first time the South Vietnamese and U.S. troops worked together, and it was the first big operation of the war. It cleared a huge area of anything living, and it relocated thousands of South Vietnamese away from their homes. It was controversial, and it really did not reach its total objective, because it never fully eradicated the Vietcong who threatened Saigon. Today, many people have returned to Ben Suc, but the damage from the bombings and bulldozing remain apparent throughout the village.
Falk, Richard A., Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds. Crimes of war: A legal, political-documentary, and psychological inquiry into the responsibility of leaders, citizens, and soldiers for criminal acts in wars. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1971.
Hunt, Richard A. Pacification: The American struggle for Vietnams hearts and minds. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.
Karnow, Stanley. 1997. Vietnam: A history. New York: Penguin Books.
Stanton, Shelby L. The rise and fall of an American Army: U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1995.
Torry, Robert. “Therapeutic Narrative: The Wild Bunch, Jaws, and Vietnam.” Velvet Light Trap 31 (1993): 27-38.
Richard A. Hunt, Pacification: The American struggle for Vietnams hearts and minds (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), 56.
Stanley Karnow. Vietnam: A history (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 477.
Richard A. Falk, Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds., Crimes of war: A legal, political-documentary, and psychological inquiry into the responsibility of leaders, citizens, and soldiers for criminal acts in wars 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 1971), 306.
1. Shelby L. Stanton, The rise and fall of an American army: U.S. ground forces.