Operation Cedar Falls was a military operation of the Vietnam War conducted primarily by US forces. The aim of this massive search and destroy operation was to eradicate the so-called "Iron Triangle", an area located in close proximity to Saigon which had become a major stronghold of the communist National Liberation Front (NLF) or Viet Cong. The operation began on January 8, 1967 and ended on January 28, 1967.
Operation Cedar Falls was the largest American ground operation of the Vietnam war: Two Army divisions, one infantry and one paratrooper brigade, as well as one armored cavalry regiment participated in the operation; altogether, Operation Cedar Falls involved 30,000 US and South Vietnamese troops. The Vietcong, however, chose to evade this massive military force by either fleeing across the border to Cambodia or hiding in a complex system of underground tunnels. Nevertheless, the allied forces uncovered and destroyed some of the tunnel complexes as well as large stockpiles of Vietcong supplies. In the course of the operation, so-called tunnel rats were introduced to infiltrate Vietcong tunnel systems.
In an attempt to permanently destroy the Iron Triangle as a Vietcong stronghold, Operation Cedar Falls also entailed the complete deportation of the region's civilian population to so-called New Life Villages, the destruction of their homes, as well as the defoliation of whole areas.
Most senior officers involved in planning and executing the operation later evaluated it as a success. Most journalists and military historians, however, paint a bleaker picture. They argue that Cedar Falls failed to achieve its main goal since the Vietcong's setback in the Iron Triangle proved to be only temporary. Moreover, critics argue that the harsh treatment of the civilian population was both morally questionable as well as detrimental to the US effort to win Vietnamese hearts and minds driving many into the ranks of the NLF instead. Therefore, some authors cite Operation Cedar Falls as a major example for the misconceptions of the American strategy in Vietnam and for its morally troublesome consequences.
The "Iron Triangle"
The planning for Operation Cedar Falls evolved out of the broader strategic aims which MACV, the United States' unified command structure for its military forces in South Vietnam, had formulated for 1967. Following the Vietnam War's earlier stages, in which the insertion of major US ground troops had averted the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime and during which the Americans had built up their forces, MACV commander Gen. William C. Westmoreland planned to go on the offensive during 1967. In particular, he planned to clear major North Vietnamese or Vietcong strongholds and to push communist forces into South Vietnam's lightly populated border regions where US forces would be able to make more lavish use of their firepower .
A region thus targeted by American military planners was War Zone C, a major hotbed of communist activity located north of Saigon. On Gen. Westmoreland's order, Lieutenant General Jonathan O. Seaman, Commanding General, II Field Force, Vietnam, began planning for an operation code named Operation Junction City aimed at eradicating this NLF sanctuary. When the strength of Gen. Seaman's troops built up, however, he suggested to additionally target another major Vietcong stronghold: the so-called "Iron Triangle". This was the nickname for an area of approximately 155 square kilometers located some 20 kilometers north of Saigon which, being bounded by the Saigon River to the southwest, Than Dien Forest to the north, and the Song Thi Thinh River to the east, had a roughly triangular shape. Virtually since the beginning of the Second Indochinese War, this area had become a major communist staging ground and rear area which, by 1966, South Vietnamese government officials or military forces had not dared to enter in years. Due to the Iron Triangle's location, shape, and the scope of Vietcong activity there, it had been called a "dagger pointed at the heart of Saigon." Westmoreland agreed and so it was decided that Operation Junction City was to be preceded by Operation Cedar Falls.
Since earlier efforts to clear the Iron Triangle from Vietcong forces had failed, Operation Cedar Falls was intended to achieve nothing less than its complete eradication as an enemy sanctuary and base of operations. Therefore, Operation Cedar Falls was to involve not only an assault on regular Vietcong forces and their infrastructure, but also the deportation of the area's entire civilian population, the complete destruction of their homes, the area's defoliation, and its categorization as a specified strike zone where any individual encountered would be presumed to belong to the Vietcong (so-called "free-fire zone").
Opposing Forces and Terrain
American intelligence indicated that the NLF's Military Region IV headquarters were located in the Iron Triangle; their destruction thus was a principal aim of Operation Cedar Falls. Moreover, the 272d Regiment, the 1st and 7th Battalions of Military Region IV under the 165th Viet Cong Regiment, the Phu Loi Local Force Battalion, plus three local force companies, as well as the 2d, 3d, and 8th Battalions of the 165th Viet Cong Regiment were suspected to operate in the Iron Triangle.
To strike against this enemy force, II Field Force organized the single largest ground operation of the American War in Vietnam involving the equivalent of three US divisions, some 30,000 US and South Vietnamese troops. The US units involved were the 1st and 25th Infantry Division, the 196th Infantry Brigade, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, as well as the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Throughout the operation these units were supposed to bear the brunt of the fighting; South Vietnamese troops were planned to search villages in the region, perform logistical tasks, as well as organizing the deportation of the civilian population.
As often during the Vietnam War, the terrain of the area of operations constituted a major problem for military planners. Indeed, the reason why the Vietcong were able to establish the Iron Triangle as a major sanctuary was that its terrain made it difficult for larger military forces to access this region. Therefore, another major aim of the operation was to destroy large parts of the vegetation through defoliants and bulldozers in order to make the Iron Triangle more easily accessible for future operations.
Operation Cedar Falls was planned as a "hammer and anvil" operation. Under the cloak of deceptive deployments on seemingly routine operations, the 25th Infantry Division with the 196th Infantry Brigade attached to it was to assume blocking positions west of the Iron Triangle, along the Saigon River, whereas one brigade of the 1st Infantry Division was assigned the same task along the Song Thi Tinh River east of the area of operations. The remaining units were then supposed to "hammer" the Vietcong against this "anvil" by rapidly moving through the Iron Triangle, scouring it for enemy troops and installations, and clearing it of civilians. A tight encirclement of the area was to prevent communist units from retreating.
Operation Cedar Falls was scheduled to begin on January 5, 1967 when weather conditions were most favorable. It was divided into two distinct phases. During preparatory phase I, January 5–9, the "anvil" was set up by positioning the relevant units along the Iron Triangle's flank, and an air assault on Ben Suc, a key fortified Viet Cong village, was to take place on January 8 (D-day). These operations were to be succeeded by the completion of the area's encirclement as well as a concerted drive of American forces through the Iron Triangle (the "hammer") from both the south and the west in phase II.
Positioning Forces and the Assault on Ben Suc
Starting on January 5, blocking forces assumed their positions to south of the Iron Triangle along the Saigon River (the 25th Infantry Division and the 196th Infantry Brigade) and east of it (1st Infantry Division) to set up the anvil. The remaining units got into position to swing the hammer. On D-day, finally, elements of the 1st Infantry Division's 2d Brigade commenced the planned air assault on the village of Ben Suc.
Ben Suc was the main pillar of the Vietcong's dominance over the Iron Triangle. This fortified village functioned as a major supply and political center with its population organized as rear service companies. Achieving complete tactical surprise, American forces were able to encircle and seal off the village against only light resistance. A South Vietnamese battalion was then flown in to search the village and interrogate its inhabitants. As a result of these actions, a complex underground tunnel and storage system was uncovered and large quantities of supplies were obtained and later destroyed. The allied forces, however, were able to arrest only lower ranking NLF military or political personnel.
The Destruction of Ben Suc and the Deportation of its Inhabitants
Following the village's screening, 106 villagers were detained; the remaining inhabitants of Ben Suc and of surrounding villages, some 6,000 individuals, two-thirds of them children, were deported, along with their belongings and live stock, in trucks, river boats and helicopters to relocation camps. After the deportation of the village's population, Ben Suc was systematically erased by American engineers who first burned the village's buildings to the ground and then leveled their remnants as well as the surrounding vegetation using bulldozers. In order to collapse tunnels too deep for the demolition teams to find and crush, the village was then subjected to heavy air bombardment.
Gen. Bernard William Rogers, who served as assistant division commander of the 1st Infantry Division during Operation Cedar Falls, notes that, during the forced evacuation of Ben Suc, inhabitants were “moved as humanely as possible”, were allowed to take their possessions and livestock with them, and were even given medical treatment. However, he concedes that “It was to be expected that uprooting the natives of these villages would evoke resentment, and it did”; he goes on to describe the “sight of the natives of Ben Suc with their carts, chickens, hogs, rice” as “pathetic and pitiful.”  Moreover, he reports grave difficulties occurring during the inhabitants' resettlement to the village of Phu Loi. He quotes Gen. Westmoreland as having said "Unfortunately, the resettlement phase was not as well planned or executed as the actual evacuation. For the first several days the families suffered unnecessary hardships." When interviewed more than fifteen years later, one resident of the village recalled how they were not allowed to take anything from their homes, and how, from the very start of Operation Cedar Falls, the army killed villagers. Journalist Jonathan Schell, who wrote an extensive article on Operation Cedar Falls for The New Yorker, confirms the government's assessments. Those South Vietnamese officials, who were charged with the relocation of the villagers, were not informed of their task to organize a refugee camp until 24 hours before the forced evacuation began. As a result, the surprised inhabitants of Phu Loi were forced to house the deportees from Ben Suc in their already jammed dwellings. Schell thus describes the deported Ben Suc villagers as having "lost their appearance of healthy villagers and taken on the passive, dull-eyed, waiting expression of the up-rooted." From Phu Loi, the villagers were then relocated to so-called "New Life Villages". Although it is not known to which particular village the inhabitants of Ben Suc were relocated, living conditions in them are usually described as dismal in the literature on the Vietnam War. In what is the first "revisionist" account of America's War in Vietnam, Guenter Lewy describes the majority of camps as falling "short of minimum standards for physical facilities, economic viability, and opportunities for employment."
With phase I largely completed, US forces initiated phase II. Following saturation bombing and artillery fire, elements of the 1st Infantry Division along with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment began their massive thrust into the Iron Triangle first cutting the area into half and then conducting a thorough search which covered the entire area of responsibility as Gen. Seaman had demanded. Meanwhile, the blocking forces of the 25th Infantry Division and of the attached 196th Infantry Brigade conducted search and destroy operations west of the Saigon River and sealed the river itself by patrolling it on open boats.
However, this massive military punch largely encountered air. Perhaps forewarned or anticipating the attack, the Vietcong had chosen to evade allied forces by either fleeing across the border into Cambodia or hiding in complex underground systems. As a result, one of the largest military ground operations since the Korean War and the single largest ground operation of the War in Vietnam was characterized by skirmishes and other small unit actions rather than large scale combat. Allied troops were overwhelmingly engaged in extensive searches and patrolling during daytime and ambushing during the night; casualties were suffered primarily from sniper fire, land mines, and booby traps.
Whereas allied forces thus failed to search and destroy significant contingents of enemy forces, they did manage to uncover parts of the NLF’s complex tunnel system where large amounts of Vietcong supplies and documents were found. In order to infiltrate these vast underground complexes, the US military used specifically trained teams (so-called “tunnel rats”) for the first time in the war. After having been searched, tunnel complexes were destroyed using a combination of acetylene gas and conventional demolition charges.
A significant part of Operation Cedar Falls was also characterized by large scale combat engineering and chemical operations. Tankdozers, bulldozers, and Rome plows were used in so-called jungle clearing operations in which enemy held terrain was cleared of its vegetation in order to conduct search and destroy operations and to destroy enemy installments. Chemicals were used to defoliate parts of the area and to contaminate enemy rice supplies which American forces were unable to remove.
Results and Aftermath
Operation Cedar Falls was officially terminated on January 26, 1967. The American military claimed that in its course almost 750 Vietcong were killed, 280 were taken prisoner, and 540 defected in the so-called Chieu Hoi ("open-arms") program; an additional 512 suspects were detained and almost 6,000 individuals were deported. Moreover, allied forces captured 23 crew served weapons, 590 individual weapons, over 2,800 explosive items, 60,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, and enough rice to feed 13,000 troops for an entire year. Also, large amounts of enemy documents were obtained and a massive complex of underground tunnels, bunkers, and other structures was destroyed. Some 100 bunkers, 25 tunnels, and over 500 structures were destroyed. Finally, in order to deny the NLF cover and make future penetrations of the area simpler, eleven square kilometers of jungle were cleared.
In comparison, allied losses were light. US forces lost 72 killed and 337 wounded while South Vietnamese casualties amounted to 11 killed and 8 wounded. U.S. equipment lost included two tanks and five armored personnel carriers destroyed; damage was sustained by three tanks, nine APC's, one tankdozer, two jeeps and two light observation helicopters.
The Iron Triangle after January 1967
Whereas the NLF thus suffered a serious setback, its members swiftly managed to reestablish their domination over the Iron Triangle. Two days after the operation's termination, NLF forces reentered the Iron Triangle and within ten days the area was, according to an official US report, "literally crawling with what appeared to be Vietcong." Only a year after the termination of Operation Cedar Falls, the NLF used this area as a staging ground for their attacks on Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Moreover, both inside the Iron Triangle as well as in the relocation camps, to which the inhabitants of Ben Suc were deported, measures such as saturation bombing and in particular the deportation of the civilian population caused tremendous resentment. Following Cedar Fall’s termination, the Vietcong thus returned to an area in which local peasants were more hostile of the allies and more supportive of the NLF than they had been prior to the occupation. In sum, US and South Vietnamese forces failed in their attempt to permanently erase the Iron Triangle as a Vietcong base of operations; indeed, the operation may have made matters worse.
Senior US commanders involved in Operation Cedar Falls were convinced that this operation had been an unqualified success. According to Gen. Rogers, Gen. Westmoreland thought that it was “very impressive in its results”. Summarizing the effects on the enemy, II Field Force commander Gen. Seaman argued that the enemy’s offensive capabilities had been disrupted. Moreover, he predicted that the losses suffered by the Vietcong would have a “serious psychological impact” on “the VC-dominated populace” and that they now would have to “re-evaluate the relative capabilities of their forces as opposed to ours.” General William DePuy, then commander of the 1st Infantry Division, noted a “complete breakdown in confidence and morale on the part of the VC” and called Cedar Falls a “decisive turning point in the III Corps area; a tremendous boost of morale of the Vietnamese Government and Army; and a blow from which the VC in this area may never recover.”
In the literature on the Vietnam War, Cedar Falls is evaluated much more negatively. Phillip Davidson is one of the few authors who sees it as part of a meaningful broader strategy. While he concedes that Cedar Falls missed some of its short-term goals, he holds that, along with its follow-up Operation Junction City, it had beneficial long term strategic consequences: It dealt a serious blow to the North Vietnamese strategy of protracted guerilla warfare by permanently driving the NLF's main force from the more populated areas and across the Cambodian border. Already this conclusion, however, is contested by Shelby L. Stanton. He notes the same effect as does Davidson but interprets it as detrimental to the American military strategy. Instead of driving the Vietcong into a more “vulnerable posture”, as had been intended by MACV, they were in fact driven into Cambodia and hence into a region beyond the allied forces’ reach where, together with the North Vietnamese Army, they established sanctuaries immune to US attacks.
Most authors, though, focus on the short-term outcome of the operation. They argue that, for all its impressive statistics, Operation Cedar Falls failed to achieve its primary goal: Whereas it did deal a serious blow to the Vietcong, communist forces swiftly reestablished their dominant position in the Iron Triangle. Moreover, the saturation bombing and artillery fire as well as the forced deportation of 6,000 civilians are considered tactics which, in addition to being morally highly questionable, were militarily counterproductive as well. While writing from completely different, if not opposed, political points of view, both journalist Stanley Karnow and political scientist Guenter Lewy cite the deportations of Operation Cedar Falls as an example of a larger military strategy which deliberately displaced hundreds of thousands of the very people the US claimed to defend and thus alienated them from the South Vietnamese regime and their American allies.
Some authors therefore see Operation Cedar Falls as a prime example of what they consider as the fundamental misconceptions of America’s military commitment in Southeast Asia as well as of the moral ambiguities or even outright atrocities caused by it; one author even cites the operation as an example of how not to wage an asymmetric war.
- Larry H. Addington, America's War in Vietnam. A Short Narrative History (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000), p. 100
- Shelby L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army. US Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985), p. 142
- Addington, America's War, p. 100
- Cold War Files
- Stanton, Rise and Fall, pp. 131-135
- Stafford T. Thomas, “Operation Cedar Falls”, in James S. Olson, Dictionary of the Vietnam War (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 328.
- Bernard William Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City. A Turning Point (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1974), pp. 17-22. Retrieved on 2008-07-28
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 19.
- Philipp B. Davidson, Vietnam at War. The History 1946-1975 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988), p. 428
- Jonathan Schell, The Real War. The Classic Reportings on the Vietnam War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), pp. 97-98.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 23.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 31-39.
- John F. Votaw, “CEDAR FALLS, Operation”, in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara et al.: ABC-Clio, 1998), p. 108.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, pp. 39-40.
- Schell, The Real War, pp. 187-188.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, pp. 34 and 39.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 39.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 40.
- "Interview with Le Van Ba, 1981". WGBH Media Library & Archives. 10 March 1981. http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/vietnam-0eb6d9-interview-with-le-van-ba-1981.
- Schell, The Real War, pp. 133-136.
- Schell, The Real War, pp. 123-124.
- Schell, The Real War, pp. 133.
- Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (Oxford UP, 1978), p. 108.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 53.
- Stanton, Rise and Fall, p. 144.
- Addington, America's War in Vietnam, p. 100
- Votaw, "CEDAR FALLS, Operation", p. 108.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, pp. 61-73.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 75.
- Davidson, Vietnam at War, p. 428
- Thomas, "Operation Cedar Falls", p. 329; Addington, America's War, p. 100.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 76.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 77.
- Rogers, Cedar Falls-Junction City, p. 79.
- Davidson, Vietnam at War, pp. 429-430, 434-5.
- Stanton, Rise and Fall, pp. 133
- Lewy, America in Vietnam, pp. 64-65, 110-113; Stanley Karnow, Vietnam. A History (New York: Viking Press), pp. 439-440.
- Thomas, "Operation Cedar Falls", p. 329; Karnow, Vietnam, pp. 463-464
- Ivan Arreguin-Toft, "How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict" International Security, Vol. 26, No. 1, (Summer, 2001), pp. 93-128.
- "After Their Nests". TIME Magazine. 1967-01-27. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,843375,00.html. Retrieved 2007-07-11.
- "Building a Nation Beyond the Killing". TIME Magazine. 1967-02-03. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901982,00.html. Retrieved 2007-07-11.
- "Charlie, Come Home!". TIME Magazine. 1967-02-10. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,840822,00.html. Retrieved 2007-07-11.
- Rogers, Lieutenant General Bernard William (1989). Cedar Falls - Junction City: A Turning Point. Vietnam Studies. United States Army Center of Military History. http://www.history.army.mil/books/Vietnam/90-7/cont.htm.
- Battle map
- Cantigny First Division Oral History Project
- Video footage from Operation Cedar Falls, 1st Infantry Division (Iron Triangle), NARA, January 1967.
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