Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the Vietnam War
Extended Essay in History
Diego Sandoval
Word Count: 4000
Research Question:
In what ways and with what effects did the North Vietnamese incorporate Sun Tzu’s
Art of War into their strategies and tactics in order to defeat the Americans during the
Vietnamese War from ‘65-‘75?
This essay will investigate the ways in which the North Vietnamese’s strategies and
tactics were influenced by Sun Tzu and its effect on the outcome of the war. Inspired by
how the strongest nation lost to a revolutionary state of peasants, this essay shows how
implementing and ignoring the Art of War led to the Communist victory in Vietnam. The
scope of the essay covers the extent to which the Art of war influenced the North
Vietnamese’s strategies and tactics, including the effects of ignoring Sun Tzu’s principles,
but restricted from the self-interpretation of the application of Art of War in order to have a
qualified examination of the research question: In what ways and with what effects did
the North Vietnamese incorporate Sun Tzu’s Art of War into their strategies and
tactics in order to defeat the Americans during the Vietnamese War from ‘65-‘75?
In order to investigate the research question, the essay uses a carefully selected array
of secondary sources that address the connection between Sun Tzu and the Vietnam War.
The investigation leads to the conclusion that North Vietnamese success was largely due to
strategies and tactics encouraged by Sun Tzu’s Art of War and when ignored proved
disastrous. North Vietnam’s strategies and tactics were influenced by the acknowledgement
of the Art of War, application of Sun Tzu’s strategies and tactics, knowledge of themselves
and enemy, use of deception, and strategic goal of breaking the enemy’s will.
Word Count: 240
Table of Content
Awareness of the Art of War
War against a Dominant Military
Know Yourself and Know The Enemy
All Warfare Is Deception
Maintain Will of The People
In what ways and with what effects did the North Vietnamese incorporate
Sun Tzu’s Art of War into their strategies and tactics in order to defeat the
Americans during the Vietnamese War from ‘65-‘75?
Historian Zenn says that “the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the
history of the world made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic
bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country- and
failed.” Communist leader Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap were both avid
students of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, translating it for officers to study and implement
(Tzu). James Clavell says, “If our military and political leaders had studied this work of
genius, Vietnam could not have happened as it happened. (2)” The investigation is
significant, as it reveals ways in which an ancient text guided a revolutionary state of
peasants to defeat a dominant military power. North Vietnam’s success was largely
due to their acknowledgement of the Art of War, application of Sun Tzu’s strategies
and tactics, knowledge of themselves and enemy, use of deception, and strategic goal
of breaking the enemy’s will.
Awareness of the Art of War
“The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and
death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence under no circumstances can it be
neglected. Understand the Art of War’s lessons and you will prevail, ignore them, and
you fight in darkness. (Clavell)” The two generals, US General William Westmoreland
and North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, differed in their strategy and tactics in
which one ignored Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and the other embedded it into their military
and political operations.
General Westmoreland sees the battlefield as a chessboard, in which
belligerent armies face each other to fight (Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 1/3).
He followed a ‘Search and Destroy’ strategy based on killing the most enemies as
possible. This failed to take the enemy’s ability to replenish troops into account and
increased North Vietnam’s will to fight (Shrader). The tactics used were abusive as it
killed many civilians who had little to no connection with the enemy (Schulzinger). A
marine recalls, “Any Vietnamese out at night was the enemy.” (qtd. in Schulzinger
General Giap, on the other hand, sees the battlefield as a Go Board, as Sun Tzu
would (Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 1/3). He would implement insurgent
forces with hit and run attacks all over the country rather avoiding confrontation.
There are similarities in “Sun Tzu’s raids into Chu in North Vietnamese Tactics and
operations in the Vietnam War”, says Andrew R. Wilson, Professor of Strategy and
Policy (Art of War). Wilson specializes in military strategy and has studied Sun Tzu’s
influence on Vietnam extensively. Giap was inspired by Sun Tzu’s strategy which
aimed to win “as much territory as possible, and thus defeat [the] enemy”, explains
Mark McNeilly (McNeilly12). McNeilly is an expert on Sun Tzu’s influence in Vietnam
and is valuable because he has written extensively on the topic in his book Sun Tzu
and The Art of Modern Warfare. Sun Tzu was so influential that Vietcong could recite
entire passages from the Art of War (Tzu). Although some historians such as Steve
Waugh argue that their strategy was inspired by Mao Zedong rather than Sun Tzu,
Mao took lessons directly from the Art of War into his Little Red Book (Cantrell).
Therefore, North Vietnam used The Art of War to its advantage while the US was
ignorant of its significance.
War Against A Dominant Military
Sun Tzu says, “In war, numbers alone confer no advantage. Do not advance
relying on sheer military power.” (Clavell) Westmoreland ignored or was ignorant
of this essential principle outlined by Sun Tzu. According to historian Howard Zinn, he
urged Johnson to send 200,000 troops to South Vietnam in 1965 and another 200,000
in 1966 (93). By 1968 the US had stationed 535,000 troops (Clarke 109)1. Historian
Larry Cable says, “American policy makers did not attempt so much to understand the
goal definitions and theories of victory as to impose upon the belligerent those of an
American manufacture,” thereby ignoring Sun Tzu’s principle by continuing search
and destroy missions measuring success through body count (22).2 In November
1965, for instance, the US engaged in their first battle against the NVA forces in the Ia
Drang Valley which resulted in 1800 North Vietnamese deaths compared to 240
American deaths. This wasn’t necessarily victory as Vietcong managed to retreat to
neutral territory (Olson).
Furthermore, Westmoreland relied on sheer military power. By the Mid 1960’s,
Westmoreland orders hundreds of aerial bombardments, eventually dropping 7
million tons of bombs over Vietnam, more than twice the amount dropped during the
whole of World War Two (Waugh 110). Waugh states that “Operation Rolling
Thunder” aimed to raid military and industrial targets in North Vietnam. The
campaign failed because there were few factories to bomb, no known headquarters
and did not interfere with the Vietcong supply line with the North. The American
magazine Life calculated that the USA spent $400,000 for every enemy fighter, which
equates to 75 bombs and 400 artillery shells (Waugh 112). This is evidence of relying
on military power without strategic planning, which Sun Tzu admonished.
The Vietcong were outgunned but McNeilly argues that they prevailed because
Giap applied art of war. “Though the enemy be stronger in numbers, we may
prevent him from fighting. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his
vulnerable spots. (Clavell)” Giap confronted the dominant military by conducting hit
and run attacks. After such raids, Vietcong would gather in reflective sessions to learn
through criticism and self-criticism, a protocol that increased morale, revealed by a
psychology report made in 1965 involving 145 Vietcong members (Donnell). Robert
Schulzinger says that the Vietcong “would decide when to engage the Americans and
Clarke, pp. 109, 145. As cited in Schulzinger’s book A Time For War
L. Cable, p. 22. As cited in Schulzinger’s book A Time For War. Cable is a military historian who specializes in
Vietnam’s counterinsurgency and is therefore an appropriate source for this study. His perspective on the American
approach may be limited but nonetheless reliable.
ARVN forces, thereby limiting their own casualties until the time they expected the
Americans would weary of the war. (192)” Despite Schulzinger’s failure to give any
empirical evidence to support his claim of limiting causalities, his insight is useful for
understanding VC strategy. Wilson, explains that “Sun Tzu likes this idea [of deciding
when to engage the enemy] because by forcing the enemy to maneuver in response to
you, he reveals strengths and weaknesses and the more you know about his strengths
and weaknesses, the more you can avoid the strengths and attack and exploit the
weaknesses” (qdt. in Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 1/3).
Steve Waugh shows that the US major weaknesses were their ignorance of
guerilla warfare, failure to destroy Vietcong’s will, and failure to win over support of
South Vietnamese peasants (Waugh). The Vietcong thus acted accordingly by using
booby traps to kill 11% of American soldiers, increasing determination by fighting for
two causes, and winning the support of South Vietnamese who were alienated by US
Search and Destroy’ tactics (Waugh 108). These booby traps included grenades
attached to trip wires such as the one illustrated below (Headquarters Department of
the Army 25). According to Waugh, the North Vietnamese were motivated to fight for
Communism and the reunification of Vietnam therefore exploiting the fact that few US
troops believed they were fighting for democracy or even cared (113). This had the
effect of demoralizing the US troops and maintaining communist perseverance. By
following Sun Tzu’s advice, the North Vietnamese were able to confront a dominant
military by finding and exploiting weaknesses.
Sun Tzu influenced Giap’s organizational strategy, empowering him to confront
a stronger army. Giap said that, “All citizens are soldiers. All villages and wards are
fortresses, and our entire country is a vast battlefield on which the enemy is besieged,
attacked and defeated.” (Barnes) This is influenced by Sun Tzu’s teaching in which
“the clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too
much from individuals. He takes individual talent into account, and uses each man
according to his capabilities. (Clavell)” A leading historian on VC, Douglas Pike, attests
this in his book Viet Cong, “The rural Vietnamese was not regarded simply as a pawn
in a power struggle but as an active element in the thrust. He was the thrust.” (Zinn)
Pike is a valuable primary source because he served the US for 15 years observing the
Vietcong in great detail. Historian Zinn supports Pike saying that the Vietcong were
organizers much more than they were warriors (194). Pike was impressed by their,
“totality as a social revolution first and as a war second” bringing South Vietnam
“significant social change” (Zinn 195). Although both historians are westerners, both
personally experienced Vietnam, providing a clear connection between the way the
North Vietnamese were organized and Sun Tzu’s advice that victory can be achieved
without fighting. Despite the US dominant artillery, weaponry and human resources,
Giap outthinks the enemy using strategy inspired from the Art of War.
Know Yourself and Know The Enemy
Giap well understood Sun Tzu’s great principle, “Know your enemy and know
yourself and in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. (Clavell)” McNeilly
shows that US operations were predictable, “First they prepare a landing zone
through artillery air strikes. Then they bring troops in to search and destroy. Giap
recognized this and ordered troops to keep their guard down and when US landed
they would set up ambushes. (Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 1/3)” Gibson
reveals that the Vietcong commanders had substantial information to anticipate
American operations by intercepting US communications using captured American
radios to act accordingly, supporting McNeilly’s statement (U.S. Military Defeated in
Vietnam). He adds, “they [VC] knew where we were but we did not know where they
were, therefore they consistently had the initiative. (U.S. Military Defeated in
Vietnam)” A military study showed that the Vietcong initiated 88% of all engagements
during the war (Krepinevich).
The strategy above is closely tied with the Art of War. According to McNeilly, “Giap
orders [his] troops to stay as close to US soldiers as possible. Giap said, ‘you grab your
enemy by the belt.’ (Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 1/3)” By intermingling
soldiers among the enemy, Richard Gabriel says, the US had to bomb their own troops
(Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 1/3). These tactics are thoroughly outlined in
Warren Welkins book, Grab Their Belts to Fight Them, which studies the logistics of
these ambushes. Although it does not explicitly make connections to the Art of War,
McNeilly and Gabriel show that these tactics were directly influenced from the Sun
Tzu (Aboul-Enein). “By discovering the enemy’s dispositions and remaining invisible
ourselves, we can keep our forces concentrated, while the enemy’s must be divided”
which is indeed what the North Vietnamese did (Clavell). This had the effect of
empowering the Vietcong to have the control of initiating and ending conduct, which
Gibson refers as two crucial advantages of the enemy (U.S. Military Defeated in
By knowing the enemy, the Vietcong were able to evade US missions to some
degree. For instance, prior to Operation Rolling Thunder, North Vietnamese leaders
instructed the military and population in February 1965 to “expect the complete
destruction of the entire country, including Hanoi.” Hanoi then reduced to half of its
original population (Staaveren). This demonstrates how knowing the enemy allowed
them to respond accordingly, just as Sun Tzu encouraged. This had the effect of
empowering leaders to take action and avoid severe destruction.
Furthermore, Vietcong kept US from knowing the enemy through hidden
identity. Waugh says that the Vietcong were nearly impossible to identify because of
they didn’t use uniforms and were able to hide among civilians around the country
("Know Your Enemy: The Viet Cong"). This resulted in high level of casualties among
innocent civilians, which in turn made South Vietnamese inclined towards supporting
the Viet Cong (Waugh).
Sun Tzu said, “The general who is skilled in defense hides in the most secret
recesses of the earth” (Clavell). The Cu Chi tunnel complex was vital for VC’s success.
The largest of these tunnels lay North of Saigon with over 250 kilometers of
interconnected passages, which were expanded and fortified with zigzags and sharp
drops to resist US attacks (History Staff). Vietcong had secret entrances, hospitals, and
heavily booby-trapped, as shown by the figure below (Waugh). Thus the Art of War
had significant implications on North Vietnamese tactics, which would lead to their
All Warfare is Deception
The Art of War says all warfare is based on deception. Sun Tzu puts great
importance in an army’s spies. Richard Gabriel, a distinguished military historian,
says, “Giap understands that accurate knowledge of the enemy is worth 10 divisions
and so he created a spy network that was unrivaled. Anyone who dealt with
Americans was a potential source of information for Vietcong.” A veteran believed that
there were more spies than there were enemies with guns (Westheider). The
objective, Gabriel says, was to predict American movement. He continues, “as study
later shows [Pentagon Papers], we didn’t surprise anybody; they knew we were
coming almost all the time. (qdt. in "Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 2/3.") ”
Wilson explained that, “in the art of war, double agents are the most important spies.
They begin as spies that your adversary has sent to spy on you. When you find them
out, you don’t jail or execute them. You hire them. You give them lavish rewards. What
they do then is continue to act as if they’re spying on you but information you feed
back to the adversary is misinformation. (qdt. in "Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam
War 2/3.")” Pham Xuan An was a double agent working as a communist spy and a
western reporter for Reuters and Times (Pryle). The Americans and their supporters
killed roughly 26,000 to 41,000 suspected spies, a strategy admonished by Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu says, “In battle use a direct attack to engage and an indirect attack to winIt is
vital that a general should choose a place to attack then attack elsewhere to divert the
enemy’s attention, and deceive him. While he’s distracted capture the real objective
(Clavell).” Vietnam’s prime example of indirect attack is the TET Offensive of January
31, 1968, which took place during a cease-fire on Vietnam’s Lunar New Year. More
than 80,000 Vietcong carried out simultaneous attacks on more than 100 cities,
villages, and US bases all across South Vietnam (Waugh). The Riddle of Khe Sanh is a
historical debate on whether the VC attack on Khe Sanh was a diversion to mesmerize
Westmoreland prior to TET. Historians who have studied Sun Tzu and Giap argue that
the Battle of Khe Sanh was meant to draw the American attention away from the
Vietcong buildup prior to the TET offensive ("The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh.").
Historians show that the Battle of Khe Sanh diverted 30,000 US troops away from
their main targets for the TET offensive (Page). According to McNeilly, once the TET
offensive started, “US and South Vietnamese were shocked. They believed the enemy
was in its hind legs” ("Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 2/3."). By following the
Art of War’s principle of attacking indirectly, the North Vietnamese were towards
success at the peak of the TET Offensive, until they ignored one Sun Tzu Principle.
Maintain Will of The People
One of the five factors for success in war is Moral Influence. “Moral influence
means a leader must have the will of the people behind him, otherwise the war
will ultimately fail. (Clavell)” During the TET Offensive, the most brutal massacre of
the war took place in the city of Hue. The Battle of Hue began on January 31, 1968 and
within the 26 days, multiple mass graves of men, women, and children and were
scattered in and around the city (Jackson). The massacre had an estimate of 4,856
civilians and captured personnel executed by the communists or missing (Pike 23).
Throughout 1968, the Vietcong enforced Blacklists and murdered South Vietnamese
sympathizers ("Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 2/3"). Gabriel remarks that the
Vietcong “killed thousands of innocent people whose only ‘crime’ was that they
worked in a government agency. That brutality eventually backfired” and VC lost the
will of the people to provide reinforcements, allowing the Americans to achieve
tactical victory (Warr).
Despite the tactical disaster of Tet, the communists achieved strategic victory
(Staff). Although there is historical speculation of the legitimacy of the Tet strategic
plan, the result is nonetheless aligned with the Art of War.3 Historian Alexander says
that the offensive was a turning point that turned the US people against the war ("Sun
Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 3/3."). Richard Gabriel shows that Giap knew the Art
of War’s rule that war is a means to an end, and that end is to break the enemy’s will.
The media coverage of the offensive turned American opinion against the war, caused
Johnson to not seek reelection, and began the slow withdrawal of American troops,
which eventually led to communist victory (Wadsworth).
There is historical debate whether the Communist leaders’ main objective was to spur an anti-war
movement in the US. General Tran Do, according historian Karnow’s research, said that making an
impact in the US was not the intention, yet a fortunate result. However Tran Do may have been ignorant
of Giaps intentions and therefore is still aligned with Sun Tzu’s principles.
The North Vietnamese leadership was well aware of the Art of War and its
significance and applied its wisdom in many ways. First, they spread awareness of Sun
Tzu’s ideas through out their leaders to develop guerrilla tactics following a Go-Board
inspired strategy. Secondly, Giap in particular understood Sun Tzu’s method of facing
a dominant military and found ways to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. Thirdly, they
understood Sun Tzu’s principle that all warfare is deception and applied it into their
operations, particularly TET. Lastly, Giap understood that the US could not win if they
did not have the support of the people, a postulate outlined by Sun Tzu. In these ways,
the Art of War empowered the communist to achieve strategic victory and outthink
the United States rather than outfight them, ultimately convincing the American
people to leave the country. The wide array of sources presented in this investigation
support my argument that the North Vietnamese success was greatly influenced by
the Art of War.
Aboul-Enein, Youssef. "Grab Their Belts To Fight Them." Small Wars Journal. Small
Wars Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2014.
Anderson, David L. The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War. 2004, page 98-9
Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. The Army and Vietnam. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1986.
Art of War. Dir. David Padrusch. History Channel, 2009.
Barnes, Bart. "Military Leader Vo Nguyen Giap Defeated French, U.S. Forces in Vietnam
Conflicts." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 07 Nov.
Cantrell, Robert. Understanding Sun Tzu on The Art of War. N.p.: n.p., 2004. Center For
Advantage. Web. 08 Nov. 2014.
Clarke, pp. 109, 145.
Donnell, John C. Viet Cong Motivation and Morale in 1964: A Preliminary Report. Rep. no.
AD0738742. N.p.: Information for the Defense Community, 1965. Print.
Ide. "Born in the North to Die in the South." Nguyen Son Remembers the War in
Vietnam." Web log post. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Sept. 2014.
Jackson, Gerald (16–22 February 1998). "Hue: the massacre the Left wants us to
forget". The New Australian. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
Kahin. pp.374-75; Berman, Planning a Tragedy
"Know Your Enemy: The Viet Cong." Armed Forces Information and Education No.
3.American Representations of Vietnam (1986): 151-67. Department of Defense.
Web. 5 Nov. 2014. <>.
L. Cable, p. 22.
"List of Civilians Massacred by the Communists During "Tet Mau Than" in Thua Thien
Province ad Hue City". RVN. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
Manley, Jacqueline. Saigon Salvation. Xulon Press. p. 364.
McCoy, Alfred. A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War
on Terror. N.p.: Henry Holt, 2006. Web.
McNeilly, Mark. "Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare." Google Books. Oxford
University Press, n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2014.
Morocco, p. 137
Olson, James S., and Randy W. Roberts. Where The Domino Fell: America and Vietnam 1945-1999.
N.p.: Blackwell, 2008. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
Page, Tim, and John Pimlott. NAM, the Vietnam Experience, 1965-75. New York, NY:
Mallard, 1988. Print.
Pike, Douglas. "The Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror." Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov.
2014. p. 23-39
Pryle, Richard. "Vietnam Double-Agent Pham Xuan an Dies." Washington Post. The
Washington Post, 20 Sept. 2006. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.
Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975. New
Shrader, Charles R. History of Operations Research in the United States Army. Vol. 2.
Washington, D.C.: Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army for
Operations Research, U.S. Army, 2006. Print.
Staaveren, Jacob Van. Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966.
Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2002. Print.
Staff, "Cu Chi Tunnels." A&E Television Networks, 2011. Web.
08 Nov. 2014.
Staff, "Tet Offensive." A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 09
Nov. 2014.
"Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 1/3." YouTube. History Channel, n.d. Web. 17
Oct. 2014.
"Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 2/3." YouTube. History Channel, n.d. Web. 17
Oct. 2014.
"Sun Tzu Tactics Used in Vietnam War 3/3." YouTube. History Channel, n.d. Web. 17
Oct. 2014.
"TC 5-31 1967 Viet Cong Booby Traps, Mines and Mine Warfare Techniques." (1967):
25+. Headquarters Department of the Army. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.
Terry, p. 45.
"The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh." History Net Where History Comes Alive World US
History Online The Withdrawal from Khe Sanh Comments. Vietnam Magazine, 12
June 2008. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Ed. James Clavell. New York, NY: Delacorte, 1983. Print.
Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Special ed. N.p.:, 1944. Print.
U.S. Military Defeated in Vietnam: Part 3 --Predictable War By The Numbers. Prod. Doug
Kellner. Perf. James William Gibson. N.p., n.d. Web.
Wadsworth, Clinton D. "Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap: Military Genius or
Communist Butcher?" Thesis. N.d. Executive Summary (n.d.): n. pag. United
States Marine Corps. Web.
Warr, Nicholas. Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968. Annapolis, MD: Naval
Institute, 1997. Print.
Waugh, Steve, and John Wright. Vietnam 1960-1975. London: Hodder Education, 2010.
Westheider, James E. Fighting in Vietnam: The Experiences of the U.S. Soldier.
Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2011. Print.
Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-2001. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.