- Historic Sites
The least-understood branch of our military was born 60 years ago but today is coming into prominence as never before
November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
Few Americans had a firm grasp of what was transpiring during the alarming days of Sputnik , the Berlin Wall, and insurgencies seemingly appearing out of nowhere, but John F. Kennedy did. In 1962 the man who launched the space race told the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy: “In light of this situation, we need to be prepared to fight a different war. This is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin, war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of combat, by infiltration instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him. It requires, in those situations where we encounter it, a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore, a new and wholly different kind of military training.”
The Psychological Warfare Center had been renamed the Special Warfare Center in 1956 and had activated a third group on Okinawa in 1957, but Special Forces was hit by the same budget and manpower cuts as the rest of the Army’s nonnuclear elements in the years before Kennedy became President. And as inspiring and farsighted as JFK proved to be, Special Warfare Center Commandant Brig. Gen. William Yarborough later said that it was not easy to “prod the Armed Services into changing their conventional warfare orientation in any significant way.” Kennedy found that “service apathy and even opposition” to Special Forces still ran strong and he decided to let senior leaders know about his concern. Said Yarborough: “The President took the unusual step of arranging a private session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the hope that they would urge support for the ambitious training programs that were laboring to get off the ground at Fort Bragg.”
With the President’s vehement personal support, men and funds flowed into the organization. By the time of Kennedy’s Military Academy speech, a fourth Special Forces Group had already been added. Three more were formed in 1963, raising the number of operational groups to seven (most, however, never came close to reaching full strength because of the Army-wide shortage of sergeants precipitated by the Vietnam War). The President even supported the adoption of green berets as the official Special Forces headgear, a proposal that the Army’s leadership had strenuously opposed for years.
Special Forces activities expanded in Africa, Asia, and, much closer to home, Latin America, where many countries were battling guerrillas inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuba and frequently backed by the Soviet Union. Special Forces A-teams worked closely with Latin American armies. Their involvement in Bolivia is well known because of the tracking down and capture of the communist revolutionary Che Guevara, but some 450 missions were carried out by the 8th Special Forces Group in other countries such as Guatemala, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960s, with Colombia, strategically located near the Panama Canal, receiving the highest number of training teams.
Direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in 1957 with the deployment of the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment and was rising steadily long before Kennedy entered the White House. U.S. advisers trained the Army of Vietnam in counterinsurgent tactics and worked hard to deny the Vietcong guerrillas free movement in the countryside by very quickly forging the many outlying tribes, which were not ethnically Vietnamese, into competent anticommunist forces.
Tribesmen formed close bonds with the Green Berets, who scrupulously respected local customs and established medical clinics and schools in regions ignored by the Saigon government. By the late 1960s some 45,000 tribesmen had been actively involved in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), operated by 3,500 Special Forces troops per year in a total of 249 village outposts beyond the easy reach of conventional U.S. and South Vietnamese units.
Countless skirmishes and dozens of pitched battles were fought during the nine years of the CIDG program. The Green Berets’ activities with such tribal allies as thé Nungs, Montagnards, and Khmers remained the main focus of Special Forces efforts, but the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply network, running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam, also saw extensive longrange patrolling. Teams of Green Berets and tribal soldiers often spent weeks at a time in the contested jungles and severely disrupted communist operations.
As the war grew to be more and more a “big unit” fight in 1965, with the advance of North Vietnamese formations into the South, the isolated CIDG posts became increasingly vulnerable, particularly to artillery, which the North Vietnamese used against them with devastating effect. Camps Due Co and Cai Cai underwent prolonged sieges, and others like Song Be and Bu Dop fell in vicious fighting. Just before its Ia Drang Valley battles, one of which was depicted in the recent film We Were Soldiers , the 1st Cavalry. Division forced the North Vietnamese to lift their siege of Plei Me, but this was hardly the norm, since large conventional units could seldom be spared to dash from one beleaguered site to another.