How Naval Intelligence Shaped the Vietnam War

During the Vietnam War, U.S. naval intelligence was a very complex affair. Layers of political organization, military strategy, offensive tactics, and logistical operations shaded the struggle to win in South Vietnam. Much of that portion of the Cold War era is now declassified, illuminating the contributions of the naval intelligence establishment.

008-046-00298-3GPO makes available “Knowing the Enemy: Naval Intelligence in Southeast Asia,” part of the U.S. Department of the Navy series of commemorative studies on the Vietnam War.

The U.S. Navy intelligence effort in Vietnam played out in several pivotal events. Intelligence-gathering squadrons informed operations during 1964’s Tonkin Gulf Crisis and 1968’s Tet Offensive. Naval commands closely traced Soviet and Chinese military aid to North Vietnam and surveilled the use of the vital Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. And analysts processed raw data that informed the Linebacker bombing campaigns and pressed North Korea to eventually negotiate terms to end the war.

A SEAL scans the surroundings during his unit's intelligence-gathering mission in a Mekong Delta village.

A SEAL scans the surroundings during his unit’s intelligence-gathering mission in a Mekong Delta village.

Officers and enlisted personnel gathered and analyzed credible intel on the movement of Communist combat units, the location of Viet Cong encampments, and the flow of weapons and ammunition along the Mekong Delta. The communications, electronic, human, and imagery intelligence they collected was “key to the operational and tactical success of naval forces in the Vietnam War.”

Members of the naval intelligence community that routinely “engaged in intelligence collection often did their dangerous but vital work in direct contact with the enemy.” For example, photo reconnaissance pilots flew fast and furiously into oncoming antiaircraft fire for the best pictures—“since anything worth photographing was likely well-defended.” Hardly desk drones, intelligence staffs “fought face-to-face with the enemy” and suffered causalities for it.

Photo intelligence 3rd Class Charles R. Pearson uses his stereoscopic equipment to analyze an aerial image of an enemy site in Vietnam.

Photo intelligence 3rd Class Charles R. Pearson uses his stereoscopic equipment to analyze an aerial image of an enemy site in Vietnam.

U.S. naval intelligence units furnished operational forces “with information that, for the most part, improved their battle performance…and prospects for survival in combat.” More than anything, the cadre of intelligence professionals helped the American military understand the enemy.

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About the author: Blogger contributor Chelsea Milko is a Public Relations Specialist in GPO’s Public Relations Office.

 

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