Who Were the Viet Cong and How Did They Affect the War?

What Was Their Role in the Vietnam War?

Black and white photo of the Viet Cong fighting during the Vietnam War in 1968.

Three Lions/Stringer/Getty Images

The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese supporters of the communist National Liberation Front in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War). They were allied with North Vietnam and the troops of Ho Chi Minh, who sought to conquer the south and create a unified, communist state of Vietnam. 

The phrase "Viet Cong" denotes only southerners who supported the communist cause — but in many cases, they were integrated with fighters from the regular North Vietnamese army, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The name Viet Cong comes from the phrase "cong san Viet Nam," meaning "Vietnamese communist." The term is rather derogatory, however, so perhaps a better translation would be "Vietnamese commie." 

Who Were the Viet Cong?

The Viet Cong arose after the defeat of the French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu, which prompted the United States to become gradually more and more involved in Vietnam. Fearing that Vietnam would turn communist — just as China had done in 1949 — and that the contagion would spread to neighboring countries, the United States sent increasing numbers of "military advisors" into the conflict, followed in the late 1960s and 1970s by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.

The U.S. sought to prop up a nominally democratic and capitalist South Vietnamese government, despite serious abuses and violations of human rights by the client state there. Understandably, the North Vietnamese and much of the South Vietnamese population resented this interference.

Many southerners joined the Viet Cong and fought against both the government of South Vietnam and the armed forces of the United States between 1959 and 1975. They wanted self-determination for the people of Vietnam and a path forward economically after the devastating imperial occupations by France and by Japan during the Second World War. However, joining the communist bloc actually resulted in continued foreign interference, this time from China and the Soviet Union.

Increased Efficiency During the Vietnam War

Although the Viet Cong started out as a loose grouping of guerrilla fighters, they increased markedly in professionalism and in numbers over the course of the conflict. The Viet Cong were supported and trained by the government of communist North Vietnam.

Some served as guerrilla fighters and spies in South Vietnam and in neighboring Cambodia, while others fought alongside North Vietnamese troops in the PAVN. Another important task carried out by Viet Cong was to ferry supplies to their comrades from the north to the south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through adjacent parts of Laos and Cambodia.

Many of the tactics that the Viet Cong employed were absolutely brutal. They took rice from villagers at gunpoint, carried out incredible numbers of targeted assassinations against people who supported the South Vietnamese government, and perpetrated the Hue Massacre during the Tet Offensive, in which anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war were summarily executed. 

Viet Cong Downfall and Impact on Vietnam

In April of 1975, the southern capital at Saigon fell to the communists' troops. American troops withdrew from the doomed south, which fought on for a short time before it finally surrendered to the PAVN and the Viet Cong. In 1976, the Viet Cong was disbanded after Vietnam was formally reunited under communist rule.

The Viet Cong tried to create a popular uprising in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War with their 1968 Tet Offensive but were able to seize control of just a few small districts in the Mekong Delta region.

Their victims included both men and women, as well as children and even babies-in-arms; some were buried alive while others were shot or beaten to death. In all, an estimated one-third of civilian deaths during the Vietnam War were at the hands of the Viet Cong. This means that the VC killed somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 civilians.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Were the Viet Cong and How Did They Affect the War?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-viet-cong-the-vietnam-war-195432. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Who Were the Viet Cong and How Did They Affect the War? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-viet-cong-the-vietnam-war-195432 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Were the Viet Cong and How Did They Affect the War?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-viet-cong-the-vietnam-war-195432 (accessed June 5, 2023).