This Vietnam War glossary contains definitions of words, terms and concepts pertaining to the struggle for Vietnam between the 19th century and 1975. Words from A to L. This glossary has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest a word for inclusion on this page, please contact Alpha History.
Agent Orange was a codename for chemical defoliant used by US forces in Vietnam. Agent Orange was sprayed on forests, jungle and heavy vegetation, to kill off foliage and thus deny the enemy cover and protection. American soldiers exposed to Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants later reported health issues and increased cases of cancer.
Agrovilles were rural settlements in South Vietnam. They were established by the Ngo Dinh Diem government in the late 1950s. Agrovilles were an attempt to concentrate the peasant population, in order to minimise communist influence in smaller villages. Agrovilles were also given weapons and training so they could withstand communist attacks.
The AK47 is a Soviet-manufactured Kalashnikov rifle, capable of firing automatically and semi-automatically. It was the standard issue weapon for communist troops in Vietnam.
Angkar (Cambodian for ‘organisation’) was a name used by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge, particularly in its first years in power.
Annam was the French colonial name for the central region of Vietnam. Important locations in Annam include the former imperial capital Hue and the port city of Da Nang.
ARVN (also ‘Arvan’, RVN or SVA)
The ARVN was the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the uniformed military force of South Vietnam. The ARVN was staffed by local Vietnamese but received American training, funding, logistical support and weapons.
An ‘A team’ is a small contingent (usually eight to ten men) of US commandos or special forces soldiers. ‘A teams’ were often deployed behind enemy lines, to carry out raids, recoveries or assassinations.
Bank of Indochina (Fr., Banque du l’Indochine)
The Bank of Indochina was established by French colonial officials in 1875. It served as a central bank, issuing and regulating currency in Vietnam.
A battalion is a military unit comprising two or more companies and between 300 and 1,000 men. A battalion is usually commanded by an officer of lieutenant colonel rank or similar.
Beaucoup (pronounced ‘bookoo’) is a French term meaning ‘many’, ‘plenty’ or ‘too much’. It was adapted by American and allied soldiers and used widely in Vietnam.
The Binh Xuyen was a private army, formed in 1945 and led by warlord Le Van Vien. It was heavily involved in organised crime. The Binh Xuyen was co-opted by the South Vietnamese army in 1949 and given the authority to wage war against communists. The Binh Xuyen was dispersed in 1955, following an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Ngo Dinh Diem.
‘Boat people’ is a colloquial term for refugees who fled South Vietnam by sea after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The majority of these refugees were accepted by the United States. Large numbers were also settled in Australia, France and Canada, while others were forcibly returned to Vietnam.
A body count is the number of enemy soldiers killed in an engagement or operation. During the Vietnam War the US military often used body counts as an indicator of success in a particular mission.
boondocks (or boonies)
‘Boondocks’ or ‘boonies’ is an American military slang term for remote, heavily forested or swampy areas. To ‘hump the boonies’ was to undertake a foot patrol or mission in these remote areas.
‘Bouncing Betty’ is an American slang term for a type of anti-personnel mine used in the Vietnam War. When triggered, a small charge elevated these mines to waist height before the main charge detonated. As a consequence the ‘Bouncing Betty’ sent out shrapnel at waist to chest levels. This caused devastating injuries to the midsection, rather than the legs and feet.
bourgeoisie (pronounced bore-jwah-zee)
The bourgeoisie is a French term for the affluent middle classes. Most members of the bourgeoisie are capitalists, business owners or well paid professionals.
Brother Number One
Brother Number One was a title adopted and used by the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot (Saloth Sar), after he took control of Cambodia. ‘Brother Number Two’ was the Khmer Rouge’s ideological mentor, Nuon Chea.
Buddhism is an Asian religion, based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha). It was the most widely practiced religion in Vietnam.
Cambodia is a small country situated to the south-west of Vietnam. It was colonised by the French but given its independence in 1953, after which it was ruled by Norodom Sihanouk. Cambodia was affected significantly by the Vietnam War, falling into a state of civil war. The communist Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, leading to four years of radical policies and genocide.
Can Lao was a South Vietnamese political party, formed in the mid-1950s by Ngo Dinh Nhu. Can Lao’s purpose was to provide Ngo Dinh Diem with a supporter base and political legitimacy. Membership of the Can Lao party, however, was quite restricted.
Cao Dai was a Vietnamese religious sect, formed in the 1920s. Cao Dai incorporated Buddhist and other religious beliefs. Cao Dai members opposed both French colonialism and the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.
The Case-Church amendment was an item of legislation passed by the US Congress in June 1973. It prevented Richard Nixon and his administration from ordering further military intervention in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, without the approval of Congress.
The CEFEO is a French abbreviation for the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. The CEFEO constituted France’s military presence in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, until 1954.
Charlie (see Viet Cong)
A ‘cherry’ is American military slang for a new arrival, a soldier who had not yet experienced combat in Vietnam.
The CIA is an abbreviation for the Central Intelligence Agency, a US government agency formed in 1947. The CIA operated abroad, gathering intelligence, conducting covert and espionage operations and providing information and support to ‘friendly’ regimes. It was instrumental in informing and shaping US foreign policy during the Cold War. The CIA also had a hand in orchestrating or supporting foreign coups, such as the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963.
A claymore is an anti-personnel mine used in the Vietnam War. When detonated it releases a fan-shaped spray of shrapnel.
Cochinchina was the French colonial name for southern Vietnam. Important locations there include the future capital Saigon and the fertile Mekong delta region.
The Cold War was a long period of tension and hostility between democratic-capitalist nations (led by the United States and western Europe) and communist nations (led by the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and China). The Cold War unfolded after the end of World War II and lasted until the early 1990s. The political and ideological tensions of the Cold War provided a context for the Vietnam War.
Colon is a French term for a colonial settler in Vietnam.
Communism is a political and economic philosophy, based on the writings of German philosopher Karl Marx. The aim of communists is to produce a society where there are no classes, no inequalities of wealth or ownership, and no oppressive structures of government.
A company is a military unit, containing between 80 and 250 men. Companies are divided into a number of platoons (15-30 men each) and are usually commanded by a captain or major.
Con Dao was a prison facility, located on Con Son Island off the southern tip of Vietnam. It was built by French colonial officials in the 1860s and used to punish criminals and political dissidents. The South Vietnamese government also used Con Dao after 1954.
Confucianism is an Asian moral-social philosophy, based on the ancient writings of Kong Fuzi or Confucius. Confucianism requires ethical behaviour, personal discipline, self improvement, hard work and respect for one’s elders and superiors. Confucianism was introduced into Vietnam by the Chinese and its influence in modern Vietnam remains strong.
conscription (also draft)
Conscription is a policy of compulsory military service, particularly in wartime. In the United States conscription is usually referred to as the ‘draft’.
Containment was a Cold War foreign policy, adopted by the United States and their Western allies during the late 1940s. Its aim was to limit the spread of communism, initially in eastern Europe and later in Asia.
A coup d’etat is the overthrow or expulsion of an existing government, usually by military officers or a paramilitary group.
Defoliation is the clearing or killing off plant cover and food crops used by the enemy. In the Vietnam War defoliation was usually carried out with chemicals (such as Agent Orange) or incendiaries (such as napalm).
demilitarised zone (or DMZ)
A demilitarised zone is a broad area along a border, serving as a buffer between opposing forces. DMZs are usually cleared of military personnel, in order to protect against invasion or attack.
Demobilisation is the process of dismantling an army, discharging its soldiers and returning them to civilian life.
draft (see conscription).
The Domino Theory was a Cold War theory, apparently coined by US president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. The Domino Theory asserted that if one nation fell to communism then its immediate neighbours would soon follow. Western governments believed that Asian countries, with their weak governments and porous borders, were particularly susceptible to communist infiltration and attack.
‘Dove’ is an American slang term for an individual opposed to the Vietnam War or to military action in general.
DRV is an abbreviation for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the formal title of communist North Vietnam.
Easter Offensive (or Spring Offensive)
The Easter Offensive or Spring Offensive was a mass incursion into South Vietnam by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces. It was launched in late March 1972 and ground to a halt in seven months.
First Indochina War (also Anti-French War and Anti-Colonial War)
The First Indochina War was a military struggle for control of Vietnam, between the Viet Minh and French colonial forces. It began in 1946 and ended with the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Foreign policy describes a government’s decisions and actions with regard to other nations. Areas covered by foreign policy include diplomacy, alliances, treaties, trade agreements, foreign aid and military involvement or intervention.
‘Forward defence’ was a foreign policy position adopted by the Australian government during the Cold War. Its premise was that Australia should support the fight against communism in south-east Asia, in order to prevent communism from reaching Australian borders.
‘Fragging’ is American military slang for the deliberate murder of a superior officer, usually by intentional ‘friendly fire’ or booby traps. A common motive for ‘fragging’ was the removal of an unpopular or incompetent officer, or to avoid dangerous combat orders.
free fire zones
‘Free fire zones’ were areas supposedly evacuated of civilians, usually through loudspeaker announcements, leaflet drops or patrols. Once the area was evacuated it could be bombed, napalmed or strafed to kill concealed Viet Cong. The evacuations were not always thorough, however, so there were often civilian casualties.
‘Friendly fire’ refers to accidental deaths or injuries caused by one’s own troops or allies.
The Geneva Accords were a multinational peace agreement, finalised in July 1954. Their terms included a temporary division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel and a road map for reunification and democratic elections. The Accords were not signed by the US or South Vietnam, so were widely disregarded.
‘Gooks’ is a derogatory term for Vietnamese or Asians in general. It was used by some American military personnel in the Vietnam conflict.
A grunt is a slang term for an American infantry soldier, usually one of low rank.
Guerrilla warfare describes unconventional and unpredictable combat tactics, such as small scale battles, ambushes and surprise attacks, lightning raids and sabotage. It is often utilised by smaller forces against a larger or better-equipped enemy.
Gulf of Tonkin incident
The Gulf of Tonkin incident refers to alleged attacks on American naval vessels by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in early August 1964. This alleged act of aggression was used as a pretext for direct US military involvement in Vietnam.
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by the US Congress on August 10th, in response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It authorised the president to deploy US military forces in south-east Asia, in defence of American interests, though it stopped short of declaring war.
‘Gung ho’ describes a soldier who is excessively enthusiastic about military life, serving in combat or killing the enemy.
GVN was an abbreviation for the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
A hamlet is a small and often remote rural village.
Hanoi was a major French colonial city in Annam, northern Indochina. It later became the capital city of North Vietnam (1954) and the Republic of Vietnam (1976).
‘Hanoi Hannah’ was a nickname for Trinh Thi Ngo, a North Vietnamese propagandist active during the Vietnam War. She delivered radio broadcasts aimed at American troops, encouraging them to desert or surrender.
The Hanoi Hilton was a nickname for Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. Built by the French in the late 1800s, Hoa Lo was used by house and torture anti-colonial dissidents. The North Vietnamese Army later used Hoa Lo for detaining, interrogating and torturing American and South Vietnamese prisoners of war.
‘Hanoi Jane’ was a derogatory nickname given to American actress Jane Fonda by US military personnel. It followed Fonda’s 1972 visit to North Vietnam, where she was photographed with NVA troops while sitting astride a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun.
‘Hawk’ is an American slang term for someone who supports war or strong military action. It was used for those supported an escalation in US involvement in the Vietnam War.
The Hmong are an ethnic group native to mountainous areas of south-east Asia, particularly in Laos, Vietnam and southern China. Many Hmong fought with the US and Royal Lao government during the Laotian Civil War. More than 100,000 are believed to have been killed by the Pathet Lao, while a similar number were resettled as refugees in the US.
The Hoa Hao is a Vietnamese religious sect, an offshoot of Buddhism. Unlike mainstream Buddhists the Hoa Hao had its own political leadership and private army. The group later split, some of its members joining the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) and others becoming anti-communist.
Hoa Lo (see Hanoi Hilton)
Ho Chi Minh Trail
The ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ was a colloquialism for Viet Cong and NVA supply lines into South Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran from North to South Vietnam, with branches and supply dumps in eastern Laos and Cambodia.
hot (or hot zone)
‘Hot’ is American military slang to describe an area occupied by or under fire from the enemy.
‘Hump’ is American military slang for march or patrol, often while carrying a rucksack or heavy equipment.
humping the boonies
‘Humping the boonies’ is American military slang for long patrols through remote or uninhabited areas, such as jungle areas.
‘In country’ is American military slang that describes service on the ground in Vietnam.
Indochina is a French colonial name for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Indochinese Communist Party (or ICP)
The Indochinese Communist Party was formed by the unification of communist and left wing groups in 1930. The purpose of the ICP was to mobilise Vietnam’s peasantry, disseminate communist ideas, resist French colonialism and seek independence for Vietnam.
An insurgency is an armed uprising against a government, carried out by rebel soldiers or terrorists.
International Control Commission (or ICC)
The International Control Commission was a multinational force in Vietnam. It was established in 1954 to monitor the situation in Indochina and ensure that North and South Vietnam were complying with the terms of the ceasefire.
The Khmer Rouge (or ‘Red Cambodians’) were communist revolutionaries who seized power in Cambodia in 1975. Under their leader Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) they carried out a program of radical reforms, forced labour and genocide.
KIA is an abbreviation for ‘killed in action’, describing a soldier’s death in a war zone.
The Killing Fields is a colloquial name given to locations where Cambodians were murdered in large numbers by the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79. The term was coined by Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. It became the title of a 1984 motion picture.
Land reform is the process of redistributing land, either to reduce inequality or increase agricultural production. In socialist North Vietnam, large tracts of land were seized from wealthy landlords and redistributed to peasants.
The Lao Dong was the Vietnamese Workers’ Party, a revived version of the Indochinese Communist Party, reformed in 1951. The Lao Dong became the sole governing party in North Vietnam from 1954.
Laos is a landlocked country, bordering Vietnam to the west. Like its southern neighbour Cambodia, Laos was significantly impacted by the Vietnam War, suffering from bombing and incursions. Laos fell into a state of civil war and was eventually taken over by the communist Pathet Lao.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Vietnam War glossary A-L”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/vietnam-war-glossary-a-l/.