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 M to Z. 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.
MACV (see Military Assistance Command, Vietnam)
Marxism is a political movement, based on the writings of 19th-century philosopher Karl Marx. Elements of Marxism have been embraced by nationalist and socialist movements, such as factions of the Viet Minh.
The McNamara Line was a string of fortifications, land mines and electronic surveillance along the North-South Vietnam border. It was designed to prevent communist infiltration or invasion of South Vietnam. It was named after US defence secretary Robert McNamara.
‘Medivac’ is the process of removing a wounded soldier from a combat area, either by foot, vehicle or helicopter.
MIA is an abbreviation for ‘missing in action’.
Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (or MACV)
MACV was the United States joint service (Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines) command headquarters in Vietnam. It was formed in February 1962 and dissolved in 1973. MACV was responsible for all American military activity in South Vietnam, beginning with training, support and liaison with the South Vietnamese. It was later responsible for commanding US combat operations in Vietnam. MACV was headed by four generals: Paul Harkins (1962-1964), William Westmoreland (1964-1968), Creighton Abrams (1968-1972) and Frederick Weyand (1972-1973).
A missionary is an individual who travels to a foreign country to disseminate and preach the principles of their religion. Missionaries may also engage in charitable works.
French for ‘civilising mission’. The mission civilsatrice was an ideological justification for French colonialism. It claimed that colonisation was necessary to develop and modernise undeveloped civilisations. It was the French equivalent of the British ‘white man’s burden’.
A mutiny is an uprising or rebellion in a military unit.
Napalm is a gelatinous petroleum-based substance, sometimes used as an incendiary weapon. It is sprayed from flamethrowers or dropped from aircraft. It can be used as an anti-personnel weapon or to burn away heavy foliage or jungle.
National Liberation Front (see Viet Cong)
Nationalism is an ideology or belief marked by strong loyalty to one’s nation. In the case of colonised regions like Vietnam, nationalists desired the removal of foreign powers, independence and self-government.
Nguyen was the ‘surname’ of the last dynasty or royal family to rule Vietnam. It is a common family name in Vietnam.
NVA (see PAVN)
OSS is an abbreviation for the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II-era forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
A pagoda is a Buddhist temple.
PAVN (also NVA)
PAVN is an abbreviation for the People’s Army of Vietnam, the uniformed military force of North Vietnam.
The Pentagon Papers was a dossier of top-secret Department of Defense documents that was leaked to the press and published in 1971. They revealed the US government’s strategy, secret agendas and concealment of events in Vietnam. The exposure of the Pentagon Papers fuelled the anti-war movement and contributed to the US withdrawal from Vietnam.
A platoon is a group of 16-50 soldiers, usually divided into two or more squads and commanded by a lieutenant and one or more sergeants.
The Politburo is the cabinet or executive committee of a communist government, such as that of North Vietnam.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a medical term for a range of physiological, psychological and neurological defects, caused by exposure to combat, weapons fire and the casualties of fellow soldiers. It was formerly known as ‘shell shock’ or ‘nervous shock’. PTSD was common among veterans of the Vietnam War.
A proxy war is a conflict where superpowers encourage and supply smaller nations to fight, while not participating directly themselves. Proxy wars were common during the Cold War, where a direct confrontation between the US and Soviet Union risked an outbreak of nuclear war.
Abbreviation for ‘psychological operations’. Psy-ops are an area of warfare that uses propaganda, literature and information to shape attitudes. Two aims of psy-ops are to win support from the local population and to discourage or frighten the enemy.
PTSD (see post-traumatic stress disorder)
The Purple Heart is an American military decoration, awarded to personnel who are wounded in the line of duty. More than 350,000 Purple Hearts were awarded during the Vietnam War.
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory where the costs, losses or negative effects outweigh the benefits of winning.
Re-education camps were concentration camps used by the regimes in North Vietnam and Laos. Dissidents or political opponents were sent there for ‘re-education’ in communist values. In most cases this ‘re-education’ involved coercion, torture and hard labour.
A sapper is a soldier who specialises in engineering or construction, such as the building of fortifications, defences, bridges or roads.
A satellite nation is a country that is nominally independent but reliant on the support and/or direction of a larger nation. During the Cold War, communist states in Asia were considered satellite nations of China or the Soviet Union.
SDS is an abbreviation for Students for a Democratic Society, a college-based anti-war movement in the United States. SDS was formed in 1960.
search and destroy (or S&D)
Search and destroy missions were carried out by US, South Vietnamese and allied forces during the Vietnam War. They involved penetrating a hostile area, wiping out the enemy and/or their support network, then withdrawing.
Self-determination is a political principle promoted by leaders in democratic nations. It suggests people of a particular region or state should be able to decide their own system of government.
Self-immolation is the act of committing suicide by setting oneself on fire. It is often carried out in a public place, as a form of political protest. There were several cases of self-immolation by Vietnamese Buddhists and American protestors, the most notable being that of Thich Quang Duc in Saigon in June 1963.
Shrapnel refers to small shards of metal propelled at high speed by an exploding grenade, mine or artillery shell. Shrapnel was a common cause of deaths and injuries during the Vietnam War.
A ‘slope’ is a derogatory racist term for a Vietnamese or Asian person.
Spring Offensive (see Easter Offensive)
Strategic hamlets were self-sustaining rural settlements in South Vietnam, each located within a defensive perimeter. They were formed in the early 1960s by a joint initiative between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Ngo Dinh Diem regime. The strategic hamlets program failed, mainly due to government corruption.
In warfare, a supply line is a route by which an advancing army receives its reinforcements, food, munitions and equipment.
SVA (see ARVN)
The Tet Offensive was a major joint offensive by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. It was launched during Tet, a local holiday in January 1968.
Tonkin is a French name for the northernmost part of Vietnam. Important locations there include the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi, the port city of Haiphong and the Red River delta.
tour of duty
A tour of duty is the specified time of service in an operational area or combat zone. For most American soldiers the average tour of duty in Vietnam was 12 months.
The Truman Doctrine was a foreign policy position, articulated by US president Harry Truman in 1947. Truman pledged to support nations at risk of communist invasion or infiltration. The Truman Doctrine became America’s default foreign policy position during the Cold War.
‘Tunnel rats’ were soldiers who specialised in entering, investigating and clearing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese tunnel systems. The work of ‘tunnel rats’ was very dangerous due to the confined spaces and the risks of encountering enemy soldiers and booby traps.
The Vichy French refers to French colonial officials who remained in power after France surrendered to Nazi Germany in 1940. The Vichy French collaborated with the Germans and, in the case of Vietnam, with the Japanese.
Viet Cong (also called VC, Charlie, Victor Charlie or Chuck)
The Viet Cong was a colloquial name given to members of the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam, a clandestine political and military organisation. The Viet Cong began as a group of North Vietnamese sleeper cells or agents, planted in South Vietnam during the late 1950s. They were trained in guerrilla warfare, political propaganda and subterfuge, and tasked with working to undermine and cripple the US-backed government in South Vietnam. From 1959, the Viet Cong engaged in a campaign of sabotage, guerrilla and covert warfare against American and South Vietnamese forces.
Viet Minh was the abbreviated name of the Vietnam Independence League, a coalition of left-wing and nationalist groups formed in 1941. Its first objective was to resist the Japanese occupation of Vietnam. The Viet Minh later defeated the French in the First Indochina War.
Vietnam War (also Second Indochina War)
In Western countries the Vietnam War usually refers to the conflict of 1964-75, involving the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong against the United States, its Western allies and South Vietnamese forces. In Vietnam, this conflict is usually called the ‘American War’ or the ‘Second Indochina War’.
Vietnamisation was the war policy of the Nixon administration, introduced in late 1969. Its aim was to wind back America’s commitment to Vietnam by reducing US troop numbers and giving greater responsibility and resources to South Vietnamese forces.
VVAW is an abbreviation for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an anti-war organisation formed in 1966. Its members were all military personnel with a record of service in Vietnam.
A war crime is an action that breaches the accepted rules of war. The most common war crime is the unjustified killing of unarmed civilians or prisoners of war.
war of attrition
A war of attrition is a conflict where combatants seek to ‘wear down’ the enemy by prolonging the war and inflicting regular troop losses.
War Powers Act
The War Powers Act was passed by the US Congress in November 1973. It sought to limit the president’s ability to deploy American troops abroad for prolonged periods.
‘Watergate’ refers to a political scandal that led to the resignation of US president Richard Nixon. It began in mid-1972 with a burglary at the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC. The scandal unfolded over the following two years and led to allegations of corruption and concealment within the White House. Nixon resigned in August 1974 as the Congress was taking steps to impeach him.
white man’s burden
The ‘white man’s burden’ was a British phrase used to justify the colonisation of other regions. It implied that European nations had a responsibility to educate and modernise undeveloped nations in Asia and Africa.
A Zippo mission was a search and destroy mission that involved torching buildings, infrastructure or even entire villages. This was often done using Zippo cigarette lighters, hence the name.
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 M-Z”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/vietnam-war-glossary-m-z/.