Why the Viet Cong Were Called “Charlie”

Mike T. asks: Why were the Viet Cong called “Charlie” during the Vietnam War?
ho-chi-min-city

Ho Chi Minh City Hall

First, because I suspect there are at least a few people curious and it pertains to how the name “Charlie” ultimately came about, let’s discuss how the term “Viet Cong” came about at all.   It comes from “Việt Nam Cộng-sản”, which just means “Vietnamese Communists”.  This, in turn, was shortened to just Việt Cộng, with the first documented instances of such appearing in various Saigon newspapers in 1956.

From here, “Viet Cong” was commonly further shortened to “VC”, which in the NATO phonetic alphabet is pronounced “Victor-Charlie”, which gave rise to the further shortened, “Charlie” designation.

It’s also interesting to note here that “Vietnamese Communists” is possibly something of misnomer, at least partially. Even though the Viet Cong, or “National Liberation Front for South Vietnam”, were in some ways an arm of the People’s Army of Vietnam in the North, fighting the same cause (against the U.S. and the Southern Vietnamese government the U.S. was supporting), in fact some members of the Viet Cong were not themselves necessarily communists.  They were just people who joined the National Liberation Front because they weren’t happy with the foreign influence on their government and the presence of foreign soldiers.  However, due to rampant war propaganda on both sides, it’s difficult to ascertain just what percentage (significant or not) of the National Liberation Front was actually South Vietnamese people who simply were fed up with their government and the U.S. interference, and what percentage was made up of Northern forces or otherwise supplied or directly under Northern control.

Whatever the case, as the United States and the South Vietnamese government’s official stance during the war was more of the latter “Arm of the People’s Army”.  Thus, amongst U.S. soldiers and South Vietnamese allies, “Viet Cong” (and “Charlie” for the U.S. soldiers) came to commonly refer not just to the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front, but also to the North Vietnamese army soldiers- basically, any enemy Vietnamese troops were slapped with the label.

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Bonus Fact:

  • The name “Vietnam” derives from “Nam Việt”, which literally means “Southern Viet”, with “Viet” simply being a name for a group of people living in present day Vietnam and southern China all the way as far back as 200 BC.  The name “Vietnam” itself didn’t first pop up until around the 16th century, with the first documented instance of it in the poem Sấm Trạng Trình, meaning “The Prophecies of Trang Trinh” by Nguyen Binh Khiem, with “Trang Trinh”, simply being a nickname of the author, Khiem.
[Ho Chi Minh City image via Shutterstock] Expand for References
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  • Charly

    There is a Brand of shoe for sale from Vietnam named Charly.

  • RangerJim

    Back in the day, we used (in the 9th “Waterborne” Inf Div, operating in the Mekong Delta) “Charlie” to refer to the locals (most of whom were killed in Tet and the May Offensive — see “House to House” by Keith Nolan), and “Mister Charles” to refer to the NVA (aka PAVN, the People’s Army of Viet Nam).

    Ranger Jim
    “the Law West of the Rach Nha Be”
    (Machete Charlie 16 Actual)
    1/C/4/39th Inf
    1st Bdg 9th Inf Div
    Vietnam ’67-’68

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  • X

    The use of “roger” over radio has a similar origin. In the days of morse code radios, a received message was indicated by sending the letter R, which meant “received”. In the old phonetic alphabet, the word for R was “roger”; saying “roger” became the custom when voice radios came about.

    • Aleksander

      With the millions of random things I seem to google every day, I can’t believe I never bothered to find out about “roger”. Thanks, X!