Prize Essay 1973, First Honorable Mention
Question: In committing its ground forces to achieve the objective toward which it reached in Vietnam, did the United States exceed its grasp?
With the ordeal of this nation’s military involvement in Vietnam ended, it is appropriate to begin the assessment of that experience and to draw lessons for guidance in the future. This is said in full awareness of the surfeit of lessons to which we have already been treated. Hosts of commentators, representing all shades of philosophical and political coloration, have written or spoken on the subject over the last decade. Valid or invalid, to the extent these observations attempted to draw conclusions of broad significance, they were at least premature and in most cases oversimplified. Our military participation in the Vietnam conflict has been variously used to demonstrate the immorality of the American people and its leaders, the ineptitude of its military officials, the failure to see the situation as a civil war, the inability to solve political problems by military means, the error of the supposed commitment to a holy war against Communism, the invalidity of the domino theory, the folly of becoming engaged in a land war on the mainland of Asia, and the hollowness of the once prestigious concept of counterinsurgency.
As foolish as many of these observations may have been, it must be conceded that they often touched on valid and important questions. Nevertheless, final conclusions on many of these points cannot be drawn until the experience fades into the past and its long-range results have been observed and assessed in a less emotion-ridden atmosphere. On the other hand, in view of the expected debate over the size and composition of our defense structure, it is not premature to inquire whether this country, in committing its ground combat forces to achieve the objective toward which it reached in Vietnam, did not press to the limit, and perhaps exceed, its effective grasp, and if so, to examine the nature of that grasp. While not in any way suggesting that there are not many other lessons to be drawn from the Vietnam experience, one important lesson is that this country undertook to achieve an objective by military means which may have exceeded its capabilities because of a failure to understand the nature and limitations of those capabilities. It was a failure to understand that, in this period of history, our combat capabilities in conflicts short of general war are maritime in nature.
Stripped of ideological rhetoric, the objective of the United States was to ensure the survival of South Vietnam as an independent nation, either allied with this country or at least not hostile to its interests. This objective was entirely consistent with the strategy pursued by the United States in the Western Pacific and Eastern Asia since World War II: to maintain a presence and to achieve alliances with the nations of the island chain and, as feasible, with the countries situated along the Asian littoral as a counter to the expansion of influence of the Soviet Union and China. As the most recent events indicate, we may yet succeed in this objective in Vietnam. But the issue will remain in sufficient doubt in the years immediately ahead to justify a search for the flaw that led to the resort to a military solution which may ultimately prove to have been unsuccessful.
The story of this country’s involvement in South Vietnam is one of a steadily increasing commitment to this objective—economic and military assistance, the assignment of advisors of all kinds, naval and air support, direct ground support units, and, finally, the commitment of U. S. ground combat units in force. At any level of escalation except the last, the process probably could have been reversed without a damaging loss of prestige or loss of trust on the part of other friends and allies in Southeast Asia. Once this last step was taken, however, there was no turning back.
Should this final step have been taken? Or should the proper decision have been that saving the situation by means of our own ground forces was beyond the country's practical capabilities? The commitment might then have been limited to such assistance as would not preclude a reasonably graceful withdrawal amidst general agreement that the United States could do nothing to stem the drift toward collapse of the South Vietnamese government, just as there has been nothing could do about so many deplorable events since 1945.
In abstract theory, the measures taken were entirely consistent with a maritime strategy and with the country's proven capability. With complete control of the sea approaches, we possessed the ability to project ground forces ashore and to support them indefinitely in any area of South Vietnam. Furthermore, we had done it successfully many times before: the numerous amphibious operations in the Pacific, in the Mediterranean and at Normandy during World War II, Korea, Lebanon, and, concurrently with the buildup in South Vietnam, the Dominican Republic. With all these undeniable advantages of force and know-how, should the effort ultimately be judged to have failed, it will inevitably be said that it was because of a lack of national will, an unwillingness to make an effort large enough for a period long enough to have ensured success. This may be so, but was not this itself a limitation of our capabilities which should have been accounted for in advance?
Before we indulge in self-reproach for contemporary decline in national moral fiber, it should be remembered that patience with long wars has never been a strong suit of the American character. In the Korean War, the one most like Vietnam, although with important differences, weariness set in before the end of two years. The great national effort of World War II, with its strong moral and emotional commitment, lasted less than four years. Even so, signs of weariness appeared during the winter of 1944-45 as our armies appeared bogged down in France and Italy and we seemed to be experiencing interminable island hopping in the Pacific. It is well to remember that the Army's desertion rate during this last period of the war was not again exceeded until 1969. Our involvement in World War I lasted only 18 months, not long enough for the country to get over the idea that it was all a great adventure. The Spanish-American War was really little more than a few quickly and cheaply executed campaigns. The Civil War, a long, hard war, but one supported by a high level of moral commitment, eventually led to such discouragement over prospects of success that Lincoln despaired of re-election in 1864.
With this history, it should not be surprising that the use of conscripts in combat for seven years of more—in a foreign war in which the involvement of the nation's vital interests was not clearly apparent to public, as was the situation in Vietnam—went beyond the tolerances of the American people.
In answer, it might be argued that this limitation was appreciated but it was not reasonable to expect that the task could not be accomplished in a much shorter period of time. If this was indeed the case, it points to a second failure to understanding: the limitations of our combat capabilities when pitted against a semi-guerrilla enemy who was so heavily favored by geography. The combination of these factors with an almost unlimited hinterland that provided relatively unhampered sanctuary and logistic support to the enemy resulted in an inability of our forces to come to decisive grips with either the Viet-Cong or the North Vietnamese troops. It was only when the enemy exposed himself to our conventional warfare capabilities, as he did in the Tet offensive of 1968, or the North Vietnamese offensive in the spring of 1972, that decisive destruction of his ground forces could be achieved. Progress against this type of adversary under these geographic disadvantages is inevitably slow.
A further possible aspect of unanticipated limitation lies in the fact that maximum effective employment of the forces available was never permitted. Incursions into the hinterland, to disrupt the enemy sanctuaries and lines of supply, involved penetration of the territory of ostensible neutrals and were therefore severely limited. When they were attempted, the decisions were subjected to intense domestic criticism. Amphibious landings in the southern portion of North Vietnam, which might have been effective for this same purpose, were certainly within our physical capabilities but were never permitted. North Vietnam itself, obviously primarily dependent on seaborne commerce for provision of war material, was never subjected to blockade nor, until the spring offensive of 1972 was underway, was the mining of its ports initiated. These constraints were indeed serious hindrances to the prosecution of combat operations, but it would appear that they should have been anticipated with even more certainty than the problems of time and the nature of the enemy. The risks of nuclear war are such that the superpowers are forced to exercise great caution, perhaps excessively at times, when the vital interests of one another are approached or when direct confrontation with the other's forces are likely in the prosecution of lesser conflicts. The denial of permission to to bomb across the Yalu in should have been instructive.
The point being made in describing the foregoing problems is that there are practical limitations which hamper success just as surely as physical incapacity. The basic question being examined here is whether the United States assumed a commitment beyond its capabilities by ignoring these limitations through a more general failure to understand the nature of our combat capabilities at levels below that of general war. It has been said many times that our national security strategy in today’s circumstances for other than general war should be maritime in nature in that it should take advantage of our predominance of power at sea and limit the exercise of that power to those parts of the world that are reachable by sea. Maintenance of the alliance with European nations might be an exception to this strategy, at least in Western Europe, but this commitment looks more to general than to limited war and the credibility of even this commitment depends heavily on the availability of seaborne support.
A maritime strategy is a peripheral strategy. It is applied to those areas, islands, and continental littorals, which are reachable from the sea. It requires a preponderance of seapower in those parts of the world important to national purposes. The outstanding example of a maritime strategy is that of Britain in the 19th century—a truly remarkable saga of the success of such a strategy exercised through a determination to maintain a predominance of seapower. It would be foolish, of course, to imagine that Britain’s experience could be duplicated. Today’s circumstances have greatly modified the capabilities of seapower; aircraft, missiles, and nuclear weapons have greatly reduced its potential. But, at the same time, in limited warfare circumstances, its capabilities have been increased. Bombardment by seaborne aircraft and missiles and the perfection of amphibious techniques have permitted a tactical reach of seapower much farther inland than was ever before possible.
The usefulness of a maritime strategy may be disputed, however self-evident it may seem to some of us. Indeed, it has often seemed that the dominant military thought in this country is continental rather than maritime in its outlook. But, if the validity of a maritime approach is accepted, why should not a full commitment to South Vietnam have been well within the limits of feasibility of this strategy? On the face of the situation it would seem that it was. Vietnam borders on the sea in an area in which the United States enjoys undisputed control of the sea and the sea approaches to its ports, north and south. There was no difficulty experienced in projecting our ground combat forces ashore and providing them the full range of support. Yet, the ultimate successful attainment of the objective remains in the balance. It is suggested here that this possibility of failure arose from a lack of understanding of the nature and limitations of our maritime capabilities on the part of both civilian and military leaders, an understanding which should have induced caution in a situation which on the surface seemed suitable for exploitation of a maritime capability. The term “maritime capability” used here is a concept larger than seapower but includes that component. It also embraces the capabilities of land and air forces supported from the sea in the execution of a maritime strategy.
Three practical limitations to our maritime capability have already been suggested. First, military involvement must be limited to situations which promise solution in a reasonably short period of time in view of the American people’s low threshold of impatience, especially when casualties are substantial and especially when conscripts are used. Secondly, we must be able to defeat or neutralize the enemy with a limited commitment of forces, in view of the apparent unwillingness of the nation to support large-scale mobilization for limited purposes. This means that we cannot deal effectively with a determined enemy who enjoys support through a hinterland largely inaccessible to our forces. The third limitation is that imposed by the unwillingness of our national leaders to risk direct unwillingness of our national leaders to risk direct confrontation with the Soviet Union or, in the case of areas bordering on that country, with China. One major miscalculation has already been experienced: it was not thought in the fall of 1950, that China would enter the Korean War as our troops advanced into North Korea.
Other limitations stem from this same consideration of the risk of general war in this era. We are similarly reluctant to risk direct confrontation with Soviet naval forces or to interfere with Soviet action of mining the approaches to North Vietnamese ports was taken only in the face of that country’s massive offensive in 1972 and apparently after the Soviet Union and China had decided that a settlement of the conflict would have to be reached on terms less favorable to the North than complete victory. A further limitation has resulted from the worldwide development of instant mass communications. Public opinion, world as well as American, has restricted and will continue to restrict the scope of actions the United States may take to achieve what its leaders consider to be its legitimate objectives. The questioning of the legitimacy and morality of our military involvement in foreign lands may or may not be valid, but it nevertheless has an effect which must be taken into account.
A more universal limitation is that armed intervention cannot successfully be undertaken where the geographic situation does not lend itself to the decisive influence of seapower or of the broader term, maritime capability. Thus, the chances of success are immeasurably greater where the enemy can be cut off from all outside support, in the case of an island, or sealed off in the case of a peninsula. This limitation should not in every case preclude intervention on a continental littoral, but the special situation in any such case should offer a reasonable probability of prompt success with no more than limited involvement. Thus, our capabilities with respect to the coastal countries of Africa and Asia are extremely limited. Where the nation is landlocked, as in Laos, military intervention beyond the advisory and materiel-support level is seldom worth the risk of adverse consequences.
The brief history of American armed interventions since World War II exemplifies the validity of these limitations. Our offensive action in Korea was successful only when conducted within the limits of our maritime capability. It secured the independence of the peninsular country of South Korea; but, as it approached that part of Korea bordering on the Chinese hinterland, it failed in the additional objective of reunifying the entire country. The landings in Lebanon in 1958, and in the Dominican Republic in 1965, are classic examples of the effectiveness of our maritime capability in situations especially suitable for its exercise. Although Lebanon may be considered to have been located on a continental littoral bordering on a nation which might have provided a hinterland sanctuary to Lebanese insurgents, the operation was successful because such insurgents were not in fact active and stability could be restored to the country without actual combat. The Dominican Republic was similar—with the added advantage that the insurgency could be isolated on the island without possibility of outside assistance. In both situations, the objective was achieved and the intervention terminated within a few months. Both operations also included the important function of signaling the determination of the United States in the execution of its foreign policy. The ill-conceived Bay of Pigs operation failed not because of the shortcoming of a maritime capability—it was hardly used— but because it was wrongly assumed that the population would arise and join the invaders without waiting to see which side was winning. In the second Cuban incident, the missile crisis of 1962, the United States undoubtedly could have invaded successfully, and without the intervention of the Soviet Union. The decision not to invade was most wise, not only because it reduced the risk of Soviet counteraction, but also because in the absence of a recognized leader of the Cuban exile groups around whom an effective government could have formed, a long American military occupation would have been inevitable. The ability in such an intervention to get the job done and then to get out quickly is essential under today’s conditions.
Acceptance of the foregoing limitations and acceptance of the possibility that Vietnam has tested the boundaries of those limitations should not be carried to extremes. It should not blind us to the other capabilities of maritime power. These capabilities serve purposes which can most often be achieved by the noncombat exercise of its narrower component, naval power. The U. S. Sixth Fleet has never been in combat. Yet, it can claim credit for many identifiable happenings and many probable non-happenings over the years of its existence. Formed in 1948 in support of the Truman Doctrine, it provided visible evidence of the American intention to support the noncommunist nations of southern Europe. Its presence contributed importantly to the survival of the Greek and Italian governments. Its command of the Mediterranean permitted Yugoslavia to pursue policies independent of the Soviet Union. It is significant that the only two satellite countries that were able to escape the hegemony of the Soviet Union were the only two with direct sea access to the Mediterranean.
In more recent years, the predominance of U. S. seapower in the Mediterranean has helped provide a degree of stability to that most unstable of areas, the Middle East. The movement of the Sixth Fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean during the Jordanian crisis of 1957, and the landing in Lebanon the following year, demonstrated to all concerned the seriousness with which the United States viewed its interests in this part of the world. The buildup of a Soviet fleet in that end of the Mediterranean has appreciably diminished the effectiveness of the American naval presence in those waters as the risk of direct confrontation both counterbalances and induces caution. By the same token, however, the influence of the Soviet force is similarly diminished. Nevertheless, the continued presence of the Sixth Fleet demonstrates the seriousness of American commitment to stability in this area and at least induces restraint on the part of the Arab nations. Similarly, Israel, relatively secure behind its local military superiority, is sustained by its awareness of the commitment of the United States to its national survival. If this is overstating the case, it is instructive to contemplate the probable Israeli reaction to the withdrawal of all U.S. naval forces from the Mediterranean.
In the Western Pacific the predominant presence of American seapower and the obvious determination of this country to support its allies have provided the shelter under which the nations of the Pacific island chain have pursued their independent ways without having to concern themselves overly much with the attitudes of potentially hostile major powers. Indonesia was thus able in 1965 to destroy completely its internal Communist movement, an action accompanied so quickly and cleanly that today few remember it was the occasion of one of the worst bloodbaths of history. Likewise, the Philippines has been enabled to deal with its insurgency without the complication which would have been created by the effective support of these insurgents by foreign powers. Taiwan is likely to be able to resist China for many years in spite of its loss of status. Japan, a major nation economically, but not yet militarily, has a freedom of maneuver vis-à-vis China and the Soviet Union which it could not enjoy were it not for U.S. treaty commitments and U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific. The maritime capability of the United States can continue to support and influence the governments of those nations so long as its fighting trim is resolutely maintained. On the other hand, this capability is much more limited in the case of countries located on the Asian littoral. The United States may have deplored the weakening of Pakistan by its loss of East Pakistan, for example, but there was very little it effectively could have done about it.
The mere presence of surface naval units is more effective than is generally credited. Such units can be displayed in a variety of subtle, but significant, was to communicate a wide range of national concerns and intentions. No other type of combat unit, including submarines, is capable of the minute gradations of force which naval surface ships can apply. One of the most significant single missions of that kind was the visit of the battleship Missouri to Istanbul in 1946. Turkey was at that time being pressured by the Soviet Union to revise the Montreux Convention.* With the aid of this visible indication of support from the United States, the pressure was successfully resisted. The some what different dispatch of the Enterprise into the Indian Ocean in late 1971 communicated a signal to India and its friends not to go too far in their treatment of Pakistan.
*See P.A. Dut, “The Montreux Convention: Prospects for an Imminent Change,” July 1973, Proceedings, pp. 110-112.
Combatant units of naval seapower can thus project several levels of stabilizing force which can be applied short of actual fighting. These include a general continued presence, visible presence in port or within sight of shore, concentration of ready forces, and the actual placement of troops ashore. Within this range is also included the surveillance of an adversary’s merchant shipping and even interference with that shipping. Our action and threatened action in this respect, leading to the turnaround of Soviet shipping and eventual removal of installed missiles during the Cuban crisis of 1962, has been -cited by the London Economist as the cleanest-cut success of American foreign policy in the last quarter century, an accomplishment made possible by naval supremacy in the area.
In applying the lesson of Vietnam—that under the constraints of this period of history, Vietnam was not clearly susceptible to decisive influence and control through the exercise of U.S. maritime capabilities—there is in today’s atmosphere a real danger that these demonstrated capabilities of seapower further. Nothing could be more wrong. Nevertheless, very little being written today on the subject of the usefulness of naval forces in any way acknowledges the things that ships, and only ships, can do in tensions or conflicts short of actual combat or with extremely limited combat. Most speak of the vulnerabilities of surface units under conditions of general war, meaning a war with the Soviet Union. The issue of the usefulness of seapower below that level of conflict seems to be generally ignored. Yet, it is precisely at such lower levels that such units are most valuable, and conflicts at such levels are the ones most likely to occur and reoccur. This has certainly been the experience since World War II. General war with the Soviet Union is likely to become nuclear, a possibility which has induced extreme caution among the political leaders of both sides. Yet, most writers apparently fail to perceive that nuclear power counterbalanced, has lost its very power to coerce and that, under the shadow of the nuclear standoff, there has been exercised a great range of power levels. It is within this range that seapower is most effective.
The risk of misreading the lesson of Vietnam becomes more specific when we search in the popular press for references to seapower or its importance in Vietnam. Much is written of the failure of the land war or the failure of the air war, but no evaluation has been made of the sea war. The capabilities or lack thereof of seapower in this conflict is largely ignored. Nor is there comment regarding what might have been accomplished with a bolder use of seapower—such as complete interdiction of North Vietnam’s seaborne lines of supply. It is not clear whether our capabilities at sea are simply taken for granted or whether this silence reflects a dearth of understanding by the American people of the value and uses of seapower. The Navy has been neither blamed nor praised for its level of effectiveness in and around Vietnam.
There is nothing in the lesson of Vietnam to justify diminishment of our maritime capability. If we exceeded our capability in Southeast Asia, it is essential that this fact be appreciated, but equally essential is an appreciation that this capability has been the key to the exercise of armed power in the post-World War II era. Nothing in the Vietnam experience justifies a retreat from our objectives and forward commitments in the island chain of the Western Pacific and along the Asian littoral. The experience merely cautions that our support of these commitments be limited to our capabilities. Application of the lesson of this experience should also involve recognition that these maritime capabilities should be maintained or strengthened rather than diminished. The requirements for general war deterrence are vital, but they should not be the sole criterion governing the size and configuration of our naval strength. Its most likely employment will be in situations far less serious than the dire circumstances of general war, and the majority of these will involve confrontations and demonstrations in which a shot is never fired.
Our naval forces must be maintained at a level sufficient to indicate the seriousness of American interests and commitments in those areas of the world that are of concern to this nation. We must be prepared to make a visible presentation of our seapower and we must demonstrate an ability and willingness to respond promptly and adequately within our maritime capabilities if we are to carry out our national purposes. A continuing presentation of naval strength reassures allies and at the same time induces respect and caution among neutrals and adversaries. If the lesson of Vietnam is that we must be careful that our national reach not exceed our maritime grasp, the proper application of that lesson is to maintain or strengthen that grasp while operating within its limits.
A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy with the Class of 1940, Captain Greenbacker’s first assignment was to the USS Yorktown (CV-5), in which he served until her loss at the Battle of Midway. During his subsequent career, his commands have included the submarine chaser (SC-1472), the USS Neunzer (DE-150), the USS Lloyd E. Acree (DE-356), the USS Corry (DD-817), the USS Freemont (APA-44), Destroyer Division 262, and Destroyer Squadron Six. Ashore, he served tours in the Bureau of Naval Personnel and as Operations and Readiness Officer on the Staff of CinCLantFlt. He attended the Naval War College and has an M. A. degree in International Relations from George Washington University. He received his Bachelor of Laws and Master of Laws degrees from Georgetown University. He retired in 1969 and is presently a tax attorney with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company.