Lost wars often provoke orgies of finger-pointing, and the Vietnam War was no exception. One thing about this war is now clear, however: To the extent that U.S. behavior—as opposed to the enemy’s—contributed to its outcome, primary responsibility rests with civilian policy makers.
They were the ones who were legally and politically in charge and who mistook Ho Chi Minh for Adolf Hitler and South Vietnam for the Sudetenland. They were responsible for committing U.S. military power to Indochina in the first place and for keeping it there for eight years. They were the ones who refused to mobilize either public opinion or the reserves and who placed Laos and Cambodia off-limits to U.S. ground forces. Responsibility for refusing to authorize more than a half-hearted bombing campaign against North Vietnam and for placing limits on U.S. troop strength in South Vietnam also falls on civilian shoulders. And the chief civilian. President Lyndon B. Johnson, took to abusing the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) personally (see retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Charles G. Cooper’s startling “The Day It Became the Longest War,” May 1996 Proceedings).
The grand strategy pursued by the civilian policy makers boiled down to little more than avoiding defeat. They cynically lumped together prisoners of war and those missing in action to promote public support for extending an already lost war. Finally, they were the ones who negotiated a “peace” accord that ultimately ensured South Vietnam’s defeat.
To indict the civilian leadership is not to absolve the military, however. Syndicated columnist and retired Army Colonel Harry Summers contends that the charge of political interference in military operations is “off the mark. Our problem was not so much interference as it was the lack of a coherent military strategy—a lack for which our military leaders share a large burden of responsibility.”'
No debacle in U.S. history as monumental as the Vietnam War can be ascribed solely to the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The JCS, the Pacific Command (CinCPac), and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) supported the decision to intervene and shared with their civilian superiors an arrogant confidence in themselves as well as an utter ignorance of the enemy. Moreover, their courage in the councils of war failed to match that of the grunts who did all the fighting and dying. The brass chose to go along with civilian decisions they regarded as ruinous to prospects for victory, and like their bete noir. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, they lingered on in office long after they had lost any real influence on policy.
In retrospect, even a politically unrestrained U.S. military effort probably could not have prevailed in Vietnam at a morally, fiscally, and strategically acceptable price. The enemy proved extraordinarily tenacious. Our South Vietnamese ally turned out to be politically and militarily incompetent. And the American people, as the late Richard Nixon observed, “could not be expected to continue to support a war in which they were told victory was around the corner, but which required greater and greater effort without any obvious signs of improvement.”2
The military’s performance left much to be desired even within the political limits imposed on the use of force within Indochina. They were much more stringent in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than they were in South Vietnam, where the MACV had a free hand. Take as much or as little of the convenient argument that a hostile press, a treasonous antiwar movement, and a meddlesome and reckless White House and OSD stabbed the military in the back. The fact remains that the military, stabbed or not, spent much of its time in Vietnam shooting itself in the foot.
After the war, the influential military analyst for The New York Times, Hanson Baldwin, spoke for many when he lamented that, “the blame for the lost war rests, not upon the men in uniform, but upon the civilian policy makers in Washington and those who evolved and developed the policies of gradualism, flexible response, off-again-on-again bombing, negotiated victory, and, ultimately, one-arm-behind-the-back restraint, and scuttle-and-run.”3 This view does a disservice to the truth and to those military men who recognized their profession’s misadventures in Vietnam and courageously sought reform. It is also dangerous. It excuses professional accountability. Worse, it overlooks the fact that most post-Cold War conflicts have been and are destined to be Vietnam-like in their messy civil dimensions, unconventional operational and tactical characteristics, and secondary importance to traditional U.S. security interests.
Among those who have vigorously indicted military as well as civilian performance in Vietnam are Army officers determined never again to repeat their service’s experience there. This should come as no surprise; the U.S. Army bore the brunt of the ground fighting, casualties, command responsibilities, and reputational damage. (The Marine Corps certainly did its share of the fighting, but it managed to retain its prestige, in part because it bore little responsibility for the MACV’s conduct of the war.) In contrast, the air war prosecuted against North Vietnam by the Air Force and the Navy was hobbled by significant political restrictions and was, at least until after the Tet Offensive, inherently peripheral to the war’s outcome.
Army critics have not spared the White House or OSD. Retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Colin Powell, believes that “our political leaders ... led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anticommunism, which was only a partial fit in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anti-colonialism, and civil strife beyond the East-West conflict.”4 But they—and others—have no less ruthlessly condemned U.S. military leadership. General Powell also says: “Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to group think pressure and kept up pretenses, the phony measure of body counts, the comforting illusion of secure hamlets, the inflated progress reports. As a corporate entity, the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or to itself.”5
Prominent among their targets—responsibility for none of which can be laid at the doorsteps of Johnson, McNamara, Peter Arnett, or Jane Fonda—are:
- An ill-conceived attrition strategy
- Excessive use of firepower
- An essentially superfluous strategic-bombing campaign
- Fractured command authority
- Self-defeating personnel rotation policies
- Abominable combat-to-support ratios
- Moral cowardice
Faulty Attrition Strategy
Army General William C. Westmoreland chose to pursue a strategy of attrition by way of searching out and destroying the enemy’s big battalions in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. His chief of operations, William Depuy, summed up the essence of the strategy: “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm . . . ’til the other side cracks or gives up.”6
Westmoreland believed attrition was dictated by politically imposed U.S. manpower constraints and prohibitions on ground-force operations in Laos and Cambodia. He rejected the alternative of a population-protection strategy as a defensive posture that would cede the initiative to the enemy. Critics within and beyond the military opposed or questioned seriously Westmoreland’s choice of attrition. Doubters included U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson (who in 1965 commissioned a study of the attrition strategy that strongly condemned search-and-de- stroy), Deputy Commander of the U.S. MACV General Creighton Abrams, Marine Corps Commandant General Wallace Greene and Marine Lieutenant General Victor Krulak, retired Army generals Matthew Ridg- way and James Gavin, British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
The critics were right. Attrition failed because it wrongly presupposed a U.S. ability to gain and retain the initiative on the battlefield, a U.S. capacity to kill enemy troops at a rate faster than they could be replaced, and a political “breaking point” for the enemy within reach of U.S. arms. Throughout most of the war, the enemy initiated the great majority of tactical engagements and thus was in a position to control its own losses. The MACV’s body counts never came close to equaling the communist birth rate. And the enemy’s breaking point turned out to be higher than our own. Throughout the war, the CIA consistently concluded that the enemy’s manpower base could withstand a U.S. attrition strategy. As Thompson put it, “all the people of North Vietnam had to do between 1965 and 1968 was to exist and breed.”7 Not entirely incidentally, while the MACV was pursuing attrition, it was doing little to groom the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) for the inevitable day when it would have to assume primary responsibility for the ground war. Perhaps the MACV thought it could whip the enemy once and for all without the ARVN’s help. The war’s Americanization had become inevitable by 1965, but a determined effort to Vietnamize it should not have been delayed as long as it was.
The war in South Vietnam before the 1968 Tet Offensive was predominantly an insurgent contest for control of the population and as such demanded a highly selective employment of firepower. Legendary U.S. Army adviser John Paul Vann declared that, “Guerrilla warfare requires the utmost discrimination in killing. Every time we killed an innocent person we lost ground in our battle to win the people.”8 Yet the MACV elected to do just that—rely primarily on massive firepower as a means of “attriting” the enemy. The results were predictable, given the difficulty of distinguishing between “Charlies” and “friendlies” in the countryside, and the communists’ repeated success in baiting U.S. forces into obliterating entire villages: massive collateral damage and consequent political alienation of millions of rural Vietnamese from their own government (which, after all, had invited the Americans in to “save” them).
Irrelevant Strategic Bombing
The air war against North Vietnam, pushed most vigorously by the Air Force and CinCPac (both convinced that air power alone could break Hanoi’s will), undoubtedly imposed significant costs on Hanoi. But it neither deterred nor denied North Vietnamese sponsorship of the war in the South. Preindustrial and totalitarian North Vietnam was relatively immune to defeat from the air, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail simply could not be effectively interdicted short of an invasion and occupation of southern Laos (and perhaps not even then).
Indeed, the air war against North Vietnam probably strengthened Hanoi. It brought home the war to the North Vietnamese people. It allowed the regime to strengthen its internal control and to call for greater sacrifice, including an escalation of infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It also provided the North a powerful bargaining chip in the form of hundreds of U.S. prisoners of war and permitted Hanoi to pose as the hapless victim of U.S. overkill.
Disunity of Command
The cardinal principle of unity of command was raped repeatedly throughout the Vietnam War. No combined MACV-ARVN command existed at all, prompting Westmoreland’s own intelligence chief to wonder “why unity of command was held to be vital in World War II and Korea and yet deemed undesirable—or unobtainable—in South Vietnam.”9 Westmoreland expressed concern over such a command’s possible affront to South Vietnam’s sovereignty, as if the Republic of Vietnam was something other than a U.S. creation. But he was probably much more worried about sharing sensitive information with an ARVN notorious for poor internal security and about the implications of a combined command for America’s own war effort.
Indeed, the United States dedicated no unified command exclusively to prosecuting the war. The MACV was responsible for prosecuting the ground war inside South Vietnam. About distant CinCPac, to which MACV (and other commands) reported, the late former CIA Director William Colby commented: “CinCPac had no relation to the war. CinCPac was halfway between the action and policy—and effective in neither.”10
The conduct of aerial operations stands as a monument to the stupidity of divided command. The Nebraska-headquartered Strategic Air Command retained operational authority over all B-52 bombing missions in Vietnam. The 7th Air Force controlled the Air Force’s share of the air war over North and South Vietnam and was granted control over U.S. Navy air operations in southern Laos and South Vietnam, but not North Vietnam. All Marine Corps aviation remained (until 1968) under the III Amphibious Force Commander, and the Navy’s air campaign against North Vietnam was run from CinCPac in Honolulu, which also controlled Air Force C-130 transports used in South Vietnam but based elsewhere. Henry Kissinger rightly called the whole mess, including the notorious “route package” system that divided North Vietnamese territory between the Air Force and the Navy, a case of “institutionalized schizophrenia.”11
Westmoreland limited Army tours in the field to one year for enlisted men and to six months for officers. These limits undoubtedly served to enhance troop morale and the “blooding” of as many officers as possible. The near-universal consensus, however, is that such short tours of duty, especially in conjunction with the absence of reserve mobilization, seriously compromised the quality of U.S. military performance at the tactical level in Vietnam. Short tours had a devastating impact on both small- unit cohesion—so essential in combat—as well as professional understanding of the war. Communist troops accumulated superior knowledge of the war and of the skills necessary to fight it, because they served for the war’s duration. Even the French had fought their war in Indochina exclusively with long-service professional soldiers serving mandatory 26-month tours. In contrast, the MACV’s policies encouraged ticket- punching careerism at the expense of military effectiveness.
Modern conventional expeditionary forces, especially those intervening in logistically immature places such as South Vietnam in 1965, characteristically register high ratios of support to combat troops. But such ratios for the MACV were excessively and unnecessarily high. Somewhere on the order (depending on definitional criteria) of eight to ten rear-area personnel served for each “shooter” on the line during this war. Much responsibility rests with General Westmoreland’s decision to create huge, lavish base camps in South Vietnam with thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of inhabitants who could enjoy such customary creature comforts as air-conditioned housing, swimming pools, and ice cream. “Never has any force been so munificently pampered,” remarked Army observer David Richard Palmer. “Too many men were wasted on non-essential tasks, weakening Westmoreland’s plea for reinforcements, and making the Vietnam War the least efficient in our history.”12 Yet another Army observer, author and historian Bruce Palmer, condemned the “base camp idea” as “MACV’s most pernicious policy,” because the “manpower it soaked up was appalling, not to mention the waste of material resources and the handicap of having to defend and take care of these albatrosses.”13
The JCS, CinCPac, and MACV had just cause to protest many civilian decisions. The most controversial of those and the one that became the single greatest source of civil-military tension during the war was President Johnson’s unprecedented refusal to order a reserve call-up—despite the strong urging of both the JCS and McNamara. Johnson’s intransigence on this matter, dictated by what he believed to be certain domestic political imperatives, dealt a blow to U.S. manpower quality in Vietnam.
Astonishing is the fact that on neither this nor any other issue did a single senior military leader elect to follow the course of action Napoleon once endorsed as imperative. With respect, Napoleon said, to disagreements with “his sovereign, . . . every general is culpable who undertakes the execution of a plan which he considers faulty. It is his duty to represent his reasons, to insist upon a change of plan; in short, to give in his resignation rather than allow himself to become the instrument of his army’s ruin.”14 This obligation was incumbent on all those retired Vietnam War generals and admirals who spent their retirement publicly railing against the very same disastrous civilian policies they had saluted at the time. Army Chief of Staff Johnson had the courage at least to confess that, “I should have taken off my stars. I should have resigned. [Staying on] was the worst, most immoral decision I’ve ever made.”15
To be sure, senior officers were captive of the “can do” spirit and prone to view even a principled resignation as an act of disloyalty. But, certainly in retrospect, it is difficult to reject historian Phillip Davidson’s conclusion that, “somewhere in 1967 or early 1968, one or more of the Chiefs should have stood up and told the president publicly that what he was doing in Vietnam would not work, and then resigned.”16
To catalog the military’s faults in Vietnam is not to argue that those faults were primarily responsible for defeat—or that their elimination would have yielded a conclusive victory. President Johnson and OSD—not the JCS, CinCPac, and MACV—bear the principal blame for the calamity that befell the United States in Vietnam. And it is far from self-evident that the military could have delivered a timely and decisive victory even had it been permitted to fight the war the way it wanted to fight it.
Indeed, the entire debate over who “lost” Vietnam is altogether too ethnocentric. The war was as much—if not more—a case of the Vietnamese communists winning it as it was a case of Americans losing it. The subject of how they won deserves—but has yet to receive—the same painstaking examination as how we lost, and a good place to start would be the recognition that they were fighting a total war, while we, of necessity, were waging a limited one. The Vietnam War was hardly the first instance of a great power coming to grief at the hands of a minor one.
1 Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy, A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982), p. 143.
2 Richard Nixon, The Real War (New York: Warner Books, 1983), p. 119.
3 Hanson Baldwin, Foreword in U. S . G. Sharp, Strategy for Defeat, Vietnam in Retrospect (San Rafael, CA: Presidio Press, 1978), p. xiii.
4 Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 149.
5 Ibid., p. 149.
6 Quoted in George C. Herring, America’s Longest War, The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: Mc- Graw Hill, 1996), p. 168.
7 Robert Thompson, No Exit From Vietnam (New York: David McKay Company, 1969), p. 60.
8 Quoted in Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 84.
9 Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War, The History 1946- 1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988), p. 283.
10 Quoted in Lewis Sorley, Thunderbolt, From the Battle of the Bulge to Vietnam and Beyond, Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 327.
11Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1979), p. 1112.
12 David Richard Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet, A History of the Vietnam War from a Military Man’s Viewpoint (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), pp. 197, 198.
13 Bruce Palmer, Jr., The 25-Year War, America’s Military Role in Vietnam (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1984), p. 69.
14 David G. Chandler, The Military Maxims of Napoleon (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988), p. 79.
15 Quoted in Mark Perry, Four Stars, The Inside Story of the Forty-Year Battle Between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s Civilian Leaders (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1989), p. 156.
16 Davidson, op. cit., pp. 462-63.
Mr. Record, formerly a professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a visiting professor at the School of International Affairs of the Georgia Institute of Technology. He served in the Mekong Delta from 1968 to 1969 as assistant province advisor. Mr. Record has written extensively on national security matters and is the author of the recent book. Hollow Victory: A Contrary View of the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1993).