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VIETNAM: WHAT WENT WRONG?
Dr. Gerard J. DeGroot is Reader and Department Chair at the
University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he has worked since
1985. He has published eight books and a large number of
articles in scholarly journals, magazines and newspapers. He
first began researching the Vietnam era in 1991, work which led
to a series of articles on the protests at Berkeley which were
published in the Pacific Historical Review and elsewhere. This
led in turn to an edited collection entitled *Student Protest:
The Sixties and After*, published in 1998 by Longman. His *A
Noble Cause?: America and the Vietnam War* was published in
2000, also by Longman.
VIETNAM: WHAT WENT WRONG?
For a country as unaccustomed to losing as the United States, defeat
in Vietnam was bewildering. Some people find it inconceivable that American
power could be beaten by a ragtag group of Third World extremists. As a
result, they assume the explanation must lie within. The most popular
scapegoats are students and the press. 'America lost because of its
democracy', argues Colonel Joseph P. Martino, a retired USAF officer.
'Through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize the will to
win.' 'For the first time in history', argues Robert Elegant, 'the outcome of
a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and,
above all, on the television screen'. Such profoundly absurd statements can
only be explained by a deep ignorance of events on the ground in Vietnam. The
war was at first enormously popular. It became unpopular when the events on
the battlefield ceased to provide justification for the war's costs in lives
and money. In other words, American soldiers had first to taste defeat in
Vietnam for the war to become intolerable at home. The inadequacies of the
American war effort were real; they have nothing to do with faulty perception
or savage betrayal. The US suffered a strategic defeat. This raises a
worthy question: would a different strategy have brought victory?
The most popular strategic criticism focuses upon the flaws of
limited war, which left soldiers with 'one hand tied behind their backs'.
According to the 1980 Myths and Realities survey by the Veterans
Administration, 47 per cent of the public and 72 per cent of Vietnam era
veterans agree that 'Our troops were asked to fight in a war which our
political leaders ...would not let them win'. Among those who experienced
combat duty in Vietnam, 82 per cent agree. This line of argument is popular,
as it allows the imagination to conjure up a scenario in which victory was
possible. Thus, in the popular Rambo films, the hero, upon being ordered back
to Vietnam, asks his superior: 'Sir, do we get to win this time?'
To Lyndon Johnson, limited war seemed politically sensible.
during his confident phase, asserted that 'The greatest contribution Vietnam
is making ... is that it is developing an ability in the United States, to go
to war without the necessity of arousing the public ire'. But critics contend
that this half-heartedness caused defeat. 'It seems rather obvious that a
nation cannot fight a war in cold blood, sending its men and women to distant
fields of battle without arousing the emotions of the people', General Bruce
Palmer argues. 'I know of no way to accomplish this short of a declaration
of war ... and national mobilization.' Summers feels that a declaration
would have made the war 'a shared responsibility of both the government and
the American people'. Westmoreland agrees: 'As a student of the history of
war, and remembering the relatively recent Korean War experience, I was aware
of the likelihood that a limited war, fought with limited means for limited
objectives, would put special strain on the body politic'.
American commitment was lacking. 'We never made any effort to
war psychology in the United States', Dean Rusk admitted. 'We tried to do in
cold blood perhaps what can only be done in hot blood'. But the argument that
a declaration of war would have inspired greater commitment is deeply flawed.
The Korean War, another limited war, was also fought without a formal
declaration, yet the US managed to attain its objectives.
Disenchantment with the Vietnam War grew because objectives were not
obtained, despite the claims of political and military leaders. As the
credibility gap widened, support for the war fell. It is difficult to see
how a declaration of war would have prevented this development.
Furthermore, for most Americans the war was tolerable up until 1968
precisely because it did not touch their lives. On that score, Johnson was
probably right about the need to maintain business as usual. Clausewitz
understood that 'War is no act of blind passion, but is dominated by the
political object, therefore the value of that object determines the measure
of the sacrifices by which it is to be purchased. This will be the case, not
only as regards extent, but also as regards duration. As soon, therefore, as
the required outlay becomes so great that the political object is no longer
equal in value, the object must be given up.' A declaration of war would have
implied mobilization of the reserves, a shift to a war economy, cancellation
of social programmes, and, one suspects, more stringent control of the media
and of civil liberties. It seems unlikely that these measures would have
made the war more popular. Americans would rightly have asked themselves
whether the political object - the fate of South Vietnam - justified such
It is also reckless to assume that Congress or the American people
would have approved a declaration of war in 1965. Where was the threat to
American security, the vital prerequisite to such a declaration? A lot of
dominoes would have had to fall before people in San Francisco felt
threatened. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was popular precisely because it was
not a declaration of war. It proposed limited action, which seemed justified
in the circumstances. At the time, the resolution did not seem any more
monumental than similar measures pertaining to the Middle East and the
Formosa Straits which Eisenhower had pushed through Congress in the
Summers also argues that the US never formulated a viable strategy
designed to win the war. Military planners mistakenly believed that
unlimited firepower and modern weaponry could take the place of strategy.
American forces were tied to 'the strategic defensive in pursuit of the
negative aim of wearing the enemy down', with progress measured solely by the
body count, or by the amount of ammunition expended. This line of argument
has proved popular. Sixty-eight per cent of commanders polled by Kinnard
thought US objectives lacked clarity. 'The US was committed to a military
solution, without a firm military objective', one commander
remarked. 'The policy was attrition - killing VC - this offered no solution
- it was senseless.'
Summers feels that 'Instead of orienting on North Vietnam - the
war - we turned our attention to the symptom - the guerrilla war in the
south.' The 'tyranny of fashion' meant that counterinsurgency, not
conventional warfare was pursued. In other words, the US abandoned the
standard method by which it won wars, in favour of a bad imitation of its
enemy's tactics. It should have recognized that, despite appearances to the
contrary, the war was not an indigenous insurgency, but an invasion of the
South by the North - a conventional war masquerading as a guerrilla conflict.
This being the case, 'the Army should have taken the tactical offensive
along the DMZ across Laos to the Thai border in order to isolate the battle
and then deliberately assume the strategic and tactical defensive'.
Palmer advances a similar argument, even going as far as to argue
that victory could have been won with four fewer American divisions than were
actually mobilized. A five division force (two American, two Korean, one
ARVN) along the DMZ, with a further two American divisions to extend the line
to the Lao-Thai border, would effectively have 'isolated the battlefield',
cutting the South off from Communist infiltration. According to Palmer, this
would have created 'a military shield behind which South Vietnam could work
out its own political, economic and social problems. Cut off from substantial
out-of-country support, the Viet Cong was bound to wither on the vine and
gradually become easier for the South Vietnamese to defeat.'
The United States certainly had the capacity to fight this sort of
war. With sufficient force and a willingness to extend the ground war into
Laos and Cambodia, it might have isolated the battlefield. But what would
the consequences have been? The US fought a limited war against a communist
threat at the height of the Cold War. Yet none of her major allies actively
supported her mission. It is not hard to imagine what the world reaction
would have been had the US fought more aggressively. Leaving aside the
potentially very dangerous reaction of the USSR and China, one has to bear in
mind the effect such a strategy would have had upon the
stability of the NATO alliance.
Isolating the battlefield could not have been achieved as cheaply or
as easily as Summers and Palmer suggest. The logistical complications of
trying to create a Maginot Line along the DMZ and through Laos were immense.
Vietnam was not Korea, where different terrain and the defence of a peninsula
made a barrier feasible. Nor was it the wide open spaces of Eastern Europe,
the battleground which American conventional tactics presupposed. Much of
the area in question was dense, hilly jungle which favoured the infiltrator.
'Some have considered it practicable to seal the land frontiers against North
Vietnamese infiltration', Westmoreland once commented; 'yet small though
[South Vietnam] is, its land frontiers extend for more than 900 miles'. If
Laos had been sealed off, might the DRV have extended the Ho Chi Minh Trail
through Thailand? No barrier can ever be impenetrable, and the frustrating
fact of Northern incursions was that they did not need to be big to be
successful. The revolution could survive on a trickle. Small convoys of
trucks could make a huge difference to the PLAF, but if trucks failed to get
through, bicycles might. If bicycles proved too obtrusive, supplies could be
hauled on the backs of coolies.
The highest level of American casualties during the war were
suffered by Marines who guarded the DMZ. Communist guerrillas had their
greatest success with lightning raids against static targets. As a barrier
force, the Americans would have been sitting ducks for incessant sapper
attacks and artillery bombardments. But, even assuming that the US could
have prevented incursions by Northern troops and supplies, victory was still
contingent upon neutralizing the NLF (which controlled vast areas of South
Vietnam in 1965) and building a viable government in the South.
Good government could not be learned overnight, nor could hearts and
be won quickly. American troops would have had to remain on station during a
slow process of nation-building, an open-ended commitment which the American
public would have found progressively intolerable. The importance of the
political object would have quickly evaporated. Though the communists
claimed otherwise, the US had no imperialistic interest in Vietnam. Unlike
the French, they derived no direct advantage from occupying the country.
They did not want to stay.
The great problem with the Palmer/Summers thesis is the minuscule
role it assigns to the PLAF. There is no evidence to suggest that removing
the DRV from the equation would have persuaded the PLAF to lay down its arms.
In the vast majority of engagements, Americans fought the PLAF, not PAVN.
The PLAF would undoubtedly have been worse off if supply lines from the North
had been cut, but it would still have been able to wage war. In 1967 the CIA
estimated that the vast majority of supplies used by the revolution
originated in the South. Self-sufficiency and adaptation were the NLF's
strongest assets. It geared its effort to supply levels, shifting between
periods of dormancy and great activity. Time was on its side. It did not
need to win the war, it had only to avoid outright defeat. Its strategy was
based on the certainty that eventually Americans would tire of the war. Its
political object was of sufficiently great importance to justify a long war
and heavy casualties.
The Summers thesis has great appeal because it postulates a scenario
in which the US could have won the war by doing what came naturally. But it
is based on a blinkered view of the war. Summers is fond of relating an
incident which occurred when he met PAVN Colonel Nguyen Don Tu in 1975. 'You
know you never defeated us on the battlefield', Summers rather stupidly
remarked. Tu pondered the statement a moment, then replied: 'that may be so,
but it is also irrelevant'. He was probably astounded that, after such a long
war, Summers should still be so ignorant of its true nature.
The Other War
Those who recognise the importance of the NLF to the communist war
effort, among them Andrew Krepinevich, advance a decidedly different thesis
than Summers and Palmer. Krepinevich argues that the US paid insufficient
attention to the 'village war', and thus failed to adopt an effective
counter-insurgency strategy. Failure resulted because the US tried to mould
the war to suit conventional strategy, rather than adapting strategy to suit
the war. Instead of fighting big unit engagements, which had little bearing
on the eventual outcome, the US should have concentrated upon bringing
security to the peasantry, thus allowing the RVN eventually to win hearts and
minds. Krepinevich denounces the 'Army Concept' which, he describes as "the
Army's perception of how wars ought to be waged reflected in the way the Army
organizes and trains its troops for battle. The characteristics of the Army
Concept are two: a focus on mid-intensity, or conventional, war and a
reliance on high volumes of firepower to minimize casualties - in effect, the
substitution of material costs at every available opportunity to avoid
payment in blood." This argument has a great deal of merit. Westmoreland did
underestimate the importance of the village war and considered PLAF
guerrillas mere 'termites' who could be
safely left to the ARVN. But ARVN proved unequal to this task, and the
failure to break the NLF's hold upon the peasantry contributed to the
To fight a guerrilla insurgency required subtlety, stealth and
patience. Americans instead applied raw power. They had some success, but it
was success similar to that of the man who burns down his house in order to
rid it of termites. The reluctance to sacrifice lives - summed up in the
ubiquitous sentiment: 'expend shells not men' - in practice meant that many
innocent Vietnamese civilians were killed so that a few Americans could live.
In 1972 John Paul Vann observed: "I have walked through hundreds of hamlets
that have been destroyed in the course of a battle, the majority as the
result of the heavier friendly fires. The overwhelming majority of
hamlets thus destroyed failed to yield sufficient evidence of damage to the
enemy to justify destruction ...
Indeed, it has not been unusual to have a hamlet destroyed and find
absolutely no evidence of damage to the enemy.... The destruction of a hamlet
by friendly firepower is an event that will always be remembered and
practically never forgiven by those members of the population who lost their
homes." The defense specialist Herman Kahn argued in 1968 that 'The United
States must adopt as its working position that the lives of Vietnamese
civilians are just as valuable as American lives'. But for the American
military such an idea was preposterous. In their efforts to protect
themselves, they made more enemies.
But counter-insurgency was not the sure-fire solution which
Krepinevich suggests. It required a massive level of commitment.
Westmoreland admitted that with 'virtually unlimited manpower, I could have
stationed troops permanently in every district or province and thus ...
enabled the troops to get to know the people intimately, facilitating the
task of identifying the subversives and protecting the others against
intimidation.' To be effective, counter-insurgency had to go hand in hand
with aid programmes; standards of living had to rise at the same time that
security was strengthened. But this sort of pacification strategy would have
taken too long, again, the American people had no patience for a protracted
political/military campaign. In a conversation with Robert Shaplen in 1970, a
demoralized American economic-development worker summarized the immense
difficulty of pacification: 'two Vietcong in a hamlet can still undo most of
what we've accomplished'.
In Dynamics of Defeat, Eric Bergerud argues, rather convincingly,
that the chances of winning the war by fighting the 'other war' were less
than by pursuing a more aggressive conventional strategy. The problem was one
of time and manpower. The US had a very small number of combat troops. (We
should recall that only around 15% of the 600,000 troops in Vietnam at the
peak actually fought.) Dispersing them to cover a greater area, as
Westmoreland recognized, would have been playing into the hands of the PLAF.
The guerrillas would have loved to be able to slug it out in the hinterlands
with lightly armed Americans. The US Army, Bergerud feels, was organized as
it was because that was the best way for a modern democracy to fight a war.
The Army's motto of 'bullets not bodies' suited a citizenry
who accepted the principle of fighting communism, but did not want to lose
men. Spreading out and fighting a real counter insurgency war, while
deploying firepower sparingly, would simply have meant more Americans sent
home in body bags.
The task of training men for counter-insurgency was in any case
hugely complicated, especially since GIs were limited to a one year tour of
duty. It was arguably also a diversion from the American military's intended
purpose, which was to fight a conventional war against the Soviet Union. Did
it make sense to undergo a massive military transformation in order to win a
small war in Asia? 'We're watchdogs you unchain to eat up the burglar', one
battalion commander argued. 'Don't ask us to be mayors or sociologists
worrying about hearts and minds'. 'I'll be damned if I permit the United
States Army, its institutions, its doctrines, and its traditions to be
destroyed just to win this lousy war', an American officer once exclaimed.
Guenter Lewy cites this as evidence of the Army's stubborn refusal to adapt.
It seems instead an impressive ability to take the long view.
Was Victory Possible?
Loren Baritz rejects the Krepinevich thesis on the grounds that
cultural conditioning impeded adaptation to the challenges Vietnam posed.
'War is a product of culture ... Our managerial sophistication and
technological superiority resulted in our trained incompetence in guerrilla
warfare.' There is plenty of evidence to support this argument.
Sophisticated weapons were used because they were available, not necessarily
because they were appropriate. For instance, studies have revealed that
slower propeller-driven aircraft were more efficient at destroying targets in
this type of war than jet aircraft and resulted in fewer civilian casualties
and crew losses. Yet over 90 percent of sorties were flown by jets. Baritz
argues that there was no escape from the tyranny of technological war: 'The
military's continuing claim that we could have won the war if it had been
allowed to fight the war differently is pointless. We could not have fought
it differently. ... The American way of life and war meant that we could not
succeed as counterinsurgents.'
This seems excessively deterministic. It is also peripheral to the
real issue. Defeat was inevitable not because of strategic failures, but
because America backed an ally which had no future in Vietnam. Both Summers
and Krepinevich, from different directions, argue that the conditions could
have been created in which the RVN could have transformed itself into a
benevolent, responsible and representative government. Yet during nearly
thirty years of American involvement the Saigon regime provided no evidence
that it was capable of such a transformation. The RVN did not become corrupt
and cruel because it was, by 1965, losing the war. It was corrupt and cruel
by nature. Improving the military situation in South Vietnam would not have
eradicated its venality. The RVN could not easily overcome the fact that it
was an urban, Westernized and largely Catholic elite which ruled over a
rural, eastern, poor peasantry. Those with power were reluctant to change
because exploitation was profitable in the short term. Strategic tinkering
would not have transformed the social conflict at the heart of the Vietnam
Anti-communism had great popular appeal, but the RVN government had
little. It was difficult to motivate soldiers to defend a regime which had
no real identity, and a state which was an invention of diplomats. These
weaknesses forced the regime to look outward for support, namely to the
United States. While American assistance undoubtedly made South Vietnam
stronger militarily, it weakened the regime politically by exacerbating its
worst faults. 'The American dollars have really changed our way of
thinking', the ultraconservative Father Nguyen Quang Lam wrote in 1975.
'People compete with each other to become prostitutes, that is to say, to get
rich in the quickest and most exploitative manner.' The American presence was
living proof that the Saigon government could not control its own fate. The
American way of war also fundamentally altered the character of South
Vietnam, creating a society and an economy which were not sustainable in the
Some have argued that the US should have forced the RVN to reform.
a great mistake, Robert Komer contends, that the US did not use 'more
vigorously the power over the [RVN] that our contributions gave us. We
became their prisoners, rather than they ours.' But forcing the RVN to
change (assuming this was possible) would merely have underlined its puppet
status, leaving the Americans vulnerable to charges of neocolonialism. Some
time ago, in a different theatre of war, T. E. Lawrence recognized the
difficulties of creating an effective alliance between unequal partners. It
is 'better they do it imperfectly than you do it perfectly', he argued, 'for
it is their country, their war, and your time is limited'. It is also
difficult to force an ally to improve whilst at the same time making it clear
that you will not let them fail. For the US, the RVN's survival was always
more important than its morality. Cynics in Saigon exploited that situation.
The US was not only saddled with a weak ally, it also faced a
formidable enemy. 'They were in fact the best enemy we have faced in our
history', one general confessed to Kinnard. In 1945, after the Japanese
surrender, General Douglas MacArthur warned General Jacques LeClerc, the new
Commander in Chief of French forces in Indochina, about the difficulties of
fighting Vietnamese nationalism: 'if you expect to succeed in overcoming the
resistance of your enemy ... bring soldiers, and then more soldiers, and
after that still more soldiers. But, even after all the soldiers you can
spare are there, you probably still will not succeed.' Three quarters of the
commanders polled by Kinnard felt that the US did not sufficiently understand
the enemy. One general complained of a 'gross misconception of North
Vietnamese capabilities, values and determination'.
David Chanoff, who interviewed many veterans of the revolution,
'came away with an appreciation for why their side triumphed and our side
didn't'. He explained: 'Utter ruthlessness and massive social manipulation on
the part of the Northern-led party played a large role, of that there's no
doubt. ... But even more important was a quixotic disregard for the
impossible, a quality I came to think of as "ordinary heroism". So many
apparently normal human beings had demonstrated in one way or another a damn
the consequences approach to life that it began to seem like a national
trait.' It is perhaps difficult for Americans raised on stories of the
Alamo, San Juan Hill and Iwo Jima to accept that they were defeated by a
spirit more powerful than their own.
The revolution's potent mix of military and political struggle gave
it a profound advantage over its adversaries. It was able, because of its
contact with the peasantry, to fight and rule with economy of force, thus
making the most of meagre resources and limited personnel. And, no matter
how much it might have resorted to cruelty, terrorism and occasionally
cynical acts, it retained a moral superiority over the Saigon regime which
allowed it to maintain political legitimacy. It represented, in other words,
the best causes: economic and social justice and national independence, even
if those causes often became distorted in their pursuit.
This political supremacy meant that the revolution could never be
defeated purely by military means alone. Sir Robert Thompson feels that the
Americans, and by extension their RVN allies, 'fought a separate war which
ignored its political and other aspects, and were not on a collision course
with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, who therefore had a free run in the
real war'. Or, as Larry Cable states even more succinctly: 'The American war
in Vietnam [was] irrelevent to the Vietnamese wars'. Granted, the
stubbornness which some Americans displayed in attempting to mould the war
into a familiar form was prodigious. 'It is fashionable in some quarters to
say that the problems in Southeast Asia are primarily political and economic
rather than military', General Earle Wheeler claimed in November 1962. 'I do
not agree. The essence of the problem in Vietnam is military.' But, while it
is tempting to believe that the war could have been won by an army of
sociologists and political scientists spreading a benevolent culture among an
ignorant peasant population, such fantasies do not accord with the reality in
Vietnam. The PLAF were not a bunch of barefoot guerrillas but a highly
trained, fiercely determined and well-armed fighting force which was at its
best in small unit actions. A small force of American counter-insurgency
specialists, as envisaged by Thompson, might have worked in Malaya, but
Malaya was not Vietnam. No matter how much money and effort was devoted to
pacification, it could not work unless the PLAF main force units were
neutralized. This explains why the greatest progress in pacification was
made after Tet, when the PLAF effectively removed itself from the contest.
As Wheeler's assertion demonstrates, American decision-makers did not
really understand the threat with which they were faced. Edward Lansdale,
who had an intimate understanding of revolutionary politics in Southeast
Asia, wrote a scathing attack upon American policy in a 1964 article entitled
'Vietnam: Do We Understand Revolution?' The short answer was 'no'. 'There
must be a heartfelt cause to which the legitimate government is pledged',
Lansdale argued, 'a cause which makes a stronger appeal to the people than
the Communist cause, a cause which is used in a dedicated way by the
legitimate government to polarize and guide all other actions -
psychological, military, social and economic - with participation by the
people themselves, in order to bring victory.'
Without such a cause, the 'legitimate' government had no real claim
to legitimacy. Or, as another expert observed in 1967, 'It is not possible
to fight something with nothing.' The non-communists of South Vietnam were a
spirited, determined group keen to resist the imposition of an alien
ideology. They were a massive force. But the Saigon government never
discovered how to harness their energy and embody their dreams.
Thus, the American effort was never more than a delaying force.
When American ground troops began arriving in 1965, the defeat of the Saigon
regime was imminent. The Americans delayed that inevitable consequence by
around ten years. Both the French and the Americans, not to mention the
Saigon regime itself, resorted to force because of the unassailable supremacy
of the Communists in the political arena. All three learned (or should have
learned) that force by itself was inappropriate, because the application of
force made the political appeal of the insurgency all the greater. The harder
they tried to win the war, the more disruption they caused, and the more
remote victory became.
Alternative military strategies such as those proposed by Summers
and Krepinevich might have produced a more effective military conduct of the
war, but they do not address the political question. It was within the power
of the US to effect a stalemate on the battlefield and perhaps even to impose
a temporary military defeat upon revolutionary forces, but military dominance
could only be sustained if the US commitment was open-ended. Once Americans
departed, communist political strength would prevail. The communist strategy
was based on the absolute certainty that the US could not stay in Vietnam
A few years ago, when I was finishing the writing of my study of the
war, I was faced with the task of finding a title which accorded with the
general thesis of the book. I came up with 'Wrong War', only to find that
some early bird had grabbed that worm before me. I still like the title. It
was a wrong war, not a war fought wrongly.
So, what went wrong? Nothing. Or, at least, nothing of crucial
importance. It was the war itself that was wrong.
Dr Gerard J. DeGroot
Department of Modern History
University of St Andrews
St Andrews, Fife
Scotland KY16 9AL
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