Several years ago the editor of a conservative public policy journal asked me to write an essay discussing whether or not the US could have won the war in Vietnam. I was happy to oblige. Based on my own experience and subsequent study of the conflict, I believed that not only could the US have won, it had won militarily by 1972.
US-ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) military successes against the North Vietnamese in 1968-1971 largely had stabilized political and economic conditions in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). These military successes improved political and economic conditions, helping to solidify the attachment of the rural population to the South Vietnamese government. Although much remained to be accomplished, the overall performance of ARVN forces during the Easter Offensive of 1972 indicated that “Vietnamization” was working. I argued that had the United States continued to provide air and naval support, the RVN would have survived as a political entity.
But despite his sympathy with my point of view, the editor chose to kill my piece. He contended that I had not provided enough hard evidence to support my argument against the entrenched conventional wisdom: that the Vietnamese communists were too determined, the South Vietnamese too corrupt, and the Americans incapable of fighting the kind of war that would have been necessary to prevail.
Now an important new book provides the evidence I lacked. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam by the military historian Lewis Sorley persuasively refutes the conventional wisdom concerning the Vietnam War. Building on his excellent biographies of Army generals Creighton Abrams and Harold Johnson, Mr. Sorley examines the largely neglected later years of the conflict. He concludes that the war in Vietnam “was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the US Congress.” Mr. Sorley rectifies an imbalance in the treatment of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, the specter of Robert McNamara has led analysts to over-emphasize the early years of the war, making rational debate about the Vietnam War as a whole difficult if not impossible. All too often, the history of the war has been derailed over the question of when Mr. McNamara turned against the war and why he didn't make his views known earlier. But as William Colby observed in a review of Mr. McNamara's disgraceful memoir, In retrospect, by limiting serious consideration of the military situation in Vietnam to the period before mid-1968, historians leave Americans with a record “similar to what we would know if histories of World War II stopped before Stalingrad, Operation Torch in North Africa and Guadalcanal in the Pacific.” Those studies that examine the period after Tet 1968 emphasize the diplomatic attempts to extricate the US from the conflict, treating the military effort as nothing more than a holding action.
But to truly understand the Vietnam War, it is absolutely imperative to come to grips with the years after 1968. A new team was in place. Gen. Abrams succeeded Gen. William Westmoreland as commander US Military Assistance Command--Vietnam (USMACV) shortly after the Tet offensive. He joined Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of US ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring. Mr. Colby, a career CIA officer soon arrived to coordinate the pacification.
Far from constituting a mere holding action, the approach followed by the new team constituted a positive strategy for ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. Ambassador Bunker, Gen. Abrams, and Mr. Colby “brought different values to their tasks, operated from a different understanding of the nature of the war, and applied different measures of merit and different tactics. They employed diminishing resources in manpower, materiel, money, and time as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn. They went about that task with sincerity, intelligence, decency, and absolute professionalism, and in the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace.”
Mr. Sorley focuses less on the shortcomings of Robert McNamara than on those of Gen. Westmoreland, whose tactics, the author claims, squandered four years of public and congressional support for the war. Gen. Westmoreland's operational strategy emphasized the attrition of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in a “war of the big battalions:” multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such “search and destroy” operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.
Gen. Abrams' approach emphasized not the destruction of enemy forces per se but protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas. He then concentrated on attacking the enemy's “logistics nose” (as opposed to a “logistics tail”): since the North Vietnamese lacked heavy transport within South Vietnam, they had to preposition supplies forward of their sanctuaries preparatory to launching an offensive. Fighting was still heavy, as exemplified by two major actions in South Vietnam's Ashau Valley during the first half of 1969: the 9th Marine Regiment's Operation DEWEY CANYON and the 101st Airborne Division's epic battle for “Hamburger Hill.” But now NVA offensive timetables were being disrupted by preemptive allied attacks, buying more time for Vietnamization.
In addition, rather than ignoring the insurgency and pushing the South Vietnamese aside as Gen. Westmoreland had done, Gen. Abrams followed a policy of “one war,” integrating all aspects of the struggle against the communists. The result, says Mr. Sorley was “a better war” in which the United States and South Vietnamese essentially achieved the military and political conditions necessary for South Vietnam's survival as a viable political entity.
The defenders of the conventional wisdom will reply that Mr. Sorley's argument is refuted by the fact that South Vietnam did fall to the North Vietnamese communists. They will repeat the claim that the South Vietnamese lacked the leadership, skill, character, and endurance of their adversaries. Mr. Sorley acknowledges the shortcomings of the South Vietnamese and agrees that the US would have had to provide continued air, naval, and intelligence support. But, he contends, the real cause of US defeat was that the Nixon administration and Congress threw away the successes achieved by US and South Vietnamese arms.
The proof lay in the 1972 Easter Offensive. This was the biggest offensive push of the war, greater in magnitude than either the 1968 Tet offensive or the final assault of 1975. The US provided massive air and naval support and there were inevitable failures on the part of some ARVN units, but all in all, the South Vietnamese fought well. Then, having blunted the communist thrust, they recaptured territory that had been lost to Hanoi. Finally, so effective was the eleven-day “Christmas bombing” campaign (LINEBACKER II) later that year that the British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson exclaimed, “you had won the war. It was over.” Three years later, despite the heroic performance of some ARVN units, South Vietnam collapsed against a much weaker, cobbled-together NVA offensive. What happened to cause this reversal?
First, the Nixon administration, in its rush to extricate the country from Vietnam, forced the government of RVN to accept a cease-fire that permitted NVA forces to remain in the south. Then in an act that still shames the United States to this day, Congress cut off military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. Finally, President Nixon resigned over Watergate and his successor, constrained by congressional action, defaulted on promises to respond with force to North Vietnamese violations of the peace terms. Mr. Sorley describes in detail the logistical and operational consequences for the ARVN of our having starved them of promised support for three years.
Mr. Sorley has provided an major challenge to the conventional wisdom. Accordingly, we can expect A Better War to be attacked, or more probably, ignored by those who have a vested interest in portraying the Vietnam War as uniquely brutal and unjust, a conflict the United States deserved to lose to a more virtuous enemy; and those who fought it as either victims or brutal savages.
I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads: “I don't know what happened. When I left, we were winning!” A Better War demonstrates that such a sentiment is not as farfetched as the conventional wisdom would have it.
Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI and an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. He was director of legislative affairs for the nuclear weapons programs of the Department of Energy from 1985 to 1987.
As the Gulf War came to an end, President Bush declared triumphantly that we had finally put the Vietnam War behind us. In a sense, this was true. After the futility and failure of Vietnam, America had used force effectively, its military displaying almost unbelievable power. But in another sense, 25 years after the fighting stopped and 28 years after the last U.S. forces left, Vietnam is still very much with us, at least with our military.
When young officers read and talk about the war, there is an undercurrent of resentment about how the civilians ran it. “Too much civilian interference,” they say. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara should not have picked bombing targets and restricted what we could do. In this view of the war, it could have been won, if only the civilians had not made the military fight with one hand tied behind its back.
This view of Vietnam came to dominate the military because a generation of officers who fought there, exemplified by Colin Powell, swore on the fallen bodies of their comrades that they would never again allow the military to be used without a commitment to win and to do all that was necessary to win. This view received dramatic expression in the Gulf War in the overwhelming power that the U.S. military brought to bear against the Iraqis. But it was evident in the words of Colin Powell before the fighting started. When asked how we were going to fight the Iraqi army, Powell responded simply that we were going to cut it off and destroy it.
Use overwhelming force and achieve decisive victory—that is the lesson of Vietnam that is still very much with the American military. Because of what happened in Vietnam, the American military resists using force unless it can be used decisively. The only problem is that this lesson is wrong. It is based on a misinterpretation of what happened in Vietnam and on wishful thinking about how we can use force.
Civilians did involve themselves in the details of military operations in Vietnam. On the other hand, they followed the advice of the generals and sent 500,000 troops there and agreed to have more bombs dropped than in World War II. What more could the military have asked for? In fact, they asked for more troops. But the truth is that the military did not have a strategy to win the war at any level of commitment. In Vietnam, in short, the problem was military incompetence more than it was civilian interference and restrictions on the use of force.
But the doctrine of overwhelming and decisive force is not just based on a misinterpretation. It is also impossible to adhere to. Consider two cases. First, some of the threats we face—terrorism, for example—cannot be removed by sheer power because those who pose them have neither conventional forces we can destroy nor capitals we can seize. Because we cannot do so decisively, should we never use force against terrorists and their sponsors?
Second, it makes sense to deal with problems—a simmering conflict involving an ally, for example—before they become big. But in such a situation, before the fighting has really started, military force will be only one of many tools we use and civilian policymakers will interfere in its use, and rightly so. In these cases, they should limit and shape the use of force based on the nature of the conflict, the interests we have at stake, which may change as circumstances change, and the wishes of allies, among other things. Military force will not be decisive in such cases but should still be used.
That the military continues to resist such uses of force demonstrates that the war that ended 25 years ago is still not over.
David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.