For the past few decades, debates continue over why the U.S. experienced failure in Vietnam. Did the U.S. suffer from a lack of total commitment from civilian leaders and handicap itself in prosecution of the war effort? Did the military have the wrong style and plan for executing the war? Did the U.S. ever fundamentally understand the nature of the conflict from the very beginning? Which concept is right or wrong is open to individual perspective. From my point of view, all three are facets of the failure. However, the timing and type of strategy may have been the real issue at play.
First, was it a failure of civilian leadership? Could Johnson or Nixon have acted differently? The military argued for a swift and heavy first strike against the North Vietnamese early in the conflict, including invasion of North Vietnam. Johnson did not follow this advice, but followed his own course of measured escalation. He is quoted as saying that he was going to “inch his way all the way up Ho’s leg”. However, this method proved a failure, as military leaders could not prosecute the war effort to get a quick and decisive win. Johnson’s bomb and pause tactic failed as it became cyclical and predictable.
Why did Johnson follow these methods? Was it political? Johnson was a shrewd politician. Perhaps it was sheer political expediency for him to keep the war both measured and ‘quiet’ so that the American people would focus on his domestic agenda and look favorably upon him for re-election. Was it paranoia? Johnson was always wanted to avoid drawing China or the Soviet Union into the war. He always rejected direct land invasion of North Vietnam as recommended by his military advisors. Was it poor advice? Did McNamara and others around him think, from a policy perspective, that they had a better vision of the big picture in Vietnam? Johnson and his civilian advisors were also skeptical of the military. They viewed the military as having ‘one track minds’, simply wanting more troops with more and more bombing. This type of bias was influential on Johnson’s decisions for use of U.S. forces.
Nixon was sparsely different. Regardless of his claims of having greater determination and toughness than Johnson, even he avoided direct ground invasion of North Vietnam. He also fell into the same predictable and ineffective cycle of ‘bomb and pause’ as Johnson. Nixon did open up the flexibility of the military by unleashing it into Cambodia and Laos. Some of his bombing campaigns, such as Linebacker, could also be deemed ‘heavier’. However, Nixon was also not ‘all-in’.
Is the military to blame? While it is true that the military never lost a major battle or fight in the conflict, including Tet, the answer is yes. General Westmoreland and other military leaders held a wrong overarching view of the conflict. Use of a conventional force against guerrilla insurgents proved ineffective. Westmoreland focused on body counts, thinking that sheer attrition would do the job. Fundamentally, he did not see the enemy as fighting for its nations’ right to exist. In North Vietnam, every man, woman and child took up arms. They were not limited to an 18-26 year old draftee list.
Vietnam provided a unique environment, a unique enemy and a unique fighting style that the U.S. military had yet to experience. Military leaders required soldiers to go in with heavy firepower and seek out the enemy in an unfamiliar and dense jungle theatre. It was hard to know who the enemy was and, more importantly, where the enemy was. Operating with guerrilla tactics, the enemy popped in and out at random or blended in with the local population. U.S. heavy fire would be called in only to show little result. It was extremely difficult to exert mass enemy force casualties while avoiding civilian casualties.
As baffling as the North Vietnamese were to the U.S. military, the U.S. forces were equally as predictable to the North Vietnamese. Heavy bombings telegraphed the pending insertion of ground troops. The North Vietnamese would simply fade away into the jungle, cross into North Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos, and avoid bombings and troop insertions. The U.S. would not follow. Predictably, the U.S. forces, finding no enemy engagement on arrival, would soon leave. The North Vietnamese would re-emerge and continue operations. The U.S. never adapted. The strength of North Vietnamese maneuvering and the weakness of U.S. adaptability led to stalemate.
Finally, the U.S. did not hold the right view of the conflict from the beginning. Instead of seeing it for what it was, a civil war of nationalism, the U.S. viewed Vietnam as a piece of a larger, global policy puzzle. Unfortunately, as already shown, this view was systemic across the political, military and civilian spectrums. Vietnam was viewed as a necessary peg in the larger dike that prevented the aggressive spread of Communism throughout the world. Subsequently, the U.S. answer to the Vietnamese conflict can be compared to trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It was the collision of two unrelated perspectives – global domino theory versus localized nationalism. The two just did not go together.
Taking all three arguments into account, there is a much more fundamental cause for failure – deploying an unclear strategy at the wrong time. Where strategy is concerned, nobody answered the fundamental questions posed by Eisenhower and the historian Gaddis. Was the turmoil in Vietnam a direct threat to the American way of life? No. Regardless of the internal strife of North Vietnam, the outcome would have had little direct impact on American way of life, politics, economics, or territory.
As Gaddis always asks, what are the ends and means? Civilian and military leaders never answered this question. There was no clearly defined end. There was no complete mobilization of all disposable means. Had the U.S. acted as it did during World War II, the outcome may have been very different. First, taking the case to the American people would have rallied support. Second, this support would allow the U.S. to set the economy on a full war footing, providing virtually limitless economic means. Third, popular support would have made a significant impact both in reducing the draft controversy and changing how the people treated returning troops. Finally, popular momentum would have pushed U.S. civilian and military leaders to be fully invested, or ‘all-in’, for the Vietnam conflict. Johnson would be confident to go all the way early. The military would be free to exert decisive and quick measures from the outset. The war, if even necessary, could have been shorter and winnable.
Finally, through the lens of Eisenhower, Gaddis and Kennan together, the U.S. should have defined a clear strategy and used it at the proper time. The U.S. should have left Vietnam alone until after their civil war. Use of all levers of a clearly defined strategy then becomes more viable. By waiting until after the Vietnamese civil war, the U.S. would know exactly what type of government it was dealing with. Also, the U.S. would then be able to wisely employ multiple levers of containment to achieve a higher, targeted level of success with Vietnam. This may have also achieved the best outcome of avoiding military conflict. In the words of Sun Tzu – “Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful”.