tv Reconsidering U.S. Military Strategy in Vietnam CSPAN November 12, 2018 8:59am-10:15am EST
vietnam war has generated some broad scholarship across the spectrum of topics especially on the political and strategic direction of the war. the american public's perception of the war has been shaped by two broad interpretations, the traditional or orthodox view and the revisionist school. the traditional interpretation of the war largely holds that america was mistaken in vietnam and predestined to fail,
essentially the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place. revisionists, however, counter that the war was necessarily waged against an enemy of hardened communists who were also nationalists and was winnable, although serious mistakes were made during the conduct of the war. our first panel fighting a multi facetted war, the american perspective, will address elements of these interpretations. our first panelist is dr. mark moyer. dr. moyer is currently the director of the office for civilian military cooperation at usaid where he has served since february 2018. previously, he was director of the project on military and diplomatic history at the center for strategic and international
studies. he is an expert in special operations and has worked as a consultant for the senior leadership of joint special operations task force afghanistan and international security assistance force in afghanistan. he has held the kim t. adamson chair of insurgency and terrorism at the marine corps university and served as senior fellow at the joint special operations university in tampa, florida. dr. moyer is a prolific writer. among his notable works is the major revisionist account of the war, triumph forsaken, the vietnam war 1964 and 1965 which will serve as the basis of his remarks. ladies and gentlemen, please welcome dr. mark moyer. [ applause ]
thank you, colonel gray for that warm introduction. thank you to the rest of your staffs, having spent some time organizing events like this i realize the amount of time that goes into even just a one-day effort. thanks to you for all your help and for making this happen. thanks to the cadets for getting up in an e an early hour today come here. thanks to our veterans, as well. i also want to thank my fellow panelists who are here. i'm looking forward to a terrific panel and day here. the vietnam war has been and remains one of the most contentious and politicized in this country. you will hear about a variety of different aspects. you already heard senator web
touch on the key controversies. for this panel, we are focussed on american military strategy and effectiveness. i want to first talk about what i see as one of the key problems in the orthodox way of looking at the conflict. so journalists and historians and the american public incline to view the military side of the vietnam war as one largely of continuity. if you look at this interpretation of looking at the war, it's a prolonged guerilla war that the united states was doomed to lose against a cunning enemy with superior resolve. and i would argue that this narrative overlooks some fundamental changes in the war's dynamics over times which are really fundamental to understanding the war. so one of the fundamental questions and ongoing points of
dispute is exactly what type of war was this? was it a counter insurgency? was it a conventional war against an invading force? some people such as the late colonel harry summers have said it is a conventual war. there are others who said it was essentially a counter insurgency, but one that the united states tried to fight as a conventional war. in my view, it began as a counter insurgency but turned into a blend of counter insurgency and conventional war. i will talk about how it evolved. the class between north and south begins in 1954 when south vietnam was divided after the war between france.
the new president uses armed force to consolidate his rule over rebel s selious sects. over the intervening period they are able to consolidate rule, the united states helps it develop new armed forces. this is one of the controversies. the u.s. urges to consolidate. critics allege you didn't need a conventional force like this because you faced the guerilla threat. i disagree with that. i think if you look at the big picture, this was ultimately going to be decided by conventional arms. you need a conventional forces to stop that. we will return to that theme in
a bit. we also saw that -- for those of you who follow more recent events, can you get a regular army to fight in a counter insurgency or counter guerilla setting? i think you can. we have a lot of examples of conventional forces being broken down into small units to do patrolling. it's also worth noting that president yem did create forces and the united states did not want to fund these heavily because our embassy thought there wasn't a big threat at the time. the real problem and the biggest take away is not the problem of organization that the south vietnamese face but the problem of leadership. you are required to field effective armed forces. this is something you can't just
build overnight. this is a theme i have looked at it. we see this problem again and again. we try to create new armed forces, but you don't have experienced leadership. it will take south vietnam about seven years to develop the leadership they need. so they don't have it in time for the on set of the insurgency which is in 1960 at which time the north vietnamese have decided they needed to resort to armed conflict to get what they want. so they launch an insurgency similar to the chinese civil war. they infiltrate thousands of tra trained military. they mobilize villagers and initially the response is ineffectual because it does not have the effective military or militia forces to deal with it.
so that trend continues for 1960 and 1961. in 1962 we see a major change in the situation where you see a new generation of leadership increasingly taking control. you also have greater u.s. support to president kennedy increasing our support. so you see greatly increased effectiveness. there is a new program which organized militias that help keep communists out of villages. this trend will continue into 1963. this is one of the periods of the war that i think has not gotten enough attention. there is overwhelming evidence both from american sources and now from what the north vietnamese have said. in 1963 the political situation changes in something called the
buddhist crisis. this is also another huge point of contention between historians, to what extent was this actually a reflection of legitimate political grievances versus trumped up charges which had communist inspiration behind them? i believe it is closer to the ladder latter. we know there were false allegations. interesting to focus on the military part. i'll say that south vietnamese generals wanted a crack down on this. the americans think the president should conciliate the buddhist. when he does there are more protests. ultimately, the united states decides to support a military
coup. what happens is you have infighting among the generals and massive purges of people who are considered to be loyal. so the military situation detearierates quite drastically. the north vietnamese are paying attention to this. shortly after we have president kennedy killed. lyndon johnson comes in. in 1964, there is a presidential campaign. johnson sees it as advantageous to kwarcharacterize himself as peace candidate. this also conveys to hanoi a signal that the south is ripe for the taking. in late 1964, hanoi decides they
are going to go for broke and start sending entire divisions into south vietnam and try to take over the south in 1965 before americans change their mind. and the period in early 1965 -- there are actually a lot of large battles which have escaped the historical record because they don't fit into the idea of the prolonged guerilla conflict. there are clearly a lot of major clashes between north and south vietnam. south vietnam takes heavy losses. this really leads to the decision to insert american troops. in june of 1965 general westmoreland says if we don't intervene the south is soon going to fall. americans come in. they are able to stop the north vietnam before they can win. there are major clashes that go on during this period.
the most famous of which is the battle in november '65 mortalized in the movie "we were soldiers." there is a lot of controversy over how the u.s. military should proceed. westmoreland orders his forces to concentrate on search and destroy operations where they try to locate enemy forces and destroy them particularly in the mountains and jungles before they can actually go into the populist areas to cause trouble. there is a lot of pushback from some people on the military and civilian side who argue that this is too focussed on the enemy military forces. their real contest is in the population centers where the hearts and lives of people are to be one and that you can deal with the enemy units when they show up. there is a marine program
created called combined action program where they take small marine and militia units together. some people view this as the strategy we should have done on a large scale. we never really did it to scale. i tend to disagree with that critique. i think in the big picture you did need the large conventional forces to deal with the enemy force. generally speaking you fair better when you try to get them before they chose the time and the place of the fighting. these little counter guerilla units we have seen would easily and did get overrun when confronted with superior force. another argument that westmoreland made as to why he didn't have the u.s. military involved in the villages is that the south know the people, the language and can deal with them better.
i think that is a pretty compelling point. westmoreland faulted heavily for the so-called body count where they measured progress based on enemy casualties. there is certainly some evidence of inflation. i think as senator web mentioned, it's not to the extent that sometimes people thought. it does matter how many forces the enemy has. if you widdle him down from three divisions to two divisions that is going to make a difference. in terms of the loyalty of the population -- there was a question raised on this earlier. it is a recurring theme. it was a significant factor, i would say, because among other things you have to recruit from the population to get people on your side. for a while, the communists did have the edge on this especially on the period after the 1963 coup. by the late '60s the south
vietnamese government has recovered and is recruiting. it is a question of a contest between north and south. we see by the '65 massive infiltration from the north. that leads to another strategic controversy in terms of how do we deal with this threat of massive infiltration. there is is. some still think this is primarily an internal conflict. so the joint chiefs of staff pick up on this and argue that until you address this problem we are going to be fighting an endless war of attrition. so one idea that is proposed is invasion of north vietnam. clearly there were great military advantages you could get by that even if you don't completely destroy the enemy you can take ports and population centers. the reason why president johnson
didn't go forward with that is he feared the chinese would come in which is basically what happened in the korean war. that is turned down. the other option that is proposed is sending troops in to cut the trail in laos. we do know now that both the north and us as well as the soviets think it could have been done with three to five american divisions. those options were not taken until temporary incursion in 1971. next big change where the communists go in and believe they are going to foment massive uprisings in the cities. turns out the population is not supportive. they largely stick to themselves. the communists are isolated. they don't have the advantage of being able to flee as they do
typically. they suffer crippling losses. this also galvanizing the south's leadership which becomes increasingly aggressive. we see very sharp gains in counter insurgency and pacification. in 1968 abrams takes over as commander of u.s. forces. there is another debate about whether abrams made a huge difference whether he had a much better approach than westmoreland. i tend to think the change was not that pronounced and abrams still did a lot of the search and destroy options. he also is in a different situation than westmoreland had been. there are some differences.
i don't see it as a key change. i'll touch briefly on the last part. spring of 1972, there is a massive north invasion of the south. by this time there are no u.s. forces on the ground. we have advisers in air power. that offensive is decisively defeated and provides compelling evidence of how much better the south armed forces have become. as the u.s. withdraws in early 1973, president nixon promises the south that we will come back if there is another major violati violation. we don't know what nixon would have done had it not been for water gate. because of water gate and the opinion in congress, aid to south vietnam gets cut. our air power is no longer to be used in the south.
1975, north vietnam, we are still not 100% sure what is going to happen. they attack one of the capitals. they see there is not a forceful u.s. response. they move forward with this massive offensive and the south vietnamese don't have the military supplies and equipment left because of the aid cuts to contend with this. so they are defeated. i just will mention a few points to reiterate. i find usually a successful speech you can get three key points across. this audience looks pretty promising so i will go with four points. for those who started nodding off, now is the time to pay attention. the first point i would make is that the vietnam war started as an insurgency and turned into a
mixture of insurgency and conventional war and ended as a conventional war. the search and destroy tactics and the body count were not mindless and nor were they leading causes of the inability of the united states to achieve its objectives. the third thing i would say is that there was a fundamental strategic error in america's failure to address the problem of north vietnamese infiltration on the ground. and then the last point i would make is that the united states i think could have kept south vietnam in tact had it been willing to maintain its aid in the air support after 1972. thank you very much. i look forward to the questions. [ applause ] >> thank you, dr. moyer. our next panelist is dr. gregory
d datis. he is an associate professor of history. part of that, pa part -- a retired u.s. colonel. he has had service in operations desert storm and iraqi freedom. he specializes in the history of the vietnam wars and the cold war era. and he is author of several books on the vietnam war including westmoreland's war which he will address some comments for today. >> good morning. thanks for coming out.
i really appreciate it. thank you to both you and your wife for hosting us here in lexington. thanks for the invitation and to kim connelly, thank you for having us. most importantly, i want to thank whoever was responsible for the chicken and waffles at the reception last night because they were amazing. so i can't handle three or four points so i will stick to just one. here is what i would like you to do this morning is to reconsider likely how you think about american strategy in the vietnam war. because if there is one word that is most associated with the american strategy in vietnam, it is attrition. so critics of the war maintain that general westmoreland prosecuted this ground campaign in south vietnam in the 1960s and by doing so he employed this
flawed strategy of attrition. he concentrated at the expense of all other missions on killing enemy soldiers. and the argument goes that he is hypnoatized by body counts and search and destroy missions and officers like westmoreland led to failure because they never realized that insurgency warfare required changes in methods. so these detractors of american strategy in vietnam argue if only he had employed a better strategy focussing on countering the southern insurgency rath r than the northern, americans could achieve victory. one senior officer who was not as smart as the superintendent here at vmi, argued -- i have to
make sure i'm taking care of my hosts here -- argued that attrition in vietnam was actually an absence of strategy. here is a senior officer in the united states army arguing that that army had no strategy at all in vietnam. i think there are problems with these criticisms. william westmoreland did have a strategy. words like attrition, if not words like strategy, seems to have been misunderstood not just by contempry critics but also by more recent historians. the commander used the word attrition. i would argue to do more so to express his belief that victory in vietnam was not going to be achieved quickly. so here is my thesis. if you are writing this down --
my argument this morning is that westmoreland had a comprehensive approach to this. it recognized the complex nature of the threat that was both unconventional and conventional. i would argue it was more political as it was military. neither counter insurgency alone or a singular focus on conventional combat operations was going to position closer to victory, a point that i think was well understood. what i'm suggesting is that the united states' failure in vietnam had less to do with commanders choosing a correct or incorrect strategy than it did with the inability of foreign forces to resolve intractable problems within south vietnam's government and society. i want to be careful here. i'm not placing blame on the
saigon government or the political community. what i feel has happened here in vietnam was the government was never able to fashion and articulate an ideal of vietnee m vietnamese nationalism. in the identity in the modern era, there were simply some questions that foreigners from the united states could not answer. in my opinion, this american faith in the power to reconstruct if not create south vietnamese political communities and a larger holistic political community led to policies which never fully addressed the fundamental issue which was the struggle to define nationalism and identity in the modern age. so not only had american
political and military leaders overestimated their ability to bend north vietnam to their will, but they also overestimated, i would think most importantly, their ability to help build a political community overseas. for the cadets in the room i think this is one of the most important perspectives to be gaining from studying this conflict. and to wrestle with the uncomfortable proposition and possibility that the capacity for americans to reshape, if not create new political and social communities overseas can only achieve so much. to wrestle with a proposition, that it is possible that there are limits to american power.
as west point's superintendent from 1960 to 1963, westmoreland instituted insurgency training for all cadets. they studied the theoretical works. they explored the histories of revolutionary struggles in the philippines. upon assumption of command in vietnam, westmoreland's mission was holistic. the objective was to create or help create a stable and independent noncommunist government in south vietnam. think about that mission for a moment. it is as much political as it is military. it is a daunting objective. so westmoreland had to create an all-encompassing strategic concept. one that was focussed not only on countering local insurgency but helping expand the
percentage of south vietnamese population under the saigon government's control. this is a large mission that the u.s. military forces in south vietnam had been handed by their civilian policy makers. westmoreland understood this. listen to what he writes in 1965. the war in vietnam is a political as well as military war. it is political because the ultimate goal is to regain the loyalty and cooperation of the people. think about that for a moment. how can foreign forces help regain the loyalty of the local population? certainly, westmorland used the word attrition in his memoirs. when you read messages, the messages suggest that the general was focussed less on killing and more on intimating
to those directing to the war effort that this conflict in vietnam was not going to be concluded in a swift manner. attrition underlined the problems of fighting a protracted war. as you wrote for the detroit chiefs, the premise behind whatever further actions we may undertake much be that we are in for the long pull. this struggle has become a war of attrition. i see no likelihood in achieving a quick, favorable end to the war. as his chief intelligence officer recalled, he had not one battle to fight, but three. first it contained the growing conventional threat, second to develop the republic of vietnam's armed forces and to pacify and protect the peasants in the south vietnam country side.
we three phases he has. one, to commit u.s. and allied forces necessary to halt the losing trend. once that losing trend has been halted, then to resume the offensive. it's not just a military offensive. it's also a political one. and then to oversee the defeat and destruction of remaining forces not just militarily but also politically. it is a three phased sustained campaign. it has a multitude of subordinant military and political tasks. the problem i think is that what he lacked is did the entire u.s. army -- it was a way to articulate the broad military concepts for such a complex environment like south vietnam. this strategic problem is one of strategic articulation. in short, i would argue the
military exconof tlexicon was s the tasks -- lacking precise terminology to describe all of the battles fighting along with the allies, the strategic concept came with the risk of ambiguity. since then, we have become comfortable with cliches and tropes. while those words are useful for critics, i think they are unsatisfying for expressing the complexity of the tasks that the americans and their allies faced. now, certainly, there were problems of implementation with this strategy. it's very difficult to translate military successes into political progress. again, for the cadets, i would ask you to consider this as tactical leaders. how do you translate your success on the tactical
battlefield to political progress on the strategic battlefield? certainly, military operations often times worked at odds with the larger political aims. military operations often caused depopulation in the country side therefore contradicting the very american goals of developing the sense of political stability among the people. and often times those tactical successes achieved only temporary results. but what is important here is that killing was never an end unto itself. westmoreland always looked to follow combat operations immediately with pacification programs. his official report on the war held that pacification effort and the main force were essentially inseparable. opposite sides of the same coin, he said.
in short, he argued, much like the u.s. army does today, that only in a secure environment can pacificati pacification, the political progress, flourish. the problem i would argue this morning is that american military effectiveness, however effective it was, could not impose political constancy or force south vietnam forces and the population to view the central government as a legitimate political entity, one which could better combat the insurgeant threat. not all problems could be solved by american military might. after the war, a narrative started to grow. and that narrative was based on
two words, "if only". if only a better strategy focussed more on counter insurgency the americans could have been better placed to achieve victory. if only westmoreland had fought a better war the united states would not have lost in vietnam. and then if only the military had been allowed to widen the scope of the war. if only public support had remained strong -- if only a resolute civilian leadership had been willing -- if only jane fonda had not gone to north vietnam. among the military critics the notion of a failed strategy remained at the heart of the arguments of why the united states lost in vietnam. i would argue that these if only arguments are simplistic and mistaken. simplistic to the point of a one
plus one equals two equation. one has described westmoreland's strategy as mobility plus fire power equals attrition. in one of the most complicated wars of the 20th century one plus one equals two. i ask you not to fall into that trap. the commander never relied on attrition strategy just as he never employed a counter insurgency strategy. summarizing any strategy in a complex war like this with one word seems fraught with imprecision at best. one thing i would like to leave you with is that large sense i think senior u.s. policy makers were asking too much of their military strategists. in the end, this was a war, a struggle between and among vietnamese. for the united states, the
foundation on which american forces waged a struggle that involved both construction of an effective host government and destruction of a committed communist nationalist enemy proved too fragile. officers like westmoreland and abrams after him found that nation building in a time of war was one of the most difficult tasks you can ask of a military force. yet our faith and the power to reconstruct if not create political communities abroad led to policies which i would argue did not address the fundamental issue which was the internal contest to define and come to a consensus on vietnamese nationalism and identity in the modern age. so if there is perspective to be gained from the long american experience in vietnam and southeast asia as a whole, it arguably lies here.
not all problems can be solved by military force. even when that force is combined with political and economic and social efforts. the capacity of americans to reshape new and political, social communities may not, in fact, be limitless. thank you. [ applause ] >> thank you. dr. jacqueline wit will be our third panelist. dr. wit is associate professor of strategy in the department of national security and strategy at the u.s. army war college. she teaches courses on the theory of war and national security policy and strategy, american war society and social
change and great books for senior leaders. she has taught military history, american history and the history of world religions at the united states military academy and was also a faculty member on the department of strategy at the war college. her areas of academic specialization include war and religion, military chaplaincy, war since 1945 and contemporary american military history. ladies and gentlemen, please welcome dr. jackie wit. >> good morning. first, i would like to follow my fellow panelists in thanking the folks here. thank you so much for inviting us.
i also have to start by saying that as a current employee as uncle sam my remarks are my own and do not reflect the official views of the war college, department of defense or united states government. mark and greg have done a really nice job of setting us up to take a more critical look at american military strategy in vietnam. they have asked us to examine assumptions about political moments in the history of the war and to think about how our assumptions and how what we know to be true might effect how we understand what happened. i'm going to take a little bit of a different tact. i will try to complicate the sort of divide between orthodox and revisionist interpretations that was laid out for us in his opening remarks. rather than reappraising american strategy in vietnam, i would like to use my time this morning to take a sort of step back and to think about how we
think understand the history of the war in vietnam. i think we have to think about how we understand what vietnam means to us as americans as well as to understand what happened. so i approach this question as both a historian of the vietnam war, historian of american military strategy, but also as someone who in my day to day life teaches something called strategy to american military officers, to senior officers, american and international and to our inner agency civilians. my vantage points straddles contemporary with historical. even so, the specter of vietnam looms large in classrooms and briefing rooms. it looms large in the collective
popular and political im imaginations of americans, for sure. and we collectively, scholars, the public, veterans, still don't agree about what happened in vietnam and we certainly don't agree on what it means on the interpretations of that. but our own readings and understandings of exactly what happened and what it means continue to shape how we approach contemporary questions about strategy, policy and american military interventions abroad. so after all, here we are 50 years after 1968 and we are still asking what seemed to be sort of basic questions. why did the united states lose in vietnam or why did it fail to achieve its political objectives and why does that matter? on the first, we still wrestle with a host of important and competing arguments. we have seen some of these this morning whether it is strategic failure, misunderstanding the nature of the war, not having the right force, not fighting the right war at the right time,
examinations of political and military leadership. we can talk about counter insurgency, air power, media. we might -- i think later this morning we will get to what the vietnamese had to do with it which i think is an important piece. all of these add to a rich and complex understanding of the american war in vietnam. i think i also want to talk a little bit about popular narratives of the war and how these coalesce around the idea that the war was a military victory, but a political defeat for the united states and that that political defeat was suffered largely at home. this particular narrative is military victory but political defeat. it has several flavors. if you want a sampling of that you can turn to the worldwide web, to the internet or to a sort of common, average under graduate classroom to find these. we have several flavors. the first one might be that
american protesters, the antiwar movement gave comfort to the enemy. by 1968, the veiet cong was on its heels. when they saw the protests and saw the anti-war movement, that dpav them sort of the will and the resolve to continue to fight and they did so. there is, of course, a media-centric argument. on the internet if you google why did the u.s. lose in vietnam, one very popular answer says only the following, abc, cbs, nbc and the "new york times." that's the answer. there is another one that goes something about the communists in the united states. another popular answer says this, the only answer to this is
that the u.s. didn't lose. the politicians forced to withdraw. the u.s. was betrayed by a left wing media and by communist expletive such as jane fonda. we lost because of communist traitors in the u.s. forced it on us. there is a more reasonable sounding political pressure. militarily the u.s. was never beaten in a large-scale battle. the usa with drew due to domestic political pressure over casualty rates in the war. the u.s. lost because they did not have the political will to finish the job. and then final sort of flavor -- this is all over. i'm sure you hear these and know these. you may think some of these have some credence. another one says we lost in vietnam because there was no support. we won world war ii because everyone pitched in. in vietnam, everyone was against
it. this one ended with a sad face. so in the public imagination, the conclusion is clear, those damn hippies lost us the war. i think this narrative of military victory, we were winning when i left, things were going okay and political defeat is both persistent and pervasive, even as the scholarly community and even those of us who study the war have sort of moved away from the blunt arguments. nevertheless, the idea is that the united states lost the war in vietnam because it lacked support at home and that holds. i think the story is incorrect and insidious. the myth, of course, develops before the war even ends. it comes about. it is ushered in before the war comes to a close in part by richard nixon and henry kissinger. it cements itself in the midst
of the culture wars as we get laments about american decline, the problems of the hollow army who we vowed to defeat once and for all. we showcase as a solution to winning the nation's wars. the myth resurfaces in the mid to late 2000s as the united states fights an increasingly frustrating wars against insurgents in iraq and afghanistan. supporters of these efforts call in the legacy of vietnam and especially on the treatment of veterans of that war to cast doubt about the wars in iraq and afghanistan as unpatriotic, as supporting the troops becomes a central rallying cry for americans in this post 9/11 world. americans are told that fighting these kinds of wars requires military expertise and we are
getting better at it and the political will to win. so here we are 50 years gone. the consequences of this narrative i think are two fold. first, it perpetuates an american centric view of the war and the outcome. the story invites us to ask the perpetual what if questions. the vietnamese side of the war is almost entirely absent of the discussion. the second consequence to me is more troubling is someone who teaches strategy. it allows us to avoid real and hard questions about the failure of strategy and the political limits to the use of force. this narrative of military victory and if it's true the political defeat, then there is a pretty clear road map for future contests. excel militarily at tactical and operational levels, maintain public support, have a clear
goal in mind and win wars. i think this enables sort of two easy conclusion about how wars are fought and how wars and howe won. it leaves us to conclusions that say things like we ought to just leave war to the generals. it leaves questions about the principles of civilian control of the military and the necessity of aligning military strategy to political objectives. the narrative of military victory and political defeat sidesteps a critical examination of how and when military power ought to be employed in service of national strategy. most importantly, this narrative ignores the fact that political limits are real limits. political losses are still losses. to say that the war was a military victory and a political defeat is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of strategy and the nature of winning and losing wars.
it is to misunderstood that both in a general sense but it also prevents us from really understanding the complexities and the consequences of this war in particular. and we know that the complexities and the consequences of this war in particular are deeply important. so i want to take you back to my day job. and i don't know if any of you are army war college graduates, but perhaps we can talk about how and why things change in those institutions as well. vietnam still looms large in the study and practice of american military strategy and policy. because the war still reverberates. we are still rehashing what went wrong in vietnam every time we talk about iraq and afghanistan. we are still fighting with an all volunteer force. we have a different idea today about what the guard and reserve bring to the table. we still don't know what
happened or exactly why, and we still don't agree on why it matters. and so the vietnam war remains with us. so one of the things that my colleagues and i have done at the air war college and now at the army war college is to go back to vietnam and to use vietnam as a case study for strategy and for decision-making. we've designed a sort of exercise, greg and mark have seen sort of versions of this and we give war college students the chance to turn back the clock and try again. we ask them to read a series of documents, of primary sources. we hand them a stack of reference materials, intelligence reports and estimates, political reports, some documents from the north vietnamese and from the south vietnamese as well, and we give them the same, simple political guidance that sort of held in
1965. maintain an independent noncommunist south vietnam. and we ask for a strategy. and we tell them that complete withdrawal, just cutting and running, getting out, isn't really an option. and so we asked them to operate within the confines, the political, military, economic confines of what was known in 1965 and within the constraints of the time. the problem is i have yet to see a good answer to this question. to be fair, we only give them a couple of hours to work. and they only have -- and none of them are sort of experts in the vietnam war. nonetheless, their solutions, the briefings that they give us at the end fall out pretty predictably. and it's remarkably easy for faculty members to sit there and ask questions and poke holes in almost anything they devise. we can tell you probably within
30 seconds why whatever it is that they're suggesting probably isn't going to work. most groups suggest some version of what the u.s. actually tried under william westmoreland. and this always actually surprises them and it upsets them a little because they don't want -- they don't want to think that maybe william westmoreland, who they have heard much about maybe did the same thing they might have tried. others want to try to transplant the surge from iraq in 2007 and 2008 to vietnam in 1965. others are intent to use more firepower, more combat troops to escalate air power. maybe we'll try operation linebacker a little bit early. maybe we'll go ahead and bomb hanoi. maybe we'll go into laos and cambodia earlier.
they say we'll stay for decades if we have to. we'll train them better. we'll be more precise. we won't commit atrocities. we'll have a better understanding of vietnamese language and history and culture. we'll fight it better. we'll do it better this time. but then we start asking those same questions, right? where are you going to get the extra divisions from? are you going to pull them out of west germany? what's that going to do with the relationship with the soviet union? how is that going to affect your relationship with china? will the thing you are proposing have the desired political effect? is it politically wise or even feasible to call up part of the reserve component? are you sure americans can train and pacify? are you sure the south je vietnamese government can be stabilized? are you sure that knowing the language and the culture can actually turn the tide of the
war? what if it's the very presence of u.s. troops that's the problem? and, man, we're really depressed by the time we leave the session. we always need to go to a bar and have some beers. because it becomes abundantly clear that there were few, maybe no decent options and that these options narrowed with every passing day and every decision that got made. when we put the vietnam war, the american war in vietnam, if we embed it deeply within the broader strategic concept of the cold war then we start talking about issues like american credibility and resolve and reputation. regional stability and regional dynamics. we have to start thinking about the alliance system and the security assurances and military interventions that underpin american grand strategy in the cold war. it starts to look more and more that the american war in vietnam could not be won, but also perhaps that it was one that we
had to fight. it could be that no amount of fighting was going to make it better or was going to bring about a political victory, but that doesn't mean that the option of withdrawing or going home or staying out was a viable one either. at least not by the 1960s. if you're familiar with harry potter and the idea of time turners, if we're turning back time, we have to go far, far further back, maybe to 1963, maybe to 1954, maybe to 1945, maybe to 1919. and so when we talk then about what it might mean for the military to be sent to fight a fundamentally unwinnable war. an unwinnable war with perhaps muddled and changing political ends. what's it like to be sent to confront a problem at enormous cost and with very real risk to life and limb, but a problem that must be managed, that maybe cannot be solved. we asked them what it means to
send people to intervene in faraway places. we challenge them to think about what it means for successive commanders to make claims about progress and turning corners. we ask them to think about population security and governance and nation building at the same time that we expect them to be lethal and tactically proficient. those are real questions, and none of them lend themselves to easy answers and none of them are satisfied by the idea that wars are lost at home, that there are such things as military victories but political defeats. i've seen years of these discussions and briefings. every year i leave with a feeling that i can't quite shake that the war couldn't have been won by fighting it better. increasingly i'm leaving with a maybe more sobering thought, which is i'm not sure it would have mattered anyway. i don't know what the world looks like if the u.s. and its south vietnamese allies had won the war. i don't know how the world might
have looked different. would we have a permanent base in south vietnam? a heavy militarized dmz there? another 50-year standoff with a communist adversary? how would it have affected our relationship with china? would it have affected the end of the cold war? would it have actually reoriented american grand strategy? would we have seen even more interventions rather than the limited retrenchment of the post-vietnam era? has the war in vietnam actually forced us to re-examine the balance of u.s. interests around the world and what we think we can do with american power? these are impossible to answer in one sense, but i'm increasingly uncertain about the war's legacy on american grand strategy and this is perhaps its greatest paradox or its greatest tragedy. there is no question that the vietnam war fundamentally changed lives, american and vietnamese. the tragedy of this war is up mistakable. the war radically alters american politics, the american
military, the way americans think about war and talk about war, its cultural, political and rhetorical ramifications are enormo enormous. but i wonder if we don't focus on these effect to the detriment of close and critical examinations about the nature of american military power, its limits, and how american military power shapes strategic preferences in the 21st century. we have to grapple with these questions and until we do, i think the specter of vietnam, the ghost of vietnam lingers and we will continue to operate in the realm of mythology rather than history. [ applause ] well, thank you, panelists, for a very thought-provoking panel. we've got some time left for questions. i was going to start out, but jackie posed all the questions i had on my sheet here. so what we would like to do, ladies and gentlemen, again, please if you have a question,
wait for the microphone. hold the microphone close enough so we can be heard. i'll try to recognize you so i can send it to the appropriate panel member. first question. sir. >> i have a comment. i was assigned to '66, '67. on the politics, yes, it was political. the saigon government at that time was corrupt. and as far as westmoreland, i'm not defending him, but when i was in that area, we got reports, which was basic third marine division, and they're taking casualties at a great number, we sent the information down to saigon, the letters got intercepted. westmoreland was being told casualties were light.
a lot of times this was not the case. so it was political on both fronts from the vietnamese and from us. >> okay. greg, would you like to take that on? it really sounds like, sir, your question is about accuracy of reporting so that the senior commander can make something strategic judgments. >> i think it's an important point. i want to be careful, though, just simply suggesting that the saigon government failed just because it was corrupt, i think there's far more complexity to that statement that we need to embrace. this is an important struggle for the south vietnamese and the saigon leadership about, again, what i mentioned in my comments about what it means to be vietnamese. and even that question is difficult. does vietnamese mean south vietnamese? so i want to be careful about laying the problem of -- or the
failure of the american war in vietnam on a corrupt saigon government because i think we -- that's difficult. i think clearly in all wars that are political and military, gaining accurate intelligence is incredibly difficult. i think throughout the american experience in vietnam, defining key terms was incredibly difficult. this was a war about security. what does secure mean? this is a war about governmental control. what does control really mean? and trying to gain intelligence on those key definitions, security, control, body counts, all of these critical terms that were so important to measuring progress and effectiveness in vietnam, i think those definitions themselves were contested. and because those definitions were contested, it was even more difficult to gain accurate intelligence on how the war was progressing. >> next question. sir. >> you said in a case study at
the war college that what you gave your students was how would they develop a military strategy based on the political parameters of the time. what is your response to the fact that it was an unwinnable war because the political parameters lacked a coherent national strategy? >> sure. no, i think this is a really important -- a really important piece, which is the relationship between military strategy and the national sort of political objectives has to be -- has to be one that's under constant negotiation. i think one of the -- one of the difficulties military students, and i'm teaching 05s and 06s right now, they very badly want political objectives. they had one here. whether or not that was an attainable objective, whether or not that was a reasonable objective to pursue, i think, is
a somewhat different question. one of the things i always ask to sort of follow up is at what point should political objectives change? at what point in the midst of fighting a war, in the midst of prosecuting a war should those political objectives change? do i think the sort of unwinnable war thesis tends to go something like it was not winnable at an acceptable risk and cost? we could have done more, but it has ramifications if you leave it elsewhere. and the point that i'm coming to more and more now is that that may have been the correct political objective and it may not have been achievable. and so you get stuck in the middle of a conflict where doing something is required. and what that something is might change over time. and it may not lead to the
fulfillment of those political objectives. maybe the best you get is baby steps along the way. maybe the best you get is the situation that we ended up with. i don't know. i think those are uncomfortable questions to ask. but the general idea that it's a sort of all-or-nothing proposition is one that i'm increasingly sort of uncomfortable with, i guess. >> mark or greg, would you care to comment? >> i'll wait for the next one. >> sir. >> how do we build trust from our military in our political decisions in the hindsight of history of vietnam, we know that president johnson and secretary mcnamara made many knee-jerk decisions that cost thousands and thousands of lives.
how does the military build that trust that our current or past political leaders are making the right and proper, precise political decisions? >> well, i'll comment on that. so i think johnson has been criticized, and rightly, for being dishonest with the american people about vietnam on repeated occasions. tonkan gulf is one of those that was misrepresented to the american people. when he talks about how we're not going to send american boys to vietnam in 1964. and then isnn '65 he prevar kat about sending u.s. troops so johnson did squander the credibility of the presidency. mcnamara was also a party to that. someone asked about mcnamara, and i think mcnamara's apologies
in his book are to some extent his attempt to cover his tracks. i think he also bears a lot of responsibility. i would also say i don't think the military needs to be responsible for restoring or even can restore the credibility that was lost in that fashion. it's ultimately the politicians' responsibility to maintain that trust. the military obviously has an important role to play in terms of behaving properly, and i think in general the military did acquit itself well. i don't buy this argument that there was lies all over the place which has been alleged. i think it's a question of presidential leadership. if the presidential leadership is that far off, there's not much the military can do. >> i would add one thing, though, that strategic dialogue has to occur. military officers do have a
responsibility, and that's being honest about what's capable with the use of military force. so i think, again, one of the perspectives to be gained by studying this is that that strategic dialogue, especially at the grand strategy level that jackie talked about, has to be constant but also has to be honest. military officers, especially in senior positions, can't overpromise what they're capable of delivering when it comes to military force in achieving political objectives. >> we have time for one more question. okay. >> good morning. so we talked a little bit about the synchronization of political and military goals throughout the vietnam war and westmoreland's strategy, but did any of this actually matter when you look at the white house and how insulated they were? it seems that johnson took advice pretty much primarily from mcnamara, and even after mcnamara's visit to vietnam, he was still giving a very rosy picture of the war.
so could westmoreland have done anything differently in light of now insulated president johnson and robert mcnamara were? >> my assessment, and i don't know if i agree with jackie here, is i don't know if there could have been anything done differently. i also think we need to be careful about this insulation argument. my reading of memorandum through the pacific command and to the joint chiefs of staff and to the white house ultimately, that there's really two mcnamaras and two westmorelands. there's a public mcnamara and private mcnamara. a public westmoreland and private westmoreland. those public conversations are pretty darn honest. when they meet in the white house when he comes home when the war is ongoing, his public comments are very, very different than they are inside the white house when it's just the president and senior leadership. mcnamara i think is the same way. we can find fault with them as mark alluded to in terms of
being more honest publicly, but in private when you look at some of the mema that both westmoreland and the secretary of defense are giving the president, they're brutally honest. mcnamara, a number of memoranda in 1966 and as early as 1967 are pretty forthright in terms of possibility of what's achievable here. one of the things we all need to consider as citizens as we're trying to be engaged with discussions on war is how honest the dialogue that we're hearing is, and how that might be different than the inside conversations that are happening within -- within official channels. >> i'll just add the joint chiefs from early on were pushing policies that were more aggressive, such as bombing more quickly, going into laos. from pretty early on, johnson made clear that he did not have a high opinion of his generals. i think he had a certain
inherent bias against the military. and so he would in general always side with his civilians. very late in his presidency, as mcnamara is out, it shifts a little bit, but for most of his presidency, it's pretty clear that he just did not think that the military were the people to listen to. >> i would just add that it goes back to the previous question too. one of the definitions of strategy that i am playing with and that i like a lot is strategy is the dialogue between the desirable and the possible. that the desirable ought to inform what is possible in terms of acquisitions and forestructure but also what is possible is going to inform what is desirable. it really gets to this question of communication and trust, public versus private. and this becomes more and more complicated as media technologies change, as access changes, as we have public -- again, this sort of public and
private persona. but my own reading is close to greg's, which is in private these are pretty frank conversations. but the evolution happens in sort of slower and maybe more deliberate ways than we are sometimes willing to give it credit for. >> ladies and gentlemen, let's please give our panel a great hand. [ applause ] i'd like to thank our panelists. an excellent panel that hit on all of the key controversies that matter in the strategic realm and have given us a lot to think about. and dr. whitt helping us reframe that relationship of what happened here domestically in turning out policy and strategy. so i'd like to thank you all for coming today, taking time.
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next, two u.s. army vietnam war veterans recall their experiences leading enlisted soldiers and draftees as platoon leaders. this 70-minute event is part of a conference titled "the vote naum war at 50, critical reappraisals." we're going to jump off this afternoon and we're going to jump from the strategic level down into the operational and tactical level. this afternoon we have a distinguished panel of vietnam veterans, each of whom was a small unit leader and was among the last of the united states military officers who lead a combination of regulars and draftees. of course we know, since