Author's Note: A recent debate at the USNI blog referenced issues of conflict termination and prestige with regard to transition in Afghanistan. I believe that the following essay is germane to this discussion. This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America's Quest for the End of History (Potomac Books, January 2013).
Over a decade after the first advisors went in to Vietnam, the U.S. completed its ignominious withdrawal from Saigon as helicopters plucked the last Americans from the embassy roof. Three decades on, U.S. military relations with the government of Vietnam are beginning to flourish and none of the dire predictions came to pass. So what was it all for? This question becomes only more important as similar logics have plagued the new wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tactical, cultural, and social parallels are thin, but the lessons of real import rest at the level of national security decision-making. To look back at the key players’ arguments and beliefs, available in the Pentagon Papers and since-declassified documents, and their frank discussion of their thoughts after decades of contemplation, is to evoke the deepest disbelief at the slow-motion train wreck that was our policy there. After an initial commitment of advisors (senior officials first suggested the subterfuge of flood relief to get troops on the ground), we were ineluctably drawn deeper by the maddening logic of the military bureaucracy and domestic politics. The lessons to be drawn from Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan for that matter should not be how “it could have been done better,” but rather the limits of the military instrument and the illogical path policy takes once unleashed.
The story of America’s descent into the quagmire defies comprehension. The logic behind the policy decisions was often tangential to the conflict itself and the policies implemented were sub-optimal to all the decision-makers involved. Principal decision-makers were less interested in the fate of Vietnam than in domestic politics, national prestige, and military bureaucratic concerns. Holding different preferences, assumptions, and goals, the military and political leadership pulled each other in opposite directions. The civilians wanted a strategy of graduated pressure: in their eyes a controllable means of signaling American resolve and commitment. The military, on the other hand, wanted an overwhelming commitment of decisive force. In the end, both and neither got their way. The military agreed to the civilians’ initially low level commitment, but then quickly upped the ante in what became an uncontrolled debacle.
Why did they collectively up the ante? For one, President Lyndon Johnson, who inherited the problem after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, did not want to be seen as the one that lost Vietnam and potentially all of Asia to the Reds. Johnson, however, was not committed to prioritizing what he called “this bitch of a war” above “the woman he loved,” his Great Society domestic agenda. The policy product was thus an effort to do the absolute minimum needed to win. In execution, it became an effort to not lose. For all the rhetoric of those who saw it as an East-West battle for the future of civilization, it was a peripheral struggle that grew increasingly costly and unsavory. Domino theory notwithstanding, the key decision-makers in the administration were more clearheaded about the political realities behind their options than may be imagined. National security advisor McGeorge Bundy acknowledged, “It’s an American political problem, not a geopolitical or cosmic matter.” Even when the CIA, masters of intrigue and doom, produced a 1964 study that disputed the domino theory’s validity, the memo did not match with political priorities in Washington at the time and was disregarded.
The overriding policy logic was driven by concerns over U.S. prestige and commitment to an ally, and the potential future consequences if America backed down. One advisor, John McNaughton, pinned this with mathematical if not logical precision at 70 percent of America’s interest in the conflict. Initial strategic and political calculations, which overplayed the likelihood of a positive outcome, merited a minimalist involvement in the form of advisors. Once the U.S. put down a chip, however, the strategic calculus changed from the merits of the particular risks and rewards in Vietnam to the much more expansive and personal question of U.S. and presidential prestige. Historian Patrick Hatcher observed, “Unfortunately, neither Kennedy nor Johnson had learned to lose small. To them it was losing; it had no size.”
Astonishingly, though, key officials recognized very early on that Vietnam was likely a losing venture but still counseled escalation. McGeorge Bundy, for one, had as little as 25 percent confidence in success, but unbelievably opined, “even if it fails, the policy will be worth it.” In 1961, General Maxwell Taylor, then in the newly created position of military advisor to the President, came away from a fact-finding mission to Vietnam acknowledging that there was “no limit to our possible commitment” and introduction of troops risked “escalation into a major war in Asia.” Nonetheless, Taylor supported sending troops rather than giving up on Vietnam. High-level war games in 1964 added to the chorus of doubt, suggesting that additional firepower in Vietnam would do little. The insurgents would melt into the jungle and persevere as long as required, argued National Security Council staffer James Thompson. “Because they know they have no place to go. And eventually we will go home.” Perhaps most importantly, “They know that we know that we will have to go home, someday, quite soon.” The logic of prestige, however, blocked the exit. Bundy acknowledged as much in 1965 when he admitted that their Vietnam policy was open to the criticism that “for ten years every step we have taken has been based on a previous failure” and resulted in “another step which failed.”
To understand how such maddening policies continued for so long, one must look at how the interface between the military and the civilians played into the tragedy. While some bemoan civilian meddling and others military obduracy, the lesson is not in blame but in the expectation that this is the norm. For all the fantastic tomes on decision-making and civil-military relations during the war, they generally miss the point. They seek to assign blame and uncover dysfunction with the implicit message that there are lessons to be learned and it could be done better in the future. Tragically, for all this scholarship, the civilian and military leadership performed little better in the wake of 9/11. When national interests do not clearly dictate overwhelming intervention, civilian and military leadership will work at cross-purposes to the exclusion of a coherent strategic vision. These cross-purposes ensure a suboptimal outcome and play to the weaknesses of our democratic system.
The civilians’ drive to keep interventions small in these cases lowers the barriers to entry, allowing the country to enter wars with little democratic resistance. Perceptions of threat and likely conflict induce a psychological shift from deliberation to an “implemental” mindset akin to “crossing the Rubicon” in the words of one team of scholars. Once the mental switch is made, overconfidence and aggressiveness dominates the psyche. Critically, decision-makers are more likely to take risks in this mindset. This risk-taking mentality allows the military to acquiesce to entry under what would normally be seen as suboptimal conditions, all the while posturing to up the ante rapidly if required, which it generally is. Once the commitment begins to balloon and drag on, the civilians, responding to the electorate, clamor for a quick end to the intervention, spelling disaster given the expanded scope and stakes of the project at this point. Interventions are thus started indecisively and without a clear strategic vision, tend to change their tenor quickly once troops are committed, lack a coherent concept linking the means at hand and the end state desired as the scope is constantly in flux, and end based on domestic political timetables rather than conditions in the theater. Better outcomes can be imagined in the ideal world, but are unattainable in the real world.
This dysfunction was at play from the earliest days of the Vietnam adventure. Presciently, President Kennedy told advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer’ and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. … The war in Vietnam could be won only so long as it was their war. If it were ever converted into a white man’s war, we would lose as the French had lost a decade earlier.” Kennedy’s skepticism was no shield against policy intrigue, though. H.R. McMaster’s landmark account, Dereliction of Duty charges that Kennedy’s his distrust of the senior representatives of the military limited their access to the White House staff, allowing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor to “deliberately misrepresent the Joint Chiefs’ opinion and help McNamara forge a consensus behind a fundamentally flawed strategic concept that permitted deepening of American involvement in the war without consideration of its long-term costs and consequences.”
Kennedy was assassinated before the situation in Vietnam had developed enough to chart a long-term strategy. This left Lyndon Johnson with the unenviable task of deciding whether to increase the country’s commitment or pull advisors out from an ally in need. Johnson’s concerns were almost solely domestic. He sought not to lose face in Vietnam, while also avoiding the expenditure of precious domestic political capital needed to openly expand the war and frankly acknowledge the costs and risks there. Thus, Johnson strained to leave “few political traces” and to grant “as little public discussion as he could manage,” in McGeorge Bundy’s words. His comments on the escalation of the war in the early, critical days were often made in incongruous settings meant to minimize their coverage. The President’s approach to brokering Vietnam policy decisions, was as “Senate-Leader-of-a-Commander-in-Chief,” again in Bundy’s words, seeking compromise and consensus of all agents, rather than decisively guiding the ship of state to the best solutions. This was the motive behind his dispatching McNamara to Vietnam in July 1965 to negotiate the smallest troop increase that commander General William Westmoreland would agree to. Westmoreland got the smallest number of troops possible and the President got Westmoreland’s “vote,” along with those of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This bargaining continued in later conferences, resulting in outcomes that suited no one’s preferences.
This effort to minimize expenditure of domestic political capital meant that the war was not entered into on the basis of a democratic consensus, nor was an executive decision boldly made then briefed to the American public for their backing. The administration backed quietly into a war that was to rapidly expand beyond anyone’s expectations. Juxtaposed against the administration’s position, the generals felt that graduated pressure would be ineffective. War games bore this out, as reality was soon to do as well, but the military also knew that once pressed into a limited engagement by the civilians they would have great leverage to quickly increase the war’s scope.
As David Halberstam wrote in his influential work The Best and the Brightest, “Thus one of the lessons for civilians who thought they could run small wars with great control was that to harness the military, you had to harness them completely; that once in, even partially, everything began to work in their favor.” While Halberstam’s wording takes aim at the military, his observations are mostly correct. The idea of running any war with great control is a fantasy. The idea of a “small” war is an attractive fallacy that has drawn more than one country into the morass. The answer is not completely harnessing the military, nor putting the military in control. The answer is to moderate diplomatic ambition unless the politicians have prepared the nation for the full, eventual cost.
The Pandora’s Box effect of military engagement was amply demonstrated in Vietnam. Only a week after the first American combat units arrived in country, the Army upped the ante, briefing the President on a proposal to escalate the war and musing that it would take 500,000 troops and five years to “win the war.” In June 24, 1965, only three months after the first combat units landed, Westmoreland posited, “The struggle has become a war of attrition.” Given conventional means, he saw “no likelihood of achieving a quick, favorable end to the war.” His recommendation was to double down on the American troop commitment, bringing the total to forty-four battalions and 175,000 men, inclusive of ten battalions from foreign allies. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earl Wheeler asked Westmoreland if this would be enough to defeat the insurgency, to which Westmoreland replied that the “direct answer to your basic question is ‘no,’” the troops would not “provide reasonable assurance of attaining the objective.”
And thus America was the owner of an open-ended commitment to Vietnam, on which she had staked her national prestige, as well as the personal political prestige of her leading politicians. The most damaging aspect of this falling-into-war approach was that neither military nor civilian policy-makers articulated a clear strategic vision of how the war was to proceed or what the end state would be. With each party tugging in different directions (limitation or expansion), how could there be a unifying vision? The policy was a piecemeal collection of troop additions and mission expansions, each based on a previous failure, as Bundy backhandedly admitted. If we cannot master our own bureaucratic and domestic politics, then, how can we expect to remake others’?
 Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988), 295-297.
 Gordon M. Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, (New York: Holt, 2008), 138-140. Bundy quoted therein, 139. Sherman Kent, “Memorandum from the Board of National Estimates to the Director of Central Intelligence,” (June 9, 1964), http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/vietnam/showdoc.php?docid=151 (accessed June 18, 2011).
 Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, 168. H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998), 236.
 Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists and Vietnam, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 286.
 Quoted in McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 219.
 Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988), 295-297.
 Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, 140-143, James Thompson quoted therein.
 Quoted in Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, 216, McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 315.
 Dominic D.P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, “The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conflict Reaches the Point of No Return,” International Security 36, no. 1, (Summer 2011): 7-40.
 Quoted in Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, 63.
 McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 63.
 Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, 159, 206-207. Bundy quoted therein, 159, 207. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 278-279. On Johnson’s desire to keep the war low-key see also McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 94-95, 312-313..
 McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 70, 89ff, 155ff.
 David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993, ), 178-179.
 Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, 164-165.
 General William Westmoreland quoted in Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, 190-191. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 290-291.
 For a similar assessment of the military end of this equation, see McMaster, Dereliction of Duty, 247.
About the Author(s)
Of interest: "Loss of China."
(Footnote/Reference No. 4.)
Except that it took us 58,000 American dead to "lose" as you say. 20,000 of those 58,000 occurred after Tet and Nixon came into office with the clear goal to get America out of Vietnam, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed. So we were for the most part completely out of south Vietnam by early 73 and the country fell to the communists in April 75, I guess that satisfied Secretary Kissinger for his "descent interval."
I wonder if one could make the argument that- looking at things now- it was strategically better for us to "lose" than to win anyway. That if we had been successful the South would have never really established a viable and stable government and we would have been pressured to keep supporting a corrupt regime and Vietnam would be a client state today or a failed one. Instead Vietnam is a growing economic force, is trading with us, building military relationships, all my shirts seem to be made there, and I know U.S. soldiers who are retiring to live there. If we could go back- why would we change anything knowing what we know now- except maybe to not go in?
Nicely put, very nicely put. In a way I agree with you and your counterfactual argument. But then on the other hand I do think Johnson was right to put those political constraints on the American military namely because if he had turned them lose, if he had allowed them to take the fight more forcefully to the north through a more comprehensive strategic bombing campaign and perhaps even a limited ground invasion, and into Laos and Cambodia to cut the trail that almost to be sure would have invited Chinese and possibly Soviet entry and that was a risk Johnson was unwilling to take and in my view rightly so.
Which puts us back to the starting point, if that is what it would have taken, then perhaps a better strategy should have realized that from the start and figured out that it wasnt worth fighting after all. Other political leaders have faced similar situations and made the choice not to commit: Ike in 54 in Indochina; and DeGaulle leaving Algeria in 62.
thanks for the discussion
Gian, I have to disagree with you here, although I am much closer to your perspective than a few years ago after reading Losing Small Wars by Frank Ledwidge. I think that if the US civilians had coordinated their efforts into a strategy and given the generals more scope, rather than a cowardly tip toe around the crisis,and incremental escalation, then the US would have stood a very good chance of fatally crippling the North. But that is going into counter-factual history, like so much of the "better war/ if only" debate.
A major lesson from Vietnam is that if politicians are to make the grave decision to go to war, then they must then defer to the military experts. History will damn them if they do not. Bush always said he would never micro manage a war, like Johnson hunched over a model of Khe Sanh, but he then deferred to men like Rumsfeld.
Back to my main point: does any evidence bear out the idea that the Communists were anything more than slowed down by bombing and attrition? I would have to refer you to Abandoning Vietnam by Jim Willbanks, where he cites general Tran Van Tra's memoirs. Tra describes how bad morale was, both in the NVA and in the politburo after the 1972 Easter defeat. Russia was advising the North to make peace and the politburo in Hanoi were deeply disheartened at the prospect of continued US support for the South. Furious debates raged at how best to proceed. No more VC operations, and the North was running out of SAMs- a far worse situation than the US knew at the time.
If you look at the performance of some of the ARVN divisions in 1972 (with US air power in support)the notion of a surviving (but corrupt and autocratic) South Vietnam becomes more plausible.
So, if the allies had ground the Communists down to near breaking point in 1972, it is quite feasible in my opinion, that with a more decisive and concentrated (rather than stop start/ escalating) use of force,a political solution might have been found sooner that would have been favourable to the survival of the South. It would not have been a model democracy, but then neither was South Korea in 1980. That, if anything, would have been a strategic achievement in Asia. I believe in such a scenario history would have been kinder to the US in regard to that gruesome war. Once in the quagmire, the US should have been far more gradual in withdrawing support for the South- instead support dropped off a cliff. The fact that the ISF are coping now, IMO demonstrates the virtue of continued support for a host nation after combat operations end.
That does not mean I support military intervention in general however. I just think that Congress should have given the South a fighting chance instead of switching off the life support when the North was hobbled, after such vast expenditure in life and treasure.
Thanks for your comments. I don't really see a better strategic solution and my argument is more that the better war narrative is irrelevant. Instead of arguing whether it could be done better or not, I argue that it simply won't be done better, period. Even if an optimal operational solution could theoretically be obtained, it won't due to the realities of the imperfect systems we are working with and the very compelling, although ignored until it is too late, dictates of public and national interest, which aren't always so far apart as many people would try to assert.
More broadly beyond the scope of this excerpt, I argue for a much more circumscribed foreign policy outlook that acknowledges the many limits on our ability to control things on this side of utopia and argues for a role more of exemplar than crusader.
Nice piece, and congratulations on the upcoming publication of your book, well done!
A couple of thoughts and perhaps a quibble or two. You seem to be leaning toward an optimal strategic solution in Vietnam of one that has the US going "all in" by committing decisively to victory in Vietnam, or in other words no political constraints on the military, calling up the reserves, etc. You dont say this explicitly, but do you think there was an optimal military strategy to win in Vietnam? I dont, and i still fall back on historian George Herring's formulation that the war was unwinnable based on a moral and material cost the American people were willing to pay.
Also, I would take HR McMaster's book down a notch or two if i were you. To be sure an important argument he makes in it, but Dereliction of Duty ultimately falls within the better war camp since he suggests at the end of the book that IF the JCS and President had not lied to each other and their conceit there was an optimal strategy to be had, hence his saying the war was not lost on the battlefield but with the JCS and President before troops were ever committed. Historian Ronald Spector in the late 90s wrote a review of the Dereliction of Duty in The New York Times where he accused McMaster of "ethnocentrism" by typically seeing the war only through American eyes and not taking into account the other side: namely the enemy. This kind of thinking is actually quite typical of the American army: the belief, actually really a faith, that any problem in war can be solved with an optimal operational solution. In my view that is part of the reason we are still stuck in Afghanistan. For the United States in Vietnam the optimal operational solution was search and destroy; and in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it has been population centric coin.