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Sunday, June 30. 2013
If, coulda, woulda, shoulda about history may not change it but does change our understanding of what happened and why. The two gravest mistakes the US made in Vietnam were to participate in, even bless, the overthrow of President Diem and then to not use our overwhelming force to bring North Vietnam to its knees.
The overthrow of Diem in 1963 upended the South Vietnamese pacification efforts and disrupted the organization of the professional army, requiring the large-scale US involvement. The failure to then use our massive force, especially in the air on North Vietnamese strategic targets instead of sending multi-million dollar planes against cheap trucks, allowed the North to extend its reach and prolong the war.
Mark Moyars wrote the book "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965." It details how Diem's efforts were succeeding and were destroyed by the coup. In the June 29 Wall Street Journal (behind the paywall) Moyar reviews three other recent books that come to the same conclusion. Wise guys in Washington should not be in such a hurry to think they can superimpose their ideal of Western democracy where the foundations have not been laid and in the midst of war requiring unified stern measures.
Of historical note is, not only in 1964-5 the failure to bring to bear the Joint Chiefs' recommendations for strategic targeting of the North, but how in 1970 there was a similar failure of will in Washington. As President Nixon showed in 1972 by launching such a ferocious air attack on Hanoi and Haiphong, the war could have been shortened and many thousands of lives saved. Rear Admiral Joe Vasey was right hand man to Admiral John McCain Jr, Commander-In-Chief Pacific Command during 1968-1972. In an exclusive to this blog, for historical record, Joe Vasey has agreed to publish the below "after inaction" report on what could have been in 1970. (My apologies for the spacing below, due to copying-pasting from an email.)
A New CincPac Strategy to Defeat NVN Aggression Against the South, Sent to
Aboard CincPac's 4 engine command aircraft with Admiral McCain and several staff,enroute
Vasey, you are supposed to be my war planner. Why the hell don't you have a strategy to win this war ? (This was his brusque manner of speaking to me even though we had been very close since our time together in the USS Gunnel, a submarine he commanded in WW2).
I do have one sir, It's back at headquarters wending its way to your office, but it may not survive the critiques of generals on your staff.
Brief me !
That I did for the next 30 or so minutes.
What's the next step ?
Wait until you return to headquarters to hear comments on it from your staff.
Screw you! While we are in
Then I convinced him as a preliminary step to convene a conference at the ChaoPhya RR hotel in
Forty five or so attendees including the
Afterward while the Chief of Staff returned to
Admiral McCain then turned to me and asked, what's the next step, Joe ?
We should take it back to your headquarters in
The hell with you Vasey. You take our proposed strategy to defeat
I was accompanied on the trip by that famous Special Forces tough guy Charlie Beckwith who carried a big briefcase stuffed with the highly classified war plans. When the stewardess told him the briefcase had to be stowed up forward he responded, "I am keeping it with me maam", pulling up both trouser legs and exposing a Baretta strapped to one leg and a switchblade on the other..
The Joint Chiefs endorsed the recommended strategy, and State Dept. and DOD initially indicated general approval. But within days it was watered down (not by the JCS) and some crucial actions were delayed or gelded:
The proposed major air offensive against key military and logistic targets in NVN, including
The mining blockade of
The movement of one US Army division into
Surprise amphibious raid by a brigade of US Marines against a port in the southern part of
Special Forces Ops launched from
All the foregoing to be accompanied by a major PsyOps campaign against NVN that included leaflet drops, miniature radios to dissidents, radio broadcasts, even small dummies simulating paratroopers dropped by parachute at night --- all to give the impression that an internal uprising was brewing. Only limited aspects of this campaign were approved..
In retrospect , had this multi-pronged offensive been approved and executed as proposed in 1970 tens of thousands of personnel casualties would have been prevented, NVN aggression against the South halted and hostilities ended favorably on US terms. In 1972 President Nixon finally approved of the mining blockade and later that year of major air attacks against the North including military targets in
The foregoing written in 2011 by
Rear Admiral L.R. “Joe” Vasey USN Ret.
Chief of Strategic Plans at CincPac, 1969-72
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I'm conflicted in my response here, as I was well aware at the time, along with my men, as to the incompetence of our leadership. Both military and civilian.
Strategy and tactics both sacrificed to politics. In a localized sense, no different than Benghazi today. Those two (four) good men in Benghazi no more a worry to the elite than the fifty thousand who died in South Vietnam. They play their Harvard, whatever, games, we die for their ignorance.
It is such evil I have no more to say other than heaven help us all.
Dear Mr. Kessler: i thought you should know my ex-husband enlisted in the air force in 1960. By late 1961 I was receiving letters from him, from his home base in Fukuoaka Japan; he was frequently being sent out for 'top secret' duty to another country in Asia and the he was not allowed to speak about it. He took pictures and when he finally got home 1963 he told me it was Viet Nam. Yes, we had men over there that early in the war. He was a specialist in hydraulics and fuels. One time he was working on a plane in an airport in Viet Nam (late 1962 if memory serves me). The guy working above him on the wing was shot by a sniper. We were in Viet Nam a lot longer than most Americans know. The PTSD was real and lasted his lifetime. Though divorced we remained friends--he loved us the most and I treasure that, though I could not live with it.
I was an attack pilot who flew 413 missions from Chu Lai in 68-69, mainly in I Corps and southern NVN and Laos. I killed tons of trees, trucks and trench lines. We were frustrated to the point of rage to be forbidden attacking really valuable infrastructure and targets of opportunity. We bled out slowly from flak traps and surprise pockets of hostile fire for little gain. We worshipped at the altar of Body Count to little avail. Then our country gave up and blamed us. Bitter? No. Just older and wiser now.
Seriously, Vietnam? What's next, an article on the horror of the Holocaust? Sheesh, Kesler, get with the program.
I think the "Z" denotes [b]ZERO[/i].
Happy 4th to you and yours.
What "program" is that?
Is it one in which the murder of millions is a "YAWN" as you put it?
Is it one in which it is boring or we make no efforts to learn and act to avoid current and future murders of millions?
Is it one in which the experience and knowledge of those who actually wefre there and made decisions is irrelevant, instead favoring cliches without adequate factual support?
Is it one in which the national security interests of the US and its allies are downplayed or neglected, and the interests of our and the West's foes furthered?
Is it one in which today's trivia is exalted?
We were in VN since WWII. The Truman doctrine and SEATO treaty were also adopted at this stage of the war.
Wise guys in Washington should not be in such a hurry to think they can superimpose their ideal of Western democracy where the foundations have not been laid and in the midst of war requiring unified stern measures.
Wait, what? You mean the culture of a democratic form of government is something different from the procedural acts of democracy? Are you suggesting that you can't simply overlay a democratic form of government onto a culture that has never experienced it and has no native institutions to support it? Are you suggesting that a democratic form of government is a natural product of the underlying culture of the citizens of their country short of a total cultural devastation and subsequent intensive rebuild by outside force?
Heresy...sir you will never qualify for the neocon party and Woodrow is rolling in his grave. I bet you even reject the notion of "making the world safe for democracy". Crazy talk!
I spend a year and a day in RVN from October of 67 to October of 68. The 101st was not easy duty but then many units did not have it easy. What most veterans don't understand is why the US senate refused to give financial aid to the South after we left. It was almost as if the outcome had been predetermined and the democrats were damn sure it was going to end that way...even after the peace agreement. I consider the senate to have betrayed the troops and south Vietnamese. And the boomers that dodged the whole fiasco....well, look around. Does it look like they ever had a clue about the real world? Boomers have run every damn thing into the ground that they ever controlled.
I was in I Corps in 1969-1970 and based next door to the 101st at /Camp Eagle.
You might be interested to know that LBJ, one of the chief architects of the debacle in waiting, was the Senate Minority leader in 1954. French troops were desperately in need on air support (B-26's) to prevent the loss of Dien Bien Phu and sought a resolution from the US to act unilaterally if necessary. LBJ and the rest of the Congressional leaders refused knowing full well that the Viet Minh were receiving considerable air from the Chinese.
Peace, security, rule of law first are preconditions for dem ocratic instititions. Cultural tolerance is precondition for democratic culture.
First mistake was not fighting it as a war - either you fight to win, or, you're the loser
Second, when we found out the VC\NVA were using the trails, they should have been bombed, FAE'd, and made a living hell to even attempt usage.
Third, Politicians are not soldiers - they have a stake in the endeavor, but should not calling the operational 'shots', nor micromanaging the fighting as horribly as they did.
Korea was the first test with the Communists - it showed the West was not willing\able to go toe\toe. Vietnam proved it. Only they West's tech, and time, forced the commies to back down.
Vietnam could have been a 'win', but it had to many Generals\Politicians, but didn't have enough (if any...) Leaders\Statesmen (aka Washington, Eisenhower, Patton, et al)
While we are not convinced by your counterfactual analysis, we agree with you on this point.
Structure of the United States National Security Council (Current)
Chair Barack Obama (President of the United States)
Statutory Attendees Joe Biden (Vice President of the United States)
John Kerry (Secretary of State)
Chuck Hagel (Secretary of Defense)
Military Advisor Gen. Martin Dempsey (US Army) (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff)
Intelligence Advisor Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper (Ret.) (Director of National Intelligence)
John O. Brennan (Director of the Central Intelligence Agency)
Drug Policy Advisor Gil Kerlikowske (Director of National Drug Control Policy)
Regular Attendees Tom Donilon (National Security Advisor)
Denis McDonough (White House Chief of Staff)
Tony Blinken (Deputy National Security Advisor)
Additional Participants Jack Lew (Secretary of the Treasury)
Eric Holder (Attorney General)
Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security)
Kathryn Ruemmler (White House Counsel)
Gene Sperling (Assistant to the President for Economic Policy)
Susan Rice (Ambassador to the United Nations)
Jeffrey Zients (Acting Director of Office of Management and Budget)
Lisa Monaco (Homeland Security Advisor)
I think my point is made without further word --
Interesting post, Bruce. Thank you.
Of course the beauty of proposing an alternate timeline is that you can walk your scenario through to a successful conclusion.
IIRC, by 1970 the politicians were no longer interested in winning the Viet Nam war. All they wanted was a fig leaf to enable them to cut and run.
My thinking is that even if the strategy described had been implemented in 1970, the end result would have been the same, though it might have ended our involvement earlier. and that would have surely shortened the casualty rolls.
Unless you re-imagine the timeline with different politicians in power, I find it hard to envisage a different conclusion to the war.
Yuri Andropov --Putin's admitted favorite and role model, and the man who selected Gorby to do the Fall and the Green Cross --masterminded the script for the streets of America --where, as opposed to the battlefield, NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap admitted the war was won.
Sorry, that is simply incorrect, just another typical echo in the right wing echochamber.
feeblemind: Unless you re-imagine the timeline with different politicians in power, I find it hard to envisage a different conclusion to the war.
And the democratically elected leaders in many ways represented the American character. It's interesting to note Graham Greene's A Quiet American, published in 1955, foresaw the Americans stumbling into disaster in Vietnam, in large part due to their intrinsic optimism coupled with their ignorance.
The whole controversy. A general staffer under Giap went into the detail often attributed to Giap, whose spoke in general terms about the same component of the NVA victory.
You, Zach, as usual, latch onto some detail and try to balloon that into a rebuttal of the larger truth of the matter. Fundamental honesty would null your politics entirely.
buddy larsen: Which part, Mr. Graham Greene Uber Alles?
Greene had the seminal idea for The Quiet American in the early 1950s. Lucky guess? That the Americans would stumble into Vietnam with rosy ideals as to how to remake Vietnamese society, then finding themselves having to make deals with terror. The last to know always seem to be the American people.
buddy larsen: A general staffer under Giap went into the detail often attributed to Giap, whose spoke in general terms about the same component of the NVA victory.
Attributing to Giap that he thought the war was lost shows the power of a falsehood over the truth, especially when that falsehood confirms a comfortable belief. The Vietnamese had been fighting for independence for generations. They weren't going to give up, and "bombing them back to the stone age", when they were using human-powered means of transport was not an effective strategy. As for making foreign forces pay a high price while relying on internal political strife of the foreign country, that policy was explicitly based on the strategy of George Washington.
Counterfactuals can be interesting, but as feeblemind pointed out above, it's like asking what would happen if the fox hadn't eaten the chicken. But the fox can't help it's nature.
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” — Graham Greene
We "stumbled" into Vietnam because the entire corrupt Democrat machine elected JFK in 1960. He was to inexperienced, too young, too naive and to preoccupied with cheating on his wife. He almost got us into a nuclear war with missteps in Cuba and when he lucked out when the USSR backed down he then committed us to a military war in Vietnam. Yes it did take Johnson to follow his lead and really screw it up but Kennedy set the stage and began the change from advisors to fighting men. The only thing I can add is that Obama makes JFK look good by comparison.
GoneWithTheWind: We "stumbled" into Vietnam because the entire corrupt Democrat machine elected JFK in 1960.
Most Republicans were to the right of the Democrats on Vietnam. In any case, the disaster was bipartisan. Nixon continued the war for political reasons, knowing it was likely lost.
Are you saying JFK and Johnson were Republicans???
Of course the war continued after Nixon was elected. He was elected on a promise to bring the war to an end and that is what he did. He begin bringing troops back within weeks of his election. He brought the North to the table to discuss peace and/or a cease fire. The problem was the North preferred the death and destruction because they always intended to kill most of the South Vietnamese anyway. But I agree it would have been better if Nixon just brought everyone home in 1968 and let the North do what they were going to do anyway.
Again..."Zackie" doesn't know what he/they are saying...
GoneWithTheWind: Are you saying JFK and Johnson were Republicans???
No, but Nixon was a Republican, and many Republicans in Congress were to the right of Johnson on the war.
That sounds like a whiny baby excuse to me. Kennedy got the stupid Asian war started and Johnson made sure we had half a million GI's on the ground and your excuse is some Republicans favored the war too!
I am old enough that I remember the war completely from start to finish. In fact I was in the military during the entire war. My recollection was that most people wanted to help the South Vietnamese. The GI's were saving orphanages and carrying inured civilians out of villages attacked by the North. The North recognized that they were losing the PR battle so they modified their methods to attack villagers and threaten to kill entire villages if they participated in vaccinations and accepted books and toys for their children. The North was ruthless and intentionally fought battles in the villages so that there would be sufficient collateral damage to destroy the image of the American GI. The North duped/coerced women and children to kill American GI's to build a distrust and fear. The North did an excellent job of mass killing and laying the blame on the American forces. But they didn't do it alone, they had our own media who eagerly put atrocities on the 6 O'clock news every night. We have all seen that famous picture of the poor Vietnamese girl running naked and burnt from a napalm attack. To this day if you asked 100 Americans who was responsible for that 99 would blame U.S. forces. This is the PR/propaganda war the American media ran against the U.S. forces which guaranteed our failure. But understand this failure that most on the left simply walked away from with smug satisfaction meant 5 million Vietnamese and Thai people would die by the communist hands. The Media and the Kerry's and Fonda's never took any responsibility for that. Although I am angry at JFK and Johnson for the war I also remember the overwhelming feeling in the early 60's was to save as many civilian lives as possible. So when you say many on the right favored the war understand that many on the right wanted to save lives. Did it work or perhaps more correctly should we have even tried?? In retrospect I think not. I think the North would have been about as ruthless taking over SE Asia with or without us but fewer innocent people would have died if we never had gotten involved.
GoneWithTheWind: Kennedy got the stupid Asian war started and Johnson made sure we had half a million GI's on the ground and your excuse is some Republicans favored the war too!
Many argued that Vietnam was the thin wedge of communism, not understanding the natural desire of the Vietnamese to be free of foreign occupation. In addition, it was Eisenhower who stopped promised elections in Vietnam, and who first sent military advisers there. Finally, and most cynically, Nixon continued the war for political purposes.