Vietnam Not Winnable

Gary Farber continues his look at the latest document release from President Nixon’s archives and finds corroboration for his long held belief that Nixon and Henry Kissinger believed the war in Vietnam was unwinnable and “simply wanted to punt the issue until after the 1972 elections, after which they expected South Vietnam to collapse.”  And, of course, we learned not long ago that Robert McNamara, who served as Secretary of Defense for most of the Kennedy-Johnson era (and died this morning) had the same thought and similarly nonetheless prosecuted the war vigorously.

While I’m neither a military historian nor even a Vietnam War buff, for my money the best short case that Farber, Nixon, and McNamara were right remains Jeffrey Record‘s Winter 1996 Parameters article “Vietnam in Retrospect: Could We Have Won?”   The piece is short and worth reading in full.  The conclusion:

Norman Podhoretz, who believes that American intervention in the Vietnam War was “an attempt born of noble ideals and impulses,” has concluded that “the only way the United States could have avoided defeat in Vietnam was by staying out of the war altogether.”[50] His judgment, in retrospect, appears to be as reasonable as any. The United States intervened in the Vietnam War on behalf of a weak and incompetent ally, and it pursued a conventional military victory against a wily, elusive, and extraordinarily determined opponent who shifted to ultimately decisive conventional military operations only after inevitable American political exhaustion undermined potentially decisive US military responses. Even had the United States attained a conclusive military decision, its cost would have exceeded any possible benefit. Vietnam was then, and remains today, a strategic backwater, and the US decision to fight there in the 1960s was driven by a doctrine of containing communism that in the 1950s was witlessly militarized and indiscriminately extended to all of Asia. Bernard Brodie observed in the early 1970s that “it is now clear what we mean by calling the United States intervention in Vietnam a failure. . . . We mean that at least as early as the beginning of 1968 even the most favorable outcome . . . could not remotely be worth the price we would have paid for it.”[51]

The key to US defeat was a profound underestimation of enemy tenacity and fighting power, an underestimation born of a happy ignorance of Vietnamese history, a failure to appreciate the fundamental civil dimensions of the war, and a preoccupation with the measurable indices of military power and attendant disdain for the ultimately decisive intangibles. In 1965, Maxwell Taylor confessed that “the ability of the Viet Cong continuously to rebuild their units and make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war. We still find no plausible explanation of the continued strength of the Viet Cong.”[52] Four years later, Vo Nguyen Giap commented that the “United States has a strategy based on arithmetic. They question the computers, add and subtract, extract square roots, and then go into action. But arithmetical strategy doesn’t work here. If it did, they’d have already exterminated us.”[53]

The United States could not have prevented the forcible reunification of Vietnam under communist auspices at a morally, materially, and strategically acceptable price.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    My brother, who served two tours in Vietnam, told me a joke that was widespread throughout the Marines in I Corps.

    Nguyen is given a rocket in Hanoi, and told to take it south to the NVA fighting the Marines. He sets off on the Ho Chi Minh trail and after many months of arduous trekking through the jungle, arrives at his destination and turns over his rocket. “Good,” says the receiving officer, “now go get another one.”

    That joke, I think, shows the respect the Marines had for the tenacity their adversary and the suspicion of at least some that the fight might be a lost cause

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Part of the problem with the analysis is that various objectives were in play, and I’m not sure “reunification” was ever one of the top ones.

    In ’65, McNamara’s assistant, John McNaughton, described the objectives as (a) preservation of national honor as a guarantor and prevention of a communist success story (70%), (b) to keep South Vietnam and neighboring countries out of communist control (20%), and (c) to provide assistance to a friend (10%).

    Notably, the top strategic objective had nothing to do with Vietnam per se.

  3. Anderson says:

    I had thought that the Nixon-Kissinger devotion to the “decent interval” was generally accepted by now.

    Good article by Record; I particularly like his deflation of the “blame Congress” meme:

    The claim that congressional miserliness doomed South Vietnam fails to explain why, in 1975, after a generous 20-year US investment, ARVN folded like a house of cards, abandoning intact to the NVA billions of dollars’ worth of US military equipment.

  4. Highlander says:

    I spent two years in Vietnam and SE Asia at the end of our efforts there.( and another in and out of military hospitals). At the end it was a rather shabby debacle to say the least.

    I was a US Marine Corps Captain. In my opinion the US Army was near collapse and the Corps was seriously sagging also. I flew one of the very last American flights out of Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge literally at the airfield’s gates. I can still remember the look in the eyes of the people we left behind. They somehow knew of the terror that was to come.

    Being raised a Red,White,and Blue American, it bugged the hell out of me for decades to have been part of this losing effort. How could it have happened? America the victor of WWII could lose in this little Asian country, how?

    Finally in 1990, I embarked on a two year project and read everything I could get my hands on about the war. I looked up and talked to anyone I could identify,who might have useful observations. If you read enough books and papers and talk to enough knowledge people on the same subject,some of the basic truths begin to shine through.

    Why we lost in a paragraph…The American elites civilian and military had a failure of vision, insight,courage, and integrity… With the possible exceptions of Nixon and Kissinger(I fought under them, they held my life in their hands)( They came to the party late, after unbelievably bad decisions by their predecessors.)Nixon and Kissinger were passed a very bad “hand of cards”. I believe they did a reasonable job, given the circumstances.

    What happens to a member of the American elite when they massively screw up, and in this case get hundreds of thousands of people killed. Look at the fate that befell Robert McNamara(the war’s primary architect and designer of the pathetic manner in which we fought it.) he was the darling of the American elites, academic, political, and MSM.

    McNamara was fired as Secretary of Defense and made to suffer by being made President of the World Bank for the rest of his career. General Westmoreland the primary military field commander was made to suffer by being promoted to Chief of Staff of the entire Army.

    Once you reach a certain elite level in this country you never have to pay for your failures.(others do, but you don’t. Look at our current financial disaster for further confirmation of this phenomena.)This is also why it is now either the equivalent of 70BC or 370AD in this country. We’ll soon know which.Either way, strap in tightly!It’s going to be a rough ride indeed.

    In the end was Vietnam even remotely worth the price in blood and treasure? Actually I believe it was. It started for us only 20 years after the close of the World War II disasters. What are today the economic Tigers of Asia, were then in economic ruin from WWII, and ripe for the picking by the aggressive expansionist Communists of Russia and China. Our muddled effort in Vietnam managed to hold the line there for almost 15 years, while the rest of Asia grew stronger and more capitalist. It bought free Asia more time to build strength. Just as the Romans did not win all the time, neither have we. What counts is the long run. So far that has always been in America’s favor. We shall see about the next ten years.

  5. Anderson says:

    What are today the economic Tigers of Asia, were then in economic ruin from WWII, and ripe for the picking by the aggressive expansionist Communists of Russia and China.

    This kind of thinking encapsulates how so many people supported such a useless war.

    (1) Vietnam would’ve resisted Chinese “expansionism” on nationalistic grounds, even if we’d never sent a single soldier there. It’s not too hard to imagine our *supporting* a leftist anti-Chinese regime, in an alternative history.

    (2) Looking at a map of Asia demonstrates that Vietnam was, as Record says, strategically a nonentity. Threats to Malaysia or Singapore (“Asian tigers”?) would’ve had to proceed elsewhere. The thought of any threat to Japan is laughable.

    The sole purpose for the war was “prestige,” (see PD Shaw’s comment above), and that’s exactly what we lost, not just by losing the war, but by fighting it in the first place.

  6. davod says:

    “The claim that congressional miserliness doomed South Vietnam fails to explain why, in 1975, after a generous 20-year US investment, ARVN folded like a house of cards, abandoning intact to the NVA billions of dollars’ worth of US military equipment.”

    Simple words – In 1975 the North (in breach of its agreements) invaded the South, Russia and China had increased their aid by four times the normal.

    Congress, in breach of the US undertakings to the South, refused logistics support. It is a bit hard to fight if you run out of f….g bullets.

    I recently read a biography of a USMC general. The preface was by another USMC general. He wrote that one the most shameful events he witnessed was 150,000 tons of supplies sitting in Southern harbor being denied to the South.

  7. Wayne says:

    War analyses should always be taken with a bucket of salt. It is to complex and fluid to say with any great degree of certainly of what could have or would have happen. Very few predicted the outcome of Battle of New Orleans or the success of Sherman march to the sea.

    That said, I believe Vietnam could have been won if the military was allowed to fight with military strategy in mind instead of primary a political agenda. The way to military victory is to destroy the will or means of your enemy to conduct war. That is hard to do when you are not allowed to attack the source of the enemy war machine. North Vietnam was “pretty much” off limits as well as neighboring territories. Yes some cross border operations occurred but not at the level that was needed.

    That said, I understand that politics and war can’t be separated. Our military ability wasn’t the problem but the political limitations put on them were. The political climate with major influence from the MSM was not right to win the war. There wasn’t a Washington or Lincoln to stand up to the political picture and pull out victory from those who wanted to give up. There is a difference from wanting to give up and having to give up because it is a fruitless fight. One can argue which Vietnam was. Frankly, I not sure if giving up was a bad deal either, sort of agreeing on the cost\benefit argument. Vietnam was a war that I think we shouldn’t have been in from the get go but to say we couldn’t have won it is being simplistic at best.

  8. Highlander says:

    Anderson

    I didn’t offer an opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of the initial decision to fight in Vietnam. Personally I don’t think it was the right strategic ground. Thailand might have been better for instance.

    But from you, I detect a whiff of a “liberal America Hater”. For whom America can never be right,and you would have us always “turn tail and run”. The world doesn’t work that way Son. Not for long anyway.

  9. Gary Farber says:

    “Congress, in breach of the US undertakings to the South, refused logistics support. It is a bit hard to fight if you run out of f….g bullets.”

    If you bother to read my post, I document in Nixon and Kissinger’s own words how they themselves orchestrated the congressional cut-off of aid by conservatives Goldwater and Stennis, not liberals. Moreover, it’s complete nonsense that South Vietnam ran out of supplies; as mentioned above, they abandoned billions of dollars worth of equipment and ammunition in the field. South Vietnam lost because its own people for the most part never regarded the government as a legitimate nationalistic government; rather, they saw it as an immensely corrupt artificial creation of the French and Americans. They saw it that way because it was true.

    If you bother to read my posts, I document all of Nixon and Kissinger’s views on how they believed South Vietnam couldn’t be won, in their own words and documents.

  10. Gary Farber says:

    “North Vietnam was ‘pretty much’ off limits as well as neighboring territories.”

    If you mean a full-scale land invasion, this would be because nuclear war with China and the Soviet Union would have been a bad idea. It also would have taken more troops than America had.

    On the other hand, we dropped far more bombs on North Vietnam than we did in all of WWII, and engaged in an immense number of land raids, most covert. We did not lack for attacks on North Vietnamese infrastructure, including, of course, the mining of their harbors. The North Vietnamese simply weren’t interested in stopping fighting, and never were going to be. Whereas South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, for the most part, never remotely had similarly strong motivation. And that’s why we could never win, in short.

  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I guess you are not familiar with the SEATO treaty, James. If a member nation was attack, the other member nations were to come to its defense. To think the United States was militarily unable defeat the forces of North Viet Nam is to admit to using too much LSD. While I will admit the way it was fought was faulty. Had they started at the line which divided the North and the South with an force large enough to do the job and the air support necessary. That war would not have lasted 2 months. Two Armored divisions and 3 infantry divisions along with their support as well as blockades of the harbors and ports. Interdiction strikes and establishment of air superiority. When Hanoi fell and Ho Chi Minn was in captivity the war would have been over. Viet Nam would have been reunited but not under a communist government. Once again America failed an ally in time of need. Democrats are great are they not. Guess they really do not believe in freedom. They sure did not during the civil war.

  12. DavidL says:

    The problem with our bombing campaigns was not tonnage, but rather targeting. We sent Arc Light cells to drop 324 750 lb bombs on suspected targets in the South, while we gave the North sancutary in oocupied Cambodia and put hard targets in the North off-limits.

    We could have done Linebacker II circa 1964. The North would not have have had the air defenses to oppose it. I can’t say that we could have won, but McNamara’s strategy wasn’t even designed to win.

  13. Gary Farber says:

    “That war would not have lasted 2 months.”

    And this would have gone differently than the Korean War, why? What reason do you have for believing, unlike LBJ, MacNamara, Nixon, and Kissinger, that China and the Soviet Union wouldn’t have supplied troops (more than the pilots and other minor personel) in massive numbers, as well as use the nuclear weapons that the above U.S. leaders feared they would? Do you believe Nixon, LBJ, and Kissinger were delusional about this?

    “as well as blockades of the harbors and ports.”

    We did that. Possibly you haven’t noticed that China and Vietnam have land borders with China, Laos, and Cambodia.

    “Democrats are great are they not.”

    Richard Nixon was not a Democrat. Neither were Barry Goldwater or John Stennis.

  14. Gary Farber says:

    “and put hard targets in the North off-limits.”

    This is absolutely and completely untrue. See Operation Flaming Dart, Rolling Thunder. Arc Light also lightly bombed North Vietnam (admittedly on two days only).

    Rolling Thunder, however, dropped tonnange on North Vietnam from March 2nd, 1965, until November 1st, 1968. To quote Wikipedia:

    […] The majority of strikes during Rolling Thunder were launched from four Air Bases in Thailand: Korat, Takhli, Udon Thani, and Ubon.[27] The aircraft would refuel from aerial tankers over Laos before flying on to their targets in the DRV. After attacking their targets (usually by dive-bombing) the strike forces would either fly directly back to Thailand or exit over the relatively safe waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. It was quickly decided that, in order to limit airspace conflicts between Air Force and Naval strike forces, North Vietnam was divided into six target regions called “Route Packages”, each of which was assigned to either the Air Force or Navy and into which the other was forbidden to intrude.

    Navy strikes were launched from the aircraft carriers of Task Force 77, cruising off the North Vietnamese coast at Yankee Station. Naval aircraft, which had shorter ranges (and carried lighter bomb loads) than their Air Force counterparts, approached their targets from seaward with the majority of their strikes flown against coastal targets.[28]

    On 3 April the Joint Chiefs convinced McNamara and Johnson to launch a four-week attack on North Vietnam’s lines of communications, which would isolate that nation from its overland sources of supply in the PRC and the Soviet Union. About one-third of the north’s imports came down the northeast railroad from the PRC, while the remaining two-thirds came by sea through Haiphong and other ports.[29] For the first time in the campaign, targets were to be chosen for their military, rather than their psychological significance.[30] During the four weeks, 26 bridges and seven ferries were destroyed.[31] Other targets included the extensive North Vietnamese radar system, barracks, and ammunition depots.

    The panhandle of southern North Vietnam, however remained the primary locus of operations and total sorties flown there rose from 3,600 in April to 4,000 in May.[32] Slowly moving away from the destruction of fixed targets, “armed reconnaissance” missions, in which small formations of aircraft patrolled highways, railroads, and rivers, searching for targets of opportunity, were authorized. These missions increased from two to 200 sorties per week by the end of 1965.

    […]

    On 29 June 1966, airstrikes against the north’s petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) storage areas were authorized by Johnson. The American military had advocated such strikes since the inception of the operation, believing that to deny North Vietnam its POL would cause its military effort to grind to a halt. The strikes at first appeared successful, destroying tank farms near Hanoi and Haiphong and leading the CIA to estimate that 70 percent of North Vietnam’s oil facilities had been destroyed for the loss of 43 aircraft.[42] The success proved only a short-term inconvenience for North Vietnam, however, since Hanoi had anticipated just such a campaign and had dispersed the majority of its POL stocks in 50-gallon drums across the length of the country. The POL attacks were halted on 4 September after U.S. intelligence admitted that there was “no evidence yet of any shortages of POL in North Vietnam.”[43]

    It didn’t work. And we also lost hundreds of U.S. aircraft.

  15. Whomever1 says:

    Perhaps the only way we could have won in Vietnam is if Truman had supported Ho Chi Minh in his original request that the U. S. support his country’s independence.

  16. Gary Farber says:

    The OSS actually had a mission to Hanoi and a team that worked with the Viet Minh during WWII.

  17. Any time you decide to fight a limited war you begin by increasing the possibility of defeat.

    Of course we could have won — had we gone nuclear, or had we launched a full-scale invasion and occupation of the north. And had China and/or the USSR not retaliated or resisted.

    But all of that is fantasy. Of course we weren’t going to fight a total war for an unprofitable objective. It would been criminally stupid to risk nuclear war over Vietnam. Vietnam didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. If Vietnam was swallowed by a black hole tomorrow it would be a week before we noticed.

    So we decided to fight a limited war. Which meant fighting closer to the enemy’s terms than to our own. And handing much of the initiative to the enemy. In those circumstances we might conceivably have won. If we’d been fighting the Italians. Unfortunately we were fighting people who’d just fought Japan and France and shared a nice land border with a country all too willing to ship arms.

    So going in we probably didn’t have a 20% chance of winning. In the best of all possible worlds. We didn’t have the best of all possible worlds, we had the ARVN and Bob McNamara.

  18. DavidL says:

    Save for twelve days in 1972, we attacked the North with fighter-bombers and used our BUFF’s in the South against suspected targets. The known high value targets were in the North.

    Raw tonnage does does win air campaigns. Destroying what the enemy can least afford to lose does. What McNamara had us attacking, the North could afford to lose.

  19. Gary Farber says:

    “Raw tonnage does does win air campaigns.”

    It may win air campaigns, but it doesn’t win ground wars against a determined, not-particularly industrial, enemy. It couldn’t even defeat Germany, a country entirely dependent on its own industry for its war resources. So long as the Soviet Union and China were willing supply North Vietnam with war-making resources, it would have been impossible to defeat North Vietnam by air. Nor, again, could we have occupied North Vietnam against the will of China and the Soviet Union. This point seems to just be conveniently skipped over by the “we could have won if only we tried harder” advocates.

  20. anjin-san says:

    I detect a whiff of a “liberal America Hater”. For whom America can never be right,and you would have us always “turn tail and run”.

    A remarkably stupid statement. Though I do not always see eye to eye with Anderson there is no, repeat no evidence he does not love his country as much as the next person. It is a particular conceit of the right that they love America and those who disagree with them do not.

    I don’t know anyone on “the left” who thinks “America is always wrong”. There have been many instances where we were spectacularly right and have set moral standards of historic proportions. Viet Nam was just not one of them.

  21. Davebo says:

    A remarkably stupid statement.

    You Betcha!

    Welcome to the modern Republican party. How James continues to stomach it escapes me. But it is what it is. And apparently it’s a living.

  22. Eric Florack says:

    A remarkably stupid statement.

    Heh.. Have you noticed the charge seems to come up though every time you open your mouth? Eventually, a smart guy would figure out it’s not everyone else.

    Not you, though.

  23. PD says:

    The sole purpose for the war was “prestige,” (see PD Shaw’s comment above), and that’s exactly what we lost, not just by losing the war, but by fighting it in the first place.

    I think that’s a narrow interpretation of what I summarized (poorly I confess). Here is the exact quote from McNaughton on the war objectives of 3/24/65:

    US Aims: 70 percent—To avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor). 20 percent—To keep SVN (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands. 10 percent—To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. ALSO—To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used. NOT—To ‘help a friend,’ although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.

    That’s alliance “prestige” — the confidence that strategic treaty commitments will be kept. I don’t know whether the U.S. lost that; I believe some feel that the U.S. expended more than would be reasonably expected.

    I only introduced the ’65 quote to point out (a) that the war objectives were not reunification and were largely global, if not regional, and (b) this was true well before Nixon decided to run again.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    It must be so much easier to justify our loss in Vietnam by blaming elites, the media, Congress, and specifically, Democrats…nevermind the facts that Nixon orchestrated the winding down of the war which he knew was unwindable, or that the only way to have truly “won” was to do things that would have caused a larger war with China and the Soviet Union, or that the odds were incredibly stacked against us for intervening in what was, basically, a civil war with people who despised foreign intervention of any kind and fought such interventions to the death…I wonder if anyone can offer a reasonable explanation as to how anything that Anderson typed somehow contained “a whiff of a ‘liberal America Hater'”…

  25. anjin-san says:

    Heh.. Have you noticed the charge seems to come up though every time you open your mouth?

    I have not noticed it because it is not true. There are all sorts of insightful posts and comments on this blog, its one of the reasons I hang out here. One day perhaps, you will say something insightful and thoughtful. should that day come, I will be the first to shake your hand 🙂

  26. anjin-san says:

    Say bit, while we are here, why don’t you share your theory with the class about how we were two weeks away from victory in Viet Nam?

  27. Eric Florack says:

    I have not noticed it because it is not true.

    Oh, but it is, your constant denial not withstanding.

    Say bit, while we are here, why don’t you share your theory with the class about how we were two weeks away from victory in Viet Nam?

    If I’m not mistaken, I’ve already provided links to that point.

  28. DavidL says:

    It must be so much easier to justify our loss in Vietnam by blaming elites, the media, Congress, and specifically, Democrats…nevermind the facts that Nixon orchestrated the winding down of the war which he knew was unwindable.

    If Abraham Lincoin had heeded the advice of George McClellan, he would have concluded the American Cvil War was unwinnable. The mere fact that a military fool,such as Robert McNamara,was incapale of devising a winning strategy does not, in of itself, prove the the war was unwinnnable. In order to achieve victory, one must try to win. McNamara never did.

  29. Anderson says:

    But from you, I detect a whiff of a “liberal America Hater”. For whom America can never be right,and you would have us always “turn tail and run”.

    Of course, people who don’t want America’s young men to die in stupid, pointless wars that waste our treasure and decrease our power, must be “liberal America haters.” What else could we be?

    As to the merits, Gary Farber is correct, and good luck to anyone trying to win a war of attrition with Mr. Farber.

  30. anjin-san says:

    Well bit, no handshake for you today. Thanks for playing…

  31. sam says:

    @DavidL

    The mere fact that a military fool,such as Robert McNamara,was incapale of devising a winning strategy does not, in of itself, prove the the war was unwinnnable.

    Riiiight. And if Napoleon had had tanks, he would have won at Waterloo.

  32. DavidL says:

    Riiiight. And if Napoleon had had tanks, he would have won at Waterloo

    \

    June 6, 1944, the Germans hsd tanks, Panzers, We had Shermans. The Germams had Erwin Rommel. We had Ike.

  33. I would note that only a handful of years ago many were saying that Iraq was a “quagmire”, another Vietnam, unwinnable, etc., as well. Perhaps it is true that America could not win in Vietnam using the tactics and strategy they were stuck with then. But if we could use a time machine to drop General Petraus and his staff into the mix around 1965, who knows?

  34. An Interested Party says:

    In order to achieve victory, one must try to win.

    And, uh, how exactly could we have won in Vietnam without drawing China and/or the Soviet Union into a larger war? Surely it can be conceded that some wars are simply unwinnable, no matter how they are fought…

  35. DavidL says:

    And, uh, how exactly could we have won in Vietnam without drawing China and/or the Soviet Union into a larger war? Surely it can be conceded that some wars are simply unwinnable, no matter how they are fought.

    I took the Wayback Machine back to 1863. George B. McCellan agreed that the war was lost. On the other boot William T. Sherman only said that war is a hell and planned to make like hell for the rebels.

    Being unable to think outside a McNamara sized box does not establish the Vietnam was was unwinnable. Such thinking only gives comfort to some.

    For what it is worth, in the years since McNamara withdrew from planning the military efforts in Vietnam, nobody seems to have adopted this thoughts or studied his methods as a means of winning wars. In anything, the military, post Vietnam, has strongly repudiated everything McNamara preached, even if to a fault.

  36. Gary Farber says:

    “Being unable to think outside a McNamara sized box does not establish the Vietnam was was unwinnable.”

    And yet you fail to actually explain how the war could have been won. Assertion is not argument.

    Crucial point: we couldn’t win the war for the South Vietnamese. And they simply weren’t, in remotely large enough numbers, willing to die for a regime that the majority didn’t see as legitimate or beneficial. All the military abilities in the world, even setting aside the (non-set-asideable) issues of the Soviet Union and China, of an outside power can’t win a civil war for a side that isn’t willing to continue fighting in sufficient numbers with sufficient will against a side with indomitable will and sufficient numbers and logistical support.

    And South Vietnam collapsed for that reason: not because of any alleged lack of supplies. This is completely documented in every significant history of the late conflict that isn’t some sort of wacky polemic. The ARVN simply collapsed and ran away, in short, because they didn’t have sufficient reason to keep fighting. The U.S. simply could never do anything about that, no matter how it tried, and we didn’t exactly help by giving the greenlight to the coup against Diem, who himself was a creation of the French. After that, all South Vietnam was a series of former generals and colonels. They had no political legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the South Viethamese.

    Vietnam had no military solution; it was a political problem. And Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw that from the very start of Nixon’s presidency, as is entirely documented in the Nixon tapes, and in the memcons, and other documentation, as I again repeat as I’ve documented in my post, and as various historians have documented at tremendous length, and as anyone can listen to for themselves by listening to the tapes, and reading the now revealed memcons.

    Feel free to start here and here and the links therein.

  37. DavidL says:

    “Being unable to think outside a McNamara sized box does not establish the Vietnam was was unwinnable.”

    And yet you fail to actually explain how the war could have been won. Assertion is not argument.

    Crucial point: we couldn’t win the war for the South Vietnamese. And they simply weren’t, in remotely large enough numbers, willing to die for a regime that the majority didn’t see as legitimate or beneficial. All the military abilities in the world, even setting aside the (non-set-asideable) issues of the Soviet Union and China, of an outside power can’t win a civil war for a side that isn’t willing to continue fighting in sufficient numbers with sufficient will against a side with indomitable will and sufficient numbers and logistical support.

    Defeatism is is a mindset. Dirty Harry Reid declared the war in Iraq lost. Joseph Kennedy argued that we could not beat Nazi Germany. Saying a war can’t be won, and not being able to win are not the same thing.

    I am not formulating a strategy in win a war lost forty years ago. I am rejecting the modern day reincarations of George B. McCellanism.

    I can’t explain String Theory, but don’t argue against the theory.

  38. Gary Farber says:

    “I am not formulating a strategy in win a war lost forty years ago.”

    You’re also arguing not only without a regard for any facts, but without even having a theory.

    “I can’t explain String Theory, but don’t argue against the theory.”

    But you’re not giving any theory. You’re just saying that somehow, something could have happened, and you’re not going to bother to even suggest how. I might as well point out that in theory all the molecules of oxygen could suddenly spontaneously, without cause, leave Earth’s atmosphere, and then say you can’t prove it couldn’t happen. It’s not a very useful argument.

  39. Bystander says:

    Gary seems to have really done his homework here, so I will yield to his well thought out conclusions. I will say this, as a 20 year old ‘kid’ who had little interest in politics, and even less in fighting a war, I found myself unwillingly drafted and subsequently sent into this ‘military action’. I share this because I would like to make an ‘on the ground’ observation regarding the ARVNs we often joined in field operations: They were totally unmotivated and undependable. They had even less interest in fighting the VC or NVA than I did, and my interest was very low. When engaging in a firefight I fought to save my ass, and the ass of the guy on either side of me, not to make South VietNam a free nation. The ARVNs wouldn’t even fight to save their own asses. My how those little guys could run!

    If they had no interest in winning – or even fighting – I began to wonder what the hell I was even there for to begin with.

  40. Highlander says:

    In a perfect world Vietnam would have been easily winnable for a military colossus like America of 1965.

    But the world is not perfect as no doubt most of you have noticed by now.

    Our genius leaders stumbled into the quagmire step by step unto the die was cast, and there was no turning back.

    I think the Rubicon was crossed as early as 1963. When Johnny Kennedy quietly acquiesced to the overthrow and murder of the South Vietnamese leaders the Diem brothers( ironically Kennedy was murdered a few months later, sometimes what goes around comes around. Even for a Caesar).

    At that point ownership of the Vietnamese civil war came to us. And Vietnam became another proxy war among many during the struggle between communism and capitalism.

    You don’t always have to win militarily to win strategically in the long haul. Sometimes just the time you buy with a struggle (Vietnam and others). Will in the end put you in position for a checkmate on your opponent in the long term. The final collapse of Soviet communism in the late 1980’s is an example.

  41. Gary Farber says:

    “When Johnny Kennedy quietly acquiesced to the overthrow and murder of the South Vietnamese leaders the Diem brothers”

    Sort of. He acquiesced (in advance) on the overthrow, but not the killings; JFK signed off on the coup, but was shocked at the killings. He naively expected Diem to just be sent into exile, which was what the generals told Diem would happen if he surrendered. However, Diem didn’t surrender, and was captured and murdered in cold blood, along with his brother. JFK was badly disturbed, for what it’s worth (not much) that Diem and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu, were murdered.

    “You don’t always have to win militarily to win strategically in the long haul.”

    Colonel Tu to Harry Summers:

    In 1975, Army Col. Harry Summers went to Hanoi as chief of the U.S. delegation’s negotiation team for the four-party military talks that followed the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. While there, he spent some time chatting with his North Vietnamese counterpart, Col. Tu, an old soldier who had fought against the United States and lived to tell his tale. With a tinge of bitterness about the war’s outcome, Summers told Tu, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Tu replied, in a phrase that perfectly captured the American misunderstanding of the Vietnam War, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

    Digressively, did you happen to notice that Vo Nguyen Giap is still alive, and was making news only a week and a half ago?

  42. Gary Farber says:

    I might also point out the utterly basic fact that the entire premise of our support for the French in their war against the Viet Minh, and our subsequent taking over that war for them, was based on the myth of monolithic communism all being run by the masters of the Kremlin. This turned out, of course, to be complete nonsense. And by the early Sixties, the Sino-Soviet split was plainly obvious to anyone not in denial, and the nationalism of the Vietnamese was familiar to any scholar of Vietnam. Thus the subsequent brief Chinese-Vietnamese war. The whole theory of our war was completely wrong.

  43. Wayne says:

    “And yet you fail to actually explain how the war could have been won.”

    Let me explain it to you. You treat it like a war. You go all out minus the nukes. Bombing raids aren’t enough. You need feet on the ground. You take out the enemy means to conduct war which mean taking out their factories, leaders, and finance and supply lines. You do not wait for them to build units attack you and if you defeat them let them regroup and try again.

    Yes we were afraid of another Korea where we didn’t believe China would have got involve. Maybe the war would have escalated, maybe not. Even if they did we had a good chance of winning an all out plus\minus nukes. Would it have been worth it? Not in my opinion which regrettably puts me in agreement with AIP. However to say that there was no way short of nukes to win it is ridiculous.

    The ”it delay expansion argument” has some validity. However there were so many mistakes made including backing a corrupt system, politicians running the war, and public treatment of veterans to not take away some lessons but taking away the wrong lessons can be just as harmful as not learning from them.

    IMO we shouldn’t have got involved in Vietnam and it wouldn’t be worth the price to do what was needed to win the war. Could we have? Yes. Should we have? No. Should we have done things differently? Yes including not getting involved in the first place but once involved we should have done many things different also. Lessons should be learned within their realm. Someone stating how to win a war doesn’t mean they think it should be done.

  44. Wayne says:

    One more bitch, I hate it when the MSM or members of the public mistakes planning and preparing for a war scenario is the same as wanting it to happen. I hate it when someone says “OMG I hear the military has plans to invade Iran” or “plans for war with Russia” as a scary revelation. I would be scared if we didn’t.

  45. Gary Farber says:

    “You take out the enemy means to conduct war which mean taking out their factories, leaders, and finance and supply lines.”

    The factories and finance were in China and the Soviet Union, which is where the supply lines started. Short of declaring all out war on both these countries, what you suggest could not be done. You can’t take out factories in China and the Soviet Union without attacking them. You cannot take out their finance without conquering them. And there was no way to cut off the supply lines, period. The entire effort of the U.S. was devoted to doing that: everything was tried; besides aerial attack, a barrier of electronic sensors was tried; it simply wasn’t in the U.S.’s capability.

    “However to say that there was no way short of nukes to win it is ridiculous.”

    This wasn’t a decision that was up to America. It was up to the Soviet Union and China.

    And I think it was obviously the right choice for neither LBJ nor Nixon to launch full-out attacks on both, or either, China or the Soviet Union.

    “Someone stating how to win a war doesn’t mean they think it should be done.”

    Sure, but I’m pointing out that this “how” is in fantasyland.

    There were plenty of lesser mistakes the U.S. made, and military lessons to be learned, from the Vietnam War, but none of them had to do with somehow ultimately “winning the war.”

  46. Gary Farber says:

    “I hate it when someone says ‘OMG I hear the military has plans to invade Iran’ or ‘plans for war with Russia’ as a scary revelation. I would be scared if we didn’t.”

    For the record, I have absolutely no disagreement with that.

  47. An Interested Party says:

    Lessons should be learned within their realm.

    Indeed, like, don’t let ideology blind you into getting involved in another country’s civil war…

  48. G.A.Phillips says:

    June 6, 1944, the Germans Had tanks, Panzers, We had Shermans. The Germams had Erwin Rommel. We had Ike.

    Well don’t forget Patton, he wanted to take care of the Communist threat not to long after that, would it have cost a lot, very much I think, but what was the cost seeing we did nothing but appease them…..

    Let me explain it to you. You treat it like a war.

    For every war you should do this, heck every time someone is foolish enough to shoot a missile our way…..

    But if we could use a time machine to drop General Petraus and his staff into the mix around 1965, who knows?

    Ya a time machine, we sure could use one now to go get someone and then drop him off…..or did we….Bill?Ted?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyUX6wV1lBQ

  49. Franklin says:

    Well don’t forget Patton, he wanted to take care of the Communist threat not to long after that, would it have cost a lot, very much I think, but what was the cost seeing we did nothing but appease them…..

    Here I am, reading an intelligent discussion, when suddenly G.A. butts in and says one of his stupidest comments ever (and that’s saying something).

    In what way was Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, the nuclear arms race and the rest of the Cold War doing “nothing but appeasing Communists”? I’m guessing a lot of veterans feel they were doing a little more than that, you sniveling little yellow-bellied woodpecker.

  50. G.A.Phillips says:

    Here I am, reading an intelligent discussion, when suddenly G.A. butts in and says one of his stupidest comments ever (and that’s saying something).

    Because as always you miss the point.

    my point was if we had taken care communist threat in Russia then instead of giving them half of Europe would we have ever had to go to or do a Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, the nuclear arms race and the rest of the Cold War…….
    IT’S JUST A THOUGHT…….

    But I really I would love for you to TRY to say I dishonor veterans to my face…

  51. Gary Farber says:

    “instead of giving them half of Europe”

    We didn’t “give them” half of Europe; they took it from Germany at the cost of some 20,000,000 deaths. They won the war against Germany; we were a sideshow (primarily through lend-lease, which was of tremendous aid to the Soviet Union). We couldn’t have won a subsequent war against the Soviet Union, at best, without equivalent costs, if at all. Post-1949, it would have been a nuclear war, of course.

    And since in the end they collapsed peacefully, there’s hardly a good case to be made for having engaged in such a lunatic war.

  52. Highlander says:

    Gary,

    I think your analysis of Vietnam itself is quite accurate. But with all respect to General Giap’s observation and to the dead,the long run wasn’t about Vietnam.

    It was about which system would dominate the world,General Giap’s murderous communists or our merely avaricious capitalists. Vietnam and several other skirmish’s I participated in were merely proxy wars, side shows if you will.

    I was there last year, and I can assure you General Giap’s people’s paradise is going decidedly capitalist.

    We won the main event.PERIOD(without turning the world into a giant piece of charcoal)

    Now the question is can we hold it? Or will American capitalism SUBPRIME and CDO itself into oblivion? Are we just another late empire decadent Rome,waiting for the barbarian hordes and Chinese bankers to come for us? That is the relevant question.

  53. Wayne says:

    “The factories and finance were in China and the Soviet Union”

    We could have occupy the North and made it difficult for outside forces to supply them, sort of the way we did with Iraq although Iran did get some support in but not at the level if we didn’t have troops on the ground.
    Would the Soviet and China have been willing for an all out war? Many in hindsight don’t think so but one never knows. The U.S. was still gun-shy from it happing in Korea but who knows. I think if they saw we were serious about outside influence, they would back down.

    I have an old philosophy about war. Don’t get into it unless you willing to go all the way. In the end you will get into fewer conflicts since you pick fewer fights and others are less likely to pick a fight with you.

  54. Gary Farber says:

    “Would the Soviet and China have been willing for an all out war?”

    First of all, they wouldn’t actually have even had to use nukes; all they had to do is what China did, at the time with Soviet support, in Korea: pour in millions of their own Chinese troops, and some more Soviet advisors and pilots and equipment. Mao didn’t give a shit about how many troops he lost.

    And he had a lot of troops. As MacArthur found out.

    Second, while Kruschchev, and his sucessors, certainly did not in any way desire a nuclear exchange with the U.S. (Mao was more sanguine), they were willing to risk nuclear war when they felt their prestige was at stake, such as in Cuba, and Berlin. And that meant that there was insufficient reason for us to take that risk in Vietnam. The Soviets were extremely conscious of not being seen to clearly be backing down, just as we were, though the Soviets were even more so, lacking the general economic power and world influence of the U.S., and having a distinct inferiority complex about that that they constantly felt they needed to prove they did not, in fact, have. So even if somehow we could have held off a million Chinese soldiers — and I don’t know how we could have done that without nukes — the Soviets and Chinese were, in the end, all too likely to consider the use of nukes, and certainly so in the face of our using them.

    (Although Nixon, in some of his drunken moments, did rant about wanting to use nukes in Vietnam. But he never seriously proceeded with any such plans. For one thing, there simply wasn’t much practical use for them. Even if we’d nuked Hanoi, the North Vietnamese still would have just kept fighting, and Hanoi simply wasn’t logistically critical.)

    This all would have been, as said in Ghostbusters about crossing your streams, bad.

    Which is why eventually LBJ became, and from the start, Nixon was, convinced that there was no possible military solution to the Vietnam war. (The true blame certainly does lie with Johnson for not realizing it before his massive escalation. But Nixon then gets the blame for deliberately and consciously prolonging the war for another 5+ years purely for purposes of being re-elected and getting the same terms the North Vietnamese offered in 1968.)

    “I have an old philosophy about war. Don’t get into it unless you willing to go all the way.”

    Good philosophy. Same as never draw a gun unless you’re willing to shoot, and willing to kill.

    Bluffing when the stakes are deadly isn’t a smart bet.

  55. G.A.Phillips says:

    And since in the end they collapsed peacefully, there’s hardly a good case to be made for having engaged in such a lunatic war.

    Peacefull for who, plainly not for the millions and millions and millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of dead folks….

    ***MEDIAN: 51 million for the entire Stalin Era; 20M during the 1930s.***

    Not to mention the 100+million totaled deaths that were the product of doing nothing when we might have had a shot to stomp out Communism before it was to late, I suppose they died peacefully and all non lunatic like……

    Remember it’s just a thought…..

    http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat1.htm

  56. Gary Farber says:

    “Not to mention the 100+million totaled deaths that were the product of doing nothing when we might have had a shot to stomp out Communism before it was to late,”

    What year do you suggest we should have used what means of intervention to “stomp out Communism”? Should we perhaps have tried intervening on one side in the Russian Civil War? Or invading in 1946? 1956? 1962? Or what?

    I have to say that it’s a darn shame if you’ve retroactively figured out some way to “stomp out Communism” that would have worked, without losses that would have not compensated for the gains, but it never occurred to anyone at the time.

    You do have to do a cost-benefit analysis, I’m sure you realize, not just a pure benefit-only analysis, of whatever your proposal may be.

    “Remember it’s just a thought…..”

    Setting aside the typo of an extra dot in with your ellipsis and period, I’m unclear what the point of this disclaimer is. Are you suggesting we might not have realized it’s a thought without your labeling it as one? Or what?

  57. G.A.Phillips says:

    http://deathby1000papercuts.com/2008/08/gen-george-patton-georgia-fighting-and-pattons-russian-predictions/

    Setting aside the typo of an extra dot in with your ellipsis and period, I’m unclear what the point of this disclaimer is. Are you suggesting we might not have realized it’s a thought without your labeling it as one? Or what?

    yes, lol…. their are many here who do not understand such things as possible for any one parroting theirs…

    Patton quotes:

    If everybody is thinking alike,
    then somebody isn’t thinking.

    Do your damnedest in an ostentatious manner all the time.

    The object of war is not to die for your country
    but to make the other bastard die for his

    A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.

    I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.

    Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

    We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people.
    Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.

    A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.

    Courage is fear holding on a minute longer

    Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.

    I do not fear failure. I only fear the “slowing up” of the engine inside of me which is pounding, saying, “Keep going, someone must be on top, why not you?”

    Not all to the point but hey….

    It’s like when you discuss some thing and you say what if and I say ya but what if…..

    Not like when I say what if and you say well that has not been accepted by my acceptability programing, you can read a lot of books study a lot of conclusions come up with your own and reuse those of others…… I’m am not saying there is any thing wrong with it….

    but how do you go about cost analyzing a war or the effects of not having one in the past….I do by adding up the slaves, the deaths, and absolute evil or deluded good spread by the power of those who are victorious…..