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