Vietnam was our longest war. It is difficult to say just when it started or even, for that matter, when it ended, for Vietnam was a war we never declared. It was our first guns and butter war, with no declaration of hostilities, no mobilization of reserves, just a business-as-usual war with only the combatants inconvenienced.
It was a war we never declared, never supported by even the slightest national denial, and, if we did not win it, we didn’t lose it either. We simply quit.
It is difficult to mark a beginning date for the Vietnam engagement. Perhaps it began with the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the Geneva accord that followed later that year. As has so often happened in the history of diplomatic settlements—we need look no farther back than the divisions of Europe and Korea for evidence—the demarcation line negotiated by the diplomats in Geneva made no sense, either ethnic or geographic. More than a million Vietnamese came south below that new and artificial boundary, and a considerably lesser number headed north to the promised joys of communism, leaving behind well-trained Communist cadres. The United States, meanwhile, began taking on new responsibilities in Saigon from the French. Our military assistance efforts in the late ’50s were almost totally ground-force oriented. It was to be an army modeled after our own, capable of turning back a formal invasion by regular forces from the North. Little attention was given to developing either an Air Force or a Navy. The Army was where the money went. Meanwhile, the Viet Minh, supported from the outset by the Ho Chi Minh regime, had begun its work.
Alarmed by the increasing success of the Viet Minh, he dispatched, in September 1961, Gen. Maxwell Taylor—then retired and serving as a White House advisor—along with Walt Whitman Rostow and an assorted group of experts, aspiring experts, and bureaucratic opportunists to Saigon. The purpose of this expedition was to find out what America needed to do to prop up President Diem’s South Vietnam: not whether we should do anything, you understand, but what we should do.
Maxwell Taylor was an object of suspicion, particularly in the Air Force. He had left the Army after a distinguished career, bitter over the Eisenhower Administration’s reliance on a strategy that left the Army in an inferior position at budget time. His book, The Uncertain Trumpet, a well-written denunciation of that strategy, became a bestseller. It also attracted the attention of John Kennedy and resulted in Taylor’s appointment as Presidential Military Advisor, an appointment that made the active-duty establishment distinctly uneasy.
Walt Rostow was the number-two man in this expedition, a noted economist, all-around academic intellectual, and New Frontier star. Fortified with unbounded self-confidence, he was never in doubt about anything, at least not to my knowledge. Rostow had theories about counterinsurgency, and never mind his total lack of practical experience. He was eager to put these theories into practice. And so the disenchanted retired General with his deputy, the ebullient academician who “knew everything,” in the words of Norman Podhoretz, led us into Vietnam.
President Diem received us cordially, if somewhat shyly, for he was not an outgoing man, and he spoke no English. His French, however, was fluent and, happily for our small group, so was General Taylor’s. Thus we negotiated the first uneasy steps of an enlarged involvement in Vietnam’s struggle against a Communist insurgency. It was clear to us that day that President Diem was an exceptional man, educated, dedicated to his country, and essentially selfless in that dedication. It also became clear, quickly enough, that he was out of touch, a mandarin isolated in his palace and subject to the manipulations of his Rasputin brother, Nhu, and Nhu’s beautiful dragon-lady wife.
At any rate, we chose to work through accepted channels, depending on cooperation and persuasion to get our way. In the judgment of at least one expert at the time, a key British figure in the Malayan insurgency, we were destined to fail in Vietnam unless we held a firm political grip on the country. He put it to me in more colorful four-letter language, but that was the idea. If the British expert was right, we had made our first mistake. Perhaps, in view of what happened to Diem and the steady downhill run of successive South Vietnam governments, it was also one of our most costly ones.
For all their intellectual superiority, however, they were blind to one simple fact: The United States was engaging itself in Southeast Asia without strategy. We were concentrating on a place called South Vietnam, and there were maps to prove its borders existed. In real life, the borders did not exist, and Ho Chi Minh knew it. He, unlike our intellectuals, did have a strategy, one designed to win Indochina.
That is not to say we didn’t do some interesting things in Laos, but they were peripheral, mainly clandestine, and, in the end, of no real importance. The point is still this: Our initial efforts in Indochina were to be confined within the borders of South Vietnam. In all likelihood, we were the only people in Southeast Asia who really believed those borders existed.
Stage Set for Diem’s DownfallAs it happened, this event took place while a Southeast Asia Chiefs-of-Mission Conference was taking place at Baguio in the Philippines. Out of curiosity, I had sent two reconnaissance airplanes over the Saigon Palace to photograph the damage. Averell Harriman, the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs and a man not noted, shall we say, for humility, was excited when he saw our pictures. “There,” he said, “is our proof of Diem’s unpopularity. Don’t you agree?” I could only say that the pictures proved that two pilots had bombed the palace. Diem’s downfall began that day in Baguio.
So there are two more of our initial mistakes: No strategy, and engineering a coup against Diem without realizing the level of incompetence among those who would succeed him.
In those critical years between 1964 and 1968, before American public opinion had become mesmerized, the truly crucial targets were given sanctuary. Haiphong harbor, for instance, through which eighty-five percent of North Vietnam’s imports passed, was off limits, as was the mining of that harbor. We had a plan to sink the dredge which kept Haiphong’s channel clear. It was a simple and straight-forward job for a few fighters, and it would probably have tied the harbor in knots for a long time. That plan was disapproved. Instead, our airplanes were to go on giving signals. The places where the signals were to be given soon became predictable to the North, and our pilots paid the price.
Meanwhile, the war in the South became more and more our war, with an ever-increasing flow of US troops to the now curiously named Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. President Johnson, in the spring of 1965, had authorized the use of US ground troops in offensive operations against the insurgents in South Vietnam. This was the beginning of our search-and-destroy strategy, our escalating troop commitment with a consequent increase in casualties and, hence, the mobilization of the antiwar effort. It was also the beginning of the last and most unhappy phase of the Vietnam conflict.
Limited EffectivenessMcCone went on to say we were “starting on a track which involves ground operations which in all probability will have limited effectiveness against guerillas.” He urged, in this memo, increased use of air strikes against essential targets. In short, he advised taking the wraps off our airpower. If we were unwilling to do that, McCone said, we should not take the actions that would put our ground forces into combat. John McCone had it right, one of the few who did.
Despite this farsighted advice, we began the ground war in South Vietnam. For a long time it was Secretary of Defense McNamara’s war, with body counts, captured rifles, and other detritus from the daily fighting fed into the Secretary’s marvelous computer system. Thanks to that system, he was on top of every detail, and he worked long hours to stay on top. But this mass of information, the increasingly Byzantine command structure, the elaborate command posts at every level, and the blizzard of messages flying back and forth across the Pacific only served to obscure the basic and most important single fact about the Vietnam struggle: We had no strategy while the other side did. Laos and Vietnam were out of bounds for our side; the enemy, whose boundaries encompassed all of Indochina, could withdraw there whenever he was hard pressed. Targets in North Vietnam above the 20th Parallel were in forbidden territory, so the enemy, knowing this, could mass his surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery around the targets he knew we were going to hit.
The bombing began on December 18 and continued for eleven days, along with the mining of Haiphong harbor. Our press was outraged, and our relations in NATO were severely strained, notwithstanding the fact that the bombing was very accurate, sparing both civilian targets and civilians themselves far better than had been the case in World War II.
This Danish officer, an old friend, had been a German prisoner in World War II. Because he had been caught in the underground, he was not given military POW status but was, instead, doing forced labor in Hamburg when we and the British bombed that city. He said that according to Hanoi’s own account of the B-52 raids, our Christmas bombing was a marvelously precise affair, the damage in no way comparable to the damage he had seen in Hamburg. He could not understand why we didn’t make a better case for what we were doing.
Already Far Too LateIt was, however, too late for us—years too late. The Christmas bombings of 1972 should have taken place in 1965, before we had filled the Hanoi Hilton with aviators shot down while carrying out the absurd strategy of giving signals, before the ground war in South Vietnam had become our ground war with its never-ending search for an enemy to destroy, before this country had torn itself apart.
Our objectives in Vietnam were valid ones—perhaps, as President Reagan has said, even noble ones. True, the domino theory, which postulated the fall of Southeast Asia to communism if we didn’t take a stand in Vietnam, has been only partially confirmed. Nevertheless, Indonesia reversed its slide toward communism during our long Vietnam commitment. The Philippines and Thailand remain outside the Communist orbit. Had we been indifferent to Southeast Asia in 1961, those three countries, along with Malaya, might have gone a different route. Even the fall of South Vietnam itself, after our pullout, was made inevitable when Congress cut off the military pipeline to the South Vietnamese we had left behind.
Anyway, we sold our allies down the river. People who had been trained by us, and who had been fighting for a decade trusting in our support, were suddenly facing a North Vietnamese invasion without ammunition, fuel, or spare parts. As it turned out, the North Vietnamese had a more reliable supplier.
We can conclude our reflections on this melancholy era with a few brief observations, the validity of which is for you to judge. It appears certain we will see a continuing, even rising, number of Communist-sponsored, and Moscow-supported, insurgencies in the world. Some are going to be very close to home, and we will have an occasional military role to play in defeating these insurgencies, if, that is, we are serious about remaining a world power.
Dictates Accepted with DocilityFinally, I can’t help wondering, in retrospect, why we in the military accepted the vacillating and arrogant dictates of our civilian masters with such docility. The wasted opportunities, loss of aircrews over meaningless targets, and arbitrary and senseless rules of engagement were all constantly on the minds of senior military men. Yet, no one turned in his suit in protest.
Maybe, and this is the view of many, that kind of protest—even by very senior people—would have caused no more than a ripple. The fact remains that something is definitely wrong in the way our military makes itself heard.
A far more important failing, however, was the inability of the military to present to the President and the Congress a clear and persuasive war-winning plan. The Joint Chiefs, CINCPAC, and all the senior uniformed hierarchy were overshadowed by politically appointed civilians to an extent that went beyond the philosophical intent of civilian control. Instead of that control, Vietnam began an era of civilian domination.
Whatever the solution—and one has to be found to get unfiltered military advice out where it can be heard—the fact remains that we cannot fight any more wars the way we fought the one in Vietnam. We have concocted in our Defense Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, congressional, and White House relationships a formula for disaster—one where no one is in charge, and no one is to blame.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag