The Lessons of Vietnam

Sept. 8, 2008
Our failed adventure in Vietnam continues to cast its shadow on events today. The very name Vietnam has become a code word meaning, to a substantial vocal element in this land of ours, any exercise of military power—however small—in support of national policy. Because we are faced with grave threats, perhaps the gravest ever, in Latin America, the Mideast, the west Pacific, wherever we look, we must exorcise the Vietnam ghost if we are ever again to assert ourselves with confidence. It will not be easy.

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 in which the aberrant behavior of a young misfit with lieutenant’s bars attracted far more attention than daily acts of heroism, most of which will remain forever unnoticed. The fact that Lt. William Calley of My Lai infamy was commissioned at all is a reflection of national attitudes. Too many of our better-educated young men had figured out ways to beat the system, thus making it necessary to commission the Calleys.

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.

Finally, just to leave a lasting bad taste in the mouths of those who did go to that war and who performed honorably, President Carter welcomed home the deserters with what seemed more warmth than had ever been shown the veterans, welcomed Tom Hayden to the White House, and rewarded Ramsey Clark by making him a special envoy. It was, all in all, a sorry era.

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.

Humiliating Setback

Here at home, a new and glamorous young President had received a humiliating setback at the Bay of Pigs only a few months after a stirring inaugural speech in which he had promised we would go anywhere and do anything in the defense of liberty. What he would not do, it turned out, was to provide the air cover necessary for the success of that little excursion, but that is another story. What we are concerned with here is Vietnam, and that came into focus for John Kennedy in the fall of 1961.

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.

Along the way, the Taylor group picked me up. I was then commanding the Thirteenth Air Force in the Philippines, but whether I was added to the party as the representative of Admiral Felt, Commander in Chief, Pacific, or as that of General LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, was never clear. Both these gentlemen informed me separately I was their man, along to keep the game honest.

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.

Anyway, General Taylor accepted me as an addition to his group without questioning my sponsorship. And, it is fair to add here, I soon became an admirer of Maxwell Taylor’s formidable intellect, whatever his service bias—a bias, incidentally, that did not surface during our Vietnam survey.

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.

It was the beginning, as closely as we can put a finger on it, of our Vietnam War.

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.

The First Crossroad

In retrospect, this was our first crossroad, and we took the wrong route, for we plunged ahead in our planning for American military involvement without first getting a political hold on Diem. That was the time to put our own éminence grise in the Saigon Palace. In fact, we had such a man who could have pulled it off. He would doubtless have been acceptable to Diem on the basis of a past close relationship, but he was anathema to our own State Department. I am referring, of course, to the then recently retired Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, USAF, the behind-the-scenes hero of Magsaysay’s triumph over the Philippine Huks, and the “Quiet American” of Graham Greene’s sardonic novel about Saigon in the early ’50s. Ed Lansdale’s methods, however successful, were too unorthodox for the diplomats.

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.

It is difficult now, at this growing distance, to realize the arrogance, the almost incredible self-assurance, of our civilian leaders in those early and heady days of the Vietnam adventure. This was to be the great experiment in counterinsurgency, the vindication of President Kennedy’s inaugural promise. The same people who viewed themselves as members of an elite intellectual establishment became the strategists, and even the tacticians, of this battle against the Viet Minh.

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.

So that is how we started out, with the best intentions in the world, honorable intentions by any standard, but wholly innocent of the realities. We were determined to put down an insurgency within an artificial state. Ho Chi Minh had in mind the consolidation of all of Indochina—Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—under Hanoi’s rule. He must have had trouble believing his luck when we declared North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia out of bounds.

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.

The first cadres under the revitalized Vietnam military assistance effort, as recommended by General Taylor, were an impressive lot. On the Army’s part, they were regular and highly trained professional soldiers, and they came willing and able to straighten out the bedraggled Vietnamese Army. As for the Air Force, we put in our first special forces unit, nicknamed Jungle Jim, and they too were there to do a job. The Vietnamese Air Force had never amounted to much: its commander, for instance, was a lieutenant colonel and thus too far down the pecking order to get even a word in at the palace. Besides, President Diem did not trust his aviators, a suspicion confirmed only a few weeks after had gotten him to loosen the ties on his Air Force, when two of his pilots bombed the palace, then flew off to Phnom Penh.

Stage Set for Diem’s Downfall

As 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.

Events in the Gulf of Tonkin the evenings of August 2 and 4, 1964, changed the nature of the war radically, but not nearly enough. Following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 7, 1964, by the Congress, the President was empowered to make retaliatory air strikes against the North. In other words, we now had two wars: One in the South, essentially supervised by the US Army, and an air war in the North under the auspices of the Navy and the Air Force. And here was a great Vietnam turning point. The targeting, the bomb loads even, became the fascinating preoccupation of the highest Washington officials. Our strategy, as devised by these politicians, became one of giving signals.

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.

Those four years ending in 1968 were almost certainly the years of opportunity lost. Even the first air strike retaliation for the Tonkin Gulf incidents was a single effort. Nothing more would happen until we had another reason to retaliate. Our purpose in making air strikes, as announced by Secretary of State Dean Rusk that August, was to prevent a Communist “miscalculation.” It accomplished just the opposite, for it allowed North Vietnam a few months’ time to get its air defenses in order.

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.

John McCone, then Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was alone among the Washington hierarchy in his misgivings about this curious decision, one which unreservedly sent American men into ground battle while keeping a tight rein on our air forces. McCone, in a very private memorandum to Secretaries Rusk and Robert McNamara, objected to the limitations on air strikes. “With the passage of each day and week,” he said, “we can expect increasing pressure to stop the bombing. This will come from various elements of the American public, from the press, the United Nations, and world opinion. … I think the North Vietnamese are counting on this.”

Limited Effectiveness

McCone 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.

Years later, President Nixon, out of frustration with Hanoi’s tactics in the Paris negotiations, turned the B-52s loose on North Vietnam, the so-called Christmas bombings of December 1972. As Henry Kissinger has related it, Hanoi had become greedy.

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.

I was in NATO at the time and had to receive formal protests from several of my colleagues in the Military Committee. A particularly forceful complaint was read to me on behalf of his government by the Danish general who then asked if he could sit down. He undid his uniform jacket, accepted a cup of coffee, and apologized for what he had been required to do.

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.

We all know the results of those eleven days. Their antiaircraft missiles expended, their supply lines cut, the North Vietnamese came back to the peace table, and an agreement was quickly reached. We also have the word of Sir Robert Thompson, the celebrated counterinsurgency expert, that we had the war won that December and could have ended it on almost any terms we wished.

Already Far Too Late

It 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.

This final and vengeful act is inexplicable except in the context of the time. More than anything else, the denial of military supplies to our South Vietnamese ally was a product of Watergate, itself perhaps the most overblown affair in American history. Whatever the motivation behind this congressional action, the effect on South Vietnams forces was predictable and calamitous. The Vietnamization process had worked surprisingly well as our troops were withdrawn, and the South Vietnamese forces, by the end of 1973, were beginning to make a credible showing. True, their retreat from the Laos incursion was a disorderly affair, a fact the entire American public knew from our ubiquitous press cameras. In fairness to the South Vietnamese, it is worth remembering there were no television cameras at Kasserine Pass or in the first days of the Korean War.

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 have seen the justification for our Vietnam involvement in the hundreds of thousands of boat people who have fled Vietnam, risking death and, at the very best, a bleak future, rather than facing life under the Hanoi regime. It is a strange and sad result for a conflict we could have won without hundreds of thousands of troops or a nation torn and divided. Maybe it would not have stayed won, but it need not have turned out the way it did. Those humiliating last days in Saigon, ending with the helicopter evacuations from our embassy roof, are a poor way for us to remember a war that was fought for a good end, and with great gallantry, by so many. For the Air Force Academy’s own Lance Sijan, for example, the imagination, and for the aviators imprisoned in Hanoi, tortured and isolated, there is nothing in our history to equal their bravery.

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.

We should, however, restrict that role to things we know how to do. Bashing around in a strange land with major formations of ground troops is not one of those things. Expert ground soldier advice with small cadres of professional soldiers is. So is the provision of air and naval support when the situation calls for that kind of effort, for these are things we know how to do better than anyone.

Dictates Accepted with Docility

Finally, 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.

It is fashionable, and largely correct, to blame most of our Vietnam errors on Robert McNamara and his fellow bureaucrats. Nevertheless, the military must take some of it on as well. There was the pernicious business of interservice rivalry, for instance, which sometimes almost confused the issue of the enemy’s identity. Vietnam was, after all, the only war we had, each service had some things to prove, and never mind the overall objective.

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.

The problem, it seems to me, lies in our system. The Department of Defense has become a bureaucratic monstrosity, and the services, in self-defense, have followed suit. There is no lack of intelligence in uniform; on the contrary, it is at a very high level, as anyone who deals with individual military people can testify. Unhappily, our system filters out the wisdom in the interest of some kind of final consensus. The Joint Chiefs’ organization, by its very nature, is incapable of reaching a decision discomfiting to any one service. Hence, the least common denominator is sought. The civilian authorities, on being presented with such waffled advice, are reinforced in their contempt for the military mind.

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.

Gen. T.R. Milton’s byline is familiar to regular readers of this magazine through his monthly “Viewpoint” column and insightful feature articles on aspects of airpower. He commanded bomber units in Europe during World War II, and held a series of high-level command and staff positions after the war. Prior to his retirement from the Air Force in 1974, he was a US Representative to the NATO Military Committee. This article is adapted from the fourth Eaker Lecture on National Defense Policy given by General Milton at the Air Force Academy in 1982.