A Discarded Victory
On the day when Saigon fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam, I was attending a meeting with ten or fifteen of my fellow associates at a New York City law firm. A latecomer brought the news that General Minh, President of South Vietnam for 40 hours, had surrendered unconditionally to the local commander of the communist forces. Never will I forget the looks of glee that broke out around the conference room. My own somber expression drew sarcastic expressions of gloating sympathy.
My colleagues, like me, had attended college in the 1960’s and law school in the early ’70’s, and their views, not mine, were the prevailing sentiment of that generation of educated, sophisticated men and women, as indeed of many of their elders. To them, the collapse of South Vietnam, America’s ally for 20 years, was a long-desired triumph.
A quarter century has now passed, and the world is a very different place. The widespread scorn for imperfect anti-communist regimes and the belief that their forcible overthrow would mean, in the words of a notorious New York Times headline, “For Most, A Better Life” now looks wrongheaded and quaint. I’m sure that every one of those young lawyers who applauded the North Vietnamese victory in 1975 now remembers himself as a staunch Cold Warrior, proudly displays the American flag on his home, car or lapel, and cheers on our troops in the war against terrorism.
Part of the American adjustment to winning the Cold War has been to distort and forget the reasons for the most serious setback that we suffered along the way. In our collective memory, the Republic of Vietnam collapsed because it was unpopular, incompetent, dictatorial - morally equivalent to the regime in Hanoi and far less capable. That historical image has great advantages for our domestic tranquillity. It dampens vindictiveness against those who loudly and sometimes violently opposed the U.S. military effort. They did not undermine a crucial ally, we tell ourselves. The anti-war protestors were merely quicker than everybody else to recognize that the ally wasn’t all that crucial and in any case couldn’t be saved.
Lewis Sorley’s history of the last eight years of the war, from the 1968 Tet Offensive, which convinced Walter Cronkite and many other liberals that victory was impossible, through President Mihn’s capitulation, is a direct challenge to the vulgate version of the conflict. As Dr. Sorley points out, histories of the war concentrate heavily on the first few years, from the introduction of U.S. advisors in 1964 through Tet. That was the period of the American military build-up and of escalation of both the literal war in Southeast Asia and the figurative one at home. Those developments reached their climax with Tet ’68. After that point, the war was different, as the U.S. steadily reduced its commitment while changing both tactics and strategy. Sorley calls it “a better war”. It certainly was a more successful one, even though it ended in failure.
In general outline, the narrative of A Better War is this: By the beginning of 1968, the United States had a huge military force in Vietnam that it was using ineffectively. Battalion and larger sweeps against elusive enemy combat forces (“search and destroy” missions) ran up a large, though misleadingly exaggerated, body count without doing much to weaken the Viet Cong’s alternative governmental structure or help the South Vietnamese achieve the capabilities needed for their own defense. The Tet Offensive, though a fiasco for the enemy, demonstrated that the old approach, championed by General William Westmoreland, was not working. It led Westmoreland’s successor Creighton Abrams (the hero of the book - its major fault is that the hero worship often approaches hyperdulia and grows irritating) to reevaluate how the war was being fought and re-center the American role around three principles: providing security for the countryside (with “clear and hold” superseding “search and destroy”), improving the quality, size and equipment of the South Vietnam’s forces, and cutting off enemy supply lines through Cambodia and Laos.
As Dr. Sorley sees it, and he offers plenty of supporting data, this new war was successful on all counts, so much so that by 1970 the conflict had effectively been brought to a close with a U.S.-RVN victory. At that high point, the Viet Cong had all but vanished, maintaining an effective hold over less than 10 percent of the rural population, South Vietnam had a million men in its regular armed forces and another four million in auxiliary formations, and these troops had shown themselves better than their communist counterparts, albeit not as good as General Abrams wanted. The enemy had lost the ability to bring in supplies through Cambodia, and the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” through Laos was had gone from a superhighway to a pothole-ridden back alley.
These momentous successes were, however, virtually invisible to the American public, an increasingly large segment of which wanted nothing more than to leave Vietnam on any terms. The Nixon Administration, sensitive to the political winds, temporized by rapidly reducing U.S. ground strength in Vietnam while committing itself to giving logistical, air and artillery support in sufficient quantity to enable the Republic of Vietnam to repulse any attack from the North.
The defeat of the 1972 Easter Offensive, though hard-fought, showed that this formula could work. The invasion was North Vietnam’s largest effort of the war (greater than the 1975 final offensive). The fighting revealed deficiencies in the South’s top leadership but also demonstrated, in such actions as the defense of An Loc, that its junior officers and troops were of high quality.
Dr. Sorley’s narrative makes a strong case that the 1972 formula would have continued to work, had it only been kept up. Instead, it was abandoned. The Paris peace accords, signed in January 1973, allowed the North to keep in place forces that remained in the South’s border areas and effectively ended interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Promises to provide military support were unfulfilled. Instead, Congress vindictively cut aid to the point where, on the eve of the final battles of the war, the South Vietnamese army’s daily ammunition allowances had dwindled to 1.6 rounds per rifleman, 10.6 rounds per machine gun, 1.3 rounds per mortar and 6.4 shells per 105mm howitzer. Some soldiers bought grenades with their own money. Air, armor and artillery forces shrank. The South Vietnamese Chief of Staff calculated that, at the 1974 level of fighting, his army would run out of fuel by mid-May 1975 and would have no ammunition left by June.
On the other side, there was abundant support from the Soviet Union and Red China, and the route through Laos was free of hindrance. Between January 1974 and the war’s end 15 months later, the tonnage of supplies transported by that route was 60 percent greater than the total of the preceding 13 years.
In the words of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker,
I gave Thieu personally three letters from President Nixon committing us, in case of a violation of the Paris agreements by the other side, to come to their assistance. Well, the other side violated the agreements almost from the day they signed them. . . . but we never came to their assistance, because Congress refused to appropriate the money. The result was, and as each day went by, the South Vietnamese had fewer guns, fewer planes, fewer tanks, diminishing ammunition with which to fight, while the North was being fully supplied by the Soviets and the Chinese. The result was inevitable.
Dr. Sorley does not think much of President Nixon or his promises, but the degree of Nixon’s sincerity turned out not to matter. No matter what had occurred in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal would have doomed him to leave office in disgrace, and Gerald Ford had neither the political strength nor, in all probability, the serious desire to rescue the South Vietnamese from defeat. As the country’s defenses crumbled, he declared that for America the war was over and symbolically washed his hands of Vietnam.
From a strictly military point of view, the outcome of the Vietnam War is inexplicable. After the defeat of its 1972 invasion, the Hanoi regime posed little threat. It had scarcely any local infrastructure outside the peripheral areas of the South directly occupied by its troops. Its military establishment needed massive rebuilding and had lost whatever qualitative edge it had ever had over the ARVN. Technological advances made U.S. air power increasingly effective as a substitute for ground forces.
What sank South Vietnam was American refusal to continue to furnish material and financial support at the minimal levels needed to keep the communist supply routes through Laos closed and the ARVN battle worthy. Dr. Sorley is understandably bitter about this abandonment and takes pot shots at those, from Defense Secretary Melvin Laird to the general assembly of the United Methodist Church, who were willing to see a friendly nation murdered before their eyes.
It is probably unfair, though, to blame the debacle solely on those who overtly or covertly opposed American involvement. The principal lesson of Dr. Sorley’s account, albeit not one that he himself draws, is that U.S. policy in Vietnam was fatally undermined by lack of confidence in ourselves and our allies. I can recall only a handful of articles from the 1970-73 period that called attention to how well South Vietnam was doing, and no one, on the Right or the Left, was advocating what would have been, in retrospect, the winning strategy of American ground troop withdrawal accompanied by continued air support and supply line interdiction. All sides of the debate took it for granted that the Republic of Vietnam was a feeble state confronted by a powerful and resolute foe, whereas the true situation was very nearly the opposite.
The other large lesson of the book, again implicit rather than explicit, is one that military history has taught time and again but that no one ever learns: No doctrinal rule of thumb is always right. General Westmoreland, whose leadership Dr. Sorley criticizes so heavily, conducted the war in accordance with principles that are taught in all military academies and that usually work: Defeating the enemy’s armed forces is the key to victory; emphasis on holding geographical positions is the path to defeat. The Westmoreland approach was active, took the war to the enemy and played to the U.S. strengths (firepower and mobility) while deemphasizing weaknesses (outpost defense, cooperation with locals). General Abrams’ strategy was essentially passive: Anti-communist forces set up secure areas and waited to be attacked. There is no doubt that Abrams was wrong in theory, even less that he was right in practice.
It is possible that Westmoreland was also right. The severe blows dealt to the communist forces in 1966 and 1967, including the much-derided body counts, may have been the necessary foundation for the successes achieved during Abrams’ tenure. The author, perhaps blinkered by hero worship, does not explore this aspect of the question.
If the Soviet Union had won the Cold War, Vietnam would now be remembered as a decisive clash, and a book like A Better War, if it could be written and published, would be read as a tale of lost opportunities. Although circumstances are far happier, there is still much to be learned from the story that it tells. As our country enters a new era of conflict, we need to glean from the previous one as much wisdom as we can.