Lessons of Vietnam
it possible for the United States to preserve a non-communist
Victory requires breaking an adversary’s
will to fight or its capacity to wage war.
We do know what did not work: commitment
of over 500,000 US troops; release of over 8,000,000 tons
of bombs on suspected enemy targets; and a strategy of punishing
North Vietnam from the air while attempting to grind down
enemy strength in the South via seeking out and destroying
his big units in the Central Highlands and around the DMZ.
dismissed the alternative of a population protection--or enclave—strategy.
He chose to kill communist regulars rather than protect friendlies,
no doubt in part because he mistakenly assumed that by doing the
former he was accomplishing the latter. Underestimation of North
Vietnam's tenacity, overestimation of its vulnerability to strategic
bombing, and an inability to kill enemy troops in the field at
a rate exceeding the communist side's capacity to replace them
(the notorious "cross-over point").
to Westmoreland's conviction that search-and-destroy would deprive
the communists of the initiative, the enemy for most of the war
managed to control his own casualties by determining the initiation
of as much as 88 percent of all tactical engagements. Until
the Tet Offensive, the communist side sought population control,
not territorial acquisition, and therefore routinely refused combat
except in the most favorable circumstances.
Lyndon B. Johnson listens to tape sent by Captain Charles
Robb from Vietnam, 07/31/1968,
LBJ Library photo by Jack Kightlinger
Was the Vietnam War winnable?
Despite a commitment of over 500,000 ground troops
and the release of over 8 million tons of bombs on suspected enemy
targets, the United States failed to preserve a non-Communist
South Vietnam. Read Jeffrey Record’s essay “Vietnam
in Retrospect: Could We Have Won?”
Answer the following questions:
What strategy did the United States adopt in Vietnam?
2. In what ways did the United States underestimate its adversaries
and overestimate its own strengths?
3. Do you think a different strategy would have been more successful?
4. What would victory in Vietnam have required, or was victory
not a realistic objective?
The Lessons of Vietnam
After the end of Persian Gulf War in 1991, Colin
Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined his
vision for efficient and decisive military action. His plan is
now referred to as the Powell Doctrine.
He said that six questions
must be answered before U.S. forces could be committed to combat
1. Is A Vital U.S. Interest At Stake?
Before the United States goes to war, there must a clear risk
to national security
2. Will We Commit Sufficient Resources To Win?
Force, when used, should be overwhelming and disproportionate
to the force used by the enemy.
3. Are Our Objectives Clearly Defined?
In Powell’s words: "We owe it to the men and women
who go in harm's way to make sure that this is always the case
and that their lives are not squandered for unclear purposes."
In addition, there must be a clear exit strategy from the conflict
in which the military is engaged.
4. Will We Sustain the Commitment?
Is the government prepared to sustain the effort if things go
5. Is There A Reasonable Expectation that the
Public and Congress Will Support the Operation?
There must be strong support for the campaign by the general public.
6. Have we exhausted our other options?
Military action should be used only as a last resort.