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The Lessons of Vietnam

Was it possible for the United States to preserve a non-communist South Vietnam?

President Lyndon B. Johnson listens to tape sent by Captain Charles Robb from Vietnam, 07/31/1968, LBJ Library photo by Jack Kightlinger

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.

U.S. strategy: attrition

Westmoreland 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").

Contrary 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.

President 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:

1. 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 abroad.

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 wrong.

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.

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