On Memorial Day (US), the Vietnam War should serve as a stark reminder that the greatest way for America to continue to honor those who made the greatest sacrifice for our country is to have a coherent strategy.
The Vietnam War is one of the most complicated wars in American history. The first American military advisors arrived in Vietnam in 1950, during the Truman administration. It was five years before the Vietnam War officially started. The last American soldiers would withdraw from Vietnam in 1973.
In between, there were 58.281 American deaths, and upwards of three million Vietnamese civilian and military deaths. The effects of American weapons continue to devastate Vietnamese and Cambodians today due to the continuing impact of Agent Orange, unexploded cluster munitions, and landmines.
The politics, the humanitarian issues, and the decision to go to war in the first place are going to be a discussion for another time.
Today, I want to put the focus squarely on one point: what was the U.S. vision for victory? What was the US strategy?
The answer can be found in the Pentagon Papers, the documents that were leaked and published in the New York Times, and later the Washington Post in 1971. Covering secret U.S. Government documents from 1945 to 1967.
One of the biggest bombshells from the Pentagon Papers was the revelation that a 1967 military assessment of the situation in Vietnam indicated that they saw no viable path to military victory. This was particularly impactful in 1971, after 4 intervening years of thousands of American deaths and promises that these would lead to an inevitable American victory.
Furthermore, a Defense Department memo from March 24, 1965, titled “Plan for Action for Vietnam” listed a set of priorities and reasons for continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam:
- 70% – To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).
- 20% – To keep [South Vietnam] (and the adjacent) territory from Chinese hands.
- 10% – To permit the people [of South Vietnam] to enjoy a better, freer way of life.
- ALSO – To emerge from the crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used.
- NOT – To help a friend, although it would be hard to stay in if asked out.
That is, there was no plan. There was no strategic vision. The US was remaining in Vietnam and continuing to fight, primarily because to not do so was a humiliation, not because there was a viable path to victory.
One thing it's helpful to ask is why the US military saw no path to victory in 1967—these details are not included in the Pentagon Papers, but even a short study of Clausewitz will indicate even to an amateur why the Vietnam War was unwinnable.
Clausewitz’s Strategic Principles and Vietnam
In its simplest form, Clausewitz states that there are three primary objectives in war. To paraphrase, in decreasing order of preference:
- To destroy the enemy army, or to destroy a portion of the enemy army without which they cannot continue a viable resistance.
- To destroy the enemy’s ability to sustain and supply its army by capturing territory, and severing the transportation or production of goods.
- To demoralize the enemy, by inflicting unacceptable losses or through the capture of areas of symbolic importance, such as the enemy capital.
Clausewitz would likely assess Vietnam as “unwinnable” for the United States because the US operations did little to nothing to further any of these three objectives.
The American experience in the Korean War colored the way America viewed the Vietnam War. In Korea, the US had pushed into North Korea in pursuit of a military victory, only to alarm China enough to intervene directly in the conflict. Battling China in a land war resulted in a bloody stalemate that erased any American gains by pressing into North Korea.
At a very early stage, American intelligence assessed that a direct invasion of North Vietnam by US forces was likely to trigger a similar response from China. Although the U.S. would expand its operations to include bombardments or raids of North Vietnam at times, there would be no invasion of North Vietnam, and no attempt to occupy North Vietnamese territory.
This meant U.S. forces would simply defend South Vietnamese territory against North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacks.
At this early stage, one could argue that the U.S. had no viable path to victory, given the political situation in Vietnam.
- On the defensive, the U.S. could not hope to destroy the enemy army. The North Vietnamese could attrit the U.S. Army by slow and small-scale actions, and never risk having its army destroyed. Even if military units were destroyed, it would not cripple the North Vietnamese military ability.
- With invading North Vietnam not politically viable, the only way to destroy North Vietnamese logistics was to bomb them. When this campaign failed, the only viable path to American victory effectively failed.
- Victory by attrition or morale was unlikely to succeed, because the North Vietnamese believed they were defending their homeland, while the South Vietnamese army was constantly demoralized and unwilling to fight. U.S. troops would have to continue to sustain losses until North Vietnam was unwilling to continue to do so, which was an unlikely prospect.
Therefore, the US strategy in Vietnam could be characterized as “endless attrition in hopes that North Vietnam will eventually give up.” In this circumstance, it seems unsurprising that military analysts in the Pentagon were calling the situation one with no viable path to victory.
No amount of American firepower, tactical superiority, or logistical ability could make up for this lack of strategic direction.
The supporters of the war at the time presented the war in terms that make a continued effort seem worthwhile, emphasizing the disparity of American vs. North Vietnamese losses, of superior American firepower and military ability. However, based on Clausewitz’s strategic principles, none of those factors indicate U.S. was getting any closer to victory.
Given a detailed accounting of the political and military situation in 1968 or 1969, I think it is highly likely that Clausewitz would have agreed that Vietnam was an unwinnable war for the United States.