It has become the conventional wisdom that the US was predestined to lose the Vietnam War. According to this orthodoxy, the Vietnamese communists were too determined, the South Vietnamese too corrupt, and the Americans incapable of fighting the kind of war that would have been necessary to prevail.
Despite its origins as a staple of left-wing political opinion, the claim that the US defeat in Vietnam was inevitable now transcends ideology. This reality was driven home to me several years ago when the editor of a conservative opinion journal rejected an essay discussing whether or not the US could have won the war in Vietnam that he had commissioned me to write.
In this essay, I concluded that, in fact, the US had won militarily by 1972. Despite continued pressure, US-ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) military successes against the North Vietnamese in 1968-1971 had helped to stabilize the political situation in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The improved political situation, combined with economic improvements, was solidifying the attachment of the rural population to the South Vietnamese government. Although much remained to be accomplished, the overall performance of ARVN forces during the Easter Offensive of 1972 indicated that "Vietnamization" was working.
I argued that had the United States made it clear that it would continue to provide air and naval support, the RVN would have survived as a political entity. But despite his sympathy with my point of view, the editor chose to kill my piece, arguing that I had not provided enough hard evidence to support my argument against the entrenched conventional wisdom.
Lewis Sorley's important new book, A Better War, provides the evidence I lacked. Although it is flawed in some ways, A Better War persuasively refutes the conventional wisdom concerning the Vietnam War. As such, it is bound to stir up a storm. Building on his excellent biographies of Army generals Creighton Abrams and Harold Johnson, Mr. Sorley examines the largely neglected later years of the conflict. He concludes that the war in Vietnam "was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the US Congress."
Mr. Sorley rectifies an imbalance in the treatment of the Vietnam War. Most studies of the war itself focus on the years up until 1968. Those studies that examine the period after Tet (1968) emphasize the diplomatic attempts to extricate the US from the conflict, treating the military effort as nothing more than a holding action.
But to truly understand the Vietnam War, it is absolutely imperative to come to grips with the years after 1968. A new team was in place. Gen. Abrams succeeded Gen. William Westmoreland as commander US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (USMACV) shortly after the Tet offensive. He joined Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of US ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring. William Colby, a career CIA officer soon arrived to coordinate the pacification.
Mr. Sorley contends that, far from constituting a mere holding action, the approach followed by the new team constituted a positive strategy for ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. Ambassador Bunker, Gen. Abrams, and Mr. Colby "brought different values to their tasks, operated from a different understanding of the nature of the war, and applied different measures of merit and different tactics. They employed diminishing resources in manpower, materiel, money, and time as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn. They went about that task with sincerity, intelligence, decency, and absolute professionalism, and in the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace."
Unfortunately, the specter of Robert McNamara has led analysts to over-emphasize the early years of the war, making rational debate about the Vietnam War as a whole difficult if not impossible. All too often, the history of the war has been derailed over the question of when Mr. McNamara turned against the war and why he didn't make his views known earlier. But as Mr. Colby observed in a review of Mr. McNamara's disgraceful memoir, In Retrospect, by limiting serious consideration of the military situation in Vietnam to the period before mid-1968, historians leave Americans with a record "similar to what we would know if histories of World War II stopped before Stalingrad, Operation Torch in North Africa and Guadalcanal in the Pacific."
Mr. Sorley focuses less on the shortcomings of Robert McNamara than on those of Gen. Westmoreland, whose tactics, the author claims, "squandered four years of public and congressional support for the war." Gen. Westmoreland's operational strategy emphasized the attrition of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in a "war of the big battalions:" multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such "search and destroy" operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.
Gen. Abrams' approach emphasized not the destruction of enemy forces per se but protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas. He then concentrated on attacking the enemy's "logistics nose" (as opposed to a "logistics tail"): since the North Vietnamese lacked heavy transport within South Vietnam, they had to preposition supplies forward of their sanctuaries preparatory to launching an offensive. Fighting was still heavy, as exemplified by two major actions in South Vietnam's Ashau Valley during the first half of 1969: the 9th Marine Regiment's Operation DEWEY CANYON and the 101st Airborne Division's epic battle for "Hamburger Hill." Most people don't realize that in terms of US casualties, 1969 was second only to 1968 as the most costly year. But now NVA offensive timetables were being disrupted by preemptive allied attacks, buying more time for Vietnamization.
In addition, rather than ignoring the insurgency and pushing the South Vietnamese aside as Gen. Westmoreland had done, Gen. Abrams followed a policy of "one war," integrating all aspects of the struggle against the communists. The result, says Mr. Sorley was "a better war" in which the United States and South Vietnamese essentially achieved the military and political conditions necessary for South Vietnam's survival as a viable political entity.
The defenders of the conventional wisdom will reply that Mr. Sorley's argument is refuted by the fact that South Vietnam did fall to the North Vietnamese communists. They will repeat the claim that the South Vietnamese lacked the leadership, skill, character, and endurance of their adversaries. Mr. Sorley acknowledges the shortcomings of the South Vietnamese and agrees that the US would have had to provide continued air, naval, and intelligence support. But, he contends, the real cause of US defeat was that the Nixon administration and Congress threw away the successes achieved by US and South Vietnamese arms.
The proof lay in the 1972 Easter Offensive. This was the biggest offensive push of the war, greater in magnitude than either the 1968 Tet offensive or the final assault of 1975. The US provided massive air and naval support and there were inevitable failures on the part of some ARVN units, but all in all, the South Vietnamese fought well. Then, having blunted the communist thrust, they recaptured territory that had been lost to Hanoi. Finally, so effective was the eleven-day "Christmas bombing" campaign (LINEBACKER II) later that year that the British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson exclaimed, "you had won the war. It was over."
Three years later, despite the heroic performance of some ARVN units, South Vietnam collapsed against a much weaker, cobbled-together NVA offensive. What happened to cause this reversal?
First, the Nixon administration, in its rush to extricate the country from Vietnam, forced South Vietnam to accept a cease fire that permitted NVA forces to remain in South Vietnam. Then in an act that still shames the United States to this day, Congress cut off military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. Finally, President Nixon resigned over Watergate and his successor, constrained by congressional action, defaulted on promises to respond with force to North Vietnamese violations of the peace terms. Mr. Sorley describes in detail the logistical and operational consequences for the ARVN of our having starved them of promised support for three years.
The major shortcoming of A Better War is that some may dismiss Mr. Sorley's treatment of Gen. Abrams as hagiography, permitting them to ignore an extremely important book. Mr. Sorley's discussion of Gen. Abram's "new" strategy is a case in point.
The fact is that Gen. Abrams' strategy was not the innovation Mr. Sorley makes it out to be. The strategy Mr. Sorley attributes to Gen. Abrams protecting the Vietnamese population by controlling key areas had characterized the Marine Corps approach to the war since the initial introduction of US ground combat units in 1965 and was part of a longstanding debate between the Marines and the Army over ground strategy for Vietnam.. Ironically, given Mr. Sorley's claim, Army officers frequently dismissed this approach as indicative of a lack of aggressiveness on the part of the Marines. This criticism comes through loud and clear in Gen. Westmoreland's memoir, A Soldier Reports, his rather weak denial notwithstanding.
There is a further irony. In Thunderbolt, his 1992 biography of Gen. Abrams, Mr. Sorley relates that Gen. Abrams rejected a proposal to make Marine Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, a major architect of the Marine approach in Vietnam who had not been selected as Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1968, his deputy at MACV. "In my judgment," he wrote, "no Marine has the full professional military qualifications to satisfactorily discharge the military responsibilities of the office" because a lack of tactical imagination and slowness to innovate were endemic to the Marine Corps as a whole. Yet it was the Marine approach that Gen. Abrams adopted when he became Commander USMACV, albeit without attribution.
Mr. Sorley has provided a major challenge to the conventional wisdom. Accordingly, we can expect A Better War to be attacked, or more probably, ignored by those who have a vested interest in portraying the Vietnam War as uniquely brutal and unjust, a conflict the United States deserved to lose to a more virtuous enemy, and those who fought it as either victims or brutal savages.
I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads: "I don't know what happened. When I left, we were winning!" A Better War demonstrates that such a sentiment is not as farfetched as some might think.