Find a Security Clearance Job!


Vietnam:  Lessons Learned
AUTHOR Major Clarence Mariney,USMC
CSC 1989
                       EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Thesis.  The U.S. civilian and military leadership failed to
heed  the  lessons of the past during the Vietnam war.  They
underestimated the enemy and the nature of the war.
Issue.  The collective U.S. leadership  failed  to  consider
the   historical   context  or  the  Vietnam  war.  Adequate
consideration was not given to  the  previous  conflicts  in
Vietnam.  Over the centuries, the Chinese, the Japanese, and
the  French  have  attempted to exert control over Indochina
unsuccessfully.  Out of this experience, the Vietnamese have
forged a strong  collective  identity.  Its  leadership  has
demostrated  a  strong  national  resolve  and resistance to
foreign domination as was evidenced by  the  defeat  of  the
French  at  Dien  Bien  Phu.  The conflict with the U.S. was
seen as  just  a  continuation  of  2000  years  of  foreign
oppression.  The  North  Vietnamese  were prepared to accept
limitless causalties in its conflict with the United States.
In formulating a strategy to defeat  the  North  Vietnamese,
the  U.S. military leaders did not completely understand the
nature of the war.  The  U.S. civilian  leadership  fail  to
invoke  the  national  will with a declaration of war.  This
produced a strategic vulnerability that our enemy  was  able
to exploit.  In this regard, the lessons from the Korean war
were overlooked.
Conclusion.  In  retrospect, one can only wonder if the U.S.
civilian  and  military  leadership   had   understood   the
historical  context and will of the enemy, would a different
strategy have been employed more successfully?  We  did  not
take the time to examine the lessons learned from the French
involvement  in Indochina.  We failed to understand that the
enemy's goals were as political as they  were  military.  In
the future our leaders should be aware of and take advantage
of  past  experience.  They  must  also  carefully consider,
define, and communicate to the American people what are U.S.
vital interests and which interests are we  willing  to  die
                     VIETNAM: LESSONS LEARNED
Thesis Statement.  The U.S. civilian and military leadership
failed to heed the lessons of the past during the Vietnam
war.  They understimated the enemy and the nature of the
I.   Vietnamese history
     A. Affect on American foreign policy
     B. Vietnamese resolve
     C. Foreign domination
     D. Vietnamese identity
II.  U.S. involvement in Vietnam
     A. Imposition of U.S. values
     B. Vietnamese attrition strategy
     C. U.S. bombing campaign
     D. Vietnamese determination
     E. Kissinger's annihilation strategy
III. U.S. Policy
     A. Counterinsurgency strategy
     B. U.S. decision not to declare war
     c. U.S. vital interests
                    VIETNAM: LESSONS LEARNED
     "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it."   Whether one agrees with Santayana or not, the
only proven method of learning from past mistakes is either
through ones' own experience or that of others.  While this
does not guarantee success, or that events will occur under
the same circumstances, it provides a frame of reference for
making decisions. We often repeat the same mistakes either
because we refuse to heed past lessons learned or because we
are simply ignorant of them.   For the civilian leader, it
could mean the security of the country.  For the military
leader, it could mean both  the death of him and his men and
the security of his nation. The U.S. civilian and military
leadership failed to heed the lessons of the past during the
Vietnam war.
     Henry Kissinger stated the following:  "Vietnam is
still with us.  It has created doubts about American
judgement, about American credibility, about American
power--not only at home but U.S. involvement throughout the
world.  It has poisoned our domestic debate.  So we paid an
exorbitant price for the decision that we made in good
faith."(1:436). Although U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended
in 1973, debate still continues as to whether or not the war
was for a just cause and as to the reasons why the United
States did not accomplish its objectives.  Many argue that
the  U.S. won  the war on the tactical level but lost on the
only level that matters--the strategic, political level.  In
some cases the military leadership has been  criticized  for
employing  an  inadequate  military  strategy  to  defeat  a
communist insurgent movement, for  misleading  the  civilian
leadership  and  the  American  people  by  providing overly
optimistic assessments that the war was being  won, and  for
being  more  concerned  about their careers than winning the
war.  Similarly, it has been maintained  that  the  civilian
leadership  placed  so  many  political constraints upon the
military leaders responsible for  conducting  the  war  that
made  it  impossible  to  win.  Whatever  the  merits of the
various reasons for our failure in Vietnam, the  war  should
be  a  lesson  that  will  help  us  to  learn from our past
     First, the  U.S. civilian   and   military   leadership
underestimated  the will, determination, and capabilities of
its enemy, the North Vietnamese.  "You can kill  ten  of  my
men  for every one I kill of yours.  But even at those odds,
you will  lose  and  I  will  win."(1:169).   The  preceding
statement  by  Ho Chi  Minh  reveals  the determination and
resolve of the North Vietnamese to do whatever necessary  to
resist  foreign  occupation  which  over   the centuries has
included  the  Chinese, the  Japanese, the  French, and  the
United States.
     Vietnam's  history is a litany of resistance to foreign
domination.  Formed in the  Red  River  Delta, Vietnam  fell
1287, and  successfully  resisted another Chinese occupation
from 1407 to 1427.  Direct colonial rule began in 1858  with
a  series of French military thursts.  By 1883, the whole of
Vietnam was under French control and administered as part of
French Indochina.  French colonial rule continued until  May
7, 1954, when the French were defeated at  Dien Bein Phu, at
which time the United States entered the conflict.(4:2-4)
     Out  of  this experience the Vietnamese forged a strong
collective identity.  In addition to   a  single  language, a
shared  tradition, and  a  united   territory was an image of
heroic resistance to foreign  rule.   Leaders  who  fulfilled
this  image  could  attract  intense   loyalty  and  enormous
sacrifice from  the  population.    But  those  leaders   who
succumbed to  foreign  pressure, or   accommodated foreigners
for personal gain could not count on public  support, except
from  a  small  percentage  of  the population--that portion
that had benefited from foreign exploitation.
     If  the  French  adventure   in   Indochina   was   the
"grasshopper"   against   the   "elephant", then, the   U.S.
involvement was a microbe against a leviathan. The essential
reality of the struggle was that the North Vietnamese imbued
with an almost fanatical sense of dedication to a  reunified
Vietnam, saw  the  war  against  the  United  States  as the
continuation of two thousand years of resistance to  Chinese
and   later  French  rule.  They  were  prepared  to  accept
limitless casualties to attain their objective.  General  Vo
Nguyen Giap, the Communist commander, discounted the life of
thousands  of  human  beings.  He  spoke  of  fighting  ten,
fifteen,  twenty, fifty  years, regardless  of   cost, until
"final victory."(1:18).
     American  strategist  applied  their  own values to the
Vietnamese.  General   Westmoreland   believed    that    by
"bleeding"  them, he  would  awaken  their  leaders  to  the
realization that they were draining their population "to the
point of national disaster for generations," and then compel
them to sue for  peace.  Even  after  the  war, Westmoreland
stated, "An  American  commander who took the same losses as
General Giap would have been  sacked  overnight."(1:18). The
enemy's perseverance was confirmed by American civilians and
soldiers  who served in Vietnam.  Patrick J. McGarvey, a CIA
analyst, noted in 1969 that no price was too high  for  Giap
as  long  as  he  could  deplete  American  forces, since he
measured the situation not by his  casualties, but  by  "the
traffic   in  homebound  American  coffins."(1:18).   Konrad
Kellen, a RAND Corporation expert  stated, "Short  of  being
physically destroyed, collapse, surrender, or disintegration
was--too   put   it   bizarrely--simply   not  within  their
capabilities. "(1:18).
     The ability to accept the casualties which the U.S. war
of attrition imposed was central to  the  success  of  North
Vietnamese  strategy. Their  attacks  were  designed to have
maximum  psychological  effect. They were able to choose the
time and place of most  of  their  attacks  that  were  most
advantageous  to  them. Therefore, with the exception of the
TET offensive, they were able to control their casualties by
avoiding contact with opposing  forces  when  desired  .  In
effect this attrition strategy was a test of wills which the
United States could not endure. (2:65).
     Neither could intensive bombing of the North Vietnamese
break  their resolve.  The United States dropped 7.8 million
tons of bombs during this war, an amount  greater  than  the
total dropped by all aircraft in all of World War II.(4:89).
Since  the North Vietnamese, unlike Germany in World War II,
did not possess munitions plants or industries vital to  its
war     effort, targets    such    as    roads, bridges, and
transportation complexes were targeted.  Such targets  could
be  quickly  repaired, moved, or  circumvented and therefore
had to be bomb again and again.  Nor could intensive bombing
curtail the flow of men and supplies over the  Ho  Chi  Minh
trail.  Evidence  suggests    that  the  heavy  bombing only
increased the resolve of the  North  Vietnamese  resistance.
Strategic  targets  in major population centers could not be
bombed  due  to  political  considerations.  General  Curtis
Lemay, U.S. Air  Force  advised "bombing them into the stone
age."(4:91).  Yet in 1972 after the most  intensive  bombing
of   the  North  had  destroyed  virtually  all  industrial,
transportation, and communications  facilities  built  since
1954, flattened three major cities and twenty-nine  province
capitals, the North's party leaders replied  that  they  had
defeated  the U.S. "air war of destruction".(4:97)  Short of
nuclear destruction, or  an  all  out  invasion  of    North
Vietnam, as  some  advocates  suggested, the  air  war alone
could  not  force    the  North  Vietnamese  to  succumb  to
pressures  that  the British and Germans had survived during
World War II.
     Only  much  later  did  American  officials  begin   to
perceive  the  determination  of the North Vietnamese.  Dean
Rusk, secretary of state under Kennedy and  Johnson, finally
admitted  in  1971 that he had personally underestimated the
ability of the North Vietnamese to resist.  General  Maxwell
Taylor, who   had  contributed  to  Kennedy's  decisions  on
Vietnam and served as Johnson's ambassador in Saigon, stated
the  following:    "First, we  didn't  know   ourselves.  We
thought  we were going into another Korean war, but this was
a different country.  Secondly, we  didn't  know  our  South
Vietnamese  allies.  We  never understood them, and that was
another  surprise.  And  we  knew   even  less  about   North
Vietnam.  Who  was  Ho  Chi  Minh?  Nobody really knew.  So,
until we know  the  enemy  and  know  our  allies  and  know
ourselves, we'd  better  keep  out  of  this  dirty  kind of
business. Its very dangerous. (1:19).
     Kissinger, like  his  predecessors, never   found   the
breaking  point  of  the North Vietnamese.  He had concluded
that they  would  compromise  only  if  menaced  with  total
annihilation.   The  North Vietnamese agreed to a cease fire
in  October  1972  only  after  he  had  handed  them  major
concessions  that were to jeopardize the future of the South
Vietnamese government. (1:19)
     Harry Summers  , in  his  book, On  Strategy, concluded
that  the  U.S. military  leadership  failed to perceive the
true nature of the Vietnam war. He  states  that  there  are
still   those   who   would  attempt  to  fit  it  into  the
revolutionary war mold and  who  blame  our  defeat  on  our
failure to implement counterinsurgency doctrine.  This point
of  view  requires  an  acceptance  of  the North Vietnamese
contention that the war was a civil war, and that the  North
Vietnamese regular forces were an extension of the guerrilla
effort, a point of view which is not supported by the facts.
Summers  suggest  that the North Vietnamese insurgency was a
tactical screen masking their real  objective, the  conquest
of South Vietnam through conventional means.(3:83-90)
     Summers  further  states that the failure to invoke the
national will was one of the major strategic failures of the
Vietnam war.  It produced a strategic vulnerability that our
enemy  was   able   to   exploit.  If   the   Constitutional
requirement  for a congressional declaration of war had been
accomplished, it  would  have  insured  public  support, and
through  the legal sanctions against dealing with the enemy,
impeded public dissent.(3:17-19).
     This act of committing American forces in a remote part
of the world without a formal declaration of war  leads to a
more fundamental consideration  of  exactly  what  are  U.S.
vital  interests?  This  was  the  same  question during the
Korean war, the U.S.'s first undeclared  war.  The  U.S. was
directly  threatened  during  WW I and WW 11( the bombing of
Pearl Harbor and the sinking of U.S. ships).  North  Vietnam
posed  no  direct  threat  to  the U.S.  The reason for U.S.
involvement in Vietnam was to contain  communist  expansion.
However, even this policy of containment was not intended to
be  applied  on  the  Asian continent.(1:7O1).  Based on the
history of the American people and their  relationship  with
its  army, a  prolong  war  cannot  be supported unless U.S.
interests are directly threatened. The  U.S. does  not  have
the  resources to commit forces to every corner of the globe
that is threatened by external, oppressive regimes.
     In retrospect, one can only wonder if the U.S. civilian
and military leadership had understood the  motivations, the
historical  context  and  perspective of the enemy , would a
different strategy have   been  employed  more  successfully?
General  Westmoreland , in his retrospective analysis of the
war, stated that the inability to understand the  enemy  was
"the  basic error" in the conduct of the war in Vietnam.  We
failed  to  understand  that  the  enemy's  goals  were   as
political as they were military.
1. Karnow, Stanley.  Vietnam: A History.  New York:  Viking
     Press, 1983.
2. Kinard, Douglas.  War Managers.  New Hampshire:
University      Press 1977.
3. Summers, Harry. On Strategy.  California:  Persidio Press
4. Turley, William. The Second Indochina War.  New York:
     Westview Press, 1986.

Join the mailing list