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Vietnam and After: Failure in the Vietnam War and the Enduring Defects in US Strategic Culture

Vietnam and After: Failure in the Vietnam War and the  Enduring Defects in US Strategic Culture Vietnam and After: Failure in the Vietnam War and the  Enduring Defects in US Strategic Culture
To cite this article: Walton, C. Dale, “Vietnam and After: Failure in the Vietnam War and the Enduring Defects in US Strategic Culture”, Infinity Journal, IJ Special Edition, “Strategic Misfortunes”, October 2012, pages 25-28.

The resources that the United States allocates to national security inspire awe. The precise amount spent annually is open to debate—among other things, the figure arrived at is impacted considerably by what percentage of national debt payments are counted (reflecting past spending) and how factors like equipment depreciation and pensions (which will impact future spending) are treated. In any case, however, the expenditures are staggering—sufficient, for example, to cover the entire cost of Alexander the Great’s bid for global hegemony many times over. Unlike Alexander’s Macedon, however, the United States does not typically win its wars anymore—the US military history of the past half century largely is a dismal tale of outright loss (the Vietnam War), de facto defeat (the Afghanistan War), and Pyrrhic-victory-at-best (the Iraq War). There are exceptions, of course—most notably, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as well as are a variety of small wars against powers ranging from the minor to the microscopic; the latter category includes the Kosovo War, the invasions of Panama and Grenada, and similar operations. Nevertheless, the general arc is clear.

The US armed services are an extraordinary strategic instrument, and have been throughout the period under discussion. The image of the US Army in Vietnam as a drug-addled rabble owes more to urban legends about the supposed ubiquity of officer “fraggings” and the script of the decidedly fictional Apocalypse Now than actual history. The US military, particularly the Army, did suffer discipline problems in the Vietnam era, mostly in the later years of the war with rear-echelon units and, especially, ones stationed outside of Vietnam itself. The services responded to this by implementing successful reforms that purged the ranks of troublemakers and reimposed discipline. Yet, the excellence of the US military itself does not guarantee strategic success; indeed, a paradox of the sort which Edward N. Luttwak described in his classic Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace bedevils Washington: because their military is such an impressive tool, American civilian leaders feel a great temptation to use it, and they do so too liberally, often without having carefully and realistically weighed the likely long-term consequences of military action.[i]

When fighting second and third-rate enemies, operational excellence generally is sufficient to avoid complete humiliation in the short-term; the US military is sufficiently competent that it has not allowed an enemy to win a major tactical victory since the Korean War. The Tet Offensive of 1968, though widely perceived as a defeat for the United States, in fact was perhaps its greatest battlefield victory of the conflict: the indigenous Viet Cong suffered a bloodletting from which it never recovered, and the revolution in the South effectively was crushed. From that point forward, keeping the war alive required ongoing very large-scale infiltration by North Vietnamese forces (People’s Army of Vietnam – PAVN). The Iraqi and Afghan enemies of the United States have failed even to win a dubious victory of the sort enjoyed by the Viet Cong: they have proven incapable of overwhelming all but the smallest US units. When they have attempted to do so, as the Taliban did in the early months of the Afghan conflict, they have suffered accordingly, as their efforts played directly to the defining US military strength from the Second World War onward: quickly bringing crippling firepower to bear against enemy targets. Thus, both Iraqi and Afghan insurgents had little choice but to rely on terroristic tactics, killing and wounding American troops through sniping, the planting of improvised explosive devices, and similar methods.

Ending Wars: Afghanistan and Iraq

The inability of these foes to win large-scale battlefield victories against US forces, however, did not make strategic success impossible for them. Indeed, it could even be said to have encouraged them to focus their efforts on a dimension of war in which they enjoyed a singular advantage over Washington: time.[ii] The Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars are dissimilar in many obvious respects, but alike insofar as both involve the United States fighting an expeditionary war on foreign territory against non-great power foes.[iii] These circumstances clearly are distinct from those facing Washington in many of its other conflicts; for instance, the Second World War provides a vivid contrast. From mid-December 1941 onward, it was entirely obvious even to the most politically disinterested American that a crushing military and political victory was the only acceptable outcome to the war in which the United States had finally become formally engaged. The precise character of that victory might be debatable — whether something less than unconditional Axis surrender might be contemplated, for instance — but, in any case, the war must not end with either the Japanese Empire in command of the Western Pacific and the Rimland of Asia or a hostile Nazi superpower consolidating its control over the bulk of the resources, industry, and population of the European continent.

The Vietnam War was a more vague endeavor. Certainly, the United States government was attempting to prevent South Vietnam (more formally, the Republic of Vietnam – RVN) from falling to communist control, and — aside from the more radical elements of the left and the tiny surviving remnants of the isolationist right — there was broad public agreement that the United States should resist the spread of communism in general and Soviet and Chinese power in particular. Whether it was especially important that the RVN survive was, however, a rather more difficult question — indeed, over time discussion increasingly shifted away from the importance of the country itself and focused on whether its collapse would damage US credibility as a protecting power more generally.

The motive for the US occupation of Afghanistan was plain — the Taliban’s refusal to surrender Osama Bin Laden and his associates in a prompt and appropriately contrite manner — but what precisely the United States is attempting accomplish now in that country is not altogether clear. The fantasy that Afghanistan could be turned into a stable democracy has long since evaporated. At this point, it seems that President Obama is repeating the experience of his predecessor Richard Nixon: saddled with a unpopular and apparently endless war which he did not begin, he is mainly trying to avoid national (and personal) disgrace and wind down US involvement on acceptable terms. President Nixon, however, was in a somewhat superior position for an ironic reason: he and his subordinate Henry Kissinger were negotiating the American exit from Vietnam with the icy leaders of a totalitarian enemy state.

Throughout most of the Vietnam conflict, the United States fought in a very constrained fashion. The Johnson Administration — deeply fearful of the possibility that China might enter the war and enamored of the notion that “graduated escalation” was the appropriate methodology for attaining US goals at minimal risk — always conducted the war diffidently. The United States even left much of Hanoi, not only the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) but also its most important industrial city, and the port of Haiphong, the key point of entry for the Soviet and Chinese war materiel that made the PAVN’s expeditionary conflict possible, untouched by its bombing campaign, despite having the ability to devastate both cities at will. Throughout most of his first term, the Nixon Administration was more assertive than Johnson’s in some respects — undertaking, for example, Operation Menu, the bombing of North Vietnamese troops and facilities in Cambodia in 1969-70; however, it largely continued the American policy of caution in the use of violence against the North. The results were as unimpressive as one might expect, but by early 1972, the Administration’s successful efforts to effect a rapprochement with China had given the president the confidence to increase the military pressure on Hanoi through efforts such as the mining of Haiphong Harbor and initiation of the Linebacker I bombing campaign, which hit a range of previously excluded targets.

As a result, Hanoi’s massive 1972 operational push (called the “Easter Offensive” by the Americans), was broken, with very heavy losses to the PAVN in both men and materiel. From August 1969 onward, Kissinger and his DRV counterpart, Le Duc Tho, had held secret negotiating sessions, but following the collapse of the offensive the prospects for a settled peace appeared especially promising. By October, the general outlines of a US-DRV peace agreement existed, but Hanoi remained cagy, still seeking favorable revisions and refusing to finalize an agreement.

In November 1972, Nixon won an impressive electoral victory over Democratic Party nominee George McGovern, but the president nevertheless was rightly concerned about the possibility that the incoming Congress, with Democratic majorities in both houses and a very strong Congressional “peace wing” which included many liberal Republicans, might undermine his efforts to achieve a favorable peace. At the same time, Saigon opposed any peace settlement that did not contain various concessions — such as the recognition of the South Vietnam as a separate, sovereign state by the DRV — that Hanoi certainly would not grant.

Given his temporarily strong but nonetheless precarious position, Nixon decided on the risky gambit of giving the DRV a very sharp shove — the massive Linebacker II bombing campaign. The campaign that occurred from 18-29 December (interrupted in the middle by a 36-hour stand-down for Christmas Day) was operationally devastating. The United States took significant losses — including the shooting down of fifteen B-52s and significant damage to several others — but North Vietnam was gravely wounded, its air defenses largely destroyed and its highly sophisticated logistics network (briefly) wrecked. Nixon’s gamble succeeded: in January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed.

There is no Afghan equivalent of the government in Hanoi: the forces undermining Afghan stability are a motley collection of tribal warlords, religious fanatics, drug lords, kleptocrats, Pakistani intriguers, and generic thugs. Many individual actors fall into more than one of these categories. Moreover, unlike the leadership of the DRV, many of them lack the intellectual discipline necessary to make prudent strategic decisions; the generals running Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appear to have a special genius for devising elaborate plots, which invariably backfire and cause chaos in Pakistan itself. Given all this, even if Obama possessed the will to unleash violence on a Nixonian scale, it would make no difference.

The closest equivalent to the DRV perhaps is the government of Pakistan, but of course it formally is a US ally. The practical reality is considerably more complex — Islamabad is more enemy than ally — but, even leaving aside all considerations of global diplomacy and US domestic political opinion, violence directed against the Pakistani government would be deeply counterproductive. The simple truth is that Afghan stability is not especially important to the overall security of the United States; however, Pakistani stability is important, particularly insofar as that country possesses a sizable nuclear arsenal which might fall into very unsavory hands if Pakistan collapses into anarchy. Thus, it would unwise to take any action that might fatally damage the chronically unhealthy government of Pakistan. Even if that worst-case scenario did not transpire, it would certainly be undesirable if one or more of the factions within Pakistan’s military leadership – angry and humiliated by US action – decided to ramp up their efforts to undermine US interests. The apparent links between the ISI and the terrorists who conducted the 2008 Mumbai attacks serve as a stark illustration of how spectacularly imprudent many Pakistani policymakers are; if sufficiently motivated, they might even attempt to organize attacks on US embassies or other targets.

Aside from Pakistan, there is no potential negotiating partner remotely worthy of the name. The United States already has accepted the indignity of negotiating with the Taliban, but its efforts to negotiate an acceptable peace ultimately will prove futile. The Taliban is not a unified body, but rather a set of factions loosely united by ethnicity (as an instrument of Pashtun supremacism in Afghanistan), religious obscurantism, and a loathing of the West and its values. Even if a peace agreement is extracted from “the Taliban”, factional rivalry soon will render it worthless. Thus far, both the Obama Administration and its Republican opponents apparently are unwilling to accept – regardless of precisely how the US ends the war – that it already has been lost. American withdrawal (correctly) will be perceived globally as an operational retreat reflecting a strategic (and policy) failure — the collapse of the US effort to craft even a modestly convincing imitation of a modern, democratic, and secure Afghan state.

It was possible to craft a better outcome to Vietnam, and the Nixon Administration did so. The Paris Peace Accords hardly reflected a stunning US victory and, indeed, were somewhat embarrassing — particularly the tacit acceptance of a permanent PAVN presence in South Vietnam and the refusal of the DRV to recognize that country’s legitimacy — but their terms, if enforced, insured an (admittedly very imperfect) US strategic victory in Vietnam. The core US goal was the survival of a non-communist South Vietnam and the core DRV goal was the absorption of that country — therefore, at the time that the treaty was signed there was every reason to believe that the United States had won the Vietnam War, just as it had in essence won the Korean War. These were frustratingly incomplete victories, but ones that allowed for the survival of a weak post-colonial Asian ally confronted by a stronger communist counterpart.

The Paris Peace Accords did not permit a continuing US military presence of the sort still ongoing in South Korea — but, given the US domestic political atmosphere of the time, the maintenance of a large US military force in South Vietnam would not have been feasible in any event. South Vietnam, however, was not without the ability to defend itself — the serious “Vietnamization” efforts of the Nixon era had shown considerable success. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) did not have the man-for-man fighting power of the US Army of the day, but neither did the PAVN. The question was whether it was good enough to insure the RVN’s survival even against an invasion on the scale of the 1972 Easter Offensive. The answer almost surely was “yes,” provided that two conditions were met: first, continued provision of ample financial and military aid to the South; second, direct US military intervention should the DRV ignore the Accords and mount a full-scale invasion.

South Vietnam, however, was then doomed by a bizarre series of events. The Nixon of January 1973 was a respected global statesman with a domestic stature sufficient to enforce the Accords militarily, if need be — but the Watergate scandal soon thereafter began to corrode his status radically. In June, a much-weakened Nixon was compelled to accept a (constitutionally very questionable, as it seriously constrained the president’s authority as the commander-in-chief) ban on the expenditure of funds for military operations in Southeast Asia after 15 August 1973. The following year he resigned office, and the 1974 Congressional elections resulted in a Congressional majority strongly inclined to starve Saigon of aid. As the PAVN offensive gained momentum in early 1975, President Gerald Ford faced a bleak choice. He could have ordered the American military to intervene on behalf of the RVN, thus directly challenging Congress’ attempt to hamstring the commander in chief. Doing so, however, would have caused the greatest US constitutional crisis since the Civil War. Alternately, he could observe helplessly as strategic gains made at the cost of tens of billions of dollars, and nearly 60,000 US (and hundreds of thousands of allied) lives were tossed away. When all factors, domestic and international, are considered, he probably was wise to choose the latter course. The fact that the US Congress obliged him to make the decision, however, was an act of shocking strategic irresponsibility.

The end game in Afghanistan of course will be radically different from that in Vietnam. Most likely, either the second Obama or first Romney Administration will continue the current policy of slowly winding down the war until, finally, it can quietly end US combat operations altogether (a concluding stage similar to the one in Iraq). Yet both conflicts reflect a central flaw running throughout US strategic culture: an unwillingness on the part of most US civilian policymakers to apply Clausewitzian analysis – applying military violence in a well-considered way and crafting an intelligent strategy that ultimately furthers US policy aims at an acceptable price.

Conclusion: American Anti-Clausewitzism

One might fairly describe US strategic culture as “Anti-Clausewitzian”, not in the sense that it has consciously rejected Clausewitz but that (aside from within the US military) there is very little appreciation of the need to apply force in a thoughtful manner, assessing the likely financial, diplomatic, and human costs of war and creating a strategy that realistically should result in desired ends being achieved at an acceptable price. This is what Colin S. Gray has dubbed “the Strategy Bridge”, and it is a calculation that has been critical to success in statecraft since before humans developed the written word.[iv]

Precisely why US strategic culture has developed this unhealthy characteristic is complex, reflecting both moral attitudes — most US policymakers find coldly rational discussions of warfare distasteful, preferring to couch discussions of interest in happy vagaries about “spreading democracy” and “American values” — and the tapestry of US history.[v] It is clear, however, that the United States has not, throughout most of its history, been incapable of rationally connecting political ends and military means. Small, weak republics on the Eastern Seaboard of North America do not become continental superstates if they are incapable of using violence ruthlessly and effectively against a variety of foes.

In 1975, a reasonable observer might argue that the outcome of the Vietnam War was an anomaly, the calamitous ultimate outcome of the strategic ineptitude of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and a collective madness that descended upon Capitol Hill as a result of anger at Nixon for Watergate and longstanding frustration with Saigon as an ally. In 2012, however, it is obvious that there is a strong continuing pattern of poor US strategizing regarding the use of military power.

Not only was the strategy for Afghanistan unrealistic, but the planning for the invasion of Iraq also was deeply flawed. Saddam Hussein was a long-standing irritant and the desire to see him removed from power altogether understandable. However, the fact that the Bush Administration believed that declaring Iraq a democracy would somehow prevent civil war and block Iran from having enormous influence in the country was as delusional as its belief that Afghanistan could be transformed into a functional state. When one also considers the examples of the US intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s and the US war in Libya — an adventure whose consequences are still playing out — as well as ill-considered uses of force in the Balkans that were at least nominally successful thanks to the weakness of Serbia and Slobodan Milošević’s arrogance and strategic ineptitude, the flaws in US strategic culture are all too clear. Moreover, it should be noted that they are bipartisan.

In a Luttwakian paradox, it is a long record of US historical success that has encouraged this more recent pattern of failure. Because the United States succeeded so impressively overall in its grand strategy from the War of Independence to the end of the Cold War — and the Vietnam debacle did not completely destroy US containment, which proved a good enough strategy to bring the competition with the Soviet Union to a peaceful end — “victory disease” has taken deep root in US strategic culture. The aforementioned impressiveness of the military instrument and the fact that, even now, the United States is so much more powerful than any of its rivals blind policymakers to the limitations on their ability to impose their will on sentient enemies who react to the use of force, often in a creative and surprising manner. Victory disease is a self-correcting condition; eventually patterns of failure become so clear that policymakers are compelled to acknowledge them, whereupon they modify their strategic behavior. The questions that have yet to be answered are how much additional damage the United States will inflict on its interests and how much more it will pay in blood and dollars before it ceases to act in this dysfunctional manner.


[i] See Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, rev. and expanded ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).
[ii] On the dimensions of warfare, see the influential discussion in Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 16-47.
[iii] US strategic errors in the Vietnam War are discussed in much greater detail in C. Dale Walton, The Myth of Inevitable U.S. Defeat in Vietnam (London: Frank Cass/Routledge, 2002). On the Afghanistan War, see Idem, “The US Failure in Afghanistan and Its Lessons,” Infinity Journal 2/1 (Winter 2011), pp. 9-12.
[iv] See Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
[v] On the historical development of US strategic culture, see C. Dale Walton, Grand Strategy and the Presidency: Foreign Policy, War, and the American Role in the World (London: Routledge, 2011).