Commentary Magazine


The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam, by Bruce Palmer, Jr.

The Lesson of Vietnam?

The 25-year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam.
by Bruce Palmer, Jr.
University of Kentucky Press. 248 pp. $24.00.

There are two good reasons for reading this book. First, it is a thoughtful analysis of why we lost the war in Vietnam and how we might have won it. Second, it reveals what the military is thinking now and why it is thinking that way. This is important; the Secretary of Defense has gone on record as endorsing the military’s own cautious, post-Vietnam view of how military force should be used. What is more, he has done so at the very moment when our opponents seem to be seeking to discover the limit to our tolerance of unconventional violence, the point at which they can expect a serious response.

Bruce Palmer, a retired Army general, writes about the Vietnam war from a unique combination of vantage points, yet he produces a view of the war and the lessons to be learned from it that in many respects is shared widely by senior officers of the current generation. He watched our slide into Vietnam from the Pentagon, as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations. In 1967 and 1968 he was in Vietnam, first as commander of Field Force II, then as Westmoreland’s deputy. For the rest of the war, from his post in Washington with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he watched our withdrawal. Throughout, in other words, he was always near but never quite at the top—and this permitted a degree of detachment that usually eludes those in final authority.

Like an earlier “in-house” look at the war, Colonel Harry Summers’s On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, General Palmer’s book emphasizes the way civilian authority misused our military. Palmer’s account, however, is more balanced and less apologetic, for it admits that the restrictive strategy imposed by political authority was not the whole story. In important respects, the military performed poorly. Accordingly, this is not only a tale of the resentment and distrust the military learned to feel toward civilian hawks who would lead it into another no-win conflict such as Vietnam, but also a tale of the military’s diminished confidence in its own ability to handle the ambiguous, unconventional conflicts it is likely to face in the future. The balance makes for unusual reading.

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Our armed forces see themselves as having been taken down a dead-end street in Vietnam, confined by a civilian-devised strategy that blunted the edge of every tactical offensive and insured that each one would cost the North Vietnamese less than they were willing to pay, and us far more. Palmer calculates, indeed, that the manpower available to the North Vietnamese would have enabled them to endure indefinitely the highest casualty rates we inflicted on them.

Why did the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree to such a strategy? Palmer notes that some members of the Joint Chiefs saw the writing on the wall from the very beginning, but were silenced by a knee-jerk “can-do-ism” and by their chairman’s conviction that the Joint Chiefs had to speak to the White House with a single voice. This failure at the top of the military hierarchy was all the more galling because some Army officers without stars on their shoulders understood the enormous difficulties involved in implementing a traditional strategy of containment in South Vietnam. As early as 1951, some of Palmer’s classmates at the Army War College had explained in a student report that we had already blundered in agreeing to help restore French power in Vietnam rather than helping to develop an indigenous leadership capable of governing the country. Our involvement, they wrote, would carry with it the stigma of colonialism, while Vietnam itself was bound to be an operational nightmare. The climate, the conformation of the territory, the distance, and the long, un-sealable borders would all conspire against our efforts. The report also claimed that Vietnam was expendable strategically: our interests in Asia could be served behind an arc drawn to include Japan, South Korea, and the offshore island chain of Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines, an arc that would exclude unstable Indochina and most of Thailand.

For these reasons, the group of Army officers concluded, we should not commit troops to the defense of South Vietnam. The “best and the brightest,” however, prevailed, and, after the war was over, the military found itself on the receiving end of an ugly backlash.

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The debate within the armed forces continues: did they fail or were they dealt a losing hand? Colonel Summers argues that we won every battle and still lost the war because of the no-win strategy imposed from on high. His study, which gave intellectual ballast to much that his colleagues already felt, has become orthodoxy among the top brass, and the lessons to which it points were what the Secretary of Defense endorsed last November in his speech, “The Uses of Military Power.”

If Summers’s book nearly silenced the internal debate on operational performance, Palmer reopens it in The 25-Year War. Palmer is no apologist. He acknowledges the truths in Summers’s analysis, but still asks whether operational improvements might not have yielded ultimate victory. Although he replies with a cautious “probably not,” in the extended explanation of that “probably” lies his most important contribution. His study of what the military did poorly and why, should move military readers away from the neat rationale that Summers provided and that served to mask, if only superficially, their own self-doubts.

Palmer demonstrates, for example, how the chain of command during the Vietnam war was an awkward, irrational, and all but unworkable system, which hindered the effective direction and coordination of military operations. Into this extraordinary organizational jigsaw, the Joint Chiefs of Staff fit badly (Palmer argues for a reform of the Joint Chiefs system as convincingly as the case allows). Palmer disapproves, moreover, of the use of the Marines, an amphibious assault force, for extended land operations. He criticizes both the practice of annual replacement of combat troops, which sometimes left fighting divisions undermanned and inexperienced, and the creation of wasteful base camps that misguidedly brought with them amenities inappropriate to combat troops. Both practices, he believes, underestimated the quality and toughness of the young Americans they were designed to coddle. He also thinks that we ought to have insisted upon tight operational control over the other national forces fighting with us, especially the South Vietnamese, whatever political awkwardness the demand for such control might have caused.

Above all, Palmer criticizes the way in which we gathered, analyzed, and used intelligence. Our intelligence operations often produced reassuring falsehoods in place of uncomfortable truths, and were sometimes just plain incompetent. Timely intelligence, suitably acted upon, is always crucial in war, but it is particularly so when the enemy consists of insurgents and guerrillas and everything depends on knowing where they are, how many they are, and what they intend to do. In Vietnam, the enemy had penetrated us as we had not them, so that we were frequently surprised and they invariably forewarned. Here again, a bad political decision lay at the heart of the trouble: that of President John F. Kennedy (urged by Averell Harriman, among others) to rid himself of President Diem without having a viable replacement. This single, amateurishly Machiavellian stroke caused the collapse of the entire governmental structure, as not only Diem but his men in the provinces and his men’s men at the village level all came tumbling off their perches. The South Vietnamese intelligence services fell to ruin in the process and were never properly rebuilt. Without the indigenous intelligence, we had to rely too heavily throughout the Vietnam war on signal intelligence (enemy communications intercepts) which was difficult to collect in the jungle and which could not be relied upon to provide information about long-term intentions.

Still, even after making every allowance for the handicap under which our intelligence services had to operate, Palmer concludes that, with the exception of the CIA, they operated badly. For a start, there were so many of them that no one could be surprised when they kept bumping into each other. The Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, State Department intelligence, and each service’s military-intelligence branch were all active simultaneously, and among them reported to three different Cabinet members. To compound such organizational problems, security leaks compromised the effect of our extraordinarily accurate B-52 strikes. The enemy usually had warning of the exact times and places because Americans chatted about impending strikes over unsecured communications channels, or because enemy agents had penetrated U.S. operational headquarters. When Strategic Air Command flight plans crossed world airways, they had to be reported to the appropriate authorities as though the planes were those of civilian carriers.

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What would Palmer have done to win in Vietnam? At the outset, he would have stationed a U.S. Army Corps, a Republic of Korea Army Corps with a Marine brigade, and a mixed U.S.-South Vietnamese Corps just south of the DMZ to guard against invasion and infiltration. These troops would have pushed their protective perimeter into Laos, across the narrow waist of the panhandle. If the North Vietnamese had attempted an end-run through Thailand, their logistical problems would have been more difficult and they would have become more vulnerable to combined ground/air attacks in the more open terrain. Next, U.S. Marines would have been deployed offshore in two groups: one highly visible, threatening an amphibious assault on Hanoi, the other operating along the coast of South Vietnam, launching quick attacks as necessary. The northern group would only have threatened, however, since Palmer fears an invasion might have brought China into the war. U.S. air and naval power would have blockaded the enemy’s ports.

The aim of Palmer’s strategy would have been to buy the time necessary to build a South Vietnamese army capable of defending the country. While being built, the army would have fought the Vietcong who, deprived of resupply and reinforcement, would have already been withering on the vine. This static defense would have required fewer American troops and they in turn would have sustained far fewer casualties. Eventually a thwarted North Vietnam would have found its way to the negotiating table.

In all this, however, there is a missing element. Palmer focuses on what we should have done, almost to the exclusion of how others might have reacted. Suppose our enemies had simply decided to wait us out. How long could we have garrisoned the South? Would not the success of such a protective strategy have robbed the South Vietnamese of much of the incentive needed to create their own viable defense force? Suppose infiltrating North Vietnamese and Vietcong units had launched terrorist attacks against U.S. military and civilian targets in the South? How long could we have maintained our static position? What would have been the effect on friend and foe if we had announced that our policy of containment in the Third World had degenerated into frontier defense on the Roman imperial model? Above all, could we credibly have threatened an amphibious invasion that we had not the slightest intention of launching? If the enemy calls your bluff, you suffer humiliating exposure, as recent experience in Lebanon has surely demonstrated. Make-believe deterrence is a risky business.

The book makes some other unconvincing arguments. Palmer seems to think that we could have coopted North Vietnam’s charismatic Ho Chi Minh, turning him into a kind of Tito. This, ironically, has long been a fondly held but untestable and groundless belief of the Left. Again, he agrees with Summers that a formal declaration of war would have maintained public support of the war effort. In fact the public, and the press, gave the administration three years of loyalty; it was lack of visible progress that convinced an essentially patriotic populace that Vietnam was a poor investment.

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On the evidence of Palmer’s book and Secretary Weinberger’s speech, what the military has learned from its experience in Vietnam is that we must fight only for our “vital interests.” (Palmer, for one, seems to think only of survival as being vital. He does not count up how many less than vital interests have to be at stake before they become cumulatively vital.) But what the military should have learned from Vietnam is to take insurgency seriously, to develop our capacity to cope with it. Palmer, like Summers, writes as though we fought a conventional war there against an external aggressor. Both make light of the insurgency that was inextricably twisted among the military problems that faced us, even though the final fall occurred when a North Vietnamese army marched on Saigon. Thus they ignore Clausewitz’s injunction that “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” If the United States continues to refuse to face the recurring problem of how to deal with unconventional war, its power, unused, will be but a burden, and its efficiency in protecting even its vital interests will continue to shrink away to nothing.

General Palmer is right that “the Vietnam tragedy will probably be an inhibiting factor in our external relations and domestic policies for at least a generation.” It has convinced too many of our military officers that the long-term consequences of knee-jerk can-do-ism are more devastating by far than the short-term consequences of knee-jerk can’t-do-ism. Until they are disabused of that idea, they may go on clinging to the belief that deterrence does not require the willingness to act.

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