Friday, March 07, 2008

Lessons from Tet

Bergerud argues that the tactical or operational success of the American military was irrelevant to winning or losing the war in Vietnam. He closes his book with the sweeping statement that the United States lost because the generals “underestimated dealing with enemy forces,” and because civilian leadership underestimated the enemy, and overestimated American’s stomach for the fight. Bergerud’s message is that America lost because there was no way for America to win the Vietnam War: “In short, American leaders, both civilian and military, committed a strategic blunder that has brought many a general to grief: They chose the wrong battlefield.” 1 Bergerud describes the ordinary US soldier and Marine infantryman who carried the fight as proficient, able and deadly. The author’s example was the25th Division. “Yet the evidence indicates that most combat units of the 25th Division retained a high degree of skill and cohesion until the end.” 2 To the extent that there were units that lacked skill and cohesion, the blame lay not with race relations, or drugs or officer and NCO leadership, but with the strategic: politics back home. “The biggest problem facing combat morale dealt not with pathologies but with politics…Every soldier knew that Nixon was withdrawing the troops. Most American combat soldiers assumed that this meant that the United States was selling out South Vietnam.” 3 Bergerud makes the case that defeat was inevitable because of strategic errors but this case is based to faulty assumptions.

Bergerud’s analysis is akin to drawing a straight line back from the ultimate defeat in 1975 to the entry of the United States in the early 60s, and interpreting every victory or good decision and every set-back or bad decision in relation to that downward trajectory towards ultimate defeat. The NLF was ruthlessly violent: this ensured discipline and solidarity in the villages and undermined US resolve. The US and GVN were ruthlessly violent attacking the popular front: however, this policy was alienating and off-putting in the villages, and steeled the hearts of the NLF. Communist instuted land reform was well implemented and convinced the peasants to support the NLF. The government of South Vietnam instituted land reform that failed to convince the peasants to support the Government. Smashing defeats of the VC in Cambodia and during the Tet Offensive were actually not that bad for the North Vietnamese, while the victories won by the US forces and the ARVN where chimerical. This analysis is hard to refute because the author starts with the premise the defeat of America was inevitable and uses the defeat as evidence of the validity of his premise. He explains away the tactical successes of US troops as being in spite of the strategic blunders, poor quality rear-area soldiers and an antagonistic civilian populace. Any strategy, development or action that would refute his premise can be waved aside as “doomed” or “not enough.”

Interestingly, Bergerud may well be correct in his analysis. Perhaps the United States would have lost Vietnam even with inspired intuitive generalship and even if the South Vietnamese government had proven to be a stalwart and respected ally. However, it seems that the author’s assessment that defeat was inevitable rests on two shaky pillars. One shaky pillar is that had the US launched a conventional attack into North Vietnam, this would have provoked the Chinese or the Russians into some kind of response that would have led to a wider war. It is telling that “not even the most ambitious contingency plans advocated an all out invasion of the DRV” but Beregud never answers the question, “why not?” 4 The author sees no reason to answer this question since the answer is an article of faith.

Not every observer saw the Communists this way. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, although in retrospect, thought the Soviets were not interested in directly confronting the US. “I offer what follows somewhat as conjecture, but with a measure of conviction. The Soviet Union never intended to invade Western Europe, or generally speaking, engage in a third World War with the West. The leaders in Moscow were, for a while there at least, Marxist-Leninists. That doctrine decreed that class revolution would come regardless.” 5 In a similar analysis, it seems unlikely that in the mid-Sixties, the Chinese would have be willing to, or much able to reinforce North Vietnam had the US launched a conventional invasion of North Vietnam. China was reeling from the effects of the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” and suffered from internal political maneuvering that threatened a civil war or coup. Further, Mao had a history of provoking the US with bluster for his own internal political reasons, without being willing to act on the bluster. One example to illustrate this point occurred during the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu. Rather than launch an attack across the Taiwan Strait that would have provoked the US, Mao preferred to play games by shelling islands near-by the coast of China that were in the hands of the Chinese nationalists: “the islands are two batons that keep Khrushchev and Eisenhower dancing, scurrying this way and that. Don’t you see how wonderful they are!” 6

Western intelligence analysis of Communist intentions, “Kremlinology,” was little better than guesswork piled on faulty assumptions. The feckless nonsense that passed for insight into Communist intentions that was proffered by Western “Kremlinologists” would have been humorous had not leaders in the West made such important decisions based on this “intelligence.” The West essentially had no clue what the Soviets or the Chinese would do in response to any particular stimulus. This was a “fundamental failure at the intelligence level. For instance, a commentator noted that it ‘beggars incredulity’ that the CIA “had no idea that that the Soviet Union was on the verge of radical change after spending 50 percent of its budget on Soviet analysis.” 7 Based on CIA guesstimates, the civilian leadership in the US assumed that attacking the NVA center of gravity in the North would have lead to a counter-attack by China, and this was not something anyone in the US was willing to consider. Hence, the US focused on the doomed counter-insurgency fight that contemporary observers could tell was not effective. The US strategy of fighting the war in the South even though their real enemy was in the North is reminiscent of the joke about the drunk who insists on looking under the streetlight for the wallet he lost in the alley “because the light is better out here.”

That being said, a successful counter-insurgency does not necessarily need the “correct strategy” at the highest levels. Therein lies Bergerud’s second shaky pillar. The Philippine Army conducted a successful counter-insurgency roughly as the same time as the Vietnam War, even though the Philippine’s civilian leadership and the Army was every bit as corrupt and incompetent as their South Vietnamese counterparts. Thomas Marks notes “as the efficiency and legitimacy of the Marcos regime declined, there was a commensurate increase in the extent to which armed force, as represented by the 70-odd, individual military battalions, became the crucial foundation upon which the government survival depended. This proved significant, because in the absence of any other viable government presence, it was the battalions which became, like so many warlords, the rulers of their domains.” 8 Bergerud makes the case that the military remained effective in Vietnam at the Battalion level and below, so it can then be asserted that a hands-off policy with regards to Battalion operations in Vietnam may well have succeeded to the same extent that such a policy worked in Vietnam. No two historical analogies are perfect, and there are many differences between the Vietnam War and the Philippine Counter-insurgency. Most notable of the differences relates to what may be the immutable law of the counter-insurgency fight. A successful counter-insurgency need time to fight onto victory once they discover what works. In the Philippines, the government forces had the luxury of time, since they had no place else to go. In Vietnam, the clock had been ticking since the first combat deaths and by the Tet Offensive, the time had run out. No victory, no matter how definitive or apparent at the time would have mattered unless it was clear to the American public that troops were literally on the march to total victory. In Vietnam, the American public certainly did not have this perception.

So, perhaps the defeat in Vietnam was not as inevitable as Bergerud describes it. However, American Intelligence did not have ability to discern Communist intentions, the American Military did strike at the real center of gravity in a conventional sense, nor did they hit upon the right counter-insurgency strategy with enough time left on the clock of American public opinion: therein lie the dynamics of defeat.


1. Bergerud, Eric M. The Dynamics of Defeat (Boulder: Westview Press) 1991. Pg 335.
2. Ibid., pg 290.
3. Ibid., pg 291.
4. Ibid., pg 331.
5. Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Congressional Record, Senate - 1 May 1997. Page: S3891.
6. Zubok, Vladislav Martinovich and Konstantin Pleshakov. Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 1996. Pg 226.
7. Perry, Mark. Last Days of the CIA (New York: William Morrow) 1992, pg 308 quoted in Ofira Seliktar; Politics, Paradigms, And Intelligence Failures: Why So Few Predicted the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharp) pg 4.
8. Marks, Thomas. Maoist Insurgency Since Vietnam (London: Frank Cass) 2003, pg 125.