Friday, November 17, 2017

Meditations on the Vietnam War: The Ia Drang Valley 1965


"When Robert S. McNamara became Secretary of Defense in 1961, he ushered in sweeping changes aimed at completely reorganizing the Department of the Army and its methods of warfare.  He was highly displeased with Army Secretary Elvis J. Stahr, Jr.'s, report on the status of Army aviation plans.  McNamara realized the current Army procurement program was hopelessly inadequate in every category of aircraft and considered it dangerously conservative.  Furthermore, McNamara felt that the Army failed to exert any strong, unified aviation effort and was plagued by reticence and budgetary restraint which were blocking the adaptation of necessary aircraft and equipment.  Most important, he believed that officers with progressive ideas about airmobility were not being heard.

"McNamara was convinced that a breakthrough in airmobility was possible with the new Bell helicopter models.  He was given a list of officers who also believed Army aviation needed new direction, and the substance for letters which he sent to the Secretary of the Army." (Stanton, page 14)

“By mid-1962, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, pursuing President Kennedy's vision, seized on the airmobility idea.  McNamara ordered the Army to determine if the new UH-1 Huey helicopter, the big CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, and their sisters in rotary-wing aviation made sense on the battlefield of the future.” (Moore, page 11)

Airmobility was one innovative technological approach (among many) that distinguished and defined the American military effort in the Vietnam War.  Orthodox military minds drew on the rather unsuccessful, often disastrous experience of airborne operations in World War Two.  They were stuck with the idea that deploying infantry via aerial assault was an ineffective use of combat troops.  Robert McNamara and his team not only disagreed with this assessment, they forcefully advocated the implementation of infantry airmobile tactics in Vietnam.  The earliest large-scale manifestation of airmobility was the formation of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and its use in the Ia Drang Valley campaign of October- November 1965.

This meditation looks at that campaign as it is discussed in three excellent books about the military aspects of the war.  Vietnam at War by Phillip B. Davidson is one of the best general histories of the war from a military perspective.  Shelby L. Stanton's Anatomy of a Division is a fascinating history of the airmobile First Cavalry Division's creation and deployment.  Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore's We Were Soldiers Once...And Young is a superbly written, popular narrative of his experiences commanding the 1st Battalion of the famed 7th Cavalry in Vietnam. 

The Ia Drang Valley is situated near the Cambodian border in South Vietnam's central highlands.  In 1965 it was sparsely populated with plenty of rough terrain and jungle cover.  It had been controlled by Viet Cong (VC) units for years, which often used it as a staging area for attacks throughout the region.  In October two independent North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments entered the area from Cambodia.  The valley was supposedly secured by Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) units stationed in Pleiku.  Special Forces camps were situated at Duc To and Plei Me to protect the roads winding through Gia Lai Province.  

The war's first large-scale search-and-destroy mission would be undertaken on this terrain.  At the time, it was a test of several things.  Would US airmobility work?  Were expectations for "search-and-destroy" operations realistic?  General William C. Westmoreland wanted to prove some things.  Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese had strategic and tactical questions of their own.  What tactics should be used against the helicopters?  How would VC and NVA troops hold up against the massive firepower potential of the US forces?  The Ia Drang Valley would provide answers to both sides, though the opponents probably would have disagreed on the lessons learned.  

"As Westmoreland developed his strategic concepts through the summer and early fall of 1965, a basic question disturbed the United States military professionals running the war.  Put bluntly, that question was: how would American soldiers do against the veteran NVA Main Force units in the difficult terrain and weather of South Vietnam?  The answer was soon forthcoming, and it would come, ironically, from the only unit in the American army which traditionally celebrates its own massacre - the 7th United States Cavalry.  This was the regiment which had ridden to death and glory in the Valley of the Little Big Horn under George Armstrong Custer.  These modern 7th Cavalrymen rode helicopters, not horses, but they cherished the regimental history and sang the old regimental song, "Garry Owen."  The 7th was part of the First United States Cavalry Division (Airmobile), a unique unit, and by training, equipment, and motivation, the elite division of the American army.

"The stage for this first test was to be the Ia Drang Valley in the Western Highlands of South Vietnam.  The actors were two regiments of the NVA Main Forces and the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, later reinforced by other elements of the 1st Cavalry Division.   Both sides were looking for a fight.  The cavalry division wanted to seize the initiative from the NVA, which had been attacking isolated Special Forces camps in the area.  The NVA commander, Gen. Chu Huy Man, an old friend of Giap's, wanted to win a victory over the newly arrived American troops.  In the Ia Drang Valley, they collided." (Davidson, page 360)

Delivering troops via helicopter to the mountains and jungles of Vietnam required certain areas be cleared (or that existing clearings be enlarged) so that the choppers (preferably several at once) could safely land and so reinforcements and supplies could be readily inserted even after combat started.  Landing Zones (LZs) cut or bombed out of the elephant grass or jungle served as flexible operational and logistical bases that were created on-the-fly as the military situation evolved.  But they also served as a huge red flag to nearby VC and NVA units, signaling where the Americans were located.  The communists, who knew the terrain far better than the Americans, could then maneuver to the best location for attacking US ground troops.  One of the first LZs established in the Ia Drang Valley was called X-Ray.
  
"On November 14, the 1st Cavalry Division threw the first punch by helicopter-lifting the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry into a remote landing area (named X-Ray) which was the middle of a suspected NVA base area in the valley.  General Man responded by rushing three NVA battalions to X-Ray to annihilate the cavalry troopers.  By late afternoon, the American position had become desperate.  Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore, the battalion commander, radioed his superior, Col. Thomas W. Brown, the 3rd Brigade commander, for reinforcements.  Brown responded immediately by sending in one company from another battalion by helicopter and alerted another whole battalion to reinforce Moore by foot.

"On the morning of 15 November, General Man launched a violent and coordinated three-battalion attack on X-Ray.  Here some of the fiercest fighting in American history took place, some of it hand-to-hand, almost all of it within the length of a football field.  The United States Army's official account of the action reports graphically the closeness in intensity of the combat." (Davidson, pp. 360-361)

"Several perimeter sectors were under simultaneous attack, and the entire situation became chaotic.  Supporting fires and airstrikes were brought in as close as possible and ordinance spilled into friendly lines.  In many instances combatants were intermixed and any distinguishable edge of battle ceased to exist.  The array of colored marking smoke mixed with thick clouds of powder and haze drifting over the battlefield.

"Lieutenant Colonel Moore exerted a forceful, professional coolness in the midst of the confusion and near panic. One A1E Skyraider misdropped napalm close by his command post, setting all the stacked rifle ammunition and grenade reserves on fire.  Air Force F4C Phantoms and F100 fighter-bombers streaked in low on the horizon to hurl bomb clusters into the midst of massing North Vietnamese infantry.  The NVA attack waves disintegrated under this prompt air support, enabling the fatigued and hard-pressed cavalrymen to hold their positions during the most critical hours." (Stanton, pp. 60-61)

American air power would make a decisive difference on the battle fields of South Vietnam from 1965 - 1973.  The battle at LZ X-Ray saw such power used in novel ways.  “...shortly after noon on November 15 the Air Force's high-flying B-52 bombers out of Guam placed the first of six days of “ARC LIGHT” strikes on the Chu Pong massif.  For the first time ever, the B-52 strategy bombers were being employed in a tactical role in support of American ground troops.” (Moore, page 203)

The American army also vastly exceeded the NVA army in terms of artillery throughout the American presence in the war.  "By midmorning the vast firepower available to the American troopers began to take a murderous toll.  A total of over 33,000 rounds of 105mm artillery was fired.  United States Air Force fighter-bombers furnished constant air support, and even the 'big birds,' the B-52's, pounded the area with their 500-pound bombs.  By the morning of the next day, General Man had had enough.  He rounded up what was left of his force and headed for the nearby Cambodian border.

"The first major United States/NVA encounter had resulted in a major victory for the Americans.  The 1st Cavalry Division lost 79 men killed and 121 wounded.  The NVA had 634 known dead, at least the same number of dead dragged away, plus an unknown number of wounded.  The two NVA regiments which had tangled with the 'Garry Owens' had been destroyed." (Davidson, page 362)

It is overstating the case that two NVA regiments were “destroyed” at LZ X-Ray.  One of them, the 33rd, though badly understrengthed, was still strong enough to attack again, and did so just two days later, this time at LZ Albany.  Located just 2 miles northeast of X-Ray, LZ Albany was infiltrated by the remains of the NVA 33rd and the fresh 66th Regiment, which had just arrived from Cambodia.  These NVA elements set an ambush for the American troops, which were marching overland toward LZ Albany.  What followed was an even bloodier battle that caught the Americans off guard.

“The most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War has just begun.  The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had walked into a hornet's nest. The North Vietnamese reserve force, the 550-man 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, had been bivouacked in the woods off to the northeast of McDade's column.  The understrengthed 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment, coordinating its movement and actions with the 8th Battalion, was aiming its men toward the head of the American column.  And the point men of Lieutenant Payne's recon platoon had marched within two hundred yards of the headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 33rd Regiment.  A senior lieutenant grabbed up the 3rd battalion cooks and clerks and joined the attack.  Lieutenant Colonel Phuong says other North Vietnamese soldiers in the vicinity on rice carrying or outpost duty 'came running to join the battle.'

“While many of Colonel McDade's troopers lay in the grass resting, North Vietnamese soldiers swarmed toward them by the hundreds.  A deadly ordeal by fire was beginning in the tall elephant grass around Albany and along the column of American troops strung out through the jungle, waiting for orders to move.  It was 1:15 p,m,, Wednesday, November 17.  By the time the battle ended, in the predawn darkness of the next morning, 155 American soldiers would be dead and another 124 wounded.  Those who survived would never forget the savagery, the brutality, the butchery of those sixteen hours.” (Moore, pp. 267-268)

"The first elements had already reached LZ Albany when the 8th Battalion, 66th NVA Regiment, attacked the length of the column.  The ferocity and scale of the ambush split the battalion in two.  Machine gun, grenade, and automatic rifle fire raked the cavalry ranks as snipers shot down leaders and radio men.  The middle of the column caved in under the force of the attack as North Vietnamese soldiers charged completely through the cavalry lines in several places.  As the column was shattered, the battle disintegrated into a largely leaderless gel of individual melds and skirmishes between splintered groups." (Stanton, page 62) 

"For hours the amorphous battle prevented artillery and tactical air support, but by midafternoon two large, ragged pockets of American resistance had formed.  The stunned remnants of Company C joined McDade's command group, which combined to fight west toward the clearing where both Company A and the recon platoon were making their stands.  Company D and the 5th Cavalry's Company A were separated and pushed to the east by the flow of battle.  This gave enough semblance to the battlefield to enable rocket-firing helicopters to sweep across the front, followed by close-range napalm bombing.  The roaring fireballs spewed across the burning grass and through onrushing NVA riflemen, although some Americans trapped outside the tree line were also burned to death." (Stanton, page 63)

Lt. Col. Moore was impressed with the NVA soldiers that attacked his command at LZs X-Ray and Albany. “They were damned good soldiers, used cover and concealment to perfection, and were deadly shots: Most of my dead and wounded soldiers had been shot in the head or upper body.  The North Vietnamese paid particular attention to radio operators and leaders.  They did not appear to have radios themselves; they controlled their men by shouts, waves, pointing, whistles, and sometimes bugle calls.” (Moore, page 120)

Moore quotes Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huy An, the NVA commander, regarding the battle at LZ Albany: “I think this fight of November seventeenth was the most important of the campaign.  I gave the order to my battalions: When you meet the Americans divide yourself into many groups and attack the column from all directions and divide the column into many pieces.  Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from artillery and air.  We had some advantages.  We attacked your column from the sides and, at the moment of the attack, we were waiting for you.  This was our reserve battalion and they were just waiting for their turn.  The 8th Battalion has not been used in the fighting in this campaign.  They were fresh.” (Moore, pp. 269-270)

“I will tell you frankly, your soldiers fought valiantly.  They had no choice.  You are dead or you are not.  It was hand-to-hand fighting. Afterward, when we policed the battlefield, when we picked up our wounded, the bodies of your men and our men were neck and neck, lying alongside each other.  It was most fierce.” (Moore, page 293)

Other battles would be fought in the Ia Drang Valley, as the campaign lasted for a little over a month.  During that time an ARVN airborne brigade was brought in to support the Americas.  The brigade was choppered in to the Duc To Special Forces camp and then humped it through the rough terrain to position themselves behind the NVA units as they retreated from the vigorous and persistent US attacks.  In this manner, the NVA were herded into the pre-positioned ARVN units, who managed to surprise the remnants of the North Vietnamese throwing them into further disorder.  Yet, the NVA did not panic nor completely lose cohesion.  Though decimated, they were able to reform in their Cambodian sanctuary in a few weeks, but the new troops were inexperienced, of course.  Afterward, the opposing sides assessed the campaign from differing perspectives.

“In Saigon, the American commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, and his principle deputy General William DePuy, looked at the statistics of the thirty-four day Ia Drang campaign – 3,561 North Vietnamese estimated killed versus 305 American dead – and saw a kill ratio of twelve North Vietnamese to one American.  What that said to the two officers who had learned their trade in the meat-grinder campaigns in World War II was that they could bleed the enemy to death over the long haul, with a strategy of attrition.

“In Hanoi, President Ho Chi Minh and his lieutenants considered the outcome in the Ia Drang and were serenely confident.  Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw.  By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of victory.  In time, they were certain, the patience and perseverance that had worn down the French colonialists would also wear down the Americans.” (Moore, page 399)

While, in total, one VC and three NVA battalions were rendered ineffective, the campaign took a large toll on the First Cavalry Division as well.  "Unexpected levels of combat outstripped division capability to reinforce adverse situations, especially in the Battles of LZs X-Ray and Albany, where the lack of properly assembled reserves almost resulted in disaster.  The inability to aerial firepower alone to effectively stop NVA close assaults was manifested in the Battle of LZ Albany and a number of other firefights.  The October division logistical crises produced severe shortages of essential supply stocks, such as aviation fuel, during the entire period.  There were initial difficulties maintaining radio communications over the long distances involved, although orbiting CV2 radio relay aircraft offered a partial solution.  The division spent the month of December rebuilding its logistical posture, extensively overhauling its overworked helicopters and equipment, and replacing personnel.

"The frightful casualty levels seriously eroded division strength.  In the two months of October and November the division suffered 334 killed, 736 wounded, 364 nonbattle injuries, and 2,828 cases of malaria, scrub typhus, and other serious diseases. This total represented more than 25 percent of the division's authorized strength (15,955).  Even though many men were eventually returned to their units, the division used 5,211 replacements to complete rebuilding by the end of the year.  Division assigned strength thus stood at 16,732 in December, but nearly a third (31 percent) were newly assigned.  Such a high turnover rate invariably crated turmoil and reduced overall efficiency." (Stanton, page 65)

"In the final analysis the Ia Drang Valley campaign was military history's first division-scale air assault victory.  The 1st Cavalry Division accomplished all of its assigned objectives.  Airmobile reinforcement insured the survival of a remote but critical outpost; cavalry surveillance followed and found the enemy, and Cavalry air assault brought the enemy into battle and pinpointed his strongpoints.  Major General Kinnard resorted to strategic B52 bombing to shatter these jungle redoubts once they were identified, as in Chu Pong after LZ X-Ray.  In the process two regular North Vietnamese Army regiments were largely annihilated and had to be completely reformed in Cambodia." (Stanton, page 66)  

"The North Vietnamese disaster in the Ia Drang Valley intensified and broadened the strategic dispute which had been raging for at least a year between Giap and Nguyen Chi Thanh." (Davidson, page 362)  Davidson is overstating his case that the Ia Drang Valley campaign was a "disaster" for the NVA.  Though they were redeployed to other areas of the war, the NVA regiments would fight again, even more fiercely, while the Ia Drang Valley itself was never fully under either American or South Vietnamese control.  America’s big tactical victories on the battle fields amounted to a strategic draw, hardly a disaster at all.  But he is insightful in detailing the strategic debate in the North that resulted from the campaign.  

"...the strategic problem of combating the United States troops in South Vietnam evoked a stormy, high-level controversy between the old adversaries.  On the one side there was Nguyen Chi Thanh, commander of the South, and Le Duan, and opposing them were Giap and Truong Chinh.  The gist of the debate turned around the tactics and forces to be used in South Vietnam now that they Americans had arrived in strength.  Thanh and Le Duan argued for a largely conventional war of Main Force units, while Giap's concept emphasized small-unit and guerrilla tactics while holding the Main Force in reserve.

“Thanh held that the Viet Cong and the NVA units almost won the war in late 1964 against ARVN, and that the entrance of the Americans called not for retrenchment, but for a continuation of large-scale attacks by which Thanh would keep the initiative and generate psychological momentum against the arriving Americans….In truth, however, the Communist troops lost the initiative in late 1965, in part due to the heavy casualties of such battles as in the Ia Drang Valley.  It was this battle that brought Giap charging into the conceptual fray.

"The dispute between Giap and Thanh turned fundamentally on their wildly differing estimates of the combat effectiveness of American ground troops and their supporting air power....If Thanh was correct - that American ground forces could be defeated in set-piece battles involving large, conventional units - then his strategy of attacking United States units made sense.  By this means, Thanh could seize the initiative and frustrate Westmoreland's search and destroy strategy.  In addition, such attacks would produce heavy American casualties - 'coffins going home' - which would erode support for the war in the United States.  On the other side of the argument, Giap built his concept of a 'Southern strategy' on the somber premise that NVA and Viet Cong units could not defeat American troops without taking excessive, and unacceptable, casualties.  If Giap's basic assumption was correct, the only sensible Communist strategy was to avoid large, Main Force battles and shift to a more elusive, less costly, mode of operation - guerrilla warfare." (Davidson, pp. 364 - 365)

"Giap based his concept not only on what he saw as unfavorable disparity of forces, but on an even more fundamental set of factors.  First, be believed that Hanoi had to view the war against the Americans as a test of wills, not of military might.  The essential element of any such strategy was time.  Protract the war, prolong the killing, and sooner or later the United States would give up and agree to conditions acceptable to the Communists.  This strategy, Giap reasoned, would be particularly effective against the Americans, the most impatient of peoples, who in 1965 were already beginning to show some of the divisive rents in the national fabric resulting from the war.  Conversely, Giap's concept of the protracted guerrilla war made the most of the one factor which the Communists had in greatest abundance - perseverance, the ability to continue the war for 'five, ten, or twenty years,' to use Giap's words." (pp. 365-366)

So, as a result, the Ia Drang Valley campaign served as the basis for Westmoreland ramping up his strategy of attrition against the VC and NVA.  Theoretically it "proved" that if the US could consistently deliver kill ratios of 12-1 it would eventually reach a "cross-over point" where the North Vietnamese could neither recruit nor replace their losses faster than the US could destroy their units in the field.  From the NVA perspective, despite their internal strategic disagreements over how to conduct the war, the campaign "proved" that their infantry could withstand the punishment of US firepower without disintegrating.  If the NVA could not outright win a major campaign against the US forces, it could at least absorb the losses, retreat, and rebuild to fight another day - essentially transforming any tactical or operational defeat into a strategic draw.  In a long war, with time on their side, the NVA believed such resilience would wear the Americans down.  In a nutshell, each side concluded that the projection of its willpower would bring victory over the other - the Americans via highly concentrated firepower, the North Vietnamese through sheer, unrelenting persistence.

After the Ia Drang Valley, the First Cavalry Division recuperated for a few weeks at its An Khe base.  Its next deployment was the Battle of Bon Song in late January 1966.  Lt. Col. Moore's troops were again successful in delivering punishing attacks against more NVA/VC infantry.  But, Moore noted that, despite his division's military success after weeks of fighting, there was a problem regarding the newly cleared area. 

“Within one week after we pulled out, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Main Force units had returned to the villages of the Bong Son.  My brigade would be sent back in a show of force in April and again in May when we lost many more men killed and wounded.  After the May operation it was clear to me, a battlefield commander not involved in politics at all, that the American Mission and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam had not succeeded in coordinating American and South Vietnamese military operations with follow-on Vietnamese government programs to reestablish control in the newly cleared areas.  If they couldn't make it work in Bong Son – where the most powerful American division available had cleared enemy forces from the countryside – how could they possibly hope to reestablish South Vietnamese control in other contested regions where the American military presence was much weaker.” (Moore, page 404)

Moore's question exposes the underlying issue in the Vietnam War that transcends the military pursuit of victory on the battlefield.  For various (mostly cultural) reasons, the South Vietnamese government could not effectively compete with the communists anywhere outside of the immediate scope of America's military presence.  As shown in the previous meditation, this was what McNamara and his policy-makers feared all along.  The battle for the "hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese people was being lost and, as we will see in a future meditation, it ultimately made the American military effort and all of its successes irrelevant.  America was now committed to defeating the enemy without any effective means of winning over the population it supposedly defended - the central absurdity of the war.

The Battle for LZ Albany, “the most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War,” was fought 52 years ago today.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Meditations on the Vietnam War: Graduated Pressure 1965 - 1967


Perhaps no one had more influence over the way the U.S. war in Vietnam was fought than Robert McNamara.  Although his contributions on the road to the Vietnam War came late in the journey, McNamara left a large footprint on how that war was fought from 1961 up to his resignation as Secretary of Defense at the end of 1967. 

This meditation looks at McNamara's perspective and policies through the eyes of two books in my collection: Dereliction of Duty, one of the best political analyses on the lead-up to the war, and McNamara's own fascinating memoir, In Retrospect.  McNamara orchestrated his will upon the US course in Vietnam while winning a political chess game with his opponents and in competition with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).  As we will see, it was McNamara who crafted a strategy of half-measures in an attempt to steer a "middle" course in Vietnam between the extreme views of no intervention at all and all-out military intervention.  

Like most Americans, when he became Secretary of Defense, McNamara brought the mindset toward Communism as outlined in my first meditation.  "Having spent three years helping turn back German and Japanese aggression only to witness the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe the following years, I accepted the idea advanced by George F. Kennan, in his famous July 1947 'X' article in Foreign Affairs, that the West, led by the United States, must guard against Communist expansion through a policy of containment.  I considered this a sensible basis for decisions about national security and the application of Western military force.  Like most Americans, I saw Communism as monolithic.  I believed the Soviets and Chinese were cooperating in trying to extend their hegemony." (McNamara, page 30) 

"It seemed obvious that the Communist movement in Vietnam was closely related to guerrilla insurgencies in Burma, Indonesia, Malaya, and the Philippines during the 1950's.  We viewed these conflicts not as nationalistic movements - as they largely appear in hindsight - but as signs of a unified Communist drive for hegemony in Asia.  This way of thinking had led Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of state, to call Ho Chi Minh 'the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina.'" (page 31)

"Instability in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, and the continued Soviet threat in Europe all took up time and attention.  We had no senior group working exclusively on Vietnam, so the crisis there became just one of many items on each person's plate.  When combined with the inflexibility of our objectives, and the fact that we had not truly investigated what was essentially at stake and important to us, we were left harried, overburdened, and holding a map with only one road on it.  Eager to get moving, we never stopped to explore fully whether there were other routes to our destination." (page 108) 

Like so much about Vietnam, the birth of McNamara's ideas had nothing to do with Vietnam at all.  Much of his policy was shaped by his experiences during the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, specifically with innovative thinking outside the box compared with the JCS.  "On October 16 McNamara offered an alternative to the Chiefs' recommendations for a full-scale air strike, blockade, and invasion.  He argued that the EXCOM had focused on a false choice between the all-out military solution and an exclusive reliance on diplomatic pressures.  McNamara suggested that the United States blockade Cuba to search approaching ships and remove offensive weapons.  The defense secretary based his 'third category of action' on 'overt military action of varying degrees of intensity' including a naval 'quarantine,' aerial overflights of the Caribbean Island, and mobilization of a large military force.  McNamara was confident and articulate." (McMaster, page 26)

"In combination with Robert F. Kennedy's secret negotiations with the Soviet ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin, during which he discussed a quid pro quo arrangement involving the withdrawal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey, McNamara's plan for gradually intensifying military pressure, or 'turning the screw,' on the Soviets seemed to produce the desired result.  The Soviets agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba and a secret pledge to remove America intermediate-range missiles from Turkey.  After the crisis President Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a historian and White House aide, that it was 'lucky for us' that Robert McNamara was at the helm in the Pentagon." (page 28)

The political "success" McNamara enjoyed ultimately led him to outmaneuver and marginalize the Joint Chiefs input where future Vietnam policy was concerned.  "The missile crisis emboldened Secretary of Defense McNamara in the realm of strategic planning and enhanced his reputation as a level-headed adviser.  As one of Taylor's White House staffers noted in February, the defense secretary was already 'getting away from what was perhaps an early preoccupation with counting noses and beans' and had become more assertive in the area of military advice in developing strategic options." (pp. 29-30)

"November 1963 marked a turning point in the Vietnam War.  The U.S. role in fomenting a change in the South Vietnamese government saddled the Unites States with responsibility for its successor.  Instability in the South presented the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese sponsors with an opportunity to exploit, and the deteriorating situation forced the United States to consider deepening its involvement in what had become a new war.  

"McNamara, emboldened in the realm of strategic planning, was poised to become the president's dominant military adviser on military affairs. Convinced that the military advice based on the objective of achieving victory was outmoded, even dangerous, he would use his talent for analysis and the experience of the Cuban missile crisis to develop a new concept for the use of American military power.  John Kennedy bequeathed to Lyndon Johnson an advisory system that limited the real influence to his inner circle and treated others, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff, more like a source of potential opposition than of useful advice." (page 41) 

McNamara advocated innovative ideas where orthodox military planning was concerned.  He came up with a new concept that he and many others in the Kennedy administration thought was a better course for Vietnam, one where military force was viewed as a means of foreign policy communication.  "Traditional military experience mattered little to McNamara - even less in an era of nuclear deterrence and superpower competition....If the global reputation of the United States and the U.S. desire to fight the spread of Communism made withdrawal from Vietnam unacceptable, weapons of mass destruction rendered policies that risked escalation to nuclear confrontation unthinkable.  McNamara thought that graduated pressure offered a sensible compromise between those two options.  He concluded that the principal lesson of the Cuban missile crisis was that graduated pressure provided a 'firebreak between conventional conflict and that situation of low probability but highly adverse consequences' that could lead to a nuclear war." (pp. 72 - 73)

But McNamara's maverick strategy did not bode well, according to the JCS. "Because they were dissatisfied with McNamara's March report advocating graduated pressure, the JCS decided to organize a war game to test the assumptions that underlay the strategy.  Between April 6 and 9, the war games division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff conducted SIGMA I-64 to examine 'what might be produced' if the Republic of Vietnam and the United States undertook a program of gradually increasing pressures against North Vietnam....The outcome of the game was eerily prophetic.  In response to the U.S. military action, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong raised the tempo of attacks in the South and conducted terrorist attacks on U.S. installations and personnel.  The game's final report concluded that 'a small expenditure of iron bombs' led the United States to commit sizable forces and funds to defeat the North, while the war in the South continued with less attention and fewer resources.  The paper warned that the U.S. public and Congress would not support a strategy on graduated pressure.  In fact,, the officers who played the role of the North Vietnamese leaders in the game 'banked on [a lack of] American resolve' to see their effort to fruition." (pp. 89-90)

However, the JCS failed to act proactively with regard to the results of SIGMA I-64.  They never offered an alternative to McNamara's strategy beyond the conventional war recommendations they had made (and were shot down) in the beginning.  "Although reluctant to accept the implicit objective behind Bundy's 'limited pressures' against the North, the JCS offered no alternative plan.  Bundy's program aimed to send a 'signal' of resolve to the 'Communists' and boost the morale of the South Vietnamese while minimizing the possibility of escalation before the November election.  The Chiefs restated the position they had espoused consistently since January 22, 1964: Military action against North Vietnam should instead aim to destroy the Hanoi government's 'will and capacity' to continue support for the insurgency in South Vietnam.  Caught without their own program for military action against North Vietnam, however, the Chiefs chose neither to challenge Bundy's concept of 'limited actions' nor to question the wisdom of pursuing the short-term objective of 'holding on' in South Vietnam until the New Year." (page 142)

Part of the problem with the JCS was that they were constantly bickering among themselves and failed to reach a consensus for a recommendation to the president.  "...although there was general agreement among the Chiefs that the situation in Vietnam required some action, the services possessed a 'wide variety of views' on what those actions should entail.  Differences of opinion among the Chiefs stemmed, in part, from their institutional perspectives as heads of their services.  It seemed that each of the services, rather than attempt to determine the true nature of the war and source of the insurgency in South Vietnam, assumed that it alone had the capacity to win the war.  The Air Force believed bombing North Vietnam and interdicting infiltration routes could solve the problem of insurgency in the South....The Army, whose mission would entail the introduction of ground troops, thought that the problem in South Vietnam was only partially connected with North Vietnam's support for the insurgency; it planned to pacify the countryside by means of political action and military security." (page 143)

Meanwhile, McNamara's graduated pressure seemed to offer an effective response that could be ratcheted up or down as needed, depending upon the response of the North Vietnamese to our "messages" of force.  "The ability to control events precisely - rather than what effect those operations might have on the enemy - became a principal criterion for approving operations.  As an alternative to the DESOTO patrols, Forrestal recommended to McNaughton that the United States initiate cross-border air operations into Laos.  The principle virtue of these undertakings was that they were 'controllable.'  Sharp limitations on the severity of the air strikes would allow the United States to 'give a strong impression to Hanoi that we are slowly walking up the ladder' without destroying 'a large number of the targets in massive attacks.'" (page 161)

When Lyndon Johnson took over in late 1963, a number of constraints on America's Vietnam policy emerged.  Part of these were due to Johnson's ambitious domestic policies.  The system of graduated pressure was the least military threat to Johnson's domestic agenda. Another Vietnam absurdity emerged, the belief among McNamara's team that fighting and losing in Vietnam was preferable to withdrawing from the situation.  The fundamental importance of this belief cannot be overstated.

"Because the Great Society constrained the exploration of policy options in Vietnam, the probable consequences of the favored course - the gradual application of military pressure against North Vietnam - received relatively little attention.  Indeed, those who developed plans for that strategy recognized that their proposals were unlikely to achieve the administration's stated foreign policy objective of guaranteeing the freedom and independence of South Vietnam.  Rather than explore alternative course of action, however, planners such as McNaughton and William Bundy rationalized that committing the U.S. military to a war in Vietnam and losing would be preferable to withdrawing from what they believed was an impossible situation.  They believed that if the United States demonstrated that it would use military force to support its foreign policy, its international stature would be enhanced, regardless of the outcome.  Because the civilian advisers conceived of the gradual application of force as a political, rather than a military, operation, they did not seriously evaluate its practical military consequences.  The men charged with a comprehensive examination of U.S. policy toward Vietnam were planning for failure." (emphasis added, page 180)

"...McNaughton believed that protecting American credibility was the principle objective of U.S. policy.  He argued that, in the eyes of the world, the United States was responsible for the outcome in Vietnam.  American 'international prestige' and influence were 'directly at risk.'  He told the president that 'without new U.S. action defeat appears inevitable - probably not in a matter of weeks or perhaps even months, but within the next year or so.'

"Although Bundy put the odds of a favorable outcome of the war as low as twenty-five percent, he was one hundred percent certain that 'even if it fails, the policy will be worth it.'  To preserve American credibility, Bundy told the president, 'the policy of graduated and continuing reprisal' was 'the most promising course available.'

"He admitted that 'U.S. casualties would be higher - and more visible to American feelings, ' but he dismissed that expense as 'cheap' relative to the costs of withdrawal.  He and his group concluded ambiguously that 'the value of the effort seems to us to exceed its cost.'" (page 219)

This is where one of the greatest lies about the Vietnam War began to take root.  With the best of intentions given the various foreign and domestic constraints, McNamara's team saw war in Vietnam as a necessary evil where we were unlikely to win before the first American Marine set foot in Southeast Asia.  The American public would be told from the beginning about the war's importance. What remained unsaid was that the consensus already in the early 1960's was that the war was probably not winnable.  A "bright shining lie" was born.

By default, then, a hybrid strategy for conducting the war emerged that was not based on any truly "strategic" objectives.  "In absence of clearly defined strategic objectives, 'killing more Viet Cong,' a tactical mission, became the basis for the JCS plan and recommendations.  After their meetings with the president, the JCS set the Joint and Service Staffs to work to 'determine how we can increase the Viet Cong (VC) kill rate within the framework of our present posture in Southeast Asia.'  The JCS concluded that, with the current force levels, they might 'kill more Viet Cong' through the massive application of air power in the South.  It remained unclear, however, how the tactic of massive air strikes against an enemy who was intertwined with the noncombatant population would help to establish strategic conditions conducive to ending the war." (page 272)

"Johnson and McNamara succeeded in creating the illusion that the decision to attack North Vietnam were alternatives to war rather than war itself.  Graduated pressure defined military action as a form of communication, the object of which was to affect the enemy's calculation of interests and dissuade him from a particular activity. 

"Once the United States crossed the threshold of war against North Vietnam with covert raids and the Gulf of Tonkin 'reprisals,' the future course of events depended not only on decisions made in Washington but also on enemy responses and actions that were unpredictable.  McNamara, however, viewed the war as another business management problem that, he assumed, would ultimately succumb to his reasoned judgment and others' rational calculations.  He and his assistants thought that they could control that force with great precision from half-way around the world." (pp. 326 - 327)

"The way in which the United States went to war in the period between November 1963 and July 1965 had, not surprisingly, a profound influence on the conduct of the war and it outcome.  Because Vietnam policy decision were made based on domestic political expediency, and because the president was intent on forging a consensus position behind what he believed was a middle policy, the administration deliberately avoided clarifying its policy objectives and postponed discussing the level of force that the president was willing to commit to the effort.  Indeed, because the president was seeking domestic political consensus, members of the administration believed ambiguity in the objectives for fighting in Vietnam was a strength rather than a weakness." (page 332)

"Westmoreland's 'strategy' of attrition on South Vietnam, was, in essence, the absence of a strategy.  The result was military activity (bombing North Vietnam and killing the enemy in South Vietnam) that did not aim to achieve a clearly defined objective.  It was unclear how quantitative measures by which McNamara interpreted the success and failure of the use of military force were contributing to the end of the war." (page 333)

McNamara takes exception to this critique in his memoirs, though he admits that his strategy was misguided.  "Some critics have asserted that the United States lacked a military strategy in Vietnam.  In fact, we had one - but its assumptions were deeply flawed.  Beneath Westy's strategy lay the implicit assumption that pacification and bombing would prevent the Communists from offsetting losses inflicted by U.S. and South Vietnamese Army forces through recruitment in the South and reinforcement from the North.  That key assumption grossly underestimated the Communists' capacity to recruit in the South amid war and to reinforce from the North in the face of our air attacks.  Moreover, American military and civilian leaders assumed the U.S. and South Vietnamese military could force the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regulars to slug it out on the battlefield in more or less a conventional war.  The U.S. mobility and firepower, together with bombing to choke off supplies and reinforcements from the North, would force them into a settlement.  If the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army refused to fight on our terms and reverted to hit-and-run tactics, as some believed they would, we had assumed that the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, backed by a strong pacification program, could wage effective antiguerrilla war.  And, finally, we believed that the pacification program in the South would serve as our insurance policy, keeping the insurgents from being able to find supplies and recruit fighters there.

"All of these assumptions proved incorrect.  We did not force the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army to fight on our terms.  We did not wage effective antiguerilla war against them.  And bombing did not reduce the infiltration of men and supplies into the South below required levels or weaken the North's will to continue the conflict.  

As we will see in a future post, the military would be highly critical of the "restraints" placed upon it.  For larger domestic matters and foreign policy fears, the enemy could not be attacked by US regular forces at its source of reinforcement and supply in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. "With Washington's tacit agreement, Westy fought a war of attrition, whose major objective was to locate and eliminate the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regular units.  No alternative to this 'search and destroy' strategy seemed viable, given the decision not to invade North Vietnam, with its attendant risk of triggering war with China and/or the Soviet Union (a risk we were determined to minimize) and our unwillingness to expand massively our ground operations into Laos and Cambodia." (McNamara, pp. 210-211)

Reflecting on the emergence of a "strategy" in those critical early years, McNamara admits that his perspective on Vietnam was in some ways naive, particularly after the decision was reached to base US aircraft in support of the South Vietnamese Army in 1962.  "All of us should have anticipated the need for U.S. ground forces when the first aircraft went into South Vietnam - but we did not.  The problem lay not in any attempt to deceive but rather in a signal and costly failure to foresee the implications of our actions." (McNamara, page 175)

But, when the decision to send in the Marines was actually made, the American public was on board - even though most key officials thought the war was unwinnable.  The lie worked its magic and led to ultimate tragedy.  "In the days following President Johnson's July 28, 1965, announcement, most Americans - intellectuals, members of Congress, the press, the people on the street - expressed support for his decision.  When, in late August, a Gallup Poll asked: 'Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Johnson Administration is handling the situation in Vietnam?' 57 percent approved versus 25 percent who disapproved.  This compared with 48 percent versus 28 percent two months earlier.  A Harris survey in September reported that 'the American people are nearly 70-30 behind the proposition that Vietnam should be ground on which the United States should take a stand against communism in Asia,' and it pointed out that 'a majority of the public believe that the Vietnam fighting will go on for several years." (McNamara, page 208)

For many policy makers, the flaw in McNamara's graduated pressure and the subsequent deployment of US combat troops, only became apparent with the experience of fighting the war.  McNamara admits this.  "Gen. William E. DePuy, Westmoreland's operations officer and principle planner in 1965-1968, made a...telling point in a 1988 interview, when he said: '[We] eventually learned that we could not bring [the Vietcong and North Vietnamese] to battle frequently enough to win a war of attrition....We were arrogant because we were Americans and we were soldiers or Marines and we could do it, but it turned out that it was a faulty concept, given the sanctuaries, given the fact that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was never closed.  It was a losing concept of operation.'

"That certainly explains part of our failure.  But the president, I, and others among his civilian advisers must share the burden of responsibility for consenting to fight a guerrilla war with conventional military tactics against a foe willing to absorb enormous casualties in a country without fundamental political stability necessary to conduct effective military and pacification operations.  It could not be done, and it was not done." (page 212) 

By default, the way the US fought the war involved a statistical analysis of how we well we were doing.  Ultimately, this statistical mindset took root to the extent that the unwinnable war seemed winnable "on paper" because we could kill so many of our adversaries.  "The body count was a measurement of the adversary's manpower losses; we undertook it because one of Westy's objectives was to reach a so-called crossover point, at which the Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain.  To reach such a point, we needed to have some idea what they could sustain and what their losses were.

"In the spring of 1967, Westy concluded that the crossover point had at last been reached; the enemies numbers had stabilized and, perhaps, diminished.  The CIA, by contrast, never perceived a diminution in enemy strength.  In a May 23, 1967, report, its analysis concluded, 'Despite increasingly effective 'search and destroy' operations...Vietnamese Communists have continued to expand their Main Forces, both by infiltration and by local recruitment...It appears that the Communists can continue to sustain their overall strength during the coming year [emphasis added]." (page 238)

Interestingly, in the early years of the McNamara's war public support was so robust that left-wing opposition to the war was not as great as was the right-wing opposition to the way the war was being fought., "From early 1966 through mid-1967, public support for the administration's Vietnam policy remained surprisingly strong, despite rising U.S. causalities and increasing media scrutiny of the war.  After the Christmas Bombing Pause, polls showed about two-thirds of Americans took a middle-of-the-road position on the war.  For example, on February 28, 1966, Louis Harris reported, 'There is 'consensus' in the country today on one point about the Vietnam war: the American people long for an honorable end to hostilities, but by 2 to 1 they believe we have to stay and see it through.'  Harris also reported, however, that 'more and more the American people are becoming split between those who favor an all-out military effort to shorten the war and those who prefer negotiations to the risk of escalation. ' His conclusion: 'If there is a movement of opinion in the country it is toward seeking a military solution to what is generally regarded as a frustrating stalemate.'  Advocates of Sen. Richard Russell's 'get it over with or get out' approach appeared to be gaining popularity.

"Pressure from the left - those urging us to do less or to withdraw - would culminate in early 1968 in substantial opposition that contributed to President Johnson's decision not to seek reelection.  But that was not our major concern in 1966 and most of 1967.  The president, Dean and I worried far more about pressure from the right. Hawks charged we were forcing our military to fight with one hand tied behind its back and demanded we unleash the full weight of America's military might.  We believed, however, that a in a nuclear world an unlimited war over Vietnam posed totally unacceptable risks to the nation and, indeed, to the world.  In Dean's words, we therefore 'tried to do in cold blood what perhaps could only be done in hot blood.'" (pp. 252-253)

Robert McNamara committed several fundamental mistakes in designing how the US fought the war in Vietnam.  Some were due to misconceptions, some to unrealistic hopes, and others were mistakes of misguiding American politicians and the public.  He would regret much of the results due to his actions as Secretary of Defense and this would lead to his resignation in at the end of 1967, before the pivotal moment of the war was reached. 

His later life was largely spent reflecting and coming to terms with the consequences of the policies he so forcefully advocated and implemented.  But he also contributed to a restructuring of the US military, peculiarly the army, that would serve as a icon for the military aspect of the Vietnam War, even outlasting the war and, indeed, revolutionizing the art of war itself.  That is the subject of my next meditation.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Meditations on the Vietnam War: Long Road to an Absurd War


My recent viewing of the PBS documentary The Vietnam War triggered something in my obsessive nature.  I was inspired to pull out and revisit the material I have in the 30+ books and official reports I collected in my library back in the 80's and 90's.  Over half of these books are devoted to the military aspects of the war in some form or fashion, since I have a special interest in military history.  The other half are split between various political and cultural studies of the war. 

The more I skimmed through this material (for the first time in almost two decades) the more intrigued I became with certain patterns I saw develop through the various works when reviewed altogether - something I've probably never done before.  I divided my collection up into various categories and began to consider the little bunches of books for what they are, a plethora of often conflicting perspectives - an accurate reflection of how America still views the war itself.

Some themes emerged for a series of "meditations" on this material.  I'm sure several discerning works on the war were published since I stopped purchasing material in the late 1990's.  So my meditations do not pretend to include the latest insight in opinion or scholarship.  Rather this is a broad summary of topics based upon a variety of older material, much of which is still respected by readers and the academic community.

This first meditation concerns the years leading up the insertion of American combat troops in 1965.  This is based upon information from three books of diverse perspectives in my collection: Backfire is a rather liberal cultural interpretation of the war, The Necessary War is a more conservative interpretation, and The Irony of Vietnam more or less a neutral study of the political system that led the US into war.

"Ho Chi Minh founded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and in early September 1945, a celebration of the birth of the new nation and of the Allied victory was held in Hanoi.  American planes, probably inadvertently, flew above the city to the cheers of the 400,000 people who had gathered.  Next to Vietminh officers on the reviewing stand stood American military officers saluting the new flag of North Vietnam.  The 'Star Spangled Banner' was played by the Vietnamese band.  In General Vo Nguyen Giap's speech he mentioned Vietnam's 'special affection' for America. Ho Chi Minh began his own speech by quoting the Declaration of Independence, 'this immortal statement.'" (Baritz, page 47)

The Japanese had just lost World War Two.  This created a vacuum in what was then called Indochina.  In order to make use of air and naval bases as well as to drive out "western" invaders in Japan's "sphere of influence", the Japanese had ousted the French colonialists who had controlled the Vietnam region since the 1800's.  Several Vietnamese factions rose up to fill the void, the most promising of which was led by Ho Chi Minh.  How did we get from the remarkable historical moment mentioned above to the beginning of warfare that ultimately led to some 58,000 American deaths just 20 years later?  Well, it is a long and rather twisted tale.  Much of it did not even involve Vietnam but, rather, concerned global events following World War Two.

Initially, there was a small chance that Ho would enjoy the support of the United States in creating a "democratic" and unified Vietnam.  Leslie Gelb reveals that the American support for the return of French imperial rule was not guaranteed, rather it developed out of how the victors of World War Two would strengthen their individual global interests.  "There can be no doubt about Roosevelt's anticolonial and anti-French sentiments, particularly with respect to Indochina.  In his way he maneuvered for an international trusteeship.  But at Yalta in February 1945 Roosevelt accepted a trusteeship formula that can only be interpreted as leaving the fate of Indochina solely in French hands.

"Roosevelt compromised on the principle of an international trusteeship under heavy pressure.  De Gaulle was making promises of a better deal for the people of Indochina.  Churchill, fearing repercussion of a trusteeship on the British Empire, was vigorously protesting against such an idea.  The leaders of the President's own bureaucracy we opposing him: the State Department, which favored both the return of the French to Indochina and eventual independence of the colonies; and the War and Navy departments, which were concerned lest the principle of international trusteeship be so broad as to jeopardize eventual American possession of certain Japanese islands for future U.S. security purposes." (Gelb, Betts, pp. 34-35) 

According to Loren Baritz, ten loosely connected historic events or circumstances created a "chain" by which America unwittingly bound itself to the war in Vietnam. 

The first link in the chain came in March 1947 with the consequences of the Truman Doctrine.  "...the United States promised the world that it would resist Soviet expansionism wherever it occurred....the President said that 'it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressure.' President Truman and his senior aides immediately began to explain that this doctrine did not mean automatic assistance to every country in the world, but they had unknowingly forged the first link in the chain that was ultimately to drag us into Vietnam. This is not because of the direct application of the Truman Doctrine, but because the American diplomatic and military mentality was now fixed." (page 52)

Then America acquiesced to the return of the pre-World War Two French rule in Indochina. "In February 1950, America formally recognized France's puppet Bao Dai, the second link in our chain to Vietnam, and thereby became Ho Chi Minh's enemy." (page 52)

That same year, the US intelligence community put together a document known as NSC 68 which broadened the initial intent of president Truman's doctrine.  "As Secretary of State Acheson said in 1950, 'we must consider Korea not in isolation but in the worldwide problem of confronting the Soviet Union as an antagonist.' The United States would no longer distinguish vital from peripheral interests.  This fundamental and widely accepted conclusion was the third link in the chain to the future American war in Vietnam." (page 54)

"Mr. Truman's decision in both Korea and Indochina was based upon two contradictory convictions: The United States was apparently strong enough to work its will in the world; but, the Soviets were so determined to spread revolution across the planet that any advantage they gained would inevitably result in further aggression either by subversion or war." (page 55)

For the US, the French return to Indochina was a workable scheme within the wider Cold War concern for the spread of Communism.  "The President and others in the administration did not believe that Korea represented a major American interest.  But as an adviser reported to Mr. Truman, Korea was an 'ideological battle ground.'  By then France was arguing that in reentering Vietnam, it too was fighting the Communists, not merely seeking to reclaim its empire.  France insisted it was holding back the troops that Mao Tse-tung already had amassed on his southern border with Vietnam." (page 56)

All of this was not only a reflection of American foreign policy, more importantly it represented the widespread belief structure of the American people, who were in the midst of a remarkable post-war economic expansion and who genuinely feared what the spread of Communism meant globally.  Extremist elements within the US took full advantage of this situation.

"A widespread agreement emerged in America about the shape and meaning of politics in the postwar world.  It was based on two assumptions which met with overwhelming favor in the succession of governments at the time, as well as with a great majority of American people.  The first assumption was that the American economy was working so well that a truly different age of affluence was eliminating poverty and, therefore, economic classes from the nation.  The second assumption was that this economic miracle - the American way of life - was mortally threatened by a monolithic, atheistic, international Communist conspiracy that was bent on universal aggression.  At specific moments dessert from this consensus was perceived to be treason, as Senator Joseph McCarthy was to demonstrate.

"The political significance of McCarthyism, the fourth link in America's Vietnam chain, was that it made reason and skepticism dangerous to many people, but especially to the careers of public officials, and they never forgot it.  McCarthyism accomplished this by making foaming anti-Communism integral to what the political center now called patriotism." (page 58)

This was the mindset that made the Korean War itself. among other things, a precursor to our attachment to Indochina.  "The involvement of the United States in Korea was closely linked in the President's mind to 'forces of freedom...fighting in Indochina.'  Each conflict was part of the larger global struggle, whether in the Korean War or in emerging conflict in Indochina.  'This,' he said, 'means military aid...to Indochina.'  This was the fifth link, a gold one, in the chain to Vietnam the United States unwittingly was constructing." (page 59)

The change in administrations from Truman to Eisenhower only accelerated our commitment to the French in Indochina and hence the further political alienation of the forces controlled by Ho Chi Minh.  "President Eisenhower explained that voting millions of dollars for the French was 'the cheapest way...to prevent' damage to American security while protecting our 'ability to get certain things that we need from the riches of the Indochina territory, and from Southeast Asia.' Underwriting the French war and the Associated States in their military efforts to defeat the Communist Viet Minh aggression.' He increased French aid from President Truman's $10 million to $400 million a year, and before he was finished he promised to raise that figure to $785 million.  By now America was paying for almost the entire French war effort, 78.35 percent, the sixth Vietnam link, another one made of gold.  In effect, the French had become mercenaries in America's conflict with the Soviet Union.  This was acceptable to a minority within France in the name of recapturing the colonial splendor of the old regime." (page 63)

Then came Eisenhower's famous personal take on the potential spread of Communism throughout the world.  "For President Eisenhower the war in Indochina was a classic example of what he christened the domino theory, the seventh link in the chain that was to shackle us to Vietnam....Later, the domino theory was essential to make Vietnam seem vital to the national interest of the Unites States, not by itself, but by its symbolic significance to Moscow and Peking.  A peripheral problem was redefined as the flaming fuse on an explosive that could obliterate freedom in the world.  This was a concept the American public could understand and support.  President Eisenhower told a National Governors' Conference, 'somewhere along the line, this must be blocked.  It must be blocked now.  That is what the French are doing.' The President had accepted the French argument that they were in Vietnam not merely to retake their empire, but stem Communism." (pp.  66-67)

As if to lend validity to the domino theory, Ho's forces, the Vietminh, ultimately defeated the French, leading to the partitioning of Vietnam into the North and the South according to the Geneva Conference in 1954.  This immediately created some serious problems for Ho which ultimately strengthened his ties with Communist world, particularly China.  "It was not sufficiently understood at the time that the dividing line would deprive northern Vietnam of food.  It had always depended on Southern surpluses of rice.  This provided the northerners with something other than ideology as a reason behind their 'fanatical' demands for reunification.  The other partitioned nations, Germany and Korea, had not divided the population from it food supply.  This single fact meant that inc dashingly the North would have to depend on its Socialist allies for aid.  The line delivered North Vietnam's belly into the hands of the People's Republic of China, while its head remained in Moscow." (page 76)

"In a letter to him in October 1954, President Eisenhower said that he was glad to respond favorably to the request for financial aid to assist in relocating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, mostly Catholics, who were moving from North to South Vietnam.  About 80,000 guerrillas and their families moved to the North; about 5,000 guerrillas stayed in the South to fight again another day.  President Eisenhower informed [Ngo Dinh] Diem that the United States would like to begin 'an intelligent program of American aid' if a way could be found to assure 'standards of performance' of Diem's government.  The President wanted Diem to understand that America expected the Vietnamese to invent a nation that would fit into its intended slot in the Cold War...This letter was the eighth link in America's Vietnam chain." (page 82)

But the attempt at "democracy" in the South Vietnam was a joke from the start, as America backed a virtually dictatorial regime that discriminated against the vast majority of the people in the South. "The Catholic Vietnamese thrived under Diem's systematic discrimination against the Buddhists.  The Catholics were preferred in the civil service, while those who lived in the villages were not always required to do hard labor of building roads or other public works.  The Catholic Church, unlike the Buddhist pagodas, had special rights to acquired and own property, as had been the case under the French.  In time, this discrimination against the vast majority of the country would lead to politically lethal protests against Diem by the Buddhist bonzes." (page 83)

"Diem annoyed Americans not only because of his personal way of doing things.  He was an enthusiast when it came to repressing his political opponents, of whom he arrested upwards of 40,000. In early 1959, Diem legalized his brutality by creating special military courts to try political opponents and to pass sentences of death in no more than three days." (page 85)

Gelb underscores  the alienation Diem fashioned within South Vietnam through his tough, undemocratic rule, which led to mass assassinations in the South.  "Diem had problems: the taint of colonialism through past association with Bao Dai and then ties to the Americans, his autocratic way of governing, nepotism and his Catholicism.  His support derived preeminently from the Catholic and the urban middle class, many of whom had come South after Geneva, while the country he was trying to rule was populated mostly by Buddhists, Confucianists, and rural animists.  In short order he was to alienate the bulk of the peasantry and the non-Communist nationalist groups by abolishing village elections and instituting population relocation and censorship.  Then, in 1957 the terrorizing and assignation of pro-Diem officials began. The group responsible, called the Vietcong and composed of Communists, former Vietminh, nationalists, and varieties of Diem opponents, appears to have been fair indigenous.  There is no public evidence that the DRV [North Vietnam] began to direct Vietcong activities in the South until some time in 1960-61 with the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF)."  (Gelb, Betts, page 64)

In my opinion, of critical importance at this time, was not of the fact the Diem promoted Catholic privilege (as the French did) in a largely Buddhist country, rather America supported Diem with a culture that was completely alien toward traditional Vietnamese culture.  "When President Eisenhower left office, there were some one thousand Americans in South Vietnam, the ninth link in the Vietnam chain which now long enough to wrap around our national neck.  About one billion dollars had created a Saigon economy that looked good, with well-stocked stores, available Coca-Cola, automobiles in the streets, and expensive houses going up in expensive neighborhoods....The other 85 percent of the people of South Vietnam, the peasants living in countryside villages, were barely touched by this new, shiny dreamworld of expensive American objects." (Baritz, page 86)

This alienation led to a gradually stronger revolt against the Diem regime.  "As a matter of course, opposition to Diem's repression, especially opposition by the 95 percent of Vietnam that was not Catholic, began to rise....the southern guerrillas, especially the five thousand or so who stayed behind in the South when populations were exchanged after the Geneva Conference, began their struggle against a tyrant who embarrassed the Americans.

"In September 1960, shortly before the American presidential election, bloody fighting broke out in Kontum, a province in the central highlands.  The Diem government announced that it had captured some North Vietnamese who had infiltrated through Laos.  This was not the invasion of a foreign power.  It was not even a civil war between contending factions inside South Vietnam.  It was a domestic uprising of people who would have been executed for their political beliefs by their own government if it could catch them....By then, 70 percent of South Vietnam's budget deficit, along with all the expenses for the police and the military, was paid by the United States , the tenth link in our chain to Vietnam." (pp. 87-88)

Michael Lind points out that there were important Cold War considerations for US involvement in Vietnam that really had more to do with American strategic allies and enemies than anything to do with Ho, Diem, or the Vietnamese people. "American officials swallowed their misgivings about French colonialism and paid for France's effort in its on-going war on Indochina from 1950 and 1954, in hope of winning French support for the rearmament of Germany.  Khrushchev's humiliation of the United States in the Berlin crisis of 1961 persuaded the Kennedy administration that a show of American resolve on the Indochina front was all the more important." (Lind, page 5)

To be fair, the North Vietnamese regime was at least as bad as its South Vietnamese counterpart in terms of brutal control and manipulation of Vietnamese society.  This is a fact that should not be understated (as it was in the PBS documentary that inspired my revisiting of the subject).  North Vietnamese brutality was well-known to American policy makers in the 1950's via the intelligence community and this only strengthened our perception of the necessity of stopping the spread of Communism.  As bad as Diem was, Ho was his equal under the guidance of Chinese political agents operating in North Vietnam. This, in turn, only heightened the sense of urgency in American policy.

"In North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh's regime followed the advice of Mao's government and concentrated on consolidating its rule rather than on sponsoring revolution in South Vietnam.  China showered North Vietnam with military aid, which between 1956 and 1963 amounted to 270,000 guns, 200 million bullets, more than 10,000 pieces of artillery along with 2 million artillery shells, 15,000 wire transmitters, 28 ships, 15 planes, and more than 1,000 trucks. The Chinese communist military advisers who had helped their Vietnamese allies defeat the French were now replaced by Chinese communist political advisers who guided a Vietnamese collectivization campaign modeled on the previous 'land reforms' in China and the Soviet Union.  At least ten thousand rural Vietnamese were singled out for denunciation as class enemies and executed after rigged trials organized by Vietnamese communists with the help of Chinese communist advisers.  When North Vietnamese peasants finally rebelled against this state terrorism, Ho Chi Minh used his military to crush them.  Maoist rural terror in North Vietnam was followed in due course by a purge of North Vietnamese intellectuals modeled on an earlier purge in communist China." (Lind, pp. 10-11)

Cruelty abounded as Communists in the South, apparently not yet directed by Ho's regime in the North, fed on Diem's autocracy and contributed to the instability of the fragile and uninspiring Catholic rule in the South. "Between 1959 and 1961 the number of South Vietnamese officials who were assassinated rose from twelve hundred to four thousand per year.  As the South Vietnamese insurgency grew more powerful, the United States equipped Diem's military and provided several hundred advisers, who trained the South Vietnamese military in often inapplicable conventional war tactics.  Ina July 8, 1959, guerrilla raid on a South Vietnamese army headquarters in Bien-hoa near Saigon, along with several Vietnamese the first American soldiers to die in Indochina were killed." (page 12) 

Baritz is perceptive in linking ten events of varying connectivity in America's journey from a victory celebration in Hanoi in 1945 to the commitment of American military assets in the early to mid-1960's.   Gelb underscores much of this chain of events with insights into the America's initial anti-colonial stance and ultimate support for a regime in the South that did not have the support of the majority of the South Vietnamese people.  The basic absurdity of what would become a completely bizarre war is that, from the beginning, America supported a weak, paranoid, and undemocratic government in the South in order to fight a threat to "democracy" from a brutal regime in the North.  This central fact is something I will return to in a future post.

Lind continues the narrative of the deteriorating situation throughout the greater Southeast Asia region following Diem's assassination.  "The political chaos gave Hanoi-controlled insurgents the opportunity to make major gains.  Before the coup against Diem, the Viet Cong had controlled less than 30 percent of the territory of South Vietnam; by March 1964, they controlled between 40 and 45 percent.

"The desperate situation in South Vietnam was matched by turmoil throughout Southeast Asia.  Beginning in 1962, the Indonesian dictator Sukarno had aligned himself with Mao and the Indonesian Communist party, the third largest in the world.  Having seized the formerly Dutch western part of New Guinea in 1962, Sukarno initiated a guerrilla war against Malaysia. To help the Malaysians fight Sukarno's forces and their Malaysian allies, the British dispatched elite Special Air Services (SAS) units.  Nearby in Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, expecting a communist victory in South Vietnam, permitted the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars to use Cambodian territory to infiltrate South Vietnam." (page 15)

The wider anti-Communist perspective that developed in the US government during the 1950's ensured that US policymakers would view Vietnam as a component in the larger Cold War. America’s largest concern was to appear strong and demonstrate resolve in the face what was seen as cohesive, global communist expansion. 

"More than Vietnam was at stake.  Much or all of Southeast Asia appeared to be on the verge of incorporation into a radical, antiwestern bloc led by China and Indonesia.  With Mao's encouragement, Sukarno, who had adopted the slogan 'Crush America,' had withdrawn Indonesia from the United Nations and announced the formation of a rival body, the Conference of the New Emerging Forces.  Speaking in 1965 of a 'Djakarta-Phnom Penh-Hanoi-P'yongyang axis,' Sukarno, predicted that China would 'strike a blow against the American troops in Vietnam from the north while Indonesia would strike from the south.'...Even more important than the possibilities of 'falling dominoes' was America's credibility as a super power with worldwide military commitments to weak and endangered allies and client-states.  The United States had been humiliated already by the Soviet bloc in Berlin, Cuba, and Laos; yet another retreat threatened both to encourage the Soviet Union and China and to demoralize America's allies." (page 17)

This is how the long, twisted road ended with a policy that killed 58,000 Americans and tore this nation apart, entering our national psyche as profoundly as the Civil War did a century earlier.  But how we chose to fight that war is a different story and the subject of my next meditation on the Vietnam War.