Mackubin Thomas Owens: A Winnable War (The argument against the orthodox history of Vietnam)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security at the Naval War College.]

In the late summer of 1963, President John Kennedy dispatched two observers to South Vietnam. Their mission was to provide the president an assessment of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the Republic of Vietnam. The first, Major General Victor Krulak, USMC, the special assistant for counterinsurgency for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited some ten locations in all four Corps areas of Vietnam. Based on extensive interviews with U.S. advisers to the South Vietnamese army, Krulak concluded that the war was going well.

The second observer was Joseph Mendenhall of the State Department, who had been recommended to the president by Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman. Mendenhall, like Harriman and Hilsman a longtime advocate of replacing Diem, visited three South Vietnamese cities where he spoke primarily to opponents of the South Vietnamese president. Unsurprisingly, he concluded in his report that if Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu remained in power, the Diem government was certain to fall to the Viet Cong, or the country would descend into religious civil war.

Both Krulak and Mendenhall briefed Kennedy on September 10. So diametrically opposed were their conclusions that the president quipped, "The two of you did visit the same country, didn't you?"

After reading Mark Moyar's remarkable new book, Triumph Forsaken, readers accustomed to the "orthodox" view of the Vietnam war--entrenched in the academy and the press for decades--will no doubt have the same sort of "Kennedy moment." Could Moyar possibly be writing about the same war that is described (in the orthodox view) as, at best, a strategic error and, at worst, a brutal imperialist war of aggression--in any case, a tragic mistake?

The axioms of the orthodox view concerning the Vietnam war are well known: that Southeast Asia in general, and South Vietnam in particular, were not vital strategic U.S. interests; that the "domino theory"--the belief that the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists would lead to the collapse of other non-Communist regimes in Southeast Asia--was false; that the South Vietnamese government was hopelessly corrupt and did not command the allegiance of the South Vietnamese people; that among the most corrupt was the regime of Diem, who was good at repressing Buddhists (Diem was Catholic) but was losing to the Viet Cong Communists; that Ho Chi Minh was not a true Communist but a nationalist; and that the rejection of certain military options--the mining of Haiphong Harbor, the use of ground troops to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail--was proper given the fear of Chinese intervention.

According to the orthodox view, Vietnam was indeed a "quagmire," a war the United States was destined to lose.

Moyar's history takes issue with all of these contentions. A brilliant young scholar with a Cambridge doctorate who is currently teaching at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Moyar is representative of a small but increasingly influential revisionist school that rejects the fundamental orthodox premise that America's involvement in Vietnam was wrongheaded and unjust.

The primary weakness of the orthodox school, Moyar demonstrates, is its constricted historical horizon. For the most part, orthodox historians have covered the war as if the only important decisions were made in Washington and Saigon. This is an example of what has been called "national narcissism," the idea that history is just about us. Of course, important decisions were also made in Hanoi, Beijing, Moscow, and many other places. Moyar has exhaustively consulted the relevant archives and uses them to demonstrate the very real limitations of the orthodox view. He not only places Vietnam in its proper geopolitical context, but demonstrates the Clausewitzian principle that war is a struggle between two active wills. An action by one side elicits a response from the other that may be unexpected.

Orthodox historians often act as if Hanoi pursued a course of action with little regard for what the United States did. But Moyar demonstrates that the North Vietnamese strategy was greatly affected by U.S. actions.

This point was driven home to me in 1983 when the late Douglas Pike, the foremost American expert on Vietnamese communism and an early proponent of Vietnam revisionism, delivered a paper at a Wilson Center symposium on the war. Pike observed that "the initial reaction of Hanoi's leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in February 1965--documented later by defectors and other witnesses--was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure." But the air campaign was severely constrained, a fact that became increasingly apparent to Hanoi. As a result, North Vietnamese leaders concluded that the United States lacked the will to bear the cost of the war.

Pike then made an extraordinary claim by comparing the effects of the constrained air campaign in 1965 and the "Christmas bombing" of 1972. Officially known as Linebacker II, this massive, around-the-clock air campaign far exceeded in intensity anything that had gone before. Hanoi was stunned.

"While conditions had changed vastly in seven years," Pike continued, "the dismaying conclusion to suggest itself from the 1972 Christmas bombing was that had this kind of air assault been launched in February 1965, the Vietnam war as we know it might have been over within a matter of months, even weeks."

Triumph Forsaken is one of the most important books ever written on the Vietnam war. The first of two projected volumes, it focuses on the period from the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh in 1954 to the eve of Lyndon Johnson's commitment of major ground forces in 1965. Moyar's thesis is that the American defeat was not inevitable: The United States had ample opportunities to ensure the survival of South Vietnam, but it failed to develop the proper strategy to do so. And by far our greatest mistake was to acquiesce in the November 1963 coup that deposed and killed Diem, a decision that "forfeited the tremendous gains of the preceding nine years and plunged the country into an extended period of instability and weakness."

Not surprisingly, Vietnamese Communists exploited that post-Diem instability and adopted a more aggressive and ambitious stance. Moyar argues that President Lyndon Johnson rejected several aggressive strategic options available to him, options that would have permitted South Vietnam to continue the war, either without the employment of U.S. ground forces or by a limited deployment of U.S. forces in strategically advantageous positions in the southern part of North Vietnam or in Laos. The rejection of these options meant that Johnson was left with the choice of abandoning South Vietnam, a step fraught with grave international consequences, or fighting a defensive war within South Vietnam at a serious strategic disadvantage.

Nothing illustrates the orthodox/revisionist divide more than their respective treatments of Ngo Dinh Diem. In the orthodox view, Diem was a tyrant losing control of his country, a Catholic running roughshod over a predominantly Buddhist populace. Moyar contends that this is false. In fact, Diem was an effective leader who put down the organized crime empires that had thrived before his rise to power. Nor was he a democrat: His legitimacy, in the eyes of the people, arose from his ability to wield power effectively and provide security for the people who were the target of the Communist insurgency. Indeed, under Diem's leadership, the back of the Communist insurgency had pretty much been broken by 1960.

This is a far cry from the orthodox view, but Moyar has some pretty good witnesses: the Communists themselves. Citing Communist documents, Moyar shows that they were honest enough to acknowledge their lack of success in the period leading up to the 1963 coup, as well as the fact that the Diem government was killing and capturing Communist cadres in unprecedented number, leading many survivors to defect.

So why has Diem been depicted the way he has? First, he was a victim of press bias: No one did more to undermine Diem's reputation in the United States than David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Far from providing a balanced picture of the war, they pushed a decidedly anti-Diem view, and their prejudice was so transparent that a 1963 congressional mission described the American journalists as "arrogant, emotional, un-objective, and ill-informed."

But then, these same reporters were themselves influenced by others with axes to grind. Much of the criticism of the Diem regime's military policy was fed to them by the maverick U.S. Army adviser, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. In addition, many American reporters relied on a Vietnamese journalist named Pham Xuan An, a Reuters stringer later revealed to be a Communist agent whose very mission was to influence the American press. As journalists such as Stanley Karnow later admitted, Pham was very good at his job.

Sheehan and Halberstam, in turn, greatly influenced the new U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, against Diem. They were especially effective in portraying Buddhists as victims of Diem's repression of non-Catholics. But the militant Buddhist leaders were far from the political innocents described by Halberstam and Sheehan, and the most important of them, Thich Tri Quang, was a brother of the North Vietnamese official in charge of subversion in the south. If Tri Quang was not a Communist himself, he was at least an agent of influence. Moyar provides evidence that many of the "Buddhist" protesters were, in fact, Communist provocateurs.

In fact, Diem's efforts to mollify the Americans by offering concessions to the Buddhists only invited more demands, undercut Diem's authority, and emboldened his enemies, who interpreted his attempts at compromise as weakness. The only man in South Vietnam who could reestablish order was Diem, but Ambassador Lodge insisted on further acts of conciliation, which led to further disorder. Lodge's continued meddling made Diem more intractable, which reinforced Lodge's predisposition to replace him.

If there is a villain in Moyar's account, it is Lodge. Influenced by American journalists, he saw Diem as an intransigent opponent of reform. But it was Lodge who proved to be heavy-handed and closed-minded, vices that led him to support the ouster of Diem as part of a personal vendetta. Moyar describes Lodge's duplicity: He told the president that he was unable stop the anti-Diem coup, but it was Lodge who instigated it in the first place, in defiance of Kennedy's wishes. In that sense, Kennedy was hoist on his own petard: He had sought to neutralize Lodge, a likely 1964 Republican presidential candidate, by sending him to Saigon; but when evidence of Lodge's dupli city became clear, Kennedy did not replace him for fear that Lodge would turn his ouster into a campaign issue.

It is generally accepted, even by orthodox chroniclers, that the coup and the subsequent assassination of Diem and Nhu were mistakes of the greatest magnitude. Ho Chi Minh understood the coup's import immediately: "I can scarcely believe that the Americans could be so stupid," he remarked. The Hanoi Politburo recognized the opportunity that the coup had provided the Communists: "Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communists. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists." And indeed, the coup provided the incentive for the Communists to push for a quick victory against the weak South Vietnamese government before the United States intervened.

Conditions continued to deteriorate, forcing Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, to consider an American escalation of the war to save South Vietnam. He did not, as many have argued, use the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident as an excuse to escalate U.S. involvement. That claim is belied by the fact that Johnson saw intervention only as a last resort to avoid the defeat of South Vietnam and what he thought would be the subsequent toppling of the Southeast Asian dominoes. Indeed, most observers at the time criticized Johnson for not responding forcefully enough to the Tonkin Gulf incident, and major U.S. ground intervention did not begin until nearly a year later.

Moyar contends that Johnson had viable military options that could have enabled South Vietnam to survive while avoiding the massive commitment of U.S. ground troops that began in 1965. I happen to agree, but I don't think Moyar sufficiently appreciates the immense pressure on U.S. political leaders to consider military options for Vietnam in the context of nuclear deterrence. When Johnson was weighing his options in Vietnam the United States was only three years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Indeed, we cannot understand U.S. strategic decisions in Vietnam without reference to nuclear deterrence. Many policymakers had come to believe that strategy in the traditional sense was no longer possible in the nuclear age. Rather than focusing on the choice of the proper means to achieve national goals, as strategy demands, policymakers saw Vietnam and similar cases as "crises" in need of control. The goal was to prevent a crisis from spinning out of control, leading to uncontrolled escalation, possibly to nuclear war.

Moyar does acknowledge the role of the academic theory of limited war, which was developed precisely to prevent a crisis from escalating. Most often associated with the Harvard political scientist Thomas Schelling, limited war theory emphasized using military force in a controlled way to "signal" one's opponent. The central idea was that rational actors on both sides would limit the steps they took in order to avoid the escalation of a crisis.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was a proponent of Schelling's theory, but the uniformed military and former President Eisenhower were skeptical. Limited war theory was the very negation of strategy, but McNamara and others wrongly saw the Cuban Missile Crisis as its validation. Unfortunately, the attempt to use limited war theory to shape U.S. policy and strategy for Vietnam proved especially counterproductive, if for no other reason than the "value of the object" for the North Vietnamese was greater than that of the Soviets in Cuba.

One of Johnson's fears was that, if the United States invaded North Vietnam or Laos to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, China would intervene. But contemporary Chinese documents make it clear that no such response was contemplated. Moyar shows that our actions in Vietnam were based on bad intelligence in the service of a flawed theory of war. This contention is supported by the fact that, in 1972-73, Richard Nixon employed many of the same options available to Johnson in late 1964, and these steps would most likely have preserved the independence of South Vietnam had it not been for the action of Congress in 1974-75 to completely cut off all military support to our ally.

No review can do full justice to this critically important book. Triumph Forsaken is meticulously documented and bold in its interpretation of the record. Even orthodox historians will be forced to acknowledge the magnitude of Moyar's scholarly achievement. It should, at the least, reopen the debate about America's Vietnam enterprise, reminding us that countries are not destined to win or lose wars. Victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented.

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Vietnam and Iraq are vastly different historical quagmires, but share at least this in common: Vietnam was and Iraq is an intervention in vain search of a mission.

The author belittles "limited war", but "limited war" kept South Korea from being absorbed by the North, "limited war" liberated Kuwait's oil from Saddam Hussein, and "limited war" saved tens of thousands of Bosnians and Kosovars from ethnic cleansing and mass murder. In an even more constrained but very forceful version, "containment," limited military deployment also protected Western Europe for 45 years until the Soviet threat collapsed from its own internal contradictions.

"Limited war" is disparaged in Vietnam, by this author, who apparently concurs with the book reviewed and with the headline here, that American involvement there was a "winnable" adventure.

Nowhere here is there anything approaching a definition of how "winning." Keeping an unpopular corrupt and government in place in South Vietnam by devoting a huge chunk of America's military strength to Indochina in perpetuity?

An academic version of the Rambo myth is still the Rambo myth.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/27/2007

All are welcome here for civil discussion, Louis, regardless of their views. You of all people should know that.

Louis N Proyect - 3/27/2007

Where does HNN dredge up these troglodytes?

Glenn Rodden - 3/27/2007

The author of this "revisionist" account of the American War in Vietnam gives us nothing new. He tells us that the Diem regime was not so bad, but fails to explain why it was so unpopular. He tells us that Ho Chi Minh was really a communist and took his orders from Moscow and Bejing. He does not tells us why Ho and the Vietminh organized against the French colonial regime. In fact, the French are hardly mentioned in this book. And of course he blames the media for the entire thing.

I suspect that Owens will be writing soon that the media is to blame for the Iraq disaster.

James W Loewen - 3/26/2007

This "new" interpretation says the media lost the War in Vietnam? That's what the hawks have been saying from about 1966 through 2006. Diem WAS a more effective "lackey" than subsequent generals, but lackey nonetheless. And I still don't think the Vietnamese people were subsceptable to long-term lackey rule.