Hau Nghia Part. 4: VN to Sarajevo

Yet, according to Komer, while Tet had led to a reduction of the chief traditional obstacles of the pacification program previously identified by men such as Wells and Vann--the divisions, corruption and disinterest rife among the South Vietnamese ruling elites compounded by U. S. mis-management--these had not been eradicated. In the aftermath of Tet, President Thieu told his Ambassador to the United States, Bui Diem, that the war had not been going well because his civilian and military advisors were too weak to be of any assistance. Ambassador Diem then asked why the President did not purge the government of such men. Thieu gestured helplessly and replied, "Because they are the government." Though knowledgeable American analysts such as Gerald Cannon Hickey warned as early as 1967 that Thieu had to clean-up, strengthen and broaden the Republic of Vietnam's political base, Thieu himself proved too wedded to the existing political power structure and too confident in Nixon's support of his autocratic leadership to abandon the kind of elections during which peasants were told that "no one could belong to any party but [Thieu's] Democracy [Party]." The weak reeds Thieu leaned upon were home grown.

Concerns such as Hickey's had led to Edward Lansdale's return to Vietnam to assist in making the Vietnamese election process more honest and fair. Upon his arrival, however, he found little real support in Saigon or Washington for any substantive change in Vietnamese politics. In desperation, Lansdale tried to enlist in this cause an old friend then visiting Saigon; Richard Nixon. Nixon, however, reportedly responded to Lansdale's election reforms by winking and saying, "Oh sure, honest yes, that's right, as long as you win," a remark he punctuated by driving his elbow into Lansdale's side and slapping his own knee. As President, Nixon was to turn a blind eye to Thieu's rigged elections until the bitter end. To Bui Diem, this story has special meaning. He has written extensively on how Nixon and Kissinger's need for stability in Saigon favored strong-men like Thieu and thereby thwarted anti- corruption efforts and democratic reform which, under pressure from President Johnson, had at least produced a constitution and regular, if not pristine, elections. Without further progress in this direction, the South Vietnamese were easily stigmatized as undemocratic and corrupt, thus rendering them "unworthy of support by an ever-increasing percentage of the American public and Congress." More immediately, the unpopular nature of the American-backed regime produced only "apathy, cynicism and, finally, in the anti-corruption movement, outrage."

Thus, the most pernicious internal obstacles to pacification embedded in indigenous politics and in U. S.- South Vietnamese relations survived the Tet scare intact. At the same time, the equally serious external obstacles remained. Though battered during The Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong's own pacification apparatus remained potent. The Viet Cong retained the capacity to terminate government rural development personnel, and could, whenever it wished to do so, undermine the ability of any allied authority to provide reliable local security. Komer himself acknowledges that whatever advances in rural security and development occurred after Tet, it was not because of any renewed allied efforts, but because Hanoi's losses in rural cadre during Tet had created a vacuum that CORDS and parallel South Vietnamese efforts, "as slow as we were," were able to exploit. Eric Bergerud's study of post Tet Viet Cong strength in Wells's Hau Nghia suggests that these losses were so quickly made up as to deny these achievements any semblance of permanence.

While perhaps ultimately ephemeral, these post-Tet achievements were dramatic enough to convince Abrams and Komer that a full fledged revival of the "other war" could bring victory in Vietnam. Time, however, was running out. The enemy's so-called political victory at Tet had not only demoralized America's political leadership, but shaken the confidence of then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earl Wheeler, and other key figures of the American military establishment. After meeting with these men, McNamara's successor, Clark M. Clifford, determined that America's only course in Vietnam was disengagement. Abrams and Komer were thus forced to devise a plan to win the war not with renewed support from home, but while covering an American withdrawal. In 1969, they made PROVN's recommendations part of such a plan, one so potent with regard to rural development and local security as to convince Abrams that the independence of South Vietnam might still be preserved. Unfortunately, this new plan had to acknowledge that this objective "would take a couple of decades and that far less time would be available." PROVN advocates had, moreover, always known that this objective could only be achieved "through bringing the individual Vietnamese to support willingly the GVN," and, for all the Hamlet Evaluation Surveys that showed quiescence after Tet and all the Phoenix Programs depredations, there was only limited anecdotal evidence that such progress was being made in this direction.

The enemy knew this as well as MACV. Whether or not Hanoi and the National Liberation Front had the forces in place to vigorously contest rural development through guerrilla operations after 1969, they had the luxury of not having to do so. The Viet Cong may not have completed the effort to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese, but they had achieved the dual political purposes of the village war. They had driven out the Americans and prevented the Saigon regime from establishing itself as a legitimate rival as champion of Vietnamese nationalism. Once the South Vietnamese government was deprived of the shield provided by American forces in the field, Hanoi was convinced that no amount of renewed indirect American aid in the "other war" or belated land reform could save Saigon.

In the end, Abrams and Komer faced what Summers and his fellow revisionists have yet to appreciate--that in losing the insurgent war through a failed war of attrition resting on an inadequately democratic local base, America and its Vietnamese allies had paved the way for Hanoi's more conventional offensive campaigns of 1972 and 1975. Komer's summary explanation of the American failure to grasp the true nature of the war evokes the ghost of Jack Wells:

Politically, we failed to give due weight to the popular appeal of the Viet Cong . . . or the dearth of factionalism among traditional South Vietnamese elites. We only grasped belatedly the significance of the steady attrition of GVN [Government of Vietnam's] authority . . . in the countryside . . . which was directly linked to how the Viet Cong conducted the war.
Komer concludes that as the war ultimately hinged on the ability of the South Vietnamese government to combat insurgents and halt this erosion, a battle the U. S. could only assist, but not itself fight, it is not true that America lost the war in Vietnam, but that "the Saigon government and its army lost their own war with some help from us." Henry Kissinger entertained the possibility of this outcome as early as 1963. His fears were confirmed by his visits to Vietnam in October-November of 1965 and in July of 1966. He has since written that the failure of Saigon's inability to develop, and U. S. military strategy to sustain, "a political program to which non-communists South Vietnamese could rally" figured prominently in his decision to cut the best deal he could to extract America from Vietnam. Kissinger the diplomat thus washes his hands of his actions as policy-maker: his support of Theiu, while pragmatically aimed at promoting the stability necessary to cover an American withdrawal, severely inhibited the development of the required popular political program.

William Colby, who succeeded Komer as pacification chief in Vietnam in 1970, has stated that the post-Tet gains in pacification under Abrams leadership were so substantial as to finally place success in the "other war" within America's grasp. Yet, even he concedes that Saigon waited too long to begin its own social revolution and that American forces in Vietnam failed to deliver to an understandably frustrated American public what was ultimately needed for victory. This was steady, demonstrable progress sufficient to justify an unlimited commitment such as that provided the Republic of Korea. Colby is well aware that not only did American forces in Vietnam fail to produce such progress from 1964 to 1970, but the Korea-style commitment he believed was required for victory was alien to both the original terms of engagement in Vietnam and those that governed MACV's final comprehensive plan in 1969 which, in part, defined Colby's own field of action.

Harry Summers has similarly qualified much of his evaluation of the overall tenor of American strategy in Vietnam. He has openly admitted that his suppositions are based on his experiences in Korea, not Vietnam, and that his views are untainted by close knowledge of Hanoi's policy-making process or strategic calculations. He has never doubted that the South would have fallen in 1965 to guerrillas, not main force units, if the United States had not intervened and would undoubtedly agree with his critics' assertion that his own criticism of the failure of post- 1965 and post-Tet American military operations to destroy the supposed "real enemy," the North Vietnamese regular army, is designed more as a reminder of how far these operations departed from classical Clausewitzian military tradition than as practical suggestions as to how America could have won the war. The Colby and Summers theses thus offer counsels of perfection that ignore the boundaries of historical analysis and transcend wartime political and military realities.


In Vietnam, the United States government was compelled to win a quick victory against historical forces that had been gestating for generations. It pursued what seemed to be the only one politically acceptable course before it: an American war big unit war of attrition supported by a pacification program managed by South Vietnamese. Unfortunately, Hanoi could win the pacification war merely by not losing to Saigon's less adept forces, and possessed the political will, human resources and battlefield strategy to win the war of attrition. The United States grew increasingly aware of the enemy's strengths, but it was over- burdened by the liabilities of reforming its ally, appeasing New Left and traditional American anti-imperialism at home, and pursuing a limited war strategy that kept Russian and Chinese interventionists at bay. Hanoi might have played into Westmoreland's hands if it inflexibly pursued Maoist revolutionary strategy--as it came close to doing so during the Tet Offensive-- but this would have required them to think in stereotypes and, even at Tet, that was not the Vietnamese way. America's interests might have been better served if it had not thought in stereotypes, but that was the American way in Vietnam. The field reports of Wells and Vann, the advice of analysts as diverse as Ellsberg and Krulak and, above all, the formal investigations embodied in PROVN and similar studies, should have equipped America's leaders with an early understanding of the conflict's unique dimensions. These materials would have made clear the political requirements that would have to be met by the Saigon regime and the sacrifices that America would have to make to secure victory in Vietnam. They were, however, ignored or suppressed by American officials, who, in their rush to keep up with the often overwhelmingly rapid pace of events in Southeast Asia, attributed their own inflexible behavior to enemy.

In a sense, the enemy's strategy had to fit America's image of Red Tide expansionism and ideological rigidity. To have believed otherwise would have been to throw doubt on the prevailing monolithic model of communism, the bulwark of contemporary American foreign policy, and require a rethinking of the superior firepower doctrine that lay at the basis of the prevailing American Korea- model anti-communist military strategy, which denied the enemy a legitimate indigenous political motivation. As a result, even ameliorative efforts, such the post-1968 Vietnamization program, were doomed to failure. As a contemporary RAND Corporation study concluded even before that program began:

The Army's entire repertoire of warfare was designed for conventional war in Europe. In Vietnam, the Army simply performed its repertoire, though it was frequently irrelevant to the situation. Although changes were repeatedly proposed, few were made. The Army seemed to be prevented by its own doctrinal and organizational rigidity from understanding the nature of this war and from making the necessary modifications to apply its power more relevantly. Vietnamization is not a solution to our own problem of organizational rigidity. The danger exists that in transferring the war to the Vietnamese, we will also transfer also our organization, our style of fighting, and our mistakes . . thus rendering the Vietnamese incapable of doing anything different from what we have done.
The accuracy of this analysis may be measured in the outcomes of the enemy's Spring or Easter Offensive of 1972 and the final Spring Offensive of 1975 against America's Vietnamized ally. The 1972 offensive has been judged called by Colby and others as a triumph for Saigon's conventional forces and a defeat for Hanoi's conventional forces, but at its conclusion not only were key areas of the country in enemy hands, but much of its population had been conditioned to accept Saigon's defeat. Those like Harry Summers, who tout the conventional nature of Hanoi's 1975 offensive, ignore the revolutionary political dimensions of the final campaign evidenced by the lack of resistance in the countryside and the relatively easy seizure of Saigon, which fell "an overripe fruit." Neither the rapid consolidation of the enemy's post-1972 gains nor the sudden collapse of Saigon's cause would have been possible had this regime been able to match the political and revolutionary agenda of their opponents. Instead of mounting its own dau tranh, however, the leaders of the Republic of Vietnam indulged themselves too long in its ally's largess and, whether out of self-interest or naivete, pursued its meddling ally's example to the very last, and there proved to be no light at that end of that tunnel.

Tragically, as early as November 1965 even Robert McNamara sensed that American policy was out of joint with Vietnamese realities, but his loyalty to prevailing American political formulas and military traditions was just as strong as Westmoreland's and just as immoveable. America in Vietnam was thus stabbed in the front, not in the back, betrayed not by the media or a few interfering civilian decision-makers, but its own collective limited vision of the nature of the war and the requirements for victory. This limited vision, which also helped obscure the mounting empirical evidence of the fatal policy errors it occasioned, has been variously attributed to an arrogance of power, to an obsessive anticommunism, to the nightmare of appeasement, to an imperial presidency, to a "can do/group think" mentality, or, as Robert Komer has long contented, to an overly bureaucratic war-making machine. We must take care, however, that we do not, when enumerating these causes, increase the likelihood that the failure of the American War in Vietnam will be viewed as the product of American mistakes that might have been avoided and the war won, as is seemingly suggested by Summers, Colby and Komer. These masters of war and realpolitik do us a service by seeking to ascertain what America failed to do during the Vietnam War, but a close reading of their work shows that even they would not wish to prevent us from recognizing that the outcome of that war was determined less at MACV and Washington than by the political cultures of the Saigon regime, the National Liberation Front and its partners in Hanoi.

The centrality of the indigenous dimensions of insurgent conflicts and the high cost of underestimating them was re- validated by America's long, expensive and failed attempt to destroy the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front in El Salvador. At the outset of this conflict, in 1983, Edward Lansdale was brought in from the cold to advise the Pentagon on Central American policy. According to his biographer, Cecil Currey, he repeated the warnings of those "Good Americans" like Wells that it was virtually impossible to win a quick victory in a revolutionary conflict in an allied country whose government is incapable of insuring the security and retaining the loyalty of its own people. He once again urged his government to recognize that, under such circumstances, the interdiction of support sent to the erstwhile rebels from abroad was a chimera, not a panacea. He criticized the conventional military equipment then being sent out to El Salvador as better suited "for a big war and would be counterproductive." He was delighted to find that at least one Pentagon official understood that "Bombers are no damn good in a guerilla war. It is insane to use them." Lansdale, however, feared that he and his new ally would be dismissed as "has beens." He left his Pentagon briefing with a "a sneaking awful feeling that they've lost touch with reality . . . I don't know why people don't remember these things."

Lansdale's views had enough resonance to become enshrined in the so-called Kissinger Commission Report of 1984, but he was right to doubt their acceptance by the American military establishment. From 1984 to 1988 the Salvadorian army operated in battalion size formations, relying on helicopters and trucks for mobility and dependent upon heavy firepower. Its opponent, the Farabundi Marti Liberation Front, tried and failed, as the Vietnamese did at one time or another against the French and Americans, to meet the Salvadorian regular forces on its own terms and dreamed dreams of Tet-like popular uprisings, but, again like the Vietnamese, it ultimately acknowledged the necessity for protracted struggle. While many of the American junior officers chosen to advise the Salvadorian government forces during the Reagan and early Bush administrations were those who initially placed their faith in mobility, firepower and attriting the enemy, even they ultimately came to realize that the real success in a counterinsurgency campaign "was not to be found in more efficient methods of killing guerrillas."

That's addressing the effect, not the cause. Getting at the cause implies that realm of activity known as `the other war': psychological operations, civil defense, civic action, and the co-ordination of civil and military activities to effect reform.
Such critiques led to the belated recognition that even "foreign-backed insurgent wars "have internal roots, that victory in an insurgent war lies in winning the local population's support, not in the annihilation of the enemy's forces, and that the key to winning the populations' support, in turn, lies in redressing its legitimate grievances by carrying out fundamental reforms." After 1988, according to RAND Corporation analyst Benjamin C. Schwartz, America sought to create in El Salvador a responsive, legitimate government which would win the voluntary support of the population through redistribution and reform rather than military operations. When this effort failed to achieve any significant results, the proponents of the nation-building approach (now re- styled Low Intensity Conflict) repeated the error of their Vietnam- era predecessors by searching for scapegoats. They could not say they had not been given enough time, that the government they sought to support was too fragile, or that foreign support for the rebels was overwhelming, so they blamed those responsible for the implementation of the policy. They accused the newly converted Good American advisers in the field of not trying hard enough and urged them to "try harder." They refused to admit the inherent inadequacy of their theory arising from America's position within the host country and the wider context of the conflict. As in Vietnam, no matter how strong the American reformist effort, the Rightist leaders of the government of El Salvador refused to change because the desired democratic reforms would undermine the very purpose of the state itself by vitiating the power and vision of the elites who had constructed it. America could not force this issue because the Cold War dimensions of the conflict in Central America, as in Southeast Asia, vitiated any leverage America had to compel them to alter their stance. Government critics and rebels had no other choice but to adopt Leftist ideologies as extreme as those of the Rightists, as did the nascent members of the NLF in the face of Diem's authoritarian policies of 1956-1960. Thus, the middle ground, which American democratization and economic reforms were designed to promote was as absent in El Salvador as it was in Vietnam, perhaps more so. Under such circumstances, Schwartz concludes, low intensity warfare's "noble goal can only be described as quixotic," and inevitably binds "the United States to possibly unpopular, probably corrupt, and certainly ineffective governments [which] hardly serves America's long term interests." The result of America's continuing inability to recognize the decisive role of indigenous political culture in Central America was the maintenance of perhaps the most repressive regime in Latin America at the cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives over a period longer than the duration of the war in Vietnam without achieving much diminution of the violent forces arrayed against it.

What Jack Wells came to believe and what this study has attempted to show is that the irreducible lesson taught in Vietnam in 1965, in El Salvador in the 1980s and most recently in Somalia, is not merely that client-nations are to blame for losing insurgent wars not America's to win, that conventional armies lose unconventional wars or that low intensity warfare's nation-building strategy is or is not the antidote for civil unrest. It is that no modern state, even one as confident in its exceptionalism as the United States in the 1960s or as the former Soviet Union on the eve of its Afghan adventure, can overcome the obstacles created by its own willing ignorance of the history and culture of its would-be allies and antagonists abroad. If American leaders can keep this lesson before them when formulating their responses to the world's next so-called Vietnams, such as Bosnia, Cambodia, Peru or in the dozens of Muslims states facing the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism, they will honor those, like Jack Wells, who gave their lives in Indochina that we might learn it.

End of Hau Nghia Pt. 4 VN to Sarajevo

Copyright © Marc Gilbert and James Wells, 1995. All rights reserved.