Category Archives: Historical Perspective

The Ho Chi Minh Trail

By James D. McLeroy

The first step in the North Vietnamese Politburo’s grand strategy for the conquest of South Vietnam was its May, 1959 order to the Ministry of Defense to begin construction of the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route, later known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ministry of Defense gave the task to its Rear Services Directorate, which assigned it to the 559th Transportation Group. The Group was designated 559 for the date of its creation in the fifth month of 1959.

The complex transportation network built with enormous difficulty through the jungles and mountains of eastern Laos and Cambodia was one of the greatest feats of military engineering of the 20th Century. Aided by Russian and Chinese advisors, NVA engineers began to improve, expand, and lengthen animal trails, Montagnard paths, and stream beds through the Truong Son range.

River fords were hidden by underwater bridges. Roads and paths were wound around trees to enhance their concealment from the air. Open areas in the jungle canopy were camouflaged by interlacing tree tops or connecting them with trellises interwoven with living plants and vines.  The result was an interconnected, 12,000-mile network of roads, paths, bridges, bypasses, tunnels, caves, and pipelines.

Its widest east-west axis was about thirty miles, and its north-south axis from North Vietnam to the South Vietnamese delta was approximately 3,500 miles. It was vital for the supply of war material and replacement troops to the Communist Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in South Vietnam. Because of its strategic importance the NVA eventually made eastern Laos and Cambodia virtual extensions of North Vietnam.

After traversing three mountain passes from North Vietnam into Laos, the Trail was divided into eleven regions, five large base areas, five main roads, twenty-nine branch roads, and numerous, frequently changed shortcuts and bypasses. In addition to sanctuary bases for VC and NVA troop units recovering from or preparing for combat in South Vietnam, fifteen large logistics headquarters called binh trams were spaced along the Trail.

They were commanded by NVA colonels with up to 2,000 troops in transportation, antiaircraft, engineer, logistics, and infantry battalions. Both men and women served as route guides, cooks, nurses, porters, mechanics, maintenance, and construction workers. Antiaircraft and infantry battalions guarded their sector of the trail and the roads from it into South Vietnam.

Crude bivouac facilities called “communication liaison stations” were spaced about one day’s march between the binh trams to provide basic food, shelter, medical aid, and route guides for transient NVA troops. The route guides only knew the sections of the Trail half way to the next bivouac stations north and south of their own.

They met the route guide escorting NVA troops from the station north of theirs at a point half way to that station and took them to their own station for the night. The next day they took the transient troops halfway to the next station south of theirs, where they were met by a route guide from that station. U.S. intelligence analysts identified base areas as places where large numbers of NVA troops could always be found. The first headquarters of the 559th Transportation Division was in Vinh, North Vietnam, and its main logistics center was at Base Area (BA) 604 near Tchepone, Laos.

Troops and supplies from North Vietnam were unloaded at BA 604 and divided for distribution to base areas farther south. BA 604 sent most of its troops and supplies to BA 611, where they were further distributed among the base stations south of it. BA 614 east of Chevane, Laos sent its allocations into South Vietnam on an extension of Road 165 from Chevane to QL 14.

In October, 1968, a second Trail headquarters was established in southern Laos near the junction of Roads 92 and 922 (see map). It controlled an entire infantry division, three antiaircraft regiments, two engineering regiments, twenty-three antiaircraft battalions, thirty-five engineering battalions, eighteen transportation battalions, and two pipeline battalions.

Some 50,000 NVA troops guarded, maintained, and extended the Trail network. An estimated 10,000 NVA antiaircraft guns were hidden along the Trail, most of them around BA 604 near the junction of roads 9 and 92 east of Tchepone and BA 611 near the second Trail headquarters. The U.S. Air Force lost more planes at those two places than anywhere else in Laos.

An estimated 8,000 trucks traveled the Trail in relays from one truck to another. On heavily overcast and rainy days and nights, when there was less chance of air attacks, up to 100 trucks traveled in convoys with their lights on. Each truck traveled at an average speed of five to eight miles an hour, depending on road conditions.

First priority was given to trucks carrying artillery, tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles. Second priority was given to trucks carrying fuel, ammunition, and food. Third priority was given to trucks carrying troops urgently needed in South Vietnam. The drivers only traveled fifteen to twenty miles back and forth on one stretch of road. Like the trail guides, they only knew the routes half-way to the next way stations north and south of their own.

Driving back and forth on the same length of road every night and most overcast days, they learned every detail of that section of road and the terrain on each side of it. Eventually, they could drive some sections of the Trail fairly quickly even in the dark. Many trucks had radios to warn them of incoming air attacks and current road conditions.

Fuel and lubricants for up to twenty-five trucks were stored in camouflaged truck parks hidden about three miles off the main roads. At each station the cargo of each truck was unloaded and transferred to another truck. Damaged or destroyed trucks were quickly replaced by others from the nearest station to the north. That station replaced those trucks with trucks from the next station to its north, and so all the way to Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam, where new trucks and new repair parts constantly arrived from the USSR.

NVA monitoring stations at intervals along the roads collected current data on road conditions in their area and the number of trucks passing through in each time period. The data was sent to traffic controllers on each section of the Trail, so that emergency route changes and repairs could be made as quickly as possible.

Most road repair work was done at night, and each binh tram had two or three bulldozers for that purpose. From 1959 to 1975, an estimated 300,000 Laotian men, women, and children were used as forced laborers to repair sections of the Trail and augment NVA food supplies with their small farms.

During daylight hours most transient NVA troops walked from one way station to another on trails at safe distances from the roads. The average infiltrating unit was a battalion moving at between one and three miles per hour, depending on the terrain. Preceded by route guides, they walked in platoon or company groups spaced about 100 yards apart. They did not fire at passing aircraft, but quickly moved off the trail and stood still or lay down. Several times a day they changed the foliage on their camouflage to match the foliage they were passing through.

In 1964, the first regular NVA regiment entered South Vietnam via the Trail, and in 1966 the first regular NVA division arrived the same way. The CIA estimated that between 1966 and 1971 the NVA sent more than 630,000 troops, 400,000 weapons, 50,000 tons of ammunition, and 100,000 tons of food into South Vietnam on the Trail. In 1968 the NVA needed to send 8,000 troops and 100 tons of ammunition and weapons to South Vietnam every month to replace their huge losses in the nationwide battles that year.

Every year more and younger draftees from North Vietnam and more and newer military supplies from the USSR and China were sent down the Trail to South Vietnam. Regardless of how often and heavily the Trail was bombed, and regardless of the human cost of constantly repairing it, the NVA continued relentlessly to do so year after year.

An estimated twenty percent of the infiltrating NVA troops died on the Trail, but only about two percent of those deaths were caused by U.S. air attacks. Ninety-eight percent of NVA deaths on the Trail were from illness, accidents, malnutrition, exhaustion, or exposure.

Seventy-nine large military cemeteries, including one covering forty acres with more than 10,000 sets of remains, were located along the Trail. They are grim evidence of the enormous human cost to the NVA of building, maintaining, extending, and defending the Trail network from its beginning in 1959 to the NVA’s conquest of the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.

How to Lose A War: The Press and Viet Nam

By Robert Elegant
Reprinted from Encounter (London), vol. LVII, No. 2, August 1981, pp. 73-90
Republished with permission from the author

IN THE EARLY 1960s, when the Viet Nam War became a big story, most foreign correspondents assigned to cover the story wrote primarily to win the approbation of the crowd, above all their own crowd. As a result, in my view, the self-proving system of reporting they created became ever further detached from political and military realities because it instinctively concentrated on its own self-justification. The American press, naturally dominant in an “American war,” somehow felt obliged to be less objective than partisan, to take sides, for it was inspired by the engagé “investigative” reporting that burgeoned in the United States in these impassioned years. The press was instinctively “agin the government”—and, at least reflexively, for Saigon’s enemies.

During the latter half of the fifteen-year American involvement in Viet Nam, the media became the primary battlefield. Illusory events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies. For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen. Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said (surprising as it may still sound) that South Vietnamese and American forces actually won the limited military struggle. They virtually crushed the Viet Cong in the South, the “native” guerrillas who were directed, reinforced, and equipped from Hanoi; and thereafter they threw back the invasion by regular North Vietnamese divisions. Nonetheless, the war was finally lost to the invaders after the U.S. disengagement because the political pressures built up by the media had made it quite impossible for Washington to maintain even the minimal material and moral support that would have enabled the Saigon regime to continue effective resistance.

Since I am considering causes rather than effects, the demoralization of the West, particularly the United States, that preceded and followed the fall of South Viet Nam is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, interesting to wonder whether Angola, Afghanistan, and Iran would have occurred if Saigon had not fallen amid nearly universal odium—that is to say, if the “Viet Nam Syndrome,” for which the press (in my view) was largely responsible, had not afflicted the Carter Administration and paralyzed American will. On the credit side, largely despite the press, the People’s Republic of China would almost certainly not have purged itself of the Maoist doctrine of “worldwide liberation through people’s war” and, later, would not have come to blows with Hanoi if the defense of South Viet Nam had not been maintained for so long.

The Brotherhood

“You could be hard about it and deny that there was a brotherhood working there, but what else could you call it?” This is a question that Michael Herr asked in his Dispatches,1 a personally honest but basically deceptive book.

“But . . . all you ever talked about was the war, and they would come to seem like two different wars at the same time. Because who but another correspondent could talk the kind of mythical war you wanted to hear described?”

I have added the italics, for in the words “mythical” and “wanted” the essential truth is laid bare. In my own personal experience most correspondents wanted to talk chiefly to other correspondents to confirm their own mythical vision of the war. Even newcomers were precommitted, as the American jargon has it, to the collective position most of their colleagues had already taken. What I can only call surrealistic reporting constantly fed on itself, and did not diminish thereby, but swelled into ever more grotesque shapes. I found the process equally reprehensible for being in no small part unwitting.

John le Carré (whose extravagant encomium adorns the cover of the Pan edition of Dispatches: “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our times”) is, I feel, too clever a writer to believe he painted an even proximately accurate picture of Southeast Asia in The Honourable Schoolboy (1972). But he brilliantly depicted the press corps and the correspondents’ Asia, an encapsulated, self-defining world whirling in its own eccentric orbit. Correspondents, briefly set down in the brutally alienating milieu called Viet Nam, turned to each other for professional sustenance and emotional comfort. After all, there was nowhere else to turn, certainly not to stark reality, which was both elusive and repellent.

Most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese by ignorance of their language and culture, as well as by a measure of race estrangement. Most were isolated from the quixotic American Army establishment, itself often as confused as they themselves were, by their moralistic attitudes and their political prejudices. It was inevitable, in the circumstances, that they came to write, in the first instance, for each other.

To be sure, the approbation of his own crowd gave a certain fullness to the correspondent’s life in exile that reached beyond the irksome routine of reporting and writing. The disapprobation of his peers could transform him into a bitterly defensive misanthrope (I think here of one industrious radio and newspaper stringer who was reputed to be the richest correspondent in Viet Nam, except, of course, for the television stars). Even the experienced correspondents, to whom Asia was “home” rather than a hostile temporary environment, formed their own little self-defensive world within the larger world of the newcomers.

It was no wonder that correspondents writing to win the approbation of other correspondents in that insidiously collegial atmosphere produced reporting that was remarkably homogeneous. After each other, correspondents wrote to win the approbation of their editors, who controlled their professional lives and who were closely linked with the intellectual community at home. The consensus of that third circle, the domestic intelligentsia, derived largely from correspondents’ reports and in turn served to determine the nature of those reports. If dispatches did not accord with that consensus, approbation was withheld. Only in the last instance did correspondents address themselves to the general public, the mass of lay readers and viewers.

[Illegible] conclusion, most correspondents were in one respect, very much the ambitious soldiers they derided. A tour in Viet Nam was almost essential to promotion for a U.S. Regular Army officer, and a combat command was the best road to rapid advancement. Covering the biggest continuing story in the world was not absolutely essential to a correspondent’s rise, but it was an invaluable cachet. Quick careers were made by spectacular reporting of the obvious fact that men, women, and children were being killed; fame or at least notoriety rewarded the correspondent who became part of the action—rather than a mere observer—by influencing events directly.

Journalists, particularly those serving in television, were therefore, like soldiers, “rotated” to Viet Nam. Few were given time to develop the knowledge, and indeed the intellectual instincts, necessary to report the war in the round. Only a few remained “in country” for years, though the experienced Far Eastern correspondents visited regularly from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Not surprisingly, one found that most reporting veered farther and farther from the fundamental political, economic, and military realities of the war, for these were usually not spectacular. Reporting Viet Nam became a closed, self-generating system sustained largely by the acclaim the participants lavished on each other in almost equal measure to the opprobrium they heaped on “the Establishment,” a fashionable and very vulnerable target.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For some journalists, perhaps most, a moment of truth through self-examination was never to come. The farther they were from the real conflict, the more smugly self-approving they now remain as commentators who led the public to expect a brave new world when the North Vietnamese finally “liberated” South Viet Nam. Even those correspondents who today gingerly confess to some errors or distortions usually insist that the true fault was not theirs at all, but Washington’s. The enormity of having helped in one way or another to bring tens of millions under grinding totalitarian rule—and having tilted the global balance of power—appears too great to acknowledge. It is easier to absolve one’s self by blaming exclusively Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger.

I found few American correspondents to be as tough-minded as one Briton I knew who was very close to the action for many years in the employ of an American wire-news service. “I’m ashamed of most of what I wrote in Viet Nam,” he told me recently. “But I was a new boy, and I took my lead from the Americans, who were afire with the crusading spirit of ’60s journalism—the involvement, man, in the good fight. When I look at what’s happened now, I’m ashamed of my ignorance—and what I helped to do to the Vietnamese….”2

As one West German correspondent has confessed (Uwe Siemon-Netto in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted in Encounter, October 1979): “Having covered the Viet Nam war over a period of five years for West German publications, I am now haunted by the role we journalists have played over there.

Those of us who had wanted to find out knew of the evil nature of the Hanoi regime. We knew that, in 1956, close to 50,000 peasants were executed in North Viet Nam. We knew that after the division of the country nearly one million North Vietnamese had fled to the South. Many of us have seen the tortured and carved-up bodies of men, women, and children executed by the Viet Cong in the early phases of the war. And many of us saw, in 1968, the mass graves of Hue, saw the corpses of thousands of civilians still festively dressed for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

Why, for heaven’s sake, did we not report about these expressions of deliberate North Vietnamese strategy at least as extensively as of the My Lai massacre and other such isolated incidents that were definitely not part of the U.S. policy in Viet Nam?

What prompted us to make our readers believe that the Communists, once in power in all of Viet Nam, would behave benignly? What made us, first and foremost Anthony Lewis, belittle warnings by U.S. officials that a Communist victory would result in a massacre?

Why did we ignore the fact that the man responsible for the executions of 50,000 peasants, Truong Chinh, was—and still is—one of the most powerful figures in Hanoi. What made us think that he and his comrades would have mercy for the vanquished South Vietnamese? What compelled, for example, Anthony Lewis shortly after the fall of Saigon to pat himself on the shoulder and write, “so much for the talk of a massacre”?

True, no Cambodian-style massacre took place in Viet Nam. It’s just that Hanoi coolly drives its ethnic Chinese and opponents into the sea.

Are we journalists not in part responsible for the death of the tens of thousands who drowned? And are we not in part responsible for the hostile reception accorded to those who survive? Did we not turn public opinion against them, portraying them, as one singularly ignoble cartoon did in the United States, as a bunch of pimps, whores, war profiteers, corrupt generals, or, at best, outright reactionaries?

Considering that today’s Viet Nam tragedy may have a lot to do with the way we reported yesterday’s Viet Nam tragedy, considering that we journalists might have our fair share of guilt for the inhuman way the world treats those who are being expelled by an inhuman regime which some of us had pictured as heroic, I think at least a little humility would be in order for us old Viet Nam hands. . . .”

Journalistic institutions are, of course, rarely afflicted by false modesty. They have not disclaimed credit for the outcome of the war, and their representatives have taken public bows for their successful intervention. The multitude of professional prizes bestowed upon the “big-story” coverage of Viet Nam certainly implied approval of the general effort.

However, the media have been rather coy; they have not declared that they played a key role in the conflict. They have not proudly trumpeted Hanoi’s repeated expressions of gratitude to the mass media of the non-Communist world, although Hanoi has indeed affirmed that it could not have won “without the Western press.” The Western press appears either unaware of the direct connection between cause (its reporting) and effect (the Western defeat in Viet Nam), or strangely reluctant to proclaim that the pen and the camera proved decisively mightier than the bayonet and ultra-modern weapons.

Nor have the media dwelt upon the glaring inconsistency between the expectation they raised of peaceful, prosperous development after Saigon’s collapse and the present post-war circumstances in Indochina. Unquestionably, a number of those approvingly characterized by the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis as “critics of the American war” have protested against brutal repression in Cambodia. Some (including Lewis, and the French journalist Jean Lacouture3) even confessed that their expectations of the consequences of a Communist victory in Cambodia were mistaken. But none, to my knowledge, has suggested that he might have erred fundamentally in his vehement and total opposition to the U.S. role in Indochina. Instead, most partial confessions have concluded with renewed denunciations of American actions.

Jean Lacouture did offer a public mea culpa for having championed the Khmer Rouge. Reviewing a book on “Democratic Kampuchea,” he confessed:

“Francois Ponchoud’s Cambodia, Year Zero can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause. . . . And it will cause distress to those of us journalists who, after the massacre of seventeen of our colleagues in April and May 1971, tried to explain these deaths as part of the hazards of covering a disorganized guerrilla war. In fact, our poor comrades were assassinated—some, we know, clubbed to death—by the valiant guerrillas of Khieu Samphan, the ‘socialist’ Khmer who now bars foreign observers from Cambodian soil. His people remain in terror-stricken confinement, one of his regime’s more rational decisions: for how could it let the outside world see its burying of a civilization in prehistory, its massacres? . . .”

An illuminating example is Anthony Lewis, whose horror over abuses of American power apparently led him to the conclusion that similar abuses by America’s opponents were not worth noting. Having earlier found almost as much to praise in Hanoi as to condemn in Saigon, Lewis was belatedly moved to outrage by Lacouture’s observations—Jean Lacouture’s chief qualification was apparently his having been so spectacularly wrong about the consequences of a Khmer Rouge victory.

“. . . Those of us who had been critics of the war [Lewis wrote] may have felt skeptical about some of the Cambodian reports because they came from right-wing4 quarters that had been indifferent to the misery inflicted on Cambodia by American bombers. But these explanations wither in the presence of Jean Lacouture. He is a leading French expert on Indochina. And he was a profound critic of the American war.”

The reporters—and even the contrite Jean Lacouture—have continued to disregard the testimony regarding earlier North Vietnamese coercion offered by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former chief-of-state. Sihanouk complained in 1973 that he had been forced to tolerate North Viet Nam using Cambodia as a supply route, training camp, and proving ground for its forces in South Viet Nam, although he knew the massive incursion was destroying his country. Preoccupied with their condemnation of U.S. intervention in Indochina, the “critics of the American war” have virtually ignored Sihanouk’s indictment of the North Vietnamese just as they have ignored the fact that Sihanouk had, albeit under duress, tolerated American bombing of North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia, the “unilateral action” for which those critics still pillory Henry Kissinger.5

The same critics were not outraged at the final conquest of South Viet Nam in 1975 by columns of Russian-built tanks supported by batteries of Russian-made artillery. (That was Hanoi’s second try; the first, in 1972, failed because the Saigon régime was still supported by U.S. air power and was still receiving adequate U.S. war matériel.) These righteous critics have taken little note of the detailed description of that final conquest published by North Viet Nam’s Senior General Van Tien Dung in the spring of 1976. General Dung’s account (128 single-spaced pages in English translation) proudly affirmed that the assault was ordered by the Political Bureau of the Labor (Communist) Party of North Viet Nam, planned by the Labor Party’s Central Military Affairs Committee, commanded by Northern generals, supplied from the North, and mounted by regular divisions of the People’s Army of the Democratic Republic of North Viet Nam.

Even before General Dung’s report, it should have been clear that the remnants of the Viet Cong—the southern “guerrilla force” made up primarily of Northerners—were inherently capable neither of maneuvering 700 tanks in conventional formations nor, for that matter, of building and operating the double pipeline that fueled those tanks with petroleum from the North. Just as they subsequently passed over General Dung’s explicit revelations, the “critics of the American war” ignored such empirical evidence that Saigon fell, not to an indigenous people in arms, but to an external invasion mounted by vanguard cadres who consider themselves ideologically superior to their Southern compatriots.

To take note of these obtrusive facts would have called into question the very nature of the war in Indochina—as it would to have taken note of them during the conflict. Any searching analysis of fundamental premises has remained as unthinkable to “the critics” as it was during the fighting. They have remained committed to the proposition that the American role in Indochina was totally reprehensible and inexcusable, while the North Vietnamese role—and, by extension, the roles of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Pathet Lao in Laos—was righteous, magnanimous, and just. Even the growing number who finally deplored the repressive consequences of the totalitarian victory could not bring themselves to re-examine the premises that led them to contribute so decisively to those victories. Thus William Shawcross, before his sententious book, Sideshow,6 wrote of the Communists’ reshaping of Cambodian society: “The process is atrociously brutal.” Although “the Khmer people are suffering horribly under their new rules,” this is how Shawcross unhesitatingly assigned the ultimate blame:

“They have suffered every day of the last six years–ever since the beginning of one of the most destructive foreign policies the United States has ever pursued: the ‘Nixon-Kissinger doctrine’ in its purest form. . .”

The Eye of the Beholder

Most correspondents on the scene were not quite as vehement. But they were moved by the same conviction of American guilt, which was so fixed that it resisted all the evidence pointing to a much more complex reality. Employed in the service of that crusading fervor was, for the first time, the most emotionally moving medium of all.

Television, its thrusting and simplistic character shaping its message, was most shocking because it was most immediate. The Viet Nam War was a presence in homes throughout the world. Who could seriously doubt the veracity of so plausible and so moving a witness in one’s own living room?

At any given moment, a million images were available to the camera’s lens in Saigon alone—and hundreds of million throughout Indochina. But TV crews naturally preferred the most dramatic. That, after all, was their business—show business. It was not news to film farmers peacefully tilling their rice fields, though it might have been argued that nothing happening was news when the American public had been led to believe that almost every Vietnamese farmer was regularly threatened by the Viet Cong, constantly imperiled by battle, and rarely safe from indiscriminate U.S. bombing.

A few hard, documented instances. A burning village was news, even though it was a deserted village used in a Marine training exercise—even though the television correspondent had handed his Zippo lighter to a non-commissioned officer with the suggestion that he set fire to an abandoned house. American soldiers cutting ears off a Viet Cong corpse was news—even if the cameraman had offered the soldiers his knife and “dared” them to take those grisly souvenirs. (Since the antics of the media were definitely not news, the network refrained from apologizing for the contrived “event” when a special investigation called the facts to its attention.) Cargo-nets full of dead South Vietnamese soldiers being lowered by helicopters were news—even if that image implicitly contradicted the prevailing conviction that the South Vietnamese never fought but invariably threw away their weapons and ran.

The competition in beastliness among the networks was even more intense than the similar competition among the representatives of the print media. Only rarely did television depict peaceful fields in which water buffaloes pulled ploughs for diligent farmers—undisturbed by air-bursts, rockets, infantrymen, or guerrillas. One special report was, however, devoted largely to depicting bucolic scenes and untraveled roads when Prince Norodom Sihanouk invited a television correspondent to tour the border areas of Cambodia to prove that his country was not being used by the North Vietnamese as a base for operations against South Viet Nam. A few years later, Sihanouk of course acknowledged that the North Vietnamese had at the time been—and had remained—intensely active in precisely those areas. But television could “prove” either a negative or a positive proposition—depending on where the camera pointed and upon the correspondent’s inclination.7

In fairness, a number of newspaper correspondents also endorsed Sihanouk’s contention that there were no North Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia. Since the correspondents had seen no invaders, there were, patently, no invaders to be seen. The assumption of omniscience that lay behind so much of the coverage of Indochina remains awe-inspiring.

One tale involving the aerial jeep of Viet Nam was so magnified that it lost any connection with actual events. That was the story of unwounded Vietnamese soldiers bandaging themselves in order to swarm on to helicopters for evacuation from their raid into Laos in 1971.

That raid on the North Vietnamese installations and supply routes that were called the “Ho Chi Minh Trails” was no great success. But, as I found after two weeks of my own intensive investigation, it was hardly the debacle described by most of the press. South Vietnamese planning for their command’s first major independent military operation was faulty; some units deported themselves badly; but others fought well. Nonetheless, descriptions of a “South Vietnamese rout” were made graphic by repeated reports of soldiers bandaging imaginary wounds.

On close questioning, one Western journalist (a wire-service man), who was shaking with indignation at South Vietnamese pusillanimity, admitted that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandaging unbroken skin; but (2) he had seen soldiers bandaging “mere scratches.” He finally conceded that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandage a scratch and then “swarm aboard a helicopter”; and (2) having never marched through a jungle, he did not know how rapidly untreated “scratches” could become severe infections in that malignant environment. However, his stories of South Vietnamese cowardice had already been widely published, and he, quite naturally, did not wish to provoke his home office by filing a correction. If he had, the correction might have been filed to the wire-service’s world-wide clients. If it had been “moved on the wire,” it might not have been printed widely or conspicuously. What had not happened was simply not news . . . even if it had already been reported as having happened.

Television reports had one distinct advantage. A picture of nothing was, obviously, more convincing than a printed report of nothing.

One of the most persistent “horror stories” was retailed by the Western newspapers and magazines because television could not, obviously, take pictures of torture. Did interrogators ever push an uncommunicative prisoner out of a helicopter to encourage his fellows to talk? No such atrocity has ever been confirmed, despite the swarms of investigative reporters and the many eager informants among officers and diplomats, whose indignation against stupid and inefficient policies was transmuted by the press into indignant protest against the war itself.

One such “incident,” staged with a corpse, was turned up by the meticulous research of Günter Lewy for his book America in Vietnam,8 which should be required reading for all war correspondents. A U.S. soldier acquired a photograph of that grisly incident, and went on to invent an account of how a prisoner was killed by being hurled from a helicopter. The imagined event was given wide coverage.9

Interrogation by macabre example did make a great story, though it probably never happened and, certainly, has never been proved.

The Imaginary General

Such skewed reporting occurred frequently; it was sometimes major and sometimes trivial. Since I am discussing motivations, not drawing up any kind of indictment, a catalogue of such incidents would be superfluous. But a few striking examples may help to make the general point. First, the case of the imaginary general told by a British colleague.

An American correspondent who was later to write a highly praised book on Viet Nam was chuckling over a telegram in the terrace cafe of the Hotel Continental, known to habitués as “the Continental Shelf.” His editors had asked him to confirm that it would be neither libelous nor vexatious to quote the U.S. general who had in the correspondent’s last dispatch been highly critical of the entire American effort—on the Continental Shelf (which generals, by the way, did not frequent).

“Of course,” he told his questioner, “1 cabled them to go ahead and not worry. Why should they? After all, I made that general up.” The imaginary general in the dispatch made a repeat performance in the correspondent’s book.

Sgt. John Ashe (brother of the world-famous tennis player) was a Marine assigned to public relations duties. He delivered a biting indictment of the young wire-service correspondents and the “war freaks” who frequented Da Nang (which was a remote outpost to the media, though not to the military). They would, he recalled, rarely go into the field and never spend the night when they did; would deport themselves as if they had never heard a shot fired with intent to kill before that moment—to their own and the Marines’ peril; and then file stories that “bore little or no relation” to what he—and they—had seen. They didn’t want to know, Ashe added, what was really happening in the First Corps Area, where the Marines had winkled out the Viet Cong by stationing squads in villages.

Instructive on a larger scale is the contrast between the coverage of the American massacre at My Lai and the Viet Cong massacre at Hue. At My Lai, a junior American officer allowed his men to kill dozens of presumably uninvolved farmers in full violation of standing orders. At Hue, the former imperial capital, the Viet Cong killed several thousand community leaders, including a number of Europeans, in accordance with standing orders to “destroy the bourgeoisie.” The U.S. military’s attempt to suppress reports of the My Lai massacre, of course, made it even worse when the story was finally released by the Dispatch News Agency, a curious organization that came into existence in Viet Nam with unknown financial backing and vanished once its purpose of opposing the war had brought Hanoi victory. But the Hue massacre was, somehow, uninteresting. Few correspondents reported that clear signal of the real policies the North Vietnamese would pursue once they had conquered the South.

By the same token, American restraint was not news, even to the experienced correspondents, because it was a “non-event.” Flying in a command helicopter of the Ninth Division over the Mekong Delta, another U.S. correspondent and I heard the brigade commander countermand his battalion commander’s order to the infantry and the helicopter gunships to attack some 100 enemy who were pouring out of a surrounded village, still firing.

“Do not, repeat do not, attack,” the colonel directed. “They’re using women and children as shields.”

Neither my colleague nor myself thought the incident worth reporting; that was a palpable error of judgment induced by the atmosphere in which we were working. If the Ninth Division had killed the civilians, we would have filed copiously.

Equally lamentable was the failure of the Western press to cover with any thoroughness the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam, which over the long run was doing most of the fighting. Correspondents were reluctant to commit their safety to units whose resolution they distrusted—sometimes for good reason, more often because of a kind of racist contempt—in order to get stories that interested their editors so little. Coverage of Vietnamese politics, as well as social and economic developments, was sporadic—except for military coups and political crises, and those were often misreported.

Examples of misdirected or distorted reporting could be amassed almost indefinitely. The war, after all, lasted some twenty years. A former Washington Post and New York Times correspondent, Peter Braestrup, has published a two-volume study of the coverage of the Tet Offensive of 1968.10 Quite significantly, it attracted little interest compared to, say, William Shawcross’s Sideshow or Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

The Power of Self-Deception

Nowadays, Jean Lacouture, Anthony Lewis, and William Shawcross (among some other “Viet Nam veterans”) clearly feel deceived or even betrayed by the Communists of Indochina; yet surely, they voluntarily adopted the ideological bias that allowed Hanoi to deceive them. The Vietnamese Communists—unlike their Cambodian confreres—had, after all, openly declared their intention of imposing totalitarian rule upon the South. Why, then, were the “critics of the American war” so genuinely surprised by the consequences? More crucially, why did a virtual generation of Western journalists deceive itself so consistently as to the nature of the “liberation” in Indochina? Why did the correspondents want to believe in the good faith of the Communists? Why did they so want to disbelieve the avowed motives of the United States? Why did so much of their presumably factual reporting regularly reflect their ideological bias?

The obvious explanation is not as ingenuous as it may appear: the majority of Western correspondents and commentators adopted their idiosyncratic approach to the Indochina War precisely because other journalists had already adopted that approach. To put it more directly, it was fashionable (this was, after all, the age of Radical Chic) to be “a critic of the American war.”

Decisive in the case of the Americans, who set the tone, was the normally healthy adversary relationship between the U.S. press and the U.S. government. American newspapermen have often felt, with some justification, that if an administration affirmed a controversial fact, that fact—if not prima facie false—was at the least suspect. As the lies of successive administrations regarding Indochina escalated, that conviction became the credo of the press. The psychological process that began with the unfounded optimism of President John F. Kennedy’s ebullient “New Frontiersmen,” who were by and large believed, ended with the disastrous last stand of Richard Nixon’s dour palace guard, who were believed by no one.

The reaction against official mendacity was initially healthy but later became distorted, self-serving, and self-perpetuating. A faulty syllogism was unconsciously accepted: Washington was lying consistently; Hanoi contradicted Washington; therefore Hanoi was telling the truth.

The initial inclination to look upon Hanoi as a fount of pure truth was intelligently fostered by the Communists, who selectively rewarded “critics of the American war” with visas to North Viet Nam. A number of influential journalists and public figures (ranging from former cabinet officers to film actresses) were feted in North Viet Nam. They were flattered not only by the attention and the presumed inside information proffered by the North Vietnamese but by their access to a land closed to most Americans. The favored few—and the aspiring many—helped establish a climate in which it was not only fashionable but, somehow, an act of courage to follow the critical crowd in Saigon and Washington while praising Hanoi. The skeptical correspondent risked ostracism by his peers and conflicts with his editors if he did not run with “the herd of independent minds,” if he did not support the consensus.

The larger reason for the tenacity of the consensus went much deeper. It welled from a new view of this war, which was quite different from the press’s view of other wars—and from a new messianic approach to the role of the press in wartime. The alteration occurred in three stages, beginning with World War II, proceeding through the Korean War, and culminating in Viet Nam.

Three Wars

World War II was generally considered a crusade against evil. Allied and Soviet atrocities normally went unreported, since their publication to the world would have besmirched the anti-Nazi crusade. The bestial aims and deeds of the Nazis, reinforced by the bestial deeds of the Japanese, compelled correspondents and officials to agreement on the nature of the war and, therefore, to substantial agreement on the way it was fought. The press might criticize tactical errors; it might even cavil at certain strategic decisions. But it was bent neither upon revealing every possible error or mis-statement made by the authorities nor upon questioning their fundamental purposes.

The Korean War was not a universal crusade. A few correspondents questioned the wisdom of committing U.S. troops to the peninsula, while many questioned the strategic decisions of General Douglas MacArthur (particularly his dash to the Yalu, which directly challenged the Chinese, whose industrial plexus lay in Manchuria just across that river). The character and administration of President Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea were often criticized by those correspondents whose interest extended beyond military hostilities. Nonetheless, a limited consensus did exist. No one—except the Stalinists—doubted seriously that North Korea had attacked South Korea. Aside from those ideologues, no one contended that the Pyongyang régime was an exemplar of virtue simply because it opposed the Seoul régime, whose faults were manifest. Moved neither by basic antagonism towards official aims nor by unthinking commitment to those aims, a surprisingly youthful press corps offered surprisingly objective reports. Aside from a marked weakness in covering internal politics in both the South and the North—a weakness that presaged a disastrous disability in Indochina—Korea was, in my view, the best-covered American war of modern times. Besides, the conflict was, by and large, straightforward and simple to understand.

Indochina was never simple or straightforward but was arcane even before the commitment of U.S. ground forces. Afterwards, it became so complex that it was virtually impossible to understand it in all its ramifications; and, I must add, it was absolutely impossible to convey those ramifications to the public. Today I recall with chagrin my rather condescending amusement when a television producer argued in the mid-1960s: “We shouldn’t be in Indochina because the American people can’t understand the war—and the people won’t support a war they can’t understand.” He was, of course, right (even if the American press helped to prevent any proper understanding).

Though simplistic television coverage accelerated and intensified popular disillusionment, it was not the decisive factor in determining the collective opinion of the press. The television people went along with the fashion; they did not set the fashion or formulate its conventional wisdom. In any event, Viet Nam was covered by a press corps that was bitterly distrustful of Washington and harshly antagonistic towards Saigon. The press consistently magnified the allies’ deficiencies—and displayed almost saintly tolerance of those misdeeds of Hanoi it could neither disregard nor deny.

It is possible that the “Viet Nam Syndrome” will recur; it is not unlikely that Western foreign policy, with the United States as its faltering—or even resurgent—leader, will again be forced to operate in an environment dominated by a hostile press. The personal experience of one journalist is not normally pertinent to such a high political question. However, I was, as a correspondent and commentator, perforce a participant as well as an observer in the Viet Nam imbroglio from 1955 to 1975. When “the media became the war,” everyone associated with the media became part of the war, however reluctantly. An account of my experience, therefore, may illuminate this discussion and help the reader weigh my historical assessments.

From 1955 through 1965 I was opposed to U.S. military intervention despite my personal sympathy for the Indochinese peoples. Having in 1955 sailed from Haiphong in the North to Saigon with several thousand among almost a million refugees from the Democratic Republic, I was moved by their justified fears. Besides, I detested Hanoi’s Stalinist repression. Nevertheless, I felt that Indochina was a strategic backwater that should not be transformed into a vital interest by committing regular American troops to a disadvantageous Asian battlefield. Because of my concern with the effect of events in Indochina upon developments in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia I did, however. feel that the West should not turn its back on Indochina, though it should avoid entrapment.

Such reservations made me popular neither with official Americans nor with those journalists who urged deeper involvement. Many correspondents and commentators were enthusiastic about the creeping U.S. commitment, while the administration of President Kennedy reacted strongly to my judgment (in Newsweek in late 1961) that President Ngo Dinh Diem could not preserve South Viet Nam. In December 1962, when I was stationed in Europe, a Newsweek cover story concluded that Diem was doing well and that the Kennedy commitment to Indochina was fundamentally sound. That replay of the optimistic Washington view was published over my editorial opposition. (I was, incidentally, not in Indochina during the battles between Diem and the dissident Buddhists, or during the succession of short-lived regimes that followed Diem’s murder.)

When I returned early in 1966, matters were radically altered. The United States had in 1965 brought in major armed units to prevent the South’s collapse under the North’s intensified subversion. Despite the U.S. intervention, that collapse had clearly only been forestalled, not averted. Direct involvement had, moreover, made Indochina an area of primary strategic interest to the United States in the eyes not only of apprehensive allies but of potential enemies as well. The United States was committed to the enterprise that had earlier broken the French will, that is, preventing Communist conquest of Indochina.

China was already launched upon the cataclysmic “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a virtual civil war fought to determine whether Maoists or moderates would rule the world’s most populous country. Foreign policy was already a major Chinese issue, and the collapse of South Viet Nam would have strengthened the extremists, who advocated internal suppression and China’s diplomatic isolation. While continuing to urge U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic, I felt that American firmness in Indochina had to demonstrate to the Maoists that guerrilla warfare could not prevail. Otherwise, the People’s Republic might espouse a wholly Maoist foreign policy, that is, dedicate herself to “world-wide liberation through people’s [guerrilla] wars.”

Moreover, Peking had just exploded its first “atomic device.” The prospect of a messianically Maoist China brandishing an increasing nuclear arsenal appeared a threat to the survival of civilization.

If Hanoi were blocked in South Viet Nam, I contended, the more cautious moderates would in the long term triumph in Peking, and the threat of a holocaust would recede. After all, Mao believed (as he told Edgar Snow) that a nuclear war would “destroy the world . . . but not us.”

China, of course, worked out well. The danger of nuclear war has receded. Today Peking stands against Soviet expansionism—in good part because what happened in Indochina before 1975 intensified the Sino-Soviet conflict and contributed to the destruction of Mao’s strategic doctrine of “the inevitable victory of people’s war.”

But there was, in 1966, no justification for even guarded optimism regarding South Viet Nam’s prospects, and there was to be no such basis until mid-1968. My first report from Saigon after four years of absence described the shocking confusion—in both purpose and execution—of the already bloated American establishment, as well as its isolation from the realities of both the villages and the ministries of Viet Nam. But Washington had forced its own hand; South Viet Nam, defended by the Americans, had become a major piece on the international chessboard. The United States had, I felt, no choice but to remain until the South Vietnamese could effectively defend themselves—or the global balance of power altered radically.

That attitude was not shared by a new corps of foreign correspondents who were newcomers to Asia, though most experienced correspondents agreed. (It did improve my relations with American officialdom, a boon that made me somewhat uneasy.) Having been called a “Communist sympathizer” for advocating recognition of “Red China” in the early 1950s, I was attacked as a “journalistic storm-trooper” for arguing that we could not simply disengage from Indochina in the late 1960s. (Reverse McCarthyism? Perhaps.)11

The Reasons Why

The main question persists. Why was the press—whether in favor of official policy at the beginning or vehemently against the war at the end—so superficial and so biased?

Chief among many reasons was, I believe, the politicization of correspondents by the constantly intensifying clamor over Viet Nam in Europe and America. Amateur (and professional) propagandists served both sides of the question, but the champions of Hanoi were spectacularly more effective. They created an atmosphere of high pressure that made it exceedingly difficult to be objective.

In Korea, senior officers who were incensed by unfavorable reports would sometimes demand: “Who are you for—the Communists or us?” Most correspondents were detached and could answer honestly: “Personally for the U.N. and the United States, but professionally for neither side. Just trying to tell the true story….” In Viet Nam that response was virtually impossible amid growing Western horror at the “dirty, immoral war.” Correspondents were almost compelled to become partisans, and most became partisans for Hanoi, or, at least, against Saigon and Washington.

Revulsion in Europe and America sprang as much from the nature of the correspondents’ reporting as it did from the belligerents’ direct manipulation of public opinion. Some of my senior colleagues had learned wisdom on a hundred battlefields, having covered World War II, the Chinese Civil War, the Viet Minh campaign against the French, and the Indonesian revolt against the Dutch. I had at least been through Korea, the Malayan “Emergency,” and the fighting between Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists for Quemoy. But most correspondents had never seen war before their arrival in Indochina. Many confused the beastliness of all war with the particular war in Indochina, which they unthinkably concluded was unique in human history because it was new to them.

This much must be said: the best of their reporting accurately conveyed the horror of war—all war. Yet it presented the suffering, barbarism, and devastation as somehow peculiar to Indochina. It almost made it appear that other wars had been fought by mailed champions on fields remote from human habitation while in Indochina, for the first time, carnage brutally involved both massed military formations and the civilian populace. Since a guerrilla war is inherently not as destructive as a conventional war, human suffering and material devastation had, in reality, been markedly greater in Korea than in Viet Nam—and much, much greater on both Asian and European fronts in World War II.

Because Viet Nam did not attract many senior correspondents for extended tours, at any given time a majority of the correspondents were new to the complexities of Indochina. Some could not even look after themselves in combat, the sine qua non of a successful—and surviving—war correspondent.

One afternoon in May 1968, when the Viet Cong were attacking the outskirts of Saigon, six young correspondents piled into a single mini-taxi to drive to the shifting “front.” They were startled when advised to take two or three taxis so that they could get out faster if they came under fire. A tall, rotund neophyte wearing a scarlet shirt paraded up and down the road the Viet Cong were attacking. He was dismayed by the pained abhorrence with which South Vietnamese paratroops regarded him, until it was explained that he was drawing rocket fire. The six clustered around a twenty-four-year-old U.S. first lieutenant, just out of the Military Academy at West Point, who was struggling to communicate with the Vietnamese major commanding and, simultaneously, to direct the gunships that swooped low, firing their machine-guns. While shells burst around them, the correspondents tried to interrogate the lieutenant on the morality of the U.S. presence in Indochina.

A Naive Expectation

Many newcomers were shocked to find that American and Vietnamese briefing officers did not always tell them the truth even about a minor tactical situation. Despite their pose of professional skepticism, in their naiveté they expected those officers to tell not merely the truth but the whole truth. Far from feeling the deep mistrust of officialdom they affected, the newcomers were dismayed by the briefing officers’ inability (or unwillingness) to confide in them unreservedly. Older correspondents did not expect candor from briefing officers. They had learned several wars earlier that the interests of the press and the interests of the military did not normally coincide. They also knew that the briefing officers were themselves often uninformed—concerned, perhaps sometimes excessively, for military secrecy—and resentful of correspondents’ badgering.

Nevertheless, the candor of U.S. officers astonished experienced correspondents from other nations. Shortly before he was killed in another war, Nicholas Tomalin of The Sunday Times reported with amazement the reception given several British correspondents who arrived unannounced at an American airfield. Though he obviously wished them a thousand miles away, the U.S. colonel in command not only made them welcome but answered all their questions. If it had been a British airfield, Tomalin observed, the group would not have been allowed to land—and if it had landed would have been bustled off within minutes. No supporter of the U.S. endeavor in Indochina, Tomalin marveled at the openness with which the foolish Americans conducted their wars.

Senior U.S. officers did, of course, lie to make a case or extemporized when they did not know the answers. From those practices sprang the bitterness that corroded relations between the press and officialdom. No one likes to be treated as a fool even in the best of causes (and no one thought Indochina was the best of causes). The military were in turn bitter at the unfairness they attributed to correspondents.

Beyond the unremitting drumfire of mutual criticism, two matters rankled particularly: the “Body Count,” which for the press notoriously symbolized the military’s callousness; and the unavoidably misleading maps delineating the areas under the control of Saigon or the Viet Cong. The military said they released estimates of enemy casualties after each action primarily because correspondents demanded concrete evidence of the progress of a war that was not fought along clearly demarcated battlelines. The officers contended that the maps, which could in no wise accurately depict a hazy, fluid situation, were prepared at the correspondents’ request. Officialdom felt there was too much, rather than too little, openness in Viet Nam.

Oscillating between excessive candor and bald falsification, U.S. public-relations policies made the press and the authorities not merely adversaries but enemies. However paradoxically, some of the most popular officials were the most mendacious. A senior public-affairs officer who always had an answer for the press once offered an eloquent analysis of Hanoi’s weakness based on a captured Viet Cong order. Since his projection of a general Viet Cong retreat seemed askew, even on the basis of that document, I checked with .a number of specialists on North Viet Nam available in Saigon. The official, I found, had consulted no specialist but had offered his own off-hand analysis—presumably to hold his credulous audience. Gratuitous contributions to confusion in Viet Nam itself were much surpassed by the egregiously misleading opinions offered in Washington.

Esoterica like “enemy intentions,” however, did not interest one group of correspondents. They were moved primarily by neither the horror nor the portentousness but by the thrills of Indochina. They were nicknamed “the war freaks,” since they were fascinated by the atmosphere rather than the substance of the war. Cambodia was a favorite resort of theirs. It offered a dangerous little war, abundant opium, marijuana, and heroin, as well as the gracious Royale Hotel, its French cuisine unspoiled by the American incursions that had ruined Saigon’s restaurants. Reflecting the delight of the war freaks, Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches that he never went to bed once in Saigon not “stoned,” and added: “Viet Nam was our substitute for a happy childhood.” One’s first war, the veterans could have told him, is usually an extension of—if not necessarily a substitute for—a happy childhood.

Official deceit was thus exacerbated by incompetent journalism.12.] While complaining about the press, many U.S. officials, who knew they were fighting “a media war,” sought to manipulate—rather than inform—correspondents. But they were not skilled at manipulation. While complaining about the government’s duplicity, many editors assigned correspondents who were not qualified to fill a normal foreign post, much less to thread the labyrinthine complexities of the Indochina War. Some editors told their correspondents what they wanted, while many correspondents had made up their own minds before they arrived “in country.” Only a few, I trust, were in the unhappy position of the correspondent of an aggressively liberal U.S. FM-radio station who, as he confided to me, was told: “Not every story has to be anti-war.”

A Crippling Ignorance

Beyond the pressures exerted upon them, most correspondents—serving six-month to two-year tours—were woefully ignorant of the setting of the conflict. Some strove diligently to remedy that crippling deficiency by reading widely and interviewing avidly. Many lacked the time or the inclination to do so—or any real awareness of how crippling their ignorance was to them professionally. Most, as I have noted, knew little about war in general from either experience or study—and less about the theory or practice of guerrilla war. They were untutored not only in the languages but also in the history, culture, ethnography, and economics of Indochina, let alone of China and Asia. Since so many were also untroubled by acquaintance with Marxist theory or practice and were hazy about the international balance of power, they were incapable of covering effectively a conflict involving all those elements.

Not even the “old hands” were necessarily well qualified to cover the conflict—who could have been? Arthur Waley?—but, considering our divergent backgrounds and political convictions, the old hands’ general agreement about the nature of the war was remarkable. Most deplored the ineffectiveness and the corruption of successive South Vietnamese governments, but judged native (i.e., Southern) disaffection incapable of mounting an armed rebellion without direction, reinforcement, and weapons from the North. Most concurred with the thesis Robert Shaplen advanced in The Lost Revolution (1966), agreeing that ineffectual leadership had failed to foster latent nationalistic and reformist enthusiasm in the South, by default ceding those dynamic forces to the North. We did not deceive ourselves that the South enjoyed even marginally good government; but we believed that Northern rule would be much worse for the mass of the people.13 management. Recently the Government in Hanoi has admitted planning effort and introduced incentives for private enterprise in both industry and agriculture The collectivization of agriculture in the south has also been stopped. There it a rice surplus in the south but the Government appears unable to transport it to the north and those who need it in the south cannot afford to buy it….

During the Viet Nam decade a whole American generation of journalists and intellectuals unlearned the experience of Stalinist society—its incomparable inefficiency; its thick-headed, dogmatic compounding of error and miscalculation; and, not least (so obvious in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.), its intolerable burden of a costly military machine superimposed on an old-fashioned, hard-pressed, “underdeveloped” economy. As Shawcross notes, with a vague touch of bitterness:

The other principal cause of Viet Nam’s food shortage—and that which most angers potential Western donors—is its diversion of resources to the military. About 47% of the national budget is now said to be spent on defense.

] We knew that the North and the South, though not necessarily two separate countries, were distinct entities because of the strong regional feelings of the Vietnamese. Although most of us had opposed major U.S. involvement, we saw no way the United States could withdraw unilaterally.

Needless to say, even we old hands were not always accurate in our reporting or correct in our judgments. Reacting against the spate of negative reports, I myself tended to emphasize the positive aspects, sometimes excessively. No more than the newcomers were the old hands immune to irritation at the duplicity of the American establishment, though we were not as dependent upon press officers. That irritation undoubtedly affected our reporting; so did smoldering anger (which sometimes flared into fury) at the Vietnamese, who were always difficult, often unavailable, regularly evasive, and routinely deceitful. But the old hands knew they had to live and work with the Vietnamese, and they understood the insecurity that haunted Saigon officials. After generations of colonial rule and internal conflict, no Vietnamese really trusted any other Vietnamese except those within his immediate family (and them neither invariably nor wholly). The newcomers either could not or would not understand what moved the Vietnamese or why they so often seemed to be behaving so badly.

The atmosphere “in country” was heavily oppressive, as was our awareness that we were writing for a public that had virtually prejudged the war. My Lai was not reported at the time because the military effectively camouflaged that atrocity. Other allied excesses were reported, while many reverse My Lais were not reported; and Viet Cong atrocities were often discounted. Myths flourished because of the journalists’ bias and the contempt they felt for the Vietnamese.

By innuendo and mis-statement the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam was reduced in the public eye to a corrupt rabble, far, far less effective than the Republic of Korea Army during the earlier war. In reality, the ARVN was strikingly more effective than the ROKA had been; but correspondents were friendly to the ROKA and antagonistic to the ARVN.

That tale of hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers bandaging non-existent wounds in order to be evacuated as casualties was just one example. That graphic and erroneous story reinforced the general impression that the cowardly South Vietnamese were unwilling to fight in defense of their own cause. That misleading conclusion undoubtedly encouraged U.S. reluctance to supply Saigon’s forces adequately after the American withdrawal. That reluctance, which contributed decisively to the final collapse, was then “proved” correct.

Despite their own numerous and grave faults, the South Vietnamese were, first and last, decisively defeated in Washington, New York, London, and Paris. Those media defeats made inevitable their subsequent defeat on the battlefield. Indochina was not perhaps the first major conflict to be won by psychological warfare. But it was probably the first to be lost by psychological warfare conducted at such great physical distance from the actual fields of battle—and so far from the peoples whose fate was determined by the outcome of the conflict.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome”

When I drafted this article, I had not intended to dilate upon the possible consequences in the future of the new role of the press in war. Those consequences seemed too obvious. Besides, I did not wish to arouse contention but to evoke dispassionate consideration. After all, the passage of time should by this time have appreciably cooled the intense emotion that moved both the reluctant supporters and the vehement critics of the “American war.”

I felt, moreover, that I had adequately demonstrated that the press acted—and could well again act—as a multiplier of the prejudices of the Western intelligentsia, whose tender conscience moves it to condemn the actions of its own side while condoning related deeds of enemies who are either “immature” or “feel themselves threatened.” It did not, for example, seem necessary to demonstrate at length that World War II could well have been lost by the Allied powers if the press had wished—and been allowed—to denounce almost all the purposes and virtually the entire conduct of that conflict. (Surely, for example; Churchill would have been prevented from helping Greece—because of Metaxas.) It did not seem necessary to labor the obvious point that no Western power can conduct a foreign policy that, of necessity, relies in part on the threat of military power and, upon occasion, on the exercise of military power if the media reflexively denounce almost any use of armed force. I believed it would suffice to offer the brief warning already stated above: Western foreign policy could again be forced to operate most precariously in an environment dominated by a hostile press. It did not, finally, seem necessary to point out that the effective prohibition of limited, conventional war by an inflamed public opinion could lead to either political surrender or nuclear holocaust.

Since the article was written, events have denied me the luxury of refraining from underlining the obvious. The predicament I suggested was likely has already become a reality. It is exemplified in El Salvador, about which, I must acknowledge, I know nothing directly, and indirectly no more than any other reasonably diligent reader of the press. Nonetheless, the recrudescence of the “Viet Nam Syndrome” in the media is not merely unmistakable, but distressingly blatant.14

“Viet Nam” has become not merely an invidious comparison but a magical incantation. The woolly-minded need only declare vehemently that El Salvador is already—or could become—”another Viet Nam” for the enterprise to be condemned and, probably, blighted. Throughout the Western world, commentators and reporters have invoked the specter of Viet Nam to arouse detestation of a Washington initiative. That rush of the journalistic lemmings includes not only the heavyweights of the media but many cartoonists and, as well, humorists like Art Buchwald and Russell Baker, whose satire is often striking and effective. Prominent among the lemmings are television personalities like Jon Snow of Britain’s ITV, who recently presented one film “report” that continually cut from vaguely delineated political and military developments to heart-rending scenes in a refugee camp. In that and a drum beat of subsequent “reports” the conclusion was not implied but hammered home time and again: U.S. policy was, presumably by direct intention, rendering tens of thousands homeless and killing hundreds of women and children. El Salvador, the viewer could not but conclude, was a deliberate replication of Viet Nam. And “Viet Nam” had become synonymous with absolute evil—practiced, of course, by the United States.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome” is compounded of a variety of symptoms, none unique in itself, but unprecedented in combination and devastating in their totality. Wars have been badly reported in the past. Facts have been mis-stated, and their interpretation has been biased. Emotions have been deliberately inflamed, and reporters have ridden to fame on waves of misrepresentation. But never before Viet Nam had the collective policy of the media—no less stringent term will serve—sought by graphic and unremitting distortion the victory of the enemies of the correspondents’ own side. Television coverage was, of course, new in its intensity and repetitiveness; it was crucial in shifting the emphasis from fact to emotion. And television will play the same role in future conflicts—on the Western side, of course. It will not and cannot expose the crimes of an enemy who is too shrewd to allow the cameras free play.

As long as the “Viet Nam Syndrome” afflicts the media, it seems to me that it will be virtually impossible for the West to conduct an effective foreign policy. It is apparently irrelevant that the expectations of paradise after Hanoi’s victory evoked by “the critics of the American war” became the purgatory the Indochinese people have suffered. Just as many denizens of the antebellum American South did not know that “Damyankee” was really two words, an entire generation in Europe and the United States behaves as if “the dirty, immoral war in Viet Nam” were an irrefutable and inseparable dogma. Merely equate El Salvador (or any other American intervention) to Viet Nam—and not only the American public but all “liberal” Europeans will condemn it without reservation. That is all they need to know. In its final effect—what has over the last decade been called “the paralysis of political will”—it will make it especially difficult for the United States to honor any political commitment anywhere in the world where small and threatened nations may expect American support for their independent existence. Before they fall to an aggressor, they will have been victimized by “the Viet Nam Syndrome.”

It has long appeared to me that the medical and legal professions enjoy one enormous advantage. If they err, doctors and lawyers may be blamed. Yet, except in the most flagrant cases, the client or the patient pays them again for correcting their mistakes—if they can, and if he can. But the media on Viet Nam, it has become blatantly obvious, have enjoyed even greater advantages. Even in the most flagrant cases, they have not been blamed. They have, rather, been acclaimed for their errors. Who can, ultimately, prove it otherwise? The peoples of the non-Communist world have paid dearly for these errors—and may well continue to pay.

The North Vietnamese Army

By James D. McLeroy

At various times and places the Second Indochina War (1959 to 1975) displayed some of the characteristics of a South Vietnamese revolution, insurgency, guerrilla war, and civil war. Primarily, however, it was always an incremental invasion of South Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army, at first indirect and covert, then direct and overt.

In 1945, Ho Chi Minh and his guerrilla forces quickly seized control of the North Vietnamese government in the power vacuum left by the surrender of the occupying Japanese army. Ho then proclaimed himself President of the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). After the 1949 victory of Mao Tse-tung’s army in the Chinese Civil War, Ho went to China to ask Mao for military aid. Ho’s irregular Viet Minh forces were then fighting the conventional French forces attempting to reclaim their former control of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

Mao gave the DRV not only weapons, but also military training, logistical support, technical troops, and secure bases in southern China. In 1951, General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the Viet Minh forces, went to China to arrange the assignment of a resident Chinese Military Assistance Group in the DRV. Without massive Chinese aid the Viet Minh forces could not have defeated the French forces and won the First Indochina War (1946-1954) at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu.

In the Second Indochina War (1959-1975) against the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces the initial North Vietnamese strategy was again an adaptation of Mao Tse-tung’s three-stage, rural-based, protracted attrition model. The first stage was squad and platoon-size terrorism and guerrilla tactics. The second stage was company and battalion-size semi-conventional, mobile tactics. The third stage was regimental and division-size conventional, positional tactics.

In the Second Indochina War the NVA fought a strategically offensive, total war to conquer South Vietnam and achieve military hegemony in Laos and Cambodia. President Johnson’s refusal to allow Westmoreland to fight a strategically offensive war in Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam, where the NVA were fighting it, forced him to fight a strategically defensive war limited to South Vietnam.

Johnson always feared the entrance of China into the war (as in Korea). For that reason, he refused to approve a large-scale U.S. invasion of eastern Laos and Cambodia to destroy the NVA’s sanctuary bases and permanently block the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. For the same reason he also refused to approve a truly strategic, unrestricted, sustained air campaign to destroy the physical capability of North Vietnam to receive Soviet supplies.

Westmoreland knew that his defensive attrition “strategy” was only a grand tactic, but he had no alternative. He knew that pacification of South Vietnam would be impossible, as long as large VC and NVA troop units had protected sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia and unlimited Chinese and Soviet war supplies delivered through the Ho Chi Minh Trail network in Laos.

He knew that the only way he could seize and hold the strategic initiative was by invading Laos and Cambodia to destroy the NVA’s base areas and permanently block the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. Without unlimited logistic support from the USSR and a constant supply of troops from North Vietnam, the NVA would lack the physical capability to conquer South Vietnam, regardless of their indomitable will to do so.

In the long term it was politically futile to rely on an offensive operational strategy based on an attrition grand tactic limited to South Vietnam as a substitute for an offensive grand strategy to achieve a decisive victory in Indochina. The political futility of relying on an attrition grand tactic is irrelevant, however, to the factual question of the short-term effectiveness of the attrition tactic itself.

The fact that Westmoreland’s large-scale tactics were often operationally inefficient does not imply that they were also tactically ineffective. In all the large battles from 1965 to 1968 his use of combined-arms firepower to produce mass enemy attrition was, in fact, tactically effective, usually devastatingly so.

By the end of 1968, U.S. and ARVN conventional forces had effectively destroyed the VC main combat forces. In the first half of 1972, ARVN conventional forces, supported by U.S. airpower and augmented by regional and local civilian self-defense forces, decisively defeated the NVA’s second conventional invasion of South Vietnam. By the end of 1972, South Vietnamese and U.S. counterinsurgency forces had also eviscerated the VC civilian infrastructure.

Both the internal and the external war for the survival of the Republic of Vietnam had been temporarily won. After the NVA’s crushing defeat in 1972, the decisive destruction of their bases in Laos and the permanent blockage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network would have made it impossible for the NVA to recover. An offensive grand strategy would have enabled both of those tactics.

Instead, the hard-earned conventional and counterinsurgency victories of the ARVN and U.S. forces were deliberately forfeited by the anti-war Democrat majority in both U.S. Houses of Congress. The ARVN, militarily depleted by the NVA invasion in 1972, were critically weakened by the radical 1973 Congressional reductions in U.S. military aid, including basic ammunition. They were then fatally crippled by the 1974 Congressional prohibition of all U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia, including U.S. air support of ARVN forces from bases in other countries.

In 1975, the modern, Soviet-equipped NVA forces invaded South Vietnam again in a mass, armored Blitzkrieg, exactly as North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. With no concern for U.S. air counterattacks, no need for any VC guerrilla fighters, and no attempt to win any “hearts and minds”, they quickly defeated the demoralized, inadequately equipped ARVN forces.

Two years after all U.S. forces had been withdrawn from South Vietnam, the NVA, not the Viet Cong, conquered South Vietnam with modern, conventional forces using conventional tactics and weapons, not with guerrilla forces using unconventional tactics and weapons. They had been planning to do so since 1959 and had unsuccessfully attempted to do so three times before (in 1965, 1968, and 1972). They finally won their American War strategically in America, as they always believed they eventually would, by political default, not tactically in South Vietnam by combat victories over U.S. forces.

As Ho Chi Minh predicted, they won it by resolutely daring to continue losing battles like Khe Sanh tactically at an unsustainable military cost longer than the irresolute U.S. Congress dared to continue winning such battles tactically at an unsustainable political cost. The paradoxical battle of Khe Sanh – a tactical success for the U.S. military in the short term, yet a strategic failure for the U.S. government in the long term — was the largest of many Pyrrhic victories in a tragic, seven-year failure of U.S. national leadership.

The DRV, neither democratic nor a republic, was a Stalinist police state controlled by Le Duan, First Secretary of the ruling Lao Dong Party and leader of its Political Bureau (Politburo). From 1960 until his death in 1986, he was the de facto commander and chief strategist of the DRV. By 1967, the DRV’s titular President, Ho Chi Minh, was merely an aged and ailing figurehead, whose only political power was the prestige of his name as the founding father of the DRV.

Le Duan was not a charismatic dictator. He was a Machiavellian manipulator, who ruled the DRV collectively through its multilayered committee system. The most important one was the five-man Subcommittee for Military Affairs (SMA) of the Central Military Party Commission. It was subordinate only to the Politburo led by Le Duan. The other members of the SMA were Le Duan’s long-time deputy, Le Duc Tho, and three North Vietnamese Army (NVA) generals with overlapping offices in the Ministry of Defense.

They were Vo Nguyen Giap, Minister of Defense and NVA Commander; Nguyen Chi Thanh, senior Political Commissar of the DRV’s Viet Cong (VC) forces in South Vietnam; and Van Tien Dung, Giap’s deputy and Le Duan’s protege. In 1967, Nguyen Chi Thanh died, and Le Duan replaced him with Le’s close friend, Pham Hung. Those six key men, dominated by the militant zeal of Le Duan, controlled the DRV’s grand strategy in its sixteen-year war to conquer the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and achieve military hegemony in Laos and Cambodia.

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Recently I’ve been studying the Pentagon Papers and the events surrounding their release. In that regard I read a New York Times op-ed written by Daniel Ellsberg that purports to tell the story of what compelled him to release national secrets to the media. More than any other single event in American history, Ellsberg’s perfidy opened the floodgates of government distrust and the media’s lack of respect for national secrets.  He is the progenitor of Wikileaks and especially of Edward Snowden.

Ellsberg’s op-ed is an obvious example of self-serving justification for an act he knew was wrong. In point of fact, he himself decided he was willing to risk a life in prison to expose what he believed were lies being told to the American people. But were they? There were certainly things documented in the Pentagon Papers that could be viewed as lies by an unsophisticated or biased observer.  What Ellsberg characterizes as lies are decisions made by Presidents against the advice of some of their advisors.  Ellsberg agreed with the dissenting advisors and so believed they were right and the Presidents were wrong.

A generation of presidents, believing that the course they were following was in the best interests of the country, nevertheless chose to conceal from Congress and the public what the real policy was, what alternatives were being pressed on them from within the government, and the pessimistic predictions they were receiving about the prospects of their chosen course.

Here Ellsberg casts those who disagreed with the President in the role of being correct in their (and, of course, his own) opinions and naively suggests that open government means airing every disagreement inside an administration publicly.  Good leadership means considering advice from advisors who will often disagree among themselves over a particular course of action.  It also means making decisions based on that advice and your own best judgment.  It is inevitable that some of those advisors will be upset because their preferred course of action was not taken.  It’s equally inevitable that, given the egos involved, some of them will look for opportunities to “prove” that they were right and that the President followed the wrong advice.

That is the reason we consistently see “tell-all” books after advisors whose advice was not taken leave office as well as hagiographies by those with whom a President agreed.

Although Ellsberg himself admits that “a generation of Presidents” believed that the course of action that they chose was “in the best interests of the country”, he nevertheless characterizes them as lying simply because they chose a course with which he disagreed.  One can only surmise that if Ellsberg would have agreed with their decisions, he never would have characterized the process of decision-making as lying.  Yet despite the fact that five consecutive Presidents followed the same general policy, because Ellsberg disagreed with that policy he felt that it was necessary for him to commit a traitorous act to expose them.

Throughout the campaign of 1964, President Johnson indicated to the voters — contrary to his opponent Barry Goldwater — that no escalation was needed in South Vietnam. He sometimes added, almost inaudibly, ”at this time.”

As the Pentagon Papers later showed, that was contradicted as early as May 1964 by the estimates and recommendations of virtually all of Johnson’s own civilian and military advisers. I believe he worried, not only in 1964 but over the next four years, that if he laid out candidly just how difficult, costly and unpromising the conflict was expected to be, the public would overwhelmingly want escalation on a scale that promised to win the war.

To this end, Congress and the voters might compel him to adopt the course secretly being pressed on him by his own Joint Chiefs of Staff. From 1964 through 1968, the Joint Chiefs continuously urged a litany of secret recommendations, including mining Haiphong; hitting the dikes; bombing near the Chinese border; closing all transportation routes from China; sending ground troops to Laos, Cambodia and the southern part of North Vietnam; possibly full-scale invasion of North Vietnam.

I think that this escalation would not have won the war.

While Ellsberg is certainly entitled to his opinion, his opinion did not justify revealing government secrets to the public.  As he points out and history confirms, had Johnson revealed to the public what his advisors were telling him, the public would have demanded escalation in Vietnam.  Since Ellsberg “thought” that escalation would not have won the war, one would assume that he would be happy that the President “lied” to the public.  The irony of this contradiction seems to escape him completely.

Setting aside Ellsberg’s concerns for a moment, what kind of President would conceal his true desires because he believed they were out of sync with the desires of the American people?  We have previously discussed the incompetence of American leadership with regard to the war.  Certainly that would have been grounds for going public with what he knew but without revealing state secrets.

Both Kennedy and Johnson handled the war ineptly, not only ignoring the advice of the military experts but moving in a direction that they were repeatedly warned would not achieve the desired result.  But this is not lying.  It’s incompetence.  Johnson in particular behaved despicably toward the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ignored their advice completely and placed his trust in McNamara, a man who had no military knowledge at all.  This too is not lying but incompetence.

Remarkably, Ellsberg himself recognized that the ongoing disagreements within administrations were debates, but because of his personal beliefs he characterized them as lies rather than normal disagreement within advisory groups.

I first learned of these debates in 1964 and 1965, when I was special assistant to John McNaughton, the assistant defense secretary. I read all the documents of that period that were later included in the Pentagon Papers, and I heard from McNaughton of his discussions with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Johnson. I strongly regret that at that time, I did not see it as my duty to disclose that information to the Senate.

But then I was in Vietnam for two years from 1965 to 1967. I saw that our ground effort in South Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated, and I did not believe that increased bombing of the north would ever cause our adversaries to give up. Therefore I came to the belief in 1967 that we should negotiate our way out.

Because he spent time in Vietnam, Ellsberg apparently became convinced that his limited view of the conflict was an accurate one and decided that he knew better than five Presidents what the correct course of action was.  So, desperate to gain what he viewed as a fair hearing for his beliefs, which he believed were superior to those of five Presidents, he decided to violate his oath and reveal state secrets to the world.  For this traitorous act he is celebrated as a hero by many of the misguided fools that believe themselves to be wiser than the men chosen to lead the nation.

So my concern in releasing the Pentagon Papers was not simply, or even primarily, to get out the truth. I thought I would probably go to prison for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t have done that just to set the record straight. I released the papers because I foresaw prolonged war and eventual escalation, including incursions into Laos and Cambodia, the mining of Haiphong and the bombing of Hanoi. I wanted to avert these events, but they all occurred.

Ellsberg’s ego wouldn’t allow him to accept the fact that he was not the President.  He felt he knew better than the men who had a much broader knowledge of Vietnam, of secret negotiations, of plans he knew nothing about, of issues with which he was completely unaware.  All that mattered was that his views be aired, even if he had to go to prison.  Even what he perceived as the truth didn’t matter!  This is a man with a massive ego.  This is a man for whom no other view than his own is valid.  it’s not surprising then that his oath meant nothing to him when weighed against his superior opinions.

The greatest irony of all is that the Pentagon Papers reveal that basic US policy toward Vietnam was consistent across five Presidencies and that all of the claims of the antiwar movement were false.

The SACEI Forum

If you’re interested in all things Vietnam, you may already be familiar with the Saigon Arts, Culture and Education Institute.  If you’re not, you may want to pay them a visit.  I’ll bet you end up bookmarking the site.  Filled with interesting articles about Vietnam, many of them concerning the view of the 2nd Indochina War and its aftermath from the perspective of the Vietnamese, the site provides a unique, South Vietnamese perspective of that fateful time in history.

The South Vietnamese, more than anyone else, are painfully aware of what being “liberated” by communists means.  They suffered the loss of many loved ones, the lengthy imprisonment of others and the tragic loss of their freedom under the iron hand of their rulers.  Many have died, and continue to die, in their struggle to free their country from the yoke of tyranny.

Their mission is “1. to collect songs, tapes, books, artworks and memorabilia related to the diasporic society, 2. to promote Vietnamese arts and culture through workshops, discussions, exhibitions and shows, 3. and to research, publish articles and books about the diaspora.”  They do it quite well.  There is a cornucopia of arts and culture at the site, and the interested visitor can spend days wandering through the site enjoying what it has to offer.

The site also offers newsletters, the most recent one being #81, and a forum which is their official journal, published quarterly.   Some of our members have been honored as Man of the Year.

Visiting the site will fill you with pride and a sense of melancholy for what was lost in Vietnam.

Why Was Vietnam Lost to Communism?

Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher

Millions of words have been written about the Vietnam War, or as we prefer to call it, the 2nd Indochina War. Many thousands of those words have been about why the war was lost. There are as many opinions about why the 2nd Indochina War was lost as there are writers to express them. 1

Some say it’s because we never should have been there in the first place, or because it was a civil war. Others say it’s because a bunch of peasants in sandals beat the greatest military in the world with determination and grit. Still others say it’s because it was a war for independence and any outsider would have been thrown out just as the French were.

Many of them want to teach us the lessons they think we should learn from the war yet few of them recognize or accept the facts when they are presented to them. Or they want to ignore them or interpret them to fit their preconceived notions about the war.

Many brave men and women have served this country. More than a few have given their lives in those efforts. Most of them served with honor and courage. Too many of our politicians, on the other hand, have no principles and stand for nothing. At the first sign of trouble, rather than making their case for why we need to stand and fight, these cowards will turn and run and abandon the battlefield.

Enthusiasm ebbs and flows depending upon the Presidential or political will to win. After the initial enthusiasm for the war has faded and the shooting has started, some opportunistic politicians turn inward and begin to look for openings to score political points. If they can undermine another politician by undermining the war effort, they will. The cost to the nation is seldom even a secondary consideration for them.

Anyone’s opinion, no matter how outlandish or how unproven, is more easily accepted if it helps the political cause. For a communist with political propaganda to spread, it’s fertile ground.

The end result is that military men and women can go to war, supported by an enthusiastic public and a supportive government. Then, when the war isn’t resolved quickly, men die because of gradualist tactics and no winning strategy. The mood can turn, and then those same people can betray the military a few years later while men and women are still fighting and dying far from home.

There are many reasons for this. Not least is that a large segment of the media is hostile and reports every rumor, innuendo and lie that is repeated without determining its veracity. In the 2nd Indochina War many journalists sat at their favorite bars in Saigon, the Continental, the Rex and the Caravelle, and soaked in the stories of Pham Xuan An, a North Vietnamese spy as well as other English-speaking malcontents and coup plotters.  Then they repeated those stories to an unsuspecting public. They even hired An to report and to run their local bureaus. 2 3

Antiwar activists repeated what the journalists wrote. Many were naïve and idealistic. Some were communist agents or collaborators intent on seeing the United States defeated. Some even traveled to communist countries to be briefed and supplied materials to be used in communist propaganda. 4 Then they returned to the US and repeated the propaganda as instructed. They even advised the communists on how to improve their propaganda for American audiences. 5 The politicians were eventually swayed and became antiwar. 6

The one enduring lesson of the 2nd Indochina War is this: the US cannot be trusted as an ally in long wars because of our system of government. Our country can be fully committed to a war in one year and be completely opposed to that same war just a few years later, because the political winds have shifted.

Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution with two dissenting votes in the Senate and none in the House. Just ten years later Congress abandoned Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, cutting their funding and guaranteeing communist victories in all three countries. The same Senators who voted for the Tonkin resolution now voted to abandon our allies, without the slightest remorse for the millions who would die. 7

In 2013 Major General Ira Hunt Jr. (Ret) published a book, Losing Vietnam: How America Abandoned Southeast Asia, that directly addresses some of the questions about why the war was lost. Some of the information in his book is eye-opening. Much of it is information that the academic left refuses to admit.

For example, Hunt proves statistically that the ARVN forces acquitted themselves quite well, right up to the final collapse.

“Exchange Ratio. This factor is a measure of friendly efficiency. On a countrywide basis, the ratio of enemy killed to friendly killed was a respectable 4.3 for 28 January 1973 to 31 March 1974. The exchange ratio for friendly-initiated attacks was 6.7, compared to 3.5 for enemy-initiated attacks, again indicating that aggressiveness paid off.”  8

There were exceptions, of course, but those exceptions were more due to very poor decision-making on the part of President Thieu and very poor leadership from some parts of the ARVN officer corps, especially Maj. Gen. Phu, Commander of II Corps and Lt. Gen. Truong, Commander of I Corps.

Even in early 1975, when the US had reduced aid to South Vietnam to the point that ammunition was being rationed to ridiculously low levels, the South Vietnamese military still performed well.

“Yet, for all of this, the South Vietnamese soldiers were still seriously attriting the enemy and still had a strong military capability. Man for man, they were probably superior to the enemy.”  9

His analysis of the US performance after leaving Vietnam is devastating.

“The United States reneged on almost all of the pre–peace treaty promises made to South Vietnam. It did not replace major combat system losses on a one-for-one basis; it did not maintain the pre-treaty level of the stocks of ammunition; it failed to intervene militarily when North Vietnam overwhelmingly renewed its aggression; and most importantly it did not continue to provide adequate financial support.”  10

Ask most academics and they will tell you that the ARVN were unreliable, ran from the fight and could never have beaten the NVA. 11 The facts say they lost because we abandoned them in their hour of need.

Having studied the war a great deal over the past few years, I can think of many reasons that the war was lost. First and foremost, the political leadership of our country failed us in spectacular and very troubling ways. Nixon had the will to aid South Vietnam, but the Watergate scandal stripped him of his power and drove him from office. The US Congress, emboldened by his downfall, defunded aid to all our Indochina allies, dooming them to communist reprisals and tyranny.

These are some of the things our politicians did that doomed the 2nd Indochina war to failure and the three states of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to decades of darkness.

  1. They refused to face reality.
    1. The communists never bargained in good faith and never had any intention of obeying the terms of any agreement they signed. 12 Yet our leaders, time and time again, caved in to their demands. For example, when we finally signed a peace agreement with the communists, we granted them two things they never should have had.
      1. The NLF, a front organization for the North, was allowed to be a party to the negotiations, giving the communists two parties to the negotiations when everyone on the planet knew they were a front. 13
      2. The NVA was allowed to keep troops in the South, an insane concession that doomed South Vietnam to years and years of war, if not defeat. 14
    2. They insisted on the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia, despite the fact that the NVA invaded both countries, established bases there from which to launch attacks in the South and built a logistics system, the Ho Chi Minh trail, that allowed them to resupply, refit and rest their troops without worry of harassment. 15 The single greatest reason the allies never defeated the NVA is because they stubbornly refused to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail. 16 17
  2. They didn’t respect the Vietnamese. No matter what we thought of them, the Vietnamese were fighting for their nation and their freedom. We were supposed to be supporting them. In far too many cases, our leaders tried to push their ideas down the Vietnamese leaders’ throats rather than working toward a common goal. We even encouraged the coup of their elected leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, who was then assassinated, a black stain our nation will never outlive. 18
  3. They let hubris and politics overcome reason and facts and made decisions based on foolhardy criteria that led to disastrous results. 19
  4. They made promises to the South Vietnamese and then reneged on them, dooming the South to failure despite their superior performanceagainsttheNVA.
    1. President Nixon promised President Thieu that the US would provide air support if the NVA invaded after the treaty was signed. (Of course they were already there because of the awful concessions we made in the treaty.) Congress passed a law preventing air support in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, dooming all three countries. 20
    2. The US signed a treaty that, among other things, promised to replace, item for item, any war materiel that the South used up. We never lived up to that promise.
  5. They micromanaged the war, even though they had no training in military tactics, strategy or logistics. That cost many American and Vietnamese lives for little gain in the war. 21
    1. They forbade the military to attack legitimate military targets inside North Vietnam. E.g. a pilot spotted barges filled with weapons and ammunition and asked for permission to engage. He was not allowed to engage. Another pilot spotted MIG-21s sitting on the ground but was not allowed to fire on them. 22 Even operational SAM sites were off-limits to our fliers. 23
    2. They actually tipped off the enemy in advance of the targets chosen for bombing raids. This is an act of treason in war and undoubtedly cost many American lives unnecessarily. The justification was dumbfounding. Dean Rusk stated, “We didn’t want to harm the North Vietnamese people, so we passed the targets to the Swiss embassy in Washington with instructions to pass them to the NVN government through their embassy in Hanoi.” 24 No thought was apparently given to how many American lives this decision would cost.  NOTE: Further research has confirmed that this claim is untrue.  Both Peter Arnett and Tom Johnson, a White House aide who participated in all White House meetings regarding Vietnam affirmed that the statement is untrue.
  6. They utterly failed to address the propaganda war, allowing the communists free hand to turn the American politicians falsely fearful of public opinion against the war. 25
  7. They articulated utterly unrealistic goals for the war.  E.g. General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at a Senate hearing that the US was not trying to defeat North Viet Nam but only to “cause them to mend their ways”. 26

There were many reasons that the 2nd Indochina War was a failure. Chief among them was the political leadership of the United States. These same mistakes continue to be made, because we have learned nothing from the 2nd Indochina War.

We’ve learned nothing from the war because historians have failed utterly in their principal task, to analyze history and dispassionately reveal its intricacies and realities. Many of the academics who are so-called experts on Vietnam were antiwar activists in their youth. (Some were even affiliated with communists.) They carried that same mindset into their studies of the war and never managed to separate their personal beliefs from their study of its history.

The result is a history replete with falsehoods, misrepresentations, suppositions and myths that teach us nothing of value about the war and its lessons.

 

Vietnam War Ended 40 Years Ago

Dr. William Lloyd Stearman, Founding VVFH Member

A poll taken on this 40th anniversary would no doubt reveal that most Americans believe we should not have fought in this small obscure country half a world away, and do believe that the war there was unwinnable and that our huge expenditure of blood and treasure there was totally in vain. Most people are nonplussed at hearing that we got into World War II because of what is now Vietnam. In the 1930s, we somewhat tolerated Japan’s rampaging all though China. However, when Japan invaded what is now Vietnam, we saw this as a threat to Southeast Asia and took the strong measure of promoting a boycott of critical oil, scrap iron and rubber deliveries to Japan. Japan, then realizing a now hostile US would try to prevent its planned invasion of Southeast Asia, sought to disable our fleet at Pearl Harbor as a preventative measure. Japan then proceeded to use its new-found base to invade and conquer most of Southeast Asia. President Eisenhower must have had this mind when he was asked, at April 7, 1954 press conference, about “the strategic importance of Indochina [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia] for the free world.” He then described the “falling domino” principle whereby “the beginning of a disintegration [in Vietnam] would have the most profound influences” leading to “ the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the [Malay] peninsula and Indonesia.” He added that Japan, Formosa [Taiwan], the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand “would also be threatened.” (He could also have added India.)

Eisenhower’s “domino theory” was pooh-poohed by a number of people in the U.S., but, given the parlous unstable conditions in Southeast Asia, it was taken seriously by leaders there as well as in Australia and India and by leaders in Hanoi and (then) Peking. For example, China’s famed Marshal Lin Piao stated in September 1965 that the defeat of “U.S. imperialism” in Vietnam would show the people of the world “that what the Vietnamese people can do, they can do too.” In the late 19­60s, Indonesian leaders Suharto and Malik (not great friends of the U.S.) told U.S. officials that our first introduction of U.S. combat troops (Marines) in Vietnam in March 1965 helped embolden them to resist the October 1, 1965 Communist coup supported by China, which came very close to succeeding. (The two later told columnist Robert Novak the same thing.) Had this coup succeeded, the Philippines would have soon been threatened which could well have triggered our intervention under a 1954 treaty. Then we would have been facing a far more threatening adversary than in Vietnam. The 1965 introduction of US Marines apparently had a generally bracing effect in Southeast Asia. For example it also encouraged the British defense of Malaysia against a Communist invasion from Indonesia. By the end of the Vietnam War, even the victorious Communist side that lost over two million dead was too weakened to pose a threat to any country save nearby Laos and Cambodia. The war also bought precious time to enable the countries of Southeast Asia to strengthen their positions. In essence, we basically got into the war to prevent the toppling of dominoes in Southeast Asia and we succeeded. One could say that this was a strategic victory while the loss in Vietnam was a tactical defeat.

Was the war in Vietnam truly unwinnable? After “Vietnamization” had removed all U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, Hanoi, on March 30, 1972, launched its “Easter Offensive” with largest conventional attack of the war consisting of the equivalent of 23 divisions equipped with hundreds of Soviet tanks, long-range artillery, rockets and surface to air missiles. The brunt of the fighting fell on the South Vietnamese ground forces with massive U.S. air support as well as naval and logistical support. The only American ground forces left were advisors and forward air controllers. South Vietnam forces eventually moved from the defensive to counter offensives and by mid-September 1972 were clearly winning. The Communist forces had lost about 100,000 killed in action, twice as many as the U.S. had lost in the entire war. Sometime after Hanoi’s final 1975 victory, a former top commander in the South, General Tran Van Tra stated in the Party organ Nhan Dan that his troops had eventually reached the verge of defeat. Had the war continued some months further, the South could have emerged victorious by evicting all enemy forces from Vietnam. Facing defeat, Hanoi saved the day by offering substantial concessions sought by Henry Kissinger in previous negotiations. With the best of intentions, Kissinger took this bait and the resulting negotiations process brought South Vietnamese military operations to a halt. The 1973 Peace Accords broke down. The U.S. drastically reduced aid, and then Congress banned all U.S. military operations in Indochina sealing Vietnam’s doom.

William Lloyd Stearman, PhD, Senior U.S. Foreign Service officer (Ret.)

National Security Council staff under four presidents, director NSC Indochina staff, Jan. ’73 to Jan. ’76, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs Georgetown University (1977 to 1993), author of memoir An American Adventure, From Early Aviation Through Three Wars to the White House (Naval Institute Press, 2012)

40 Years After – How Did They Fare?

Col. Andrew Finlayson, VVFH Founding Member

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were seven ongoing communist insurgencies in SE Asia – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all had active communist insurgencies. Three of those insurgencies were successful in 1975 (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). When one considers the question of whether or not the successful communist insurgencies lived up to the promises they made to their respective populations to provide peace, social justice and economic well-being, it is instructive to look at the records of those seven countries with communist insurgencies and see how they fared over the past 40 years.

Peace: Many in the West thought that once the communists came to power and all of the US and allied forces left Vietnam, a new era of peace and harmony would exist. At least that is what the communists promised. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The communist government of the united Vietnam fought two wars with their neighbors, China and Cambodia, and tensions still persist with China over the East China Sea. A little known fact that is often overlooked by some in the West is more SE Asians died in war and the results of war in the 14 years after the last American left Vietnam than during the years when US forces were in South Vietnam. Although exact figures for the number of SE Asians who died after the communist victories in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia vary, even the conservative estimates are mind-boggling. There were 65,000 executions in Vietnam between 1975 and 1982 (Desbarats and Jackson, “The Cruel Peace,” Washington Quarterly, Fall 1985: also US Dept. of State Bulletin, Sept. 1985). The UN High Commissioner on Refugees estimated that 250,000 people fleeing Vietnam by boat died at sea. Another 165,000 died in Vietnam’s infamous “re-education camps” (Desbarats, Jacqueline. “Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation,” The Vietnam Debate, 1990).

According to Lt. Gen. Le Kha Phieu, the commander of Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, the Vietnamese military suffered 55,000 deaths between 1978 and when the Vietnamese ended their occupation of Cambodia (Reaves, Joseph. “Vietnam Reveals Cambodian Death Toll,” Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1988). There are no accurate figures for the number of Cambodian deaths suffered in the war, but it is safe to assume they suffered heavier casualties than the Vietnamese.

Although the claims of the Vietnamese and Chinese differ widely on the casualties produced by their 1979 war, a conservative estimate provides a range of Chinese military deaths at 7,000 to 26,000 and approximately 30,000 Vietnamese military deaths, with an additional 100,000 Vietnamese civilian deaths (Zhang Xiaoming, “China’s 1979 War with Vietnam,” China Quarterly, No. 184, December 2005, pp. 851-874). The Communist Lao government continues to this day to inflict casualties on the Hmong minority in that country with the figure of 100,000 killed since 1975 (Rummel, Rudolph. Statistics of Democide, University of Hawaii; also, “Forced and Forgotten” Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights, 1989, p. 8). And, according to the Yale Genocide Program, the communist party in Cambodia killed approximately 1.7 million of that country’s citizens when it came to power, one of the most horrific genocidal crimes ever committed.

Social Justice: By just about any objective standard, the communist governments that came to power after 1975 have had a truly dismal record on human rights. All three have been identified by numerous impartial human rights organizations as among the worst countries in the world for human rights abuses. Vietnam, in particular, has been singled out consistently for denying its citizens basic human rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Vietnam as “one of the worst countries in the world” for censoring the press, noting that during the Vietnam War over 100 newspapers were printed in South Vietnam but only a handful exist today and all of them are tightly under government control. Freedom House noted as recently as 2014 that Vietnam was, “among the countries with the worst scores for political rights and civil liberties,” and they have reported that “Vietnam is among the ten worst abusers of internet freedom” (“If a Tee Falls,” The Economist, April 18-24, 2015. p.34). The Worker Rights Consortium reported in 2013 that Vietnam had a dismal record on such things as “forced and child labor.” The Pew Research Center has consistently ranked Vietnam among the thirty worst countries in the world for religious oppression, noting that Vietnam had, “very high government restrictions on religion.” Human Rights Watch wrote a withering appraisal of the sorry state of human rights in current day Vietnam in their 2013 “World Report,” and John Sifton of that non-partisan human rights watchdog wrote, “Vietnam is a non-democratic, one-party state, with an abysmal human rights record.”

Economic Freedom: When the communists came to power in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, they all promised a new era of economic prosperity free from the shackles of capitalism. Let’s see how that turned out 40 years later and compare the economic performance of the communist and non-communist governments of SE Asia (Sources: Pocket World in Figures, 2015 Edition, The Economist: and The World Bank).

Country GDP per head Economic Freedom Index Avg. Annual Inflation
Vietnam $1,760 50.8 10%
Laos $751 51.4 21.31%
Cambodia $709 57.5 5.26%
Thailand $5,480 63.3 2.3%
Malaysia $10,430 69.6 1.8%
Indonesia $3,560 58.5 5.2%
Philippines $2,590 60.1 3.8%

As the economic statistics above show, the countries that had successful communist insurgencies lag behind their capitalist neighbors in GDP per person, economic freedom, and inflation rates. One would think that a communist government would have solved the problem of income inequality, but the facts prove otherwise. The GINI index which the UN and the World Bank assign to countries based upon their income distribution within households shows that Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are ranked far below such capitalist countries as Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, and Norway. When one considers the endemic corruption, one party rule, income inequality, political repression, and poor management of their economies, it is difficult to make a convincing argument that communism has benefitted the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The Vietnam War was Winnable

Paper presented by Col. Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.)*

“Amateurs talk about tactics; professionals talk about logistics.”

                                                                                    An old military proverb 

One day in the spring of 1985, fifteen years after I had left South Vietnam for the last time, I was having lunch with my faculty advisor at the Naval War College, Professor Robert Megagee, when another faculty member joined us and asked what we were talking about. Professor Megagee, who had taught me diplomatic history at the U.S. Naval Academy as an undergraduate, told this distinguished academic that we were discussing the Vietnam War. Professor Megagee’s colleague immediately blurted out, “There is no practical use in such a discussion because there was nothing we could have done to win that war.” This comment caused me to challenge our table mate. I told him that wars are not deterministic or ordained by some immutable truth—they are won or lost based on many factors that can be modified and adjusted to affect an outcome. The historian, who was on leave from Harvard University to the Naval War College, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I challenge you to prove that. Tell me how the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War, given the constraints imposed on it and the superior will and strategy of the North Vietnamese.”

This challenge led me to begin a life-long study of the war and why the U.S. lost it. An intermediate analysis three years later resulted in the publication of an article for the Marine Corps Gazette in which I laid out the basic reason for out failure to win the war (Finlayson, Andrew R. “Vietnam Strategies,” Marine Corps Gazette (August 1988), pp. 90-94). Additional study and the publication of new materials, especially those from North Vietnamese sources, have served to reinforce my original conclusion.

For any person who has participated in a war, the experience is unique and they see the war through the eyes of their own experience. This often makes it exceedingly difficult to be objective about the general conduct and outcome of any war. Each veteran of a war tends to analyze the overall reasons for success or failure in that war through a very narrow range of vision, one that is often clouded by emotion and trauma. I realize I am not immune to this constraint on objectivity and any analysis I might offer should be viewed with skepticism since there can be little doubt that the Vietnam War had a deep and lasting effect on me. Because I was so affected by the war, I spent many years studying it, primarily with the hope that I might find a cogent answer to the central question that plagued me: Why did the U.S. lose the war? I have examined every reason put forth by a host of writers, carefully examining their arguments, discussing them with other military analysts and veterans, and revising my findings in the light of my own experience in South Vietnam. From North Vietnamese officers, former VC politicians, and international journalists to military historians and U. S. and ARVN veterans of the war, I have attempted to find the root cause for the defeat of my country.

One may question the utility of even attempting to ascertain why the U.S. lost the Vietnam War; after all, it is over and done with and the strategic balance of power in the world has been little affected by its outcome. Although historians continue to this day to argue about why the U.S. lost this war, few other people give it any thought. I would count myself among the latter, if the war had not had such a profound effect on me and I thought the U.S. would never again make the same mistakes it made in South Vietnam. However, after over four decades of study, I am concerned about the “lessons learned” that many historians and other analysts have drawn from the Vietnam War. I see many of these “lessons learned” as false and dangerous, especially when applied to many of the challenges facing my country today. I have seen some of these “lessons learned” applied with disastrous results by well-meaning and intelligent men and women serving my country today. For this reason, I offer my personal assessment of the primary reason why we lost the war in South Vietnam in the hope that future political and military leaders will not pursue a path that leads to defeat.

To be as succinct as possible, the U.S. lost the war because its national leadership pursued a fatally flawed strategy based upon wishful thinking, hubris, and incorrect assumptions. They did not do so because they were fools or lacked the necessary information needed to formulate a winning strategy. No, the requisite information for the proper strategic analysis was available as early as the end of the First Indo-China War in 1954, but a combination of factors caused our strategic planners to overlook or dismiss the analysis. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese had a far greater appreciation for these factors than our own leaders, which resulted in the communists forging a far more effective strategy for the achievement of their goals—and to do so despite some extremely burdensome and potentially lethal constraints.

I will not address the reasons for our intervention in South Vietnam or why we continued to remain there long after it became apparent our strategy was seriously flawed. I think the historians have drawn the correct conclusions for the rationale our leaders used in both cases. Whether those reasons were correct or necessary, I leave to the historians to settle. What I will do is identify the objectives of the major protagonists, their respective strategies, the root cause for failure of the American strategy, and finally an alternative American strategy that would have been far more effective than the one pursued.

For the North Vietnamese, or more accurately for the Lao Dong Party, the goal they set for themselves and one they never abandoned or modified was the complete unification of Vietnam and the domination of the Indo-China peninsula, to include Laos and Cambodia (Turner, Robert F, Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press 1974, pp. 18-19, 78-79). This goal, which was clearly and openly pronounced by the Lao Dong Party during the First Indo-China War, became feasible when the Chinese Nationalists were defeated by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949, giving the Lao Dong Party’s Viet Minh a secure border with China, bases and sanctuaries on that border, and massive amounts of captured Kuomintang weapons and ammunition, to include the artillery used with such effectiveness at the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Using doctrine developed by the Chinese communists, secure bases in southern China, and fire power that could match the French, the Lao Dong Party led the Viet Minh forces to victory, expelling the French from the Red River Delta and all of the northern part of Vietnam.

However, their goal of unifying all of Vietnam under their control was thwarted by the 1954 Geneva Accords which the Soviet Union and the PRC imposed upon them. These accords, which the U.S. was not a signatory to, called for elections in 1956 to determine the political future of a united Vietnam. The Lao Dong Party was confident that it could win a nationwide election in 1956 and most observers agree with that assumption. However, it is highly unlikely that a truly fair election could have been carried out in either North or South Vietnam at that time, even if proper monitoring had been available and approved by either country. The U.S. decided that any election held in 1956 would result in a unified country dominated by the communists, a situation that threatened to destabilize their allies in Southeast Asia and lead to communist regimes in most, if not all, of the countries in the region. Given that there were active communist insurgencies in eight Southeast Asian countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was correct to assume many of these countries might succumb to these insurgencies if the U.S. allowed South Vietnam to fall to the communists.

At this time, the U.S. grand strategy was one articulated by George Kennan in his famous “long telegram” which called for the containment of the Soviet Union and later the PRC. This grand strategy called for the U.S. to resist any further expansion of communism, a strategy that led to the Marshall Plan for Europe, the Korean War, numerous other conflicts on the periphery of the Eurasian land mass, and the Vietnam War. While Mr. Kennan would later dispute that his grand strategy for the containment of the Soviet Union should have been applied to the U.S. decision to intervene in South Vietnam, U.S. policy makers in the early 1960s were definitely thinking in terms of containment when the policy discussions concerning South Vietnam were being conducted. Therefore, the U.S. objective was to prevent South Vietnam from falling under the control of a communist government allied with the Soviet Union and the PRC. For domestic and international political reasons, the U.S. articulated several other goals, most of which were irrelevant or impractical, such as fostering liberal democracy and protecting human rights.

For the South Vietnamese Government, their goal was to avoid defeat by both the internal and external threat posed by the Lao Dong Party and to remain in power. From time to time, the GVN would also echo the goals of the U.S., but the GVN endorsement of these goals was always tepid at best and done more to mollify the Americans than to be taken seriously. For the GVN, their paramount interest was survival in the face of aggression from North Vietnam. Unlike the Americans, the GVN had a more realistic appreciation of the threat and often rejected the advice given by the Americans who they knew were proposing actions that were either irrelevant or infeasible, given the cultural, political and strategic realities in their country. While the GVN had many weaknesses, their military leadership understood the strategic dynamics better than their American allies, who persistently clung to the mistaken belief that tactical brilliance and technological superiority could compensate for strategic incompetence.

The strategy employed by the North Vietnamese to achieve their goal of unification of all of Vietnam and control of Laos and Cambodia was no mystery to the U.S. Lao Dong Party documents obtained by the French in the early 1950s laid out the communist strategy clearly. The North Vietnamese knew by 1956 that any hope of achieving their goal through elections in South Vietnam was impossible given the decision of President Diem and the Americans not to hold elections in South Vietnam. They recognized they must resort to violent means to achieve their goal and they – quite logically – adopted a strategy that was based upon their successful experience in the First Indo-China War. Initially, this strategy called for the Lao Dong Party to build a modern military force capable of defending North Vietnam using equipment and munitions provided by the Soviet Union and the PRC, while at the same time using southern Lao Dong cadres to organize the rural population of South Vietnam and lay the groundwork for future military actions. The Lao Dong Party understood that they could not rely alone on a southern insurgency to achieve their goal, although they hoped the insurgency would so weaken the GVN that a coalition government that included the communist front organization, the National Liberation Front, would come to power and set the stage for eventual control of the entire south. The Lao Dong Party planned to use their southern main force and guerrilla units to weaken and distract the GVN while it built up a modern, mobile army in North Vietnam, an army that could intervene at the decisive moment when the situation in South Vietnam made it possible to use this modern army to achieve a decisive result (Pribbenow, Merle L (Trans.), Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975, pp. 20-48). While the North Vietnamese model included the three types of military forces —local, regional and main force units— one modeled on the system used by the Chinese communists in their successful campaigns against the Japanese and the Kuomintang in China, they placed a greater emphasis on conventional forces for striking a decisive blow. This model was not endorsed by the PRC, and it often led to theoretical conflicts with the Chinese during the Second Indo-China War (Jian, Chen, “China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-69,” The China Quarterly, No. 142 (June 1995), pp. 380-387).

The North Vietnamese were always concerned about military intervention by the U.S. and so they developed a strategy that would take into account that intervention. They realized that the U.S. possessed a huge material advantage over their forces, especially in terms of naval and air power, but they had fought a modern army during the First Indo-China War and they knew that they could defeat such an army if they employed a strategy similar to the one they used against the French. Although there were some variations to their strategy to take into account changing events in South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese strategy was remarkably similar to the one they used to drive the French out of North Vietnam during their campaigns from 1950 to 1954. Fortunately for the North Vietnamese, few Americans understood how the Viet Minh strategy worked or why it was successful; and those who did were either ignored or dismissed as pessimists. I was an operations analyst at the Marine Headquarters from 1970 to 1972 and I was an action officer for several national-level war plans at that time. At meetings in the Pentagon, I listened to many frustrated senior officers with extensive war-planning experience express their concerns about how the strategy in South Vietnam was not working because the use of airpower and unconventional means in Laos were not producing the expected results for limiting the infiltration of men and supplies from North Vietnam. These same officers told me that they had sent numerous recommendations to change the US strategy to their civilian leaders but their recommendations were either ignored or dismissed. (For just one example of this problem, see McMaster, H. R., Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, New York: Harper Collins, 1997, p. 86). When I asked one of them, a US Army general officer with experience in both World War II and Korea, why the views of his war-planners were not being acted upon, he told me there were various “lobbies” in the US government who were opposed to them. When I asked him to explain what he meant by “lobbies,” he said the “lobbies” were, “the counterinsurgency and airpower proponents in the Department of Defense, and the civilian analysts in the State Department and the CIA.” According to him, “they thwarted every recommendation based upon military logic.”

During the First Indo-China War, the Viet Minh had few successes until the Chinese communists came to power in late 1949, giving them the sanctuaries and the equipment they needed to achieve success. The Viet Minh had been using the Chinese communist model of revolutionary war with its three stages as their theoretical model ever since Ho Chi Minh returned from China to lead the communist revolution in Vietnam. These three stages of revolutionary war are: Stage One, which entails “organization, consolidation and preservation”; Stage Two, which calls for “progressive expansion”; and Stage Three, the “decisive engagement and destruction of the enemy.” (Mao Tse-Tung, On Protracted War, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967, pp. 34-46). Since this three stage model for revolutionary warfare had worked so well for the Chinese communists, it was logical that it be adopted by the Viet Minh.

From 1945 to 1950, the Viet Minh were unable to progress from Stage One to Stage Two, and, in fact, had suffered several severe losses when they attempted to expand their military operations into the Red River Delta of North Vietnam. This all changed when southern China fell to the communist forces of Mao Tse-tung in late 1949. This development spelled disaster for the French because it created all of southern China as a sanctuary and a base for training and logistical support for the Viet Minh. It also meant that the French now had a hostile border with China that was 1,306 kilometers long, a border that they did not have the forces to defend. Since such a long border was impossible for them to defend, they were forced to give up much of the territory north and west of the Red River Delta. The French knew they could not attack the PRC, so the Viet Minh bases in southern China were beyond their reach. The Viet Minh were quick to take advantage of this strategic windfall and began developing a system of supply routes that led from southern China into North Vietnam. The strategic initiative passed from the French to the Viet Minh once the PRC provided the Viet Minh with safe havens for their forces and provided them with an abundant source of military equipment and supplies, which enabled the Viet Minh to conduct sustained operations against the French inside North Vietnam. Compounding the French dilemma, the Korean War reached a negotiated stalemate in 1953, freeing up vast quantities of military weapons and equipment from the PRC, which the Viet Minh put to good use immediately and to telling effect at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Some prescient American strategists, like Generals Eisenhower and Marshall, understood the situation clearly and cautioned against involving U.S. forces in the war between the French and the Viet Minh. They understood that the French were doomed in Indo-China as long as the Viet Minh had sanctuaries in China and an unlimited supply of weapons and ammunition from their Chinese comrades to carry on their war against the French. Despite local victories by the French, it was inevitable that the balance of forces would always favor the Viet Minh as long as they had access to secure bases in China and the material support of the PRC. It is for this reason President Eisenhower rejected the French request for U.S. air support at Dien Bien Phu, the decisive battle in the First Indo-China War. He knew that even if U.S. air power saved the French at Dien Bien Phu, the French would never overcome the problem of the Viet Minh sanctuaries in China and the almost inexhaustible supply of manpower the Viet Minh could devote to the war. As a result, the U.S. attempted to limit the Viet Minh gains to North Vietnam by using diplomacy while it built up an anti-communist regime in the southern part of Vietnam.

With the defeat of the French at Bien Dien Phu, the diplomats took over from the generals. A conference was convened in Geneva, Switzerland to end the hostilities and the Vietnamese communists expected they would achieve their goals of removing all foreign troops from Indo-China and establishing themselves as the masters of a united Vietnam. Unfortunately for them, the diplomats did not give them the victory they thought they had won on the battlefield. Instead, the Chinese and the Soviet delegates forced them to accept an agreement that left the southern half of Vietnam outside of their political control with the understanding that free elections would be held in 1956 throughout Vietnam to determine what kind of Government a united Vietnam would have. The U.S. and the South Vietnamese did not sign the Geneva accords and, therefore, they were not obligated to hold elections in 1956. The U.S. realized that any election held in 1956 would most likely result in a unified and communist-dominated government in Vietnam and would eventually lead to communist dominated governments in Laos and Cambodia. This expansion of communism ran counter to the U. S. national strategy of containment and threatened several other countries in the region who were dealing with communist insurgencies, such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The U.S. had just finished fighting a costly war on the Korean peninsula against the communist regimes of China and North Korea, so it was not about to let three more countries fall under communist domination and possibly fuel a series of additional “wars of national liberation” in other countries in the region, some of which were strong allies of the U.S.

So the stage was set for a confrontation between North Vietnam and the U.S. which could only be resolved by force. In sum, the North Vietnamese communists wanted to expand their control over South Vietnam and their influence, if not outright control, over Laos and Cambodia; while the U.S. was committed to a policy that called for resisting any further communist expansion anywhere in the world. Neither side was willing to compromise. These two conflicting goals would collide with catastrophic results for both countries.

When elections were not held in 1956, the Lao Dong Party leadership decided to use military force to achieve their goal of national unification. Like most strategies their plan was simple, but difficult to execute and based upon many assumptions, some of which proved to be false. It called for the organization of a mass-based party infrastructure in South Vietnam whose purpose was to provide three things: intelligence, manpower, and logistical support for mobile military forces. In effect, it called for the Lao Dong Party to establish itself in every village and hamlet of South Vietnam so the rural peasantry could be mobilized and controlled in support of the revolutionary military forces. The Lao Dong Party knew from its experience during the First Indo-China War that guerrilla forces alone were incapable of achieving a decisive result against a well-armed and technologically advanced military force like the one the Americans had. To achieve victory over a foe as strong as the U.S., they knew they would have to avoid decisive engagement while at the same time inflict heavy casualties on the Americans and their GVN allies in order to erode the national will of both governments and their respective populations. In essence, they embarked on a protracted war of attrition, but one that allowed them to modulate the level of violence so as not to risk defeat. To achieve this, they first needed to make sure they maintained the support of the three elements identified by Carl von Clausewitz in his classic of military strategy, On War, which are essential if a country decides to wage war. Those three essential elements of support are: the people, the government, and the military. The North Vietnamese clearly understood this dictum for the foundation of a successful strategy, and took the necessary steps to ensure this support was secure.

Since the Lao Dong Party ruled unopposed in North Vietnam, had complete control over the sources of information their population received, had a system of government that made internal security tight and comprehensive, had a military that was under the complete control of the Party, and had a recent tradition of victory over a superior foreign military force, these three pillars of support were firmly in place. Their next step in the formulation of their strategy was to take into account every possible action their opposition might take and to develop a strategy that could successfully counter these actions. During the initial stages of the development of their strategy, they hoped that the U.S. would not intervene militarily in South Vietnam, but they planned for that eventuality from the beginning. As early as 1959 they decided that it was highly likely the U.S. would use military force to thwart their plans; so they developed a strategy that was highly flexible and could be changed rapidly to adjust to any level of U.S. military intervention (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 73-77).

This Lao Dong strategy was based on their experience in their war against the French, but adapted to the reality that the Americans possessed far more economic and military power than the French had. The specifics of their strategy of attrition involved a combination of political and military actions that would erode the will of their adversaries and cause their opponents’ governments, militaries, and populations to accede to the goals of the Lao Dong Party. It was a strategy that was not dependent upon time tables or assumptions about the motivations of their opponents; instead, it was a carefully crafted strategy that capitalized upon their opponents’ weaknesses and minimized their own vulnerabilities with an open ended commitment to persevere no matter how long it took.

What then was the strategy the Lao Dong Party employed against the GVN and the Americans? In its broadest terms, their strategy consisted of several actions that had the aggregated effect of neutralizing their adversaries’ advantages and preventing them from taking the steps needed to defeat them. These were:

First, the primary concern of the Lao Dong Party was to secure North Vietnam from invasion. This was done by aligning themselves with the Soviet Union and the PRC, making any attack on the territory of North Vietnam by GVN or American ground forces a potential cause for war between the U.S. and these two countries. It also ensured that these two communist allies would provide the military equipment and economic aid needed to withstand any attack on its soil and to sustain its attack against South Vietnam. In addition, the Lao Dong Party embarked on a sustained program to build a modern military defense force capable of withstanding a conventional attack on their homeland. This effort included the acquisition of modern aircraft, sophisticated armored vehicles, mobile artillery, and technologically advanced air defense and communications systems, almost all provided at no cost by their communist allies.

Second, they appealed through the extensive worldwide propaganda system of communist, socialist, and other leftist organizations to influence public opinion against the GVN and the U.S. The formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and other front groups to hide the actual identity of the leadership of the insurgency in South Vietnam and provide a patina of non-communist participation in the leadership of the insurgency was an example of how the Lao Dong Party attempted to influence external observers. This was part of their “dau tranh” campaign on a worldwide scale to promote the Lao Dong Party’s position and gain support for their cause outside of Vietnam (Hanoi’s War, p. 52). They found a ready audience for their propaganda among leftist groups throughout Western Europe and the U.S. As with most of their strategy, this implementing action was based upon the success of the Viet Minh to influence French public opinion during the First Indo-China War and erode support for the war, which lead to the election of the a Socialist Government in France that ran on a platform calling for an end of that war.

Third, they built a modern military capable of regional power projection, using extensive support from the Soviet Union and the PRC. Certain units were designated for special training in mobile warfare and supplied with equipment that would enable these units to operate far from North Vietnam in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. This military buildup was begun shortly after the end of the First Indo-China War and was largely completed by 1964 (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 1-123).

Fourth, the Lao Dong Party began to build an extensive political infrastructure in South Vietnam with its primary focus on organizing the rural areas of that country. Using cadres from the First Indo-China War, the Lao Dong Party created the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in these rural areas using the same organizational techniques they had employed against the French. This model had a long history beginning with the system perfected by Chinese communist cadres who spent several decades building their powerful rural political base in their war with the Kuomintang. The Lao Dong Party adapted the Chinese communist model of political organization to Vietnam but strengthened this system by integrating the lessons they had learned from their experience during the First Indo-China War. The purpose of the VCI was to mobilize the peasants of South Vietnam to create a mass-based political organization that paralleled the Government of the GVN but extended down into the village and hamlet levels. The primary objective for this mass-based political organization was the provision of three basic requirements for mobile military warfare: intelligence, recruits, and logistical support. The strategy of the Lao Dong Party was highly dependent on the VCI in South Vietnam for these three requirements, especially the logistical support needed by North Vietnamese military units. The Lao Dong Party realized that without the logistical support of the VCI in South Vietnam, their ability to conduct large-scale, sustained, mobile military operations was severely curtailed, if not eliminated. While not the only reason for their concern about any successful GVN pacification program, it was their primary concern because the degradation of the VCI, especially the finance-economy cadres, threatened their ability to conduct mobile warfare.

Fifth, the Lao Dong Party needed a secure logistical system to support mobile warfare in South Vietnam. Phase III of their doctrine of revolutionary war called for the defeat of the conventional forces of their enemy using modern, conventionally armed, mobile main force units. To do this, they needed a means of supplying such units. This entailed maintaining the VCI in every strategically important part of South Vietnam and establishing a system of resupply and reinforcement external to South Vietnam. This logistical system was managed by Unit 559, which received its designation from the date of its inception, May 1959 (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 50-54). Unit 559 was given the mission of establishing an extensive and sophisticated system of transportation routes, supply depots, training areas, and medical facilities running for over 3,500 miles in length from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to Saigon. This system was known to the Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to the North Vietnamese as the Troung Son Strategic Supply Route. The system was truly massive; in Laos alone it covered 1,700 square miles. All along the Ho Chi Minh Trail system were multiple roads and trails, some of them all weather and hard-surfaced. Along these trails and roads were numerous staging areas, truck parks, petroleum pipelines, bivouac sites, hospitals, farms, supply depots and command and control hubs, all carefully camouflaged to prevent detection by U.S. aircraft and CIA and U.S. Special Forces reconnaissance teams. Providing maintenance and protection for this huge and long logistical system were over 100,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos and Cambodia and an additional 15,000 Chinese in Laos (For a very detailed and rigorous analysis of the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its impact on military operations in South Vietnam, see Hunt, Ira A, Jr. Losing Vietnam: How America Abandoned Southeast Asia, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013, pp. 12-20, 29, 32, 75-76, 113, 124, 146, 168-169; also see Victory in Vietnam, pp. 52, 89, 114-115, 127, 138, 144, 168-171,175, 182, 208-209, 211, 215, 227, 243, 264, 285-286, 301, 321-322, 338-339, 350, 363, 398, and 401-402).

This supply system was in complete violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords which called for the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia, but the North Vietnamese were left with no viable choice for an alternative means of supplying their military forces fighting in South Vietnam. Their early attempts to infiltrate men and supplies through the DMZ were largely unsuccessful and costly after 1965. Besides, the North Vietnamese military strategy called for cutting South Vietnam in two in the Central Highlands of Military Region II and this plan necessitated a secure infiltration route to base areas in eastern Cambodia. They also realized that any final push against the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, necessitated secure supply bases farther south in eastern Cambodia. Given their military strategy, it was only logical for the North Vietnamese to use the eastern regions of both Laos and Cambodia to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Since the trail was essential to their strategy, they viewed any attempt to successfully cut it as an existential threat to their overall strategy for the conquest of South Vietnam. Many Western historians have tended to ignore or play down the vital importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but the North Vietnamese communists do not share these views (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 261-265). In fact, some among the victors of the war have openly admitted that the failure of the Americans to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos was the biggest mistake the Americans made during the war. For the North Vietnamese, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was both their biggest advantage and their most significant vulnerability—and they knew it. They considered the Ho Chi Minh Trail their “linchpin” for their ability to wage war in South Vietnam (Hanoi’s War, p. 201)

Finally, once the Lao Dong Party had accomplished the steps mentioned above, they were ready to embark on the final phase of their strategy to defeat the Americans and to overthrow the GVN. I will not go into the specifics of their strategy inside South Vietnam, but only broadly explain that it entailed the conduct of an attrition intensive campaign designed to inflict casualties on American and South Vietnamese forces, disrupt the GVN’s pacification programs, and protect their infiltration routes and bases inside South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As long as the North Vietnamese had secure sanctuaries, a secure supply route from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, and a secure rural political infrastructure capable of providing intelligence, recruits, and logistical support, their success was assured. Even with over 500,000 American troops, it was impossible for the U.S. to secure the 1400 mile border that ran from East China Sea west along the DMZ and then south through Laos and Cambodia. The Americans surrendered the initiative to the North Vietnamese when they steadfastly refused to invade Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. All the North Vietnamese had to do was maintain pressure on the Americans and the GVN by waging a war of attrition and avoiding a decisive engagement. They knew they could bleed the Americans and South Vietnamese indefinitely and simply withdrawal to their sanctuaries to avoid decisive engagement or intolerable casualties. They felt confident that the U.S. would weary of the endless list of casualties and withdrawal, allowing the regular NVA conventional divisions to quickly attack a weakened and demoralized South Vietnam. With their carefully crafted strategy, they were assured of eventual victory; but only as long as they protected their supporting political infrastructure inside South Vietnam, their bases and supply depots in Laos and Cambodia, and their means of moving men and supplied south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

If the above was the North Vietnamese strategy, what was the American strategy? Sadly, it was a fatally flawed one, doomed from the very beginning once the U.S. rejected the idea of invading the panhandle of Laos and cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Despite warnings from the South Vietnamese military and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff as early as 1956 and a very direct and prescient warning from Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to President Kenney in 1961, this key strategic decision not to deal with the North Vietnamese use of the trail and road system in eastern Laos did not appear to deter President Kennedy from confronting the North Vietnamese militarily or President Johnson from escalating the war after he took office (Memorandum for the President, November 11, 1961 Pentagon Papers, p. 110).

The Rusk-McNamara memorandum, in particular, should have given pause to the framers of the U.S. strategy for engaging the North Vietnamese. One can only assume that President Kennedy’s advisors, many of whom also served President Johnson, thought the danger of not dealing with the road system developed by the French in Laos was minimal or the North Vietnamese would abide by the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos and not use Laotian territory to move troops and supplies to South Vietnam. In the joint memorandum to President Kennedy, Rusk and McNamara wrote, “It will probably not be possible for the Government of (South) Vietnam to win the war as long as the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam remains unchecked and the guerrillas enjoy a safe sanctuary in neighboring territory” (Memorandum for the President, November 11, 1961, Pentagon Papers, Vol. II, p. 110). At the time, there were advisors in the Kennedy Administration who recognized the strategic importance of the road and trail system in eastern Laos, but their advice was largely dismissed. Advocates for adhering to the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos, primarily Averill Harriman and Roger Hilsman in the State Department, convinced President Kennedy that it was imperative for the U.S. to keep U.S. ground troops out of Laos. Their advice was based upon the importance of the U.S. keeping its international agreements and the fear that any U.S. military presence in Laos would have an adverse effect on U.S.-Soviet relations. They also feared a military incursion into Laos might even result in China taking military action against the U.S. in Laos and, possibly, South Korea. While there was no firm intelligence that military action by the U.S. in southern Laos or Cambodia would trigger a military reaction from either the Soviet Union or China, President Kennedy’s advisors assumed the worse and decided to attempt to solve the problem of South Vietnam by treating it as a problem solely restricted to that country and North Vietnam. Many of the President’s advisors were rightly worried about the nuclear threat posed by both the Soviet Union and the PRC and they did not want to precipitate armed conflict with either of these countries, fearing such an escalation could necessitate the use of strategic nuclear weapons. Because of this well-founded fear, they had developed the concept of the “graduated response” to any aggression launched by either of these adversaries. Ironically, one of the principle architects of gradually escalating military action against North Vietnam, primarily through the use of bombing, was Walt Rostow who recognized the importance of eastern Laos to the North Vietnamese strategy. This strategic concept, often referred to as the “Rostow Thesis,” called for a gradual escalation of violence against North Vietnam until the leadership of the Lao Dong Party in Hanoi decided their continued aggression in South Vietnam was not worth the punishment inflicted upon them. It assumed a “rational player” would desist once they saw the continued escalation of the violence was not worth the price. While not abandoning the U.S. strategy of containment of communism, the U.S. adopted a strategy of “graduated response” to any communist expansion on the periphery of the Eurasian landmass in order to reduce the likelihood of either Soviet or the PRC use of nuclear weapons. Despite some very sound advice from Walt Rostow that warned of the problem of North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, President Johnson continued to adhere to the flawed strategy of “graduated response” developed by President Kennedy’s national security staff.

Unfortunately for South Vietnam, the idea of “graduated response” caused the U.S. to employ a strategy in Southeast Asia that was not based upon any hard intelligence that it would have the desired effect on the leadership of the Lao Dong Party in North Vietnam. The U.S. national security advisors simply assumed that the North Vietnamese were “rational players” and they would abandon their goal of unifying Vietnam once they saw that U.S. will was firm and that the U.S. could ratchet up the level of violence to a degree that would break their will to resist. It all made very good sense to the President’s advisors who assumed the North Vietnamese thought as “rational players.” In their minds it made perfectly good sense that if the U.S. showed resolve and escalated the violence in a gradual and sustained manner, the North Vietnamese would come to their senses and reach a settlement that allowed the pro-Western GVN to remain in power in South Vietnam. By telling the world that the U.S. had no interest in overthrowing the regime in North Vietnam, had no interest in territorial acquisition in Southeast Asia, or had no intention of “expanding” the war into Laos and Cambodia, the U.S. national security advisors believed this benign and reasonable approach would be accepted by America’s allies and the American people. As for the North Vietnamese and their allies, such a statement of U.S. goals only served to convince them that U.S. interests were limited to South Vietnam alone and; therefore, there would be no serious threat to their strategy of using the Ho Chi Minh Trail and their bases in Laos and Cambodia.

Many commentators have offered a wide variety of reasons for our failure to win the Vietnam War. There are those who say we should have mined the harbor of Haiphong, we should have unleashed the full might of our air power against North Vietnam, we should have pursued a more enlightened or more aggressive pacification program inside South Vietnam, or we should have tried to turn South Vietnam into a Jeffersonian democracy by a combination of political, social, and economic reforms. While we will never know if any of these proposals would have brought victory, none of them address the central reason for our failure to win the war—our inability to prevent North Vietnam from moving troops and equipment to South Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our political and military leaders failed to ask the most critical question effecting their strategy—What if the enemy’s will is stronger than ours and, if so, what can we do that will thwart their ability to carry on the war in South Vietnam, regardless of their will to do so?

The only plausible answer to the question above is the one that General Westmoreland and his staff came to in 1967 when they began to plan for the occupation of the Panhandle of Laos. Instead of relying on air power and indigenous special operations teams, which failed to stem the flow of troops and equipment to South Vietnam through Laos, General Westmoreland planned to use U.S. ground troops to block and hold the terrain between Dong Ha in South Vietnam and Savannakhet on the Mekong River in Laos. This obvious plan, which was studied as early as 1964, was delayed initially by the U.S. State Department which did not want to threaten the neutrality of Laos or give up their primary role for management of American affairs in that country. Later the implementation of the plan was thwarted by the CIA which did not want to give up its mission of conducting the “Secret War” in Laos, or to diminish the importance of the Agency’s responsibility for pacification programs in South Vietnam. Even the U.S. military was not uniformly in favor of the plan, citing that it was logistically risky or the North Vietnamese would simply go farther west to get around it (Collins, John M., “Going to Tchepone: Oplan El Paso,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Autumn/Winter 1997-98, pp.128-129).  A leading opponent of the plan was the U.S. Marine Corps which did not like the idea of any barrier defense inside South Vietnam, let alone stretching to the Mekong River. In fact, the U.S. Marine Corps did everything possible to prevent their forces in I Corps from being used for any form of static defense, a position that often put them at odds with General Westmoreland and the MACV headquarters. The Marine Corps’s insistence on the primacy of mobile defense and their attachment to an “ink spot” counter-insurgency strategy, along with their dislike for any form of warfare that involved occupying static positions, delayed the implementation of the attack into Laos until the TET offensive of 1968 made such an attack by U.S. ground forces politically impossible.

An Alternate Strategy

Of all the possible strategies proposed for an American victory in Vietnam, the strategy of cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos offered the best chance for success, for the following reasons:

First, the use of U.S. ground troops along the Dong Ha-Savannakhet axis would physically cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, making it impossible for North Vietnamese troops and equipment to move into South Vietnam. Geography favored the US since the Ho Chi Minh Trail had to pass through two “choke points” in Laos that were easily defended. All of the trails and roads built by the North Vietnamese in Laos came together within a ten mile corridor at Tchepone and again farther south in the “Four Corners” area near the village of Muong Nong. By choking off the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, U.S. and ARVN forces would no longer need to protect a border with North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that stretched for nearly 1400 miles. They would be able to concentrate their forces along a frontage of only 225 miles, the distance from the East China Sea to the Mekong River. In order for North Vietnamese supply columns to move south, the North Vietnamese would need to breach this barrier using large numbers of conventional forces fighting in terrain that heavily favors the defense. Even if they broke free, they would have to maintain the breach continuously or face isolation of their forces moving south through mountainous terrain. If, as some unsophisticated commentators have asserted, the North Vietnamese were able redirect the Ho Chi Minh Trail further west into Thailand to avoid the barrier, they would be forced to extend the trail across the Mekong River, a significant physical obstacle easily covered by U.S. air and riverine forces and screened by a force like the US First Air Cavalry Division using bases on the Thai side of the river. Since the bulk of supplies sent south by Unit 559 came by truck, the Mekong River posed an almost impossible logistical obstacle for them since they would not be able to bridge it or move their trucks across it using boats without being easily detected. Also, moving the trail across the Mekong River would mean they would be transiting the sovereign country of Thailand, a SEATO ally of the United States. Such a move into Thailand, which was not a “neutral” country like Laos, would certainly destroy any claim by the North Vietnamese that they were not sending troops to South Vietnam. What’s more, if the North Vietnamese were able to move their troops and supplies across the Mekong River into Thailand, they would be confronted with a hostile population in a country that did not have the communist infrastructure needed to create a system of bases and sanctuaries, not to mention adding nearly 500 more miles to any trip south. A further complication for the North Vietnamese would be the the terrain in Thailand. Unlike the terrain in eastern Laos, which is mountainous and jungle clad, the terrain the North Vietnamese would have to transit in Thailand is flat and open, making it relatively easy to detect their movement and attack them. Furthermore, any North Vietnamese units that were able to get to the Mekong River would have to abandon their vehicles on the Laos side, and they would not be able to maintain any petroleum pipelines once they were in Thailand. It is hard to imagine that the North Vietnamese would be able to maintain their infiltration figure of 8,000 men per month and 5,000 tons of equipment and ammunition per month just to make up for their losses in South Vietnam if U.S. forces were occupying defensive positions from Dong Ha to Savannakhet.

To gain some perspective on the logistical challenge to the North Vietnamese, consider the statistics provided by them in their official history of the war. They were using 5,372 trucks on over 3,959 kilometers of vehicle-capable roads in Laos in 1967 to send a total of 61,000 tons of supplies to South Vietnam that year (Victory in Vietnam, p. 208). By 1969, the North Vietnamese were sending 170,000 tons to South Vietnam per year via truck along the Ho Chi Minh Trail road system (Victory in Vietnam, page 243). In 1970, the Group 559 reported that the US Air Force had destroyed 2,432 of their trucks on the trail during the dry season in Laos (Victory in Vietnam, p 262). In 1974, the second year of the Paris peace accords and the year before the final communist offensive, the North Vietnamese had built over 400 miles of new hard surface roads in Laos and installed two petroleum pipelines, which allowed them to move a substantial numbers of tank, artillery, and mobile air defense systems into South Vietnam (Losing Vietnam, p. 168). It is simply inconceivable that infiltration levels like those reported by the North Vietnamese for the years 1966 to 1974 could have been maintained if the road systems in Laos were physically blocked.

Second, the force levels needed to defend the Dong Ha-Savannakhet axis would have been less than those that were employed by the U.S. pursuing their attrition-based strategy in South Vietnam. By 1969 the U.S. employed eleven division equivalents in South Vietnam with over 500,000 troops. The plan to establish the Dong Ha-Savannakhet defensive barrier would require only two U.S. Marine divisions in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, and four U.S. Army divisions in southern Laos, with an additional U.S. Army division positioned in the vicinity of either Paksane, Laos or Nakhon Phanom, Thailand where it could screen the Mekong River north of Savannakhet and threaten the right flank of any North Vietnamese force moving against the barrier to the south. As a SEATO ally, Thailand could be called upon to employ their military and border police units along the Mekong River and in depth along any potential infiltration routes the North Vietnamese might try to establish in Thailand. The large brown water fleet of the US Navy could also be employed to screen the Mekong River north of Savannakhet and provide security for allied logistical use of the river. South Vietnamese units such as the Rangers and the elite 1st ARVN Division could serve as a second line of defense for the barrier and used to hunt down any NVA units that penetrated the barrier. Such an alignment of forces would require the North Vietnamese to fight a conventional battle against an American, South Vietnamese, and Thai force that enjoyed a considerable advantage in terms of fire power, mobility, logistics, and terrain.

Third, by concentrating the U.S. military in only one province of South Vietnam and southern Laos, the bulk of the South Vietnamese forces could be devoted to dealing with the VC military units and the VCI in the remaining 43 provinces of South Vietnam, thus allowing them to concentrate on pacification and nation building, two tasks better suited to indigenous forces. In addition to using both the U.S. and ARVN forces in a more appropriate manner, it would effectively remove the presence of American forces from the South Vietnamese countryside where their presence often took on the appearance of an occupying army. It would also end the sometimes profligate use of American supporting arms in the populated areas of South Vietnam and concentrate that immense destructive firepower against the North Vietnamese Army inside North Vietnam and southern Laos. By reducing South Vietnamese civilian casualties from American supporting arms and employing American military forces in the largely sparsely inhabited regions of southern Laos and the DMZ of South Vietnam, a far more humane and moral military strategy would be employed.

Fourth, while logistically challenging, the Dong Ha-Savannakhet defensive barrier was far easier to establish and maintain than its detractors claimed at the time, and still claim today. The port of Danang in northern I Corps could easily support two U.S. Marine divisions while the ports of Thailand and the road system running from those ports to Savannakhet along the Thai side of the Mekong River are adequate to support five U.S. divisions, with only modest improvements. U.S. Air Force bases already existed in eastern Thailand and would only need some expansion to support the U.S. forces in Laos, and the C-130 capable Laotian airfields at Ban Houei Sane and Tchepone and a C-23 capable airfield at Muong Nong could be made operational by military engineers in two weeks’ time (Collins, p123). The argument made by military planners on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the need to activate the US reserves to support the engineering requirements for the barrier does not stand up to scrutiny. Private U.S. and other Western engineering contractors, already active in both Thailand and South Vietnam using local labor, could have handled this requirement easily without the political cost in the U.S. incurred by calling up reserve military engineer units. If the North Vietnamese could build and maintain roads under the pressure of constant bombing by U.S. aircraft using coolie labor, it is safe to assume that South Vietnamese and Thai laborers could do it under the threat of North Vietnamese attack. Using local labor to build roads and defensive positions would be cheaper than using U.S. military engineers and would help the local rural economies by providing a large number of local people with better wages than they would have received tilling the land. Such road building and maintenance jobs would also reduce the demand for farmland redistribution, a key communist propaganda theme.

Finally, with the U.S. strategy of fighting the North Vietnamese along the DMZ in South Vietnam and in the Panhandle of southern Laos, U.S. aircraft and U.S. airfields would no longer be spread throughout South Vietnam and vulnerable to attack. Instead, U.S. air power could be concentrated at just a few airfields in South Vietnam, such as the ones at Danang, Chu Lai and Phu Bai, with the bulk of US aircraft stationed in eastern Thailand or at sea on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, thus obviating the need for so many US infantry units protecting airfields in South Vietnam.

Some Western critics of the “barrier defense” explained above, point to the failure of the “McNamara Line” electronic surveillance system in southern Laos to stem the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam. These critics point out, quite correctly, that the North Vietnamese were able to adapt to the system of electronic intrusion devices used to monitor foot and vehicle traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and still move sufficient men and tonnage to support the insurgency in South Vietnam. While the electronic intrusion devices made the North Vietnamese pay a high price for their continued use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they did not pose a significant enough obstacle to them, and they overcame this technological system through ingenuity and perseverance. The barrier system explained above is entirely different from the electronic one devised by the Whiz Kids in the Pentagon since that system relied on technology to stem the flow of North Vietnamese troops and equipment moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The barrier system proposed in this paper would be significantly different since it would be permanently manned by U.S. troops occupying strong defensive positions similar to those found along the DMZ in Korea and defended in depth with mobile forces. It would not rely on technology and air power alone to attack traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but instead would use a system of strong points manned by infantry, backed up by artillery in hardened fire support bases with mobile reaction forces and on-call, concentrated air power. It would also entail ground and aerial reconnaissance units prowling the terrain north of the barrier, providing advance warning of any enemy movement towards it and using air strikes and artillery to harass and attrite North Vietnamese formations before they reached the barrier. The efficacy of such an arrangement could be found in the defensive system that was used along the DMZ in South Vietnam from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh near the Lao border. This barrier system effectively stopped the North Vietnamese from moving men and supplies into South Vietnam through the DMZ after 1965 and forced them to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail system in eastern Laos to infiltrate into South Vietnam. Unlike the reconnaissance in force operations, such as Lam Son 719 or the Oplan El Paso raid, where the choke points along the Ho Chi Minh Trail would only be temporarily occupied by American or SRVN forces during a few months, this barrier would be permanently occupied.

Some critics accept the fact that a barrier from Dong Ha to Savannakhet would have prevented North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam using a land route, and argue the North Vietnamese would only increase seaborne infiltration using the East China Sea and the port of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. The U.S. and South Vietnamese navies were able to prevent the use of the South Vietnamese coast for infiltration after 1965 and the North Vietnamese never considered this avenue a serious means of moving the quantities of men and supplies needed to sustain their military operations in South Vietnam. Most of their seaborne attempts at infiltration were quite small and met with disaster since the movement of their infiltration vessels could be easily observed using U.S. surveillance means. Bad weather often disrupted or delayed seaborne infiltration and the distances from likely landing places to the North Vietnamese bases in western South Vietnam were great and covered areas that were populated and controlled by GVN forces. For these reasons, the North Vietnamese never used any seaborne route to infiltrate their units, relying exclusively on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for that purpose. Even if they were forced to use seaborne infiltration because the Ho Chi Minh Trail was blocked, they would constantly have to change their offload sites, storage sites, and transport system to take into account the American and GVN sea control and surveillance superiority, thus complicating their logistics system to the point of absurdity. Proof of the North Vietnamese rejection of the feasibility of seaborne infiltration can be found in the paucity of material devoted to it in their official history of the war, and then only to point out its difficulties and miniscule tonnage of supplies provided (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 97).  As for the use of Sihanoukville, they did use third country shipping to deliver supplies to that port and their Hak Lee Transportation Company in Cambodia to move those supplies to their divisions in eastern Cambodia, but this route was only viable as long as Prince Sihanouk agreed to its use and it would never be capable of covertly introducing the 8,000 or more North Vietnamese troops needed each month to maintain their force levels inside South Vietnam. It was out of the question to bring over 90,000 NVA troops each year through Sihanoukville since it would be easy to verify and thus make a mockery of Prince Sihanouk’s contention that his country was truly neutral. He was sensitive to the issue of sovereignty and he had to maintain the fiction of neutrality for both international and internal political reasons. He knew the use of Sihanoukville for the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops would be an open and easily verifiable violation of his country’s neutrality and would give the U.S. and South Vietnam ample justification to blockade Sihanoukville or to invade his country (The author saw several classified reports from a CIA spy inside the Hak Lee Transportation Company who provided all of the company’s invoices for the transportation of supplies from North Vietnam and China to eastern Cambodia). In any event, his regime was overthrown in 1970, putting paid to any idea of using a seaborne infiltration route in Cambodia.

Perhaps the best response to the critics of the Dong Ha—Savannakhet defensive barrier can be found in the statement of Colonel Bui Tin, the North Vietnamese officer who accepted the surrender of the South Vietnamese Government in 1975 and later filled several high level positions in the new communist Government. He was interviewed in Paris in 1995 and asked several questions about how the North Vietnamese viewed the conduct of the Vietnam War. The following statement by Bui Tin should put to rest any lingering doubts as to the efficacy of the Dong Ha—Savannakhet barrier plan:

Question: “How could the Americans have won the war?”

Bui Tin’s answer: “Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted Westmoreland’s requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hanoi could not win the war.” (Young, Stephen, “How North Vietnam Won the War,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 1995, p. A8.)

From the very beginning of the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam, the evidence was readily available to justify an invasion and occupation of the panhandle of Laos. The U.S. had the experience, engineering expertise, construction assets, logistical competence, and military forces needed to conduct such an invasion, but the U.S. Government decided against it until it was too late. Because the Americans failed to deal with this essential and vulnerable aspect of the North Vietnamese strategy, they allowed the North Vietnamese to continue to send men and supplies south and to maintain sanctuaries inside Laos and Cambodia, thus allowing the North Vietnamese to modulate the level of violence inside South Vietnam while minimizing their own losses. Without the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese would never have been able to execute the third phase of their revolutionary war strategy, that of mobile warfare using conventional units and tactics. In sum, the American failure to permanently cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the ground was the key to their failure to win the war.

 

*Col. Finlayson spent 32 months in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1967-70), working entirely in combat billets (long-range reconnaissance, infantry, and special operations) in four provinces and two different geographic areas of that country (I Corps and III Corps). He was also a national-level war planner during two subsequent tours of duty. As an operations analyst at US Marine Corps Headquarters (1970-72) and as an operations specialist with the Combined Forces Command in South Korea (1981-83), he worked on many of America’s war plans. He possesses three master’s degrees: MS Management Engineering, MA Asian Studies (Chinese), and MS National Strategy and Defense Economics. He is also the author of two books on the Vietnam War and several articles, studies and monographs dealing with the war.

The Domino Theory

Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher
Apr 19, 2015

The Domino Theory got its name from President Eisenhower, but he was not the inventor of the concept. When World War II ended, the Soviet Union began to extend its influence over Asia and Eastern Europe. This development prompted Winston Churchill to remark in 1946, in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, that

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”1

The British Empire reached its zenith at the start of World War I. Subsequent to that war its influence began to wane. After World War II, Britain was devastated economically and on the verge of bankruptcy. Therefore, Britain granted many of its colonies independence and its influence as a world power subsided. The United States, which had become increasingly more important in world affairs due to its role in World War II, assumed the mantle of a world power.

Beginning in 1919, with the founding of the Soviet Comintern, first Lenin and then Stalin advocated for a worldwide revolution to promote communism. It was Stalin’s belief that the revolution would proceed through Asia and eventually become worldwide. By the end of World War II, there was great deal of instability worldwide, especially in third world countries. The Russians saw that instability as an opportunity to spread communism far and wide.

As the leader of a rising world power, the Truman administration felt the need to articulate a policy to address what Churchill called “the iron curtain”, the disturbing rise of Soviet communism and influence in the world. The Truman administration believed that the growth of communism was a threat to international peace as well as the security of the United States.

In order to resist the growth of communism, a policy of “containment” was devised. Rather than directly confront the Soviet Union (and perhaps provoke World War III), the United States would come to the aid of any country threatened by communist movements. This aid would often be monetary but potentially could involve US military assistance as well. The policy became known as the Truman doctrine.

In a speech before Congress in 1947, Truman articulated this new doctrine.

” I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”2

This policy, though well intentioned, would lead America into some strange alliances, supporting dictators and totalitarian regimes in an effort to stem “the red tide”. It would also lead to the flawed effort often known as the Vietnam War, or, as we prefer to call it, the 2nd Indochina War, because it involved not only Vietnam but Cambodia and Laos as well.

The question for historians is, was Truman correct? If he was, then his policy would make sense. Unchecked, communism might have taken over much of the world, isolating the United States and perhaps eventually even defeating it. To determine whether there was any merit to the belief, one need only look at the words of the Marxists.

Karl Marx articulated the concept of world domination at the close of his Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE! “3

One might ask, in a practical sense, what did Marx mean by this? Marx explained it clearly and concisely.

“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so: that is just what we intend.” 4

How did Marx thing private property could be abolished? Through the only means thought possible to do so – armed revolution to overthrow the existing order.

“In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”5

It’s not difficult to see why an American might be troubled by these declarations. After all, the rights of private property have been held in very high esteem in America. In fact America was founded because its people did not take kindly to the government confiscating their property. Furthermore, the idea that the existing society would be overthrown through a violent civil war reminded Americans of their own painful experience in their Civil War.

As others sought to put Marx’s theory into practice, they actively sought the overthrow of weak regimes and worked to undermine the political nature of healthy regimes. In 1901, Vladimir Lenin expressed it thus:

“History has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country. The fulfilment of this task, the destruction of the most powerful bulwark, not only of European, but (it may now be said) of Asiatic reaction, would make the Russian proletariat the vanguard of the international revolutionary proletariat. And we have the right to count upon acquiring this honourable title, already earned by our predecessors, the revolutionaries of the seventies, if we succeed in inspiring our movement, which is a thousand times broader and deeper, with the same devoted determination and vigour.”6

In 1920 Russia annexed Armenia and Kazakhstan, and two years later eastern Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In 1924 Russia annexed Moldavia and Mongolia. Recovering from World War I, the world took little notice. In 1944, while World War II was ongoing, Albania became a communist state.7 The Soviet Union was on the march, expanding into more and more territories.

In 1946 Stalin stated that the primary purpose of his Five Year Plan was “to assure the increasing defensive capacity of the U.S.S.R., and to equip the armed forces of the Soviet Union with the most up-to-date military techniques.”8 Since World War II had recently ended world leaders wondered what the Soviet Union was preparing to defend itself against. Victor Kravchenko, a recent defector from Soviet communism, stated that Stalin was planning on conquering the world.

Another defector, former KGB agent Anatoly Golitsyn, said he defected to

“warn the American Government about the adoption of the current grand strategy for Communism and the political role of the KGB and the use of disinformation and controlled political opposition which the strategy entailed, and…help the West neutralise KGB penetration of their governments.”9

A few years later General Jan Sejna of Czechoslovakia defected. Before his death under suspicious circumstances he testified before a US House committee.

“To understand the events of interest today, it is essential to understand that back then the main mission of all organizations in the Soviet empire was to destroy democracy and bring people everywhere under the yoke of communism.

Two wars dominated our planning.

First, there was the General nuclear war, which was the responsibility of the military. Even civilian construction projects had to be approved by the Defense Council to make certain they all contributed to the war effort.

Second, there was the political and intelligence wars, the world revolutionary war, as it was originally called. This war was also waged according to a very detailed and complex strategic plan. This war involved infiltration of the government and press, sabotage, subversion, deception, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, compromise of political and business leaders, and many other activities, all designed to destroy competing social systems. The primary targets were all industrialized countries and the most important enemy was the United States.

I want to point out that in these and other activities, the Soviets ruled their empire with an iron hand. All directions and controls came from Moscow. People undertook independent actions at their own risk, and the penalties were without any regard for human rights or dignity.

I know, because I was there.”10

Is it any wonder then that American political leaders might seek a policy to combat a political philosophy so counter to the one on which our nation was founded?

The seeds for rebellion and communism in Southeast Asia had been planted centuries before by European colonization of several Southeast Asian countries; the British in Malaysia, Burma and Hong Kong, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Spaniards (and later America) in the Philippines and the French in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. By the outbreak of World War II, the communists had already been organizing in Southeast Asia for more than a decade.

As the Japanese swept through the area, communist organizers took advantage of the Japanese occupation to organize armies of resistance, convincing the fighters that they were fighting for their own independence. Behind the scenes they worked assiduously to eliminate, by cooption, subterfuge and assassination, the true nationalist leaders in each country.

At the beginning of World War II Russia annexed, by agreement with Germany, several Eastern European countries, including eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, part of Finland and part of Romania. Shortly after the war the rest of Poland, the rest of Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belarus and eastern Germany all fell to communism and became part of the U.S.S.R. Russia wasn’t done, however. She began fomenting revolutions in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.

After World War II the new American policy of containment would be severely tested. In 1945 a communist rebellion in the Philippines was put down, only to flare up again in 1971. It is still ongoing today. Around the same time war between the French and the Vietnamese broke out, led by the communist Viet Minh. In 1948 the British faced a communist rebellion in Malaysia that wasn’t put down until 1960, and the US had to create the Berlin Airlift to keep Berlin free from takeover by the Soviet backed East Germans. In 1949 China fell to the communists.

Two of the world’s largest nations were now firmly in the grip of Marx’s utopia and the Soviet sphere of influence was expanding rapidly. A year later, with the full support of China and the Soviet Union, North Korea invaded South Korea. Meanwhile communist “revolutions” were popping up all over, including Southeast Asia.

In 1953 the Cuban revolution broke out. By 1959 Cuba, just 90 miles from the US, was a communist country. In Southeast Asia, communism was on the march in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. The future of Southeast Asia hung in the balance.

Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, was elected in 1953, as the Korean War was nearing its end. Trouble was brewing all over the world, but particularly in Southeast Asia. In a press conference in 1954, shortly before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which marked the end of French rule in Cochinchina, Eisenhower spoke of his concerns regarding communism. He was asked, at a press conference, to comment on the strategic importance of Indochina to America.

“You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things. First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”11

What became known as the domino theory was nothing more than a strategic description of the consequences of not implementing the Truman Doctrine. In other words, if we don’t employ the policy of containment, communism will spread throughout Southeast Asia. This policy would later become the subject of intense ridicule by the antiwar movement, parroting the Marxist propaganda line that communism presented no threat whatsoever, and those who thought it did were delusional or paranoid.

This, of course, was what the communists wanted the world to believe about them. It was not, however, what they themselves believed. Che Quevara, writing at a conference in Havana in 1967, stated:

“Let us sum up our hopes for victory: total destruction of imperialism by eliminating its firmest bulwark: the oppression exercized by the United States of America. To carry out, as a tactical method, the peoples gradual liberation, one by one or in groups: driving the enemy into a difficult fight away from its own territory; dismantling all its sustenance bases, that is, its dependent territories.

This means a long war. And, once more we repeat it, a cruel war. Let no one fool himself at the outstart and let no one hesitate to start out for fear of the consequences it may bring to his people. It is almost our sole hope for victory. We cannot elude the call of this hour. Vietnam is pointing it out with its endless lesson of heroism, its tragic and everyday lesson of struggle and death for the attainment of final victory.

There, the imperialist soldiers endure the discomforts [sic] of those who, used to enjoying the U.S. standard of living, have to live in a hostile land with the insecurity of being unable to move without being aware of walking on enemy territory: death to those who dare take a step out of their fortified encampment. The permanent hostility of the entire population. All this has internal repercussion in the United States; propitiates the resurgence of an element which is being minimized in spite of its vigor by all imperialist forces: class struggle even within its own territory.”12

Referring specifically to Vietnam he wrote:

“How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!”

In 1962, while Vietnam was drawing more and more of the Kennedy Administration’s attention, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. School children all over America were being taught to duck under their desks to avoid a nuclear blast, and the world was breathless with anticipation of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US.

With all of these events taking place, and the communists talking of a worldwide revolution, it was hardly inconceivable that the next shoes to drop would be in Southeast Asia. Only a fool would have thought otherwise, and only a communist would argue that it was a ridiculous policy. All of Southeast Asia looked to the US to see how they would react to the threat. Yet just a few years later, the antiwar movement in America would claim that the domino theory was silly, just as the communists wanted them to.

The argument made today is that “the dominos didn’t fall, therefore the theory was wrong”. Very few ever seem to ask the question, why didn’t the dominos fall?

Had Ho succeeded, in 1954, in turning Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into communist countries (as he did twenty years later), Thailand would have been surrounded by communist countries on its northern and eastern borders as well as part of its southern border. Had the British not succeeded in putting down the communist “revolution” in Malaysia, she would have been completely surrounded on her southern border as well. Had the Philippines fallen, ocean access to all of Southeast Asia would have been in the hands of the communists.

This reality was not lost on the Thais. They asked for, and received, US help. Military and CIA advisors were sent to Thailand to shore up the regime and train the Thai troops. In 1965 fighting broke out in Thailand between communists and the state. However, the communists couldn’t commit the necessary forces to defeat Thailand because they were still needed elsewhere – in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – and they were defeated.

The Thai government formed two groups to combat the communists, the Communist Suppression Operation Command (CSOC) under command of Gen. Saiyud Kherdpol and the Police Aerial Reinforcement Units (PARUs). The CIA worked closely with both, providing training and support as they staved off an invasion of North Vietnamese troops supporting local “guerillas”.13

About the same time the communists in Indonesia attempted a coup. Their attempt was put down by the Indonesian military. An estimated 500,000 people were killed, and the Indonesian Communist Party was effectively destroyed. Had the US not entered Vietnam, these events might have turned out quite differently. In 1965, South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, thanks in no small part to the foolhardy US support of the Diem coup.

Had Thailand fallen, there would have been nothing to stop the advance of communism throughout Southeast Asia. Had Indonesia also fallen, water access to the Straits of Malacca would have been unavailable to allied forces. However, rather than reinforce the fighting in Thailand or support the coup attempt in Indonesia, the bulk of communist forces were tied up in Vietnam. South Vietnam, with the assistance of her allies, successfully tied up the North Vietnamese sufficiently to buy time for the rest of Southeast Asia to establish stable non-communist governments. Americans, both military and CIA worked in all of these countries assisting to stave off the many communist invasions.

Indonesia’s longtime Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, wrote in his book, From Third World to First:

“Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgents and the communist underground was still active in Singapore. Indonesia, in the throes of a failed communist coup, was waging konfrontasi, an undeclared war against Singapore. The Philippines was claiming Sabah in East Malaysia. Standards of living were low and economic growth slow.”14

“America’s action enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975 (when the Vietnam war ended) they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no US intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would have most likely gone communist. The prosperous emerging market economies of Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) were nurtured during the Vietnam War years.”15

The evidence shows that not only was the domino theory valid, but that America’s intervention in Vietnam bought the time necessary for democracy to plant seeds in Southeast Asia, effectively stemming the tide of communism with the tragic loss of three countries and millions of lives. Many, many lives were saved due to the failure of communism to spread past Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

None of this excuses America’s shameful abandonment of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the communist butchers. Had America lived up to her promises, perhaps no dominos would have fallen. (In Cambodia alone, the communists murdered 1.7 million people.16 In Vietnam, an estimated 1 million died as a result of communist suppression after the war. In Russia and China, almost 100 million have died due to communism. Scholars will argue about the precise numbers, but there is no disputing the fact that communism has caused millions and millions of deaths.)17