JPRI Critique Volume 23 Number 3 (July 2017)
Lessons Not Learned: Ignoring the Root Causes of American Failures in Vietnam
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher
Review of Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H. R. McMaster.
Harper, 1997, 480 pages
After a difficult search to find someone who would pass muster as the National Security Advisor, on February 20, 2017, President Donald Trump appointed General H. R. McMaster to this key job. Two decades ago McMaster wrote a book on the Vietnam War era, Dereliction of Duty (Harper, 1997). Since I had also written a book on the same subject, The Suicide of an Elite (Stanford University Press, 1990), and since he and I both served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, I was interested in revisiting McMaster’s work to compare our findings and get a sense of his understanding of complex foreign policy issues. I would classify McMaster’s arguments as falling in the military-blames-the-civilian-leaders as opposed to the civilians-blame-the-military-leaders category, the big divide between participants in the war and observers at the time and afterwards. I find neither category helpful, mainly because both shared the blame—a blame that was mainly structural.
What do I mean by structural? In 1947 Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act, which organized the U.S. military to face any military threat from the Soviet Union. Strategists from both sides saw this threat as coming mainly from a clash in Europe, a replay, with updated weapons, of the battles of World War II across the North European plain, an invasion corridor used by both Napoleon and Hitler to strike at Russia and on which the Russians always struck back. In 1939 the German Wehrmacht had taught the world the meaning of blitzkrieg, with armored units slicing though the enemy front, racing to cut the rear echelon, all while aircraft gave them cover as fast moving infantry, often with motorized artillery, following up and exploiting the first breakthroughs. In the Anglo-American model, a large naval force also waited offshore to support the air and ground forces ashore. And so the Cold War years (1947-1989) witnessed huge expenditures for the heavy equipment of modern warfare. What went unnoticed was that this European model fit mainly Europe, not Africa, not Asia, not the Americas.
Vietnam for the United States and Afghanistan for the USSR illustrate the structural misfit of force design to military target. By 1968 in Vietnam, the fateful year of the Tet Offensive, you found the 9th U.S. Army Division guarding Saigon from the South and infiltration from the Mekong Delta, the 25th U.S. Army Division guarding Saigon from the West and infiltration from Cambodia, and the 1st U.S. Division guarding Saigon from the North. Closer to Saigon itself you had the U.S. 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division plus the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. This did not include the many Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) units that also guarded the approaches to Saigon. Yet at Tet 1968, with all that allied firepower, ragtag guerrilla forces infiltrated South Vietnam’s coastal cities to include Saigon. As France had earlier had its Dien Bien Phu defeat in its old Asian empire of Indochina, we now had our defeat in one part of that former empire, the difference being we did not acknowledge it. Determined to reverse the tide of history, the United States would fight on to victory.
Soon after President Richard Nixon ended the U.S. war in Vietnam claiming “peace with honor,” Soviet leaders became entangled in Afghanistan. When their political gamble there started to unravel, they opted to introduce their modern military into harms way. Soviet attack helicopters flew in, tanks and personnel carriers rolled in, heavy artillery blasted in. This Cold War force met tribes on horseback or riding in a few old Toyota trucks, the same configuration of tribal forces that President George W. Bush had to deal with later. The outcome for both General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev of the USSR and George Bush of the United States mirrored each other—defeat. Both Cold War super powers could launch men into space but not their military into the Third World. They had met the graveyard of other empires, most recently the British in India who leaned the hard way not to go beyond the Khyber Pass. During World War II the Soviet Union produced the best tank of that war, the T-34. During the Cold War it produced the best assault rifle, the AK-47, furnished by the thousands to the Viet Cong and much treasured when captured by American grunts. Washington wags use to claim that while the United States had a military-industrial complex, the Soviet Union was a military-industrial complex. McMaster misses most of these complex historical events, preferring to deal with American strategies toward Vietnam in isolation. Unfortunately it was not isolated, running across borders in Laos and Cambodia, drawing in other states in Southeast Asia, combined with Australia, the Peoples Republic of China, and the Soviet Union.
While narrowing his focus, McMaster shows his bias for the military leaders as opposed to the civilian leadership. On page 19 he castigates one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Whiz Kids, Alain Enthoven, as arrogant. As evidence he cites Enthoven’s foes. He could have gotten the reverse from citing Enthoven’s friends. A better assessment would come from combining friend and foe in a joint judgment, calling him a man of strong opinions. Elsewhere in his book McMaster faults President John Kennedy for delegating so much power to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Department of Defense as if JFK should have managed more of DOD from the Oval Office. (He and his brother Robert tried that with the Bay of Pigs debacle, poisoning relations with Castro’s Cuba for decades to come.) President Lyndon Johnson also fails to meet McMaster’s standards; he faults LBJ for concentrating his effort on domestic issues, instead of what LBJ himself called that “puissant” war. Were not the Great Society programs, with their emphasis on the War on Poverty, as important as the Vietnam War? Each president has his own strengths and weaknesses. Before LBJ and after him (Kennedy and Nixon) came presidents who emphasized foreign affairs over domestic affairs.
As for combat operations in Vietnam, McMaster fails to capture the disaster put into play by the American military, especially General William Westmoreland, the Commanding General of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (COMUSMACV), known to intimates as Westy. His daytime multi-battalion sweeps across the landscape had no impact except to convince the Viet Cong to stick with their day jobs, coming out as a small guerrilla force at night while the Americans returned to their circular Night Defense Positions (NDP), Fire Support Bases (FSB), or their bigger base camps. Only after the U.S./ARVN disaster that was the 1968 Tet Offensive did LBJ relieve Westy by promoting him upstairs as the Army Chief of Staff at the Pentagon! Replacing him came General Creighton Abrams, who, recognizing the problem, launched an emphasis on nighttime ambushes. Unfortunately for this wise man, other commanders had already lost the war. McMaster does not mention Abrams once in his book, overlooking the one military hero at the top.
American military commanders in Vietnam were made aware of the need to win over the peasant majority. But the pacification call quickly denigrated from winning their “hearts and minds” to “grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” This type of crude macho remark still haunts America today with jokes about grabbing women by their private parts. No one in the top circles in either Washington or Saigon realized that the hardcore Vietnamese majority saw the United States as a colonial power that wanted to replace the French, and merely update the old order. That hardcore saw Ho Chi Minh, not so much as a communist, but as a nationalist, someone who would unite all of Vietnam for the Vietnamese. After the Kennedy Administration orchestrated the coup and death of Saigon’s nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem on September 1, 1963, none of the tin pot military dictators that the United States supported could marshal the powerful force of nationalism for the South. The reader will get little understanding of this root problem from McMaster. Instead you get Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) arguments between General Maxwell Taylor (JFK’s favorite) and General Curtis LeMay (JFK’s least favorite) for or against the Diem coup and for or against who to support after the coup.
In fact you would never know the decade covered by Dereliction of Duty was the turbulent 1960s; it could have easily been the sleepy Eisenhower years of he 1950s. Yet the Civil Rights movement, which also covered gay and women’s rights, all raged during the 1960s alongside the anti-war movement—draft card burning often led to escape to Canada or Scandinavia. These upheavals moved from the home front to the war-front. Ever present racism arrived in Vietnam with Bloods (Blacks) often facing off again Honkies (Whites). Drugs, which were expensive in America, were cheap in Nam; hence an epidemic rapidly spread. Violence against authority marked the 1960s; in Nam that sometimes translated as “fragging” your hated officer class. In utter frustration LBJ called on a group (unmentioned by McMaster) named the Wise Men, a group headed by Clark Clifford and having as members former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and WW II General Omar Bradley. In 1968 they surprised LBJ by telling him he must get out of this quagmire that was tearing America apart: hence the outreach in Paris for a diplomatic way to end hostilities.
I understand McMaster’s book saw the light of day as his Ph.D. dissertation from the University of North Carolina. Apparently he chose not to submit it to their excellent university press, instead choosing a trade publisher. Not choosing an academic press often forgoes the opportunity of having your manuscript vetted by specialists in the field. With this in mind, I would not recommend this book to students looking for answers to this catastrophic war.
Patrick Lloyd Hatcher , a member of the JPRI advisory board, has achieved distinction in many fields—most notably, military, academe, and cultural affairs. Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, he served in the U.S. Army for twenty years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. For his second act, he received a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley, then taught there in the Military Science, History, and Political Science Departments, rising to Vice Chair of Politics. For the past two decades he has also been a commentator on international affairs for television and radio as well as a popular emcee and interviewer for cultural events throughout the Bay Area. He is the author of The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam (Stanford University Press, 1990), Economic Earthquakes: Converting Defense Cuts to Economic Opportunities (Institute of Governmental Studies Press, Berkeley, 1994), and North American Civilization at War (M.E. Sharpe, 1998), along with numerous essays and reviews.