Even now, years after the Vietnam War, when its outcome is clear to see, some observers still pine for the lost victory. If only this had been different, or that done better, victory could have been ours. A number of these ideal solutions are porposed by witnesses to Vietnam who were themselves participants in the war. But memory faces, and the proponents of one of another of these latter-day solutions do not recall the way solutions were advanced then, every day, with equal confidence and self-assurance. The men who led the war, the "best and the brightest" in David Halberstam's phrase, had every opportunity to fulfill Lyndon Johnson's dream and "nail the 'coonskin to the wall." The war nevertheless ended in 1975 , with Hanoi's troops marching into Saigon and ARVN's generals fleeing on American helicopters.
Given the way Vietnam ended there is no reason to suppose that the perfect strategies now advanced would have succeeded any better than those that were actually employed. In fact, because of the way the war ended, claims of a perfect strategy should be subject to special scrutiny. The burden of proof must be on claimants to show that a postulated strategy would necessarily have led to victory. Instead many Americans have uncritically accepted assertions that instant "decisive" intervention, or a bombing campaign of maximum violence, or a perfected Phoenix program would have been ideal solutions. We have evaluated a number of these stragegies here and found them wanting. These are prima facie criticisms to be sure, but the apparent flaws in the victory strategies show that the claims made today do not differ in substance from the kinds of arguments used for stratregy proposals while the Vietnam War was still going on.
Let us walk away from the confining strictures of military strategies for a moment and think of the quest for victory in Vietnam as an intellectual problem. Doing this we can set criteria tat a proposed strategy should have to meet, an exercise that ought to clarify the whole matter. First, any victory strategy had to utilize what was there, what was available in South Vietnam, and since the national identity oand the aspirations of Vietnamese favored the other side, any potential strategy had an extra obstacle to overcome. Moreover, since the institutions of South Vietnam were of such rrecent creation, they were of limited strength and subject to manipulation (as in the military coups of the 1960s or the Buddhist Struggle Movement) in ways inimical to our hypothetical strategy.
Second, a winning strategy had to utilize the military and intellligence methods and forces of the time, or, at the margin, those conceivable at thetime. Since Americans' preliminary definition of the problem (counterinsurgency against a "foreign" adversary) was imperfect, a process of trianglation had to occur before the strategy could fit the problem. A number of perceptive analysts have examined American military doctrines of the time and come away with the impression that we did not understand, or wholeheartedly commit ourselves to, the kinds of activity that might have addressed the probblem in Vietnam. Under those circumstances, no winning strategy was possible.
Part of the triangulation strategy and force that had to occur was a march between the degree of American commitment and the capacity of South Vietnnam to absorb and utilize the forces dispatched. We have shown that in fact the deployment to Vietnam occurred at about the fastest rate possible given inherent limitations of port and transport infrastructure. Therefore there is very little room in our hypothetical winning strategy for varying rates of force commitment to Vietnam. Proponents of these kinds of solutions have simply not looked at both sides of the equation.
Third, the triangulation that had to be made between problem and strategy would inevitably occur against an evolving threat. the clock was running, not only as North Vietnam and the Viet Cong improved their infrastucture and military striking power, but also domestically. American politics permitted only a certain length of time for the perfect solution to be found, after which reversal of political support swould occur. This is the real meaning of Tet, and the problem is by no means confined to the Vietnam War. The way the perceptoinh of what was accomplished in the 1991 Gulf War reversed itself, and the wa;y the poolitics of the Somalia intervention evolved in a fashion similar to Vietnam shows that this problem is now endemic in American politics.
Moreeover, it can be argued that the rate at which events develop is accelerating. As for Vietnam, the political argument is not simply retrospective, for the French had fallen victim before us to the same kind of trap.
Fourth, the winning strategy had to be found in the face of a system generating false information for the top decision makers, a system that was not operating to correct itself. The problem of false information compounds the other criteria for a winning strategy -- it means that more time is needed to do a triangulation, it means that uncertainty remains when observers tentatively think they havfe a fit between problem and strategy. Equally troubling, since false information was characteristic in Vietnam and cannot be fixed retrospectively, any proposed winning strategy had to be one that would have succeeded in spite of the false information in the system.
Fifth, a proposed strategy cannot telescope history. That is, a winning strategy cannot rely upon elements of a situation or forces which did not exist at the time it had to be implemented. For example, Richard Nixon could mine Haiphong in 1972 because of diplomatic and other developments which had already reduced the intensity of the cold war and the probability of Russian or Chinese intervention. Mining Haiphong in 1966 would have thrown down a gauntlet to the Russians and the Chinese. Hypothetical strategies that telescope history like this really depend on after-the-factg observations for their effectiveness (that is, the Russians did not intervene when we minede Haiphong in 1972, so we would have stopped Hanoi if only we had mined in 1966). Such post hoc arguments for strategy are not admissible.
Sixth, a winning strategy had to have been effective against the real adversary in Vietnam, not the one we thought existed. This is the problem with proposed pacification solutions implemented at a time Hanoi had moved on to conventional warfare, or war-fighting solutions attempted while the opponent continued to concentrate on guerrilla warfare. Mismatch between strategy and threat was a continual obstacle to American success in South Vietnam, one obviously exacerbated by falso information in the system.
Given these criteria, a winning strategy for Vietnam seems unattainable. As a matter of logic and theoretical tests the problem is hard enough; as as matter of flesh and blood and men following a jungle track, many "perfect strategies" seem so facile as to be laughable. The truth is that American military force was seductive, seeminly omnipotent, against an opponent who appeared fragile. Victory became a vision; there had to be a formula for success, simply because we were so strong and they so weak. Visions of victory led Americans to Keh Sanh, to Phoenix, to Cambodia and Laos, to Haiphong harbor. But all that time the clock was running, as the visions led us on. In the end, Americans set off three World War II's worth of explosives on the land of Indochina without making the vision concrete.
Victory was an illusion.
There is wisdom too in knowing when to stop. In the strategy of pokere, the most skillful element lies in understsanding when to hold your cards, when to bluff, when to fold your hand and walk away. American strategists have drawn about as much as possible from pursuit of the illusion of victory in Vietnam, but there is vast unexplored territory in identifying points at which the U.S. mikght have stopped. It seems clear that in the post-cold war world, strategies for holding out amid uncertainty without damaging escalation; for defusing local crises by bluff and maneuver; for disengaging from crises by walking away -- these are concepts that coule be of enormous value in our nation's future. Progress on such novel strategic concepts, using Vietnam's fertile ground for research, seems a good deal more useful than further debate over the illusion of victory in the past. Beyond matters of strategy, at the national level it is time for closure; America should move beyond real or imagined disputes over the Vietnam War.
Many have already done this on an individual, personal level. People like Thich Nhat Hanh and Tim Brown have found, in peace and comradeship, valid results from the Vietnam War. Their victories are not illusions.
From: The Hidden History of the Vietnam War,
By John Prados