“And Men will not understand us . . . and the war will be forgotten.” All Quiet On The Western Front.
Vietnam . . . let that hang in the air for a moment. What comes to mind? War, of course: The Vietnam War. And the requisite discussion begins. If you are one of those who believes We Should Have Won The War, this is your chapter.
Anyone with a scintilla of imagination knows how the United States could have most likely won the Vietnam War; tactical nukes, bombing Hanoi back to the Stone Age, allowing the military to fight the war with no restrictions, and so forth. But at what costs?
Could we have won without acceding to those exigent measures that might have provoked China or the Soviet Union? In this chapter, I will present my proposal on how we could have — and should have won in Vietnam.
I don’t feel the need to bloviate about the mountain of research I have conducted from scores of books, articles,* interviews, and my own Vietnam experience in reaching my verdict. This endeavor was more difficult than I had imagined, yet it is not an academic treatise on How We Could Have Won in Vietnam. There is a plethora of scholarly research and even more books concerning turning points in the Vietnam War. My conclusion — outlined in this extended chapter — is specific and straightforward.
In the succeeding paragraphs, I will first provide scenarios of strategic opportunities missed before Tet.** Then I will proffer specific battlefield conditions and circumstances during Tet that should have been a clarion call for a new strategy.
STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITIES PRIOR TO TET (Jan 30, 1968)
1) As early as 1966, General William Westmoreland (Commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam) drew up plans for a campaign where U. S. troops would cross the border into Laos. Westmoreland’s men would blunt enemy infiltration into South Vietnam and deny the North Vietnamese Army (NVA, also known as the Peoples Army of Vietnam.) usage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. President Johnson rejected his request. (Archives. Gov.history/mil)
2) In mid-1967, 5′ 0″ General Von Nguyen Giap (Commander of all communist forces) opposed an all-out offensive against American forces and cities in the South (Think: Khe Sanh, Tet, Hue, Easter Offensive). He believed such an invasion by the NVA, into the South, would spur the U.S. to attack just north of the DMZ where his main contingent congregated. He thought it logical that Westmoreland would be “provoked to invade Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” the top-ranking NVA general reasoned. “[My] major concern is that the United States will expand the conflict beyond South Vietnam’s borders and that an American landing in North Vietnam might have disastrous consequences for the North Vietnamese regiment,” Giap rationalized. (Vietnam Magazine, History Net.Com, Post-war NVA documents)
3) Hanoi needed to determine how the Americans would respond to a communist buildup and offensive. Giap decided to launch attacks near the DMZ. The U.S. response would help formulate and develop the offensive he was set to command. His battles along the DMZ (from March to August 1967) near Cam Lo, Khe Sanh, Con Thien, Camp Carroll, Quang Tri city; the Rockpile and Route 9 served as the test. The NVA soldiers incurred heavy losses. But when the U.S. did not send troops across the DMZ or Laos, Hanoi believed the U.S. would continue to react only defensively. Now Giap felt his chances for a successful offensive were good, and his men would continue with their charge into the South. (Post-war NVA documents as reported in Vietnam Magazine and other sources)
4) Gen. Giap wanted to test America’s strategic intentions one final time before giving the green light for Tet. He staged his buildup of forces at the juncture of Laos and North and South Vietnam. If his corps-size presence did not trigger a U.S. invasion of North Vietnam or Laos, his offensive plans would continue. Since the closest U.S. base to Laos and North Vietnam was Khe Sanh, his final test was to attack there. (Post-war NVA documents as reported in Tet, The Turning Point)
5) On December 21, 1967, Giap’s division tangled with U.S. Marines near Khe Sanh. Westmoreland then ordered the Marines at Khe Sanh to scout assault routes for a possible Laos incursion and, on December 27, 1967, sent a Flash cable to Washington with an urgent request. His proposal outlined, in detail, the need for a strike across the border to blunt enemy infiltration. A few days later, Westmoreland received another rejection from LBJ for the Laotian strike. (The Vietnam War Almanac, Interview with Maj. Gen. John Tolson and other sources)
6) After the massive bombardment of the Marine Combat Base at Khe Sanh by the NVA on Jan. 21, 1968, the U. S. responded the same way it had during the past two years, according to Giap. The communist general was certain the U.S. would not counterattack outside the South Vietnamese borders. (Post-war NVA documents reported on History Net.com) Hanoi’s ambition and overreach was Westmoreland’s opportunity to bury Giap’s divisions under a cascade of bombs, and a cross-border strike the NVA were dreading. Westmoreland was never given the chance; Tet was on.
7) The U.S. command did not, of course, know of Giap’s specific intentions, but U. S. intelligence knew of his presence just beyond the DMZ, and rumors of a major campaign that became Tet was no secret in Westmoreland’s command. Two weeks before the Jan 30, 1968, Tet strike, Westmoreland even asked the President of South Vietnam to cancel leave (that most of his troops would be on) for the Tet holiday. Westmoreland was rebuffed. (Vietnam Magazine, Vietnam: A History)
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES DURING TET:
1) General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Feb. 8, 1968, cabled an urgent message to Westmoreland in Vietnam. Johnson was not prepared to accept defeat just yet, adding: “If you need more troops, ask for them, we’ve entered a critical phase, request what you believe is required under the circumstances,” Wheeler highlighted in the Top Secret communiqué. “Capitalize on their casualties [in Tet] to materially shorten the war,” he relayed to Westmoreland. Johnson had already contemplated calling up the reserves. The President, he said, was ready to pursue “A winning strategy.” The Tet battles had crippled the communists as Westmoreland knew and Johnson had proclaimed. On Feb 28, 1968, Westmoreland sent his detailed proposal to Washington for 206,756 more troops. (The History Place™ and public domain)
2) Now that we have the benefit of the Hanoi regime’s records, we know they were struggling after their losses during Tet; as many as 60,000 in the first month! Our intelligence knew they were in peril. The Viet Cong (VC) especially could no longer fight as a cohesive force, and even the communists agreed their combat readiness was in “jeopardy.” (Postwar NVA/Hanoi documents as reported in Vietnam War Almanac and Public domain.)
3) On the Internet today, there are stories quoting Gen. Giap: “You had us on the ropes [after Tet]. We knew it, we thought you knew it. But we were elated to notice your media was definitely helping us. They were causing more disruption in America than we could in the battlefields.” I was unable to verify the above quote with 100% accuracy. It does, however, coincide with conditions in the field and how U. S. media were reporting on Tet. The following quote, however, is not in question: “Do not fear the enemy, for they can only take your life. Fear the media far more, for they will destroy your honor,” Gen Giap said on more than one occasion. (Public domain, The Guardian.Com, Bookings.Com)
4) For a brief moment, after the Tet offensive began, Americans rallied around the flag in predictable patriotic fervor, with an upward spike in support. A Nov. 1967 survey revealed 55 percent (of U.S.) wanted a tougher policy on Vietnam with stronger military operations. (New York Times) “Tet was a military disaster for the NVA but a political victory for them in the West,” New Yorker Magazine wrote in Feb. 1968. Even Walter Cronkite — before his famous denunciation of the war— reported on his February 13, 1968, broadcast: “First, and simplest, the VC/NVA suffered a military defeat [in Tet]. Its missions proved suicidal.” The Washington Post and New York Times made similar assessments.
Then came Cronkite’s broadcast of Feb. 27, 1968; many thought it was the death knell for LBJ’s war in Vietnam when he reported:
“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say we are mired in a stalemate seems to be the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.
On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. In the next few weeks and months we must test the enemy’s intentions . . . .” (Author’s note: Isn’t that an opening for a surge?)
But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could. ” (CBS archives)
5) On March 23, 1968, Westmoreland learned LBJ would send only a fraction of the 206,756 men he had requested. Just 13,500 were approved. (An increase of approximately 22,600 troops were deployed in all of 1968) (Washington Post). On the same day, the Chicago Tribune ran a 72 point headline: “WESTMORELAND RECALLED.” He would remain commander in Vietnam until June 1968. (Vietnam, A History and other sources)
6) Still in charge, Westmoreland saw an opportunity where he could “take advantage” of an enemy in peril that would not require Presidential approval. The U.S. Marines in the battle of Dia Do April 30 to May 3, 1968, were outnumbered 10 to 1, yet they cut off routes at the DMZ terminating infiltration of an NVA Division. The enemy suffered 1,568 killed, U.S. losses were 91. Two Marines earned Medals Of Honor in the campaign. (The History Place™, Vietnam Magazine) Westmoreland planned to sent fresh troops to decimate any floundering NVA in and around the DMZ, had the extra troops promised in March arrived and not for what happened next; mini-Tet. Westmoreland needed all available resources when the VC/NVA launched simultaneous attacks on 119 cities and military installations, May 5, 1968.
I have written the following speech; the speech LBJ should have given. It is my strategy on How We Could Have Won the War In Vietnam.
I have asked for this airtime tonight to make two major announcements. Firstly, I will not seek reelection as your president (pause to let that sink in) and Secondly, I have initiated an all out campaign of Surge and Strike to end and win the war in Vietnam before the expiration of my term in January.
To that end I have called up the Reserves so that our military will not be spread too thin and I have extended indefinitely, the tour of those serving in Vietnam. Although winning this war will take more than the sheer size of our force, I have already approved an increase of 50,000 more combat troops. As I speak, several hundred are already in the air over the Pacific headed to that war zone. Presently, more than 150 U. S. aircraft are carrying out offensive operations over North Vietnam.
My commanders will have at their disposal all the might of the U.S. arsenal and I have ordered them to use all necessary force to end this conflict with a victory. I’m serious about winning and win we will. I do not wish to expand this war beyond its present borders, but noting is off the table in my determination to bring this war to an end — with a win.
The only way to stop the U. S. Surge and Strike Offensive — from the ground and air — is for the communists to withdraw immediately all of its troops from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and the immediate closure of the Ho Chi Minh trail. All our POWs must be immediately released unharmed and with full accountability. We will not give the enemy a chance to regroup during any cease-fire until it is clear that our demands are being met.
Too much blood and treasure has been lost to give up now, and everyone agrees that this war has gone on far too long. And without having to worry about a reelection, I will devote all the time necessary to win this war for the United States, and the people of South Vietnam. Initially U.S. casualties are bound to rise, but the enemy will lose much more — the war. To the loved ones of our fighting men: My goal is to end this war before my term expires in January. In the unlikely event that our all out effort falls short of my expectations, I will begin the immediate withdraw all our forces from Vietnam before the end of my time as your president.
I will not answer any specific questions tonight about this campaign, I believe I have said it all. To reiterate, we will do what is necessary to end this war in our favor. Finally, I am convinced the majority of the American people want this war to end with a win and I, along with our brave men in Vietnam, intend to do just that. God bless our troops and the people of South Vietnam. God bless the U.S.A.
The above speech that I wrote — the one LBJ should have given — is my strenuous but surmountable strategy for a U.S. victory in Vietnam.***
WHY THIS WOULD WORK:
1) The Commander In Chief is now committed with all the might of the U.S. Military and has ordered his commanders — who have been itching for a chance — to execute a winning strategy. The General’s would now have the green light to expel the enemy from its sanctuaries, wherever they may be. Any VC/NVA force in a one-on-one battle, especially with the likes of the U.S. Marines and the 1st Air Cavalry with its U. S. Navy and Air Force air assets — would be crushed.
2) I believe as they say in my hearts of hearts and with my head too; if the commanders began prosecuting the war to win — the men could tell. Morale would spike. Our troops would fight with a fury to get out of that stinking country and be home by Christmas as victors. Our allies the ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) would surely fight alongside us with more vigor. It would become obvious, the more we punished the communists — the easier it would be for the ARVN to defend themselves upon our departure.
3) The U.S. population, in general, might be more supportive of the war, knowing we were fighting for a quick resolution. Relatives at home should feel a little better, knowing their loved ones were fighting in a war that was winnable and soon to be over.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED:
1) We let Tet, Khe Sanh, Hue, Walter Cronkite, and the anti-war movement defeat us; Well, LBJ did! Thanks, Walter. Thanks, Jane.
2) March 31, 1968, LBJ announced on National TV that he was not seeking reelection, he also declared plans to: “Limit the war [in Vietnam],” and later to cease all bombing above 17th Parallel and then announced withdrawal talks with Hanoi. (Brookings.com, Public domain sources) He capitulated and sent a message to the communists and the rest of the world: “I’m giving up, let the next President deal with it.” (Authors percipience).
3) What was LBJ thinking? “Let’s have a few more ceasefires to give the enemy time to regroup, and then [to save face], we’ll keep fighting on the communist’s terms.” (Authors elucidation) Let someone else deal with the mess I created.
4) In case you don’t remember how it ends: Our fighting men soldiered on for five more years-plus while our troops and our pilots were hampered by ridiculous rules of engagement. Many men in the field were also frustrated with the tepid motivation and questionable fighting ability of the ARVN, who was supposed to take charge of their own war so U.S. troops could go home. Sagging morale was inevitable as the men marked time — just trying to stay alive — realizing their fighting would not result in a victory. Even though offensive field operations in the last two years by U.S. troops were limited, men were still being castrated by landmines and losing limbs and life.
5) After LBJ failed to take advantage of the opportunities, in late 1967 and early 1968, the war would drag on five more years-plus; while our POWs suffered and more than 38,000 additional Americans were killed — and untold numbers of Vietnamese! Let that hang in the air for a moment.
“During the day on Monday, Washington time, the airport at Saigon came under persistent rocket as well as artillery fire and was effectively closed . . . . I . . . ordered the evacuation of all American personnel remaining in South Vietnam.” President Gerald Ford, April 29, 1975.
The next day the communists took Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City (Washington Post). But not before two U.S Marines assigned to Embassy Guard were killed in a mortar attack on April 29,1975, one day before the fall of Saigon. They were the last U.S. servicemen to die in Vietnam proper, and if that were not enough, their bodies were left behind and not returned to the U.S.until early 1976! Charles McMahon had been in Vietnam eleven days, Darwin Judge less than two months. (The Last Men Out, Wikipedia)
I am ending this chapter in memory of 58,220 U.S. souls who perished so far away, so long ago, for a people to be free.
“Painful as it is to remember — Least we forget.” The Vietnam War. Donald Swan, December 21, 2018.
*Numerous books, articles, and documents were researched in the compilation of this chapter: Wikipedia; The History Place™; New York Times; Washington Post; New Yorker; USA Today: Archives.gov; History-Army.mil; BBC.com; The Guardian.Com; Brookings.com; The Hidden History of America At War, Kenneth Davis R. Dee publisher; Vietnam War Almanac, Col Harry Summers Ballantine Books; A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan Random House Publishing; The Best And The Brightest, David Halberstam Random House; Vietnam, A History, Stanley Karnow Viking Press; After Tet, Ronald Spector Hatchet Press: The Hidden History Of The Vietnam War, John Prados Ivan R. Dee; Tet: The Turning Point, Don Oberdorfer De Capo Press; The Fallacy Of The Turning, Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly Press; Vietnam Magazine and public domain not requiring credit. My library contains some 100 books on the subject of the war in Vietnam.
**Tet: Both sides agreed to a truce for the most important Vietnamese holiday. The communists used the occasion for a series of surprise attacks on cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and U.S. installations throughout South Vietnam Jan 30, 1968, and beyond. Considered a turning point in the Vietnam War, there were heavy fatalities on both sides, especially for the VC/NVA.
*** Other Alternatives: 1) It could be argued that LBJ simply use his speech of March 31, 1968, to declare victory and begin immediately withdrawing of all of our troops.
2) One might also make a case for withdrawal after the bloody battle of Ia Drang (the first major battle of the Vietnam War for the U.S. Nov. 1965). Although it was a clear victory for the U.S., it was very costly as well. LBJ could have said something like: “We are not quitters, and as JFK said just three years ago, ‘We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ I, however — after careful consideration and consultation with both houses of Congress and my conscience — have determined that the cost of this war is too high for a job the boys of South Vietnam should be doing for themselves. I will begin the immediate withdrawal of all combat troops from Vietnam. The U. S. will continue to provide some support for the government of South Vietnam in its efforts to stop the spread of communism.”
3) Finally, it could be argued the Vietnam War was not winnable, and LBJ could have begun a withdrawal at any time he chose.
Author’s Note: Every effort is made that all my writing be 100% accurate. Any misstatements or errors by the author are unintentional and should not distract from my premise on How We Could Have Won In Vietnam. firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Swan is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served in the U. S. Army as a Combat Correspondent with the elite 1st Cavarly Division (Airmobile). He’s authored several feature articles about veterans and their combat experience. Swan holds both BA and MA in Mass & Public Communication from the University of Denver. He was a senior Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Air Force and is author of “My Life At The Limit,” an autobiography. He lives on the Pacific in Northern Calif. with his wife and three canines.