Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume X, Vietnam, January 1973–July 1975
282. Memorandum From the Director of the Joint Staff (Train) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Brown)1
- Strategic Implications of the Indochina Experience
- The attached paper, an excellent “think piece” on our Vietnam experience, was prepared by J–5 on their initiative. It focuses on the key strategic lessons bearing on JCS responsibilities while avoiding the numerous tactical or operational issues which are primarily Service concerns. Further, it suggests implications for the future.
- Although controversial, and perhaps distasteful, I believe it is a subject the Chiefs should discuss at a regular meeting. Furthermore, it is an appropriate topic for JCS discussion with SecDef. Should the Chiefs not agree to a later discussion with SecDef, I recommend you forward a copy to him independently.
- With this in mind a Chairman’s memorandum to the Joint Chiefs of Staff is enclosed for your consideration.2
Vice Admiral, USN
STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES’ EXPERIENCE IN INDOCHINA
It is impossible to understand America’s basic conceptions and predispositions concerning foreign relations apart from her historical experience. We enjoyed over a century of relative isolation and security in the period from 1812 to WW II which spared us the necessity of coming to grips with the difficult problem of combining military power with foreign policy. Americans came to idealize international [Page 962]society as the product of a natural harmony of interests wherein all nations, whether they recognize it or not, had an equal interest in peace and the status quo. With such a concept of world order, it was inevitable that the American psyche would come to equate diplomatic concessions to appeasement, and a limited settlement in wartime to humiliation. Despite our post-WW II experience in foreign relations involving power politics which contravenes this ideal image, the public psyche has been slow to adjust.
Implicit in the concept of limited war is the idea that some objectives are of less intrinsic value than others; that some are worth a great deal but few are worth risking all for. Until WW II, most Americans believed that the only war this country would fight would be one to protect its territorial sovereignty and that the necessary objective of such a war would be the total defeat of the enemy. After WW II, most Americans came to realize that nuclear weapons involve levels of devastation that virtually eliminate total war as a rational consideration. The principal objective of the nation’s defense planning therefore shifted from total war to deterrence of attacks that might lead to a general war involving a nuclear exchange.
The earliest manifestation of deterrence was the policy of containment based on the West’s post-WW II perception of a powerful Communist monolith controlling the EurAsian heartland and probing for expansion into Europe, the Middle East, Northeast Asia and the evolving excolonial Third World. In July of 1947, George Kennan called for “a long term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies . . .” Subsequently, a combination of economic and military assistance successfully resurrected Europe and this model was repeated elsewhere in response to crises along the Sino-Soviet periphery. As a result, an ad hoc network of alliances was constructed involving NATO, SEATO, CENTO, and ANZUS, as well as defense treaties with Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. With the 1958 landing in Lebanon, US commitments expanded from support of countries directly threatened by Communist power to the far broader task of attempting to maintain stability in a region undergoing basic political change.
Throughout this period, the fact that the United States depended on an announced strategy of “massive retaliation” indicated, to those who contemplated the credibility of this strategy, the difficulty the United States might find in honoring its commitments. As a result, following the emergence of Castro’s Cuba, renewed Soviet pressure on Berlin, the Congo, the “missile gap,” and Soviet and Chinese penetration into Africa, a new, more imaginative national policy emerged involving both dialogue with the Soviet Union and a broader, more flexible military strategy designed to enable the United States to fight [Page 963]limited wars, including “Communist” inspired “wars of liberation.” This policy assumed that the Soviet Union had to be excluded from the Third World or the dynamics of political gestation there would inevitably result in either Soviet domination or direct military confrontation between the United States and USSR; that by preemptive intervention in the turmoil associated with political gestation, the United States could not only produce stability but in the process reduce tensions between itself and the Soviet Union.
The United States’ military intervention in Indochina was a logical extension of this policy. The course and consequence of this intervention will surely establish a watershed for future strategy involving the use of military force as an instrument of national policy. Following are some brief, initial inquiries into the background and possible implications of our experience in Indochina. The intention is to identify certain significant issues related to the responsibilities of the JCS.
A limited war is generally conceived to be a war fought for ends far short of complete subordination of one state’s will to another’s and by means involving far less than the total military resources of the belligerents, leaving the civilian life and the armed forces of the belligerents largely intact and leading to a bargained termination.
Although a war between nuclear states could conform to this definition, the term limited war is generally applied to more likely, local, nonnuclear wars in which the super powers to do not confront each other directly. The difficulty in this sort of limited war is that the relevant limits are a matter of degree and perspective, since a war that is limited for one belligerent can be virtually total from the standpoint of another on those territory the war is fought.
Limited war concepts and policies arose in a period in which the Cold War expanded to Asia and the Soviet Union was achieving a nuclear capability. It was motivated by a desire to support the policy of containment more effectively yet reduce the danger of nuclear war. Proposed strategies of limited war were affected by whether emphasis was placed on more effective containment or on the avoidance of nuclear war, as well as premises concerning the nature of international Communism and its threat to American security, the willingness of the American people to support the cost of fighting aggression, and the identity of potential adversaries.
In both Europe and the Third World, limited war concepts sought to strengthen conventional resistance to local nonnuclear aggression and thus bolster our bargaining position in crises. In Europe, strategies for fighting large-scale limited wars seem seriously compromised by the likelihood that a war involving such stakes would not remain [Page 964]limited, by the unwillingness of allies to support the costs of such a strategy, and by the fear of allied governments that emphasizing large-scale conventional resistance will undermine the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. In the Third World, these strategies seem even more seriously compromised by our experience in Indochina.
In Indochina, as in Korea, the objective, area of operation and level of force was limited. In both cases our national objective was to contain Communism, defeat aggression and support a free nation. In Korea, the military objective associated with our national interest was to restore the 38th parallel boundary. In Indochina, the military objective was to protect South Vietnam until a viable nation emerged. In neither case was the time-frame for the military operation limited and in each case this ultimately produced domestic repercussions.
The concept of limited war was resisted in Korea although our motivation for limiting the war there was fear of a larger war with China or a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In Indochina, limitations were taken for granted but seemed motivated mainly by the fact that our political objective was not sufficiently valuable and our prospect of winning was not sufficiently promising to warrant significant expansion. Nevertheless, the rhetorical rationalization of our objective was systematically escalated until very serious interests became vested in the commitment. The objective of frustrating Communist aggression acquired an importance far greater than the geopolitical significance of the territory involved, and the fact of success became far more important than its fruits.
Government unburdened by political restraints can be flexible in the use of power, but this does not mean that only authoritarian governments can use force effectively as an instrument of national policy. Virtually every nation has interests and political objectives dependent on power for attainment. The American public’s disenchantment over the Indochina War will surely result in serious questioning of the utility of limited war as an instrument of American policy. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable that this nation will not again be confronted by threats to its interests abroad. At such time as it is, a reasonable range of policy options will probably be available. So far as military action is concerned, it should be axiomatic that it be used only at a place and time that suits our capability. When the option of military action is selected, America’s power should permit—and the American public’s demonstrated aversion to long, limited wars will probably dictate—that our objective be achieved quickly by the use of overwhelming force.
A distinct and realistic objective is the foundation of military strategy. It is the objective and the obstacles to its achievement that determine [Page 965]the size and structure of the force and the tactics that will be employed. In a democracy, a supportable military objective necessitates that it be related to an agreed national interest. National interests have been and will continue to be affected by specific issues and decisions and by the unpredictable interaction of external events and domestic politics. Only vital interests remain relatively clear and stable.
Our decision to back the French effort to reconquer its Indochinese colony in the face of post-WW II nationalistic fervor can be attributed to an order of priorities that assigned greater weight to the recovery of French power than to the unwillingness of the Vietnamese to remain under French rule. From that point on, American policy-makers slid into the ultimate fiasco through a series of improvisations and experiments devised to meet unforeseen developments. Greasing the skids after 1954 was the distorted premise that South Vietnam was another Korea or European “nation fighting for its freedom.” South Vietnam was not a nation subjected to aggression in this sense. It was an entity recognized by the 1954 Geneva Conference to provide temporary administrative control of one half of a nation pending subsequent supervised elections to determine the form of government that would govern the reunited nation.
South Vietnam was governed by leaders, classes and political parties who profited by allying themselves with our cause. We attempted to “build democracy” on this base, but the transfer of our social and political assumptions did not work. We believed that American power could fill the political vacuum which resulted—and it did for a while—but the war devastated the countryside and drove hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants into urban refugee camps, disrupting Vietnamese society and turning much of it into a rabble of displaced persons. Under these circumstances, the obstacles to achievement of our military objective of protecting South Vietnam until a viable nation emerged became immense. As the obstacles grew, the resources required also grew until this feedback system created an undertaking of such magnitude and uncertainty that only national interests of the gravest moment could sustain public support for it. The public could perceive no such interests and their support was lost.
The strategic significance of this experience could be that before this country again uses military force it must dispassionately assess the interest involved and assure that it is understandable to the public and sufficient to warrant the use of force. Having done this, a definite military objective should be established: e.g., occupy X amount of real estate; destroy X target; defeat X force. The desired political and operational limitations, including the timeframe for achieving the military objective, should also be specified. The force required to achieve the military objective within these political, operational and time constraints [Page 966]can then be determined and the question of whether or not to commit this force addressed by the National Command Authority.
Uncertainties accompany every human enterprise. If force is committed to achieve an objective not related to vital national interests, it would seem prudent to plan for the possibility that unforeseen events could prevent the objective being achieved within the political, operational and time limitations established. In such a situation, it could be that the nation’s interests would be best served by complete disengagement, or by withdrawal of the original force in favor of an alternate course of action involving a different objective and force. In either case, disengagement is a difficult maneuver and advance planning can provide the basis for timely decisions that will assure success and put the best possible political face on the maneuver. It is conceivable that had such plans existed for Indochina they would have been executed fairly early.
By 1968, public opposition to our strategy in Indochina necessitated change. Vietnamization was part of a new strategy designed to correct the inattention given to South Vietnamese participation that had characterized the war from 1965 to 1968 and allow them to assume the key role in pursuit of the war and their future security. The concept involved improved government services and an improved economy, as well as an improved and stronger military establishment. The success of Vietnamization was dependent on coordinated progress in each area.
In the military sphere, the South Vietnamese forces were provided with more modern weapons and increased in size to partially offset the enemy’s advantage in being able to mass when and where he chose. Although the plan was essentially defensive and the bulk of tactical formations were tied to the defense of particular territory, the risks were recognized and it was believed that the associate benefits of pacification outweighed the loss of flexibility.
The Tet Offensive and the attendant heavy Communist losses created a vacuum in the countryside which was exploited by the improved government forces. It also shocked the South Vietnamese into concerted action in support of the Vietnamization program.
Militarily, the program seemed to work and US Forces were successfully withdrawn. The Pacification Program made gains and major enemy attacks in 1972 were defeated with only logistic and air support by the United States. But improvements in government administration and services and in the economy lagged seriously and compromised [Page 967]progress in the armed forces. As US assistance to South Vietnam diminished, the enemy began to adopt more traditional and offensive military tactics. Once the Congress proscribed the resumption of US bombing in Indochina, the enemy was free to take as much or as little of the war as it desired, at times and places of its own choosing. The South Vietnamese armed forces, defensively oriented and subject to more rigid tactics, were increasingly vulnerable to piecemeal attack. It was in this environment that a precipitous and poorly executed South Vietnamese tactical decision set in motion the ultimate military disaster.
One obvious strategic implication of our experience with the Vietnamization Program is that a nation cannot be built out of a diverse peasant society in the face of effective hostile forces unless a third, major force can protect one from the other throughout the entire building process. A logical extension of this implication is that unless a nation possesses an effective government and the will to defend its institutions, the United States should not adopt a strategy which depends on these factors for success. If our interests necessitate military operations in or defense of such a nation, our objective and force should be essentially independent of that nation’s government or armed forces.
The concept of gradualism involves a deliberate increase in the application of force in response to enemy actions to prove one’s determination, deter the enemy from his objective by indicating that its cost will exceed its value, and to thus resolve a conflict. As a strategy, it was designed to resolve the problem of preventing possible military conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia from escalating to mutual destruction. As applied in Indochina, it is clearly a discredited strategy.
Initially, gradualism permitted the enemy time to adjust to and counter our actions. Later, in the absence of a finite objective on our part, and in the face of steadfast commitment to a clear objective by the enemy, it permitted the enemy to counter our stick with carrots. When finally the stick was vigorously applied to produce negotiation, it was implicit that it would be withdrawn once negotiation was agreed to. Thus, when the punishment became intolerable, the enemy escaped from it by agreeing to the form of negotiations, while continuing to frustrate their substance.
In Indochina, by compromising the traditional principles of mass and surprise, and in the absence of equal interest in the outcome, gradualism failed. Nonetheless, considering the origins and intent of the concept, it should probably never have been applied in Indochina and could remain a valid strategy for conflict involving the vital interests of nuclear powers.[Page 968]
Disregarding the topical sequence established above for convenience in discussion, some of the implications of the United States’ experience in Indochina that relate to the defense planning responsibilities of the JCS are:
- —The American public is not as willing as earlier assumed to support extended military operations in support of limited interests abroad. The objective of future limited military operations abroad will need to be both clearly understandable to the public and of sufficient national interest to warrant the use of force.
- —In addition to the political and operational limits appropriate to the objective of future limited military operations abroad, the time period over which public support can be predictably sustained should also constitute a limit.
- —The force ultimately committed should be sufficient to achieve the objective within the political, operational and time constraints under the worst foreseeable circumstances.
- —In the event unforeseeable circumstances prevent the objective being achieved within the limitations established, and national interests necessitate either complete disengagement or an alternative course of action involving a different objective and force, advance planning should include a disengagement plan which can provide the basis for timely decisions that will assure success and put the best possible political face on the situation.
- —Unless another nation possesses an effective government and the will to defend its institutions, the United States should not adopt an objective or strategy related to that nation which depends on these factors for success.
- —Although the concept of gradualism failed as applied in Indochina, it could remain a valid strategy for controlling conflict involving the vital interests of nuclear powers.