The Vietnam War was probably one of the most controversial wars the United States had engaged in yet. It was unsuccessful in its efforts to curb the insurgency through its military efforts such that unquestionably, several problems exist with regard to the counterinsurgency strategies it had employed. Following Diem’s assassination, the Johnson Administration faced a rapidly deteriorating situation in which the Government of Vietnam continually demonstrated its inability to achieve political stability and military success.
In face of this, the Administration opted for a Suppressive Counterinsurgency Strategy. This is the use of force to control behavior, rather than attempting to win support through social reform. The strategy was put into effect in Vietnam in the summer of 1964 and culminated in the shock of the 1986 TET offensive. In the summer of 1965, the Johnson Administration transformed its military strategy to one of reliance on US troops and firepower to defeat the National Liberation Front.
This strategy involved direct pressure against the DRV to impede the exogenous inputs and break Hanoi’s will, coupled with the attrition strategy of search and destroy to separate the NLF from its endogenous inputs in the South and destroy the insurgency system (Shultz, 1978). This is a strategy designed to take the war to the enemy, denying it freedom of movement and taking advantage of superior US firepower to deal the enemy with the heaviest blows. It constituted a purely military attrition solution for a politically-oriented insurgency.
It aimed to separate the insurgents from their endogenous inputs and destroy the insurgency support system. To raise the costs of these things supporting the insurgents to an unacceptable level, tactics such as destroying food supplies, eliminating the protective cover of nature, forced-draft urbanization due to saturation bombing. And as a result of the late May-early June reassessment, the decision was taken to continue the Rolling Thunder to impede exogenous inputs and the primary focus was to center on the endogenous inputs and the insurgency system in the South.
In June 1965, the merging of the attrition strategy with the Rolling Thunder operation and from them on until the post-TET reassessment of March 1968, the US military strategy was based on the suppressive counterinsurgency model (Shultz, 1978). Apparently, the suppressive model was seen as impractical in this case. The strategy was not able cut off exogenous inputs and break Hanoi’s will and failed to separate the NLF from its endogenous inputs in the South and destroy the insurgency system.
Economics was used largely in the strategy as cost and benefits were being manipulated in order to affect the enemy. Yet, it is doubtful whether economics can penetrate the mind of the dedicated individual or group, especially in a revolutionary situation. The enemies in this case were passionate and dedicated individuals to their causes, therefore a strategy based on economics, cannot penetrate the minds of these individuals. By employing this strategy, the advocates were unable to take into account that negative payoffs actually tend to reinforce existing dedication (Shultz, 1978).
Also, it was suggested that United States had not used its military powers to their best advantage. Of course, this was accounted for by the civilian leader of that time, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of the Defense Robert McNamara. They were the ones who imposed the strategy of Gradual Response. They were the ones who enforced several restrictions in the military that it could not do its job the way they should. Initially though, many do not believe the United States should be committing itself to Vietnam.
Regardless that it was seen as necessary to forestall the advance of communism across Asia, as well as to maintain the US credibility in its global commitments, its actions were seen as more of over committing. Some, former President Reagan included, have argued that it was too benevolent an act, this attempt of the United States to help a small country defend itself against a totalitarian neighbor set on conquest. Still, once committed, the United States should have seen to it that it had exerted the required level of force in such occupation.
After all, the US military were well trained enough, and in general, there was an implicit faith that this body has sufficient skills and power to achieve the stated ends of American policies. It was definitely a big slap in the face to lose on such small war and therefore the use and misuse of these military instruments were duly criticized (Herring, 1982). The conduct of the air war against North Vietnam was in particular criticized to be incompetent. McNamara and his people were indicted for ignoring resonantly former and time-vindicated principles of military strategy in their direction of the air war.
Instead of designing it in a way that North Vietnam would be dealt with immediate and devastating blows that it would be crippled as a result to further wage war in the South, the Air Force and Navy was instructed to diffuse random targets. As part of their gradual response strategy, they were always too careful and too bound up in severe restrictions that America’s well-known immense and superior possession of firepower and technology was not put into use to its whole extent, and its reputation for producing a strategy of defeat was nullified.
A gradual response strategy may be good ideally but it was a disaster in reality especially in urgent situations such as this, when escalation of the conflict was too possible and too hazardous (Herring, 1982). By employing this ineffective strategy, the North Vietnamese was given the initiative and the time to adjust to the attacks and bombings they were receiving. Not only that, the rigorous restrictions imposed on these military people and the overly centralized system of this military body resulted in the not hitting of the United States of the most important targets in the North Vietnam and those hit were not struck resolutely.
Some of the bomb attacks were actually done for political purposes that it further undermined the US capability in warfare. But of course, attacks from the skilled military group of the US, the attacks indeed had dented North Vietnam’s war-making capacity, and however slow it took for the US to reach, the attacks were still taking a toll on the insurgents, but before it took effect fully, the attacks were curtailed for the sake of meaningless gestures from Hanoi. Many agreed therefore that had only the US dealt with these Vietnamese insurgents quickly and decisively, then the outcome of the war would have been a reverse.
Albeit just too slow, the strategy would have still worked if the United States had continued to prosecute the war vigorously. When the United States altered it strategy in 1968 to the TET Offensive, it created an unmitigated disaster for North Vietnam and a chance for the US to finish the war with a knockout blow. Yet, because of an overly cautious civilian leadership and a negligent media, this opportunity was not seized, the initial quite successful battles using the TET were stopped and this determined the outcome.
The media, despite existence of massive evidences to the contrary, panicked and set out to believe and made everyone think so well that these battles would end in lose-lose situations, no matter how the enemies would be defeated. Their panicky stand created widespread public disillusionment at home and forced a much-undecided Johnson to reject the plans for a major counteroffensive and rather pursue a negotiated settlement. The United States ironically snatched defeat in the jaws of victory (Herring, 1982).
In 1972, when the Nixon Administration secured a peace settlement through the timely use and decisive use of military power in 1972, a bitter Congress pandering to the public weariness of Vietnam, denied Nixon the means in order to uphold the agreement. American aid to South Vietnam was ruthlessly slashed. This impeded on the morale of an ally of more than 20 years and was in effect, an encouragement to North Vietnam to launch the last offensive. Indirectly then, the Congress actually handed South Vietnam over to Hanoi (Herring, 1982).
An obvious setback in the US counterinsurgency efforts was on how it was too lacking on imagination and its strict adherence to traditions and doctrines. Even though things were obviously not working out as they should be, the military just continue doing what they are used to doing. They were just too inflexible as regards the Army’s institutions, doctrines and traditions. What the United States had failed to do was set up a warfare designed to counter insurgent situations per se, instead of relying too much on conventional war doctrines (Herring, 1982).
Two misjudgments were seen to be the determining factors of the unsuccessful outcomes. The media had of course played a part by imploring the immorality of using force in a modern world. But although it had helped in sealing the war’s fate, it was not this limitation of using force that was significant, but it was the choice of the US not to be timely and indecisive in its use of power that made them ineffective in countering these Vietnamese insurgents. After all, the situation was urgent, a more apt strategy for such case should have been chosen.
As a sign of this bad choice, the military leaders had decided to fight a conventional war in a revolutionary war setting, a very dire strategic failure. The basic mistake here is fighting the war in a manner that made failure a likely possibility. The setting of a counterinsurgency war in the environment of Vietnam posed anything but traditional problems, therefore it is nothing but natural that a strategy deemed as traditional attack mission of the infantry as such was employed would backfire.
It grossly underestimated the ability of the enemy to match or even exceed the United States’ escalation. Moreover, attention and resources were diverted away from pacification, an indispensable ingredient for success in Vietnam. Whatever results the military got from their strategies were all too temporary. Large numbers of troops were indeed killed, but they were quickly replaced. Driving out enemy forces out of their monopoly in South Vietnam was again ephemeral, since they could easily return when the US troops divert their attentions into other problem areas (Herring, 1982).