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Reader Comment on: “Did Stalemate Equal Victory? From the Korean to theVietnam Wars

November 26, 2011

To the Editor:

On reading the very interesting and scholarly article “Did Stalemate Equal Victory? From the Korean to the Vietnam Wars“, by L. Spencer Robinson, I recalled a short piece that I had written back in 1966 or 1967. It was to a journal that had requested readers’ “solutions” to the Vietnam war. I pulled it out of my files, and on re-reading it, I don’t find my ideas any less valid now than I did over 40 years ago.

A principle factor in reducing the effectiveness of our soldiers in Vietnam was the “one year tour of duty” policy. A soldier would arrive in Vietnam and follow his squad around for the first 3 or 4 months, learning things he had not been taught in Basic Training. Then he would become a somewhat effective soldier for a few months. Then, for the last 2 or 3 months, he would think “Gosh, I’m due to go home soon — I’d better not take any serious risks”. We should have made a deal with the South Korean government to send several hundred thousand soldiers to Vietnam, while increasing the U.S. military presence in South Korea by large numbers of soldiers who were in — or destined to be in — Vietnam, to guard against another invasion by the North Koreans and their ChiCom masters. (Actually, South Korea did contribute some troops to the Vietnam War, but not enough to make a real difference.) There would be no “one-year limit” on the South Korean troops, and they knew much better than our soldiers how to deal with their fellow-Asians, whether guerilla fighters or soldiers.

Another major factor would have been to remove most or all of the vast number of restrictions on bombing North Vietnam. They knew what our restrictions were and how to avoid them. Specifically, we should have destroyed the roads and railroads leading up to the Chinese border, where supplies were brought in, while being careful not to bomb the Chinese side. We should have bombed the dikes along the rivers around Hanoi, which would have flooded their supply routes and their concealed storage facilities for munitions, other military supplies, oil, etc.

Finally, we should have completely blocked the Haiphong harbor, primarily by sinking old ships in the channels, and if necessary, by planting mines, after giving the Soviets and the ChiComs a formal warning that this would be done. I think if we had followed these policies, without caving in to blustering or threats by our enemies, foreign and domestic (the latter including Walter Cronkite — in German, “krankheit” means “sickness”) we would have won the war.

J. Edgar (Ed) Williams

Dear Mr. Williams,

Thank you for reading my article. Some people may question the point of dwelling on what-might-of beens (such as North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap) but they can be very interesting nonetheless. In my article I mention the possibility of a “Titoist” solution where we would permit an independent socialist state and though this may not have been a perfect solution, I would have seen it as a potentially best option in 1945 or 1954. Robert McNamara in hindsight said he wished we would have tried to secure an autonomous zone in the South that recognized Hanoi’s overall authority such as is the case with Hong Kong and China. This would have been OK in my view assuming it were possible. Yet I would agree with those who state that when we helped to create South Vietnam and then escalated the war that we did have an obligation to the people who now relied on us, as there would be (and was) a price to be paid for supporting us. Whatever idealistic position one may take on Vietnam I think there should be consensus that the overall strategy of attrition that was attempted, was a huge and tragic waste. All those lives on both sides were lost and the dynamic of the war was not changed at all, as attrition with its search and destroy missions (aimed at persuading the enemy and not controlling territory) spent all the political capital back in the U.S. that the people were willing to give the government, prevented a total investment and delayed the investment that was eventually made in regards to pacification and created additional problems such as the refugee issue. Because Maxwell Taylor foresaw some of these problems, he became an advocate of the air war and a modified enclave strategy. I don’t think the level of the air war and even the recommendations of those later considered to be hawks for advocating a stronger use of airpower (Wallace Greene, Admiral Sharp, etc.) would have been enough to “persuade” the enemy to stop supporting the insurgency in the south. As I cite Dean Rusk who said he knew of no one in government who advocated this kind of level, that actually was similar to what happened in Korea although I believe Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy later recommended flooding out the city of Hanoi.

Interestingly, some of the options you mention which were tried to some extent in 1972, were judged by article authors to have had a significant impact on the war. But you have to understand that the context of the war had now changed, and these actions were deemed successful in stopping the conventional style invasion of South Vietnam in the spring of 1972, not in persuading a government to stop supporting guerilla activity. I think there were definite limits on an offensive strategy due to the other superpowers, ambiguous ethical issues and the cost of an invasion or saturation bombing of the North, so if we were looking at a hypothetical solution it would have to be an overall defensive strategy. Rather than attrition, you might look at William Colby’s book “Lost Victory” which states we should have focused on pacification, a viewpoint common among U.S. pacification workers in the south. I think there are a lot of serious questions to be asked, as to whether such a strategy could have succeeded or would have been permitted to succeed by outside powers, yet it is a serious option to look at. Due to resource limitations, the divided loyalties of the people and other issues, it may have been wise to attempt such a strategy in conjunction with diplomacy and the preferences of the electorate in the south, as well as the rights of minorities. Due to these issues, it may have been wise to attempt to refold the nation of South Vietnam into a more defensible, and unified state (or the southern portion of the south) an option which President Thieu tried in desperation in 1975. If this were a hypothetical possibility, then some of the options you talk about, could be employed successfully if diplomacy failed. Even if a pacification state were successful, there might be some conventional-style invasions from the north, but had we not spent our political capital on attrition, we may have been able to spend it on a series of 1972-style defenses, which could have employed effective airpower against the north. I don’t think these options were workable under the persuasion and attrition strategies but may have worked under a pacification and defensive line strategies. If this scenario were feasible, then the role of other nations and the roles of our soldiers could have been more effective as well. I understand that there have been actually conferences on this topic, whether victory was possible or not in Vietnam, and it might be interesting to see what others have to say on this topic.

Sincerely/LS Robinson

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