Fwd: United States/Vietnam: Learning from the Vietnam War

Chris Doss itschris13 at SPAMhotmail.com
Mon May 8 10:20:45 MDT 2000

>From: <alert at stratfor.com>
>To: redalert at stratfor.com
>Subject: United States/Vietnam: Learning from the Vietnam War
>Date: Sun, 7 May 2000 21:54:03 -0500 (CDT)
>Stratfor.com's Global Intelligence Update - 8 May 2000
>Know your world.
>This weekend on Stratfor.com:
>China Buys the Original Soviet Carrier
>Russia has reportedly sold China an aircraft carrier. If the sale
>goes through,China will join the ranks of the world's power
>projection navies.
>Learning From the Vietnam War
>At the 25th anniversary of the close to the Vietnam War all sides
>have studied the conflict. Increasingly it is treated as a series
>of errors and misjudgments by the United States that could have
>been caught and corrected early in the conflict. But in reality the
>war is a case study in the effects of grand strategy. Washington
>during the Cold War embarked on a strategy of maintaining an
>alliance system. Maintaining this system fostered its own logic.
>And in this logic fighting the first war America would ever lose
>was nearly inevitable.
>The 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the 30th
>anniversary of the tragedy at Kent State University generated a
>round of reflection on the origin and meaning of the Vietnam War.
>Much of it treats the Vietnam War as a series of errors and
>misjudgments on the side of America.
>There is certainly truth in that; this explanation, however, does
>not go deep enough. The war was not an accident; it arose from the
>fundamental grand strategy the United States pursued after World
>War II. If Vietnam was a mistake, then the grand strategy was in
>error. On the other hand, if the grand strategy worked - and in
>retrospect it seems ultimately to have done so - then Vietnam as a
>war was inevitable.
>One of the most important and forgotten concepts of the era is the
>notion of credibility. The Johnson administration argued that the
>war was a test of the credibility of American guarantees and will
>power. To the extent that the notion is remembered, it is treated
>as an American neurosis. It was, in fact, both the root cause of
>the decision to escalate the war and a rational and defensible
>principle. Paradoxically, it also meant that the United States
>would be defeated in the war.
>Would you like to see full text?
>Who was America trying to impress by a demonstration of its
>credibility? It was not so much Ho Chi Minh as it was Charles de
>Gaulle. U.S. strategy in the Cold War was an attempt to encircle
>first the Soviet Union, and then the Soviet Union and China
>together, with a string of American allies. The objective was the
>creation of a barrier against expansion while also forcing Moscow
>and Beijing to distribute their forces on multiple geographically
>diffuse fronts, decreasing their ability to concentrate for an
>attack. Very early on, the United States created alliances that
>stretched from the North Cape of Norway to Hokkaido in Japan.
>The United States had guaranteed the security of these countries,
>but the guarantees contained built-in ambiguities:
>1. Since allied countries shared borders with the communist powers
>the allied territories would be by necessity the battlegrounds.
>2. The primary responsibility for defense would fall to local
>forces, at least early in a war.
>3. The United States would supply equipment and station forces - by
>themselves insufficient to repel invasion.
>4. The United States promised to rush reinforcements to any country
>under attack in time to head off occupation.
>5. In the case of Europe, American policy treated an attack on
>allies as an attack on the United States - triggering a nuclear
>response made necessary by NATO's lack of forces to repel an
>initial attack before additional U.S. troops could arrive.
>The entire alliance system depended on allies having confidence in
>points four and five. If allies did not believe the United States
>would place its own forces - or the United States itself - in harm's way,
>then the rationality of points one, two and three was dubious in the
>This set of calculations affected all the allies. But none felt the impact
>more than the West Germans and NATO.
>In the 1950s, Eisenhower's doctrine of massive retaliation was less
>a nuclear strategy than a response to alliance concerns about the
>credibility of U.S. guarantees. Eisenhower did everything he could,
>doctrinally and operationally, to convince the Europeans that the
>U.S. commitment to Europe was absolute and automatic; U.S.
>reinforcements would be sent instantly and nuclear weapons would be
>used automatically if needed to halt a Soviet attack. Stationing
>U.S. forces in Europe was as much a political attempt to convince
>the Europeans of a massive U.S. response as it was a military
>The problem with all the guarantees, of course, was that they meant
>nothing. Whether Washington would live up to its commitments would
>not be known until the moment it was necessary to honor them. The
>doctrine was clear, but no one - not even the Americans - actually
>knew what a sitting president would decide at the critical moment.
>Thus, there was a deep uncertainty embedded in the alliance
>structure that revolved around the credibility of American
>For more Weekly Analyses, see:
>The Soviets attempted to exploit this uncertainty by generating
>periodic crises in Europe and elsewhere; the goal was to
>demonstrate the essential unreliability of American guarantees.
>Berlin was the archetypal example. The Soviets forced massive U.S.
>exertions to defend a strategically irrelevant asset. For the
>Americans, credibility became an indivisible entity. Failure to
>honor any commitment - regardless of its marginality - could
>unravel the alliance.
>The Soviets naturally probed at this fault line. The fault line
>emerged as a fundamental issue in Europe in the late 1950s and
>1960s, following the election of Charles de Gaulle as president of
>France. De Gaulle argued that the European dependence on American
>guarantees was dangerous. De Gaulle was completely anti-communist,
>but his view was that each nation pursues its own national
>interest. He argued that at the moment of truth, the United States
>would certainly not risk Kansas City to defend Frankfurt or
>Europe, he argued, would have to develop its own nuclear deterrence
>independent of the United States and an armed force independent of
>the United States. If independence meant that Europe would have to
>reach some political accommodation with the Soviets, this was not
>only acceptable, but desirable. It would create a balance of power
>between the Soviets and the Americans, increasing European power.
>Ultimately, de Gaulle's arguments were not persuasive because the
>United States managed to maintain its precious credibility through
>the Berlin Airlift and successive crises in Greece, Turkey, Korea
>and Iran. The foundation of credibility was disproportionality.
>Nuclear war for the defense of Europe was, by definition,
>disproportional to U.S. interests. In turn, any sign of
>proportionality would immediately destroy the value of the
>guarantee - and unravel the alliance.
>Both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson approached the Vietnam
>question from a standpoint fundamentally unconnected to Vietnam
>itself. They were far more concerned with what the Germans,
>Italians, Turks, Iranians and Japanese thought about American will
>than they were with the particulars in Vietnam. Vietnam wasn't
>about Vietnam; it was about the credibility of American guarantees
>to other much more valuable allies.
>Many allies opposed the war. But, paradoxically, had the Americans
>said that Vietnam just wasn't worth it, everyone would have
>wondered whether they were worth it. Thus, Vietnam was no accident.
>It was rooted in the grand strategy of the American alliance
>system. The main purpose of the American intervention was to
>demonstrate the Kennedy principle, which was that we would bear any
>burden in fighting the communists.
>The problem we encountered in Vietnam was a massive disproportion
>of interest. The North Vietnamese were pursuing fundamentally
>important geopolitical interests that could have been attained
>directly from the war. The United States was pursuing fundamental
>geopolitical interests that had nothing to do with the war. The
>North Vietnamese were engaged in total war, aided materially by the
>Soviets and Chinese, who both saw an opportunity to undermine
>American strength. For the United States, total war made no sense.
>The amount of effort expended far exceeded the American interest in
>Vietnam - but was completely insufficient to achieve victory.
>Victory could not be achieved by a purely defensive war. Washington
>needed forces sufficient to threaten the survival of the North
>Vietnamese regime. A force capable of that would have to have been
>orders of magnitude greater than what was deployed - and would have
>completely unbalanced the U.S. strategic posture.
>In hindsight, many would argue that the United States should have
>conceded Vietnam. In order to make this case, it is necessary to
>argue that in 1963, the United States would have had to announce
>that it was withdrawing support for the Saigon regime - and that
>this would not have destabilized its alliance system. In reality,
>Gaulist sentiment in Europe would have grown and tremors would have
>gone through the allies. Such an announcement would have undermined
>the American record of disproportionate commitments to its allies.
>This was the central dilemma. And here is the kicker. It was
>ultimately easier to be defeated in Vietnam, having given it a
>massive, disproportionate effort, than to have declined combat or
>withdrawn without defeat. Defeat raised questions about judgment,
>strategy and competence. It did not raise questions about the
>willingness to defend allies. It did not threaten the grand
>alliance by raising questions of credibility.
>Far from being a miscalculation, a misunderstanding or a mindless
>show of machismo, the war was an unintended but almost inevitable
>consequence of a rational strategy that ultimately worked. If the
>grand strategy made sense, then Vietnam was a war that had to be
>fought. If the grand strategy could have been abandoned, then
>Vietnam could have been avoided; history ultimately, though, might
>have been far different. This is, of course, small comfort to the
>war's many victims; the logic of history, however, is rarely kind.
>(c) 2000 WNI, Inc.
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