Air University Review, November-December 1979

Reflections on Vietnam: The Lessons?

Dr. Joe P. Dunn

No event in American history has elicited so many didactic pages as has Vietnam. During the sixties and early seventies, a host of journalists, academics, politicos, participants, and protestors of the Vietnam War freely offered criticism, advice, and evaluation. Sages and seers from reactionary to radical proclaimed the lessons of Vietnam the doves clearly outweighed the hawks both in quantity and quality. Reflective of the era, an apocalyptic tone permeated much of the scholarship. Although some fine books emerged, much of the literature suffered from the maladies of "presentism" and "instant history." The doves tended toward moralism, myopia, and malapropism; but the hawks were guilty of equivalent sins. Official explanations, such as the periodic white papers, General Westmoreland and Admiral Sharp’s Report on the War in Vietnam (1969) and the memoirs of Johnson, Nixon, Rostow, and others, exhibited shallow self-justification. Polemics abound on both sides. The dispassionate, solid scholarship of Bernard Fall, Douglas Pike, Alexander Woodside, Allan Goodman, or Dennis Duncanson and temperate, balanced memoirs, such as Chester Cooper's The Lost Crusade (1970), were unfortunately few and far between.

It is still too early to propose definitive works on Vietnam; indeed the very notion is utopian. All historical events are infinitely complex, but Vietnam was more complex than most. The experience was a mosaic of conflicting truths, and each vignette was not a microcosm as many observers attempted to portray. The manifold historiography of the origins of the Cold War will not compare to that which will emerge on Vietnam in the next decade. Vietnam scholarship will follow generally the same evolution as did Cold War interpretations. The debate over the lessons will increase, but the passions of the earlier era will subside, and a more sophisticated analysis, a deeper appreciation of the complexity, will surface.

At present the first comprehensive summaries of the American experience in Indochina are appearing. Key memoirs--those of General Westmoreland, Nguyen Cao Ky, Admiral U. S. G. Sharp, Frank Snepp, William Colby, for example--are now in print. The mood of the nation is much different than in the previous decade. Domestic issues predominate. Watergate, inflation, jobs, taxes, and energy have shoved the trauma and scars of Vietnam into the past. The banter of liberal-conservative debate has replaced the agonized tones of the sixties' idealists and radicals. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, Soviet abuse of human rights, and the unhappy fate of Cambodia and Vietnam today put the world situation in better perspective, evincing that America's self-abasement in the sixties was out of proportion to her sins. Soviet military ascendancy fosters a national security concern more legitimate than the overblown specter in Indochina. The literature of this period reflects these changes in the national mood.

The four books considered here are products of the present stage of Vietnam historiography. The three surveys speak to an immediate need and attempt to fill a void; but their value is transient, and they will fade from view as better studies emerge. The monograph on the news media makes a significant, lasting contribution. All four focus on mistakes and lessons of the Vietnam experience.

The Last Chopper,* covering the 1963-1975 period, is the sequel to Weldon Brown's Prelude to Disaster: The American Role in Vietnam, 1940-1963 (1975). Like its predecessor, the book is a repetitious, poorly written political narrative based on newspapers and limited secondary sources; it offers nothing new. Footnotes reflect a range of sources across the ideological spectrum; but many of the major works on Vietnam are absent from both notes and bibliography, and the author draws heavily from such marginal accounts as Alfred Steinberg's Sam Johnson's Boy (1968) and Ernest Gruening and Herbert W. Beaser's Vietnam Folly (1968). Brown portrays his position as middle of the road, and indeed he strikes out in all directions; but underlying his narrative is traditional cold war rhetoric, often in the starkest terms.

*Weldon A. Brown, The Last Chopper: The Denouement of the American Role in Vietnam, 196J-1975 (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1976, $15.00), 371 pages.

Brown considers American military involvement a mistake as the United States should not have become engaged in an area peripheral to our vital interests without strong United Nations and ally support. Assistance should have been limited to financial and technical aid and granted only in accord with the achievement of necessary political and social reforms. Vietnam looked to the United States rather than undertaking the internal action "necessary to save itself." Introduction of American combat troops and the assumption of the war effort allowed the tail to wag the dog. America cannot respond to every crisis unilaterally, the author explains, without bleeding herself dry.

Although Brown disdains American military involvement, he emphatically condemns the feeble and vacillating conduct of the war by Johnson and Nixon. Domestic political concerns rather than military necessities dominated Johnson; and Nixon, despite his talk of victory with honor, simply threw in the towel. "Vietnamization," Brown overstates, "was frankly a cover for our withdrawal before the tragedy fell upon all Indochina." Throughout, the author excoriates both Vietnamese and American lack of resolve and will. The book ends with an appeal for the free world to unite against communist expansion, concluding, "Who will be the last domino?"

The book has some merit. It attempts to fill a gap in current literature, and it provides a wealth of detail for the general reader. Some might call the study balanced, but this would be a superficial assessment. Essentially, the author introduces new clichés to replace old ones and substitutes rhetoric for analysis. In final appraisal, the book is mediocre.

Dave Richard Palmer’s book* is more valuable although it, too, has limitations. The author, a Vietnam combat veteran who taught at West Point and the Vietnamese National Academy, admits that his work is preliminary, but he correctly maintains that some interim perspective is needed while awaiting more definitive accounts. It may be necessary to employ some of the lessons of Vietnam before more authoritative studies appear. Like Brown, Palmer relies on secondary sources, augmenting them with personal interviews and his own military experience.

*Dave R. Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective (San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1978, $12.95), 304 pages.

The book concentrates on the American combat role and reflects the military's perspective: the frustration of fighting an unpopular, politically limited campaign. Historical background is brief with only 57 pages devoted to the pre-1965 period; however, the section is loaded with interesting observations. Palmer affords a new look at the 1963 Battle of Ap Bac and the interplay of the personalities involved, including the colorful and controversial Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann. Palmer is more critical of Vann than is David Halberstam's portrait in The Making of a Quagmire {1965) and The Best and the Brightest (1972). The author forcefully rejects Kennedy's goal of a Laotian-type settlement for Vietnam as an impossible and disastrous objective. Drawing on the prepublication manuscript of Tran Van Don's Our Endless War (1978), Palmer supplies new information on the coup against Diem. Finally, he emphasizes the importance of 1964 as a major turning point in the war's escalation. In 1964 North Vietnam stepped up the infiltration and authorized direct strikes against American troops. Palmer labels the latter a short-run "fatal miscalculation."

Palmer reproves Johnson--"whom history may well remember as our most reluctant and indecisive wartime commander-in-chief"--for his timid and wavering leadership. Like Brown, he scorns the policy of gradual response and Johnson's subordination of military logic to domestic politics. Palmer cites several poor Johnson decisions, all taken against Joint Chiefs of Staff counsel and objection: (1) restricting the bombing of the North, (2) rejecting legitimate troop requests for spurious reasons, (3) refusing to call up the reserves, (4) allowing Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos, and (5) excessive meddling in the tactical affairs of military commanders. The author relates several interferences, including instances as trivial as ordering changes in operational code names. More extreme was Johnson's demand that the joint Chiefs of Staff publicly pledge that Khe Sanh could be held. Palmer calls this "one of the most humiliating gestures any American political leader has ever inflicted on his military aids."

While Johnson was inadequate, Palmer portrays Westmoreland as the good soldier operating under severe restrictions "unheard of in military doctrine." The general's finest achievement came in logistics, building the physical and supply facilities to conduct the war effort. Notable feats included towing a steel pier from Charleston, South Carolina, through the Panama Canal, to Cam Ranh Bay; laying down functional runways and helicopter pads in hours; and construction of the vast complex of military bases across the country. However, the American logistics marvel had negative attributes as well. As the author explains, "Never in any war has any force been so munificently pampered." The American soldier was allowed and came to expect "...refrigerators, movies, ice cream, PXs, Red Cross girls, air conditioners, tape recorders, their own television and radio stations, free flights to Asian resort areas, service clubs, Bob Hope Christmas shows, hobby shops, and a host of other fringe benefits." While this opulence had some justification, it diverted manpower from the combat role and brought Westmoreland's personnel skills into question. Certainly it weakened his pleas for increased forces.

On the matter of manpower, Palmer is most critical of the combat policy of attrition. It was ineffective and demonstrated an appalling lack of any real strategy. Coupled with the Washington mandate to keep casualties to the barest minimum even at the cost of operational success, combat policy led to new infantry doctrine. Rather than close and destroy the enemy, infantry troops sought out the adversary and retreated to call in artillery and gunships. American and Army of Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops became wedded to technology and external firepower. Although an architect of this situation, Westmoreland in retrospect branded this "firebase psychosis" a dangerous defensive tactical policy that could prove disastrous in a future combat situation. He continued: "Our company and junior field grade officers and many of our non-commissioned officers, whose sum total of combat experience has been restricted to Vietnam, will require re-orientation to overcome such doctrinal narrowness."

The Nixon years receive cursory treatment, although the new president gets better marks than his predecessor. Palmer focuses on the Cambodian and Laotian incursions which, along with the mining of Haiphong harbor, he considered overdue. Coverage of the post-Paris accords period is terse and superficial. The book concludes with an emotional plea to absorb and apply the lessons of Vietnam. However, even after finishing the book, the reader is not totally sure what those lessons are.

All the uniformed services are in the process of writing multivolume histories of their Vietnam experience just as they did following World War II and Korea. Robert Whitlow's book* is the first of a projected nine-volume series by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division. The book is a narrative account, largely an overview of operations, covering the rather obscure period from 1954 to 1964 when the Marines grew from a single advisor to a 700-man advisory and combat support contingent. It relies basically on official government studies and reports, oral interviews, and written comments on the original manuscript by the Marine commanders in Vietnam. Particularly, it draws on two classified studies prepared in the mid sixties by the Marine Headquarters G-3 Historical Branch. In setting the groundwork, Whitlow devotes the first chapter to a brief geography, culture, and summary history of Vietnam, which are superficial by definition. Subjects then include the origins of Marine advisory assistance in the fifties, the counterinsurgency effort, the training of Vietnamese marines, introduction of a medium helicopter force--code name SHUFLY--the unit's operations in the Delta and later in I Corps, and the early Marine ground combat involvement.

*Captain Robert H. Whitlow, USMCR, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1977, $6.75), 190 pages.

Whitlow's study is a useful source of basic information and service perspective. The numerous photographs, excellent index, and helpful appendixes (including a chronology, glossary of Marine acronyms, tenures of Marine commanders, and a list of those who reviewed and commented on the original manuscript) enhance its usefulness. But the book has limitations. It reads too much like a unit history, the lowest form of military antiquarianism. The author's approach is too parochial and lacking in critical analysis. It will be interesting to see if subsequent volumes continue in this vein.

In purpose, content, and quality, Peter Braestrup's Big Story* differs significantly from the other books reviewed here, for it has the potential to become a classic.** The journalists' outspoken role in Vietnam long will remain controversial. Kennedy and Johnson bridled at press and television independence and criticism; Nixon fumed and took measures to curtail embarrassing leaks. An extensive literature exists on the media's ability to shape attitudes toward the conflict, but nothing approaches the magnitude of Braestrup's massive study.

*For a review of the unabridged version of Big Story, see Donald Bishop, "The Press and the Tet Offensive," Air University Review, November-December 1978, pp. 84-88.

**Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, abridged (New York: Doubleday, 1978, $8.95 paper), 606 pages.

Historians agree that the 1968 Tet offensive resulted in the worst defeat North Vietnam suffered in the long war. The administration and military stated this at the time. However, the American people received a much different picture, for the press portrayed the offensive as a decisive communist victory and an American-ARVN disaster. The erroneous impression helped topple an incumbent president and accelerated the process of American withdrawal from Indochina. How did the media err? Why did their quest for the true story go so far awry? Braestrup, who was the Washington Post Saigon station chief in 1968 and is now editor of The Wilson Quarterly, attempts to answer this difficult question. His book may inspire as much controversy as the subject with which it deals. He pulls no punches, names names, praises, admonishes, explains, and condemns. Nor does he spare himself in his critique. Braestrup rejects the hawks' charge that the media were uniformly hostile to the conflict and thus ideology jaundiced their objectivity. The fault, he demonstrates, is more complex and lay with the structures and practices of press and television journalists in Vietnam, the military's information services, and the whole nature of news production and dissemination in contemporary America.

Most, correspondents in Vietnam were not qualified for their positions as war reporters. They lacked military experience and did not comprehend the complexity of warfare. Although the country seemed inundated with journalists, individual bureaus were understaffed, and the constant demand for instant, simple, dramatic news led to hasty reports, superficial perspective, and overblown interpretive analysis. The fault lay not only with on-scene reporters but all the way up the news chain of command.

Braestrup particularly blames senior news managers, who should have known better. Television was preoccupied with impact. The short, filmed vignette passed along as microcosm of the whole war became standard fare. Commentators felt compelled to pose as authorities, "dominating what they described." Their analysis was often highly speculative, telling viewers more than they knew or could know. The Tet press debacle was the culmination of a house built on sand.

This summary only hints at the breadth of Braestrup's monumental work. He is not entirely critical, for he devotes considerable space to the virtues of Vietnam journalism and the persons who distinguished themselves at various points along the way. He concludes that the Tet affair was an exception in American journalism; but it could happen again. For this reason the book should be a standard text in American; journalism schools. But it is not a book for journalists alone; it speaks to the whole informed community, and is most valuable and fascinating reading from cover to cover.

What of the lessons of the Vietnam experience? Of what value will they be in the future? Was not Vietnam unique, a confluence of circumstances, events, and history that could not happen again? Was not one of our prime mistakes the attempt to force the lessons of World War II and Korea on Vietnam? Will those lessons learned in Indochina be instructive in future crises in Europe, Africa, or Asia? Robert Pfaltzgraff has warned that the greatest lesson of Vietnam may be to be wary of lessons, and Hans Morgenthau speaks of the "unlessons" of the experience. But the historian can never remove the warning of Santayana from his conscience, and he should not.

Converse College
Spartanburg, South Carolina


Joe P. Dunn (Ph.D., University of Missouri) is Assistant Professor of History and Politics and head of the International Affairs major at Converse College, Spartanburg, South Carolina. He has taught in Greece, Turkey, Germany, and Spain. Dr. Dunn has read papers at several historical conferences and published numerous book reviews in academic; journals, including the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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