Air University Review, January-February 1983

Strategic Choice, National Will,
and the Vietnam Experience

Colonel Kenneth Alnwick

RECENTLY, in conversation, a distinguished colleague challenged the utility and relevance of Carl von Clausewitz's writings for contemporary Air Force officers. U.S. Army Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., answers this challenge in his new book, On Strategy, published under the auspices of the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute.* The book demonstrates the power of Clausewitz's theories about war and the enduring utility of the principles of war as analytical tools. Colonel Summers skillfully uses these analytical tools to assess the U.S. Army's experience in Vietnam and place that experience in its political and strategic context. In so doing, he provides a convincing argument for the notion that we, in the Air Force, would be well served if we used these same tools to assess our own involvement in that conflict.

*Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, California: Presido Press, 1982, $12.95), 225 pages.

The book is well written and short enough to be read in one or two sittings. Indications are that On Strategy will be much discussed in Army circles, having generated controversy in the Army even prior to its publication. It is openly critical not only of the way that we as a nation prosecuted the war but also of the U.S. military leadership that must bear a major share of the blame for its unhappy result. In addition, our problems associated with Rolling Thunder notwithstanding, it helps lay to rest the myth that the military was "stabbed in the back by the politicians." Colonel Summers's scholarly effort is an instructive work that contributes much to our understanding of the dynamics of the war.

In essence, On Strategy is a book about strategic choice and national will--on both sides. It is organized into two major sections. Part One focuses on the environment and draws heavily on Clausewitz to explore the dimensions of national will, leadership, and the concept of "friction." Part Two focuses on the engagement, using the principles of war as a framework for analysis. Two major themes provide a continuous thread throughout. First, the United States never articulated a concept of victory but instead built a strategy that centered on "avoiding defeat." Second, instead of making victory over North Vietnam ("the source of the war") our primary task, we allowed ourselves to be diverted to what should have been our secondary task, defeat of the insurgency in the South.

Colonel Summers displays a keen mastery of the theoretical aspects of war and their relationship to the American experience as he attempts to place the Army's Vietnam experience in its proper context. His analysis spans the gamut from our earliest experiences as a new nation to the Korean War and the great debates of the '50s concerning the role of military force in the atomic age. Particularly revealing is his discussion of the American view of war as it evolved in the post-World War II period and the corresponding changes in Army doctrine prior to our involvement in Vietnam. Colonel Summers demonstrates that, prior to our entry into the war, the Army lost its focus on the relationship between military strategy and national policy--the objective. Conversely, North Vietnam steadfastly pursued one objective, the total conquest of South Vietnam by either force or subversion or both. Meanwhile, the United States experienced extreme difficulty articulating a comprehensive termination strategy. Colonel Summers concludes that we pursued a strategy of graduated response which gave the initiative to North Vietnam and placed the United States and South Vietnam on the strategic defensive throughout the war.

Nor is Colonel Summers shy about taking the United States military leadership to task where he feels it is appropriate. In perhaps his most severe criticism, he says, "Because they made the cardinal military error of underestimating the enemy, our military leaders failed in their role as 'the principle military advisors to the President.' . . . In failing to press their military advice they allowed the United States to pursue a strategic policy that was faulted from the start." (pp. 74-5)

As much as one may admire Colonel Summers for his candor and overall treatment of the subject, On Strategy does suffer from a certain bias as well as some questionable assumptions, and the underlying assumptions are ultimately where the case for any analytical effort must rest. First, the issue of assumptions. Two related critical assumptions in Colonel Summers's analysis are: (a) that U.S. concern about Chinese intervention in support of North Vietnam was unfounded and (b) that by declaring war on North Vietnam and carrying the war to the North through conventional means, the war was somehow winnable.

On the issue of China's entry into the war, Colonel Summers states,

Instead of seeing that it was possible to fight and win a limited war in Asia regardless of Chinese intervention, we . . . accepted as an article of faith the proposition that we should never again allow ourselves to become involved in a land war in Asia. (p. 37)

This, he claims, "allowed us to be bluffed by China throughout most of the war. " (p. 37) But how real was the threat of Chinese intervention, and was it in the U.S. strategic interest to confront China directly? Colonel Summers claims that we should have taken the offensive in November 1965 after the North Vietnamese regular forces had been defeated in the la Drang Valley by the Ist Cavalry Division. But there is strong evidence that China was prepared to intervene had the United States pressed on to attack the North.

By June 1965 Chinese and North Vietnamese fighters were conducting joint exercises twelve nautical miles south of the Chinese border, and they had developed a common grid pattern for air defense extending to the seventeenth parallel.1 One year later, in response to a growing U.S. force buildup in the South, China placed 50,000 troops in North Vietnam without making any real effort to conceal their presence. There, Chinese soldiers fought U.S. air attacks and died in defense of North Vietnam.2 Certainly, this action raises the interesting but disturbing question of what we would have done if China opened a second front in Korea and perhaps a third in Taiwan. Surely no experienced Chinese analyst could have said with absolute confidence that China would not react militarily. How, then, could any responsible political leader accept the risk of a major war with China given the penalty for guessing wrong? Indeed, one could say that the strategic wisdom of not engaging China has been vindicated to a substantial degree by today's atmosphere of cautious friendship and cooperation between the United States and China.

Had our national leadership been willing to take the risk, would invading the North have achieved its purpose? The struggle was tough enough in the South where the population was at least ambivalent toward the American presence. We escalated the war in 1965 because the situation in the South was falling apart and the advisory effort was unable to stem the tide. Invasion of the North would have greatly complicated the problem of population control. Also, such a large-scale assault even then could not have assured a political settlement for what was always, and predominantly, an ongoing political revolution within Vietnam, controlled from North Vietnam but deeply embedded in the fabric of South Vietnamese rural society.

This leads us to the related assumption that the war was indeed winnable. I contend that the war was essentially unwinnable because the essential ingredients for victory, the "key assumptions," were not there. This war was unwinnable for several reasons, including the fact that the Saigon government, a creature of the United States, consistently demonstrated its inability to resolve its internal contradictions, to govern South Vietnam, and simultaneously to prosecute a protracted war against a dedicated, determined enemy. But had the Saigon government been able to overcome these obstacles, one could still argue that the war would have been unwinnable since the United States, with good reason, was unwilling to undertake the tremendous costs and risks involved in totally defeating North Vietnam's government, people and ideology.

The war was also unwinnable because, to paraphrase Colonel Summers, we consistently underestimated the enemy and could not produce a coherent military strategy that was in consonance with the realities of the war.

Turning now to the problem of bias, we find that throughout On Strategy the importance of counterinsurgency and nation building activities is consistently denigrated. Colonel Summers scores our "continued fascination with counterinsurgency" (p. 53) and hammers at the theme that it was, ultimately, a conventional invasion from the North that brought about the collapse of resistance in the South. As a close student of Clausewitz and the North Vietnamese, Colonel Summers must acknowledge that for the North, military and political activity formed a seamless web, reinforced by their unshakable determination to win by any available means. The United States never had a choice between counterinsurgency and nation building on one hand and conventional warfare on the other; to have any chance of winning or even of avoiding defeat, we had to devote equal energy to both tasks.

Why, then, does Colonel Summers come down so hard on the counterinsurgency effort? While I can agree that the immediate cause of the collapse of South Vietnam was four divisions, the preconditions for this defeat were shaped by almost two decades of relentless guerrilla warfare. I fear that Colonel Summers's search for a winning strategy and concern for the future role of the Army have tended to color his analysis in favor of conventional solutions.

However, the nation's military forces cannot allow this bias (and Summers is not alone here) to obscure the need for the capability of fighting a counterinsurgency war, if called on to do so. In the Army, and even more so in the Air Force, our experience base in this most difficult form of warfare is rapidly eroding. It has been said that Mars is a cruel and unforgiving master. We in the military do not have the luxury of choosing the wars we will fight--and the days of clean "declared wars" may be forever behind us. Given the nature of war (Clausewitz) and its demonstrated characteristics since World War II, we cannot allow our distaste for counterinsurgency and all its attendant uncertainties to affect our ability to respond effectively when called.

ALTHOUGH I have taken issue with Colonel Summers for some of his assumptions and his bias, I would be remiss if I did not return to my original observation that this is, indeed, a very good book. It deserves close reading by those who are concerned about the impact of the Vietnam experience on our contemporary understanding of the theory and practice of war. Its value as a treatise on strategy alone makes it well worth the price of admission. In a letter that accompanied my copy of the book, Major General Jack N. Merritt, Commandant of the U.S. Army War College, states that the purpose of the book is to "provide and stimulate military strategic thinking so as to better prepare us to meet the challenges that lie ahead." On Strategy serves this purpose in spades. Even now, we in the Air Force still do not fully comprehend the role that air power had in shaping the character of that war, or the extent to which our perceptions about war as a grand and dangerous game differ from those who had to slug it out on the ground. Colonel Summers has given us an approach and a standard against which we airmen can measure our own ability to conduct a critical analysis of what we accomplished, or failed to accomplish, in the only war most of us have known firsthand.

Airpower Research Institute
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


1. Allen S. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975), p. 172.

2. Ibid., p. 186.


Colonel Kenneth Alnwick (USAFA; M.A., University of California at Davis) is Director of the Air University Airpower Research Institute and Vice Commander of the Air University Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He flew the A-26, T-28, OV-10, O-1, and C-47 in Southeast Asia; he was an Air Staff planner, working both force structure and regional policy issues; and he has taught history at USAFA. Colonel Alnwick is a Distinguished Graduate of Squadron Officer School and a graduate of Air Command and Staff College and Air War College.


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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