The Magazine

Lost Victory

Creighton Abrams might have won the Vietnam war.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Vietnam Chronicles

The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972

edited by Lewis Sorley

Texas Tech University Press, 917 pp., $50

IT IS SURELY THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom that the United States was predestined to lose the Vietnam war. According to the orthodox view, the Vietnamese Communists were too determined, the South Vietnamese too corrupt, and the Americans incapable of fighting the kind of war that would have been necessary to prevail.

Despite its origins as a staple of left-wing political opinion, the claim that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was inevitable now transcends ideology. Today, when conservatives deny the claim that Iraq is like Vietnam, many do so because they, too, believe the conventional wisdom about Vietnam.

Several years ago, Lewis Sorley provided an antidote to the conventional wisdom, a remarkable book entitled A Better War. Building on his excellent biographies of Army generals Creighton Abrams and Harold Johnson, Sorley examined the largely neglected later years of the conflict and concluded that the war in Vietnam "was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress."

Sorley's argument is controversial, but I find it persuasive. The fact is that most studies of the Vietnam war focus on the years up until 1968. Those studies that examine the period after the Tet offensive emphasize the diplomatic attempts to extricate the United States from the conflict, treating the military effort as nothing more than a holding action. But as William Colby observed in a review of Robert McNamara's memoir, In Retrospect, by limiting serious consideration of the military situation in Vietnam to the period before mid-1968, historians leave Americans with a record "similar to what we would know if histories of World War II stopped before Stalingrad, Operation Torch in North Africa and Guadalcanal in the Pacific."

Colby was right. To truly understand the Vietnam war, it is absolutely imperative to come to grips with the years after 1968. A new team was in place. General Abrams had succeeded General William Westmoreland as commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command-Vietnam in June 1968, only months after the Tet offensive. He joined Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring. Colby, a career CIA officer, soon arrived to coordinate the pacification efforts.

Far from constituting a mere holding action, the approach the new American team followed constituted a positive strategy for ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. As Sorley wrote in A Better War, Bunker, Abrams, and Colby

brought different values to their tasks, operated from a different understanding of the nature of the war, and applied different measures of merit and different tactics. They employed diminishing resources in manpower, materiel, money, and time as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn. They went about that task with sincerity, intelligence, decency, and absolute professionalism, and in the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace.

Sorley has now provided us with a glimpse of the record upon which he based his assessment of Abrams and the conduct of the war after 1968. During the four years General Abrams was commander in Vietnam, he and his staff made more than 455 tape recordings--2,000 hours of briefings and meetings. In 1994, with government approval, Sorley began transcribing and analyzing the tapes. In a year of very long workdays, Sorley laboriously produced 3,200 single-spaced pages of handwritten notes and extracts, which he used to write A Better War.

But Sorley believed that the tapes contained much more of interest to scholars and historians of the war than he could include in the book, so he decided to publish an annotated collection of extensive excerpts from the tapes. The bulk of the excerpts are from the Weekly Intelligence Estimate Updates--briefings that Abrams received from June 1968 to June 1972--but they also include recordings of meetings with such visitors as the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other high-ranking officials.