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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Sorley observes that many commentators on the war, including some authors of official Army histories, argue that the changes from Westmoreland to Abrams were evolutionary, primarily stemming from the failure of the Tet offensive, which cost the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong so many casualties that they had to change their strategy and tactics. But according to Sorley, the tapes illustrate conclusively that such an interpretation is not supported by the battlefield realities. For after Tet the enemy tried repeatedly--in May 1968, in August-September 1968, and at Tet 1969--to achieve major military victories through general offensives, even though he continued to suffer very heavy casualties with nothing to show in return. It was not until after Tet 1969 that the enemy gave up on this approach.

The contrast between Westmoreland and Abrams could not have been starker. Westmoreland's operational concept emphasized the attrition of North Vietnamese forces in a "war of the big battalions": multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such "search and destroy" operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them, and to the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

Abrams's approach focused not on the destruction of enemy forces per se but on protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas. He then concentrated on attacking the enemy's "logistics nose" (as opposed to a "logistics tail"). Since the North Vietnamese lacked heavy transport within South Vietnam, they had to pre-position supplies forward of their sanctuaries before launching an offensive. Americans were still involved in heavy fighting, as illustrated by two major actions in the A Shau Valley during the first half of 1969: the 9th Marine Regiment's Operation Dewey Canyon, and the 101st Airborne Division's epic battle for "Hamburger Hill." Most people don't realize that, in terms of U.S. casualties, 1969 was second only to 1968 as the most costly year. But now North Vietnamese offensive timetables were being disrupted by preemptive allied attacks, buying more time for Vietnamization.

Commentators also claim that Vietnamization came about in response to pressure from Washington. But improving the South Vietnamese army had been one of Abrams's top priorities since his appointment as Westmoreland's deputy in 1967. Abrams, not anyone from Washington, was primarily responsible for the emphasis on improving the South Vietnamese army, beginning the process of its recovery from the effects of long-term neglect that had prevailed under Westmoreland, who had pushed it aside so he could pursue an American war.

The 1972 Easter offensive revealed the fruits of Abrams's efforts. This was the biggest offensive push of the war, greater in magnitude than either the Tet offensive or the final assault of 1975. While the United States provided massive air and naval support, and there were inevitable failures on the part of some South Vietnamese units, all in all, the South Vietnamese fought well. Then, having blunted the Communist thrust, they recaptured territory that had been lost to Hanoi.

Together, A Better War and Vietnam Chronicles reinforce my belief that the "unwinnable" Vietnam war might have ended differently. In any event, the edited transcriptions in Vietnam Chronicles clearly demonstrate that Creighton Abrams and his team possessed a policy and strategy that, but for domestic politics, might have led to an American success in Vietnam.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam during 1968-69.