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.
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.