The Magazine

A Winnable War

The argument against the orthodox history of Vietnam.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Sheehan and Halberstam, in turn, greatly influenced the new U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, against Diem. They were especially effective in portraying Buddhists as victims of Diem's repression of non-Catholics. But the militant Buddhist leaders were far from the political innocents described by Halberstam and Sheehan, and the most important of them, Thich Tri Quang, was a brother of the North Vietnamese official in charge of subversion in the south. If Tri Quang was not a Communist himself, he was at least an agent of influence. Moyar provides evidence that many of the "Buddhist" protesters were, in fact, Communist provocateurs.

In fact, Diem's efforts to mollify the Americans by offering concessions to the Buddhists only invited more demands, undercut Diem's authority, and emboldened his enemies, who interpreted his attempts at compromise as weakness. The only man in South Vietnam who could reestablish order was Diem, but Ambassador Lodge insisted on further acts of conciliation, which led to further disorder. Lodge's continued meddling made Diem more intractable, which reinforced Lodge's predisposition to replace him.

If there is a villain in Moyar's account, it is Lodge. Influenced by American journalists, he saw Diem as an intransigent opponent of reform. But it was Lodge who proved to be heavy-handed and closed-minded, vices that led him to support the ouster of Diem as part of a personal vendetta. Moyar describes Lodge's duplicity: He told the president that he was unable stop the anti-Diem coup, but it was Lodge who instigated it in the first place, in defiance of Kennedy's wishes. In that sense, Kennedy was hoist on his own petard: He had sought to neutralize Lodge, a likely 1964 Republican presidential candidate, by sending him to Saigon; but when evidence of Lodge's dupli city became clear, Kennedy did not replace him for fear that Lodge would turn his ouster into a campaign issue.

It is generally accepted, even by orthodox chroniclers, that the coup and the subsequent assassination of Diem and Nhu were mistakes of the greatest magnitude. Ho Chi Minh understood the coup's import immediately: "I can scarcely believe that the Americans could be so stupid," he remarked. The Hanoi Politburo recognized the opportunity that the coup had provided the Communists: "Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communists. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists." And indeed, the coup provided the incentive for the Communists to push for a quick victory against the weak South Vietnamese government before the United States intervened.

Conditions continued to deteriorate, forcing Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, to consider an American escalation of the war to save South Vietnam. He did not, as many have argued, use the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident as an excuse to escalate U.S. involvement. That claim is belied by the fact that Johnson saw intervention only as a last resort to avoid the defeat of South Vietnam and what he thought would be the subsequent toppling of the Southeast Asian dominoes. Indeed, most observers at the time criticized Johnson for not responding forcefully enough to the Tonkin Gulf incident, and major U.S. ground intervention did not begin until nearly a year later.

Moyar contends that Johnson had viable military options that could have enabled South Vietnam to survive while avoiding the massive commitment of U.S. ground troops that began in 1965. I happen to agree, but I don't think Moyar sufficiently appreciates the immense pressure on U.S. political leaders to consider military options for Vietnam in the context of nuclear deterrence. When Johnson was weighing his options in Vietnam the United States was only three years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Indeed, we cannot understand U.S. strategic decisions in Vietnam without reference to nuclear deterrence. Many policymakers had come to believe that strategy in the traditional sense was no longer possible in the nuclear age. Rather than focusing on the choice of the proper means to achieve national goals, as strategy demands, policymakers saw Vietnam and similar cases as "crises" in need of control. The goal was to prevent a crisis from spinning out of control, leading to uncontrolled escalation, possibly to nuclear war.

Moyar does acknowledge the role of the academic theory of limited war, which was developed precisely to prevent a crisis from escalating. Most often associated with the Harvard political scientist Thomas Schelling, limited war theory emphasized using military force in a controlled way to
"signal" one's opponent. The central idea was that rational actors on both sides would limit the steps they took in order to avoid the escalation of a crisis.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was a proponent of Schelling's theory, but the uniformed military and former President Eisenhower were skeptical. Limited war theory was the very negation of strategy, but McNamara and others wrongly saw the Cuban Missile Crisis as its validation. Unfortunately, the attempt to use limited war theory to shape U.S. policy and strategy for Vietnam proved especially counterproductive, if for no other reason than the "value of the object" for the North Vietnamese was greater than that of the Soviets in Cuba.

One of Johnson's fears was that, if the United States invaded North Vietnam or Laos to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, China would intervene. But contemporary Chinese documents make it clear that no such response was contemplated. Moyar shows that our actions in Vietnam were based on bad intelligence in the service of a flawed theory of war. This contention is supported by the fact that, in 1972-73, Richard Nixon employed many of the same options available to Johnson in late 1964, and these steps would most likely have preserved the independence of South Vietnam had it not been for the action of Congress in 1974-75 to completely cut off all military support to our ally.

No review can do full justice to this critically important book. Triumph Forsaken is meticulously documented and bold in its interpretation of the record. Even orthodox historians will be forced to acknowledge the magnitude of Moyar's scholarly achievement. It should, at the least, reopen the debate about America's Vietnam enterprise, reminding us that countries are not destined to win or lose wars. Victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security at the Naval War College.