Disastrous Lessons

Disastrous Lessons

White House watchers have been abuzz for the last two weeks with news that U.S. President Barack Obama and his top advisors are reading Gordon Goldstein’s book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. The White House has rightly been commended for looking back to lessons past, for all great wartime leaders have been keen students of history. But the choice of Goldstein’s book is most unfortunate because its history is flawed and its recommendations are consequently dangerous.

Goldstein’s history is part of a swath of accounts that claim the Vietnam War was unnecessary because the strategic stakes were low and unwinnable because the enemy was less casualty-averse. In the past 15 years, however, several scholarly works have inflicted major damage on those interpretations. Instead of seriously considering those histories and the new evidence presented therein, Goldstein simply ignored them. What we are left with is an outdated portrait of history that does not even address the many potent objections that can be raised against it.

Goldstein’s historical myopia yielded the lesson that is most likely to influence the current White House: that the president should distrust predictions and resource requests from the military. In analyzing the Vietnam deliberations of 1965, Goldstein maligns the theater’s commanding general, William Westmoreland, for blithely assuming that the enemy would cave in under heightened U.S. military pressure. Westmoreland’s reliance on this false assumption, Goldstein says, resulted in a futile strategy of attrition.

The historical documents tell a different story, one in which the military leadership demonstrated noteworthy prescience. On June 24, 1965, Westmoreland cabled the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "it is time all concerned face up to [the] fact that we must be prepared for a long war," for "if the Communists have the determination to make it such, they certainly have the capabilities." He added, "I face the very practical problem of maintaining morale of people on their second combat tours, with many, many more to come, I suspect, when all the forces we require are committed." While the military prepared for the long haul, it was civilian leaders, particularly the Harvard-educated proponents of game theory, who expected rapid enemy capitulation.

Goldstein overlooks the U.S. military’s recommendations for more aggressive actions in 1964 and 1965, as well as the lack of military knowledge and the contempt for the generals that led Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other civilians to quash those recommendations. The Joint Chiefs of Staff lobbied unsuccessfully for intensified bombing of North Vietnam and insertion of U.S. ground forces in Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. North Vietnamese sources, conspicuously absent from Goldstein’s book, have since revealed that these actions would have reaped huge strategic rewards for the United States.

The White House’s rejection of those proposals nearly a half-century ago further undermines Goldstein’s criticisms of Westmoreland’s military strategy. By leaving the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, then-President Lyndon Johnson allowed North Vietnamese soldiers into South Vietnam in such numbers that Westmoreland had no choice but to engage them in big battles. Nor does Goldstein examine counterinsurgency in detail, look into specific battles, or otherwise demonstrate appreciation of the military realities on the ground. As a true reading of Vietnam history teaches, civilians — be they historians or White House advisors — should not second-guess military strategies without a strong command of the particulars.

Finally, Goldstein disregards the South Vietnamese government’s long-term potential for carrying the burden of the war. The U.S. military favored a large troop commitment in 1965 to buy time for the resuscitation of the Saigon government, which had been crippled by a series of purges following the November 1963 coup. That coup had been engineered by the U.S. civilian leadership and pushed through over the U.S. military’s objections. Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson predicted in March 1965 that saving South Vietnam would require five years and 500,000 troops. By 1970, as it turned out, the Viet Cong insurgency was in tatters, U.S. troop levels were falling rapidly from a peak of 553,000, and South Vietnamese ground forces were on their way to self-sufficiency. In 1972, after all U.S. ground forces had left, South Vietnam repulsed a 14-division North Vietnamese Army offensive. It likely would have defeated the next offensive, in 1975, had the U.S. government lived up to its promises of continued military aid and air support.

In Vietnam, the civilian leadership showed too little deference toward military advice, not too much. As the commander in chief, the president must, of course, scrutinize the military advice he receives and not defer automatically. But history suggests that the country’s military leaders possess experience, knowledge, and wisdom that warrant the utmost respect from the recipients of their advice. The White House should tune out Goldstein and instead listen intently to what the generals have to say.