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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘Vietnam’ Episode 2: There’s an iceberg ahead, but the ship speeds up

The message of this gloomy episode in the “Vietnam” min-series is that by 1963 the Vietnam War was in a downward spiral and doomed to failure no matter what else happened.



By Charles A. Krohn

Best Defense war TV critic


By Charles A. Krohn
Best Defense war TV critic

The message of this gloomy episode in the “Vietnam” miniseries is that by 1963 the Vietnam War was in a downward spiral and doomed to failure no matter what else happened.

But wait: is this supportable historically, or is it a too-narrow interpretation contrived to fit some mysterious agenda? And isn’t it premature to close the book on Vietnam in 1963?

My first reaction to is this episode is the rough equivalent of seeing our Revolution through the eyes of George III. A few American rejectionists aside, the losers don’t write history, and usually don’t even try. Not so, here.

Arriving in January 1967, I served in Vietnam as a soldier and advisor for over two years and never once doubted our inevitable victory. Even then I recognized flaws of the American Way of War (too impatient, too lethal and too vain) But when I departed Tay Ninh Province in 1972 after my second tour the Vietnamese were in charge again, holding their own and then some.

Many battles have been lost over time without the defeated party collapsing, witness the U.S. defeat at, First Manassas, Kasserine Pass, Corregidor, or even Wake Island.  Recall the British defeats in North Africa during WWII, the loss of Singapore, Dieppe, and the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse. Yet we and our Allies ultimately prevailed. Those who witnessed Ap Bac, however, had little doubt Vietnam was doomed, according to Episode #2.

Why the Ap Bac skirmish (fewer than 500 total combatants) is such a big deal here, I’m not sure. But I will try to offer an alternative explanation.

According to the Burns’ treatment, what sealed the fate of South Vietnam is first derived from the defeat at Ap Bac, the first time the VC held its ground against the understrength ARVN. But since this battle took place in 1963 and South Vietnam wasn’t conquered until 1975, perhaps it was a little premature to predict gloom and doom.

I ask readers’ patience while I explain the Army culture in 1963 that I knew and experienced it. It was driven exclusively by veterans of World War II and the Korean War. They were not idealists but hard corps and even harder chargers. The commanders’ fallback position to a reluctant subordinate was, universally, “if you can’t do it, I’ll find someone else who can.” That normally worked to stiffen the spine of the doubtful. Failure meant relief and an ignominious future. Those who failed were often relieved, their careers in ashes.

John Paul Vann was a product of this culture. He knew how to get things done and his superiors applauded this approach, even naming him senior advisor to the ARVN 7th Division. He had some personal issues back in the States following an unpleasant incident at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but the Army accommodated personal failings that didn’t affect performance of duties. (Those interested in details will find the Wikipedia treatment of Vann instructive). That’s not true today but it was then.

The pressure to run successful operations was enormous. Vann assumed responsibility for planning the Ap Bac campaign, because that’s what aggressive advisors did. He left the ARVN commander to execute the details in what was expected to be a simple exercise. Because the Viet Cong (VC) normally faded away at the first contact, Vann must have had high confidence his plan would succeed, a feather in his cap. Intelligence was that only 120 VC were operating a clandestine radio. The actual figure was 340 VC, the odds favoring the defender. The attackers could call on significant support from air and ground, which was not part of Vann’s planning. When called upon, it was too late to affect the outcome.

As reported in Episode #2, the attack went sour and 80 ARVN were killed, as well as 3 American soldiers advising and supporting them. Vann tried to control the battle from a light airplane. He was not calm. He must have realized he was about to pay a price for incomplete planning, unless he could shift the blame to the responsible ARVN community.

After the battle Captain James Scanlon was so upset or frightened, he told Burns, that, “I wouldn’t let the Vietnamese touch the dead Americans.”  I claim this is a very telling statement, showing how far apart the Americans and the U.S. advisors were. Perhaps he and Vann believed the ARVNs were responsible for American deaths?

The conventional wisdom is advisors and those they support share a common goal of mutual understanding and respect. This is often far from the truth, because advisors tend to assume they’re the real commanders and those they advise, subordinates. Further, the American chain of command assumes the same thing: we’re here and we’re in charge.

From personal experience, my superiors in Korea held me responsible for keeping in line the Republic of Korean (ROK) company I and a handful advisors supported. In fact, the Koreans only wanted help keeping them supplied, while providing cover that I was in charge. The myth worked and I was promoted.

Mistrust, even hatred, between allies is corrosive. And Americans often don’t cotton to foreigners. In Episode #1 John Musgrave, a young Marine in 1967, confessed to Burns that “I hated them (the Vietnamese) so much. My hatred for them was pure.” This attitude is not helpful but it was not unusual. Diem felt that pressure from Vann and Washington meant surrendering Vietnam sovereignty, and claimed he would die first. Burns treats this scene well.

After the ARVN defeat at Ap Bac couldn’t be denied, reporters repeated the claim that Vann’s version was factual. Sheehan, UPI’s man on the scene, justified filing stories that Vann essentially dictated because he believed “reporting the truth would help to win the war…He was able to explain to us what was going on.”

My suspicion is that Vann was distraught by the failure of his plan to eliminate the VC at Ap Bac. Rather than accepting responsibility for failure, he sought out friendly reporters with his version that fault was an ARVN responsibility. Reporters had few other sources and Vann held nothing back. Sheehan, Halberstam, and Browne filed story after story that Diem was hated by the population and more interested in feathering his Catholic nest than winning the war.

True or not, Diem’s reported shortcomings found a home in Washington that was (and still is) looking for easy answers and facile solutions. Roger Hilsman at the State Department  took advantage of a unique opportunity to get Kennedy to approve a message to instruct hungry and subversive generals in Saigon that we wouldn’t intervene to halt Diem’s ouster. That’s all they needed to strike. As scholar Mark Moyar reports, mayhem followed. Senior military and CIA officials didn’t agree to Diem’s dismissal, but they were not consulted before the massage was sent. Diem and his brother Nhu perished. Buddhists danced in the street. If there was a downward spiral, it began here.

My take is that after Diem’s successors failed to consolidate any gains whatever, we feared the Communists were headed for victory. And after South Vietnam fell, Cambodia, Laos and possibly Thailand were destined to follow, the so-called Domino Theory. To prevent this, we quickly Americanized the war and suffered the slow agony that followed in our inability to bring the war to a decisive conclusion. Vietnamization was then a band aide to mask our ignominious withdrawal. The collapse ended when Saigon was occupied in April 1975; it began when Diem was assassinated with our concurrence. The reason we lost faith in Diem was because David Halberstam told us he was a bad man.

Just before he was assassinated, JFK recorded that, “I should not have given my consent.” By that time there were 16,000 American advisors in Vietnam. Within a few years, there were more than 550,000 Americans fighting in Vietnam as Vietnam’s surrogate, almost all believing that victory was within reach.

I was one of them.

LTC Charles A. Krohn, U.S. Army (ret.), is the author of The Lost Battalion of Tet, and a former deputy chief of public affairs both of the Army and the American Battle Monuments Commission. He was last sighted in the vicinity of  Panama City Beach, Florida.

Photo credit: NOAA

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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