The Vietnam War provides lessons in how to lose. The United States never planned to defeat its opponents, the indigenous southern Viet Cong guerrillas and their northern supporters the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam. Instead, from 1964 until 1969—during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration—we sought to compel our enemies to stop their aggression against the Saigon regime and negotiate an end to the conflict. To avoid “a wider war” and fearing Chinese or Soviet intervention, President Johnson limited the bombing of North Vietnam to a series of tactical half-measures. He failed to stem Hanoi’s source of weapons by not bombing railways and highways near the Chinese border and not mining Haiphong Harbor. Administration policy also forbade pursuing enemy forces into sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos from which they attacked South Vietnam. The U.S. strategy of “containment” rendered a stalemate.
Johnson inherited a losing proposition from President John F. Kennedy, whose advisors had no real military experience and less strategic acumen: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and a host of Washington East Coast establishment cronies. Consequently, JFK tried to preserve the Republic of Vietnam by containing—rather than defeating—aggression. That involved upping the number of advisors from a handful in 1961 to nearly 20,000 military personnel by November 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated.
Kennedy employed a threefold approach. First, he used covert operations to keep the American people unaware of the extent of U.S. involvement, such as bombing in support of South Vietnamese forces using converted training aircraft with Air Force pilots supposedly flying “training” missions. Second, while Kennedy admired Army Special Forces, he changed their mission from operating behind enemy lines to training South Vietnamese Army units and manning mud and barbed wire forts along the South Vietnamese side of the Cambodian and Laotian borders. Third, Kennedy sought technological silver bullets like spraying defoliants along highways and waterways to prevent ambushes and on jungles to reduce foliage concealing enemy encampments. The result applied too little force against an enemy determined to achieve its total war objectives of defeating the South Vietnamese military and destroying the Republic of Vietnam to unite all Vietnam under a communist regime.
Eight years ago, during the 2008 presidential election, candidate Barack Obama promised “change you can believe in.” That change drew eerily from the strategically inept playbooks of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. President Obama turned a winning strategy in Iraq into a disaster with Iran dominating part of the country and the Islamic State the other. A premature withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Obama’s declared site of the “real war,” now prompts a half-measure return of ground forces to forestall an election year disaster. Obama’s foreign policy allowed Russia to reassert influence in Ukraine and deploy military forces in Syria to establish hegemony at the world’s energy epicenter.
Further evidencing U.S. weakness were events at Benghazi on September 11, 2012 and the cover up story blaming the debacle on a video. And then there has been the kowtowing to the terrorist regime in Tehran to claim a diplomatic victory rivaling the “peace in our time” accomplishments of Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 along with the shamefully woozy reaction after the Republican Guard captured two Navy vessels and humiliated their crews. These constitute a spectacle not experienced in American foreign affairs since Jimmy Carter’s administration.
America’s war in Vietnam ended when President Richard Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger made the best of a bad situation. In the 1968 election, candidate Nixon promised to have U.S. troops out of Vietnam by January 1973. Nixon’s goals focused on “peace with honor,” involved withdrawing troops and the return of American prisoners of war. It wasn’t victory but it was doable. In the aftermath, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the United States wallowed in a post-Vietnam malaise that compelled the rise of religious fanaticism in Iran and encouraged a more blusterous Soviet foreign policy.
Then came President Ronald Reagan who exploited Soviet economic and military weaknesses with the largest peacetime defense buildup in history. The subsequent fall of Soviet communism gave the United States and the West nearly two decades of strategic pause, a new world frittered away since January 2009.
Today, the United States approaches a historical crossroad. The current path in U.S. foreign policy will produce a succession of international disasters. Millions will experience the horrors being inflicted on the Syrians. The “Levant,” including Israel, will suffer potentially apocalyptic events. The world needs clear, strong leadership only the United States can provide. Otherwise, a dark future waits.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.