New Zealand Chief of Army Writing Competition Finalist for the Officer Category June 2020

By Mrs. R. Michie

 

By 1968 the American political elite, including the President of the United States, knew America needed to extricate itself from the quagmire of the Vietnam War.[1]  And, watching footage of the Tet Offensive on televisions across the nation, so too did the American public.  Realising a war against such a tenacious enemy would not conclude any time soon,[2]  domestic support for the war dropped while anti-war sentiment grew over the nation’s continued involvement in a costly, irresolute and distant war: one that was “tearing apart American society.”[3]  This begs the question, if the situation was so unattractive in 1968, what had to change before America was finally able to withdraw from a substantive combat role, five years later and 20000 more Americans dead, in 1973.[4]

To examine this question a levels-of-analysis framework will be used.  While acknowledging the interrelated nature of the individual, nation-state and international-systems,[5] this essay will focus on nation-state factors and, in particular, the effects of ‘strategic threads’ within America’s strategy and that of ‘public opinion’, on Washington’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam.  The impact of individuals on America’s decision making will be briefly examined within the context of nation-state factors at play in America at the time.  To commence, however, the essay will touch lightly on the international systems level, looking at the influence of the US-China rapprochement on America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.

International-Systems: Rapprochement – shifting perspectives

It is widely acknowledged that the Domino Theory, where Asian nations were conceived as “a series of dominoes ready to fall under communist influence…”,[6] contributed to America’s entry into the Vietnam War.[7]  This threat was seen as challenging democracy, the international balance of power and, therefore, America’s national interests.[8]   America’s foreign policy answer was containment, which aimed at stopping communism’s spread without escalating into total war and nuclear conflict.[9]  In the face of such a pervasive fear, it is fair to wonder what changed in the international system to permit America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.  After all, communism still loomed large as a potential progenitor of authoritarian regimes and challenger to democracy; and withdrawing signalled acceptance that Vietnam would, most likely, be united under communist rule.[10]

One key influence can be found at the nexus between the individual and the international system – the China-US rapprochement, negotiated by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger with Chairman Mao.  Nixon and Kissinger realised that a potential exit from Vietnam could be found by ending the “strategic competition with China, which had dragged America into the war in the first place…”.[11]  From the late 1960s the Nixon administration undertook a pre-mediated and steady process of policy adjustments, domestic policy advocacy, and strategic communications that reframed China from ‘Red Menace’ to ‘Tacit Ally’ and opened the door for official diplomatic negotiation.[12]  This strategic-diplomacy culminated in Nixon’s visit to China where he agreed that Washington would recognise Mao’s government and China would “stop contesting America’s position in Asia and stop supporting communist insurgencies around the region.”[13]

Leveraging the Sino-Soviet rift and China’s openness to rapprochement, the Nixon administration was able to reframe America’s public and political perception of China from ‘enemy’, whom America was fighting by proxy in Vietnam, to ‘collaborator’ against the Soviet Union.[14]  This reframing reduced the criticality of containment in South East Asia and set conditions for the phased transfer of full security and defence responsibility to South Vietnam, allowing a drawdown of American forces as part of Nixon’s ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy.[15]

Nation-state systems: Strategic threads and narratives

At the national level, America’s strategic choices regarding Vietnam are an on-going source of debate, with scholars arguing the efficacy of America’s military and political strategies, and how these contributed to Washington’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam.  Amongst the arguments there is some consensus that flawed American strategy inevitably led to withdrawal as the only alternative to an ever-elusive victory.[16]  Various scholars have proposed a range of strategic missteps as the primary cause of failure: such as not adopting counterinsurgency methodologies; an over-reliance on conventional warfare methodology; a preference for overwhelming firepower over ‘boots on the ground’.[17]  Still other scholars hypothesise that poor military strategists were at fault; others that it was the military’s civilian masters in Washington,[18] and some that there was no “coherent American strategy in either Saigon or Washington.”[19]  However, through this panoply of arguments run certain strategic-threads; which would probably have been fatal flaws in any strategy, and therefore implicitly contributed to America’s decision to withdraw.[20]  Two threads are of particular interest, firstly, the systemic failure among strategic planners to ‘understand the enemy’ and, secondly, a failure to convince the American public that the war was vital for its national interests.

Understand your enemy – the strength of bamboo

America’s adversary in Vietnam appeared to be the far ‘weaker’ military force.  All the ‘data’ and ‘stats’ supported this ‘truth’, [21] encouraging American military and political leaders to believe such a power overmatch would force North Vietnam to bend to America’s will in short order – in other words, given enough punishment North Vietnam’s will to fight could be broken.[22]  And yet it did not, it was America’s will that broke.[23]  Why?  A possible explanation lies in America’s failure to understand North Vietnam and the tenacious strength of its will to fight.

The Vietnamese attitude to ‘invaders’ had developed out of a long history of successful resistance to foreign domination.[24]  This psyche was leveraged by Hanoi, and while fighters fought for many reasons, the unifying driver that produced the greatest will to fight was the common and fundamental belief that North Vietnam was in an existential war.[25]  As McNerney et al. argues, such a belief can be the crucial determinant in predicting a nation’s will to fight.[26]  Given the stakes for which they were fighting, no amount of sacrifice was considered too great for North Vietnam.[27]  Motivationally, America was not on the same battlefield – it was not in a war for its very existence.

Such an attitudinal difference proved decisive, as no amount of firepower overmatch could make up for this asymmetry in national will to fight.[28]  To have had a chance of victory, Washington needed to complement its firepower with significantly more ground troops, for an undefined length of time, and this would have meant national mobilisation.[29]  If America had mobilised and augmented its ground forces in Vietnam, the chances of drawing China into the conflict and escalating into a major war would have greatly increased.[30]  Not only would this have been counter to the aforementioned primary goal of containment theory, but Washington had no desire to repeat the Korean War.  Therefore, mobilisation was politically untenable, especially as Washington had failed to convincingly demonstrate the war’s criticality to America’s national interests, and consequently the public would not have accepted such sacrifice.  As a result, many scholars echo George C Herring’s observation that: “the war could not have been ‘won’ in any meaningful sense at a moral or material cost most Americans deemed acceptable.”[31]

Strategic Narrative – selling the story

Mobilisation or not, America’s ability to ‘win’ the war is another hotly contested topic, though the argument seems to be ‘two sides of the same coin’.  Some believe it could have been won, had the political courage existed to “set sufficiently permissive objectives and allocate resources accordingly…”, while others believe it was “effectively unwinnable” precisely because those factors were missing.[32]  However, as previously mentioned, such ‘adequate resourcing’ would have required mobilisation of America’s national power, and that meant “…raising taxes, calling up the Reserves and other sacrifices…”.[33]

To make such a sacrifice palatable to the American public, Washington would have had to craft a compelling strategic narrative that ‘sold’ the war in terms of: national security imperatives, American national interests, and the necessity for America’s on-going involvement.  Arguably, the inability to ‘sell’ the war undermined the war’s legitimacy with the American public and consequently the government’s ability to put the nation on a ‘war footing’, or even create a “sense of a nation at war.”[34]  This lack of cogent strategic narrative explaining ‘the why’ is in marked contrast to the skilful use of narrative to manipulate domestic opinion around the US-China rapprochement; and adds weight to the argument that Washington knew it had to find a way to leave Vietnam.  This realisation ultimately led Nixon to seek “peace with honour” via the China-US rapprochement and a way out of the war via the strategy of Vietnamisation.[35]

The Voice of the People

Among nation-state factors effecting Washington’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam, the impact of strategy will likely remain the subject of debate.  Much less contentious, however, is the impact of domestic public opinion in America.[36]   It must be noted that empirical proof of causal-links between public opinion and political decisions is hard to find[37] – especially as politicians can veil genuine reasons for decisions by attributing them to public opinion; particularly when this will bring political benefit.[38]  In the case of a connection between the negativity of American public opinion regarding the war and Washington’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam; the weight of opinion strongly suggests the presence of a causal-link.

Importantly, the Vietnam War and the shaping of the public’s opinion toward it, coincided with a period of intense radical protest, generational change, and civil unrest in America; leading Nixon to observe there was a “war at home over the war in Vietnam…”.[39]   A particularly sharp decline in domestic support for the war followed the 1968 Tet Offensive.[40]   While America’s counter-actions were militarily victorious, the Offensive proved a massive political defeat in America.[41]  Prior to Tet, consistent positive reporting and a strategic narrative of military and political success hadlulled” the American public and politicians “into a false sense of security.”[42]   The fact a ‘weakening’ enemy could concentrate to conduct attacks on multiple targets shocked America and bought recognition that “an end to the war was a long way off…”[43]; even that the war may “not be militarily winnable.”[44]  The public reaction to the Tet Offensive led Johnson to shift his administration’s policy focus to withdrawal and peace settlement negotiations. [45]   But the political damage had been done, poor public opinion of Johnson’s handling of the war has been linked to his decision not to seek re-election and the end of his political career.[46]

Despite the war’s disastrous effect on Johnson’s presidency, when Nixon came to power in January 1969, his initial, closed-door views regarding Vietnam were hawkish.[47]  However, the war’s deep unpopularity in America was undeniable and within six months Nixon had started working on the US-China rapprochement, declared the first withdrawal of American troops and announced the Vietnamisation strategy.  In short, the deep unpopularity of the war in American public opinion was a clear factor in the political decision to withdraw American troops from Vietnam.[48]

Conclusion

America’s war in Vietnam was a deeply divisive conflict that has left lasting effects on American military and political institutions.  46 years after the last American combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, the factors that influenced Washington’s decision to withdraw remain contentious.  This essay has used a levels of analysis framework to identify and examine a selection of nation-state factors, and the nexus of these factors with certain individual and international system influences.

While America’s failure to adopt a winning strategy no doubt impacted on the decision to withdraw, it is impossible to identify a primary causal-link.  This essay contends that two strategic-threads existed in America’s approach that would have undermined the success of any strategy – firstly a fundamental failure to understand the enemy, in particular the existential nature of Hanoi’s war.  North Vietnam’s motivation to win far exceeded that of America, and thus Washington, with ‘victory’ out of reach, needed to find a way out of Vietnam.  Secondly, Washington lacked a cogent strategic narrative to explain the criticality of America’s involvement in the war to the American public; and therefore was unable to win support for further military expansion in an already costly and unpopular war.  This leads to one of the clearest causal attributions in the decision to withdraw:  American negative public opinion of the war.

As the unpopularity of the war deepened amongst the American public, finding a way out of Vietnam, without losing international and domestic credibility, became an imperative for political survival.  Whether Washington’s US-China rapprochement and Vietnamisation achieved ‘peace with honour’ is debatable, but they certainly opened the door for America’s withdrawal – as the democratic voice of America had so stridently demanded.

 

Bibliography

Arreguín-Toft, Ivan. “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict.” International Security 26, no. 1 (2001): 93 – 128.

Ayson, Robert. Asia’s Security. London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2015.

Betts, Richard K. “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security 25, iss. 2 (2000), 5-50.

Boylan, Kevin. “Why Vietnam was Unwinnable.” New York Times, August 22, 2017, accessed August 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/opinion/vietnam-was-unwinnable.html

Caverley, Jonathan D. “The Myth of Military Myopia: Democracy, Small Wars, and Vietnam.” International Security 34, No. 3 (Winter 2009/10), 119 – 157.

Clarke, Jeffrey, J. Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965 – 1973, Washington: Center of Military History United States Army, 1988.

Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Goh, Evelyn. Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974: From ‘Red Menace’ to ‘Tacit Ally’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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Record, Jeffery. “Leaving Vietnam: Insights for Iraq?” Diplomatic History 34, No. 3 (June 2010), 567 – 576.

Rosen, Stephen Peter. “Vietnam and the American Theory of Limited War.” International Security 7, no. 2 (1982), 83-113.

Rostow, Walter W. “McNamara’s Vietnam War Reconsidered.” Society 35, no. 6 (Sep/Oct 1998), 78 – 83.

Small, Melvin. ‘Bring the Boys Home Now! Antiwar Activism and Withdrawal from Vietnam—and Iraq.’ Diplomatic History 34, no. 3 (2010), 543 – 553.

White, Hugh. “Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing.” Quarterly Essay 39 (2010), 1-74.

Zhai, Qiang. Interview by Tim Dilorio. “China Contributed Substantially to Vietnam War Victory, Claims Scholar.” Cold War International History Project. Wilson Center. Jan 1, 2001, accessed Aug 18, 2019. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/china-contributed-substantially-to-vietnam-war-victory-claims-scholar

[1] Robert McMahon, ‘The Politics, and Geopolitics, of American Troop Withdrawals from Vietnam, 1968–1972.’ Diplomatic History 34, no. 3 (2010), 471.

[2] Jeffrey Clarke, Advice and Support: The Final Years, 1965 – 1973, (Washington: Center of Military History United States Army, 1988), 291.

[3] Melvin Small, “Bring the Boys Home Now! Antiwar Activism and Withdrawal from Vietnam and Iraq,” Diplomatic History 34, no. 3 (2010), 551.

[4] Ibid., 543.

[5] Jack Levy and William Thompson, Causes of War, (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 18.

[6] Robert Ayson, Asia’s Security, (London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2015), 8.

[7] Ibid.; Ivan Arreguín-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict.” International Security 26, no. 1 (2001), 98; and Fred Greene, “The Case for and against Military Withdrawal from Vietnam and Korea,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 390 (1970), 15.

[8] Ayson, Asia’s, 29; and Allan Patience, Australian Foreign Policy in Asia. Critical Studies of the Asia-Pacific. (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 144.

[9] Walter W. Rostow, “McNamara’s Vietnam War Reconsidered,Society 35, no. 6 (Sep/Oct 1998), 82; and John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment : A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 80.

[10] Ayson, Asia’s, 213.

[11] Hugh White, “Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing,” Quarterly Essay 39 (2010), 4.

[12] For a comprehensive overview of the rapprochement see Evelyn Goh, Constructing the U.S. Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974: From ‘Red Menace’ to ‘Tacit Ally’, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[13] White, “Power,” 4.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Clarke, Advice, 341.

[16] James McAllister. “Who Lost Vietnam? Soldiers, Civilians, and U.S. Strategy,” International Security 35, no. 3 (Winter 2010/11), 95.

[17] For an examination of these arguments see James McAllister, “Who,” 95-123.

[18] McAllister, “Who,” 95-123; and Jonathan Caverley, ‘The Myth of Military Myopia: Democracy, Small Wars, and Vietnam,’ International Security 34, No. 3 (Winter 2009/10), 119-157.

[19] Clarke, Advice, 104.

[20] More threads are likely to exist, but this essay will examine the two most frequently observed by the author during the literature review.

[21] Michael McNerney et al., National Will to Fight: Why Some States Keep Fighting and Others Don’t, (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2018), 8.

[22] John Mueller, “The Search for the ‘Breaking Point’ in Vietnam: The Statistics of a Deadly Quarrel,” International Studies Quarterly 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), 498.

[23] Ibid., 515.

[24] McNerney et al., National, 14-15; Clarke, Advice, 10; and The Phiet Nguyên, “Vietnam’s Long History of Struggle.” Speech, Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Sydney, Jan 2005, accessed Aug 18, 2019. http://links.org.au/node/15

[25] Some fought a civil war against South Vietnam; some for independence from an imperialist force, and others for ideological imperatives. Ayson, Asia’s, 29 and 172.

[26] McNerney et al., National, 43.

[27] Ibid., 10.

[28] Kevin Boylan, “Why Vietnam was Unwinnable,” New York Times, August 22, 2017, accessed August 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/opinion/vietnam-was-unwinnable.html; and Richard K. Betts, “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security 25, iss. 2 (2000), 36-37.

[29] Boylan, “Why Vietnam.”

[30] Qiang Zhai, “China Contributed Substantially to Vietnam War Victory, Claims Scholar.” Cold War International History Project. Wilson Center. Jan 1, 2001, accessed Aug 18, 2019. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/china-contributed-substantially-to-vietnam-war-victory-claims-scholar

[31] George Herring quoted in Boylan, “Why Vietnam.”

[32] Stephen Rosen, “Vietnam and the American Theory of Limited War,” International Security 7, no. 2 (1982), 83; Kevin Boylan, “Why Vietnam.”; and Mark Moyar, “Was Vietnam Winnable?” New York Times, May 19, 2017, accessed August 20, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/opinion/was-vietnam-winnable.html?mcubz=1&module=inline

[33] Boylan, “Why Vietnam.”

[34] Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1961-1969) quoted in Moyar, “Why Vietnam.”

[35] McMahon, ‘The Politics’, 476-479; and Pach, “Our,” 556.

[36] Multiple sources identify the causal-link between American public opinion and Washington’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam.  See McMahon, ‘The Politics,’ 479-480; and Arreguín-Toft, “How,” 118-119.

[37] McAllister, “Who Lost,117.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Pach, “Our,” 557.

[40] Clarke, Advice, 291; Mueller, “The Search,” 511; and McMahon, ‘The Politics,’ 471.

[41] Rostow, “McNamara’s,” 82.

[42] Clarke, Advice, 291.

[43] Clarke, Advise, 291.

[44] Jeffery Record, “Leaving Vietnam: Insights for Iraq?” Diplomatic History 34, No. 3 (June 2010), 569.

[45] Ibid., 569. and McMahon, ‘The Politics,’ 471-472.

[46] Pach, “Our,” 557.

[47] McMahon, ‘The Politics’, 473-477.

[48] The importance of causal attribution weighting is acknowledged but is outside the scope of this essay.