Nlf And Pavn Battle Tactics

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In Lansdale’s counter-insurgency approach, soldiers were fighters but also salesmen.Illustration by Bill Bragg

For almost thirty years, by means financial, military, and diplomatic, the United States tried to prevent Vietphái nam from becoming a Communist state. Millions died in that struggle. By the time active American military engagement ended, the United States had dropped more than three times as many tons of bombs on Vietnam, a country the kích cỡ of New Mexiteo, as the Allies dropped in all of the Second World War. At the height of the bombing, it was costing us ten dollars for every dollar of damage we inflicted. We got nothing for it.

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We got nothing for pretty much everything we tried in Vietnam giới, và it’s hard khổng lồ piông chồng out a moment in those thirty years when anti-Communist forces were on a sustainable trachồng to prevailing. Political & military leaders misunderstood the enemy’s motives; they misread conditions on the ground; they tried lớn beat unconventional fighters with conventional tactics; they massacred civilians. They pursued strategies that seemed designed lớn produce neither a victory nor a settlement, only what Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers but once a passionate supporter of American intervention, called “the stalemate machine.”


Could the United States have sầu found a strategic through line to the outcome we wanted? Could we have adopted a different strategy that would have sầu yielded a secure non-Communist South Vietnam? Max Boot’s “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale và the American Tragedy in Vietnam” (Liveright) is an argument that there was a winning strategy—or, at least, a strategy with better odds than the one we followed.

There were two major wars against the Communists in Vietnam. The first was an anticolonial war between Communist nationalists & France, which, except for a period during the Second World War, when the Japanese took over, had ruled the country since the eighteen-eighties. That war lasted from 1946 khổng lồ 1954, when the French lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu and negotiated a settlement, the Geneva Accords, that partitioned the country at the seventeenth parallel. The United States had funded France’s military failure to lớn the tune of about $2.5 billion.

The second war was a civil war between the two zones created at Geneva: North Vietnam giới, governed by Vietnamese Communists, & South Vietphái nam, backed by American aid &, eventually, by American troops. That war lasted from 1954 (or 1955 or 1959, depending on your definition of an “act of war”) lớn 1975, when Communist forces entered Saigon and unified the country. The second war is the Vietnam War, “our” war.

The more we look at American decision-making in Vietphái mạnh, the less sense it makes. Geopolitics helps explain our concerns about the fate of Vietnam giới in the nineteen-forties & fifties. Relations with the Soviet Union và Trung Quốc were hostile, & Southeast Asia & the Korean peninsula were in political turmoil. Still, paying for France to reclayên ổn its colony just as the world was about lớn experience a wave sầu of decolonization was a dubious undertaking.

By 1963, however, “peaceful coexistence” was the policy of the American và Soviet governments, Korea had effectively been partitioned, and the Sino-Soviet split made the threat of a global Communist movement seem no longer a pressing concern. And yet that was when the United States embarked on a policy of military escalation. There were sixteen thousand American advisers in South Vietphái mạnh in 1963; during the next ten years, some three million American soldiers would serve there.


Historians argue about whether a given battle was a success or a failure, but, over-all, the military mission was catastrophic on many levels. The average age of American G.I.s in Vietnam was about twenty-two. By 1971, thousands of them were on opium or heroin, & more than three hundred incidents of fragging—officers wounded or killed by their own troops—were reported. Half a million Vietphái nam veterans would suffer from P.T.S.D., a higher proportion than for the Second World War.

People sometimes assume that Western opinion leaders turned against the war only after U.S. marines waded ashore at Da Nang, in 1965, & the toàn thân counts began khổng lồ rise. That’s not the case. As Fredrik Logevall points out in his study of American decision-making, “Choosing War” (1999), the United States was warned repeatedly about the folly of involvement.

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Intervention in Southeast Asia would be “an entanglement without kết thúc,” France’s President, Charles de Gaulle, speaking from his own nation’s long experience in Indochimãng cầu, told President Kennedy. The United States, he said, would find itself in a “bottomless military và political swamp.” Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, told Kennedy that sending in American troops would be a disastrous decision. Walter Lippmann, the dean of American political commentators baông xã when political commentary had such titles, warned, in 1963, “The price of a military victory in the Vietnamese war is higher than American vital interests can justify.”


De Gaulle và Nehru had reasons of their own for wanting the United States to keep out of Southeast Asia. But Kennedy himself was keenly aware of the risks of entrapment, & so was his successor. “There ain’t no daylight in Vietphái mạnh, there’s not a bit,” Lyndon Johnson said in 1965. “The more bombs you drop, the more nations you scare, the more people you make mad.” Three years later, he was forced lớn withdraw from his reëlection chiến dịch, his political career destroyed by his inability to end the war. The first time someone claimed to lớn see a “light at the over of the tunnel” in Vietphái nam was in 1953. People were still using that expression in 1967. By then, American public opinion & much of the media were antiwar. Yet we continued to lớn sover men khổng lồ fight there for six more years.

Our international standing was never dependent on our commitment lớn South Vietnam. We might have been accused of inconstancy for abandoning an ally, but everyone would have understood. In fact, the longer the war went on the more our image suffered. The United States engaged in a number of high-handed & extralegal interventions in the affairs of other nations during the Cold War, but nothing damaged our reputation like Vietphái mạnh. It not only shattered our image of invincibility. It meant that a whole generation grew up looking upon the United States as an imperiacác mục, militarist, & racist power. The political capital we accumulated after leading the alliance against Fascism in the Second World War and then helping rebuild nhật bản và Western Europe we burned through in Southeast Asia.

American Presidents were not imperialists. They genuinely wanted a không tính tiền & independent South Vietnam, yet the gap between that aspiration and the reality of the military & political situation in-country was unbridgeable. They could see the problem, but they could not solve it. Political terms are short, và so politics is short-term. The main consideration that seems khổng lồ have sầu presented itself khổng lồ those Presidents, from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, who insisted on staying the course was domestic politics—the fear of being blamed by voters for losing Southeast Asia khổng lồ Communism. If Southeast Asia was going lớn be lost lớn Communism, they preferred that it be on another President’s head. It was a costly calculation.

There were some American officials, even some diplomats & generals, who believed in the mission but saw that the strategy wasn’t working và had an idea why. One of these was John Paul Vann, a lieutenant colonel in the Army who was assigned to a South Vietnamese commander in 1962, at a time when Americans restricted themselves lớn an advisory role. It seemed to lớn Vann that South Vietnamese officers were trying to lớn keep their troops out of combat. They would gọi in air strikes whenever they could, which raised body toàn thân counts but killed civilians or drove them khổng lồ the Vietcong. Vann cultivated some young American journalists—aao ước them David Halberstam, of the Thủ đô New York Times, & Neil Sheehan, of United Press International, who had just arrived in Vietnam—khổng lồ get out his story that the war was not going well.

Vann didn’t want the United States khổng lồ withdraw. He wanted the United States to win. He was all about killing the enemy. But his efforts khổng lồ persuade his superiors in Vietnam và Washington failed, và he resigned from the Army in 1963. He returned to lớn Vietnam as a civilian in 1965, và was killed there, in a helicopter crash, in 1972. In 1988, Sheehan published a book about hlặng, “A Bright Shining Lie,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and is a classic of Vietnam literature.

“The Road Not Taken” is the story of another military figure sympathetic to lớn the mission and critical of the strategy, Major General Edward Lansdale, & Boot says that his intention is lớn vì for Lansdale what Sheehan “so memorably accomplished for John Paul Vann.” Boot’s task is tougher. Sheehan was in Vietphái nam, & he knew Vann & the people Vann worked with. He also knew some secrets about Vann’s private life. Boot did not know Lansdale, who died in 1987, but he interviewed people who did; he read formerly classified documents; & he had access lớn Lansdale’s personal correspondence, including letters lớn his longtime Filipimãng cầu migăng, Patrocinio (Pat) Yapcinteo Kelly.


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Lansdale was at various times an officer in the Army and the Air Force, but those jobs were usually covers. For much of his career, he worked for the C.I.A. He was brought up in California. He attended U.C.L.A. but failed khổng lồ graduate, và then got married và went inkhổng lồ advertising, where he had some success. In 1942, with the United States at war with the Axis powers, he joined the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the nation’s first civilian intelligence service and the precursor of the C.I.A. During the war, Lansdale worked Stateside, but in 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender, he was sent khổng lồ the Philippines.

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It was there that he had the first of his professional triumphs. He ran covert operations khổng lồ help the Philippine government defeat a small-scale Communist uprising, & he supervised the candidacy of a Filipino politician named Ratháng Magsaysay & got him elected President, in 1953. To assist in that effort, Lansdale created an outfit called the National Movement for Free Elections. It was funded by the C.I.A.