On the cusp of General David Petraeus’ report on the “surge” of American troops in Iraq we should recall one of the most important if neglected lessons of the war in Vietnam: Don’t listen to generals.
During the Vietnam War, America’s top generals were consistently wrong in their assessments and recommendations. The generals’ display of bad judgment began a dozen years before America’s withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. In October 1963, with about 17,000 U. S. military “advisers” in Vietnam, the top U. S. commander, General Paul D. Harkins said, “I can safely say that the end of the war is in sight.” General Charles J. Timmes the head of America’s Military Assistance Command added, “we have completed” the job of training the South Vietnamese Army.
A month later, the situation had become so desperate in Vietnam that President John Kennedy approved a coup by South Vietnamese generals that led to the assassination of President Ngo Diem. It didn’t help.
Two days after Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration in 1964, Ambassador Maxwell Taylor cabled from Vietnam: “We are presently on a losing track To take no positive action now is to accept defeat in the fairly near future. The game needs to be opened up.” Johnson responded by commencing a major America ground and air war in Vietnam.
Yet the president knew that short of nuclear war (“blow them out of the water in ten days,” he said) America could not achieve a military victory in Vietnam. Rather, he hoped only to force a negotiated settlement by raising the costs of war for the North Vietnamese. In June 1965, he told his cabinet: “Our objective is just that: to convince them that they can’t win there. We think we can achieve this objective my moving toward a stalemate.” But how could a president ask Americans to sacrifice their lives to tie one for the Gipper?
Johnson took the nation to war on what he knew was a false pledge of victory, backed by his generals. In late 1966, as the United States was expanding its troop strength in Vietnam to 360,000, General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Americans, “I was able to report to the President that the war in my judgment continues in a very favorable fashion.”
In November 1967, with 467,000 U. S. troops in Vietnam, the American commander General William Westmoreland said, “I have never been more encouraged in my four years in Vietnam.” A point in the war had been reached,” he added, “where the end comes into view.”
Two months later, the enemy launched a devastating surprise offensive during Vietnam’s Tet (New Year) holiday. American and South Vietnamese troops technically “won” the Tet battles. However, the intensity of the attack and the obvious dependence of the South’s government on a massive American troop presence and bombing campaign made continued predictions of victory sound hollow. In March 1968, President Johnson’s new Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford warned, “the major concern of the American people is that they do no see victory ahead more men go in and are chewed in a bottomless pit.”
Despite their public optimism the generals had no workable plan for victory. Shortly before Tet, President Johnson privately pleaded with his commanders to “search for imaginative ideas to put pressure to bring this war to a conclusion,” not just “more men or that we drop the atom bomb.” The generals had no answers beyond Westmoreland’s incredible and rejected request for 200,000 additional troops, beyond the planned deployment of 550,000 in 1968, when America began its long, painful withdrawal from a losing war that cost 58,000 American lives and more than three million Asian lives.
There are deep-seated reasons for the generals’ misstatements and misjudgments. As we recently learned in the responses to the Abu Ghraib scandal and the death of Pat Tillman, the military is neither self-reflective nor self-critical. It believes in its ability to succeed in any mission, even when the challenges are cultural and political, not military, as in Vietnam and Iraq.
The real action next week will not come with General Petraeus’ report. Like his Vietnam-era predecessors, he will predictably support administration strategy, although with enough caveats to give an aura of credibility to his testimony. The big question is whether the media and the Democrats in Congress will stand up to the general or will surrender again to the politics of fear, as they did in the push for war during 2002.
ALLAN J. LICHTMAN is a professor of history at American University in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.