The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

There was much tragedy in these bland words. The origins of John Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's war at least were understandable: the legacy of Korea and Cuba; Johnson's fears of being vulnerable from the right on the Great Society; our belief that we could do anything we set our minds to. But we were wrong: our commitments exceeded our ability—or at least our will—to meet them. We were tied to an unreliable ally in a country we did not understand; the premises had all changed, and after Tet it was clear that we could not win. Johnson realized that, and at the price of his presidency admitted defeat.

The Nixon years of the war are much harder to accept, both in the larger arena of strategy and in the dirty corners where the war was fought. After the spring of 1968 the war had lost its idealistic goals. We could no longer realistically believe that we were fighting and dying to save South Vietnam or to preserve democracy or even to stop the spread of communism, as we had in Korea. We were fighting, as Henry Kissinger put it, for "negotiating objectives," and to protect our credibility as an ally. And we were there because it was easier to continue than to admit failure and deal with the consequences. Before Richard Nixon was inaugurated, Clark Clifford told Kissinger that the new President had a rare opportunity to end the war at once, to put it behind us before it became his war, too, as it had been Johnson's. But Clifford's plea fell on deaf ears. Virtually half of the American deaths were still to come, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese deaths.

The veterans who fought in 1965 and in 1971 might as well have been in two different wars. The veterans of Nixon's war are much more bitter; they know that they were sent to die for diplomacy, nothing more. In 1969 we could have negotiated a departure not unlike that of the French. We had many cards to play, many ways to protect those who had depended on us. But we chose to fight for four more years, which meant that Richard Nixon's share of the war lasted longer than America's share of the Second World War. And we left in ignominy anyway, the Marine helicopters churning on the roof of the Embassy, the people who had depended on us left to the mercy of the victors.

"In the first analysis," John Kennedy said in 1963, "it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it." In the end it Eras their wag and all our dead and wounded, all our billions of dollars, all our resourcefulness and energy, changed nothing that would have happened in 1964 if we had never sent combat troops. What changed, instead, was that Southeast Asia was permanently destabilized. In Vietnam the heart and strength of the Southern guerrillas was destroyed, giving the North, our original enemy, far more influence than it would ever have had. Cambodia was brought into the War. to become first a charnel house and then a Vietnamese colony. And the original fear that had started it all, the fear of Chinese expansion? Well, we are now China's most important ally; and its bitterest enemy, the staunchest foe of its expansion into Southeast Asia, is of course Vietnam.

When I returned from Vietnam, l went to Washington to see Edwin Simmons, a retired Marine brigadier general who for the past thirteen years has been in charge of writing the official Marine Corps history of the war. During the last few months of my time in Vietnam I had been his aide. I told him what the North Vietnamese had said about the war. "Much of what they say is true," he said. "We violated many of the basic principles of war. We had no clear objective. Since we didn't have a clear objective, we had to measure our performance by statistics. We had no unity of command. We never had the initiative. The most common phrase was 'reaction force'—we were always reacting to them. Our forces were divided and diffused

"I went back in 1970, and everything was just as I had left it in 1966. The same hamlets were giving us trouble. the same units were in the same place. The only difference was that macadam and plywood had replaced mud and canvas. Our base camps and fire-support bases had become fortified islands. Our helicopter mobility worked against us. The rule of thumb was, if it was more than four kilometers, you went by helicopter. This gave the illusion of controlling ground which we didn't really control."

Still, some American strategists believe that we could have won—on the battlefield, at least—if only we had had a clear strategy, if only we had not had so many political constraints, if only we could have used our great strength and gone for the jugular with enormous force, and not with piecemeal escalation. If only ...

The most articulate proponent of this view is Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., of the Army War College. He is the author of "On Strategic" an application of the principles of Clausewitz to the Vietnam War, which is becoming a bible among younger officers. Summers ignores the debate between Westmoreland and the Marines about pacification, and instead insists that Westmoreland paid too much attention to pacification, which in Summers's view was contusing the cape, the Viet Cong, with the bullfighter, the North Vietnamese. He contends that we should have fought the way we did in Korea: leave the pacification to the South Vietnamese and strive to isolate the battlefield by concentrating on the invading army, in this case the North Vietnamese. Summers suggests, for example, that we should have focused American troops on cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Westmoreland had, in face wanted to do just that as early as 1964; he also suggested an amphibious landing in North Vietnam like General MacArthur's landing at Inchon, in Korea. But President Johnson would never agree to widen the war.

I asked General Hoang whether this strategy might have worked.

"We considered those possibilities from the beginning," he said. "We were even prepared for an invasion in 1975. during the final battle. But this wasn't Korea. You couldn't ignore the fact that our forces weren't just in the North— they were everywhere, on the spot. You yourself were in Da Nang; you know that wherever you were, we were. Cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail would not hare been easy; we had some of our strongest forces there. And it would have done no good; the puppets could never have fought us alone in the South. An invasion of the North would have caused us difficulties, we would have suffered losses, but you would have had to pay a far more terrible price, and it would never have worked."

"You know," he said, "your mistake was not in your tactics or even your strategy. You simply should not have gotten into this war in the first place. It is far easier to start a war than to end one—that is a valuable lesson."

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