William Lloyd Stearman, PhD, Senior US Foreign Service officer; National Security Council staff under four presidents; former Adjunct Professor of International Affairs. Georgetown University

The following are extracts from Dr. Stearman's memoir An American Adventure, From Early Aviation Through Three Wars to the White House (Naval Institute Press, 2012)

He was directly involved with Vietnam continuously for over ten years beginning in December 1965 from the rice paddies to the White House including 20 months “in country.” From Jan 1973 to Jan 1978, he was Director of the NSC Indochina Staff making him the most senior US official who dealt exclusively with Vietnam Laos and Cambodia.


A Tactical Defeat, but a Strategic Victory

“Was the Vietnam War really worth it?”, asked many when it was all over, ending with a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Forgotten is the reason we went into Vietnam in the first place. In April 1954, President opined that a Communist victory in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) could topple Southeast Asian countries like “dominos.” While pooh-poohed by liberals and others, subsequently the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and India openly agreed with Eisenhower’s "domino theory” as did Communist leaders in the Soviet Union, China and North Vietnam. The war bought time for strengthening the Southeast Asian regimes while wearing down North Vietnam. In the 1970s, Indonesian leaders Suharto and Malik confirmed to columnist Robert Novak that they had earlier told US officials that our introduction of combat troops in Vietnam, in March 1965, substantially encouraged their resistance to a nearly successful October 1965 Chinese-backed Communist coup which would have toppled a number of dominos, had it succeeded and which in turn would have no doubt triggered our treaty obligation to come to the aid of the Philippines in the face of a massive Communist threat which would have dwarfed the threat we faced in Indochina.

We got into World War II as a result of our opposition to the Japanese takeover of what later became Vietnam, so this area was of interest to our national security even at a time when it was far more remote in travel time than in the 1960s. On the whole, George Kennen’s ultimately successful “containment policy” largely worked in regard to our Vietnam policy. The outcome of the Vietnam War should thus be regarded as a tactical defeat, but a strategic victory,

What We Did Wrong in Vietnam and What We Should Have Done

We should have supported Ngo Dinh Diem, difficult autocrat that he was, instead of encouraging his ouster. We should also have realized that Buddhist anti-Diem rioting was political, not religious in nature. (They later also rioted against his successors and helped the Viet Cong, no end.) Diem, a Catholic, certainly did not persecute Buddhists and indeed had a number of Buddhist pagodas built Vietnamization should have begun in 1966 when things were somewhat stabilized in Vietnam. We should have concentrated on training ARVN and Marine officers and noncoms. Instead, our general attitude was, “Stand aside, you little guys, and let us do it better.” I plead guilty to not having made any effort to help train my Vietnamese counterparts.

Service tours should have been between 20 and 24 months. One year was simply too short. With one year tours, by the time one learned his job, he was on his way home. Units should have been deployed intact. The steady infusion of casual replacements was not good for unit integrity.

Only volunteers should have been sent to Vietnam with draftees sent to Germany, South Korea and other places where we had troops stationed. (As it was, two thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers.)If there weren’t enough volunteers, National Guard and reserve units should have been activated. Also we were far too generous in granting student deferments. Many students have told me that they strongly opposed the war because they felt guilty about staying in school, while the less fortunate were drafted and sent to Vietnam. Most of the vocal opposition to the war came from students, largely, I would guess, for this reason..

We should have organized the tens of thousands of trained guerrillas and sappers who defected to our side into teams based on the Armed Propaganda Teams and the Marines’ highly effective Kit Carson scouts. These teams should have been inserted in enemy areas to attack enemy installations and lay ambushes along their lines of communications, .including the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This would have tied up many enemy troops in static defense roles.

We should have had a credible amphibious capability, located just below the DMZ, which would have conducted regular amphibious exercises, as well as launched feints and forays along the North Vietnamese coast to tie down troops in defense of the North.

The Marines should not have been used in static defense, in places such as Khe Sanh, but should have been redeployed from the north, where they first landed, to the delta area, from Saigon to all the area to the southwest, with all its large rivers and tributaries, where the Navy primarily operated. Being in the naval service, this was a natural environment for Marines.

Our use of firepower was often profligate which was costly in dollars and in loss of popular support. This was especially true of continuous random harass and interdiction (H and I) fires which were eventually mostly terminated as not being all that effective. In general, I concluded from our experience in Vietnam that when one has near limitless resources, as we had, one is no longer resourceful.

Our “tooth to tail” ratio was all out of whack. When we had over 500, 000 troops in Vietnam, only about 80,000 were in maneuver battalions, that is actual combat troops. Also our troops, including officers even at the general level, should have been living in Quonset huts or under canvas, instead of in residences. I found it somehow obscene to see our top commanding Army general living in a relatively large house with its own tennis court where the general could be seen decked out in whites playing tennis within the sound of firefights just out of town..

We should have taken out missile sites in North Vietnam as soon as they were being built and not worried about killing Soviets involved in building these sites.

We should have mined Haiphong (and possibly also Sihanoukville) harbor early on to block shipments of war materiel. We should also, early on, have bombed Haiphong’s docks.

Bombing of military targets should have been done on a continuous basis without “bombing pauses” to encourage negotiations. Actually such halts logically removed incentives to negotiate. This should have been obvious.

The war should not have been micromanaged from Washington as it was by LBJ and Secretary of Defense McNamara. The best commanders should have been sent to Vietnam and then trusted to make the right decisions.

Two battleships and two to four heavy cruisers should have been dedicated to Vietnam service (as recommended by a Navy panel in November 1964). The development of extended range sixteen rounds should have been encouraged. (Instead very promising and inexpensive tests of such rounds were cancelled by the Navy in 1968.) Targets in both North and South Vietnam within range of sixteen inch guns should generally have been attacked by battleships, not aircraft, whenever possible.

The US Government should have done a much better job explaining the war to the American public. The only really good and persuasive official publication on the war that I ever read was put out by the Australians. This is a sad commentary, indeed.

We should have postponed negotiations with the enemy until we had a dominant position on the ground (This would have required explaining the actual situation to the US public and Congress.)

We thus should not have seriously entered into negotiations with the enemy when we did. By continuing the fighting for some additional months into 1973, our negotiating position would have been much stronger. If it were shown that by this we were winning, it would probably have been supported by public opinion and even Congress.(I believe this could have had much the same effect as the “surge” later had in the Iraq War.).

We and the North Vietnamese concluded a solemn accord, the 1973 Peace Accords, which cost us some 58,000 lives and countless billions of dollars to achieve. The North Vietnamese massively violated this agreement and imposed a Communist regime on our Vietnamese allies. We should, at a minimum, have insisted on substantial reparations as the price of our diplomatic recognition of Communist Vietnam.

On October 25, 2004, the History Channel presented in interviews the thoughts of knowledgeable North Vietnamese on the Vietnam War. They had the following interesting bits of information:

--Two million North Vietnamese lost their lives during the war due to hostilities and to illnesses, most malaria.

-- The Viet Cong were almost completely wiped out during the Tet Offensive. The VC were always under Hanoi’s total control.

-- U.S. and ARVN (South Vietnamese) troops could have effectively interdicted and blocked the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

-- Had the North feared an attack on its soil or had an attack actually been launched, it would have tied up most North Vietnamese troops in the North.

Most the above observations will be of negligible use in future conflicts, but they do help explain why we did not have greater success in Vietnam.

How the Media Helped Lose the War

From 1957 to 1972, 36,775 civilians were assassinated and another 58,499 were abducted by the VC. Only about a quarter of them could be classified as government employees. (America in Vietnam by Guenter Lewy, Oxford University Press, 1978) All this was designed to gain control through systematic intimidation and to discredit the Saigon government. This pervasive terrorism was hardly reported by the US and other correspondents based in Saigon. I talked to many of them and they all told me that if they filed (or filmed) a story which was positive in respect to the US and Vietnamese war effort, it was never used. Only negative stories (except those stories criticizing the enemy) ever wound up being used. The positive ones ended up in trash baskets or on the cutting room floor. (We have seen something similar in the Iraq War.) The result was that the American reading and TV viewing public was badly misinformed about Vietnam contributing mightily to all the antiwar sentiment in the States. When I read what was being reported back to the US I wondered if the correspondents who wrote them were really writing about country I was in.

The most egregious atrocity of the war was scarcely covered by our media. On January 30, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, Communist forces captured the old imperial capital of Hue in northern South Vietnam and held it for 25 days. Communist cadres with previously prepared lists of names on clipboards went from door to door arresting leading citizens of the community. In all nearly 6000 people were led away mostly to their death. Later a mass grave of some 2,800 bodies was discovered with strong evidence that most had been buried alive. Ace German correspondent Uwe Siemon-Netto (Springer papers) and Peter Braestrup of the Washington Post covering this story noticed a TV crew

standing by doing nothing and Braestrup asked them why they weren’t filming this atrocity. The reporter replied we don’t film anti-Communist propaganda. Hanoi took full credit for this massacre, April 17, 1968, justifying, it by labeling the victims “hooligan lackeys who owed blood debts to the people.” In other words, this massacre was conducted as a matter of policy.The New York Times, which had the largest bureau in Vietnam, carried only a brief wire service piece on this atrocity. Its staff clearly didn’t think it worthwhile to cover, In any case, this was at the most a one or two day story in US media.

On March 16, 1968, members of an Americal Division company cold-bloodedly murdered nearly several hundred unarmed civilians, mostly women, children and elderly, in the hamlet of My Lai. A 1st Lieutenant William Calley was held to be primarily responsible. The Division understandably, if unconscionably, kept this massacre a secret for a year. When it was finally exposed there was a media coverage frenzy that went on and on. It was most certainly an outrage and absolutely unconscionable, but, totally unlike the planned and deliberate Hue massacre, it was an aberration and totally against Army policy. In 1971, Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment which, due to a misplaced outcry on his behalf, was eventually reduced to a parole. Back in the States when I would lecture on Vietnam at colleges and elsewhere, I would ask who had heard of My Lai and all hands would go up. When I asked who had heard of the Hue massacre, no hands went up. Such was the media impact back home.

There was always something negative to report about Vietnam. The Saigon regime was always pilloried for being corrupt and incompetent which to some extent it surely was. And there were always accounts of military incompetence by both our and Vietnamese troops the latter often being accused of avoiding combat, which they sometimes did. It is interesting how many Americans seemed to think there was something pristine about the discipline and determination of the Communist side compared with the corruption on our side. Little did they realize that corruption was far more widespread in the North than in the South because when everything, including the entire economy, is controlled by the regime, its cadres have countless opportunities to shake down peasants and others to enrich themselves. This corruption had got so bad that Ho Chi Minh himself, in 1967, had to go on the radio to condemn this widespread practice. Of course, even if the American media knew about this, they would never have reported it.

One especially egregious example of our media’s dereliction was their totally ignoring the Saigon regime’s largely completing, in 1972, what was probably one of the most successful land reform programs in history, “Land to the Tiller,” which eventually made nearly every South Vietnamese peasant a land owner, greatly enriching the economy and strengthening support for President Thieu’s regime. This incredible accomplishment was virtually ignored by US media. I was especially struck by how free everyone felt in Saigon which was not only at war with a deadly enemy, but was virtually beseiged.  I was also struck by the fact that suspected VC terrorists got a reasonably fair trial and some were actually acquitted. Of course none of this would ever be reported. Not long ago, columnist George Will wrote that to most of the media “good news is an oxymoron.” This certainly applied to Vietnam.

The coverage which was by far the most damaging to our cause in Vietnam occurred during the Tet Offensive. Tet, or the Chinese New Year as we called it, was to the Vietnamese our New Year, Christmas and birthday parties all in one. Everyone got new clothes, gifts were exchanged and special meals were prepared. During most Tets there was a kind of truce in the fighting and many troops would be on leave with their families. Tet in 1968 began on January 30. On this date the Communist side, in large measure the local VC, launched a major offensive to promote a general uprising of the population against the Saigon government, which it fully expected would succeed. These forces managed to penetrate, capture or both most of the cities and towns of South Vietnam. They penetrated Saigon itself and for a short time even occupied the grounds around the US Embassy.( The media incorrectly reported that they had occupied the embassy itself.) This offensive obviously was an enormous media event, and the American public was bombarded with doom and gloom images of destruction and defeat. These 1968 images etched in peoples’ minds, especially by TV, played a major and continuing role in eroding American support for the war effort.

The Communist side had, in effect, shot its bolt. For example, many undercover VC cadre blew their covers by surfacing in support of the offensive and the expected “uprising” and suffered the consequences. Before long, the VC cum NVA troops were decisively defeated and driven out of all the towns and cities and of much of the territory they held. Instead of inspiring a popular uprising, the VC incurred the wrath of the people and greatly increased, previously weak, popular support for the government. The VC never recovered from this crushing defeat. Thanks to US media, however, this was scarcely reported, leaving a lasting impression that the offensive had succeeded. Thus, thanks to our media, the Tet offensive, militarily a decisive defeat for the Communist side, was for Hanoi a significant psychological and political victory in the US which contributed greatly to the ultimate success of the Communist cause in Vietnam. The significant demise of the VC led to a rapid acceleration of pacification of the countryside which ensured the success of the land reform program described above. The great advance in security was demonstrated, in 1969, by a successful bicycle race from one end of the country to the other, something unthinkable a year or so before.

One of the correspondents I came especially to like and respect was Dwight Martin, I believe he worked for Newsday, and I persuaded him to cover a positive story if I could find one. Not long thereafter, I got a call from one of the US Army advisors to the Regional and Popular (militia) Forces or “Ruff Puff” as we called them. He gave me an especially stirring account of how a Popular Force unit in a village in the Delta some distance southwest of Saigon had turned back a sizeable Communist attack the previous afternoon. Moreover, the village itself was something of a model of good program implementation. I called Dwight and we drove to the RF/PF headquarters to meet my US Army contact there. He asked if I wanted to do down in his jeep or in my red Volkswagen. I was shocked, since I had assumed we would be going down to the village in a chopper.  Evidently the poor cousins RF/PF didn’t rate aUS  helicopter. Dwight was still game to go, so I felt I had to go with him despite our having to drive through some fairly insecure areas, and I had only two or three months left in my tour.

We took off in my car. I had a Colt .45 cal. automatic on lap and the officer with us had an M-16 rifle. Dwight was unarmed. Before long the road we were on became disturbingly empty, always a bad sign. I picked up speed despite the potholes in the road, to discourage being shot at on the way down. The village was indeed a good story. Not only had the PF unit fought bravely and well in repelling the recent attack, but the village itself had successfully implemented health and social programs that the Saigon regime kept trying to propagate in the countryside with varied success. All in all, it was a great success story and should have made good copy. As the afternoon lengthened, we decided we had better head back to Saigon before the VC began to close .in. On the way back I drove as fast as the road would permit, and we were actually shot at. I was, of course, enormously relieved to make it back to Saigon. That evening Dwight filed his story. Two days later, he told me it had been rejected. Obviously it was far too positive. So I could well understand why the media stuck to good old tried and true negative reporting.

The Inside Story of How We Ensured the South Vietnamese Defeat

By 1972, the Vietnamization process and been largely completed and there were no more US ground forces in Vietnam except as advisors. However, we still provided air, naval and logistics support. In 1972, the US had only about 200 killed in action as opposed to an average of about 7000 in previous years. Hanoi decided to test Vietnamization by launching, on March 30,1972, its largest offensive of the war, 1972 “Easter Offensive” with the equivalent of 23 divisions equipped with hundreds of Soviet supplied tanks, long-range artillery and rockets, surface to air missiles and other modern weapons. In other words, this was the first mostly conventional enemy offensive of the war. South Vietnamese grounds forces, ARVN and Marines, with US air, naval and logistics support on the offensive and when Marines retook Quang Tri, September 15, 1972, it was obvious that the attackers could not hold anything, as noted below. What finally led Hanoi to make concessions was the effective defeat of its offensive which ended with their losing some 100,000 troops killed in action, about twice the number of KIAs we had suffered in the entire war And bear in mind, the enemy had to scrap the bottom of the stopped the offensive and launched counter offensives. I’m afraid I was so influenced by my recent negative experience on the ground in Vietnam, where I was under fire a good bit of the time, I later could not realize the seriousness of the enemy’s ultimate post offensive weakness. The intelligence I was getting from the CIA did not reflect this, since its analysts had long concluded that the war was for us unwinnable and tended to emphasize the negative, not unlike the US media.

The key evidence of the extent of the enemy’s defeat was the expulsion by South Vietnamese marines, on September 15, 1972, of all Communist forces from the northernmost provincial capital of Quang Tri, the only provincial capital taken in the offensive. Quang Tri was the strongest position held by the enemy in all South Vietnam. There, they had their best troops and equipment as well as the very shortest supply lines of communication to North Vietnam less than twenty miles away. Clearly if they couldn’t hold Quang Tri they couldn’t hold anything else and were on the way to being totally expelled from the South. Unfortunately, I had finally taken a few days leave at a Delaware beach and was out of touch on September 15. When I returned to the White House I learned nothing of this key turn of events in reading the latest CIA reports, which, as noted above, were not inclined to stress or even convey positive developments.

Sometime after Hanoi had won the war in 1975, a former top commander in the South, General Tran Van Tra, stated, in the Party organ Nhan Dan, that, in effect, his troops were, by March 1973, on the ropes and seemed on the verge of defeat. As former CIA Director William Colby, who certainly no “hawk,” wrote in his 1983 book Lost Victory, “[By the fall of 1972] on the ground in South Vietnam the war had been won.” I still feel, that as HAK’s expert on the enemy, had I been able to convince him that the other side was on the verge of defeat he might have been emboldened to take a tougher position in negotiating with Hanoi’s representatives or, better still, might have postponed negotiations pending a more favorable position on the ground. But most probably, I’m just dreaming.

On September 26, Kissinger entered into talks in Paris with his long time North Vietnamese negotiating partner, Le Duc Tho (whom we all called “Ducky”), who indicated his side was willing to make concessions sought for years by our side. This intrigued Kissinger who had been dedicated to negotiation. Formal negotiations began on October 8 outside of Paris in the former studio-home of famed French Communist artist Ferdinand Leger. Thus Henry Kissinger, with the best of intentions, began the process that finally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Kissinger pocketed Tho’s concessions, but unfortunately conceded an earlier agreement to a cease-fire in place that would leave North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. John Negroponte, a mid-level Foreign Service officer who usually accompanied Kissinger at these negotiations, courageously put his career on the line by, unsuccessfully, going mano a mano with Kissinger in opposing this fatal concession. Kissinger, wrongly in my opinion, believed that the Watergate scandal (which was only later to become public with the October 20, 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre”), congressional opposition and even the upcoming presidential election would impede extending the conflict long enough to expel all NVN troops from the South. This is the profound miscalculation that lost Vietnam. Thanks, I believe, to our intelligence gap, Kissinger did not fully realize how close to victory Thieu’s forces were, and, as noted, I wasn’t much help to him in this regard.

The NVN side leaked that a negotiated peace was near. This was confirmed by Kissinger (later much to his regret). Once Congress heard this, interest in continuing the war rapidly waned. However, since SVN forces were on a roll, Thieu understandably wanted to continue fighting until the NVN troops were expelled. Accomplishing such a victory would no doubt have produced a change of attitude on the war in the US. Thieu had to be brought into line with threats, often issued in the (usually not consulted) President’s name. Hanoi’s delegation, believing it now had the better of us, began to renege and broke off talks. It took the so-called “Christmas” bombing campaign (which produced remarkably little collateral civilian damage) to bring them back to the table. Kissinger described that, in contrast to Le Duc Tho’s pre-bombing hostility, upon returning to the negotiating table, Tho embraced Henry with such ardor that, for a brief moment, as he later joked, he thought he was the object of a homosexual attack. The “Paris Peace Accords”, signed on January 27, 1973, were immediately and massively violated by Hanoi’s forces. Initially these were mostly violations of the ceasefire. The most serious and prolonged violations were the massive infiltration of men and equipment. The primitive old Ho Chi Minh trail was, in effect, converted to a kind of superhighway. All these violations were later described in detail by the North Vietnamese Chief of Staff General Van Tien Dung in a an April-May 1976 series of articles in the Party daily Nhan Dan.

A plan to meet this serious threat called for new negotiations to be preceded by US air attacks on Communist forces. Alas, Nixon, preoccupied by Watergate, cancelled these air strikes, but, unfortunately we were stuck with going ahead with these, to me farcical, if not humiliating, talks at Leger’s old place outside of Paris in May and June 1973. In a June meeting, Kissinger threatened to resume air strikes if the violations continued, whereupon the Hanoi delegation derisively laughed as Tho observed that Kissinger apparently was unaware of what the US Congress had just done. He was referring to the June 4, 1973 Case-Church amendment that would cut off all funding for US military operations in Indochina. I had never seen Henry quite so nonplussed. He could simply grumble that this was a domestic matter and none of Tho’s business. At that point, I knew that all was lost, because, without the threat of US retaliation, Hanoi had zero interest in adhering to the Accords. As General Van Tien Dung later put it in his articles, “The [Paris] agreement represented a big victory for our people and a big defeat for the U.S. imperialists and their lackeys…”

In addition, a Democratic-led Congress, with significant Republican support, reduced military aid to South Vietnam from $2,270 billion in fiscal 1973 to $700 million for fiscal 1975. This had a devastating effect on the morale and combat effectiveness of South Vietnamese forces which greatly contributed to their defeat, in April 1975, by North Vietnamese forces well supported by their loyal allies, China and the Soviet Union. Van Tien Dung stated in his articles, “The decrease in American aid made it impossible for Saigon troops to carry out their combat and force development plans….” Once our troops and POWs had returned to the US, Congress simply lost interest in Vietnam.

In January 1973 I had taken over as head of the NSC’s Indochina Staff probably making me our government’s most senior official who dealt only with Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). This meant I had the thankless task of trying to garner support for South Vietnam from the Pentagon and other government agencies. After our troops had left Vietnam and all our POWs had returned, there was, alas, precious little interest in Washington in supporting our Vietnamese allies. If it weren’t for Colonel P.X. Kelley, Joint Chiefs of Staff liaison with the White House (who later became the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps, which I had predicted.), I doubt I would have got any help from the Pentagon. What help I got from the CIA was largely thanks to Ted Shackly, one of the operational field types, the good guys of the CIA.

In March 1975, the Communist side launched a full-scale assault against a South Vietnam weakened and demoralized by our disgraceful near abandonment. President Thieu made the fatal mistake of withdrawing his forces from the northern half of the country to form a consolidated defense of the more populous South..  The South Vietnamese forces had proven themselves formidable in the defense, but in the retreat, especially from Kontum and Pleiku in the western highlands, troops became intermingle with civilian refugees crowding the retreat route and lost unit integrity, making them fair game for the enemy This was very similar to what happened to French troops retreating from the Germans in 1940. As enemy forces closed on Saigon, our Ambassador, Graham Martin, and Saigon leaders, incredibly detached from reality, actually hoped that the last minute replacing of Thieu with the legendary General Duong Van Minh (“Big Minh”) could somehow lead to a negotiated ceasefire, inter alia, enabling an orderly evacuation of Vietnamese who were in danger, especially those who worked for us. Martin would not order or approve evacuations for fear of causing a panic in Saigon, likely to some extent, but better to have a panic before the enemy was near. Kissinger deferred to Martin. Thus, for example, Martin wouldn’t use two large ships, at one point docked at Saigon, which could easily have evacuated most of the endangered Vietnamese. When the end came, the evacuations outside of Saigon were largely independently organized by FSO provincial representatives. The result was the disheartening spectacle of the helicopter evacuation from the roof of a Saigon building. On April 30, 1975 North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon, and tragedy and death subsequently befell hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese. North Vietnam’s victory had cost it an estimated one million killed in action (equivalent to about 17 million in the US.) 


  "Modern opinion resists this truth, but great battles, won or lost, change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, new atmospheres, in arms and in nations."   --- Winston Churchill