|"Whatever else Americans have done
with Veitnam, they have certainly not put it behind them.
It is the living ghost that haunts them whenever prospect
looms for an American intervention in a 'remote' Third
- - - Dr. Timothy J. Lomperis, From People's War to People's Rule, University of North Carolina Press, 1996
We won the war before it was lost
By Jack Kelly
Sunday, January 30, 2005
Readers reacted with much skepticism and more than a little mirth to the assertion in my Jan. 16 column that President Nixon's Vietnamization program was a good model to follow for success in Iraq. By 1972, I wrote, "U.S. troop levels had declined to 69,000, the Viet Cong were crushed and the North Vietnamese sued for peace." Obviously, more explanation is needed.
South Vietnam fell in April 1975, when North Vietnam invaded and Congress reneged on a pledge to support South Vietnam with U.S. air power, if North Vietnam should breach the terms of the Paris Peace Accords which, in January, 1973, had ended the war on terms acceptable to us.
To say we won the Vietnam war before we lost it sounds like something John Kerry might say, but it's the truth.
The Vietnam war was won in the 11 days between Dec. 18 and Dec. 30, 1972. That was the time of the "Christmas bombing" of Hanoi and Haiphong, the only time in the war that we used strategic air power against strategic targets in North Vietnam.
"After those 11 days you had won the war, it was all over!" said Sir Robert Thompson, the British counterinsurgency expert. "They had fired 1,242 SAMs [surface to air missiles], they had none left, and what would have come in over land from China would have been a mere trickle. They and their whole rear base at that point would be at your mercy. They would have taken any terms. And that is why, of course, you actually got a peace agreement in January, which you had not been able to get in October."
Even before the Christmas bombing, the ground war was well in hand, despite (or perhaps because of) a draw down in U.S. forces from 550,000 in 1968 to 69,000 by the end of 1972.
The catalyst was the replacement of Gen. William Westmoreland with Gen. Creighton Abrams after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Westmoreland -- perhaps the stupidest American ever to wear four stars -- thought he could win a war of attrition against North Vietnam. His strategy of "search and destroy" resulted in thousands of unnecessary American deaths, and the deaths of tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians as "collateral damage."
Abrams emphasized protection of the South Vietnamese population by protecting key areas; attacking the enemy's "logistics nose," and building up South Vietnam's forces. (Read the details in military historian Lewis Sorley's magnificent "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedies of America's Last Years in Vietnam.")
The proof came in the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive of 1972, a much larger cross-border invasion than the 1975 invasion. Outnumbered South Vietnamese troops, backed by American air power and naval gunfire, crushed the North Vietnamese.
America made many, many mistakes in Vietnam. But the vast majority of these were made during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and when Westmoreland was theater commander in chief. Air Force Gen. T.R. Milton noted that the war could have been won at any time from the Gulf of Tonkin incident until the Christmas bombing:
"In those critical years between 1964 and 1968, before American public opinion had become mesmerized, the truly critical targets were given sanctuary," Milton wrote. "Instead, our airplanes were to go on giving signals. The places where the signals were to be given soon became predictable to the North, and our pilots paid the price."
The war ultimately was lost because American public opinion turned against it (which made it possible for the Democrats in Congress to abandon South Vietnam). The turning point was the Tet Offensive of Jan. 30, 1968. This was widely described in our news media as a victory for the Viet Cong, when in fact it was precisely the opposite.
The Viet Cong achieved strategic surprise (Westmoreland was asleep at the switch), but the Americans and South Vietnamese fought back ferociously, and the VC were all but totally destroyed. Never again would guerrillas be anything other than a minor nuisance. The fighting after Tet was with North Vietnamese regular units, infiltrated into the South through Laos and Cambodia.
Walter Cronkite lied then as much as Dan Rather does now. He just wasn't caught out. (Read the gory details of media misrepresentation of Tet in Peter Braestrup's "The Big Story.")
The only similarity between the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq is that the news media, once again, are mangling the truth in ways beneficial to our enemies.
Jack Kelly is national security
writer for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (email@example.com).
[I would take exception to Mr. Kelly's remarks about General Westmoreland. He operated under the constraints imposed by Kennedy, Johnson and MacNamara; he was protective of his troops; his major failing was his lack of moral courage and intellectual honesty in not informing his superiors of critical strategic flaws under which he was forced to operate and which he acknowledged in his post-retirement memoir, A Soldier Reports. If Westmoreland had not been tactically successful in his search-and-destroy big-unit ("attrition") strategy from 1964-68, Abrams could notb have successfully implemented his radically different strategy from 1968-72, as detailed by Lewis Sorley in his book, A Better War. SGS.]