Did we really lose in Vietnam?

+ More

The current issue of American Enterprise magazine includes an article by military historian Lewis Sorley entitled "No More Vietnams: Find the will to win in Iraq–as we should have in Indochina." Sorley argues that

... no comparison of Vietnam to Iraq will be very instructive unless two important realities are honestly acknowledged: 1) The U.S. had an enormous amount of success in Vietnam during the later years of our involvement there. And, 2) it was forces in our own country that undermined and ultimately squandered the successes achieved.

Sorley contrasts the strategies of our two commanders in Vietnam. Gen. William Westmoreland (1964–68) believed in "a war of attrition in which 'search and destroy' operations would locate the enemy and bring him to decisive engagement." This didn't work: The Communists poured in more troops even as the U.S. troop count rose to 543,000 (more than three times the number we have in Iraq now, from a country of 195 million as compared with today's 295 million). In 1968, Gen. Creighton Abrams took over. He "focused on providing security to the people of South Vietnam" and "work[ed] closely with U.S. diplomats and the Vietnamese leadership to weld combat operations, pacification, and improvement of the South Vietnamese armed forces into one unified effort." With the U.S. troop count way down, the South Vietnamese repelled a massive offensive in early 1972. That led to the Paris Accords. But when the Communists were able to stage another massive attack in spring 1975, the U.S. was unable to provide the military forces, equipment, and financial support promised in the Paris Accords.

Congress refused to vote funds for these purposes, and we had to stand by and watch South Vietnam fall to the Communists.

Sorley seems confident that the South Vietnamese could have won if we had provided the promised aid. That's a counterfactual, of course; no one can be sure. And there's room for argument as to whether Abrams's strategy was as successful as Sorley says. But he knows whereof he speaks: This article is a precis of his book A Better War, and he has also written a biography of General Abrams and edited a book of his tapes during the Vietnam years. Sorley makes the point that almost all the well-known books on the Vietnam War focus on the beginnings of the war, in the Kennedy years and from Lyndon Johnson's troop buildups in 1965 to the Tet offensive in 1968. David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, published in 1973, focused heavily on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who resigned (or was pushed out the door) in early 1968. Neil Sheehan's A Bright and Shining Lie, which focuses on the gifted military officer John Paul Vann, focuses almost entirely on the years up through 1968 and devotes relatively few pages to Vann's post-1968 service in Vietnam; he died in a helicopter crash there in 1972.

The implication is that the war was lost during the Tet offensive. But militarily, as we know now, and contrary to most of the journalism of the time, Tet was a severe and costly defeat for the Communists. Sorley makes a strong case that we had actually achieved a military victory by 1972. But few writers have shown much interest in those years. While many Democrats rhetorically classify Vietnam as "Richard Nixon's war," the journalist/historians have been more interested in the mistakes made by the Democratic administration that got us into the war than in the at least somewhat-more-successful strategy of the Republican administration that reduced the number of U.S. forces.

Is this because journalist/historians tend to be liberals who are uninterested in or unwilling to recognize successful policies of Republican administrations? Unclear. But I think it's an interesting question.