An assessment of the US campaign

Robert HallARVN, News, Uncategorised, US Army, Vietnam War, Vietnamese politics

By Bob Hall

With the 50th anniversary of the US withdrawal from Vietnam War behind us it is worth considering why the combined efforts of the Republic of Vietnam and the United States and their allies, failed to achieve the outcome they desired in the campaign. Indeed, this has been a  hotly debated issue since the end of the war. This article draws on a British Royal United Services Institution seminar on the Vietnam War conducted at Whitehall, London, on 12 February 1969, shortly after President Richard Nixon came to power on a platform of ending US involvement in the war.[1]

The seminar was significant for the quality and the experience of the British expertise it brought to the discussion. Air Vice Marshall S.W.B. Menaul, Director-General, The Royal United Service Institution, chaired the meeting.[2] Attendees included Sir Robert Thompson,[3] Lieutenant General Sir Walter Walker,[4] Philip Goodhart, MP,[5] Michael Elliott-Batemen,[6] Sir Claude Fenner,[7] Brigadier W.F.K. Thompson,[8] Major General R.L. Clutterbuck,[9] Brigadier K. Hunt,[10] and P.J. Honey.[11] Each was an established authority on one or more field including counterinsurgency; Vietnamese culture, history and politics; policing; operations in the Malayan Emergency; Konfrontasi; and Maoist revolutionary warfare theory. However, their criticisms of the conduct of the US campaign in Vietnam came at a time when the Nixon administration and the replacement of General Westmoreland with General Abrams as COMUSMACV began to change the situation on the ground.

However, with this caution in mind, the seminar came to the damning assessment that:

while the military and political conduct of the war had been anything but brilliant, the United States now could, and must, risk a scaling-down of the war. The American ‘discomfort’, not defeat, in Vietnam resulted from an obscurity of aim, failure of strategy, lack of organization and control, and the inability to make proper use of the “new weapon for the mass destruction of the will – television”.[12]

The seminar was held only a matter of days after Richard Nixon took office as President of the United States. Nixon had won the 1968 Presidential election campaigning on a promise of withdrawing US forces from Vietnam and his staff had immediately set to work on fulfilling that election promise. ‘Scaling down the war’ was already planned to happen. Four months after the seminar, on 8 June 1969, Nixon met South Vietnam’s President Thieu at Midway Island for discussions. In a joint statement issued later that day Nixon announced that the US would begin the unilateral withdrawal of US troops beginning with 25,000 over following weeks. This was to be the first of a series of US troop withdrawals but following withdrawals would depend on three factors; continued progress at the Paris peace negotiations, declining levels of enemy combat activity and progress towards training the Republic of Vietnam armed forces.[13] Under Nixon’s policy aimed at ‘scaling down the war’, the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces were to take over the burden of the fighting under the ‘Vietnamisation’ program. In fact, the Republic of Vietnam armed forces were already shouldering a considerable burden of the war. At their peak they had over one million people in their armed forces – about double the peak strength of US forces in Vietnam – and for the entire war there was only one month – February 1968 – when US casualties outnumbered South Vietnamese casualties.

The seminar went on to discuss the failures it had identified and which led to the overall assessment, in more detail.

Obscurity of aim.

Selection and maintenance of the aim is generally regarded as the most important of the principles of war. Yet the seminar speakers were highly critical of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV) failure to identify and effectively prosecute the aim. They noted that:

The area of involvement and the extent of US responsibilities were never defined, nor was the area of responsibility for the Vietnamese. This failure resulted in many misunderstandings and mutual criticisms between the US, other allied forces, and the Vietnamese.[14]

According to the seminar participants:

one of the first things to do in any conflict of this type is to define the aim very clearly. While the US was apparently attempting to contain China, prevent the spread of communism and ensure the people of Vietnam free choice of government, no clear statement to this effect was heard. … The failure to hold a balance between the real American interests in the security of Southeast Asia, ie., the never-stated aim, and the cost involved were given as the reason that forced President Johnson out of the Presidency.[15]

The seminar speakers felt that the failure to clearly identify the aim was a foundational problem from which flowed several other failures.

Failure of strategy

US forces in Vietnam relied on a conventional war strategy – attrition – to fight a counterinsurgency. This was a failed strategy. The failure of strategy seemed to be underscored when General Westmoreland was asked at a press conference what was the answer to insurgency. His one-word answer was ‘Firepower’.

The US forces were considered as being prepared for more of a European- or Korean-type war, with massive firepower, concentrating only on killing the enemy. No effort was made to attack the Vietcong infrastructure, and too little effort was placed on protecting the people, providing security in the country, or ‘ensuring that people could sleep at night with confidence’.

This claim somewhat over-stated the case. The US and South Vietnamese forces were faced with a very difficult strategic situation. South Vietnam was a strategist’s nightmare. It consisted of a narrow strip of territory between Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the South China sea to the east. At its narrowest point it was only about 40 kilometres wide. Yet the combined forces of the South Vietnamese and the US with their allies had to adopt a defensive strategy within this vulnerable country. With the recent history of the Korean War in their minds, the US sought to avoid an offensive strategy targeting North Vietnam lest China be drawn into the war. This tended to leave USMACV with a narrow range of strategic options – a war of attrition or a pacification campaign. A war of attrition allowed the US to exploit its advantage in heavy weapons, but it relied on the US killing so many VC/PAVN soldiers that it would eventually exhaust the supply. This was never likely to be achieved.

The pacification strategy called for techniques that tended to be unfamiliar to the US military – small unit operations, providing security to hamlets and villages, and dealing with the enemy’s civilian support base. The enemy’s political supporters within the villages – the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) – had been attacked by both South Vietnamese and USMACV forces, but with limited success. The task had mainly fallen to the South Vietnamese forces. But until 1969 at least, the focus of US efforts was largely upon bringing enemy main force elements to battle under circumstances where heavy firepower could be applied. However, this reflects the seminar occurring in February 1969. A few months after the seminar General Abrams replaced Westmoreland and introduced a Pacification strategy that aimed to achieve exactly those things the seminar participants complained were lacking. However, US forces failed to adapt to the new strategy as completely and effectively as they should have. The seminar report noted:

The US failed to understand the strategy employed by the communists in Vietnam, first against the French and then against the US and South Vietnam. The technique of the ‘United National Front’ is fundamental to the communists, but apparently was not studied. There was an almost complete rejection of any lessons that emerged from the French experience in Indochina.

Up to 1972, communist strategy was to conduct a protracted counterinsurgency campaign aimed primarily at the destruction of the legitimacy of the Republic of Vietnam government rather than destruction of the South Vietnamese and US military capability. Experienced senior commanders in the PAVN were aware that the destruction of US (and ARVN) military capability was beyond their capability but by waging protracted war they were sure that the US would eventually tire of the fight as the costs in terms of men’s lives and national treasure grew. They were confident that the US would eventually withdraw from the theatre. A strategy of protracted war enabled the enemy to simply avoid losing. This put the PAVN in a very powerful strategic position forcing the USMACV and ARVN to attempt to achieve a decisive military defeat in a time frame acceptable to the US government and citizens. Once US forces had largely been withdrawn from the theatre the PAVN would then switch to conventional war aimed at destroying the ARVN’s ability to resist. This pattern eventually played out in the PAVN offensives of 1972 and especially 1975 when ARVN fought without US support and was decisively defeated.

The seminar found that

Not only was the communist strategy not understood, but the entire theory of revolution was ignored. No consideration was given as to the cause of the conspiracy.

An important contributing factor to any insurgency is the existence of a ‘motivating idea (or cluster of ideas)’ such as ‘liberation from French rule’ or ‘reunification’. The counterinsurgent forces must thoroughly study and understand the insurgent’s motivating idea and develop and widely disseminate an effective counter idea. The counter idea must be capable of being distilled to a short statement and have broad appeal. Its essence needs to be implemented and this may require some sections of the host nation society – such as the elites – to forego at least some of their advantageous position in society for the benefit of all. This can be very difficult to achieve politically. The democratic reforms introduced by the Saigon government in 1966 were aimed at shifting political power away from the Saigon elites into the hands of the broader population so that motivating ideas such as ‘land to the tiller’ could be more easily implemented.

Lack of organization and control

The seminar blasted what it saw as a lack of organization and control in the USMACV conduct of the campaign. It found that:

The lack of organization and control was particularly evident in the failure to have effective intelligence. There were seventeen separate and uncoordinated intelligence organizations in Saigon in 1966.

This situation was partly an offshoot of the difficult political situation in the Republic of Vietnam in which, to 1967, military coups had been the most common way of changing government. It was feared that the concentration of intelligence collection and analysis into one place gave that organization too much power. For the stability of the government, it was felt that it would be better to fragment intelligence services across several services none so powerful that they threatened political power. While understandable, this fear of coups and the fractured intelligence services it caused led to poor integration of intelligence. In the latter years of the war there were some reforms of intelligence services to overcome this problem and consolidate intelligence but the ideal that the seminar speakers identified was never achieved.

Lack of effective civil police force

An effective police force organisation is essential in counterinsurgency in which each citizen’s personal security plays such an important part. Yet the seminar noted that:

There was no effort made to build up the police force; in fact, there was a complete lack of appreciation of the importance of a strong, competent, professional police force in a counter-insurgency situation.

This claim also reflected the situation up to early 1969. Later in the campaign after General Abrams introduced the Pacification strategy, effort was put into developing the civil police into an effective force. But this effort came too late to fulfil its potential.


The Vietnam War was often described as the first television war. Of all the means of mass dissemination of news during the period, television was dominant. Yet the seminar speakers believed that USMACV had failed to exploit this media to promote its narrative of the campaign. They noted that:

The impact of television on war has been tremendous. While most reporters have integrity, their job is to get exciting pictures. Pictures of incidents are always generalized in the viewer’s mind, thus giving a completely false impression of the actual war.

There was no real effort for the use of propaganda. With complete freedom from control, the news media concentrated on the deficiencies of American and Vietnamese forces rather than on the ‘nastiness of the enemy’. It is quite essential to keep people’s minds on the unpleasantness of the other side, and the other side always will be unpleasant, or we would not be in that particular sort of situation.

Today this would be called ‘controlling or managing the narrative’. At its broadest, the narrative should describe the aim to various audiences. However, in counterinsurgency campaigns the audiences are complex. In the Vietnam War they included the local South Vietnamese – both pro- and anti-government – the US and other allied domestic audiences, and what could be called ‘world opinion’. To maintain morale, US and allied military forces in the theatre also need to be considered as an audience for the narrative.

The future

The seminar participants argued that:

There should be US representation at all levels of the Government of Vietnam’s organization for both military and civilian operations. It might be appropriate to separate the advisory role into two fields; one for the advancement of US policy and provision of resources; the other for purely professional and technical advice.

This was indeed desired in an effective counterinsurgency campaign. But it was also very difficult to achieve. In the Malayan Emergency the British authorities, both military and civil, established very close relationships with their Malayan counterparts. This had facilitated the coordination of military and civil administration efforts during the campaign and had contributed to its success. But such close coordination was not achievable in Vietnam. The Republic of Vietnam government was struggling to assert its legitimacy as an independent nation free of foreign domination. US representation at all levels of the government would have eroded this legitimacy. To have integrated US representation throughout the Republic’s government would have played into the NLF/DRV narrative – confirming in the minds of many in South Vietnam that the state of South Vietnam only existed as a puppet of the US government.

The Vietnam War was highly complex. The British Royal United Services Institution seminar of February 1969 identified several key problems with the US conduct of the war in Vietnam. But that was the easy bit. Identifying workable ways of overcoming the problems within the political and military context of the war was much more difficult. Although some changes in US policy were implemented by General Abrams at HQUSMACV, these sometimes failed to make much impression on the conduct of operations at the tactical and strategic levels.


[1] AWM98, item R237/1/22 [/1 Part 2], Correspondence general – FORS/SAO. Memorandum for record: Precis of British lessons learned from Vietnam War, from the office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 16 September 1969.

[2] Air Vice Marshall S.W.B. Menaul, joined the RAF in 1931. During the second World War he served in Bomber Command. In the post-war period he was involved in Atomic bomb tests in Australia. His last command in the RAF was as Commandant, Joint Services Staff College. After leaving the RAF he became the Director General of the Royal United Services Institute.

[3] Sir Robert Thompson was Head of the British Advisory Mission to Vietnam, 1961-65, Secretary for Defence, Federation of Malaya, 1959-61, and author of Defeating Communist Insurgency (1966), and No Exit from Vietnam (1969).[3] Thompson was one of the period’s leading thinkers on counterinsurgency.

[4] Lieutenant General Sir Walter Walker was General Officer Commander-in-Chief, Northern Command, and former Director of Operations in Borneo, 1962-65, during the Commonwealth forces successful campaign against Indonesia’s Konfrontasi. Walker was the author of an insightful article titled ‘How Borneo was won: The untold story of an Asian victory’ published in The Round Table.

[5] Philip Goodhart, MP, was a frequent visitor to Vietnam, author and Chairman, Conservative Party Committee on Military Matters, 1964-65.

[6] Michael Elliott-Batemen was a lecturer in Military Studies, University of Manchester and author of Defeat in the East: The mark of Moa Tse-Tung on war, published in 1967, which urged western militaries to revise their mode of war fighting to cope with communist revolutionary warfare and avoid further defeats.

[7] Sir Claude Fenner was a former commander of an anti-Japanese guerrilla unit in Malaya and later Inspector-General of the Malaysian Police, 1963-66 during Konfrontasi.

[8] Brigadier W.F.K. Thompson served with distinction during the Second World War and Korean War and, after leaving the army, became military correspondent of the Daily Telegraph reporting from the Vietnam and Yom Kippur wars and the Sino-Indian war of 1962..

[9] Major General R.L. Clutterbuck was Engineer-in-chief, British Army, Chief Engineer, Far East Land Forces, 1966-68 and prolific author of books related to counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism including The Long Long War: The Emergency in Malaya 1948-1960 published in 1967.

[10] Brigadier K. Hunt was Deputy Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies.

[11] P.J. Honey was an academic and accomplished Vietnamese and Chinese speaker. He first arrived in Vietnam in 1951 studying Vietnamese language, culture, and politics. He advised the British Foreign Office and the US government on Vietnamese affairs. He was the author of numerous books and papers mainly on aspects of the communist party in Vietnam including Communism in North Vietnam: Its Role in the Sino-Soviet Dispute, published in 1963. At the time of the RUSI seminar Honey was Reader in Vietnamese studies at the University of London.

[12] AWM98, item R237/1/22 [/1 Part 2], Correspondence general – FORS/SAO. Memorandum for record: Precis of British lessons learned from the Vietnam War, from the office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 16 September 1969. In most cases, the report on the seminar proceedings does not attribute seminar findings to individuals.

[13] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin (eds.), Vietnam and America: A Documented History, Grove Press, New York, 1995, p. 442.

[14] AWM98, item R237/1/22 [/1 Part 2], Correspondence general – FORS/SAO. Memorandum for record: Precis of British lessons learned from Vietnam War, from the office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 16 September 1969.

[15] Ibid. All remaining quotes in this article are drawn from this source.