How to lose a war

Mark Moyar's Triumph Forsaken, The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, gives the history of the conflict up to the day Johnson ordered US ground troops to Vietnam to prevent a communist victory in 1965. This is a book that should be required reading for all those who think they know what caused the war and how it was lost. If they follow the tale told by the winners of the Pulitzer Prizes, they will be very wrong.

Moyar's says of David Halberstan who wrote The Making of a Quagmire and The Best and the Brightest:

... Halberstam was twenty-eight when he came to Vietnam. Before he left, fifteen months later, he would do more harm to the interests of the United States than any other journalist in American history.


... In his book The Best and the Brightest, published in 1972 after the war had become unpopular among the large segments of American elite, Halberstam claimed that by the fall of 1963 he had concluded that the war "was doomed and that we were on the wrong side of history." Not only was Halberstam not opposed to the war in 1963, he was not even opposed to the war during the much bleaker year of 1965, when he wrote in The Making of a Quagmire that Vietnam was "one of only five or six nations in the world that is truly vital to U.S. interests," and, in reference to the Vietnamese and others facing similar challenges, that "we cannot abandon our efforts to help these people."
Moyar found that President Johnson and his civilian advisor's signaling strategy gave Hanoi an opposite message than the one intended. Rather than reciprocal self limitation Hanoi viewed the limited strikes as a measure of a lack of seriousness and weakness, which stimulated them to more aggressive action according to North Vietnamese archives. Johnson's limited strikes were in fact the opposite of deterrence.

The battle at Dien Bien Phu is a good starting point for describing the war. The communist general Vo Nguyen Giap undertook it out of desperation. What remained of his army was on the verge of exhaustion, Rice was running short. He was having difficulty recruiting because of apathy in the population. Morale of the remaining troops was poor. In a gamble he committed all his mobile troop. In early April, Ho sent a message to China asking for help saying his situation had become hopeless. The Chinese demurred, but really had no intention of sending help. Luck was on the communist side, because a few days later The French sent a similar message to the US. By May 7, 1954 the Viet Minh had taken Dien Bien Phu.

After a peace agreement was signed the country was split along lines of historical significance. One of the left's myths is that Vietnam had always been united. The fact is just the opposite. Another myth destroyed by Moyar was the suggestion that Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist than a communist. Moyar documents his communist ties and his strong support of communism over decades.

Diem the South Vietnamese leader was a respected nationalist who organized several successful "denounce the communist" campaigns. By 1959 he had reduced the communist population to around 6,000. At that time it was clear that a traditional insurgency had no chance of overthrowing the South Vietnamese government. The communist had earlier tried to infiltrate directly into South Vietnam across the DMZ but the ARVN effectively cut that route so the communist started sending men and supplies through Laos on what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trial.

When the Laotian government resisted it was routed by the communist and the Kennedy administration made what was to be one of its biggest mistakes of the war it agreed to a phony neutralization of Laos. The fiction of a neutral Laos was used as a reason for not cutting the communist supply line which operated in a blatant violation of the Geneva Accords. While Moyar documents the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to a resolution authorizing force, those who have questioned whether that was a legitimate causes belli miss entirely the one taking place on a daily basis to the west of the gulf in Laos. This is one of the few points I think Moyar missed in his excellent book.

The book documents Diem's success in dealing with the communist up until he was distracted by the militant Buddhist monks who had been infiltrated by the communist. The monks staged demonstrations and some self immolations that caused great concern in the US State Department. As was usually the case the diplomats started hammering Diem for concessions to get a "political solution." This was a huge mistake. The communist infiltrators kept moving the goal post and every concession was met with a new demand. The diplomats kept blaming Diem for the impasse and some started working behind the scenes for his overthrow.

Meanwhile Kennedy in a move that was too cute by half had installed Republican Henry Cabot Lodge as ambassador. Lodge, began smoozing with the young reporters in Saigon, such as Halberstam and Sheehan who also thought Diem was the problem. Pretty soon he was also working behind the scenes for Diem's over throw.

After Diem was overthrown and murdered, the diplomats kept the pressure on the succeeding government for a "political reconciliation" with the militant Buddhist who demanded the removal of most of the effective officers and leaders in South Vietnam who had ties to Diem. This was followed by the sending of division size units into South Vietnam to attack provincial capitals. Which is where Johnson was in 1965 when he started ordering American troops into the breach. However he did not order them into the one place where even the communist admit the war could have been won. They would not be used to cut communist supply lines in Laos. It was a blunder that as Eisenhower had said left us chasing the tail of the snake rather than the head.

Moyar's work is described as revisionist history, but it is richly documented and uses several sources mined from enemy documents after the war. Anyone with an interest in counterinsurgency warfare should study this book. I highly recommend this book.

Now if we could just get every member of Congress and the media to read it would really do some good. Moyar got his Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University. The book jacket indicates he is an Associate Professor and Course Director at the U.S. Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia.


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