"When I Left We Were Winning"

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2004

What does it mean to say that Iraq is turning into Vietnam? Simply that this war, like Vietnam, has become unwinnable. It is, of course, conventional wisdom to assert that the U.S. was predestined to lose the Vietnam War. According to this orthodoxy, the Vietnamese Communists were too determined, the South Vietnamese too corrupt, and the Americans incapable of fighting the kind of war that would have been necessary to prevail.

Despite its origins as a staple of left-wing political opinion, the claim that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was inevitable now transcends ideology. When conservatives deny the claim that Iraq is like Vietnam, many do so because they believe the conventional wisdom about Vietnam. Bill Bennett’s op-ed in the New York Post on Sunday reflects this view. But the ubiquity of this view was really driven home to me in the early 1980s when the editor of a conservative opinion journal rejected an essay of mine that he had commissioned me to write concerning whether or not the U.S. could have won the war in Vietnam.


In this essay, I concluded that, in fact, the U.S. had won militarily by 1972. Despite continued pressure, US-ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) military successes against the North Vietnamese in 1968-1971 had helped to stabilize the political situation in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The improved political situation, combined with economic improvements, was solidifying the attachment of the rural population to the South Vietnamese government. Although much remained to be accomplished, the overall performance of ARVN forces during the Easter Offensive of 1972 indicated that “Vietnamization” was working.

I argued that had the United States made it clear that it would continue to provide air and naval support, the RVN would have survived as a political entity. But despite his sympathy with my point of view, the editor chose to kill my piece, arguing that I had not provided enough hard evidence to support my argument against the entrenched conventional wisdom.

AFTER 1968

Several years ago, Lewis Sorley provided the evidence I lacked in a remarkable book entitled A Better War. Building on his excellent biographies of Army generals Creighton Abrams and Harold Johnson, Sorley examined the largely neglected later years of the conflict and concluded that the war in Vietnam “was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the US Congress.”

Most studies of the Vietnam War focus on the years up until 1968. Those studies that examine the period after Tet 1968 emphasize the diplomatic attempts to extricate the U.S. from the conflict, treating the military effort as nothing more than a holding action. But as William Colby observed in a review of Robert McNamara’s disgraceful memoir, In Retrospect, by limiting serious consideration of the military situation in Vietnam to the period before mid-1968, historians leave Americans with a record “similar to what we would know if histories of World War II stopped before Stalingrad, Operation Torch in North Africa and Guadalcanal in the Pacific.”

Colby is right. To truly understand the Vietnam War, it is absolutely imperative to come to grips with the years after 1968. A new team was in place. Gen. Abrams had succeeded Gen. William Westmoreland as commander U.S. Military Assistance Command — Vietnam (USMACV) shortly after the Tet offensive. He joined Ellsworth Bunker, who had assumed the post of U.S. ambassador to the Saigon government the previous spring. The aforementioned William Colby, a career CIA officer, soon arrived to coordinate the pacification.

Far from constituting a mere holding action, the approach followed by the new team constituted a positive strategy for ensuring the survival of South Vietnam. Bunker, Abrams, and Colby “brought different values to their tasks, operated from a different understanding of the nature of the war, and applied different measures of merit and different tactics. They employed diminishing resources in manpower, materiel, money, and time as they raced to render the South Vietnamese capable of defending themselves before the last American forces were withdrawn. They went about that task with sincerity, intelligence, decency, and absolute professionalism, and in the process they came very close to achieving the goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace.”

As I argued in my last piece, the Vietnamese Communists followed a strategy they called dau tranh (struggle) consisting of two operational elements: dau tranh vu trang (armed struggle) and dau tranh chinh tri (political struggle). These operational elements were envisioned as a hammer and anvil or pincers designed to crush the enemy. Armed dau tranh had a strategy “for regular forces” and another for “protracted conflict.” Regular force strategy included both high-tech and limited offensive warfare; protracted conflict included both Maoist and neo-revolutionary guerrilla warfare. Political dau tranh included dich van (action among the enemy), binh van (action among the military), and dan van (action among the people).

Westmorland had focused U.S. attention on armed dau tranh, especially the part of the strategy that relied on regular forces. The U.S. Army sought to bring the enemy to battle and destroy them with superior firepower. The battle of the Ia Drang in November 1965 was an example of the Army approach. But the Army ignored political dau tranh and the “protracted conflict” element of armed dau tranh.

Unlike the Army, the Marines took counterinsurgency seriously. In Vietnam, the strategic concept of the Marine Corps emphasizes small wars. As the legendary Marine general, Victor H. Krulak, noted in his book, First to Fight, the Marines employed an approach in Vietnam — the Combined Action Program — that the Marines had first used in Haiti (1915-34), Nicaragua (1926-33), and Santo Domingo (1916-22). “Marine Corps experience in stabilizing governments and combating guerrilla forces was distilled in lecture form at the Marine Corps Schools… beginning in 1920,” Krulak wrote. The lectures appeared in Small Wars Manual in 1940 and later adopted as an official publication.

The Marine Corps approach in Vietnam had three elements, according to Krulak: emphasis on pacification of the coastal areas in which 80 percent of the people lived; degradation of the ability of the North Vietnamese to fight by cutting off supplies before they left Northern ports of entry; and engagement of PAVN and VC main-force units on terms favorable to American forces. The Marines soon came into conflict with Westmoreland over how to fight the war. In his memoir, A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland writes:

During those early months [1965], I was concerned with the tactical methods that General Walt and the Marines employed. They had established beachheads at Chu Lai and Da Nang and were reluctant to go outside them, not through any lack of courage but through a different conception of how to fight an anti-insurgency war. They were assiduously combing the countryside within the beachhead, trying to establish firm control in hamlets and villages, and planning to expand the beachhead up and down the coast.

He believed the Marines “should have been trying to find the enemy’s main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they posed to the population.” Westmoreland, according to Krulak, made the “third point the primary undertaking, even while deemphasizing the need for clearly favorable conditions before engaging the enemy.”

Westmoreland’s concept was illustrated by the battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. The North Vietnamese planned to attack across the Central Highlands and cut South Vietnam in two, hoping to cause the collapse of the Saigon government before massive American combat power could be introduced. Ia Drang was the single bloodiest battle of the war. An under-strength U.S. Army battalion of 450 men landed in the midst of 1,600 members of a PAVN regiment. There were two parts to the battle, one successful — the defense of Landing Zone X-Ray — another a debacle — the ambush of a second battalion at Landing Zone Albany — in which 155 Americans died in a 16-hour period, “the most savage one-day battle of the Vietnam War.”

The battle in the Ia Drang Valley convinced Westmoreland that the Army Concept was correct. In a head to head clash, an outnumbered U.S. force had spoiled an enemy operation and sent a major PAVN force reeling back in defeat. For Krulak on the other hand, Ia Drang represented an example of fighting the enemy’s war — what North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap predicted would be “a protracted war of attrition.” And says Krulak, a “war of attrition it turned out to be… [by] 1972, we had managed to reduce the enemy’s manpower pool by perhaps 25 percent at a cost of over 220,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese dead. Of these, 59,000 were Americans…”

Sorley claimed that Westmoreland’s tactics “squandered four years of public and congressional support for the war.” As noted above, Westmoreland’s operational strategy emphasized the attrition of PAVN forces in a “war of the big battalions:” multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such “search and destroy” operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them and the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

In contrast, Abrams’s approach was akin to that of the Marines, emphasizing not the destruction of enemy forces per se but protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas. He then concentrated on attacking the enemy’s “logistics nose” (as opposed to a “logistics tail”): Since the North Vietnamese lacked heavy transport within South Vietnam, they had to preposition supplies forward of their sanctuaries preparatory to launching an offensive. Fighting was still heavy, as exemplified by two major actions in South Vietnam’s Ashau Valley during the first half of 1969: the 9th Marine Regiment’s Operation DEWEY CANYON and the 101st Airborne Division’s epic battle for “Hamburger Hill.” Most people don’t realize that in terms of U.S. casualties, 1969 was second only to 1968 as the most costly year. But now NVA offensive timetables were being disrupted by preemptive allied attacks, buying more time for Vietnamization.

In addition, rather than ignoring the insurgency and pushing the South Vietnamese aside as Gen. Westmoreland had done, Gen. Abrams followed a policy of “one war,” integrating all aspects of the struggle against the communists. The result, says Sorley was “a better war” in which the United States and South Vietnamese essentially achieved the military and political conditions necessary for South Vietnam’s survival as a viable political entity.

Abrams had little to say about the air war in Vietnam, but that also improved. The fact is that air power can be effective only if employed as part of a comprehensive war-fighting strategy. When air power is isolated from such a general strategy as it was in Vietnam until 1972, it is bound to fail. Vietnam is usually invoked as an example of the inherent limits of air power, but in a paper delivered at a Wilson Center symposium on the Vietnam War in January 1983, Douglas Pike, the foremost American expert on Vietnamese Communism, showed what might have happened had air power been properly employed earlier in that conflict.

Pike observed that “the initial reaction of Hanoi’s leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in Feb 1965 — documented later by defectors and other witnesses — was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure.” But the U.S. air campaign was severely constrained, a fact that became increasingly apparent to Hanoi. The North Vietnamese leaders concluded that the U.S. lacked the will to bear the cost of the war.

Then came the Christmas bombing of 1972. “Linebacker II” was a massive, around-the-clock air campaign that far exceeded in intensity anything that had gone before. Hanoi was stunned. “While conditions had changed vastly in seven years,” Pike continued, “the dismaying conclusion to suggest itself from the 1972 Christmas bombing was that had this kind of air assault been launched in Feb 1965, the Vietnam war as we know it might have been over within a matter of months, even weeks.


The defenders of the conventional wisdom will reply that such arguments are refuted by the fact that South Vietnam did fall to the North Vietnamese communists. They will repeat the claim that the South Vietnamese lacked the leadership, skill, character, and endurance of their adversaries. But while one must acknowledge the shortcomings of the South Vietnamese and agree that the U.S. would have had to provide continued air, naval, and intelligence support, the real cause of U.S. defeat was that the Nixon administration and Congress threw away the successes achieved by U.S. and South Vietnamese arms.

The proof lay in the 1972 Easter Offensive. This was the biggest offensive push of the war, greater in magnitude than either the 1968 Tet offensive or the final assault of 1975. The U.S. provided massive air and naval support and there were inevitable failures on the part of some ARVN units, but all in all, the South Vietnamese fought well. Then, having blunted the communist thrust, they recaptured territory that had been lost to Hanoi. Finally, so effective was the eleven-day “Christmas bombing” campaign (LINEBACKER II) later that year that the British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson exclaimed, “you had won the war. It was over.

Three years later, despite the heroic performance of some ARVN units, South Vietnam collapsed against a much weaker, cobbled-together PAVN offensive. What happened to cause this reversal?

First, the Nixon administration, in its rush to extricate the country from Vietnam, forced South Vietnam to accept a cease fire that permitted PAVN forces to remain in South Vietnam. Then in an act that still shames the United States to this day, Congress cut off military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. Finally, President Nixon resigned over Watergate and his successor, constrained by congressional action, defaulted on promises to respond with force to North Vietnamese violations of the peace terms. Sorley describes in detail the logistical and operational consequences for the ARVN of our having starved them of promised support for three years.

I thought I was right in the 1980s. I still do. Indeed, I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads: “I don’t know what happened. When I left, we were winning!” There is growing evidence that this sentiment is not as farfetched as some might think.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.