Harry Summers Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Strategy; Conversation with Harry G. Sumers; 3/6/96 by Harry Kreisler

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The Case of Vietnam

You are the author of a highly acclaimed book on Vietnam, and you bring these Clausewitzian insights to a critical examination of the conduct of that war. You have written that our goals in Vietnam were very unclear, so that the political side of the trinity was not satisfactorily dealt with. Could you expound on that?

When we look at the objectives of the Vietnam War, we see that Hugh Arnold of the University of Nebraska found twenty-two separate objectives for why we were in Vietnam, several of which were mutually exclusive. So there was never any clear-cut political goal to be obtained. And because there was no political goal, the military strategies and policies built on that foundation -- someone said it was "a great logical edifice built on a foundation of gas" because there was just nothing there. The great tragedy of the Vietnam War was all of this military effort, great bravery and sacrifice and everything else, was totally unfocused because of the lack of a goal. And because it was unfocused, it failed to achieve the objectives of US foreign policy.

Someone might argue with you and defend what the political leaders did, saying, "The problem was that the strategic issues were so great. There was concern about the war escalating into a nuclear war. There was concern about the intervention in China. The political leaders were not incompetent, they were just immobilized by the complexity of the situation." How would you answer that?

First, I would ask if that was true when we began military involvement in 1965. And if those limitations were that gross, maybe we ought not to have gotten involved in the first place. If it was, by definition, unattainable and unwinnable, then it was immoral to commit forces to try to achieve something that they knew in advance was -- that's sort of McNamara's argument. He knew in 1965, he says, that the war was militarily unwinnable. Yet he went ahead and committed what turned out to be half a million American troops -- 2 million over time -- to a war which he knew was militarily unwinnable. I think that's basically immoral. But I am not convinced that the war was militarily unwinnable. I think that there were strategies that had the potential at least of being able to succeed. But we were blinded by a great many things, by our false reading of the outcome of the Korean War, among other things. We saw that as a defeat, so that model was not available to be used in Vietnam.

What was the perception of the war in Korea that influenced perceptions of the war in Vietnam?

Korea came on the heels of World War II. The paradigm for war, in American minds, had become a World War II paradigm: total victory, absolute victory, unconditional surrender of the enemy, occupation of his territory, capturing his capital, hanging the enemy leadership as war criminals. And MacArthur carried that vision forward: total victory, total defeat. But yet, as Dave Palmer has pointed out, you have to back to the Punic Wars to find another example. Most wars in history have been limited wars, limited by their objectives. During the great debate on the Korean War, General Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked, "What are the objectives in Korea?" And he said, "You're asking the wrong person. You need to ask the Secretary of State." So they went to Dean Acheson and asked him, and he said, "Well, originally our objective was the restoration of the status quo antebellum." With the collapse of the North Korean Army after the U.S. crossed the Yalu River, we changed our objective to the unification of Korea under South Korean control. With the Chinese intervention in November 1950, we reverted to the original objective of the status quo antebellum. So there was a very clear-cut statement of US national objectives and what needed to be obtained. And in the course of events we obtained those objectives; there is a South Korea independent of North Korean control, and it has existed now for almost a half century.

By any reasonable definition -- MacArthur's "the only object of war is victory" -- we achieved a victory in Korea. But because it didn't match the sort of apocalyptic view of victory that came out of World War II, we didn't recognize that we'd won a victory. Therefore, when the Joint Chiefs suggested, and Ambassador Bunker suggested, and the South Vietnamese suggested, that a Korean War - type solution was probably applicable to Vietnam, it was just unthinkable. That solution would have been essentially to isolate the South from the North and to turn the internal affairs of South Vietnam over to the South Vietnamese, who ultimately were the only ones who could solve those kind of problems. But it was recommended that we extend the DMZ across Laos into Thailand. This was recommended by the Joint Chiefs, General Westmoreland, the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff, and Ambassador Bunker, but it fell on deaf ears in Washington because that model was just unacceptable.

You argue in your book that North Vietnam had a very different vision of the war.

Exactly. We saw it as a limited war. And one of the anomalies that came out of the Korean War is that after the Chinese intervention, we reverted from the strategic offensive, whose goal was to defeat the enemy forces and occupy their territory, to the strategic defensive, which made sense. Except that we didn't understand that under the strategic defensive a battlefield victory was not attainable. The best possible outcome under strategic defensive was stalemate. That's exactly what happened in Korea. The war was a stalemate, and the armistice was achieved through political, rather than military, negotiation.

We went into Vietnam with the same model. Not only did we not go on the offensive, we forbade the South Vietnamese to go on the offensive. They couldn't carry the war north. So we took away their goal of unification. Originally, President Diem had nationalist credentials that were as good as Ho Chi Minh's, but we denied him those credentials because it wasn't in our interest for the South Vietnamese to go north, to try to attack North Vietnam, because we were fighting a war on the strategic defensive. And the best possible outcome was stalemate, and that's exactly what was finally achieved. But because we didn't understand that fundamental limitation, we didn't understand the limits of military power.

So there is a logic to the conduct of war. At a certain point, you cross a threshold and you incapacitate yourself, basically, if you aren't playing that game, so to speak.

We were caught up in this business of counter-insurgency, winning hearts and minds, the whole business of a social revolution rather than a war. North Vietnam was playing by the old rules. They saw it as the Second Indochina War, so that Laos and Cambodia, for example, were part and parcel of the war. Their objectives were always the unification of the South. They understood from the very beginning what was involved, and were willing to pay the price, both in lives -- which was astronomical, roughly the equivalent of 17 million Americans killed in the battlefield, losses that we'd never even begin to tolerate -- willing to pay the price in terms of casualties and in terms of time. They were willing to stay the course because their survival was at stake.

In the United States, Vietnam was always on the periphery. We sometimes tend to forget that for a great part of the war, it was just a back-burner affair that no one was very interested in. So we had a lack of parallel objectives and of parallel operations. In a sense, the thrust of my book is that the North Vietnamese beat us at our own game. They were masters of the art of war; there was nothing inscrutable or "oriental" or mysterious about it. It was, unfortunately, laid out by Clausewitz a hundred and fifty years earlier. That's what I found so disconcerting.

You are also suggesting that, in a way, our political leaders put us in a catch-22. That the struggle in Vietnam was all-important, so important that we could do nothing, that we were essentially immobilized by all the constraints created by the importance of the conflict.

The problem is, when it was obtainable, when it was winnable, the war was not important. It was a back-burner affair. Look at How Much Is Enough?, Ann Oberlin Smith's book about the McNamara era in the Pentagon. Only about twenty pages of this two-hundred-page book are devoted to Vietnam. The rest of it is the Skybolt missile, nuclear strategy, and a war in Europe. And you could make the case that this was probably correct, that Vietnam was never a threat to our national interests or to our survival -- unlike the Soviet Union, which had the capacity to destroy us within minutes.

So you could argue that, properly, the Defense Department's attention was on the Soviet Union, and Vietnam was a back-burner affair. And so when it was winnable, they paid it no heed. Then, suddenly, it became unwinnable: once the American people's support was lost, any attempt to win the war was just a futile operation. The critical period was fall 1967, before Tet, when American public opinion for the first time shifted against the war. Given the trinitarian nature of the American military, once we lost public support, the end was inevitable.

In your book you describe the absolute failure of our political leaders to bring the public on board from the beginning. Why do you think they failed?

I just received a letter, as the editor of Vietnam Magazine, from a young man who had written his high school thesis on the Vietnam War. One of his statements was "The American people were opposed to the war from the very beginning." And I replied, "No, that's not really true." It would have been easier if they had been -- that would have probably changed the entire outcome of the war. But the fact of the matter is, President Johnson had the overwhelming support of the American people for thirty months, the same length of time as from the landing in North Africa in World War II until V-E Day.

Now if you make the point that the American people supported the war in Vietnam for as long as they had supported the ground war in Europe, you get a little bit different flavor on it. "Cut and run" was never an option for LBJ because the American people wanted the war won. And when they turned against the war in the fall of 1967, it wasn't because of the anti-war movement. It was the pragmatic side of the American character that said, "Either win the damn thing or get the hell out." They lost their patience with it. It was dragging on interminably. As it turned out, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had no concept of victory and no plan to end the war.

I think President Johnson was very poorly served by both his political advisors, the McNamaras and the Cliffords, as well as his military advisors. Because his admonition to them constantly was "win the war." And he was subverted, either by incompetence or by design, by both his senior military leadership and the senior political leadership. We had the political base for victory, but we let it erode, let it get away from us.

Johnson was also concerned about sacrificing his Great Society program, his domestic agenda.

Exactly. I think initially, at least, he didn't realize the stakes involved in the Vietnam War, that it could cost him not only his presidency, but the Great Society. By the time that realization came, it was almost too late. It was too late to do anything about it. There is that great line from the Duke of Wellington at the beginning of the nineteenth century: "Great nations don't fight small wars." He didn't mean that great nations didn't fight wars that were small, but that once a great nation gets involved in a war, the very prestige and maybe its survival as a great nation is at stake. I don't think that realization sunk in until it was too late to do anything about it.

Next page: Lessons of Vietnam

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