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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Lessons of Vietnam

(Barnes) I have been reading Bui Tin's memoirs. He was a North Vietnamese colonel; you may have met him at one time. He writes, "Nor did we learn from the military failures of the Tet Offensive, 1968. Instead, although we had lost the element of surprise, we went on to mount further major attacks in May and September '68 and suffered even heavier losses. This too has continued to be a subject of controversy in Hanoi. Our side also suffered seriously from the social pacification plans dreamed up by the Americans, such as Operation Phoenix, and the Chieu Hoi campaign, which was designed to induce our troops and supporters to defect. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that in the North, although we were constantly counterattacked and suffered heavy destruction from 5 million tons of bombs, we stood surprisingly firm in contending with the bombers of the Rolling Thunder Operations."* I'm interested in your comments on the sentence about not having learned our lessons. What are the lessons of Vietnam?

I guess the overwhelming lesson, which is not of particular value, is, Never get involved in a civil war in a former French colony in Indochina.

(Barnes) That's rather precise.

I don't see what the utility is, but that's certainly true. Because we lacked objectives, we had no accurate measurement. You know, Morley Safer, who is certainly not a pro-military guy, went back to Vietnam and interviewed the former heads of the National Liberation Front. He found them even more disgruntled than the Americans. They say they've been sold out by the North, they've been had, they've been deceived all the way along. One of the comments is that the Phoenix program was the most destructive program that we had ever mounted. Yet in this country it was seen as an assassination scheme and generally denigrated by the government.

I think the American public has learned the lessons of the Vietnam War fairly well. I think, though, that we've created some dangerous misunderstandings abroad. In the beginning of the Gulf War, a Chinese diplomat said, "We knew the Americans had a great deal of military might, but they're a paper tiger. They don't have the will to use it." And all of the comments made about how we can't stand casualties. Baloney. If the American people are convinced of the worth of what we're doing, they will spend, as we did in World War II, a million casualties in pursuing it. There is nothing wrong with the backbone of the American character, and people may, very dangerously, misjudge the reaction of America.

Saddam Hussein twice misjudged President Clinton. Hussein thinks he can push President Clinton around in the Gulf. President Clinton is not going to be pushed. For one thing, he doesn't have the political capital to allow himself to be pushed -- as maybe President Bush would have had. I think the world needs to learn the lessons of Vietnam as well as the American people have.

You're critical also of the academic advisors who came to the Kennedy administration and their concepts of limited war. Why is that?

In World War II we saw the greatest conventional victory, probably, in the history of warfare. But almost immediately after, the atomic theorists started coming to the fore. They had the idea that the atomic bomb had changed everything, that wars were no longer winnable in a traditional sense, that conventional forces had no meaning, that the whole nature of war changed with atomic weapons. And only they, the so-called wizards of Armageddon, had the answers. And for the right price, they'd let us in on the secret. One Air Force Secretary called them the "treeful of owls" type of civilian atomic theorists.

That kind of thinking almost destroyed the Army and the Marine Corps. The Air Force became dominated by SAC [Strategic Air Command] and nuclear warfare. The Korean War was seen as an aberration. Air Force Secretary Thomas Finletter said that the future of war was going to be atomic war and total war. So the Army lost its raison d'être and lost its soul to some degree.

When President Kennedy comes in, it becomes obvious that the theory of maximum deterrence was not working because it gave you the choice of nuclear war or surrender, and that really wasn't very usable in a nuclear war. So massive deterrence had failed, and Kennedy comes in with this business of flexible response. Khrushchev counters the American nuclear build-up, which he'd been forced to back down on in the Cuban Missile Crisis, with wars of national liberation. If he can't get at us at the upper end of the spectrum, he's going to get at us at the lower. And Kennedy bought it hook, line, and sinker. Not only Kennedy, but a great many academic thinkers as well, and military people -- Maxwell Taylor among others -- bought into this theory.

So we became convinced that counter-insurgency was the wave of the future. Kennedy puts out the word to the military, "If you want to get promoted, if you want to get ahead, you've got to get on board." And he fired the Army Chief of Staff who didn't go along with it, George Decker. And Maxwell Taylor, who had been brought in from retirement to be a sort of military guru, was very much in charge of it. So, again, conventional war had been denigrated, not only by nuclear weapons but also by counter-insurgency. And the military sort of lost its soul in this struggle, and military thinking degenerated to the point that we lost the old verities.

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*Note: Tin, Bui, Following Ho Chi Minh : The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel, (University of Hawaii Press, 1995) p. 63.

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