As we approach the 50-year anniversary of John F Kennedy’s death this Nov 22nd, and the 45th-anniversary of Robert F Kennedy’s death this June, there have been a number of great new books and films that give us perspective on their life and legacy. I’d like to make my own small contribution to that reflection literature here. Posts like this are called counterfactuals (alternative histories). If you’d like to read more in this foresight-oriented genre, try both historian Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History, 2000, and historian Robert Cowley’s The Collected What If?, 2006. Counterfactuals can be quite varied in quality, but I find the best to be far more interesting than fiction. They illuminate what, with better vision, might have been.
The Vietnam War, 1955-75, was arguably the most heartbreaking episode of US history since our Civil War. It is the only major war we’ve ever lost, at a cost of 58,000 American lives, between two and three million human lives lost in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, thousands of square miles of living space and ecosystems laid waste, and over $120 billion in Then-Year dollars ($800 billion today) in US war expenses.
President Truman set the stage with his Truman Doctrine (1947) of active global Soviet containment. He also financially aided the French from 1950-53 as they tried to take back their former colony in the First Indochina War (1946-54). But the French plan was unsustainable from the start. They were facing highly motivated communist and nationalist revolutionaries, fighting a war for their independence under Ho Chi Minh in the North. They were dramatically defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the country was arbitrarily divided into North and South near the 17th parallel in the Geneva Accords, pending elections, which never happened. At this point, incoming President Eisenhower and his Sec of State John Foster Dulles tried nation-building, backing the capitalist autocrat Ngo Dihn Diem as President of the new nation of South Vietnam in 1955. But South Vietnam as it had been sloppily partitioned in Geneva included many nationalists and communists as well as capitalists, so the new state was deeply unstable from the start. Ho, greatly popular throughout Vietnam, soon formed the communist National Liberation Front (aka the “Viet Cong” or VC) in the South to reunite the country by force. By the end of Ike’s second term in 1960 we had 900 U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam, and he advised the incoming President Kennedy “I think you’re going to have to send troops” as he left office.
During the Kennedy administration (1961-63), South Vietnam’s security steadily deteriorated. Viet Cong tactics were brutal, surgical, and effective. In 1961 alone, Viet Cong in South Vietnam killed 4,000 of Diem’s leadership and key supporters via assassination. Diem became increasingly repressive and ineffective, Kennedy ramped our involvement up to 12,000 US special forces soldiers and security advisors, but none of this worked. In 1963, some of Diem’s generals secretly told our State department they were going to mount a coup to replace him. We assented, the coup happened November 1, Diem was murdered, and three weeks later JFK was assassinated in Dallas. South Vietnam’s new leadership proved even less able to defend itself, and by 1964 it became clear to President Johnson that the US would either have to commit combat troops or we would lose the country to the North.
We never got to see what JFK would have done in Vietnam once we made the troop commitment decision, which many historians say was essentially inevitable, as we were then at the height of the cold war. Sending combat troops made us the security leaders, with new responsibilities and strategic latitude we’d never had before. We know well what happened under President Johnson, SecDef Robert McNamara, and General William Westmoreland. There was broad public support for both the war and the draft in 1965. By 1967, half a million American troops were in Vietnam, heeding JFK’s 1961 inaugural call to do what they could for their country. Yet despite total domination and firepower in the air and at sea, and an additional 700,000 South Vietnamese soldiers working with us, we couldn’t stop, find or even identify the 250,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army recruits who ran circles around us on land. None of our strategies worked for long. We couldn’t even secure Saigon.
Johnson had just three years to find a winning strategy. Vietnam was our first television war, so its impotence, futility and tragedies came into US homes every evening. Meanwhile the civil rights and counterculture revolutions were growing fast at home, further shortening his window. By the VC’s Tet Offensive in Jan-Feb 1968, public opinion had swung greatly against the war. That year was likley his very last chance to find a win. He could not, and by March 1968, Johnson told America he would not run for reelection.
I believe America could have easily won the Vietnam War, without large losses of US troops or civilian deaths, and avoided this major tragedy in human history. But we would have needed sufficient foresight to find an appropriate strategy as early as possible, foresight the Johnson administration did not have at the time, and which we never developed, over ten long bloody years of war, 1965-1975. Many have argued the Vietnam War was unwinnable as long as we were unwilling to send ground troops into the North, and risk another ground war with China. See for example this 2002 book, or this well-written brief argument. But I believe it was winnable in several ways without taking that risk, and below is just the best way I can presently imagine. It is a great unknown whether JFK and his brother Bobby Kennedy, who both showed increasing foresight and flexibility as JFK’s term progressed, would have figured out a winning strategy.
I first imagined this strategy as a naïve college student.* Now, as a more mature student of life, and not able to find it in a simple web search, I decided to sketch it out in the hope that our future political and defense leaders, citizens, and the world might learn something from it.
The more we appreciate the great value of foresight, the more our leaders will be compelled to seek it, wherever they can.
I. Counterfactual: How We Should Have Won the Vietnam War:
- Between 1955-1965, Ike, Kennedy or Johnson realize that just a minority of the 19 million South Vietnamese, perhaps 20%-40% (4-8 million) truly want a capitalist nation, and it is to these Vietnamese that we are committed. Containment isn’t about land, it’s about people, and building defensible states for those people, where possible. Most South Vietnamese identified strongly with Ho Chi Minh’s liberation victories against the French, and saw us as potential new colonialists, not liberators. Ike wrote in his memoirs that he believed Ho Chi Minh would have won 80% of the vote had elections been held in 1956. But at various points over the ten years prior to our overt engagement of combat troops, I’d guess that anywhere from 20-40% of South Vietnamese, if offered the choice, would have voted for the rights to private ownership of land and to keep and sell their own production. Or the right to vote out their leaders on a regular basis. These are the folks who needed our help. They were “the difference” we were there for. Losing sight of this was perhaps our most basic mistake.
- As part of our troop commitment planning, we recognize that we may not be able to defend the entire country without unacceptable levels of casualties, and as tactical pragmatists, we explore how we might create a defensible “island nation” of New South Vietnam for the Vietnamese capitalists, if South Vietnam turns out to be indefensible by land, as it did. This would not have been a new idea. Recall that Chiang Kai-Shek had fled China to Taiwan in 1949, by 1958 we had Nike missiles on the island, and by 1960 Taiwan was the second fastest growing capitalist Asian nation (see the Taiwan Miracle) after Japan. New South Vietnam, with a US defense pact and a comparable size, resources, and population, could have taken a similar course if given the opportunity.
- We notice the Mekong River, the fourth largest river in the world by volume, creates a set of naturally defensible 200-mile long northern borders for a New South Vietnam (the rivers bisecting the south end of the country in the picture above and below). We see New South Vietnam will still be over 15,000 square miles. It will be larger than Taiwan (14,000 sq. miles and 12 million people in 1965), thirty-five times larger than Hong Kong, fifty times larger than Singapore. The delta is also the breadbasket of South Vietnam, and already contains 40% (8 million) of the state’s current population.
- We next notice that New South Vietnam’s border with Cambodia has just 60 riverless miles that will need to be closed with trenches, walls, and buffer zone (the blue 93 km road in the map below). The final 40 miles of border that isn’t ocean is the Giang Thanh river at the western tip of the country and two lakes in Cambodia, each as securable against ground and naval forces as the Mekong, and all without great cost. We now realize we have a sound contingency plan for a defensible capitalist state in the Mekong Delta, which we will use if necessary.
- We allow our conventional war strategists to try for the big win: securing all of South Vietnam. But since we now have a winnable fall back plan for the Delta, its advocates are pitted against conventional war advocates from the start. As soon as our conventional war starts losing too many precious lives (1965? 1966?) the Delta State plan advocates will gain the high ground.
- At some point, maximum acceptable losses in the conventional war are exceeded, we admit our inability to secure all of South Vietnam, we remove the advocates of that plan from leadership (all leadership must have accountability to work well), and we shift to the second plan. After taking up defensive positions on our new 300-mile border, we land four divisions (80,000 soldiers) in four locations on the lower Delta and march them up toward our borders, shoulder to shoulder, ten miles a day. Two weeks later we’ve flushed northward across the Mekong almost every VC who actively resists us. We take many prisoners of war in this first surprise march, for later peace negotiations.
- We defend our well-chosen border, building artillery positions every two thousand feet (900 of them) on the south side of the rivers, jeep and helicopter bases every five miles (60 of them), burn, clear, and farm the banks on the far side, and declare our new border at a ridgeline patrol trail on the far side of the rivers. Beyond that we declare a 2.5 mile wide demilitarized buffer and no-fly zone, the same width as the Korean DMZ created in 1953. We patrol our border by air and land, and we control all water traffic on the Mekong with our riverine navy. We help New South Vietnam declare its existence to the UN, and begin major immigration, refugee, and emigration operations.
- We dismantle parts of Saigon’s infrastructure, ferrying it 50 miles south, with any residents who wish to come along. We give Ho a less developed city on our own timetable, a year or two later, in peace negotiations. We immediately begin building a New Saigon, to compete with the old one (now Ho Chi Minh City).
- We broadly arm and train New South Vietnamese citizens, empowering them to respond to Viet Cong assassins in their midst with US frontier security, and hire and train lots of NSV citizens for transitional law enforcement roles. We bring Israelis over to teach them security culture. Our international allies on the ground, including Australia, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand, Khmer Republic, Laos, and our supporting allies stay focused on building out portions of NSV’s evolving security infrastructure and development projects.
- We give New South Vietnam a great new port, a US military base and a Marshall Plan, grow their industrial, trade, and political relations with the US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and watch them beat the North every year forward at the development game. In the very unlikely event that warfare for unification still continued for years afterward, we could then have negotiated a peace settlement similar to Britain’s 99-year lease of Hong Kong (1899-1999). Even a lease would still have been a great win for capitalism and containment, in the eyes of the world and for the people who cared.
To summarize, the Vietnam War was both a failure of security and of nation-building. We Americans seem biased to underestimate how good security must be in some geopolitical environments before democracy can flourish. For a reminder of what is sometimes needed, think of Israel. We are also too timid about fiddling with national borders to improve security. For an alternative, again look at Israel and its buffer zones. With few exceptions (for example, North and South Sudan) we also seem strangely reluctant to condone the subdivision of a country into several smaller self-governing states if civil violence there exceeds some well-publicized red line. Remember the Gelb/Biden proposal in 2006 to partition Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish semi-autonomous states, as a punitive consequence of sustained civil violence? That’s an effective Security Doctrine everyone in the world could understand, a direct extension of the ancient Divide and Rule strategy of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, no President has yet had the vision or courage to make it their own.
Could the Johnson administration have found this solution? Johnson sorely wanted something like this. He was excellent at domestic affairs, and was hell bent on getting in and out of Vietnam quickly, of getting a “war on the cheap” as his intelligence staffer George A. Carver described it later. Some might say we couldn’t have taken such overt control over politics in South Vietnam, but we never needed such control. We became the security leaders when we committed combat troops. We could have focused our combat security efforts, and all our troop stationing, on the Delta and that short stretch of Cambodian border, and refused to provide anything but advice and technology anywhere else. As the increasingly overwhelmed South Vietnamese government’s political and security situation kept deteriorating, our defensible “island” below the Mekong would be the only safe place left to run.
Apparently the closest we and our South Vietnamese allies ever got to the plan above was something called the Strategic Hamlet Program, a disastrous early policy to secure and relocate villages, thus creating imprisoning refugee camps of uprooted villagers, but not removing Vietcong from the regions around the camps, a strategy doomed to failure from the start. Former CIA director William Colby, in Lost Victory, 1989, proposes other ways better strategy and leadership could have won the war. Unfortunately, none of these paths were taken. We did charitably immigrate 500,000 Vietnamese refugees to the US as the war wound down but everyone else was abandoned. We could have created a defensible country for millions of those who wanted our way of life at the time, and developed the heck out of it, but we did not do so. As a result, we failed the South Vietnamese, we failed our own troops, and we failed to show the world why our particular political and defense system is the best yet-devised for freedom and prosperity.
There are many lessons our political, security, and development leaders can learn from this for our future, I think. I’ll try to explore a few of them in the rest of this post, and I hope others will find this of value.
II. Alternative History: If the Johnson Administration Had Won the Vietnam War This Way in the 1960’s, Besides the Saving of Millions of Lives and Hundreds of Billions of Dollars of Lost Resources, How Else Might America and the World Be Different Today?
- Would President Johnson have run for a second term and would the US have avoided a Nixon presidency altogether?
- Would the US have had a much more hopeful, confident, prosperous, and progressive 1970’s?
- Would Johnson’s Great Society initiatives in a second term have better improved the lot of our poor and decreased racial injustice?
- Would our inner cities have fallen less far in the 1970’s and 1980’s before they started reforming themselves in the 1990’s?
- If eight million South Vietnamese had begun being capitalists in 1966, instead of in 1986 (when Vietnam finally started market reforms, after decades as one of the poorest countries on Earth) how many more new scientific advances, and useful products and services would the world’s people have today?
- Would a booming New South Vietnam in the 1970’s-1980’s have flipped other Asian countries into capitalism several years to a couple of decades sooner?
- If South Vietnam hadn’t fallen to the communist North in 1974, would Cambodia’s government have entered a security alliance with NSV, and thus not fallen to the Khmer Rouge communists in 1975, averting Pol Pot’s genocide of 2 million Cambodians?
- How much closer connected would all the ASEAN countries be by now?
- Would North Korea even exist today, or would its reunification have already happened?
- Once we taught New South Vietnamese citizens to arm and defend themselves in a modern form of Wild West frontier security, as would have been inevitable to counter North Vietnamese assassins, even with secure borders (see John Robb’s Resilient Communities writings for more on this), would we have taken this proven distributed security strategy into our subsequent wars?
- Would our interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa have borne far better fruit if we’d been growing citizen defense from the start, instead of keeping them weak and dependent on our might and armor?
- Would our homeland security programs since 9/11 be more decentralized, citizen-based, and resilient than they are today, with a more engaged and civic-minded citizenry?
Any or all of these proposals may be wrong, but this isn’t idle speculation. Our choices always have consequences, and losing the Vietnam War had many incredibly negative consequences on our nation’s youth, culture, and psyche for decades afterward. It’s good to periodically take measure of our past decisions, as imperfect as that measure always is, and see what we might learn for the future. I hope you’ve found this thought experiment as useful as I have, and that it stimulates you to seek as much foresight as you can get with a reasonable investment of time and effort, in all the important decisions of your life.
III. After Action Review: Who Is To Blame For The Fact That A Winning Strategy Was Not Seen, Or If Seen, Not Taken?
This may be the toughest question of all. Many who know much more about such issues than I would place a good deal of blame on SecDef Robert McNamara, the prime architect of our Vietnam strategy. He was widely considered arrogant and aloof, and took a technocratic, quantitative approach to the war. According to Bui Diem in one of the film accounts below, he would swoop in with his yellow notepad and flurry of pointed questions seeking data for his reports, but had very little interest the opinions of or feedback from the Vietnamese generals and indigenous strategists.
I have also read that he led in a similar way with his team at the DoD. Such a top-down and overly procedural management style, along with insufficient cognitive diversity in the executive team, would be one sure prescription for his poor performance. See Scott Page’s The Difference for lots of data on superior performance of cognitive diversity in top leadership, critical feedback, and evidenced-based decisionmaking when dealing with hard problems. As I’ve said in my post on the Titanic disaster, there are often several good solutions possible when faced with terrible, complex problems, but we may have to quickly and calmly use good foresight process, with a sufficiently diverse crowd, to find them.
Whatever the reasons, McNamara’s team failed to materialize a winning strategy, and he failed to convince Johnson to pull out of Vietnam and admit defeat, something Johnson, perhaps rightly, considered a nonsolution. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, 2003 (YouTube upload here). It’s a penetrating view into the mind and penitance of Robert McNamara, a great intellect, but also, in my opinion, a recognition-driven fence-sitter when we instead needed someone able to motivate others to find a solution, and with sufficient humility to recognize he was unlikely to do so himself.
IV. The Future of Security: Some Lessons for Modern Defense Leaders
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how greatly our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have also been failures of security leadership. There are a number of good books on this. I would start with Thomas Rick’s excellent account of the Iraq 2003-2005, Fiasco, 2007. Charles Ferguson’s excellent video, No End in Sight, 2007, and his followup book, No End in Sight, 2009, are perhaps the best brief accounts of our serious failures to provide security, and in particular, urban security, a critical precondition to the next necessary step in any intervention, aggressive development.
We didn’t foresee the security implications of actions like failing to lock down Baghdad to prevent looting, or of the mass firing of the Iraqi military and thus jump-starting the Iraqi insurgency. We also never held our massive army of private contractors to competitive standards or rigorous oversight in their development work, and they had to provide their own security, as our military leadership wasn’t able to do so. We never gave citizens large financial incentives (gun buybacks, etc.) for disarming and improving the cities, and in particular kept out the nonlethal weapons, ballistic shields, cellphones, and training that would allow them to provide their own frontier security. Tom Rick’s book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, 2012, hones in on the lack of serious consequences for poorly performing military leadership today, versus the 1940’s. Without proper accountability and feedback, our human systems deteriorate, even as our technical ones grow in ability every year.
Every US political leader’s influence decays steadily from the moment they take office, and America’s influence in a foreign military intervention decays steadily from the moment we enter the country. At some point the savior becomes the occupier. For this natural psychological reason all our interventions must accomplish their changes in a race against time. It is always best to leave an intervention with most of the populace wanting more, rather than wanting us out. There are a number of good books on democratic and capitalist nationbuilding (see America’s Role in Nation-Building, Dobbins & Lal, 2003, or State-Building, Fukuyama, 2004) but the truth is America doesn’t have anywhere near the funds, patience, or competence in the Executive, State Dept, DoD, or in our private contractors to do this at the present time. What we can and should do, is a rapid series of security and development upgrades, centered almost entirely on a few key cities, in a very time-limited intervention. These need to be planned out and scheduled with surgical precision before we enter, a kind of “Shock and Awe” for urban security and development. That’s a winnable intervention scenario, and will leave the country’s populace (if not its leaders) hoping for another such intervention in the future.
When the cities in the nations that we are defending are working, they demonstrate every day the rising benefits of economic, technological, and cultural connectedness to the West. When they are not, everything rapidly falls apart. Cities are the future, and we might as well recognize it. Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, 2012, is a great source for more on this perspective.
If we were to pick and order a Critical Set of urban priorities for our interventions, they might be:
1. Security, Connectedness & IT
2. Food, Water & Shelter
4. Power and Sanitation
Unfortunately, America’s political and defense leaders never recognized the key role that IT development plays in both securing key cities and buying critical time in the intervention before we are viewed as occupiers, not aides. In Afghanistan and Iraq, urban citizens never got inexpensive government-subsidized cellphones. We never leveraged the vast numbers of law abiding folks willing to anonymously report scofflaws and problems. We never helped them to stay connected 24/7 to their families and friends, a cornerstone of technological development. We can of course monitor all traffic and users movements via such networks, and revoke privileges with granularity, down to the individual user. Citizens can be induced to photograph, share, and report problems for bounties. Law enforcement and civil defense personnel can be required to wear body cameras, capturing the entire day’s events, and reducing their corruption. We never sold ultracheap CCTV systems, camera traps, GPS loggers, and other tools for private personal property protection and sousveillance, both empowering individuals and making public spaces into a security fishbowl. We never delivered sufficiently compelling entertainment, sporting, and cultural events, through both network and public access television, and digital citizen journalism, to keep large fractions of the youth engaged in cultural vs. insurgency activities. We never released prisoners on good behavior from prisons with electronic monitoring systems, though they allow far more granular and humane use of incarceration, and we use them routinely at home. So many of the enduring benefits that come from participation with the West can be delivered through the staged and strategic deployment of IT during a military intervention, the only one of our security and development domains that accelerates in its capacities and performance per dollar every year. I’ve written on IT and nanotechnologies as the great drivers of accelerating change elsewhere on this blog (See “The Race to Inner Space,” 2011). We have yet to realize how strategically different they are, and how much more they shape the future, than everything else we humans do.
We could go on down this list of priorities and talk also about our failure to provide sufficient jobs via massive and temporary urban law enforcement and civil work projects for the unemployed. Or to provide decentralized power via inexpensive generators, and good sanitation. We could discuss the brutality and corruption in the jails. Or our failure to introduce subsidized motor scooters and cheap gasoline to quickly ease transportation problems even in gridlocked cities with terrible roads – just look at modern Vietnam.
We have had many excellent examples of leadership in these wars. Read In the Shadow of Greatness, 2012, for just one inspiring account. But in both Iraq and Afghanistan we never got our top security or development strategies right. While neither wars have been failures on the scale of Vietnam, neither will be the successes they could have been even though one of them, Iraq, began under false pretenses. These are fundamental areas where better leadership, foresight and strategy are needed. We can do better and I’m confident that eventually, we will.
V. Further Learning: A Few Great Films and Books on the Vietnam War
If you have time for just one 46 minute video on the war over dinner sometime, let me recommend Vietnam, 1954-68, Episode 11 of the 24 episode series, Cold War, which beautifully covers the dramatic forty-six year era of US-Soviet political, military, scientific, technical, economic, and cultural competition and conflict from 1945-1991. Cold War was conceived and financed by Ted Turner. His iconoclastic, speak-truth-to-power perspective is present in the series, which is crisply and smartly narrated by a young Kenneth Branagh. This series is of the same caliber as People’s Century, the BBC documentary series that covers our entire 20th century in 26 breathtaking episodes. I’ve previously reviewed two episodes of that here and here.
For a single documentary, I’d recommend the academy award-winning Hearts and Minds, 1974. A close runner-up is the Oscar-nominated In the Year of the Pig, 1968, which came out early in the war and does a great job exploring its backdrop and some of the flaws in our strategy. If you’d like a deeper account, you can’t beat the 11 episode series Vietnam: A Television History, The American Experience/PBS. Each of these films are quite harrowing viewing in parts, but they offer great insights into the nature and limits of our human understanding of each other, the world, and our possible and probable futures, and often tragic consequences of those limits.
One of the most extensive and even-handed books on the subject is Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, 1997, written to accompany the PBS films. Unfortunately, nowhere in it can I find an account of the Mekong Delta State solution, or anything like it. If anyone can tell me whether such an idea was ever discussed, and where I can find more details on that discussion, I’d be very glad to hear it, along with any other winning strategies you might have in mind, and any other feedback on this post.
*I nearly came to this strategy in high school. Chadwick School was both rigorous and unconventional. Richard Geldard, our exceptional history and classics teacher, conducted an eye-opening alternative history (foresight) exercise. We were each asked “How would you have conducted the Vietnam War?” and formed teams. I proposed evacuation of Vietnamese capitalists to either a defensible US island (Guam) or a US state (Florida or Texas). Revisiting this issue in World History as a UCLA undergraduate, I looked at a map and realized we could have made the Mekong Delta into a defensible island. All we needed was the foresight to see it and the leadership to do it.
Thanks for reading.