How the US Should Have Won the Vietnam War – The Mekong Delta State Solution (Series on Leadership, Foresight, and Security)

Want more of these instructive foresight stories? See my Progress Counterfactuals Collection in Chapter 11 of The Foresight Guide (2018).

john-and-bobby-kennedyAs 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 VirtualHistoryFerguson1997been 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.

vietnam-mapThe 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

    New South Vietnam - South of the Mekong River

    New South Vietnam – South of the Mekong River – A Defensible Home for Millions Who Wanted Our Way of Life in 1965

  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. 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. We also are far, far too reluctant to condone or advocate the subdivision of a country into smaller self-governing states, whenever civil violence exceeds some well-publicized red line.

Do you remember the Gelb/Biden proposal in 2006 to partition Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish semi-autonomous states? Enforced subdivision and the removal of leadership on all sides of the conflict (with an opportunity for the divided state to reunify democratically only after a decade or two of division) has never been advocated by any US leader as a punitive consequence of sustained civil violence (failure of government to provide security to its citizens), but it could have been, perhaps even as early as the Vietnam War, but most definitely by the time of the First Gulf War. Such a policy could be selectively applied to any failing state in our new world. Even if our red line started as high as 100,000 deaths, such a policy would have radically reduced the body counts in the 1990s Balkan and Rwandan Wars. It could also have been communicated to the UN as our new policy. They would not have to agree in any of these cases, as global security still isn’t primarily a UN responsibility–it’s ours. That kind of approach is easy to grasp, and it would be a highly effective Security Doctrine. It would put a lot of responsibility on our special forces, but they’ve been fully up to the task since the 1990s at least. Opposition leaders in any failing state would then be incentivized to solve their problems without our help, and without violence, because if they don’t, they stand to lose their state, and any benefits of their union. This foreign security policy has very old roots in fact, as it is a modern and much more civilized version of the ancient Divide and Rule strategy of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, no President has yet had the vision or courage to make such a doctrine their own.

Could the Johnson administration have found the Mekong Delta State 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. Perhaps the most effective strategy America employed in Vietnam was our secret Phoenix Program, an operation led by our CIA, special forces, and US Army Intelligence that identified and assassinated or captured between 40-80,000 Viet Cong leaders between 1965 and 1972. Phoenix was a counter to the Viet Cong’s own highly effective assassination strategy against Diem’s administration. We used it to eliminate most of the southern VC leaders, and that in turn forced them into a conventional conflict, the Tet Offensive in 1968, a strategy doomed to fail for them in the short run. But Tet was also a turning point in American public opinion, as it showed viewers at home that the war wasn’t being won as we’d been told. Thus it was a sacrifice that paid off for them in the long run, as it demonstrated to Americans the level of their resolve.

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. At least two million Vietnamese “boat people” left their country by any means they could between 1975 and 1995.

We could have created a defensible country for those millions of Vietnamese 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?

  • Lyndon-Johnson-and-the-Great-Society-9781566631853Would 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 in the opinions of, or in feedback from, both the Vietnamese generals and indigenous strategists.

thedifferencescottpagethe-fog-of-war-movie-poster-2003-1020478537I 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

noendinsightWith 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.

TriumphOfTheCityBookWhen 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
   3. Jobs
   4. Power and Sanitation
   5. Transportation

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.

intheshadowofgreatnessWe 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

coldwarseriesIf 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.

vietnamhistorykarnowFor 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.

2017 Update: Ken Burns and Lynn Novik have produced a new 10-part PBS series, The Vietnam War, which is a brilliant work, and must-see viewing. I wish they’d mentioned the Mekong Delta State as a missed strategy in any of their first five episodes. Episode 5: This Is What We Do, on Johnson’s last big plans in 1967, was arguably the last time the Mekong Delta State could have been realized and founded by his administration. I wish it had been, because I think it would have changed history greatly for the better.

*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.

Saving the Titanic – Crowdsourcing to Find Hard Solutions, and Unlearning to Implement Them

Want more of these instructive foresight stories? See my Progress Counterfactuals Collection in Chapter 11 of The Foresight Guide (2018).

A Good AH Collection

Hindsight is often 20/20. When we look to the past, we must guard against hindsight bias, where we assume more predictability to certain past events than actually existed. Nevertheless, rethinking the past remains a very helpful mental practice. Not only does it allow us greater insight and self knowledge, as Mark Freeman argues in Hindsight, 2009, it helps us with foresight as well.

Good hindsight helps us build better models of evolutionary and developmental process in the universe. We gain better ability to discriminate between those evolutionary interventions that could have changed the past, moving us to a new and different branch on the evolutionary tree of possibilities, and those which would not have been likely to change outcomes significantly, as there were developmental processes also at work, pushing the system in one predictable direction.

The alternate history (AH) literature genre is concerned with these issues, looking for the leverage points in historical processes, and imagining “what if?” scenarios where those critical levers had been pulled in a different direction. What would the world be like today if Hitler and the Axis Powers had won WWII? What if Hero’s steam engine of 50 A.D. had been subsidized for R&D by a Roman nobleperson or Emperor, and steam-powered devices of increasing complexity had started competing against human labor two millennia earlier than they actually did? Uchronia maintains a list over 3,100 AH novels, and lists annual awards. The Collected What If?, Robert Crowley (ed.), 2006 is a great intro to the genre.

Debating alternative histories is good practice for envisioning alternative futures, one method of the foresight profession. The U. Hawaii offers an MS in alternative futures, under futurist Jim Dator. There are of course evolutionary and developmental futures as well, as I argue in Evo Devo Universe?, 2008.  Evolutionary processes are those we can influence to multiple future states, like wars, competitions, or election results. Developmental outcomes are those where our interventions won’t change a future state at all, other than delaying or hastening it.  For example, every planet with intelligent biological life must eventually use rocks, spears, wheels, levers, and engines, if you believe in developmentalism. Each planet just takes different evolutionary paths to these future outcomes. If any of us wanted to prevent the arrival of human-surpassing artificial intelligence, or the further acceleration of the world, there likely isn’t a thing any of us could do to prevent those developmental processes from going forward. We could delay or hasten them, but they are going to happen. That apparent inevitability, on careful consideration, should be influencing us to focus our attention and resources on developing these particular outcomes well. The destination may be inevitable, but the path we take toward it is our evolutionary choice. We can fight it and get dragged to the future or we can ride the wave, its our choice.

As any future becomes increasingly predictable, the evolutionary choices for altering it must shrink and eventually disappear. At a certain point, there’s no choice left, only developmental certainty.  As the solution space shrinks, solutions may also get increasingly uncommon or “hard” — both hard to find and hard to implement. The only good way to quickly find and execute hard solutions may be crowdsourcing, or using collective intelligence, the power of a cognitively- and skills-diverse crowd, as social scientist Scott Page notes in his excellent book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, 2008. At the same time, uncommon solutions may increasingly require unlearning existing habits, traditions, and protocols before they can even be implemented, as futurist Jack Uldrich notes in Higher Unlearning, 2011.

Here’s a quick  test: What could have been done, with a motivated crowd of problem solvers, in the two hours after the collision with the iceberg, to save many more of those who died on Titanic, and even to save the entire ship?

Recall the sinking of the RMS Titanic, a tragedy of great interest for over a century now, for so many cultural and psychological reasons that don’t need to be recounted here. She struck the edge of a very large iceberg at 11:40pm on April 15, 1912. The engines were stopped just prior to impact. After the impact, Captain Edward Smith summoned Thomas Andrews, the lead shipbuilder, to assess the damage. Around 12:10am, Andrews told the Captain that since five compartments had been breached, the ship must certainly sink in “an hour, or an hour and a half at most.” They also discussed the fact that there were only lifeboats for 1200 of the 2200 souls aboard. The Captain then sent the first wireless distress call, at 12:15am. PBS has a great new doc, Saving the Titanic, 2012, recounting story of the brave engineers, stokers, and firemen who worked to keep at least one of the boilers operational, for the lights and wireless, as long as possible. The ship sank at 2:20am, over two hours after the leaders knew the sinking was unavoidable.

Captain Edward Smith

Prior to the collision there were a number of small, common choices that could have prevented the tragedy. But after the impact, there were very few strategies left that might save the large majority of people on board. Captain Smith desperately needed some smart people looking hard for survival strategies around midnight on that fateful night. He needed ways to think beyond the box, to find any uncommon solutions. He needed a group of his best officers, crew, and passengers to work on that task. But in a great failure of leadership, Smith did not even advise many of his officers of the situation. As the wikipedia post on the sinking says, “he appeared to have become paralyzed by indecision. He did not issue a general call for evacuation, failed to order his officers to load the lifeboats, did not adequately organize the crew, and withheld crucial information from his officers and crewmen.” He also kept all the passengers in the dark as long as possible, to “avoid panic.” But this mushroom management strategy would just delay and eventually heighten total panic, not avoid it.

Those who’ve seen one of the films or read one of the books knows how poorly this approach worked. The first lifeboat wasn’t lowered until 12:45pm, 30 minutes after they were ordered to be uncovered, and that boat and many others were launched vastly under their capacity of 65. A “woman and children first” evacuation policy was proposed by Second Officer Charles Lightoller, but Captain Smith did not supervise the loading process, and no one had responsibility to maximize or expedite it. Passengers getting into the boats weren’t told the ship was sinking. Many wouldn’t get in the boats, preferring the apparent safety of the ship. Only eighteen of the twenty lifeboats were launched, over two hours. They ran out of time when they got to the last two collapsibles. Ultimately only 700 people were saved in the lifeboats, which had 1200 capacity. Even though Titanic’s crew manned them, only two of eighteen lifeboats went back to rescue survivors, pulling just nine people from floating wreckage. 1,502 people died. There have been countless safety improvements since, and six worse losses of life at sea in peacetime, but Titanic remains the most famous maritime disaster in history.

In addition to fully loading the lifeboats, which would have saved as many as 500 lives, a number of other good solutions for saving many more passengers have been proposed, in over a hundred years of hindsight. Experts and amateurs at sites like Encyclopedia Titanica, who know far more of seamanship, engineering, and Titanic history than I ever will, might heatedly critique what follows. But I think at least three are particularly excellent strategies, even if it may have taken an expert willing to think like an amateur to implement them, as we will discuss. Take a moment and see if you can think of any good solutions yourself, then look below the line.

Let me know if I’ve missed any, thanks.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

One of the icebergs found near the Titanic

1. Return to the Iceberg, and Tie Up to It. The iceberg that Titanic struck, perhaps this one found in the vicinity by the Minia shortly after the sinking, had dropped ice on the forward deck on impact. That’s how big it was. So the ship’s officers knew that they could get back to that particular iceberg in perhaps twenty to thirty minutes, and they could see for miles around them. There were also several other larger and smaller bergs (called “growlers”) within view as well. Folks could have been offloaded to those in the calm seas of that bitter cold night.

The captain knew and could have told everyone that the Carpathia was en route to rescue them, and was just hours away. They would have spent only the rest of that night on the bergs. Men could have volunteered to get on the bergs first, taking blankets to sit on, and women and children could have gotten into the lifeboats at the end if they ran out of space on the bergs, a reversal of typical evacuation procedures. The berg Titanic hit was described as like the Rock of Gibraltar, with at least one flat top section. Hundreds of men might have been evacuated onto it. One of the ship’s deck cranes could have been used to drop a landing party onto any of the bergs, even if they weren’t flat-topped. They had lots of steel cables, chains, winches, ropes, drills, chisels, sledge hammers, steel, and rope ladders on board. They may even have had dynamite. They could have used axes to hack holds and steel pitons to anchor men to the ice. One good solution for the landing parties on slippery icebergs would have been to make modifications to their shoes and boots, by nailing small pieces of wood to the bottom, pieces that in turn have nails protruding from their bottoms and a few nail heads from the sides, so their shoes would bite the ice. Notice how deep into the solution space we need to get. Our foresight team needs to know how slippery bergs are, about the specialized boots used for ice climbing, and to have confidence in the ability of carpenters to make a few of these boots for landing parties, in very limited time. The rest of the folks could be pulled onto the bergs from lifeboats by ropes, once the landing party had some pitons in the ice.

National Geographic’s / James Cameron’s Haunting Sinking Simulation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARCEw7BdgLo

Restarting the engines to navigate to any berg, however, would have required the Captain to unlearn some of his many years of training. Titanic had the ability to move either slow forward or slow reverse for at least an hour after the collision, but the engines were stopped for good just after impact. The original iceberg would have been less than a mile behind them once they realized they were sinking, and there was at least one other large berg in view where they went down, and many smaller ones.

The most ingenious idea I’ve yet heard, and the only solution that, with some probability, might even have saved the ship, would have been to dock back up to the original berg, as in the graphic above (a rendition of the initial impact). They could have lashed the ship to the berg using their steel cables, ropes, and one of the ship’s lighter side (bower) anchors (they had two, in addition to the massive center anchor which they wouldn’t have been able to access). Tying cables to the side anchor and using a team and their winch plus pullies to pull it over the berg and dig it in to its far side might have been a good strategy. Pulling both anchors out over the ice and hooking them together might even have worked (engineers would know).  Failing the use of side anchors, they could have also tied cables, chains, and ropes to the front and midships down by its waterline, and hacked a small channel for them over the top of the berg, securing them with pitons. Such efforts might have provided enough buoyancy to keep the ship from sinking. If they’d tied up at the prow early enough, they’d have little weight to support, and the aft chambers might not have filled with water.

In 1860, a Russian-American barge, the Kad’yak, carying 356 tons of ice to San Francisco, hit a rock off Alaska (Russian-owned at the time), and it filled with water, but didn’t sink for three days, until the ice melted. Ice is incredibly buoyant. If one of the enginers knew that fascinating fact, that could have been enough to turn them back. Even if they decided not to try to lash strongly to the berg by the time they got to it, most of the passengers could have been evacuated to the berg as the ship slowly went down, by lashing lightly to it. But I’m willing to bet that with quick strong lashings they could have kept the Titanic afloat. Anyone want to do the calculations?

Put yourself in the mindset of the brilliant shipbuilder, Thomas Andrews. In the very moment after he had just told Captain Smith that the Titanic would go down “with mathematical certainty” because seawater would eventually run over the tops of the unsealed aft compartments as her nose kept sinking. Now imagine someone telling him about the Kad’yak, and he quickly comes up with the idea to lash her nose against a berg, while evacuating the passengers to the berg at the same time. I’d love to see a physics simulation to see whether or not this might have kept the ship’s nose from going under, if they’d been quick about it. At the very least, a strategy of lashing, combined with the use of the pumps, would have bought them more evacuation time. How much more? A great question. Watch this brief and beautiful scene with Andrews and Smith from James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), then imagine what could have happened next. Foresight matters! We all deserve the best foresight we can reasonably acquire.

Unfortunately, unless a smart crowd were charged with the task of finding solutions, iceberg strategies of any kind were unlikely to be discovered, because of standard protocols, quickly executed by Captain Smith very likely without any discussion or consideration of what he was losing by following them. One protocol would have been not move the ship after damage, for fear it would increase the rate of flooding. Another protocol, and the one that particularly damned them as they engaged in it so quickly and broadly, would have been to empty the hot boilers of their coal so they would not explode when cold seawater hit them. Certainly some of the engines should have been kept running, to keep freedom of movement as long as possible. Tradition, the way we think things must be done, is usually wise, but in uncommon situations, it can also be our greatest limitation.

SS Californian

2. Navigate to the Californian. Lookout Frederick Fleet saw a ship, the SS Californian, a small outline sitting next to a field of ice just five to ten miles away from Titanic, only ten minutes after she struck the iceberg. Fourth officer Joseph Boxhall then tried to signal this ship with Morse lamp and distress flares, and the Californian’s night crew, seeing the flares, almost understood the message, but not quite. The Californian was on the horizon the whole time, stopped for the night because of all those nasty bergs floating about, and they could have reached her, or at least gotten very close, if they had moved toward her, either forward or backward, at five to seven knots. At that slow speed they could have also launched lifeboats on the way there, once they started to really nose down.

Titanic’s crew could have made a bonfire on the top deck on the way there, for a visual signal, once they saw their white rockets, launched every few minutes at one point, weren’t being responded to. They could have used the ship’s horn to blow S.O.S., which would have carried in the calm night air for miles. They could have used their guns to make noise. Once they were around a mile away, they could have even reached the Californian with their bullets. At any point over the next two hours the Californian might have taken notice, heard the distress call on the wireless, and brought its lifeboats into action. Again, for this to work, thinking beyond the protocols against restarting the engines would have had to be done.

Adam and Jamie on a Makeshift Titanic Raft

3. Build Rafts. During the lifeboat evacuation, the crew and hundreds of male passengers could have been directed to find and tie as much floatable material together as possible, to make rafts. This is a truly crowdsourceable solution. In addition to all sorts of wood furniture, the ship had massive numbers of wood barrels, oil and food drums, and wood boxes that could have been emptied and lashed with rope, wire, and cable to make rafts. Anyone who’s made a raft knows how quickly you can get flotation if you have a very large number of wooden objects to pile together, as Titanic had. There was even a Mythbusters in Oct 2012 where Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, in picture left, show that if James Cameron’s Rose character had put her lifejacket under her plank, it would have supported Jack as well.

If the ship was not moving, rafts could have been lashed together in the water with rope, wire, and cable, and life vests, by a crew using one of or more of the deck cranes, to make a large floating island. You don’t want a lifejacket on you in the North Atlantic, at 28 °F (−2 °C), because you’ll die with full contact within 20 minutes, unless your lucky and drunk, like Charles Joughin, the baker who treaded water for at least an hour before being pulled onto the overturned Collapsible B lifeboat. You want your lifejacket under you, between you and the water, as part of your raft. Again that realization takes some unconventional thinking. It would have taken a bit more unconventional thinking at that point to realize that the women going into the lifeboats didn’t need the vests they were wearing. The men needed them, for rafts. Even if the ship had been moving toward either the iceberg or the Californian, the raft strategy could still have been done, in parallel with one of the two above. In that case the rafts could have been built on the top deck, and launched as the Titanic slowly sank, bow first.

Could a motivated crowd have led us to any or all of these three solutions? I think so, particularly this one. It is heartbreaking to learn that not a single raft was found in the wreckage. That is because the third class passengers were kept down below until the lifeboats were launched, and very few of the passengers knew the ship was sinking until the very end. The leadership strategy of keeping the masses ignorant very often has a terrible cost, as seen in this tragedy. Why so?

People are usually very effective at quickly coming up with solutions in tight time deadlines, if you trust them with the full news of the situation, however grim. When I googled “Titanic “return to the iceberg” ” I found that high school students came up with some version of both the raft and iceberg solutions, when challenged in a contest. That’s the power of the crowd. Recall NASA’s clever engineers improvising solutions to bring back Apollo 13 in 1970, or Sept 11, 2001, when just a few of United Airlines 93’s brave passengers, using their wits and their cellphones, identified and stopped the terrorists who had taken over their plane.

Certainly there are situations where the crowd doesn’t have the right mindset or training to handle collective power. Mob panic is real, and leaders may need to deny information for brief periods. But panic can also be managed, and justifications for not crowdsourcing solutions get rarer and briefer every year. Learning more conditions in which it makes sense to find and trust the crowd, and quickly build collective intelligence, is one of our greatest opportunities as managers. Here’s a KMPG and Manchester School of Business 2012 report on using the crowd, tamely defined here as bringing doctors and patients closer together in social networks, as a way to accelerate innovation in eHealth program deployment. This is is how it starts, but we can do so much more.

Innocentive’s Problem Solver Market

Whether we are talking about political, defense, economic, environmental, or social problems,  educated people usually deserve to know how bad the situation is, as quickly as possible, and to be empowered to come up with realistic, incremental, bottom-up solutions. To build their own rafts. For that to happen we need a lot more social transparency. We also need to help people become good raft builders. Think of the self-reliance ethic found in several cultures, such as Utah’s Mormons. We get the latter with better education and personal accountability, where irresponsible actions have consequences that are negative enough to influence behavior, while remaining noncatastrophic.

We all need to empower our crowds to come up with brilliant bottom-up solutions as often as possible. We can do this with our staff, our personal contacts, our customers, and the public. With proper education and guidance, cognitively diverse groups will usually find good solutions much faster than we will.

Henry Chesbrough, one of the pioneers of open innovation, has long advocated this. Think of Innocentive, and their growing community of technical problem solvers. Think of incentive prizes. Consider all the people on the web who self-identify as creative thinkers and problem solvers. How soon will LinkedIn or another dominant social network harness all the innovators and creative types into a general online platform that surfaces problems that need solving, and incentivizes competitions for the best solutions, with part of the payment being the growing reputation of the solver?

Spigit and Bright Idea are two new cloud-based innovation management platforms that use pairwise comparison ranking as a way to generate a better distribution of preferences among a set of competing ideas. Most of the other innovation and ideation platforms use simple voting, a crude algorithm that quickly becomes a popularity contest where early winners emerge, and later and potentially better ideas are rarely seen or evaluated. All of these tools are in their infancy, with little machine learning, collaborative filtering, or semantic analysis involved. Yet a few of them have crossed the chasm, as an early majority of cities and companies are now purchasing them, using them, and finding them valuable. Prediction markets are another collective foresight platform that we can expect to continue to grow in popularity in coming years. There are a few companies making those as well, but beyond clever betting sites like InTrade (now defunct), we don’t find that many being used in organizations at present.

One of the more astonishing facts related to Titanic is that the disaster was eerily predicted in fiction, fourteen years before it actually happened. The fictional version of the sinking is so amazingly similar in several details that some have mistakenly presumed some kind of psychic phenomena must have been involved. In 1898 Morgan Robertson, a novelist with extensive previous naval experience wrote a novella, Futility, in which the largest ocean liner ever built, then billed as “unsinkable,” sinks in the North Atlantic, in April, 400 miles off Newfoundland, after striking an iceberg on the starboard side, all just as the Titanic did in 1912. The fictional ship also had less than half of the lifeboats that it needed, most of the passengers died, and the size and features of the ship were near-identical in several other respects. The name of this ship? The Titan. This seems spooky, until you realize that if you are going to build the biggest ship ever, Titan/Titanic was likely the best name in the cultural lexicon at the time. Everyone with sea knowledge knew the risks of icebergs, and where the iceberg lanes were. Anyone who was safety-minded knew the lifeboat laws were horribly inadequate, a disaster waiting to happen. Icebergs will do the most damage on one of two sides, versus a head on collision into the reinforced prow, and April and May are the two months when icebergs are most plentiful, another 50/50 choice. None of this detracts from the brilliance of Robertson’s prediction, it just helps us understand how he did it.  Morgan Robertson got there first, and gave us a prediction of a likely future disaster that wasn’t heeded. Ironically, in Robertson’s version, the hero climbs onto the iceberg to survive the sinking. No such foresight emerged when the Titanic shut down its engines, and kept them off, rather than trying to head toward either a berg or the Californian.

In the future, the better our prediction markets get, the better we’ll be at getting our best foresight to the people who need to see it, and challenging them to address the problems and consider the strategies that such foresight uncovers.  To explore that idea a bit further, futurists Venessa Miemis, Alvis Brigis and I just published an article, Open Foresight, in the Journal of Futures Studies, Sep 2012, 17(1): 91-98, where we argue that the best foresight projects in coming years will be based on open access, network-based, crowdsourced approaches. Using a cognitively diverse crowd will quickly generate a distribution of possible futures, and with good iteration and comparison algorithms, the best can rapidly filter to the top. I’m reasonably hopeful that the best of these innovation management platforms today will turn into the best of the open foresight platforms of tomorrow.

A plethora of ideas to be managed

But there’s another component to serious innovation, unlearning our old habits, that is equally necessary for our older managers and leaders, when you’ve got a good sized crowd presenting some great innovation ideas. Including more smart youth (and junior leaders) in your leadership team, and asking them to reverse mentor the senior leaders (pointing out areas where they may have old models or attitudes that aren’t appropriate to the new situation) is one good way to avoid the tradition trap. Let’s hope we get other good tools for unlearning going forward as well.

Foresight matters! I wish you the best of it for yourself, your family, and your teams.

%d bloggers like this: