VETERANS, journalists, scholars and former officials are currently flooding the market with books on the Vietnam experience. But apart from the self-serving memoir of General William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander during much of the war, very little has been written on the subject by senior officers. So this account by General Bruce Palmer, who participated in the conflict both in Vietnam and Washington, is a useful addition to the growing shelf. In many ways, however, I find its basic themes to be contradictory.
On the one hand, Palmer makes it plain that the United States should not have become engaged in Vietnam in the first place. At the same time, though, he contends that the war could have been won had a more effective strategy been pursued. But the two arguments are antithetical. The very reasons for avoiding Vietnam are those that doomed America from the start.
The reasons were clear to Palmer as far back as 1951, when he was a student at the Army War College. The French were then bogged down in a struggle to reimpose their imperial rule over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the three states of Indochina, and Palmer's class overwhelmingly opposed any major U.S. involvement in the region.
Among others things, the class concluded, the area was only of "secondary" importance to the United States, whose defense line excluded most of mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnam was also deemed to be an "extremely difficult" battlefield for American forces, partly because of its mountains and dense jungles and partly because its land and coastal borders would be "almost impossible" to seal against infiltration or to defend against overt invasion. And there were political and psychological disadvantages, since the United States "would inherit the taint of European colonialism."
Interestingly, most of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached roughly the same verdict in the spring of 1954, when the Eisenhower administration debated whether to help the beleaguered French garrison at Dienbienphu. Considering Vietnam to be "devoid of decisive military objectives," they judged that to intervene "would be a serious diversion of limited U.S. capabilities."
Looking back, Palmer essentially confirms the futility of the American commitment in Vietnam. He stresses, for example, that air power failed either to stop the North Vietnamese from moving south or to destroy the Vietcong units. He points out as well that, by Americanizing the war, the United States disconcerted and discouraged its South Vietnamese allies, who decided to let Uncle Sam do the job and were therefore unprepared to fulfill their own responsibilities when President Nixon began the U.S. troop withdrawal. Above all, the United States seriously underestimated the readiness of the Communists to sacrifice themselves for their cause.
As far back as 1946, the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh warned the French on the eve of his war with them: "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win." The French disregarded that warning, and went down to defeat as a result. The United States should have learned a lesson from the French disaster. But America, propelled by a belief in its invincibility, went forward.
WESTMORELAND had conceived a strategy of attrition, under which so many enemy troops would be slaughtered that the Communist leadership in Hanoi would yield. In fact, the United States won every battle, killing hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers in the process. It made no difference. As Palmer puts it, "Their will to resist was inextinguishable."
What the United States could not fathom was the tenacity and determination of the Communists, for whom there was no substitute for victory. So, instead of grinding down the enemy, America found itself engulfed in a seemingless endless war in which the gruesome "body counts" of Communist dead were no measure of progress. Ultimately, the U.S. public lost patience in a conflict that was going nowhere.
Like many other top soldiers, Palmer apparently feels compelled to submit that the war could have been won had it been prosecuted more vigorously. He borrows a suggestion put forth by Colonel Harry Summers of the Army War College, who contends that North Vietnamese infiltration could have been halted by deploying U.S. forces to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He also believes that the threat of an American invasion of North Vietnam would have deterred the Communists.
I suppose that the "what might have beens" of Vietnam will be discussed or decades to come. Plainly, though, it was the wrong war in the wrong place -- and, I would emphasize, the decision to enter it was made by America's presidents and not its generals or admirals. As for its meaning for future U.S. policy, I would cite General Maxwell Taylor, one of the architects of American involvement in Vietnam, who told me years after the conflict:
"First, we didn't know ourselves. We thought we were going into another Korean war, but this was a different country. Secondly, we didn't know our South Vietnamese allies. We never understood them, and that was another surprise. And we knew even less about North Vietnam. Who was Ho Chi Minh? Nobody really knew.
"So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we'd better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It's very dangerous."