Lessons of Vietnam

 Identify the principal lessons of the Vietnam War. Examine the manner in which one administration responded to and implemented the lessons.

       In 2003 Errol Morris and Robert McNamara teamed up to release a ground breaking documentary. The documentary met with both praise and criticism and often provoked controversy.  More than one critic has commented that the documentary tried to justify McNamara’s actions and admonish his guilt.  However if there is one person who can identify the key lessons of Vietnam tragedy, it is Robert S. McNamara. Therefore in the writing of this essay I will be relying heavily upon McNamara and his fellow contemporaries. I make no apologies for this as I feel that we need to look at how government officials learned or re-examined their own thinking in hind sight. The lessons of Vietnam, and we must be choose them wisely as all of these are not applicable in all situations. We should keep in mind the ‘history of the lesson and how the lessons change in a highly charged political environment. However I believe that the following lessons are more constant and applicable to most conflicts. I argue that these following lessons hold the key to both understanding the Vietnam War and crucial to minimizing conflict into the future.

As I mentioned there are many lessons to be learnt from the Vietnam War, McNamara and other historians would argue that ‘The U.S misjudged the geopolitical intentions of their adversaries and they exaggerated the dangers to the United States’. I believe this is key lesson as it deals with how the U.S governments perceive threats, and perhaps more importantly how they present these supposed threats to the public. The U.S government totally over exaggerated the threat of communism inextricably tying it to the security of South Vietnam. The war’s effects on U.S foreign and military policies have continued now up to the present day e.g.  Leaders in the U.S. today require a clear mandate from the American people before committing troops to battle, and they demand a clear objective. In other words, America is less likely to leap blindly into a war. However this does not mean that it is incapable of wrongly intervening into one again, we can clearly see an example of this today in Iraq. The problem here was that Bush used the events of 911 as another Pearl Harbour. George W. Bush like Johnson used a ‘monster’ to play on and manipulate public sentiment. For Bush and his administration the threat of international terrorism became the new communism. As long as the U.S government can manipulate public opinion ill advised conflicts can and will continue to occur into the future. To combat this however there are three general guidelines and they are, the administration ‘should not go in search of monsters’[2], while the U.S public or indeed the U.S government should not support any action in which the U.S ‘cannot persuade other nations of comparable values of the merit of their cause[3]’. The U.S should hold to the principle that U.S. military action, should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community[4]’. Obviously these are only basic and general and all rules have exceptions i.e. these rules may not be applicable when the U.S is defending against a direct attack on U.S soil.

The effects of the Vietnam syndrome would affect both the immediate and continue to affect the political landscape. To demonstrate this we need only to look to former Sec of Defence Casper Weinberger, ‘I am not going to send U.S troops to fight in a war where national objects are not clear’, but simultaneously moving into the Powell doctrine when ‘if do go to war we will do it with all the might we posses’. These are major lessons from the 70’s and 80’s that bring us into the early 90’s, and it is the Bush senior administration and their handling of the Gulf War that I wish to examine.

  ‘In cases where the US confronts much weaker enemies, our challenge will be not simply to defeat them, but to defeat them decisively and rapidly.’ … ‘For small countries hostile to us, bleeding our forces in protracted or indecisive conflict or embarrassing us by inflicting damage on some conspicuous element of our forces may be victory enough, and could undercut political support for US efforts against them.”

The above statement by President Bush is an extremely important one. In this short statement we can clearly see the lessons Bush has taken from Vietnam. When Bush senior say’s ‘inflicting damage on some conspicuous element of our forces may be victory enough’. This is a clear reference to the TET offensive that occurred in 1968, although the Vietminh actually lost the campaign they did manage to inflict a rather large amount of casualties upon U.S forces. The TET offensive was hugely influential resulting in a shift of public support for the war in Vietnam. To ensure that such an event similar to this would not occur, U.S. policy regarding media freedom was much more restrictive than in the Vietnam War. The Persian Gulf War was one of the very first wars that were heavily televised. The coalition forces were keen to show the accuracy of their weapons. To demonstrate this, a policy had been spelled out in a Pentagon document entitled Annex Foxtrot. This ten page memo said that all journalists must be accompanied at all times. The memo made sure that most of the press information came from briefings organized by the military. Only selected journalists were allowed to visit the front lines or conduct interviews with soldiers. Those visits were always conducted in the presence of officers, and were subject to both prior approval by the military and censorship afterward[6]. The Vietnam War had demonstrated the power of the media and Bush was keen to harness this force.

            In January 1991 Bush went to congress and demanded they pass a resolution supporting his use of force. In doing so Bush was the first president since Franklin D Roosevelt in 1941 that honored the constitutional obligations that congress must declare war.  However although taking it to congress critics and journalists argued that he had already placed in over 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and that made it impossible for a debate on the resolution. The resolution narrowly passed 52- 47 votes. Again Bush learned from LBJ mistake, he was not going to have another ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’, he was determined to obtain full congressional support for his actions. This is just another example of how he did everything possible to distance himself from Vietnam.

The next point I wish to make relates to an earlier statement and that is ‘The U.S should hold to the principle that U.S. military action, should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully etc …’. President Bush’s coalition consisted of 34 countries such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Egypt, France, Kuwait Saudi Arabia, Syria, France, Britain, and the United States itself. Although some of their contributions were little more than political gestures and in total 73% of the coalition was made of U.S. troops. Others such as Japan and Germany made financial contributions totaling $10 billion and $6.6 billion respectively. It was estimated that the total cost to congress were calculated at around 61.1 billion, but around  $52 billion of that amount was paid by different countries around the world. The point here is that the U.S did have multilateral support for the war.

            ‘The U.S failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces, and doctrine’.  Successive U.S governments have recognized the lessons of Vietnam but failed to learn and act upon them. President Bush was very pragmatic when it came to the application of military technology. President Bush was determent that this was not going to be a long drawn out war, which he knew that the American people would not accept. One of the major criticisms of the Vietnam War was that they had no clear objective with no exit strategy. In the Gulf War the Bush made sure he had both. By using an overwhelming amount of military force at the start and by aiming at short term objectives such as the liberation of Kuwait they believed they could achieve a quick victory. Iraqi technology was no match for the coalition superior machinery and the battle for Kuwait last only 100 hours. Bush had no intention of widening the war, allowing Iraqi helicopters and troops to escape has been seen as a mistake; however the other option would have been to drive on into Bagdad and engage in guerilla type fighting in the streets, as we have today. One of the lessons of Vietnam is that ‘At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world’. In the Gulf the administration knew their limitations, i.e. they realized that even with their far superior technology if they went in wished to overthrow Sadam they could not use air power alone and at some point they would have had to engage via ground forces.

‘No military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he’s speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. And the conventional wisdom is don’t make the same mistake twice; learn from your mistakes’.  President Bush and his general of the Joint Chief of Staff Colin Powell were very pragmatic in their planning and execution of the Gulf War, they learned from past mistakes. I realize that these lessons are not definitive and I recognize that McNamara is not an un-biased historian, and his lessons fail in many respects to fully account for the Vietnam tragedy.  Despite the many lessons of Vietnam successive administrations have fallen into similar traps. Currently the U.S is stuck in long term engagements such as Iraq and Afghanistan. One major lesson which I don’t believe that any U.S government has fully recognized is that ‘‘the U.S must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient… and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”John F Kennedy November 1961.

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