Most books on the Vietnam War concentrate on the early years of United States involvement in the conflict. They see the Tet Offensive in 1968 as the climax of the war and take little interest in subsequent events. As Lewis Sorley points out in his 1999 book A Better War: the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam such a focus is dangerously misleading. It concentrates attention on the largely unsuccessful early years of 1965 to 1968 whilst ignoring the extraordinary successes of the period from 1969 to 1972.
The US commander in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968 was General William C. Westmoreland. Westmoreland believed the key to victory was to use the superior mobility and firepower of US forces to win a war of attrition. His aim was to inflict losses on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese at a rate that would be unsustainable for the communists. Unfortunately he failed to take into account the total indifference of the communist leadership to losses, and the fact that the communists maintained discipline in their forces through a mixture of fear and relentless indoctrination. They would keep fighting regardless of losses because they had no choice. The war could not be won by attrition but Westmoreland was unwilling to accept this and change his strategy. Westmoreland continued to put his faith in large-scale search and destroy operations that failed to pay dividends commensurate with their costs.
General Creighton Abrams had been slated to take over the command in Vietnam in 1967 but President Johnson had painted himself into a political corner and felt he had to leave Westmoreland in command for another year. This was to be a costly mistake.
Abrams knew how the war should be fought and he knew how it could be won. Unfortunately by the time he took over the command in June 1968 the political climate was changing. Abrams would be forced to conduct the war with ever-diminishing numbers of US troops and ever-diminishing resources. In spite of this Abrams achieved extraordinary successes. Abrams felt the key to victory was to deny the villages of South Vietnam to the communists. Such popular support as the communists enjoyed in the South was entirely due to fear and intimidation. Without access to the villages that popular support dried up completely.
By 1969 the Viet Cong was effectively destroyed. The war would from this point on be largely a conventional war against the North Vietnamese invaders.
Once Nixon came to power Abrams found himself having to implement the policy of Vietnamization. The South Vietnamese would gradually have to take over the ground war, supported by US airpower. This was a policy that Abrams was in complete agreement with. He knew that the only long-term hope for South Vietnam was for their military to be strengthened and improved to the point where US ground forces would not be needed. The policy succeeded beyond Abrams’ expectations. By 1972 the South Vietnamese army was strong enough to smash the North’s biggest offensive to date.
By 1972 the war was in fact won. South Vietnam was prosperous and largely peaceful. The South Vietnamese army was tough and efficient. The Thieu regime was popular. There was no longer any need whatsoever for US ground forces. All that was needed was the political will in Washington to continue to give South Vietnam two things – sufficient financial support to maintain their armed forces, and the promise of US airpower if North Vietnam violated the terms of the cease-fire.
Tragically that political will was not there. Had Nixon remained in power things may have been different. As it turned out the US Congress achieved what the communists could never have achieved on their own – the destruction of South Vietnam. Estimates of the number of people subsequently killed by the victorious communists range from 400,000 to 2.5 million. Every single one of those deaths can be laid at the door of the US Congress (and the anti-war activists who helped to create the political climate of cowardice and treachery. It was one of the great betrayals of history, and one of the mist shameful moments in US history. 58,000 American servicemen lost their lives to win a victory that was simply thrown away.
The British counter-insurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson (who spent a good deal of time in Vietnam and who greatly admired Abrams’ achievements) remarked, “perhaps the major lesson of the Vietnam war is: do not rely on the United States as an ally.”
Lewis Sorley’s superb book is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand one of the greatest tragedies of US foreign policy in the nation’s history.