In the Year of the Tiger still deserves serious consideration by scholars as a worthwhile book in the growing field of academic investigation into the First Indochina War. Despite shortfalls in commission and omission at points, Waddell provides a cogent and useful analysis on which others may usefully build. That should, after all, be the goal among those who seek to understand how the First Indochina War conditioned the disaster the United States chose to pursue after final French defeat in 1954.
The American experience in Vietnam defined a generation, spurring civil unrest and the degradation of trust in important political and military institutions. Spanning the course of two decades, the United States’ engagement in the conflict reflected the heightened global tension of the Cold War. American involvement in Vietnam began as early as 1950, initially in the form of assistance to the French during the First Indochina War. By the end of the Kennedy administration, the United States had begun to send American advisers and military forces to Vietnam, aiming to prevent the spread of communism to Southeast Asia.
Lansdale was a colorful figure, who revealed in his maverick status and his disdain for the sprawling national security apparatus. Perhaps if Lansdale had been a bit more of an adept bureaucratic knife fighter he would have been more successful. Yet, if he had, it is likely that he would never have been the agile advisor who helped Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay defeat the Hukbalahap rebellion.
Battles like Ia Drang, Con Tien, Khe Sanh, and Hue standout in the history of the American war in South Vietnam. While hardly typical, those clashes resonate well in popular histories and documentaries. On the other hand, transpiring on tracks of land away from large urban areas and not on some named, fortified hilltop—and at a time when multiple larger American military operations occurred across South Vietnam—nine May battles took place that lacked the consistent intensity of the aforementioned engagements, but typified the experience of many in Vietnam. Although these May battles were both remote physically and mentally for those not involved, participants experienced the savagery that came with the few, intense instances of contact with the enemy.
The inability or unwillingness to recognize defeat and its implications resulted in both greater material losses and amplified the strategic consequences for inevitable failures. Strategy is a human endeavor, and prospect theory offers unique insights into another dimension of the human face of war, providing a framework for examination of paradoxical decision making and human error in strategy and tactics.
Recent provocations concerning Iran and North Korea raise concerns about the U.S. fighting another war. The U.S. Navy’s history with challenging Iranian actions in the Strait of Hormuz and the perceived escalation of North Korean provocations via ballistic missile development conjure thoughts of a third world war. Yet history offers lessons on the U.S. responding to foreign aggression far away from America’s territorial borders.
To the casual student of history and foreign affairs, France’s war in Vietnam is typically a brief aside in a 50-minute lecture about America’s Vietnam War that goes something like, “You can’t truly understand America’s war in Vietnam without understanding the Franco-Indochina war,” stressing its importance, but not going much further. Indeed, this lack of coverage is reinforced by the countless books describing the American war in the 1960s. Fredrik Logevall's newest book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, analyzes the roots of America’s involvement, beginning with the French war.
By 1974 a combination of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, inflation, and slow economic growth cast serious doubts on American power. The United States faced a constitutional crisis not seen since the Civil War, and the 895 days that followed were wracked with fears of decline. As David Rothkopf noted, “While few in the street would consider or articulate questions about American decline as academics might, people knew in their gut that something was deeply wrong, that this was not the America they had been raised believing in.”
A key element of the United States’ endgame during the Vietnam War entailed leaving the Republic of Vietnam in a position of self-reliance. Called Vietnamization, the process focused on shifting the responsibility for security squarely onto the shoulders of the South Vietnamese, permitting the return of American personnel to the U.S. What transpired in Phu Yen during 1970 proved Vietnamization impervious to indicators of an unready South Vietnamese state. Largely forgotten since the Vietnam War, the Advisory Crisis, as it became known, damaged the partnership between American and South Vietnamese forces.
The Tet Offensive was a shock and a surprise for the Americans, where despite the high death toll the Americans inflicted on the Vietnamese, the Americans still lost. The Americans did not understand the restrictions and limitations they placed on themselves: the ideology of anti-Communism and exceptionalist pro-Democracy. But the Vietnamese did.
Defeating the enemy’s ability to organize and operate is fundamental to pacification. During the War on Terror and the Vietnam War, complex enemy organizations posed a serious challenge to the United States. Highlighting difficulties in pacification for both the Republic of Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia serves as a lesson underscoring the limits of American power to defeat clandestine networks.
Since World War I, powerful nations victorious on the field of battle struggled to achieve political objectives because their post war settlements set conditions that facilitated future conflicts instead of ensuring lasting peace. The victorious strategist must not only ensure their pre-war political objectives are codified in the post war settlement, but the emissaries must also take great care and vigilance to end the war with strategic foresight that translates the military victory into lasting peace.
On the surface, 4 December 1966, appears inconsequential. In the context of the 1960s, a decade rife with major milestones for humanity, 4 December 1966, exists on history’s periphery. Yet upon closer examination, this date is representative of what was until recently America’s longest war. Small events shape history, yet do so subtly. In that vein, Operation Geronimo revealed both the effectiveness and limitations of combating low intensity warfare with highly mobile forces. Deeper still, Operation Geronimo demonstrated that operational successes were not trustworthy indicators of progress towards victory during the Vietnam War.
Hodgson fails to satisfactorily qualify JFK and LBJ as the titular “Last Two Great Presidents.” He does, however, succeed in building up Johnson’s reputation, one that is often denigrated for his part in escalating U.S. participation in Vietnam. Because of Hodgson’s account, we might consider reversing Reston’s characterization of the two: perhaps it was Johnson and his social reform success who made men think while Kennedy and his foreign policy dominance made men like Khrushchev act.
Bloodying the enemy at Cung Son occurred at the cost of advancing pacification. Instead of focusing resources on intensifying the Saigon government’s control in Son Hoa District, efforts were directed towards rebuilding the hamlets and the people’s trust in the GVN to protect them. For the aforementioned reasons, what transpired at Cung Son functions as lesson that battlefield triumphs do not always equate to winning a war.
As the United States finds itself once again providing special operations and fire support to a host nation fighting an enemy bent on its destruction, the same psychological pressures and realities faced by Reeder are being confronted by both coalition personnel as well as all manner of people either captured or occupied by the Islamic State. New craters. Old volcanos. And as we continue to pour support into this fight, there comes with it the same human costs that responsible decision makers and leaders would do well to understand.
The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam is a must read for policy-makers, and is extremely worthwhile for the military and other governmental agencies. It contains lessons that may assist in stopping a conflict before it starts, or to help manage it once conflict has begun.
Strategic performance is strongly affected by the state’s information management capabilities. Top policymakers must have the ability to understand the environment in which they are acting (outside information) and how their national security organizations are behaving in that strategic environment (inside information). Strategic risk assessment is based on an understanding of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, the challenges and opportunities present in the international environment, and the capability of the state to act in a purposeful way along multiple lines. Without sound outside and inside information, risk assessments will suffer, as will the quality of strategy.
In the Information Institution Approach, Bakich gives critical importance to whether or not key decision makers have access to multi-sourced information and whether the information institutions themselves have the ability to communicate laterally. When information is multi-sourced and there is good coordination across the diplomatic and military lines of effort, Bakich predicts success. When information is stove piped and there is poor coordination, he predicts failure. Where the systems are moderately truncated, Bakich expects various degrees of failure depending on the scope and location within the state’s information institutions.
The last American combat troops left Vietnam in 1973, twelve years before I was born and 42 years ago as I write this. No millennials, as my generation is called, lived through the Vietnam War. For most of us even the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union happened too early in our lives to resonate politically. My generation’s perspective on Vietnam is shaped entirely through textbooks and movies. Through those lenses, the Vietnam War seems to be one of the most costly political and strategic blunders in United States history.