Review Essay on Lewis Sorley’s A Better War
(Centennial Fellow) In the sixty-five years since the end of World War II the most significant and formative single event in American history- beyond any question- is the Vietnam War. It reshaped our domestic politics, foreign policy, military doctrines, and popular culture in ways that still resonate powerfully nearly two generations after it ended.
The Vietnam War was waged not just in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia but also in the streets and campuses of the American homeland. It divided families and regions in a manner not seen since the Civil War. It shattered the Great American Consensus that was forged in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and that had endured through the first half of the Cold War. Millions of Americans viewed opposition to the war as high idealism, while millions more saw it as bordering on treason.
Politically the Vietnam War ultimately entirely captured the Democratic Party and profoundly influenced the Republican Party. Every military conflict involving U.S. forces since has evoked dire warnings about “another Vietnam”. A recent Newsweek cover story labeled Afghanistan “Obama’s Vietnam”. Our national conversation on foreign policy repeatedly invokes warnings against failure to heed the “lessons of Vietnam”.
What are the “lessons of Vietnam”? The received wisdom that has become embedded in our national consciousness rests principally on three ”truths” : 1. The war was “unwinnable” from the start; 2. Vietnam was a “war of national liberation” in which the Viet Cong were legitimate representatives of the people; 3. The South Vietnamese government were essentially American “puppets” with no popular support or willingness to fight.
Though the American phase of the war in Indochina lasted from 1960 to 1975 in the minds of most Americans the war ended in 1968. The “annus terriblus” of 1968 effected the most dramatic changes in American History since Pearl Harbor. The year began with the momentous “Tet Offensive” which thanks to television was graphically brought into nearly every American living room. What shocked Americans saw was not “light at the end of the tunnel” but a savagely determined enemy attacking virtually every corner of South Vietnam even including the American Embassy compound in Saigon.
In short order following the perceived calamity of “Tet” the revered sage of America’s media Walter Cronkite declared the war a “stalemate” (“They won’t quit, and we can’t win”). Eugene McCarthy, and then Robert Kennedy entered the Democratic primaries on an anti-war platform intending to overthrow the sitting President of their own party, and with great suddenness the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson collapsed amidst the wreckage of his Vietnam policy. Additional high drama- King and Kennedy assassinations, race riots, Kids versus Cops in Chicago- punctuated a tumultuous presidential campaign in which both parties competed over who had the best plan to get out of Vietnam.
After 1968 as President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy accelerated, American troops and casualties diminished rapidly, and media coverage of the war declined proportionately. America’s last memorable snapshot of Vietnam was of those desperate people clinging to the skids of the last helicopter lifting off the roof of the American Embassy as the victorious North Vietnamese overran the entire country. That event in 1975 seemed to put the final seal on the first “lost war” in U.S. History.
Though there was little general interest at the time, and even less among subsequent historians the question remains: What happened during those final seven years and should it matter to us?
All of which brings us to an examination of Lewis Sorley’s masterful history A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.
First appearing in 1999 Sorley’s book received limited attention even though – or perhaps because- it seriously challenged the conventional wisdom regarding the “lost war”. Nonetheless, given its’ highly impressive research base- tapping heretofore untouched primary sources- and simple but compellingly argued thesis the book was respectfully reviewed even by traditionally liberal outlets such as the New York Times
(“ a comprehensive and long overdue examination of the immediate post-Tet offensive years”) and the Washington Post (“the post-1968 war clearly deserves more attention and a more positive appraisal than most historians have given it. A Better War helps fill the gap.”)
Foreign Affairs described the book as “Forcefully and convincingly argued… a provocative and important contribution to the history of the Vietnam War” and the Wall St. Journal noted that “the successes in 1968-72 period have disappeared down the memory hole. Lewis Sorley fills in those blanks with his important new book”.
A Better War has received a new prominence in recent years because of its great relevance to the American challenges in both Iraq and Afghanistan. David Ignatius of the Washington Post called it “the hot book among Iraq strategists” and noted its presence on the bookshelves of senior military officers in Baghdad and in the speeches of Condoleezza Rice.
A third generation graduate of West Point who also holds a doctorate in history form Johns Hopkins university, Lewis Sorley served as a tank commander in Vietnam and on staff at the Pentagon. He later was a senior civilian official at the Central Intelligence Agency, and since retirement has been the author of several well received military histories focusing on Vietnam.
At its heart A Better War is about one horrible mistake that brought catastrophe to America and Vietnam, and one extraordinary man who heroically came very close to redeeming that mistake.
The mistake was the appointment and sustaining of General William Westmoreland as supreme U.S. commander in Vietnam (1964-68). Westmoreland will go down in U.S. history as the most disastrous senior commander since George Mc Clellan led the Union armies in the Civil War. McClellan very nearly lost the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln. Westmoreland did lose the Vietnam War for Lyndon Johnson.
Westmoreland was selected from a list of four senior generals submitted to Johnson in January 1964. He owed his appointment to a chance fortuitous encounter with John F. Kennedy and the behind the scenes machinations of General Maxwell Taylor.
The three generals who were passed over all were advocates of and would have pursued a Vietnam strategy called “clear and hold”. Westmoreland thought differently. He inaugurated and for four years doggedly pursued a strategy called “search and destroy” predicated on the notion that if you killed enough enemy soldiers (hence the infamous “body counts”) they would eventually give up. To achieve this goal Westmoreland constantly asked for- and almost to the end always got- “more troops”. However even when he commanded over half a million men Westmoreland found that North Vietnam was replacing its soldiers even faster than he could kill them. The Tet Offensive was but the final and very public demonstration of the total bankruptcy of Westmoreland’s “search and destroy” strategy. David Halberstam’s classic The Best and the Brightest brilliantly chronicles this failure and the foolhardiness of the senior officials- L.B.J., McNamara, Taylor, etc.- who supported it.
The bulk of Sorley’s book commences its account of the war at precisely the point where most American people and politicians had concluded that it was a lost cause. It revolves around that extraordinary man who came very close to retrieving the colossal blunders of Westmoreland and his superiors, and in fact very close to winning the “lost war” outright.
That man was Creighton W. Abrams (1914-1974) who succeeded Westmoreland in 1968 and served four years as American commander in Vietnam. Though the war would be lost-not for military but for political reasons- after Abrams departure in 1972 his accomplishments during his four year tenure distinguish him as the greatest American commander since World War II.
In 1944 the brilliant though egomaniacal General George Patton said “They say I am the best tank commander in the U.S. army, but I have one peer-Abe Abrams”. Building on his magnificent performance in the Battle of the Bulge which occasioned Patton’s high praise, Abrams served with distinction through twenty years, and in 1964 was one of the three men LBJ passed over to appoint Westmoreland.
In mid 1968 Abrams succeeded Westmoreland and immediately implemented a dramatic change in both strategy and tactics. He abandoned “search and destroy” with its costly large unit sweeps through the remoter and thinly populated regions of Vietnam.
Abrams decided to let the enemy come to him and fight him while protecting the Vietnamese people. Instead of the large unit actions where the enemy always knew what the Americans were up to and thus could always choose points of battle favorable to them, Abrams substituted constant “patrolling” by large numbers of small units (5 to 10 men) that continually probed the countryside gathering intelligence from local people, and destroying enemy supply caches and generally disrupting the foe’s movements before he could concentrate.
Tet had been a propaganda triumph for the communists but a military disaster. The price they paid was the near total destruction of the indigenous Viet Cong. Thereafter-as Abrams knew-all enemy soldiers and supplies had to come from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia via the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”. Accordingly Abrams gave high priority to sharply upgrading both human and electronic intelligence so that soon Americans knew in great detail the movements of the thousands of Chinese and Russian made trucks ferrying men and supplies from North Vietnam. After 1968 the sharply increased volume and accuracy of American precision bombing at all junction points along the Ho Chi Minh Trail had devastating effect on North Vietnam’s ability to sustain its war effort.
Very soon after the 1968 U.S. Presidential election Abrams knew that Richard Nixon’s plan for Vietnam involved a responsible but rapid draw-down of the 543,000 American soldiers under his command. Thus in Abrams view he had a specific “window of opportunity” to win the war- always his main objective- and hand over responsibility for the security of the country to a South Vietnamese government and military that could successfully maintain it at the very same time his army was heading home. (Does anyone doubt how closely Generals Petraeus and McChrystal read this book?)
Westmoreland had essentially decided that Americans could win without much help from the South Vietnamese to whom he gave inadequate support and less respect. Abrams took the opposite approach. He knew that in the end the South Vietnamese would have to do the job without much help from the Americans. Accordingly he sought to gain their trust by offering a full measure of support and respect.
In pursuing his tasks Abrams was fortunate to gain two extraordinary partners within the same year he arrived.
Ellsworth Bunker, a courtly low-key septuagenarian international businessman turned diplomat replaced the often overbearing and manipulative Maxwell Taylor as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam and rapidly built a trusting and respectful relationship with the country’s President Nguyen Van Thieu.
Soon after taking command Abrams fired Robert Komer, the erratic and arrogant head of the rural pacification program and replaced him with the highly talented William Colby, a career CIA officer who would later head that Agency. Colby entirely reconstituted the pacification and strategic hamlet program and launched Operation Phoenix which rooted out the Viet Cong’s “shadow government” and in close cooperation with President Thieu swiftly spread an umbrella of security, support, and land redistribution throughout South Vietnam’s countryside.
Together for four years this highly simpatico trio gave the American effort in Vietnam a cohesion, energy, imagination, and deep sense of mission that had been entirely lacking in the Westmoreland era.
Central to their achievement was the vital growth of the popularity, effectiveness, and military capacity of the South Vietnamese government as it gradually and successfully took up the daunting challenge of standing on its own in the wake of the rapidly accelerating American troop withdrawals.
By 1971 Ambassador Bunker could report his ability to travel throughout the countryside in an unescorted open Jeep- always wearing his signature suit and tie –for days without seeing any evidence of communist activity, and he also reported that the million plus residents of Saigon “enjoyed a higher level of safety, law and order than their counterparts in Los Angeles or Chicago.”
Abrams took particular pride in the continued high morale and effectiveness of U.S. troops even as their numbers dwindled. He greatly resented the misleading media stories about rampant problems regarding drugs and race relations, and pointed to surveys showing that such problems among soldiers in Vietnam were significantly less than among service personnel serving elsewhere in the world and markedly less than among comparable populations in the United States.
Abrams was also at pains to debunk the media myth that the Vietnam War was largely fought by draftees from the underclass. Of the 2.6 million men who served in the Vietnam theatre fully two thirds were volunteers and demographically almost a perfect reflection of the U.S. population as a whole. Surveys taken at the time and even twenty years later after the war had been lost showed, that U.S. soldiers overwhelmingly took pride in their service and regarded their mission as an important cause.
By 1972 Abrams command was down to a mere 49,000 soldiers. He wryly noted that it was the first time an American army had gone home and left its commander behind.
In contrast South Vietnam had 1.1 million men under arms. In another major departure from the Westmoreland era Abrams gave high priority to seeing that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) received high quality equipment and training.
The dramatically improved ARVN fighting qualities and their ability to hold their own against North Vietnamese regulars was shown clearly in the two largest set piece battles of the entire war. The first –Lam Son 719- in the spring of 1971 saw tens of thousands of ARVN troops entering the Laotian panhandle unaccompanied by any U.S. ground personnel to interdict a major North Vietnamese offensive aimed at the South. At the height of the battle the two armies had over 100,000 men in the field. The ARVN was severely mauled but the losses sustained by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were so severe that they were unable to launch any further offensive activity for the remainder of 1971.
The second major battle was the Easter offensive of 1972 which the NVA launched directly across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in South Vietnam. This proved to be an even more devastating defeat for the NVA which suffered over 100,000 casualties-about 40,000 killed – and lost over half its tanks and artillery. These losses were so severe that the NVA was unable to launch another major offensive for three years, and also led to the removal of the NVA’s legendary commander General Vo Nguyen Giap.
While the might of U.S. air power-from helicopters to B-52 bombers- was a critical difference maker for ARVN, these troops again and again showed themselves in combat to be as tough and tenacious as their enemy.
While the focus of A Better War is on events in Vietnam, the book like the war itself unfolds against the critical backdrop of the political situation in the United States and the ongoing peace negotiations in Paris.
By the end of 1972 Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy had achieved a remarkable level of success. Ninety percent of the 543,000 American troops serving when he took office had been withdrawn from Vietnam; their combat role successfully taken over by ARVN troops. Vietnam had been pacified, the government of President Thieu enjoyed wide popular support, and had shown it was capable of defending itself against North Vietnamese aggression.
In giving Nixon a landslide re-election victory over Democrat George Mc Govern the American people affirmed their support for the former’s approach to ending the war on honorable terms.
Absolutely essential to sustaining the success of “Vietnamization” was America’s determination to continue strong logistical and financial support for South Vietnam much as we had done for South Korea.
When North Vietnam withdrew from the Paris peace negotiations in December 1972, Nixon demonstrated such determination by ordering resumed B-52 bombing of rail yards, marshalling areas, petroleum storage facilities, missile storage sites, docks and warehouses in the Hanoi- Haiphong area. North Vietnam’s official history- which Sorley utilized extensively- conceded that “Nixon proved extremely obstinate and reckless, and did things Johnson never dared to do”.
After eleven days bombing Hanoi reversed their bargaining position and on December 28th announced they would return to the peace talks.
Describing what he called the “ultimate irony” historian George Herring stated that “the U.S. position in South Vietnam was stronger at the end of 1972 than at any previous point in the war.” Respected Vietnam authority Sir Robert Thompson said that the U.S. at this point could have dictated peace terms and that “the war could have been won, in that a real and enforceable peace could have been obtained”. He further added “In my view, on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area, you had won the war. It was over!”
So, if the “unwinnable” war had been won- confirmed by the signing of the Paris Peace Accord on January 27, 1973- how was “defeat snatched from the jaws of victory?”
Sorley answers this question persuasively by using the words of North Vietnamese leaders as found in their extensive memoirs and official histories. Ever since the U.S. domestic upheavals of 1968 North Vietnam’s leadership saw U.S. political turmoil as their best hope of victory. NVA Colonel Bui Tin wrote how “Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American anti-war movement. Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda and former a
Attorney General Ramsey Clark and ministers gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses.” The North Vietnamese were also keenly aware of the Democratic controlled Congress’ visceral antipathy toward Richard Nixon, a sentiment strongly shared by American media and intellectuals.
Though all American troops were gone soon after the signing of the Peace Accords, and the NVA – in violation of the Accords- almost immediately began launching attacks, the South Vietnamese more than held their own. As U.S. observer Major General Ira Hunt reported “for about two years (1973-74) the ARVN were cleaning their clocks. The South Vietnamese were giving more than they were getting, there’s no question about it. But when we pulled the plug logistically there was no way they could carry on.”
And “pull the plug “ was exactly what the Democratic Congress did in rapidly escalating budget cuts during the same two year period until by early 1975 all support- from air power to money- was completely cut off- all this at the very same time that both Russia and China were dramatically increasing their support and supply for North Vietnam.
The Democrats ability to do this so completely was greatly facilitated by the political destruction of Richard Nixon by the Watergate scandal of 1973-74. As the NVA’s Colonel Bui Tin observed, the resignation of Nixon on August 9, 1974 was final proof to North Vietnam’s leaders that they would win the war.
Though ARVN fought valiantly in the final six months of the war, at the end many of their troops were reduced to having to purchase their own bullets and grenades, while their enemy bombarded them with a limitless supply of artillery shells made in Russia and China. This led Sir Robert Thompson to observe “that perhaps the major lesson of the Vietnam War is: do not rely on the United States as an ally.”
The title of Sorley’s book comes from an observation made in Saigon in 1969 by the New Yorker correspondent Robert Shaplen: “You know its too bad. Abrams is very good. He deserves a better war.” Many years after the war ended someone reminded the eldest of Abram’s three sons –all army officers- of Shaplen’s remark. Without hesitation young Creighton replied “He didn’t see it that way. He thought the Vietnamese were worth it.”
Among other things Sorley’s superb book is a rumination on the element of chance in history. What if the general LBJ selected in 1964 was Abrams not Westmoreland. What if Abrams had successfully pursued his preferred strategy in the four years prior to 1968 when the American people, the Congress, the Democratic Party, and even the media supported the war rather the four years after 1968 when all of the above had essentially given up.
How different might the outcome have been for a still polarized American Society? How different for the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam, or the 275,000 ARVN killed in action, the 465,000 dead civilians, the 65,000 executed by their liberators, the 250,000 who perished in the brutal “re-education camps”, or the 2,000,000 who became refugees?
When another great war hung in the balance Winston Churchill memorably observed that “the terrible ifs accumulate.” America today is still haunted by the terrible ifs of Vietnam.
William Moloney is a Centennial Institute Fellow and former Colorado Education Commissior. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, and Human Events.
Note: A Better War is available in paperback from Amazon. com