Wednesday, December 17, 2003

McNamara and Jerry Pournelle On Vietnam

Vietnam was a war we were winning, (and in one very important sense, did win) then Nixon threw away his political victory through rampant paranoia and dishonesty. With Nixon gone, the Republicans were too weak to protect the Vietnamese from the Democratic Congress who threw away the victory.

If you consider Vietnam as a campaign against the Soviet Union in the Cold War (Jerry Pournelle calls it the Seventy Years War below), it was a strategic victory. We destroyed incredible amounts of Soviet material, which they could ill afford.

As regards the Vietnam War itself: The Viet Cong were destroyed. The North could not mount a successful campaign against the South without massive losses leading to defeat. If we had supplied the South and provided air support as we had previously agreed the North would have lost the final campaign as well. I get my ideas on how we lost (and won) Vietnam from Jerry Pournelle, who helped Reagan win the Cold War. I'm sorry, but I trust a successful strategist more than all the liberal (non-military) historians or McNamara. McNamara was not doing a good job in Vietnam. Nixon did much better.

I skimmed McNamara's list of what went wrong in Vietnam. I regard these points as useful, worth contemplation and discussion, and entirely inadequate to invalidate Mr. Pournelle's analysis. (Search on Viet Nam to find the reference. Jerry does not use a blogging tool.) He was quite familiar with Mr. McNamara.

A quote from his analysis:
Well, I don't disagree except that we did not lose the war in Viet Nam. We accomplished what we needed, which was a long campaign of materiel attrition as part of the Seventy Years War. In 1973 we demonstrated that at small cost we could hold South Viet Nam forever, and bleed the North and their Russian allies white as we did.

The Democrats threw away a victory. We weren't defeated, we simply came home when the Democrats decided that having won it wasn't worth defending the Gooks with American blood and treasure. If that sounds harsh, I am sorry, but it's what happened. We had won. The border was stabilized in the sense that it took a large army to cross it and ARVN with U.S. supplies and air support could destroy any such large army. Every time and to the last man.
This post was cannibalized from the comments to this Dowingba post. But the comments continued so I will add the following (which has some repetition and refers to other comments).

If you dismiss Dr. Pournelle as a fantasy/sci-writer you dramatically underestimate his qualifications. When I said he helped Reagan win the Cold War, I wasn't kidding. He advised Reagan about the Cold War and Quayle about space policy, and is an honest-to-God heavyweight. You might as well call Churchill a journalist (which he was during the Boer War), or dismiss Roosevelt as a big game hunter. Your AWC professor is a worthy card, but I doubt either you or I can tell whether he can actually trump Pournelle or not.

I grant you the North had the will. Americans had the will, too, and would have kept it if our leaders had not failed us. First Johnson, McNamara and the defense department failed by running the war poorly from 65 to 68. Then Nixon failed by blowing up his own Presidency and his own party. Then the Democrats failed in 1975, when all they had to do was provide supplies and air power. At that point we had successfully Vietnamized the war, but they required American style material, air power and logistical support, which we abruptly and cravenly cut off. I cannot forgive the Congressional Democrats for dishonoring our commitment in this fashion. From whence do you think our reputation for having no staying power came?

If you consider the Vietnam War as a campaign in the seventy year war against the Soviets it was indeed a success. As you said, we did not defeat the Soviets by killing more of them. We did it first by containing them in Europe, Korea and Southeast Asia. Ask the Thais whether we contained the Communists in Southeast Asia. They'll tell you how thankful they were for what we did in Vietnam. Second, we won the war by out-producing the Soviets militarily. Vietnam helped by destroying fantastic amounts of Soviet material. Here's what Dr. Pournelle has to say:
For that matter, the Viet Nam war was not a guerrilla war after Tet, and treating it like one was a drastic mistake.

Viet Nam ended when we stabilized the area, and in 1973 an army of 150,000 marched south. That army had more armor than the Wehrmacht in the biggest battles of WW II. That army was defeated by ARVN, aided by US Air power, with fewer than 500 US casualties. That is a great victory. A great victory that no one pays any attention to. But note that it was the defeat of an invading army, armed with armor and artillery, fighting a relatively "conventional war".
Also look at what he says here:
Viet Nam, on the other hand, was part of the Seventy Years War, and may have been the critical campaign. It was a highly successful campaign of attrition, decisively won by the United States. I know that is not the usual view, but the effort to build not one but three major armored armies for North Vietnam, two of which were destroyed (one during the 60’s over time, the other in 1972 when the North sent down more armor than the Wehrmacht ever had in WW II, only to lose every last bit) and the third finally won when the Congress refused to help South Viet Nam in 1975 – the effort to build those armored armies, and in general to support North Viet Nam in that war was a major factor in the bankruptcy of the USSR. Without that campaign, the Cold War would probably still be going.

The cream of the jest was that the USSR decided they had won, and now knew how to project power, and thus could go into AfghanistanÂ…

I would argue that we had to be in Viet Nam as part of the Seventy Years War.
And here is what he said in a third reference:
About 10 years ago I did a lecture to the Air War College at Maxwell where I said that Viet Nam was a successful campaign of attrition in the Seventy Years War, and was in fact one of the decisive campaigns of that war -- and a mighty US Victory. The cream of the jest was that the USSR believed the US Left and convinced itself that Viet Nam was a Soviet victory. This encouraged them to believe they could project national power in our despite, and to go into Afghanistan, where they managed to be on the wrong end of yet another war of attrition.

Viet Nam was a US success because a great part of Soviet transport production including trucks and such was built in the USSR, transported at great expense to Viet Nam and destroyed by USAF. When North Viet Nam invaded the South in 1975 they had more armor than the Wehrmacht had at Kursk, and more trucks than Patton ever had in the Red Ball Express. This was all replacements for similar amounts of materiel destroyed in 1973 when the US at a cost of 663 US casualties aided ARVN in repulsing a 150,000 troop invasion -- fewer than 40,000 ever got back home -- bringing with it more tanks than the Wehrmacht had at Kursk and more trucks than Patton ever had -- none of which ever got home.

Viet Nam helped convert the USSR into Bulgaria with missiles. They neglected their own infrastructure to send materiel to Viet Nam for us to destroy.

In the 60's I had a 3-way TV debate with Allard Lowenstein and McGeorge Bundy. Allard finally looked at me and said "Jerry, you want to win it and get out." I nodded. "I just want to get out. But your friends there " -- he pointed to Bundy -- "want to lose it and stay in."

I was I think for the only time in my life in a nationally televised debate -- or indeed any debate -- silenced, because he was right.

Of course that was the right strategy: to appear to be losing and stay in. I doubt Bundy or Johnson or any of the generals understood that. I think Possony did. At the time I did not; it was only later that I realized that a war of attrition was precisely what would bring the USSR low, after which the threat to negate the missiles and turn them into just another 3rd world country brought them down.
The result of Vietnam was that we defeated the Soviet Union at a time when it and its allies ruled a third of the world and it possessed a utterly devastating nuclear power with many fewer casualties than WWII. A truly great victory that saved a lot of people from tyranny and death.

Do not underestimate Dr. Pournelle. Go to his blog and read his stuff. He (and his amazing readers) will broaden your horizons.