Examining American Strategy in Vietnam
Triumph Regained: The Vietnam War, 1965–1968. Mark Moyar. Encounter Books. 692 pages. $49.99
By Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired
Mark Moyar’s Triumph Regained: The Vietnam War, 1965–1968 is the second in his trilogy on the Vietnam War. This volume covers the period from the insertion of U.S. forces to the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.
Moyar challenges the orthodox view of the Vietnam War that holds the American intervention was “wrongheaded and unjust.” He believes the war “worthy but improperly executed.” The Vietnamese are the chief actors but are both influenced by and influence the other players, including the U.S. and its allies, and the Soviet Union and China.
There are several reasons U.S. Army officers should read Triumph Regained. For example, Moyar examines the idea that the public’s support for the war eroded dramatically after North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive. He notes that actually, on the basis of polling in September 1968, only 13% of Americans wanted to “get out of Vietnam altogether.” He also claims that the war in Vietnam did prevent most of the dominoes from falling, citing the thwarting of a communist putsch in Indonesia in the autumn of 1965. This view is credible but not demonstrated in this volume.
Moyar’s examination of the strategic ends of the belligerents is better developed. In this era, both Democrats and Republicans viewed communism as a threat to the world order created by the U.S. following World War II. President Lyndon Johnson shared this view. His focus, however, was domestic; the war interfered with his objectives at home.
Accordingly, Johnson sought a negotiated end to the war with a shared government between north and south in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese considered negotiations a ploy to buy time while they furthered their military objectives. North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh said it best: “For Johnson and [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara, it is either the red carpet [on their way out of Vietnam,] or we kick their asses out the door.”
Moyar shows that neither Johnson nor McNamara appreciated the character of the war in Vietnam. At the outset, McNamara subscribed to the theory of limited war. According to that theory, adversaries would seek to avoid escalation that might provoke a nuclear exchange between the chief competitors. McNamara presumed that Ho and his advisers would behave rationally within the limited war construct.
Ho did behave rationally, but within his cultural and political milieu. Neither McNamara nor Johnson proved able to see things from Ho’s point of view.
Moyar’s examination of American strategic discussions is the best reason for reading this book. The Constitution has an intended imbalance between the commander in chief and his soldiers. Moyar shows how this played out. Johnson’s interaction with the service chiefs and Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander in the theater, ran the gamut from cordial to vilification.
At a meeting in 1965, the president screamed obscenities at his joint chiefs over their wish to expand the war. His rage stemmed from the chiefs’ assurance that the Chinese would not intervene. Johnson’s own recollection of the Korean War made Chinese intervention plausible, even likely.
Despite military advice to the contrary, bombing military targets in North Vietnam and interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail were severely limited. Time and again, soldiers failed to convince their civilian masters about the efficacy of bombing. Moyar blames the civilians for not listening, but blame lies with the military as well. Soldiers must be prepared and able to render what retired soldier-scholar Kevin Benson calls “politically savvy advice.”
Moyar’s analysis of the unequal strategic discourse between the military and its civilian masters is essential reading for Army officers.
Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired, commanded a tank battalion in Operation Desert Storm and an armor brigade in Bosnia. A former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies, his latest book is No Sacrifice Too Great: The 1st Infantry Division in World War II.
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Revealing a President’s Cold War Policies
The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink. William Inboden. Dutton. 608 pages. $35
By Lt. Col. Nathan Finney
The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink is a masterful work that incorporates aspects of foreign policy, grand strategy, military modernization and politics into easy prose.
Its author, William Inboden, is well qualified for this massive undertaking, having earned his doctorate at Yale University before serving 15 years as a policymaker, including senior positions with the State Department and the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administrations. Currently, he is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and associate professor of public policy and history, both at the University of Texas at Austin.
In The Peacemaker, Inboden analyzes the presidential years of Ronald Reagan, using material from archival research, wide-ranging interviews and a review of Reagan and Cold War historiographies to write a compelling narrative that corrects previous misunderstandings of Reagan as a president, strategist and commander in chief.
The key contribution of The Peacemaker is the concept of a grand strategy of “negotiated surrender” developed by Reagan. This strategy focused on diplomacy backed by ever-increasing military power to both compete and cooperate with the then-Soviet Union to “render it extinct.” The strength of this approach was its internal tension, which played on the USSR’s inherent weaknesses, while improving American strengths.
The use of the term “negotiated surrender” is useful and creative, describing the tensions within the strategy, while also co-opting a wartime term for use in a relatively peaceful context.
Building on Simon Miles’ book, Engaging the Evil Empire: Washington, Moscow, and the Beginning of the End of the Cold War, Inboden details how Reagan’s grand strategy set the stage for the U.S. to win the Cold War against the USSR.
Throughout The Peacemaker, Inboden deliberately embeds the reader in a chronologically relentless narrative of events, simulating the press of urgent work policymakers themselves experienced. Through these series of events, the book details a story that includes a handful of major themes, including the importance of allies and partners in achieving Reagan’s strategy and the impact of history (at times mythologized) in framing decisions and the ideology of choices available to the president.
Inboden also addresses how diplomacy took precedence in Reagan’s grand strategy but was backed by a military buildup and defense modernization.
Another theme is how, for Reagan, the Cold War was a contest based in religious faith and freedom. Inboden also details how tough choices to support policies and anti-communist foreign leaders sometimes resulted in death and religious persecution but were viewed as necessary due to the Cold War being a battle of ideas that required the U.S. and its allies to outcompete the USSR.
Finally, included is the theme that expansion of liberty is anchored in democratic capitalism, and was therefore at the heart of Reagan’s grand strategy.
The Peacemaker is a shining example of a serious and talented scholar matching the strengths of academic research and the enjoyment of a messy, compelling and well-written narrative of popular history.
That said, there are elements that Inboden either minimally covers or leaves out, such as the cost of choices in domestic policy like ignoring the AIDS crisis or the increase in the income gap and poverty in the U.S. due to trickle-down economics. As a book focused on foreign policy and the competition with the Soviet Union, however, it is understandable why these issues were not covered in more depth.
I recommend this book to leaders interested in how grand strategy is developed and evolves over the course of a presidential administration.
Lt. Col. Nathan Finney is the branch chief for strategy at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. Previously, he was a U.S. Army Goodpaster Scholar at Duke University, North Carolina. He is a founder of The Strategy Bridge, the Military Writers Guild and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. He holds a doctorate in history from Duke.
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Gripping Tome Concludes Author’s Pacific War Trilogy
To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945. John McManus. Dutton Caliber. 448 pages. $35
By Col. Cole Kingseed, U.S. Army retired
To the End of the Earth: The US Army and the Downfall of Japan, 1945 is the long-awaited concluding volume of John McManus’ trilogy about the U.S. Army during the Pacific War. On par with Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy that focuses on World War II in North Africa and Europe, McManus combines personal accounts, operational reports and an unforgettable narrative to deliver a monumental history of the final year of the war against Japan.
McManus needs scant introduction. His Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941–1943 and Island Infernos: The US Army’s Pacific War Odyssey, 1944 recount the Army’s earlier Pacific War involvement in World War II. In this volume, McManus concentrates on the liberation of the Philippines and the invasion of Okinawa, Japan, as the war draws to its final resolution.
McManus’ absorbing portraits of the senior commanders who shaped and influenced the course and the outcome of the Pacific War are superb. Gen. Douglas MacArthur emerges as a “magisterial and vexing figure [who] oozed a sense of captivating uniqueness.” Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, commanding general of Sixth Army, is “a set-piece thinker, a master professional who planned much better than he improvised.” Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, the Eighth Army commander, is a master improviser who “carved out a record as one of the finest American ground generals of the war.”
McManus is masterful in outlining the ground combat in the conquest of Luzon in the Philippines and Okinawa in 1945. In vivid detail, he describes the liberation of the Cabanatuan prisoner-of-war camp in central Luzon on Jan. 30 and later at Santo Tomas University in Manila, where 3,700 Allied civilians had been incarcerated since 1942.
Manila itself proved a more difficult nut to crack. House-to-house fighting continued through spring and early summer. MacArthur soon committed Eichelberger’s Eighth Army after Krueger’s force had sustained 37,854 battle casualties.
In the process, the Philippine capital became deeply scarred from the terrible urban combat. Eichelberger then completed the liberation of the central and southern portions of the Philippine archipelago in 1945.
Was the second Philippines campaign worth the cost of over 10,000 American lives, the expenditure of massive military resources and the enormous death and destruction wrought upon the Philippines and its people? McManus leaves that answer to the reader and says the results of the campaign were too mixed, “with justice and logic undoubtedly to be found on both sides of the argument.”
McManus dedicates a significant portion of his narrative to the conquest of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands. Fighting was as intense as in Luzon and generated the largest number of casualties in the Pacific War. Japanese commander Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima did not contest the initial landing, preferring to construct a series of defensive belts across the southern portion of the island. Both he and the commander of the U.S. Tenth Army, Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., perished in the final days of the battle. Okinawa was not declared secured until June 22, 1945.
With the Japanese capitulation aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, the Pacific War reached a dramatic conclusion. The cost to the U.S. and its Army was frightful. Of the approximately 359,000 American overseas fatalities in World War II, a total of 111,606 Americans were killed or missing in action in the Pacific or Asia. Of these fatalities, 41,592 occurred in the Army ground forces, a 2.3% death rate for the 1.8 million soldiers who served in the war against Japan.
To the End of the Earth is a tour de force of narrative history. Kudos to McManus for bringing this gripping story to readers with such clarity and suspense. His Pacific War trilogy has established McManus as one of the country’s most accomplished military historians.
Col. Cole Kingseed, U.S. Army retired, a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, is a writer and consultant. He holds a doctorate in history from Ohio State University.
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How Patton Came by His Leadership Style
Patton in Mexico: Lieutenant George S. Patton, the Hunt for Pancho Villa, and the Making of a General. Michael Lee Lanning. Stackpole Books. 255 pages. $31.95
By Matthew Seelinger
As one of the most important figures in U.S. Army history, Gen. George Patton Jr. has, understandably, been the focus of dozens of books examining his genius for war. While Patton’s military career spanned some 40 years, the majority of these studies examine his World War II service.
In his book Patton in Mexico: Lieutenant George S. Patton, the Hunt for Pancho Villa, and the Making of a General, retired Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning looks at Patton’s service during the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916–17 and how it influenced his conduct of military operations.
Lanning, the author of more than two dozen books on military history, begins his study looking at Patton’s early life and career in the “Old Army,” including his service as a junior officer in the cavalry after his 1909 graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Lanning notes that Patton was unlike most officers of his grade—he came from a relatively well-off family, then married into one with substantial wealth, which allowed him and his wife, Beatrice, luxuries unaffordable even to officers of much higher rank.
Lanning details the significant influence Patton had as a young cavalry lieutenant, stemming from his celebrity status as a participant in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, the designer of the Army’s last cavalry saber and the first U.S. soldier designated Master of the Sword. Lanning also shows Patton’s ability to attain coveted assignments early in his career that placed him among Army leadership.
After a force of Mexican irregulars under Pancho Villa raided the New Mexico border town of Columbus in March 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered a retaliatory expedition into Mexico. Lanning describes how Patton, upon finding out his unit would not take part, made a personal appeal to the expedition’s commander, Brig. Gen. John Pershing, for an assignment with the troops deploying to Mexico.
Patton won over Pershing and became an aide to the general. In the process, Patton learned many skills in the conduct of large-scale military operations that influenced the rest of his Army career, including logistics and intelligence. He also was quick to see the value in aircraft and mechanization, and exploited both to the Army’s full advantage. Patton would become one of the campaign’s heroes when he employed motor vehicles in a successful attack that killed two of Villa’s officers and an orderly. Lanning details how U.S. newspapers quickly picked up the story, and how Patton realized how much he enjoyed the limelight.
While many historians contend that the Mexican Punitive Expedition was a failure since it failed to apprehend (or kill) Villa, Lanning claims that executing the War Department’s limited orders, which called only for “the pursuit and dispersion” of the forces that raided Columbus, meant it was a success. The campaign incurred relatively few casualties and eliminated Villa’s forces as a major threat. Furthermore, the experience that Patton, and the Army as a whole, gained leading into World War I proved invaluable.
Lanning’s book relies heavily on Patton’s diary and letters from the Mexican Punitive Expedition, and much of Lanning’s narrative is essentially annotations of the entries and letter passages. He includes a fine selection of photographs but only one map. While Lanning’s study includes a selected bibliography, the book lacks notes, making it somewhat limited for future research on Patton and the expedition.
Despite this, Patton in Mexico is a worthwhile read on an often overlooked part of Patton’s storied life.
Matthew Seelinger is chief historian of the Army Historical Foundation and editor of the foundation’s quarterly magazine, On Point.