General Creighton Abrams Did Not Fight A Better War

Following the Tet Offensive, a number of U.S. foreign policy experts advised President Johnson that he should begin America’s disengagement from the war in South Vietnam.  Those favouring a U.S. withdrawal, including former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, recognized it would take time to affect a pull-out. Untangling the combatants in a struggle as geographically extensive as the one in Vietnam could not be done in a hurry. Thus, many of the same men who recommended to the president that he quickly find a way out of the war, proposed that in the interim before an American withdrawal the United States should alter its ground war strategy to reduce U.S. casualties and lessen the destructive effects of American firepower on South Vietnamese society.[1]

Clark Clifford, in addition to his responsibilities as Secretary of Defense, headed the White House’s Vietnam Task Force – a group set up following the Tet Offensive to advise the president on future policy in Vietnam. On March 4, 1968, Clifford, in conversation with Johnson, said, “We [members of the Task Force] are not sure the present strategy is the right strategy – that of being spread out all over the country with a seek and destroy policy…Perhaps we should not be trying to protect all of the countryside, and instead concentrate on the cities and important areas of the country.”[2] The Task Force likely based its conclusion in part on a study done by the Department of Defense’s System’s Analysts Office, which had earlier reported, “The current strategy thus can promise no early end to the conflict, nor any success in attriting the enemy or eroding Hanoi’s will to fight. Moreover, it would entail substantial costs in South Viet Nam, in the United States, and in the rest of the world.”[3]

Task Force members thought the emphasis on search and destroy operations in South Vietnam’s hinterland should be replaced with an enclave strategy focused on preventing the enemy from gaining access to the population clustered in the country’s coastal plain and Mekong Delta.  The Task Force’s recommended strategy would place U.S. troops along South Vietnam’s demographic frontier – an area that stretched southward from the DMZ to the delta along the western edge of the coastal plain. U.S. forces based close to the foothills of the Central Highlands would block Vietcong and North Vietnamese access to the lowland population. When Allied aerial spotters or reconnaissance teams located Communist forces inside what was termed the “enemy’s zone of movement” (the thinly populated regions west of the demographic frontier), U.S. and South Vietnamese troops would helicopter out to destroy them before they could enter the settled lowlands. This new strategy would end the casualty-inducing practice of confronting dug-in Communist troops in the remotest regions of South Vietnam.[4]

After reviewing the Task Force’s strategy recommendation, the Central Intelligence Agency rejected it. Analysts at the CIA’s Langley Headquarters recognized that the strategy might reduce U.S. casualties, but it wasn’t going to win the war or persuade the South Vietnamese people to align themselves with the government in Saigon. In early March 1968, the CIA reported, “If the U.S. changed its strategy toward greater control over population centers, with or without increased forces, the Communists would adjust their strategy so as to preclude the achievement of U.S. aims.”[5]

When the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV) learned of the Task Force’s proposal, they responded strongly to what they perceived as a threat to their exclusive purview – that is, the conduct of the ground war. Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler and General William C. Westmoreland rejected out-of-hand any suggestion that the U.S. should abandon what many outside the military considered a senseless strategy. Wheeler did not believe the deployment of U.S. troops to the demographic frontier would keep the Vietcong and North Vietnamese out of the populated lowlands.  The Communists would find ways to either go through, or around, any American cordon sanitaire.  Specifically, the Communists could mass their forces anywhere in the hinterland and then quickly move out of the foothills and toward valuable U.S. and South Vietnamese military and civilian targets.

Wheeler informed President Johnson that an enclave strategy, like the one proposed by the Task Force, would shift the bulk of the ground fighting in South Vietnam to the populated areas, resulting in increased civilian casualties, greater social disruption, and far more damage to infrastructure and the South Vietnamese economy. The president, contended Wheeler, only needed to look at the effects of the Tet Offensive to see what would happen if the main arena of combat shifted from the hinterland to the coastal plain. Wheeler further argued that now was not the time to change strategy, since U.S. forces were engaged in heavy combat, with the likelihood of additional enemy offensives during 1968. A repositioning of forces under the present circumstances would entail grave risks to the withdrawing forces and would derail present and planned military operations. “In my view,” said Wheeler, “it is not timely to consider fundamental changes in strategy when we are fully committed in what could be the decisive battles of the war.”[6]

Creighton Abrams, slated to replace Westmoreland as the head of MACV in mid-1968, agreed with Wheeler. In late March, in a conversation with Johnson at the White House, he declared, “I don’t feel we need to change strategy.”[7] Abrams even went so far as to claim that the search and destroy strategy was winning the war. This was the exact same argument espoused by Westmoreland. Abram’s defence of the search and destroy strategy wasn’t surprising.  He had wholeheartedly implemented that strategy as Westmoreland’s deputy.  For Abrams to have disavowed the search and destroy strategy now would have raised doubts about his past decision-making and his reliability as a member of President Johnson’s national security team.[8]

Another consideration that ruled against a change in strategy was that the United States possessed a geographical system within South Vietnam designed and built for big-unit operations. The entire U.S. basing system within South Vietnam, which included huge divisional bases, tactical bases, fire support bases, and colossal coastal logistical bases served the big-unit, high-tech, firepower-heavy, search and destroy strategy. The force structure in the South did the same. U.S. units in South Vietnam operated with a heavy logistical tail, meaning the bulk of U.S. troops served in some kind of support capacity. They provided the vast quantities of materials, machines, and firepower to the grunts engaged in actual ground combat. In early 1968, at the start of Tet, the U.S. had close to 500,000 troops in South Vietnam. About 38% those troops were gun-toting ground-pounders, artillerymen, or troops in some sort of combat-support role, such as truck drivers or tankers. The remainder served as non-combat support troops or what front line infantrymen referred to derisively as Rear Echelon Motherfuckers (REMFs).  Shifting the U.S.’s operational focus to the edge of the coastal plain and delta, and from a search and destroy strategy to a population protection strategy, would have required a new, dispersed basing system and a different force structure – neither of which could be revamped on short notice.[9]

In the end, Wheeler and Abrams got their way.  In a May 25, 1968, meeting in the White House, when Wheeler was asked by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “Will there be a strategy change under Abrams?”  Wheeler responded, “The pattern will be about the same.”[10]

The United States would continue to fight the ground war as it had since 1965, with the same indecisive results and until the final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from South Vietnam in March 1973.  Granted, after 1968, Abrams did introduce some tactical changes, such as the deployment of a greater proportion of U.S. combat power against Communist logistical systems within South Vietnam.  But the focus of U.S. strategy remained search and destroy operations in the hinterland.

Ground operations in 1969, 1970, and 1971, revealed Abrams’s strategic emphasis.  In 1969, he ordered a large U.S. military force to strike at the Communist troops and logistical bases in the remote A Shau Valley.  During this operation, he sent troops of the 101st Airborne Division up the steep slopes of Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill) against dug-in North Vietnamese soldiers.  The Battle of Ap Bia in 1969 looked a lot like the Battle of Dak To in 1967.  The names of the top U.S. commanders were different, but the strategy and the results were the same – scores of Americans died for a worthless piece of jungle in terrain that favoured the Communist defenders.  In 1970, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops pushed into the forests and swampland along the South Vietnamese-Cambodian border.  And in 1971, an enormous American air operation assisted the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos in Operation Lam Son 719.  Each of these operations were taken straight from Westmoreland’s strategic playbook.

Neo-Conservative historian Lewis Sorley argued in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, that Abrams had altered U.S. strategy after he took command of MACV in mid-1968.  And Abrams’s new U.S. strategy, which emphasized attacks against the Communist logistics system, had turned around the war so much so that by 1972 the U.S. was winning the war in South Vietnam.  But because of Washington’s vacillation, and the curtailment of U.S. aid in the last year of the war, the U.S. squandered the military and political gains made by Abrams.  As a result, South Vietnam easily fell to the Communists in 1975.

Sorley’s thesis is full of holes, not least because it ignores or downplays all of the factors that worked against U.S. success in South Vietnam, including a corrupt Saigon regime, an incompetent South Vietnamese military establishment, the persistently poor morale of South Vietnamese troops, the always-present possibility that North Vietnam would order its massive troop reserves into combat, and the continued popular support of the Vietcong in rural South Vietnam.  But Sorley got it wrong in one other important respect.  Creighton Abrams did not fight a better war.  Rather, he fought the war Westmoreland had lost, and he fought it with fewer troops, less home front support, and with a president – Richard M. Nixon – who was determined to get the United States out of Vietnam.

Endnotes

[1] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 125, Memorandum for the Record, March 14, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 379; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968,”Document 126, Memorandum From the Under Secretary of the Air Force (Hoopes) to Secretary of Defense Clifford, March 14, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 379-380; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 146, Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Clifford, March 20, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 429.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 104, Notes of Meeting, March 4, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 319.

[3] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 36.

[4] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 39.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 119, Memorandum from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to President Johnson, March 11, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 368.

[7] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 156, Notes of Meeting, March 26, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 463.

[8] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 157, Notes of Meeting, March 26, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 470.

[9] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 156, Notes of Meeting, March 26, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 464; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 157, Notes of Meeting, March 26, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 466-470.

[10] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 249, Notes of Meeting, May 25, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 716.

 

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