Alternative Strategy to the Vietnam War

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Alternative Strategy to the Vietnam War


The Vietnam War is still controversial over four decades after it was over. Most of the debate is around whether the US troops were defeated or whether they achieved their objectives. In attempting to answer the lingering questions, it is important to underline what the US objectives were. The sole purpose of deployment of the troops to Indochina was to curtail the communist insurgence in South Vietnam. The strategies that were applied by the US troops were questionable as the overall objective was partially achieved as the US troops withdrew after the Paris peace agreement.

Analysts of the war claim that the US largely misunderstood it to the point that it could not have effected a military strategy to combat it. US troops largely considered the impasse in South Vietnam as an insurgency. However, it was not an insurgency and neither was it a civil war. The Vietnam War was an invasion of the south by the north. There were major similarities between the Vietnam War and the Korean War and the only difference was the jungle in the former that made ground military intervention difficult. This paper seeks to establish whether there were elements, which if combined would have resulted in a strategy that would have secured American objectives at an acceptable cost. The thesis developed for this paper is that there were indeed some elements of a strategy that would have advanced US interests in South Vietnam without the heavy costs incurred. These elements include population protection through the formation of enclaves, protection of friendlies, use of intelligence, empowering the police, relying on night patrol, and focusing on strategically weakening the enemy rather than direct combat.


There are many reasons that are given for the embarrassment that the US underwent in Vietnam. Some people argue that Johnson’s refusal to have reserve ground forces involved in the war partly led to what Westmoreland claimed was the major reason for failure of his attrition strategy due to manpower constraints and the governments refusal for extensive ground operations in North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (Lewy 50). The failure of the White House to give an order to bomb strategic targets in North Vietnam as advocated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff is also touted as a reason for the US troops’ failure in winning the war. Advocates of continued war stated that the use of less restrained force in North Vietnam would have broken the resolve of the communists. This has however been disproved given the facts on the ground. Use of less restrained force would have resulted in numerous civilian casualties which the US did not desire. Nonetheless, this use of increased force would not have broken the resolve of the communists but would only have made their operations more difficult hence increasing their resolve. This is deduced from the fact that the presence of over 500,000 US troops and the use of over 8,000,000 tons of bombs on seeking to strategically weaken the communists did not work (Lewy 50).

In 1966, General Westmoreland was given six goals that he was meant to achieve in a formal memorandum. The six included: attrition of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese forces at a higher rate than they could be replenished, increase of the Viet Cong and north Vietnamese army bases that their forces were denied access to from 20% to 50%, increase of the important road and rail connections open for use from 30% to 50%, increase of the south Vietnamese population under protection from 50% to 60%, pacification of four selected high-priority areas which would have increased the pacified population by 235,000 and ensuring that all pacified population centers, food processing areas and military bases under the control of the government were secure (Davidson 400). The General did not follow what he was asked but instead recorded in his memoirs that nothing in the goals conflicted with the broad outline of how the war was going to be fought.

In South Vietnam where there were no significant civilian imposed restraints, attrition should not have been favored. In these areas, the general should have created population enclaves where he would have allowed civilians to seek refuge from the ongoing war. He however dismissed this strategy as being defensive and considered it as ceding ground to the enemy. He chose to engage communist regulars by strategically killing them instead of seeking out friendlies that would have been invaluable in gathering intelligence on the operations of the enemy. The general thought that by killing the communist insurgents, he was ultimately protecting the population. However, his strategy was short sighted as he did no anticipate the resilience of the communists as they kept replacing their fallen soldiers.

There are major reasons why the bombardment of the north and South Vietnam failed. Some of these reasons include the lack of a unified command structure in the US and other allied forces. This is exemplified by the fact that there were multiple US units in Indochina with separate commanders and missions. There was also no strategic cooperation between the US troops and the South Vietnamese army. Although there was resemblance of unity at the top echelons of command, it was non-existent at the bottom which was due to language barriers and mutual distrust. The US and allied forces also grossly underestimated the resolve of the NVA. They could not kill them at a rate that was impossible to replenish which was one of the goals given to Westmoreland.

Strategic weakening of the NVA forces was possible but had to be done with more intelligence. Westmoreland was partially right in having faith in the search-and-destroy efforts. However, these efforts were localized and were not at the scale required to have an astounding impact on enemy forces. There was need for more ingenious ways of engaging the enemy as they were controlling the meeting points, which gave them the ability to control their casualties (Lewy 59). Nearly 90% of all engagements between the US troops and those of the NVA were controlled by the latter. The NVA strategy was what the US should have adopted (Lewy 59). Instead of seeking territorial control, the US forces should have sought population control. This strategy assisted the NVA in determining where and when they engaged the US troops.

Any successful military intervention is based on good planning and execution. This paper advocates that a population protections strategy like the one adopted after the Tet Offensive would have been effective in achieving the US objective with minimal casualties. However, even that effort would have been pointless with the abysmal military organization of the US troops. The attrition strategy was one that advocated use of firepower in quelling insurgency by eliminating the insurgents themselves and systematically weakening their strategic positions. However, even that leeway for use of force, which was the preference of the military commanders, was ineffective as there was: no unity in command, micro management of the military operations, corruption of officer corps as a result of careerism, personnel rotation policies that were largely self-defeating and reliance on the lavish base camps in addition to the use of more than necessary firepower. The civilian authority in the country and the military were squarely to blame for the ineffectiveness of the strategies they crafted and not the political authority of the day in the US. Disregard for direct commands was also a major reason for the failed strategy which is exemplified by General Westmoreland’s disregard to follow the right strategies in achieving the goals that were set in the formal memorandum in 1966.

To better understand the strategies advocated herein, it is prudent to analyze the sole reason for American involvement in Vietnam. The Americanization of the Vietnamese situation was sparked by the alienation of the South Vietnamese people. The South Vietnam regime was on the verge of collapse and only the efforts of the US gave it some hope. There is no way that a legitimate government would have taken the mantle in the backdrop of so much animosity. This should have been the starting point for American intervention. The communist regime seemed to have a popular appeal with the population as they called for reunification of Vietnam and advocated for an end to foreign domination through national liberation. On the contrary, the South Vietnamese leadership had been decimated and could not communicate in one voice in order to get the goodwill of the people. American intervention therefore should have began by having a comprehensive public relation exercise where the US commanders would have entertained the views of the public as well as that of the armed forces in order to craft a strategy that was case-specific.

The different dynamics should have been adequately captured in any effort to intervene on behalf of the South Vietnamese people. The indigenous people must have been included in any effort to liberate them. This means that no amount of intervention would have been fruitful in the long run if there was no legitimate authority to take on the throes of power once the communists had been overrun. Simply speaking, the South Vietnamese people had to win the war for themselves. The fundamental flaw with the US intervention is that it was based on a show of might since the way the war was run was tantamount to bullying. Conversely, the efforts that would have borne more fruit would have been those that would have helped the South Vietnamese people build their own institutions and forces in order to be entrenched in the society and comprehensively root out the causes of the impasse.

The police, unlike any army usually work hand-in-hand with civilians in the maintenance of law and order. In South Vietnam, the insurgents were operating in foreign territory and although some aspects of the terrain much resembled that of the north, there was no way the insurgents were better versed with the southern terrain like the police were. Therefore, the US intervention should have incorporated the police who had the requisite information regarding the composition of the population as well as the possible terrain advantages that they might require. Simply speaking, an insider’s perspective was needed in the war as all was done the American way. The advantage of having allies who are well versed with the nature of the battle terrain is that they can initiate attacks at any time without much effort. Since the Americans badly needed information on the insurgency, the best time for intelligence gathering was at night. The simple strategy here should have been an increase in night patrols with two objectives. First, the American forces would have gotten requisite intelligence, and two, there would have been round the clock security which would have increased positive sentiments of the war from the indigenous population.

The ARVN was nowhere near as ambitious and motivated as the communist forces. This in itself was a reason for the massive failure that was the US intervention in the country. There were a number of mitigating factors that doomed it so. First, the language barrier between the US forces and the ARVN was profound. The second was that there was mutual mistrust between the two forces more so from the US that was skeptical in sharing its plans with what they suspected could have been communist sympathizers or spies within the ranks of the ARVN, probably fuelled by massive corruption in the country. However, these barriers could have been simply overcome. All the major generals embroiled in the war, from both sides, were trained in the military arts in the US. This means that even the ARVN commanders were fluent in English and could have communicated the requisite messages to their troops in Vietnamese. This situation was not unique as barely a decade ago, the US had ran a much similar intervention in Korea where there was also a substantial language barrier. Corruption claims that led to mistrust could have also been dispelled by simple vetting of the leadership; at least those at the helm of the military that were charged with crafting and executing overall battle plans. However, the differences in the troops were allowed to simmer to the point that it became almost impossible to run a credible onslaught against a determined enemy.


There was no strategy to realize US objectives with lesser costs as argued by the thesis to this paper. The military commanders mistook the Vietnam War as an insurgency up until the Tet Offensive. This is exemplified by the strategies they employed. Use of attrition and conventional firepower could not succeed here as it was not involving an enemy with the same conventional thinking. There is a counterargument that the adoption of a population protection strategy would also not have worked. The history of the war shows that the population protection strategy did indeed work as the insurgency was finally broken in 1973. However, this victory was short lived as the insurgents moved the war to a different frontier. The communists shifted the war from one of guerilla-like warfare into conventional military engagement. This exemplifies the tenacity of the communists and their willingness to see out the war regardless of the direction it took. This resolve was the difference between the US efforts and those of the communists. Prior to the Tet Offensive in 1968, General Westmoreland could have achieved a measure of success had he pursued the population protection strategy. The problem is that the military leadership was not open to counterinsurgency but only preferred direct military engagement. However, when the counterinsurgency was adopted, the war shifted in favor of the US and allied forces which prompted the communists to regroup. No singular military effort in the Vietnam War would have been effective and only a combination of a number of strategies was destined for success.


            American intervention in Vietnam just like in Korea was justified to prevent the country from falling into communist hands. However, this intervention remains a blemish in the American military history as many regard it as a loss. The strategy adopted for the war was largely based on attrition. On a larger scale, the war was Americanized such that there was little input from the people on whose behalf the US was fighting. Nonetheless, there was a strategy that the US could have adopted that would have resulted in lesser causalities and costs. This strategy should have been the Vietnamization of the war where all efforts should have been to empower the ARVN to act on behalf of their country whereas American involvement would have been limited to reinforcement. The tenets of the strategy should have been to protect the population in enclaves in order to guarantee indigenous goodwill, protection of friendlies, intelligence gathering in order to understand the enemy, empowering the military and police, relying on night patrols and focusing on strategically weakening the enemy by focusing their bombings on key military installations and other strategic targets.


Works cited

Davidson, B. Phillip. Vietnam at War: The History: 1946-1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.

Lewy, Guenter. America in Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Print.