Lind on U.S. Military Failures during the Cold War

In hindsight, the record of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations compares favorably with that of the Pentagon. The constraints imposed on theater operations by the Johnson administration did not cause the war to be lost–and those constraints may well have averted a second Sino-American war in little more than a decade. The argument that Kennedy and Johnson were wrong to ask the U.S. military to wage a difficult and ambiguous war of counterinsurgency in a peripheral country is unpersuasive. The Cold War was going to be fought under difficult conditions, in places like Vietnam, or it was going to be forfeited by the United States….

Unfortunately, the military’s response to pressure from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to master the complexities of counterinsurgency was to dismiss it as a fad. General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1960-61, thought that the Kennedy administration was “oversold” on unconventional warfare. General George Decker, army chief of staff in 1960-62, claimed that “any good soldier can handle guerrillas.” Even General Maxwell Taylor, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1961-64 championed flexible response, claimed that “Any well-trained organization can shift the tempo to that which might be required in this kind of situation.” John A. Nagl, a U.S. Army captain and professor at West Point, suggests that “it was the organizational culture of the British army that allowed it to learn counterinsurgency principles effectively during the Malayan emergency, whereas the organizational culture of the U.S. Army blocked organizational learning during–and after–the Vietnam War.” During the conflict in Indochina, one anonymous U.S. army officer was quoted as saying, “I’m not going to destroy the traditions and doctrine of the United States Army just to win this lousy war.”…

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. military prepared to fight Field Marshal Rommel and Admiral Yamamato, when it should have been preparing itself in addition to fight opponents like Nicaragua’s Sandino and Haiti’s Charlemagne. Under the “the buck stops here” principle, President Johnson must be held ultimately responsible for the disaster in Vietnam between 1965 and 1968. On the other hand, it is not the responsibility of civilian politicians in a democracy to instruct military professionals in the rudiments of their art. An argument in extenuation of the failures in Vietnam of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon appears more plausible when one considers the impressive string of military failures in the last quarter of the twentieth century under a succession of very different presidents: Desert One in Iran; the bombing of the U.S. marines barracks in Beirut; the bungled invasion of Grenada; the botched invasion of Panama; the debacle in Somalia. If not for the Kosovo War, which failed to prevent the expulsion of most Albanian Kosovars, and the Gulf War, which left Saddam in power, despite a later renewal of the air war under President Clinton, the U.S. military would have little to show since the Korean War except for a string of disasters or botched successes–all of which, the Pentagon’s apologists would have us believe, represent failures of presidential conception and direction rather than of military implementation. Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf won the Gulf War, but Admiral Sharp and General Westmoreland did not lose the Vietnam War. The point is not to impugn the integrity of America’s soldiers as individuals, but to wonder how the military leadership can ever be held accountable if an alibi for military failures can always be had by blaming civilian political leaders….

In the final analysis, however, the American public’s support for a sound grand strategy of global military containment of the communist bloc by means of flexible response collapsed for most of the 1970s because the U.S. military in Vietnam was too inflexible in its response to the enemy’s tactics.

SOURCE: Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, by Michael Lind (Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. 102-105

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Filed under Iran, military, U.S., Vietnam

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