“A Great nation cannot wage a little war.” — Duke of Wellington to Parliament, 1838
In September 1964, shortly after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution enabling President Lyndon Johnson to conduct military operations against North Vietnam, the administration tasked the Departments of Defense and State for military options.
The recent stalemate in Korea warned against future ground wars in Asia. Additionally, as November elections neared Johnson promised “no wider war” in Vietnam. Johnson instead focused on restructuring America into the “Great Society.”
Meanwhile, after reviewing options, the administration turned to air power for quick results with minimal risk. Johnson compared air power to a thermostat allowing him to selectively apply the “heat” to North Vietnam.
Johnson opted a “slow squeeze approach starting in North Vietnam’s panhandle and expanding northward toward the capital of Hanoi enlarging the target list — 94 in all — until communist leaders agreed to stop aggression against South Vietnam and negotiate an end to the conflict. All he needed was the right provocation to get started.
On Nov. 1, 1964, Viet Cong insurgents attacked Bien Hoa Air Base outside South Vietnam’s capital of Saigon killing five American airmen and destroying six B-57 bombers.
With the election 48 hours away, Johnson demurred. On Feb. 7, 1965, the Viet Cong attacked Pleiku Air Base in the Central highlands killing eight Americans and destroying nine aircraft.
Following two small retaliatory raids rendering insignificant results the Johnson administration launched “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a 28-day limited air campaign.
Rolling Thunder lasted three years and seven months. In July, further attacks in South Vietnam prompted the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to defend American air bases. In November, American and North Vietnamese forces clashed for the first time in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, a bloody fight immortalized in the motion picture “We Were Soldiers.” America’s long war in Vietnam was on.
Fifty years ago, to satisfy domestic political considerations, President Johnson opted for air power to avoid a potentially costly, bloody ground war.
He knew Democrats lost the presidency in 1952 partly because Republicans blamed Democrats for losing China to communists. He feared a communist takeover in South Vietnam risked winning his second term in 1968.
Johnson needed two full terms to entrench Great Society programs in education, expand medical care, and pursue Civil Rights legislation, especially registering Democratic voters in the no long “solidly Democratic” South. Johnson also feared a military miscalculation might provoke a massive intervention by Communist Chinese troops like in Korea in 1950 or a nuclear war with Russia. American strategy revolved around negatives: not losing, not risking a wider war, not causing collateral damage, and not suffering too many casualties.
Wars are lost by not fighting to win.
From 1975 until the quick victory over Iraqi forces in Kuwait in Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1991, civilian scholars and military strategists poured over the “lessons learned” from Vietnam.
Some concluded the U.S. should never again become involved in a land war on the other side of the world, in a former European colony governed by an unstable regime against an enemy with outside sources of help, driven by a determined ideology and operating in jungles and mountainous terrain. Syria and Iraq have no jungles.
The greater lesson was that sound strategy wins wars. An appropriate strategy, coupled with superior tactics employing superior firepower, wins quickly. Example: Israel in the June 1967 Seven Days War.
A superior strategy employed by larger forces pitted against determined foes with equal technologically-advanced weaponry can be bloody — perhaps enormously so — but the side with the bigger battalions and better strategy wins: Example: the US, Britain, and Soviet Union winning World War II.
Superior forces burdened by flawed strategy, even with a decided technological edge, will lose to an enemy driven by desperation or fanaticism and willing to bear the cost. If the weaker side prolongs the conflict despite losing most of the battles, it still can win the war. Examples: The Americans during the Revolutionary War.
A significant weakness of democracy is that it policy makers often fail to appreciate the military capabilities and strategic acumen needed to survive in a hostile and envious world.
President Obama’s desire to satisfy his far left base with its polemically skewed understanding of American history will result in a strategic blunder and another lost war. He would do well to study Johnson administration decision making in 1964 and 1965.
Dr. Earl H. Tilford served as a nuclear targeting officer at Headquarters Strategic Air Command, and on the faculties of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Air Command and Staff College, and the Air War College. From 1993 to July 2001, he served as director of research for the Army's Strategic Studies Institute. He is the author of three books on Vietnam, including "Crosswinds: The Air Force's Setup in Vietnam." He currently teaches courses on strategy for the Honors College at the University of Alabama. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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