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Inside the VC and the NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam's Armed Forces.

On many levels and in many different ways, the process of coming to terms with the Vietnam War continues to unfold. As Morley Safer writes, each witness to that conflict is "still imprisoned, to one extent or another, by that place and that time."(1) Memories of the conflict remain vivid among many Americans, who are still trying to understand why we fought so long and so hard in such a distant place, and why, in the end, we and our allies in Saigon suffered such a humiliating defeat. Recent literature has given us a better sense of the evolution of American policy, of how decisions were made within the American government, and of how these decisions were carried out in the field. Many aspects of American policy, however, remain obscure, while we have only begun to learn about the calculations of communist revolutionaries in Vietnam. These six books, written by scholars, journalists, and participants, are only a small part of what is a fascinating effort to fit together all of the pieces of the Vietnamese puzzle.

Sam Adams was one of those witnesses to the war, a young CIA analyst whose study of the Vietcong became first a great adventure, then a compelling cause until his untimely death in 1988. In August 1965 Adams was transferred to the Southeast Asian Branch of the CIA's Deputy Directorate of Intelligence, where he was given the task of studying Vietcong morale. He was the first person in Washington to give the enemy in South Vietnam his undivided attention. Poring over captured enemy documents, POW interrogations, and interviews with defectors, Adams concluded that the war was far larger than the Military Assistant Command Vietnam realized and that all the calculations of the American government about the numbers of troops needed and the time it would take to win were inaccurate. One captured document, on Vietcong strength in Binh Dinh province, listed 50,255 enemy soldiers, while MACV's figure was only 4,668. Adams gradually realized that the Vietcong consisted of a vast, intricate organization, most of which was hidden from view. General William Westmoreland's command was concerned with Vietcong main force units, but it failed to realize that these well-armed soldiers were only the tip of a large funnel that ran all the way down to the village level, and that main force units were augmented by many specialized units, such as sappers, secret police, service troops, and political cadre. The result was a resilient organization that could replace its losses quickly.

Adams's passionate curiosity about the Vietcong resulted in a series of superb, detailed studies, but it also brought an unwillingness to appreciate the dilemma CIA Director Richard Helms eventually confronted. Burdened with a White House that wanted only good news, and challenging the military's figures in the middle of a major war, Helms felt that he could only push so far. Or as he explained to Adams, "You don't know what it's like in this town. I could have told the White House there were a million more Vietcong out there, and it wouldn't have made the slightest difference in our policy" (p. 169). Refusing to accept political realities, Adams pressed charges against Helms, tried to go outside the CIA, and eventually left the agency. He could not accept any compromise in the integrity of the intelligence process.

After his resignation from the CIA in May 1973, Adams began research on the order-of-battle controversy. In the early 1980s he became involved in the production of the CBS documentary "The Uncounted Enemy," a harsh critique of Westmoreland that resulted in his charging Adams and CBS with libel. This extraordinary trial, which ended in February 1985, produced a mass of new documents and distracted Adams from the completion of his memoir. When he died only seven chapters were written. Thomas Powers has edited those chapters, and added to them two manuscripts that Adams had left incomplete, one on American intelligence on the order-of-battle of the Khmer Rouge and the second on the way in which Westmoreland's intelligence staff, pressured by the White House, falsified enemy strength estimates, The result is a colorful, beautifully crafted memoir, one that describes Adams's voyage of discovery and that raises disturbing questions about the decision-making process in Washington.

David Barrett's Uncertain Warriors and George Herring's LBJ and Vietnam explore, from quite different perspectives, Johnson's leadership of the war. Barrett studies Johnson's advisory system, focusing on three key years - 1965, 1967, and 1968 - rather than on the whole of his presidency. Drawing on newly opened material in the Johnson Library as well as other collections, such as the Richard Russell papers, Barrett challenges the earlier view, advanced by Doris Kearns, Larry Berman, and others, that Johnson intimidated his advisers and increasingly cut himself off from diverse views on the war both within the administration and across the country. These critics of Johnson, he believes, miss the highly selective way in which he treated his advisers, abusing some who had served him for many years but treating most with respect and consideration. They also focus too much on the President's formal system of advice, neglecting his frantic search for information and his endless consultations, by phone and in person, with a wide range of people, Even the President's White House secretaries could not keep track of all the people he consulted.

Thus in the spring and summer of 1965, most of Johnson's formal advisers, with the exception of George Ball and Hubert Humphrey, favored the air war against North Vietnam and the escalation of the ground war in South Vietnam. Informal advisers, however, such as Mike Mansfield, Clark Clifford, J. William Fulbright, and Richard Russell, expressed grave doubts, and Johnson moved toward a big American war with many misgivings. In the spring of 1967, when Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more troops to expand and intensify the war, Johnson got mixed advice, ranging from the approval of Wait Rostow to the dissent of Robert McNamara, and eventually decided to give Westmoreland only his minimum request of 80,000 troops. Johnson realized the precariousness of his position well before the outbreak of the Tet Offensive on January 30, 1968. In Barrett's account of post-Tet deliberations, Clark Clifford is less influential than he and many scholars have claimed in turning the President away from further military escalation and toward a new peace initiative. Unaware of the range of the President's consultations, Clifford did not understand how an accumulation of information from other advisers, public opinion polls, the Congress, and the news media, convinced Johnson that he must change his policy.

Barrett's meticulous research and clear analysis convey a much better sense than earlier scholarship of the way in which Johnson made his decisions. He concludes that Johnson's advisory system worked well but produced a bad war. The resolution of this paradox lies beyond the range of his book, but Barrett does suggest that, given Johnson's world view and the power of the doctrine of containment, his decision to plunge deeper into Vietnam was virtually foreordained.

Herring agrees with Barrett that Johnson consulted a wide range of advisers, but places his leadership of the war in a broader context. Johnson was, he writes, "a restless and impatient man waging war against an enemy who thought in terms of years, not days, centuries, not decades" (p. 17). The President and his civilian advisers, impressed by limited war theories and aware of the successful management of the Cuban missile crisis, reasoned that a carefully circumscribed military effort in Vietnam, one that did not arouse the passions of the nation, would succeed, not by totally defeating the enemy on the field of battle but rather by inflicting so much pain on communist forces that leaders in Hanoi would settle on America's terms.

While Johnson listened to all points of view, he thought in short-run terms and maneuvered to build a consensus among his advisers, however artificial it might be. Military strategy was a case in point. Johnson and McNamara controlled the air war against North Vietnam, resisting the pressure for rapid escalation, reasoning that the prospect of future escalation could be an important bargaining chip with Hanoi. In determining ground strategy in South Vietnam, however, they were remarkably careless. In this area even McNamara lacked confidence in his own judgment, and Johnson, wary of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and uninterested in military questions, refused to force the issue. The absence of leadership at the top meant that, despite serious doubts by Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson and the leaders of the marines, General Westmoreland set the ground strategy.

As it became apparent that Hanoi was defiant and would match any American escalation, new policies were not formulated to replace the old. The administration drifted, without a strategy for military victory or for a political settlement. Frustration with the conduct of the war grew, with McNamara and his civilian advisers in the Pentagon moving toward restraint while Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff pushed for an expansion of the ground and air wars against North Vietnam. Johnson was fearful, too, that a wider war might provoke China yet that too much restraint would bring a revolt by the JCS. Full of anguish over growing American casualties and his own miscalculations, he wanted to pound the enemy into submission but feared the domestic and international risks of attempting to do so.

Herring's analysis of the Johnson administration's handling of the war is thoughtful and balanced, based on impressive archival research, and is particularly revealing on Johnson's relationship to the military. But chapters on the reorganization of the pacification effort and peace negotiations make for slow reading and are, as Herring admits in his conclusion, marginal to an understanding of America's failure in Vietnam. "The outcome of the war," he writes, "was not exclusively or even primarily the result of bad management" (p. 179), since American leaders "took on in Vietnam a problem that was in all likelihood beyond their control" (p. 186). The reasons for America's failure in Vietnam, he concludes, run far beyond the scope of his intelligent but narrowly defined book.

Throughout all these accounts of America's war in Vietnam, the figure of Robert S. McNamara looms large. He was a major architect of the war, one whose tangled involvement with it is difficult to trace because of the silence he has maintained since leaving office. He did grant biographer Deborah Shapley twenty interviews, reserving the right to review quotations, but these are of limited value.

Shapley is aware of the slipperiness of her subject. He is, she writes, "both a manipulator and a scout, a devious tactician and a man of sincere and noble goals. This twinning of opposites has shaped his life, his story as a manager, Vietnam; it has, one way or another, affected all of our lives" (p. xvi). She describes with great insight McNamara's combination of raw ambition and idealism, his longing to be a member of the governing elite even at the cost of his own integrity. By the early 1960s McNamara was a man in a hurry, a brilliant manager of large organizations who preferred action to inaction. He seemed to many a dazzling figure, "a walking symbol," as Shapley puts it, "of the nation's confidence in science, technology, management, business, and progress" (p. 227).

Inevitably McNamara became deeply involved in the war in Vietnam. Dean Rusk's reticence, combined with the sheer force of McNamara's personality and intellect, made him the dominant figure in the circle of advisers around both Kennedy and Johnson. Initially unassailed by any doubts about the war, convinced that his statistical systems for measuring progress were valid, McNamara was ready to commit American troops by November 1961.

As the crisis in Vietnam deepened, McNamara readily accepted the geopolitical orthodoxies of his time. Arguing that the stakes in South Vietnam, and in the whole of the Third World, were high, McNamara became a true believer, convinced of the righteousness of the cause and of the solution. McNamara supported Westmoreland's request for troops, avoided the debate within the military about the wisdom of his search and destroy strategy, and argued that the war was moving toward a third, conventional stage in which American military power would be decisive. He did not expect a clear-cut defeat of the enemy, but rather believed that the war in Vietnam was similar to earlier Cold War crises in Berlin and Cuba. In both cases, demonstrations of American resolve had brought a quick response from the Soviet Union. Thus American escalation in Vietnam, if accompanied by a serious diplomatic effort, was sure to bring a conciliatory response from communist leaders in Hanoi and a winding down of the war in the South. By the summer of 1965, as the Johnson administration transformed the war into a big American effort, McNamara was at the peak of his power and confidence. "As the decisions grew bigger," Shapley writes, "as the moral stakes grew, his intensity and self-control gave him an air of command. The boy wonder was gone, and senior military and other advisers saw instead a commander being tested and testing himself - a commander in a hurry" (p. 328).

In the closing of 1965, however, McNamara's certainty crumbled. Massive American intervention did not bring concessions from North Vietnam, but rather brought further escalation and gestures of defiance. McNamara worried that no end was in sight, that the war would become stalemated at ever higher levels of violence. He remained publicly optimistic, but his private doubts and confusion grew. "The war manager," Shapley writes, "who seemed so certain before the television cameras was inwardly lost" (p. 367). But McNamara could not give up. He was committed to the war on so many levels, so determined to remain an insider, that he persevered, working to restrain the military and to prepare the nation for a long struggle, while hoping that bombing pauses would bring Hanoi to the bargaining table. As his pessimism grew, his relationship with Johnson deteriorated and his position on the war, Shapley notes, "became a tangled mass of honesty and concealment" (p. 433).

Rejecting Robert F. Kennedy's urgings to go public with his doubts and join the political opposition to the Johnson administration, McNamara chose instead to remain the consummate insider and to move on to the presidency of the World Bank. He knew that he had made terrible misjudgments, but rather than explain his mistakes to the public he "retreated into silence, confusion and remorse . . . [into] denial instead of self-knowledge" (p. 460). He became, in Shapley's apt phrase, "America's own Flying Dutchman" (p. 598), a tormented man unable to escape his role in the war and unwilling to explain it. Even in interviews with the author he was "still bobbing and weaving on the surface of the truth" (p. 614).

Shapley's biography is an intelligent and fair-minded book, generally shrewd in its judgments and filled with vivid descriptions of personalities and events: it gives us a far fuller and more perceptive portrait of McNamara than we have had before. It is also, however, limited by the author's lack of access to his personal papers and by the difficulty of establishing a clear perspective on a man whose life has not yet run its course.

The breadth of our knowledge of the American side of the war contrasts sharply with the paucity of information about communist revolutionaries in Vietnam. During the war the enemy in Vietnam was elusive, puzzling Americans with its endurance and acquiring a mystique that endures to the present day. The old, hard-line communist leadership in Hanoi still seeks to protect this mystique, preferring revolutionary mythology to historical truth. Thus Peter Macdonald, in his biography of Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho Chi Minh's old comrade and military commander, confronts insurmountable obstacles. Macdonald conducted fourteen interviews with North Vietnamese soldiers and officials, with Generals Marcelle Bigeard and William Westmoreland, and, most importantly, with Giap himself. He does not reveal the ground rules for interviews with Giap, but obviously little give and take occurred and Giap's recollections are unexceptional. Worse still, Macdonald approaches Giap reverentially, announcing early in his book that "in his own country he is a revered elder statesman and soldier; abroad he is a man who, to many people, has more personal prestige than any other politico/military figure anywhere in the world" (p. 17). As he works through the various stages of Giap's life and career, however, Macdonald achieves more critical distance. At the end he recognizes Giap's greatness as a military commander, but also realizes that he placed his faith in an ideology that time has passed by. Or as Macdonald writes, "he got it right in so many ways, but . . . in the end he got it wrong: the faith he put his faith in is discredited" (pp. 347-48).

Macdonald traces Giap's rise to power within the Vietminh, his closeness to Ho Chi Minh, and the military and organizational genius that allowed him to build a potent Vietnamese Liberation Army. He gives a full account of key battles, such as Dienbienphu and Khe Sanh, occasionally discusses debates within the North Vietnamese Politburo, and also provides a few glimpses of Giap's personally. Macdonald catches Giap's drive for dominance and his ruthlessness as a military commander. Giap had no choice, he argues, but to sacrifice large numbers of men if he was to compensate for French and especially American technological superiority. While he made serious military mistakes, such as in the Tet Offensive and the Easter Offensive, in general he was a canny military leader, clear-headed and far-sighted, one who knew he to fight the war in South Vietnam on a variety of levels with a complicated mix of forces. He also was extraordinarily resourceful in retaining power in Hanoi, remaining Minister of Defense until 1980 and a member of the Politburo until July 1981, just short of his eightieth birthday. For all the useful information it contains, however, this biography is only a sketch, moving across the surface of Giap's life and career but never penetrating beneath it to a deeper assessment of his beliefs and motivations.

Macdonald tries to tell the story of the Vietnamese revolution from a high-level perspective; Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg view it from the bottom up, through the eyes of soldiers of the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army. Drawing on captured enemy documents and on more than 2,600 interviews conducted by the RAND Corporation, they describe the experience of these soldiers and the military organization of which they were a part. "We believe," they write, "our book is unique because it considers not how we Americans lost the war but how the communists won it" (p. xi).

Lanning and Cragg explain how the warrior tradition in Vietnamese history combined with superb communist organization created a formidable fighting force. The training and motivation of the Vietcong varied more than that of the NVA, but both were foes to be reckoned with. The authors describe in sometimes excessive detail the force structure of these communist armies, their equipment, arms, and supplies, and the remarkable logistical system that sustained them in the field. Medical treatment and food, while primitive by Western standards, were adequate, and while the morale of the Vietcong deteriorated after the Tet Offensive, that of the NVA remained high. Part of the NVA's effectiveness as a fighting force stemmed from superior leadership and from a system of political indoctrination, built around political cadres and three man cells, that monitored daily the mood and effectiveness of each soldier. Although NVA soldiers were misled about the political situation in South Vietnam and were not trained for jungle warfare, only 1,700 defected during the war. They stayed in the south for the duration of the conflict, convinced of the rightness of their cause and protected by infrequent contact with American forces. The NVA sought to prolong the war and to survive, not to defeat the American army, and therefore its commanders controlled the frequency of engagements, limiting their units to only two or three major battles a year. NVA soldiers spent most of their time moving from one sanctuary to another, always digging elaborate defensive fortifications and making careful preparations for any offensive operations. While soldiers complained of homesickness and inadequately prepared rice, Lanning and Cragg find no evidence that the NVA was ever near the breaking point. Their study provides little consolation for those who argue that a different American strategy could have won the war.

In one way or another, all of these books suggest both the inevitability of American involvement and of American failure. Leaders in Washington misjudged the local circumstances of the war, underestimating communist revolutionaries and overestimating the ability of American forces to operate effectively in such a strange and distant country. In July 1965 Earl Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told President Johnson that North Vietnam could put no more than 25 percent of its 250,000 man army in South Vietnam. As Herring notes, he welcomed North Vietnamese intervention, predicting that American forces would "'cream them'" (p. 35). It was a beguiling, if naive, vision, one that made intervention easier but one that also, once the war became a blood stalemate, made withdrawal difficult. Having committed American forces on the basis of so many faulty assumptions, the leaders of the American government found it difficult to reassess their beliefs and devise a strategy of withdrawal. Instead they persevered, pushing for changes in military or political strategy, and hoping that somehow the will of the North Vietnamese would crumble. On the basis of our present knowledge, that hope was a mirage, although it is always possible that someday, if we gain access to North Vietnamese sources, the dynamics of the war will have to be thoroughly reassessed.

1. Morley Safer, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam (1990), p. xix.

Charles E. Neu, Department of History, Brown University, is writing a book on America in Vietnam, to be published by Harlan Davidson, Inc.
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Author:Neu, Charles E.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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