After the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975, military and civilian strategists sought “lessons learned.” Many were tactical or technical, such as the operational effectiveness of precision-guided munitions and the continuing need for guns on jet fighters. At the strategic level, one pundit recommended that the United States never again fight in a former French colony located on the other side of the world with borders contiguous to enemy sources of supply governed by an ally of dubious political legitimacy. After the fall of Saigon 37 years ago, the United States embarked on another unsatisfying war, the result seeming eerily familiar. What was missed in post-Vietnam assessments that might have informed a strategically efficacious approach to the War on Terror?
First, understand the historical context. The Vietnam intervention resulted from a Cold War mindset that assumed the war in South Vietnam was part of a larger “communist plot for world domination.” That made Vietnam more important than it was. The resulting intervention into a local struggle tied U.S. prestige to a dubious cause. Lesson: Look closely at the local situation before commitments become irrevocable.
Second, there are dangers in incrementalism. It is a myth that the United States “blundered” into a Vietnam quagmire. American intervention resulted from a series of small, incremental steps, each seemingly low in risk. By the end of 1965, with over 100,000 American service personnel committed to Vietnam, the U.S. presence was hostage to a faulty policy. The political cost of getting out seemingly outweighed the military cost of staying in.
Third, there are limits to what military power can achieve. In 1961, when the Kennedy administration decided to “draw a line in the sand” in Vietnam, the general military assumption was that U.S. military power, sufficient to defeat Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan in less than four years, could easily handle an insurgency in South Vietnam supported by an impoverished military power in North Vietnam. Surely a nation reaching toward outer space had little to fear from a country where few people knew how to drive a car.
History shows that small nations and dedicated movements can defeat major powers. England defeated the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. The American Revolution succeeded against the British Empire. Japan defeated Russia in 1905.
In March 2003, with Operation Iraqi Freedom, the assumption was U.S. forces would be in Baghdad within a month. It took three weeks. Then the real war started and U.S. forces languished there for the next eight years.
Earl Tilford is a retired Air Force officer and college professor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of several books on the air war in Vietnam. His latest book, Turning the Tide: The University of Alabama in the 1960s has been accepted for publication by the University of Alabama Press.