For the American armed forces, military strategy is defined as "the art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of national policy by the application of force, or the threat of force." By this textbook definition, the U.S military strategy in Vietnam was a failure because its strategic decision makers, civilian and military, came up with the wrong answer to what military theoretician Karl von Clausewitz called "the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive." Von Clausewitz warned about establishing "the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into something alien to its nature is the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make." It is not surprising that this maxim was overlooked, since American strategies for Vietnam were not based on classic theories and doctrines of war, which many believed antiquated and irrelevant in the nuclear age. Rather, they were based on post World War II academic limited war theories that viewed military operations as diplomatic signaling rather than war-fighting devices and on the new and fashionable doctrines of counterinsurgency. These theories and doctrines became the frame of reference for the American conduct of the war, and, in doing so, served as a kind of Procrustean bed. The effect was a failure to distinguish between the First Indochina War between France and Vietnam and the Second Indochina War between North and South Vietnam. This, in turn, led to a further failure to distinguish between the actions appropriate for a colonial power like France in Indochina or Britain in Malaysia and the actions appropriate to the U.S., a coalition partner in support of an ally (the Republic of Vietnam or RVN) faced with both an internal insurgency and an external threat. The result was over involvement in RVN internal affairs and failure to develop military strategies to implement the national policy of containment of Communist expansion—specifically the containment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) expansion into RVN by force of arms. Ironically, in the view of the way the war in Vietnam ended, i.e. through the 1975 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) cross-border multidivisional blitzkrieg, initial American military strategies for RVN were designed to prevent just such an eventuality. In the period from 1954 to 1960, U.S. military assistance concentrated on preparing the RVN Army (ARVN) for a conventional delaying action against what was regarded as the most serious threat, a conventional, Korean-style NVA attack across the DMZ. The U.S. response to such an attack would include the early seizure of air and port facilities and the phased deployment of American ground combat units, first to block the NVA invasion and then to launch a joint airborne, amphibious and ground counterattack into DRV. All this came to an end in 1961, when counterinsurgency, not counterattack, became the watchword. This strategic doctrine had the support of the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, who saw it as the counter to Soviet "wars of national liberation." The President sent a letter to the Army, directing compliance with this new doctrine. The Army Chief of Staff, GEN George Decker, who had resisted the emphasis on guerrilla war, was replaced, and it was made known that "promotions of high ranking officers would depend on their demonstration of experience in the counter-guerrilla or limited war theory." In August 1962 the National Security Council directed that plans of action be drawn up "consistent with the doctrine of counterinsurgency." In accordance with these plans, U.S. military assistance to RVN shifted from the external enemy to counterinsurgency, and from 335 military advisors in 1954 to 3,150 by September 1962. The emphasis continued under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and in 1964 MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) adopted a series of terms to describe the basic missions performed by ARVN forces in support of this counterinsurgency effort. These ranged in intensity from "search and destroy operations," designed to find, fix, fight and destroy enemy forces, to "clearing operations," designed to drive large enemy forces out of populated areas, to "security operations," designed to protect pacification teams. The frame of reference that was to continue throughout the war had been set. It was this frame of reference, as well as the faulty notions of the limited war theorists, that shaped the U.S. response after the reports of DRV attacks on two destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. At first it was hoped that DRV aggression could be halted by selective application of U.S. air power against DRV—the Rolling Thunder campaign—to "signal" U.S. resolve. Instead of being deterred, the DRV intensified the war to the point where by 1965 it appeared that the RVN would not be able to hold without the assistance of U.S. forces. Instead of a massive commitment of U.S. combat power to overwhelm the enemy, American forces were committed piecemeal in what was dubbed the "strategy of slow squeeze." As GEN Maxwell Taylor put it, the U.S. was not trying to defeat DRV, only "to cause them to mend their ways." Initially U.S. ground forces were committed to protect air bases and supply facilities, but when this did not prove sufficient, the forces were committed to direct combat. Their mission was spelled out in the MACV campaign plan, which consisted of three phases: Phase One: Commit those American and allied forces necessary to halt the losing trend by the end of 1965. Phase Two: During the first half of 1966, take the offensive with American and allied forces in high priority areas to destroy enemy forces and reinstitute pacification programs. Phase Three: If the enemy persists, he will be defeated and his forces and base areas destroyed during a period of a year to a year and a half following Phase Two. Phase One was essentially accomplished in November 1965, when the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) routed three NVA regiments that had launched an attack in the Central Highlands in an attempt to cut RVN in two. Their attack should have been a warning that DRV regular forces, not the internal insurgents, were the primary threat to RVN independence. But because of the faulty strategic frame of reference, this fact was not apparent. As U.S. military forces continued to build up in RVN, they were concentrated on counterinsurgency and only an economy of force (i.e., the minimum force necessary) was used to contain NVA infiltration. The American military was not completely happy with this strategy. In 1965 the Joint Chiefs of Staff had proposed isolating the battlefield by a Korean War-style defensive line across the 17th parallel and through Laos to physically bar NVA infiltration, and similar plans were proposed by the field commander, GEN Westmoreland, in 1967 and again in 1968. Evidently because they did not fit the counterinsurgency framework, such strategic alternatives were consigned to limbo, neither approved nor rejected by the Secretary of Defense or the President. With the strategy of counterinsurgency, a whole set of statistical indicators were devised to measure progress. These included evaluations based on complex social science criteria and, perhaps the most damaging of all, statements of progress in terms of “body count.” Although such statistical measurements were in accordance with the economic systems analysis approach to warfare favored by member of the Department of Defense, they ultimately proved counterproductive. Nearly 30 years after the end of U.S. combat involvement, controversy continues over these statistical indicators. Even at the time, the grisly measurement of “success” in terms of people killed inflamed U.S. public opinion and undercut support for the war. These supports was further undercut by the very nature of search and destroy operations, which were perceived by the American public as deliberately laying waste to civilian property and the land. Thus already weakened, American public support was irretrievably undermined by the Tet Offensive of 1968. This massive attack on the major cities of South Vietnam came as a shock both to the American people and to their political leadership. It led to Johnson’s decision not to stand for reelection, and end to the further commitment of U.S. military power, and increasing congressional restrictions on U.S. combat operations. This was particularly ironic, as the Viet Cong cadres were virtually destroyed by the U.S. and ARVN counteroffensive. Tet was, in actuality, the death knell of the guerrilla movement. From 1968 until the final collapse in 1975, the war was waged not by Viet Cong guerrillas but by NVA regular forces. In his account of how the war was eventually won, the NVA field commander, GEN Van Tien Dung, barely mentions the role of guerrilla forces. Although the U.S commitment continued under Richard Nixon for another five years and although it would be seven years until RVN ultimately collapsed, in strategic terms the U.S. lost the war in the spring of 1968. The Tet Offensive was a strategic defeat because it demonstrated conclusively the absence of a coherent U.S. strategy. "No one starts a war," Clausewitz had written 150 years previously, "or rather no one in his senses ought to do so, without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it." Confused by limited war theories and doctrines of counterinsurgency, the United States had overlooked this commonsense advice. In his examination of the cause of the American failure, BG Douglas Kinnard, Chief of the U.S. Army Military History Branch, found that "70 percent of the Army generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives." Kinnard went on to say this "mirrors a deep-seated strategic failure; the inability of policy makers to frame tangible, obtainable goals." Kinnard’s observations were validated by former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, who took office in the wake of the Tet Offensive. When he questioned his senior officials, both military and civilian, Clifford found to his dismay that none of them could tell him what constituted victory. Even more disheartening, he found that the U.S. "had no plan to win the war." Because of the Procrustean logic of counterinsurgency, the U.S. failed to recognize, until it was too late, that they were embarked on a war and not an exercise in social engineering. In retrospect, it is apparent that their defeat was not so much a failure of military strategy as it was a lack of a military strategy worthy of the name. 1 Harry G. Summers Jr. On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. Navato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982, p. 13. 2 Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Tran & ed by Anatol Rapoport. London: Penguin, 1968, p. 104. 3 Ibid. p. 107. 4 Robert S. McNamara with Brian Van De Mark. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1995, p 38. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid. p 57. 7 Bruce Palmer. The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984, p 143. 8 Summers, op cit, p 88. 9 Van Tien Dung. Great Spring Victory. Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1976. 10 Clausewitz, op cit, p 110. 11 Douglas Kinnard. The War Managers. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1977, p 48. 12 Ibid. 13 David Halberstam. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, p 82.