Triumph Regained: The Vietnam War, 1965-1968
By Mark Moyar
(Encounter Books, 732 pages, $50)
Scholars and writers who challenge conventional accounts of history are often courageous and invaluable seekers of truth. They don’t always find the whole truth, but their work often gets us closer to what really happened. One such scholar is Mark Moyar, whose second volume of a projected three-volume study of the Vietnam War has just been published by Encounter Books. Titled Triumph Regained: The Vietnam War, 1965-1968, the book effectively trashes what Moyar calls the “orthodox” view of the war — the view of most American history books and the famous and widely watched PBS documentaries of Stanley Karnow and Ken Burns.
Moyar’s most important conclusion after reviewing U.S., South Vietnamese, and especially North Vietnamese sources is that the United States and its allies were on the verge of winning the war in 1968, after the North Vietnamese Army suffered devastating defeats in the Tet Offensive and two subsequent offensives, but self-imposed political restrictions on bombing, troop levels, interdicting the Ho Chi Minh trail, and attacking communist sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and North Vietnam, as well as elite media misinformation snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. (READ MORE: The Lingering Fog of War and Lessons From Vietnam)
So, who lost Vietnam? First and foremost, it was not the American military. Moyar details the battles fought during 1965–1968 — battles that the courageous and skilled U.S. armed forces won, inflicting far more casualties on the enemy than they suffered. And these battlefield victories were achieved despite restrictions that prohibited our troops from attacking the North Vietnamese Army in its protected sanctuaries. “American search and destroy operations,” Moyar writes, “inflicted massive losses on the North Vietnamese during the period from August 1965 to December 1968.” But when U.S. commanding Gen. William Westmoreland and other military leaders publicly said this, the elite media accused them of lying to their civilian superiors and the American people.
Part of the blame goes to the anti-war movement in the United States — not so much the young anti-war students at elite and other universities (though they certainly don’t deserve to be celebrated and did not live up to the courage and fortitude of their working-class counterparts who served honorably in Vietnam), but their adult leftist professors, the radical organizers who, as David Horowitz noted, expressed their alienation from America by supporting our enemies in Southeast Asia as well as the Hollywood celebrities who used their fame to accuse “Amerika” of war crimes. But their actions would have amounted to little if the elite media had not magnified their voices tenfold, making it appear that a majority of the American people opposed U.S. efforts to defend the independence of South Vietnam. Moyar quotes polling data, however, that shows the majority of Americans continued to support the war even in the face of media distortions and misinformation.
But the real answer to the question of who lost Vietnam is the Democrat administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In his earlier book titled Triumph Forsaken, Moyar rightly criticized Kennedy for America’s complicity in the coup that removed Ngo Dinh Diem from power in 1963 and for agreeing to the neutralization of Laos. In his new book, Moyar trains his scholarly eye on infighting in the Johnson administration between Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his Pentagon “whiz kids” — the so-called “best and brightest” — and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. field commanders in Vietnam. Moyar describes what he characterizes as a “remarkable encounter” between President Johnson, McNamara, and the chiefs at the end of 1965. Moyar writes:
Standing before the map, the generals laid out their case for stronger military actions against North Vietnam. If taken promptly, the Chiefs told the president, these measures would compel North Vietnam to halt or drastically curtail its military activities in South Vietnam, and they would not provoke a major Chinese military response. If the United States did not take these measures, it would become mired in a protracted war without the possibility of decisive victory.
The chiefs wanted more troops, the freedom to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail, the ability to attack the North Vietnam Army in its sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia, the DMZ, and North Vietnam, and the expansion of the bombing campaign to include Hanoi, Haiphong Harbor, and other targets in North Vietnam.
Johnson’s reaction, according to a military aide who was present, was to scream obscenities at the chiefs, cursing them and ridiculing them for their military advice. The president called the chiefs “sh**heads,” “dumb sh**s,” and “pompous assholes.” Johnson accused them of trying to start World War III. Johnson and McNamara ruled out attacking North Vietnamese Army sanctuaries and forbade the chiefs from revealing to the press and the American public that the enemy was operating in Laos and Cambodia. And beginning in 1966, Johnson ordered periodic “bombing pauses” in a futile effort to bring the North Vietnamese leaders to the negotiating table.
These bombing pauses continued right up to the 1968 presidential election — when domestic politics further inhibited the American war effort. The “orthodox” history of this episode accuses the Nixon campaign of pulling an October surprise to defeat the surging campaign of Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Johnson in March 1968 announced he would not run for reelection). When aides brought this accusation to Johnson, he authorized illegal wiretaps on Nixon campaign operatives.
Meanwhile, the real October surprise was sprung by Johnson and the Democrats who conveniently ordered a bombing pause and attempted to pressure South Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu to publicly agree to talks with the North Vietnamese leaders. Thieu refused. Johnson’s defense secretary and Democratic political “fixer” Clark Clifford persuaded Johnson to go ahead with the bombing pause anyway, which Johnson did in announcing the start of “peace” negotiations. The president announced that air, artillery, and naval bombardment of North Vietnam would stop on November 1 and “peace” talks would begin on November 6. Johnson omitted any mention of Thieu’s opposition and refusal to participate in the talks. Johnson and Clifford did their part to help the Humphrey campaign — and it almost worked. Humphrey lost the popular vote to Nixon by a very slim margin, though Nixon’s electoral vote margin was more comfortable. President Thieu later compared Johnson’s actions to the U.S. abandonment of Chiang Kai-shek during China’s civil war.
Thanks to the American military forces in Vietnam, Nixon entered office with an opportunity to undo the Johnson administration’s restrictions and possibly win the war. But that was not how the media portrayed the situation. Moyar notes that the elite media characterized the Tet Offensive as a U.S. defeat, when in fact it was a devastating North Vietnamese defeat. Two subsequent North Vietnamese offensives were also repulsed by American forces, further sapping the strength of the North Vietnamese Army. Moyar cites North Vietnamese sources who worried that the war had shifted in America’s favor. Moyar agrees. “At the end of that period,” he concludes, “the North Vietnamese Army lay in tatters, and its Southern proxies had all but vanished, leaving Hanoi little choice but to abandon conventional campaigns and revert to guerrilla warfare.”
But by then, North Vietnam had made too many elite inroads in America. Liberal and leftist elites — some of whom, like Robert Kennedy and Robert McNamara, had helped engineer our massive involvement in the war — had turned against it. So had the elite media. They would all go on to condemn “Nixon’s war.” And while the war was ultimately lost during the presidency of Gerald Ford, when a Democrat-controlled Congress cut off all aid to the South, it was the Johnson administration that squandered the opportunity to win the war. It was the Johnson administration that lost Vietnam.
Why Nixon Will Never Get His Rightful Place in History
Afghanistan: Our Second Vietnam
Vietnam: The War America Lost? I Don’t Think So.
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