Small Wars Journal

Lessons and Echoes from the War in Vietnam

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 12:41am

Lessons and Echoes from the War in Vietnam

Joseph J. Collins

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic, 18-hour television series on the war in Vietnam left me feeling the same way that the war did: sad, depressed, disillusioned, and ready for it to end.

I wanted the Burns epic to conclude with a discussion of strategic lessons, but alas, Burns and Novick left that to the viewers, bombarding them with different perspectives and personal vignettes. The series tried to spread understanding, but we are all prisoners of our own experiences and worldviews.  It left some of us in the national security community yearning for something more concrete. 

The series also left many conservative veterans of the war less than satisfied. They found Burns and Novick guilty of sins of omission, commission, and liberally- biased interpretation. The cleavages between those who served, and those who did not are still very deep.[1] Even the perspectives of Vietnam veterans and those of us who served in the latter years of the Cold War are likely to be different.

Greg Daddis, a former West Point historian and an advisor to the series, argued against looking for lessons from the series: “Lessons tend to compartmentalize history, hewing off the rough edges of complex human experiences, so that they can be packaged into neatly readable lists. They also reduce, if not disregard, the numerous, interdependent variables so common in war.” [2]  Daddis recommends that rather than lessons, we seek empathy with the many voices and viewpoints in the film. 

While I disagree with Daddis’s major point on lessons, he does remind us that a decade of war which cost 58,000 American and 3 million Vietnamese lives requires more than a list of cookie-cutter lessons or bullet-point platitudes.  “Keep your M-16 out of the dirt” remains good technical advice to this day, but strategic and operational lessons are a higher calling: learning from history. As Kissinger reminded us, this kind of learning is done by analogy. [3] There are no cookie cutter lessons to be had on the strategic level.

At the upper levels of learning, context is king, ambiguity is high priest, and shades of gray, the dominant color scheme.  Over time, diligent students will find lessons that appear to contradict other lessons, even when the situations appear to have much in common. The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik considered the meta-lessons of the two World Wars and came away perplexed:[4]

The last century, through its great cataclysms, offers two clear, ringing, and, unfortunately, contradictory lessons. The First World War teaches that territorial compromise is better than full-scale war, that an “honor-bound” allegiance of the great powers to small nations is a recipe for mass killing, and that it is crazy to let the blind mechanism of armies and alliances trump common sense. The Second teaches that searching for an accommodation with tyranny by selling out small nations only encourages the tyrant, that refusing to fight now leads to a worse fight later on, and that only the steadfast rejection of compromise can prevent the natural tendency to rush to a bad peace with worse men. The First teaches us never to rush into a fight, the Second never to back down from a bully. 

Despite the possibility for confusion noted by Gopnik, the diligent student can still separate the higher lessons of each of these cases. We are not doomed to perpetual confusion. Study can help, and study we must. Although strategic lessons are complex, seemingly contradictory, and context dependent, many of them manage to echo, even with some variation or distortion, across the decades. 

In the National Defense University study on the strategic lessons of U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, my colleagues and I rejected the notion of “lessons learned” in favor of “lessons encountered.” [5] More than a few of the contemporary strategic lessons that we found clearly echo the Vietnam experience, adding impetus to the need to readdress Vietnam’s strategic lessons, even if some of them are worthy of nearly endless debate.

At the risk of lengthy argument, here are a few of the most important higher-level lessons that we encountered in Vietnam.  The lessons here are my own, but many of the “howevers” and “buts” come from more students than I could list who have had to listen to me drone on about Vietnam.

First, as Zbigniew Brzezinski reminded us, “power tempts--- not only serves --- policy.” [6] In its grandest form, this lesson encompasses optimism, strategic context, and national mood.  As America marched into Vietnam, we were in the full flower of our economic and military greatness.  We suffered from the hubris that many great powers have at their zenith.  In the early 1960s, the United States, whose economy was humming, was characterized as having a mood of “palmy optimism” --- a pay any price, bear any burden, go to the moon in 10 years, defeat racial discrimination, and build a Great Society --- kind of optimism that blocked an appreciation of our limitations. [7]

 To top it all off, we were locked in a global struggle against two communist behemoths, both of whom were helping North Vietnam.  What we didn’t realize was that communist-backed wars of national liberation also had their own particular nationalist component.  In Vietnam, we too often tried to see the war as a red-blue, proxy conflict, not a thing unto itself.

On a similar and more banal level, the temptation to replicate policy success can become the cause of failure.  Taken out of context, a lesson from one case can implode in another.  Graduated escalation worked in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it was a poor guideline for fighting a hot war.  “Nothing fails like success” is not an argument against success, but it is a warning that successful approaches are context dependent. 

A second lesson, and one easier said than done, is to balance ends, ways, and means, the central elements of strategy.  The costs in blood and treasure of our commitment in Vietnam outweighed the value of Vietnam to our interests.  As George Kennan convincingly argued, Vietnam was never a vital interest,[8]  but we made it into one and overinvested in a secondary theater, but not well enough to create convincing results.  Our failure severely damaged our nation’s soul, our economy, and the global balance of power. The names on the wall at the Vietnam Memorial speak to incredible sacrifice for such limited gains. There is no wall big enough for the Vietnamese names.

Clausewitz told us nearly two centuries ago that, when the outlay of resources outstrips the value of the object, then you need to change your plan or sue for peace. [9] But it is never that easy. At the national level, honor, prestige, the fear of damage to reputation, and even elections, one or all, can keep nations from balancing ends, ways, and means.

Closely connected to the prestige trap is the sunk cost problem.  Businesses with clear profit-loss metrics often can’t find the best way to cut losses. Nations at war are even less successful. It is infinitely more difficult for a proud nation to change course, cut-and-run, or even just walk away when the blood of its citizens has been shed.  Those who sacrifice the most, our men and women in uniform, are often among those loudly urging their civilian masters to continue to fight beyond reasonable calculation, lest the death of their comrades be seen to be in vain.

Prolonged battle without results has profound effect on armies in the field.  In a draft Army, the problems and bad habits of civilian life --- drugs and racial strife, for example --- easily enter a dispirited Army, where they become particularly poisonous. The Army that entered Vietnam in 1965 was a fine force, but it was consumed by the war and a personnel system that, in General Creighton Abrams’s phrase, created an Army of privates and second lieutenants. It took more than a decade for the U.S. Army to regain its readiness and vitality after its near disintegration in Vietnam.

A call to balance ends, ways, and means provides no simple path, no easy resolution for those riding the tiger of prolonged conflict. The popular notion of “exit strategies” has more often than not emphasized exit over strategy.  Our public exit strategies --- often a sop to domestic politics --- encourage adversaries and demoralize allies. Time-limited, schedule-driven commitments --- like President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan --- may be the worst of all types of exit strategies. 

In the end, it may be enough to be aware of the difficulty of balancing ends, ways, and means. It is also noteworthy that some leaders, aware of the prestige and sunk cost issues, do manage to overcome them. President Kennedy cut U.S. losses in Laos and at the Bay of Pigs, suffering short term criticism in the latter case in order to avoid a prolongation of an embarrassing defeat.

Where possible, the lesson should be to avoid large-scale commitments, except where vital interests are involved.  This also is not an easy prescription for a great power.  It is also difficult to predict futures and the course of conflicts.  What were meant to be short conventional wars --- like the invasion of Iraq --- can become prolonged occupations and complex insurgencies. An adaptive enemy will try to draw us down into the swamp. In any case, a great power has significant latitude on the eve of a commitment and much less the day after, and even less, the day after that.  That lesson from the war in Vietnam has echoed throughout our time in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A third lesson is the need for constitutional checks and balances.  Too often, as in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution or the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, the Congress issues a blanket authorization and then backs away, playing the role of funder and occasional critic, enabling Presidents to wield a free hand, often running up huge debts in the process. 

Sadly, in the case of Vietnam, when the Congress did exert itself after Watergate, it crippled the President’s ability to work with our allies to help them defend South Vietnam against the onslaught of a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) grown fat on Russian and Chinese military assistance.[10] In the end, the men in black pajamas and homemade sandals did not conquer South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese Army did, riding in Russian armored vehicles, following, not Mao’s little red book on people’s war, but the contemporary Soviet doctrine for a theater strategic offensive. [11] Our former allies in South Vietnam subsequently suffered terribly under the rule of the North.  The U.S. reputation of power also suffered for generations from this strategic defeat. 

In any case, Congress and the President need to work together to make good policy for getting into war, conducting it, and getting out of the war.  A big war is a national undertaking and responsible congressional oversight is needed, in 2018 as much as it was needed in 1965.  Sadly, I am not sure that we have had this effective and agile executive and legislative relationship in any of our wars since 1945. Legislative leadership on matters of war and peace is rare and may be approaching extinction. [12]

Fourth, Vietnam reminds us of our cultural blindness.  In the words of Harvard’s Stanley Hoffmann at a seminar I attended in 1989, a key lesson of Vietnam was “the neglect of local circumstances.”  We understood neither our friends nor our enemies there. If we could have understood the depth of their nationalism and historical experience, we might have been able to understand the North Vietnamese as something beyond Southeast Asian communists.

Sadly, U.S. neglect of local circumstances echoes in Iraq, where we chose to intervene, and Afghanistan, where we felt we had to intervene to deal with the people who perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Wars today tend to be irregular wars, “wars among the people” to use Rupert Smith’s apt expression.[13] Knowing your enemy and your partners are as essential for us as they were for statesman in the time of Sun Tzu.

Cultural ignorance and lack of knowledge of foreign countries is not just a military failing. Our civilian leaders were similarly ignorant of the history and culture of Vietnam (and Iraq, and Afghanistan). Today, Americans are prisoners of an education system that fails to do an adequate job of teaching foreign languages, history, international relations, and even civics. These are the real sources of our lack of empathy.  Unfortunately, as the need for international understanding and globalization become increasingly dominant, the American people are becoming more inward looking.[14]

Fifth, the Vietnam experience has numerous lessons for the United States concerning irregular warfare. We have to see insurgency clearly.  Strong, stable allies don’t have insurgencies. Helping a partner fight an insurgency means that we will be fighting alongside weak allies.  The interests of indigenous elites will often not be the same as our own. Our efforts to help them create meaningful reforms are likely to fail.[15] Under the best of circumstances, it will take a long time to make progress.  And that progress, in the oft-repeated phrase of General David Petraeus, will nearly always be “fragile and reversible.”

Americans don’t do well with protracted conflict for less than vital interests, and knowing yourself is as important as knowing your enemy. The draft Army at war in Vietnam captured the nation’s attention and magnified impatience for results and sensitivity to casualties.  When the active force required augmentation by the National Guard and Reserve, as it did in the Korean War and the war in Iraq, it also added to the pressure exerted by the war on the national psyche.

In a prolonged conflict, the people will become engaged to the degree that they have “skin in the game.” As noted above, maximum freedom of choice comes before major commitments.  The centripetal force of prolonged conflicts makes it difficult to let go or even to change course. Prolonged conflicts tend to become more prolonged conflicts, and the nation’s will weakens with increasing casualties and illusive results.

In our research for Lessons Encountered:  Learning from the Long War, the consensus of our authors was clear on one point:  a great power should avoid becoming a third party in another nation’s large-scale insurgency.  We should have learned that from Vietnam. Great powers rarely succeed in such cases, unless they can act as the de facto government, or with great freedom of action, and, at the same time, the insurgents lack significant outside support.

If a great power has a clear choice, it should avoid becoming involved in a large scale insurgency. Of course, the infamous fog of war rarely provides a clear choice.  For example, in Vietnam, the military situation deteriorated rapidly after the assassination of Diem. The choice appeared to be to send in U.S. troops or accept rapid defeat.  In Iraq, the insurgency followed a successful conventional attack.  U.S. forces there, trained for the conventional fight, had to become counterinsurgents in short order.

Counterinsurgency (COIN) is difficult and requires special training. It is not a hearts and minds contest, but a tough fight that requires different tactics, interagency participation, and more emphasis on stability operations.  It is not the case --- as Army General George Decker told President Kennedy --- that “any good soldier can handle guerrillas.”[16]  Competent soldiers need the right training and mindset.

A nation that repeatedly faces irregular warfare must have dedicated forces to deal with it.  Our magnificent special operations forces are only a start.  There will usually need to be regular forces in the mix who know what they are doing.  As we tried early on in Vietnam, working “by, with, and through” indigenous forces is clearly the way to go, if it is possible.  In Vietnam, it was not.  Recent successful campaigns in Iraq and Syria should be mined for lessons in that regard.

Finally, Vietnam taught us a great lesson about honesty, not just from an ethical standpoint, but also from the perspective of bureaucratic and policy effectiveness. While lying and politics are often synonymous, President Johnson and Secretary McNamara were prodigious, creative liars, who seemed at times to be lying to everyone about everything. The Joint Chiefs did their share of lying and worse, often played the role of “five silent men,” leading one soldier-scholar to accuse them of “dereliction of duty,” a criminal offense under military law.[17]  

In the field, bad metrics made the body count the measure of effectiveness.  Pressure for progress led to systemic lying.  Commanders lied to their commanders who lied to their higher level commanders. At the theater level, the daily briefing became known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.”

One hopes that our forces are better than this today, but in today’s irregular wars, the demand for data at higher echelons often leads to “pencil whipping” the inputs, if my contemporary interlocutors are representative of recent trends. The dishonesty of Vietnam is not repeating itself in today’s conflicts, but the faint echoes are unmistakable.

More pervasive than outright lying is the unfortunate habit in the Armed Forces of boundless optimism, where things must always be much better at the end of the commander’s tour than they are at the beginning. No one gets promoted by reporting the situation deteriorated during his or her command. One gets the impression that the “light at the end of the tunnel” has often been visible in different eras and on many continents.

There are many other important subjects for lessons from the war in Vietnam.  The problems of complex chains of command, one-year combat tours, the advantages and disadvantages of unit or individual replacement, the use (and misuse) of reserve component personnel, the failure to mobilize, the breakdown of discipline, the use of airpower, the profligate use of artillery, wartime deficit spending, all deserve their own essay.

In conclusion, in our effort to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan, we continuously ran into issues where lessons encountered in Vietnam were ignored, or inadequately learned, or not passed on to subsequent cohorts.  If we had done a better job at it, we surely would have avoided many mistakes in the current long war.  The solution is not to shun learning.  It is to work harder at learning them and make sure that they are integrated into civil and joint military education. 

Joseph J. Collins is a retired Army Colonel, but not a Vietnam veteran.  A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, he directs the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. The Center is focused on learning from irregular warfare, stability operations, and interagency operations.

End Notes

[1] For a critique of the notion of a single Vietnam generation, see the short essay by Marine combat veteran, Dr. Mackubin Owens, “Ken Burns Slanted View of Vietnam,” Providence Journal, October 17, 2017, at .

[2] Greg Daddis, “What Not to Learn from Vietnam,” New York Times, September 29, 2017,   .

[3] Henry A Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1994), 27.

[4] Adam Gopnik, “The Big One: Historians rethink the war to end all war,” New Yorker,  August 23, 2004,  at

[5] Richard Hooker and Joseph Collins, eds., Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War (Washington DC:  National Defense University Press, 2015).

[6] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Peace and Power,” Encounter, November 1968, 386.

[7] Laurence Stern, “America in Anguish, 1965-73,” Washington Post, January 28, 1973, reproduced in Allan R. Millett, ed., A Short History of the Vietnam War (Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press, 1978), 5.

[8] George Kennan in congressional hearings, 1966, as cited in Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York:  Macmillan, 1973), 158-59.

[9] Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 80-81, 87, 91-92.

[10] John Prados, Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009) 488-540. Prados puts the blame on the South Vietnamese for corruption, squandering their resources, and not becoming self-reliant.  Others emphasize that in the end, South Vietnam’s 800,000 man Army was starved for artillery ammunition and available air support due to U.S. congressional cutbacks and force limitations. The U.S. also did not punish ceasefire violations. At the root of these U.S. failures were the weakness of the Presidency in final years of the Nixon administration.  For a popular but controversial analysis of what was and might have been, Lewis Sorely, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam, (New York: Harcourt, 1999), 357-85.

[11] For a short precis of the North Vietnamese approach in 1975, see Vo Nguyen Giap (and Van Tien Dung), How We Won the War (Philadelphia, PA:  Recon Publications, 1990), 40-54.  This short book was based on an article by the Vietnamese generals originally written in July 1975.  It is very much a story of a successful, contemporary conventional operation.

[12] Nearly alone in the U.S. Senate, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine has led the fight to improve Congressional action on war powers issues.  His repetitive efforts to revise the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force have received little support from either the Obama or Trump administrations, and gained little traction among his colleagues.  Exploiting the loose wording in the original Authorization, both Administrations have conducted operations in many countries where the threat was not clearly covered by the authorization. In the latest example, the Trump Administration punitive strike on Syria was not approved by Congress, nor was it in any way authorized by the AUMF, or the UN Security Council.  See Charlie Savage, “Was Trump’s Strike Illegal,?” New York Times, April 7, 2017, The Congressional power to authorize military force and subsequent oversight of military operation is arguably weaker than it has been in many decades.

[13] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force:  the Art of War in the Modern World (New York:  Knopf, 2007), 19-21.

[14] For an example of America’s inward looking trends that pre-date President Trump, see  Pew Research Center and Council on Foreign Relations, America’s Place in the World, 2013 (Washington, DC:  Pew and the Council on Foreign Relations, December 2013).

[15]Jacqueline Hazelton, “The “Hearts and Minds” Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare,” International Security, vol. 42, no. 1 (Summer 2017), 80-113.  This article attacks the hearts and minds approach to counterinsurgency and points out that the entrenched elites often reject our policy advice because it works against their interests.  Successful counterinsurgents are often violent combatants with the local people as both prize and victim.

[16] Andrew Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 37.

[17] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty:  Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York:  Harper Collins, 1977), 300-34.  In Errol Morris’s film, The Fog of War, McNamara, well into his 70s, still spoke as if lying and misleading the press was amusing and something to smile about.


About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.


Bill C.

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 1:38pm

In reply to by Don Bacon

Or, should we see McMaster (et al.?) -- and "what he (/they) know" -- more in these terms:


The answer can be stated in two words: Ronald Reagan. It is now clear that it was not Eisenhower or Kennedy or Nixon but Reagan whose policies most resembled those of Acheson and Truman. Reagan, too, saw the world as engaged in a decisive ideological struggle. Reagan, too, drove both liberals and realists to distraction by openly declaring the Soviet Union an "evil empire."

Like Acheson, Reagan believed it a mistake to negotiate with Moscow until the United States had created situations of strength around the globe. And like Acheson, Reagan believed America's most important Cold War task was rebuilding its military strength. He even agreed with Acheson on the importance of a missile-defense system. Reagan, more than any other president, carried the prescriptions of NSC 68 and the Truman Doctrine to their conclusion.

This is more than Chace can bear to admit, and it is something that most realists today would like to ignore. To acknowledge that both Acheson and Reagan were right, and that the realists of their day were wrong, is to make a concession fraught with implications for the present era of American foreign policy. If realism did not win the Cold War, as it clearly did not, then why should we look to realism for guidance in the post-Cold War world, when the liberal order Acheson worked so hard to establish is once again under siege?

The better policy seems to lie in following the course set out by Acheson fifty years ago -- for although international circumstances have changed again -- the need to conduct a foreign policy that blends strength and moral purpose has never changed.


Thus, to see:

a. "Shows of force and threats of force;" these,

b. More in the "create situations of strength" (both moral and military?) terms noted above? (This, rather than in terms of a limited education and/or repertoire?)

Don Bacon

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 9:11am

McMaster's main point in Dereliction of Duty was that an overwhelming force of 500,000 troops would have "won" the Vietnam War, which is why he is emphasizing shows of force and threats of force against North Korea. That's all he knows, a typical narrow-minded military approach from a man with limited education and abilities.
McMaster is a product of the military system, a graduate of the military academy and he also has two degrees (MA and PhD) in American history. Wow.