Small Wars Journal

Why Military Advising Was So Successful in Vietnam…

Sun, 06/28/2015 - 3:58pm

Why Military Advising Was So Successful in Vietnam…for the Chinese: And What the US Can Learn From It

Peter Murphy

In post-World War II Vietnam, the fact that the Vietnamese Communists consistently demonstrated more motivation to fight and maintained greater popular support than their adversaries leads many to conclude that the communist victory was inevitable and no military action would change what was ultimately a political situation favorable to the communists. It is true that the Vietnamese Communists did enjoy these advantages over the French and later the South Vietnamese government and its poorly motivated military forces. But military action was necessary for the Vietnamese Communists to force out the French and later to force out the South Vietnamese government. No popular uprising was sufficient to create the unified Vietnamese state under communist control without the military victory.

The Vietnamese Communist government and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) received some material assistance from the Soviet Union, but were primarily advised and assisted by People’s Republic of China (PRC) throughout most of the Indochina Wars. Those Vietnamese troops decisively defeated the French, survived a war of attrition against the US, and completely overran the South Vietnamese forces that had received decades of French and US assistance. It seems the Chinese must have done something right in their military assistance effort.  There are undoubtedly many contributing factors that led to the success of the Chinese assistance effort in Vietnam.  The three most significant of those factors will be examined to see how they facilitated such a success, and why it seems the US continues to have difficulty finding similar success.

The Historical Relationship Between Advisors and the Advised

The first key factor contributing to China’s successful assistance to the Vietnamese Communists was the dynamic of the relationship between the two countries. The Vietnamese Communists and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shared a common brotherhood from their leaders’ mutual involvement in the communist movements of the early twentieth century. Additionally, both countries had recently emerged from struggles against the Japanese and had both been the victims of western imperialism. But perhaps even more important, the two countries shared a much longer historical relationship. The Chinese empires had always exerted a significant cultural and philosophical influence on Vietnam, a country on the periphery of the old Chinese tributary system. But Vietnam also had its own unique heritage and with it a history of resisting Chinese interference in Vietnamese affairs[I].

This created a situation where some cultural similarities mixed with the shared communist ideology and resistance to colonialism would facilitate a mutual understanding and a good working relationship.  Yet this was balanced by a history of Vietnamese independence and mistrust toward their larger neighbor. This second element of the relationship is important because though Vietnam and China quickly established an effective cooperative relationship, this sense of Vietnamese independence helped Vietnamese Communist leadership resist attempts by the Chinese to play too active a decision making role in what was after all a Vietnamese struggle.

In contrast, the US advisors shared no historical background with their South Vietnamese counterparts, and there was a complete lack of cultural understanding between the two. American advisors were confident in their experience from World War II and the Korean War, and any reluctance by their Vietnamese counterparts to do exactly as the Americans would do was often perceived as laziness or incompetence[II]. The foundational relationship for a successful military assistance partnership was simply not strong as it was for the Chinese and the Vietnamese Communists.

The Assistance and Mentorship Was Appropriate

The second key factor in China’s military assistance success was the nature of the support given.  They say that generals go to war attempting to fight their last war. Likewise, advisors enter into their missions attempting to advise the supported military based on how the advisors fought their last war. But in this case it just so happens that the doctrine of China’s People’s War along with the lessons learned fighting the US in Korea were strategically and tactically an effective fit for the Vietnamese struggle against the French, the US, and western supported Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces.

Additionally, the type of materiel supplied by China was a good fit for the situation. China, and to a growing extent later the Soviet Union, supplied all of Vietnam’s sophisticated equipment including vehicles, artillery, and aircraft. Both countries also provided anti-aircraft forces to defend North Vietnam.  Yet despite the weaponry provided by China and The Soviet Union, the PAVN remained and infantry-centric army, and the vast majority of weaponry provided was small arms[III]. The limited amounts of aircraft, tanks, and artillery served to support the capabilities of a jungle fighting infantry force that was not afraid of taking heavy casualties[IV]. This is what the PAVN were already accustomed to.

The PAVN, were effective with their small arms equipped large formation infantry attacks, coordinated with the southern Viet-Cong insurgency, and Chinese advisors and arms enhanced this capability. They were then able to augment that capability by incorporating some modern weapons into their forces with some effective tactical and strategic benefits[V]. But the Chinese advisors did not break down what the Vietnamese were already good at and then attempt to rebuild them into an industrialized force with no industrial foundation. Nor could they had they tried, as the PRC itself was only a partially industrialized nation. The PAVN would go on to win with mostly infantry forces, finally rolling their tanks triumphantly into a Saigon city that had already been defeated by infantry and insurgency.

This is in stark contrast to the ARVN forces who, as US support decreased later in the war, complained that their way of fighting had become dependent on massive amounts of supply and ammunition and significant air support[VI]. They had become accustomed to fighting a materiel and ordnance heavy fight like their US advisors, which was not at all suited to the nature of counterinsurgency warfare fought among the civilian population. Nor were such methods of fighting suited to the ARVN forces capacity to sustain it.

Advising and Assisting Without Creating Dependency

These first two factors facilitated the third and possibly most significant factor contributing to China’s successful assistance mission; advising and assisting a weaker less experienced military without creating a dependency. If one were to ask Ho Chi Minh or Vo Nguyen Giap during the 1950s or 60s how desperately they needed Chinese support, they undoubtedly would have answered “very desperately.” This was especially true during the war against the French where the Chinese played a more significant leadership role for the fledgling PAVN forces. Mao’s CCP and PLA provided this support both inspirationally through example and communist teachings, and militarily with equipment and advising. But if given less or no support at all, the Vietnamese Communist struggle would not have ended; rather they would have simply taken on a more protracted approach, digging in for the long war.  The burden of this struggle was on the Vietnamese Communists and PAVN forces. They had the will to endure this struggle and the Chinese support under Mao’s guidance managed to assist this Vietnamese struggle while deliberate taking measures to avoid shifting the burden of that struggle to the Chinese. This empowered the Vietnamese ownership and built their confidence.

As the Vietnamese gained more experience and confidence, their willingness to reject Chinese advice also became emboldened. China was against the Vietnamese decision to launch large conventional attacks and against negotiating with the Americans in the late 60s and early 70s. Though Mao’s model was an effective foundation for the Vietnamese struggle, it needed to be adapted to the situation, not blindly followed dogmatically. Additionally, as it became clear that China’s priority was what was best for China and not what was best for Vietnam, confident Vietnamese leadership was needed to see the war through to completion and negotiate with the Americans unrestricted.

This relationship where the weaker military was able to receive guidance and assistance yet keep their feeling of ownership was possible because despite China’s advising or even the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) direct participation in the air defense of North Vietnam, Chinese forces never took on an active ground fighting role in the wars[VII]. To be clear, China’s assistance was critical. As Seals[VIII] points out, China provided professional advice, weapons, logistics, and a strategic deterrence against a US invasion of the North Vietnam. But the fighting was always left to the PAVN and thus China never took the feeling of ownership of away from the Vietnamese.

This is again in contrast to the American advisory mission in the south, demonstrated most clearly by the “Vietnamization” effort late in the war under President Nixon, which attempted to transition the ownership of the fight from the US back to the South Vietnamese. For the Communists there was no need for “Vietnamization”. It was always their war, not China’s. In the end, China’s advise and assist effort may have been too successful, as the Vietnamese Communists and the PAVN grew confident and strong enough to become a strategic threat to China by the late 1970s.

Conclusions and Lessons for the US

To summarize, China was successful in assisting the Vietnamese because of their existing relationship with the Vietnamese Communists, because the Chinese provided assistance and advice that was appropriate to the PAVN situation, and because the Chinese did not take the ownership of the fight away from the Vietnamese. The conclusion here is not that the Chinese were geniuses in their ability to analyze and match their advisory and assistance strategy perfectly to the Vietnamese situation, though they did demonstrate some skill. But moreover the success of their advisory effort seems to be the result of a natural fit between the Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds and situations, and the nature of how the CCP and PLA fresh off of their civil war and battles in Korea were inclined to try to apply those lessons learned to the next war. Those methods worked in Vietnam, especially early on.  Additionally, the Vietnamese Communists were motivated for their cause and while China assisted their struggle, ownership remained with the Vietnamese who were able when necessary to reject China and press on to their final victory.     

The difficult take away here is how can the US make use of these lessons.  China’s success as advisors was heavily dependent on that particular situation. Much of the methodology could not be boiled down to a checklist and applied to another situation. If Mao and his 1950s era PLA attempted to take on the role of advisors to the struggling 21st century Iraqi military, for example, they might find themselves culturally, institutionally, and doctrinally mismatched for the role. That is the position the US repeatedly finds itself in while attempting to advise and assist allied militaries with which they have no shared history, philosophy, or cultural identity. To make matters worse the way the US is inclined to fight, and thus the way it is inclined to advise, its definition of “what right looks like,” is usually a poor match for the culture of the advised military and their industrial and institutional foundation. It is a poor match for the reality of their situation, as it was in Vietnam.

Acceptance of this fact then is the lesson, and the US needs to have realistic expectations. The exact factors will vary by situation but the US needs to recognize in each situation what can make a successful military assistance effort. If the US takes on a military assistance mission to a country whose culture, disposition, and capacity make it likely to absorb, make use of, and sustain US methods, they can expect some success. When circumstances are not so favorable, US forces will need to adjust their culture and doctrine and even the material assistance to try to assist in a way that fits the host forces situation. Unfortunately, this is something the US seems incapable of doing, at least on any large scale. 

The Chinese may have simply been lucky to support a motivated and culturally compatible Vietnamese military. Given less favorable circumstances the task would no doubt have been exponentially more difficult.  Could Mao’s PLA have advised the Vietnamese, if necessary, in a strategy other than People’s War? Could it have successfully advised a military with which it shared no culture or history if the situation required it? Could Chinese encouragement have provided the necessary enthusiasm for the cause if the Vietnamese Communists were reluctant? One can only speculate. More importantly, can the US advise any of its allies in anything other than its own methods and doctrine if the situation requires something different? Can it tailor advising and assistance to a military that culturally is a poor fit for US institutions? Can the US encourage host nation ownership? Judging from the current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the answer unfortunately seems to be no.

End Notes

[I] Zhai, Qiang. (1993 ). Transplanting the Chinese Model: Chinese Military Advisers and the First Vietnam War, 1950-1954. The Journal of Military History. 57: 689-715.

[II] Hickey, G. C. (1965). The American Military Advisor and his Counterpart: The Case of Vietnam. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

[III] Zhai, Qiang. (2000). China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. See Table 1

[IV] Dukier describes how late in the war North Vietnam was still plagued by logistical problems and lack of experience effectively utilizing tanks and artillery. Additionally Vietnam failed to secure what it considered “substantial” Soviet and Chinese assistance to help launch their final campaigns.

Additionally, Boniface and Toperczer both recorded firsthand accounts from North Vietnamese MiG pilots who describe how North Vietnamese airpower was limited based on the small numbers of available aircraft and pilots. Knowing they could not gain air superiority over the Americans nor defeat their bombing campaigns, the Vietnamese used guerilla-type tactics in the air to minimize their losses while attacking American aircraft when they were most vulnerable. This fit within the overall Vietnamese Communist strategy of making the war costly for the Americans in order to eventually persuade them to withdraw.

All of this is meant to reinforce the point that the Vietnamese Communist forces could make some use of modern military equipment when available, but that that the limited quantity and their limited capacity to sustain and incorporate modern equipment to its full potential kept infantry as the centerpiece of their military strategy.

Boniface, Roger (2010). MIGs over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat 1965-75. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Dukier, William J. (1981).  The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Toperczer, István. (1998). Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. Carrollton TX: Squadron/Signal Publications.

[V] The effectiveness of Russian and Chinese supplied artillery under Chinese guidance at the battle of Dien Bien Phu is a well-known example of the when modern weapons made a tactical impact for the Vietnamese Communists that led to a strategic victory. 

[VI] Dukier, William J. (1981).  The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

[VII] Xiaobing Li describes at its peak 170,000 Chinese troops, mostly anti-aircraft forces, were present in North Vietnam. While this helped defend North Vietnam and thus free up more Vietnamese troops to invade south, there is no indication that Chinese troops participated south of the border.

Li, Xiaobing. (2007) A History of the Modern Chinese Army. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

[VIII] Seals, Robert. (2008) Chinese Support for North Vietnam during the Vietnam War: The Decisive Edge.


About the Author(s)

Peter Murphy is a former US Army Civil Affairs Officer and currently works for the Air Force managing international security assistance training programs. He has a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Michigan and a Master’s degree in International Relations from Bond University in Australia.



Wed, 07/27/2022 - 1:15pm

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It is rather interesting, perhaps from a psychological perspective that Americans continue re-fighting / debating about the conduct and results of the Vietnam Conflict, and probably will until the last Vietnam era Veteran passes on.

So, to add to that debate: Re: The below noted statement that: "The SVN Army fell apart in 1975 not because of poor fighting qualities, BUT because we the US via our Congress cut off all military aid and monies” has some merit to it, perhaps it also includes the statement that the U.S. ceased providing massive air support to the ARVN in 1975 as they did during the previous NVA offensive. Also, those I know who participated as ARVN Officers in that defeat would also agree that it was not their fighting quality that brought about that defeat, but instead was the incredibly incompetent and disastrous decisions made by the Generals that brought about that result

Two of the mid-level ARVN Officers that I know / knew well -- a former Captain and a Major, and both with over 14 years in the ARVN, repeatedly referred to their Senior Officers as incompetent and corrupt. They, like the young ones from the VNAF I met much earlier, never had a good word to say about their leadership, political or military (presuming there was a difference). They are both Catholic and hold French citizenship -- the reason they stayed until the end, and then left. Both were very well educated.

One of them wrote a paper, never published, about their 1975 defeat, which I read. He blames their defeat (not on reduced American aid), but on the operationally disastrous decisions made by their Generals, and holds them 100% responsible for the ARVN’s rout -- and does so in some detail.

I have known other former ARVN officers, less well, and one thing they all have in common is their expressed total disrespect for their General officers, whom they all referred to (in different terms obviously) as corrupt and incompetent, other than the VNAF officers who seemed to respect General Ky for his military, not his political, abilities.

The above noted Major is deceased, but the former Captain eventually retired to Southern France -- lucky fellow. I communicate with him periodical. He and his family have since had all their property restored them in South Vietnam. He now spends half the year in France and half the year in Saigon. He is rather pleased about events today in Vietnam, and gets a retirement from the French plus free health care.

Like he noted, sometimes it pays to lose. We Americans are the only ones I know who are still trying to explain away disappointing results in Vietnam. Perhaps we should stay out of other people’s Civil Wars, and better yet not create that Civil War by having our Secretary of State (Dulles) sabotage / prevent their holding an agreed to election to determine if they wanted to unify with the North.

We (collectively) also might remember that General Ridgeway, when CoS Army (uninvited) informed Eisenhower in writing that we should not get militarily involved in Indochina against a Nationalistic movement. Fortunately Eisenhower listened. Also, recall that General Decker as CoS Army (along with CNO Admiral Burke)told Kennedy we could not prevail in Vietnam, so Kennedy did not reappoint Decker and Burke was retiring. Instead Kennedy and LBJ went with Taylor and Westmoreland, who went along with (to say the least) our military campaigning in Vietnam. CNO MacDonald(?) and CoS Air Force Lemay told LBJ his planned air strategy against North Vietnam would fail - and they were told to obey their orders …. Lt. Gen. Krulak, USMC, when commanding FMFPAC, told LBJ our strategy in Vietnam would fail, and instead of being appointed as CMC, as most officers then expected in the Marines and Navy, he was allowed to retire.

No matter how many people a Western Nation’s military kills on the Asian Continent, its foreign military presence in the end will not / cannot defeat an Asian Nationalistic movement. What did Ho Chi Minh tell the French: You will kill ten of us for every one of you we kill, but you will tire [become politically exhausted by the cost] of this first.

Our track record in interventions and protracted occupations on the Asian Continent (which runs from land on the Eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea to the Eastern side of Japan has produced one strategic failure after another. There is no tactical cure for America’s addiction towards intervening and hanging around to engage in a contest with nationalistically motivated opponents on the Asian continent. Unlike the Europeans, we don’t seem to intellectually grasp that the days of (what is viewed as) Imperialistic Western Lording over the Asian peoples and their disputes is over.

True to the American mentality, wherever we next intervene (Iraq again, the South China Sea, …) we will once again report statistical progress and achievements concerning some strategically meaningless factor, claim tactical victories and results, then withdraw and leave the area to our one time opponents to overrun and if need be our one time supporters will go into exile -- their suitcases full of those missing OCO funds we (unintentionally) provided them.

Our political leaders need to fear not, the American people will continue to elect interventionists (from either party), we military officers (past and present) will continue to attempt to complete mission impossible and our failing Flag Officers will be promoted, and the Fed will keep printing those trillions in dollars, and they carry half our debt or more. They are not going to foreclose on the country – at least not yet. And, the Asian Nations (with some bumps along the way) will prosper and grow as the U.S. ships our manufacturing industry into their countries. Contrarily, we are economically declining, carrying the costs of all those failed interventions, and we slowly but surely will become a third rate (economic and military) power like England.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 9:35am

Changing direction a tad--we talk about the necessity of a civil society in stepping up and either supporting or denying support to their government.

For those that do not believe that the Maidan changed the Ukrainian civil society forever--this is just a token of the respect shown by that civil society for those that die fighting to defend that civil society in the face of blatant aggression.

It is interesting to watch this civil society demand and get the rule of law, good governance and transparency that they feel they deserve and want --not imposed by someone outside their borders.

Robert has been right about this for a long while.

There is for all the talk in the US--an actual war ongoing in eastern Ukraine whether we like it or not and the sooner we admit it the faster foreign policy can be discussed--but right now our own policy makers are sidestepping the issue.

Compatriots meet UA serviceman who died in the war zone of Ukraine
Video… …

Outlaw 09

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 5:10am

Not wanting to rain on anyone's parade BUT--after Tet 68 a large majority of the so called VC guerrilla infrastructure was being manned by NVA regular troops just wearing another uniform to keep up the VC "image".

Especially in mid 69 to early 70 --by then the Phoenix program and SF CIDG Bns had virtually decimated all local guerrilla units and the VC while still a problem they had all but disappeared from the fighting.

After Tet 68 IMO the fighting shifted to a hardcore conventional force on force with mainline NVA units being taken on by US and SVN mainline units.

Another little known fact is that with the Choi Hoi (line crosser program) coupled with an extremely heavy arch light B-52 strikes on the trail and on just about any NVA unit that showed it's head above water the loss rates were running high--we captured a courier with messages from a NVA field commander of a NVA division who was complaining bitterly to Hanoi about his loses which he broke out nicely for us. Out of a 1oK man division he had lost an unusually high number to the line crosser program followed then by heavy numbers of killed and wounded with diseases running a distance fourth--he was basically informing Hanoi that if he did not get replacements soon he would withdraw deep into Cambodia to recovery.

Hanoi was hanging on just barely by the end of 70 and it took them until the April 73 offensive to regroup, rearm and resupply.

In 70 with the announced Vietnamization program Us advisors began accompanying SVN units into the fighting providing for basically air strikes, artillery strikes and medivacs--which were being carried more by the SVN as we started pulling out.

The SVN army made one massive mistake when they crossed into Laos and took a beating but by the April 73 NVA offensive they fought exceptionally well as SF was providing strong advisor support ie An Loc where they broke the back of an attacking NVA three division Army group that was headed straight to Saigon.

The SVN Army fell apart in 1975 not because of poor fighting qualities BUT because we the US via our Congress cut off all military aid and monies.

It is significant to note that the SVN 6th Division long considered to be the worst trained/led and barely able to fight held up the entire NVA attack force headed to Saigon for well over four days-- even Giap in an interview about the fighting near Saigon was surprised at the resistance--but they had their backs to the wall and had massive military stores to pull munitions from before going under.

Sometimes one really does need to relook the period 1970-75 and reframe the question--could have in fact Vietamization worked if in fact SVN had continued to receive military aid, monies and key advisors??

Example---my CIDG camp was surrounded by the 73 offensive and yet they fully completed a retograd from the camp under fire and taking everything with them and destroying the camp all under the noses of the NVA who could not stop them walking 14 miles to a relief group--so the training that SF provided over the years did in fact work correctly as planned.

In the end if anyone wants to debate--the core question should be who had the longer breath to hold on to a final win as both the NV and the US were like a pair of boxers having gone 25 rounds--and yes Robert is correct after 3.5M in losses, dead, wounded and massive missing numbers--Ho had hung on as the drive for national liberation from all foreigners out ways everything else.

In one of the fights near the Fish Hook I was in-- in 1970 was over a three day period where we physically stacked over 400 bodies and my Cambodian recon company was still engaged and actually we just pulled out and left the area and the NVA units were still there and still shooting at us.

Ask any US unit if they are willing to have over 400 killed and still be present and fighting on the battlefield?

There was the difference.

If there are any lessons learned to be learned from VN--we need to really analyze our advisor programs and the SF CIDG programs because they in fact worked and worked well. They just clashed with the regular army thinking and died a slow death as the regular army leadership/DC at that time was in a totally different mindset.


Mon, 06/29/2015 - 10:49pm

Reading the author's opening comments about the poorly motivated South Vietnamese always reminds me of a night at the NAS Pensacola O'Club Bar in Summer of 1965. A number of us Navy and Marine Officers were drinking with and conversing with about 5 or 6 VNAF pilots. They were about to be trained to fly the A-1 Skyraider.

We were all young officers. Someone kidded them about their current leader and the coups post-Diem, and the conversation turned to their view of their political and military leaders. Other than Ky, whom they seemed to respect, their remarks were rather negative. They called them stupid, incompetent, thieves, etc -- with no exceptions, as we listed one name after another.

Vietnam meant little to us at that time, but I was curious, so I asked them if there was a Vietnamese military leader they respected. One immediately answered "Giap," and the others all agreed. I wasn't sure so I asked him, Do you mean the North Vietnamese General?" He said "yes." So I asked, why him? They answered, he was honest, smart, and drove the French out of our country. They then noted rather negatively, their leaders had served the French.

We just changed the subject and shot the breeze for a while. When some of us left, one of the Marines said, where they couldn't hear us, "They may not know it, but that war is over for them, they will loose," or words to that effect -- it was almost 50 years ago. I recall saying, What the hell is this country doing there?

One could tell these VNAF officers were from well off families, not poor, well educated, and their English was rather good. If they had that attitude, it should have been obvious they had no chance to survive as an independent country.

I never thought this country should have been involved in that mess, especially after listening to their own Officers. Also, a couple years earlier the Navy was looking for a few volunteers to help the South Vietnamese Navy, such as it was. I asked my father, then a Navy Chief who had been in since the late 1930's if he ever considered volunteering to train them. He immediately said, "I don't volunteer to keep dictators in power." Of course, he wasn't alone in that view. When asked, General George Decker CoS Army told President Kennedy we would lose, and Kennedy rewarded him by not giving him the standard second two year tour as CoS, and replaced him with Maxwell Taylor, and where that led.

Bill M.

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 6:42pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

It is important, and contrary to your initial statement it is you who embraces the majority opinion when it comes to Vietnam. Regardless of that point, let's address your supporting arguments.

1. Nonsense, and it is time to step down from your self promoting soapbox. Your views are far from unique, and like the rest of ours they are simply opinions put forth for consideration.

2.BH doesn't seem overly popular based on my readings, but if your point is that the gov of Nigeria is inept and corrupt, and that this created opportunity for BH to exploit, then I agree.

3. Agreed

4. Not that simple, but not enough time to refute it in the detail required.

5. Far from being as simple as you outlined. The north and south were no more united than the tribes of Iraq until foreigners drew lines on a map.

6. Couldn't be more wrong, but for years you have dismissed the historical facts regarding Vietnam. Not every historical situation will fit your model.

7. Maybe

8. Whether or not warfare solves these issues is debatable, but war was choose as a method because other methods didn't work. Obviously if the warring parties could reach mutual agreement peacefully there wouldn't be an armed conflict to begin with. As for the U.S. not getting involved as much as we do, that is a policy issue, one I generally agree with.

Bill M.

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 5:06pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Probably true, but as a strategist you know why this wasn't a feasible option based on domestic political cosiderations. Our involvement in this war had more to do Europe than stopping the spread of communism in Asia initially. I often wonder what would have been if FDR survived and implemented his anti colonial policies.

Bill M.

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 5:08pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Double post

Bill M.

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 5:09pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Triple post

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 1:50pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

If we had assisted Ho, coupled with standing firm on FDR's post WWII strategy to end colonialism and promote self-determination of governance, we would have had a firm ally in Vietnam with a history not unlike the one we have with Thailand; and the governance would never have gone to the extremes of communist ideology and actions that were necessary to win independence from both France, and then the US, in succession.

This would have set a very different precedent for US interventions. We probably would not have been so easily coerced by the Brits to intervene in Iran in '53 to get them "their" oil back; and perhaps might have realized that containment was just one of many ways to manage our competition with the USSR, and adopted a less onerous approach that was also less abusive of our national values in its execution.

What if, indeed.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 1:27pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert--reference point 7--tend to disagree--when I arrived in the Three Corp region which was the Saigon to Cambodian border war zone with included War Zones C and D the VC infrastructure had been badly damaged by Tet as the NVA astutely fed the VC into the Tet grinder anticipating they would not be able to be controlled if they in fact "won" the fighting in the South-- the NVA would have had control issues as is standard for different Communist groupings who are aspiring to control the same prize--there was a distinct Southern Communist movement vs the North.

By mid 69 most of the Three Corp VC units were decimated and backfilled with NVA who caused even more friction with the SV locals which we further used to get deeper into the cells--even the famed VC sapper BNs near Saigon had been heavily hit and were a shadow of their former selves.

I even had two sappers from one of the famed VC Saignon BNs working for me as guides into and out of bunker complexes who had Choi Hoied over to us in mid 69 in order to simply not be killed either by the US or by his "NVA friends" in his unit due to internal political disputes.

By the end of 1970 virtually all NVA mainline Regts-Div's had moved back into cambodia to avoid having direct contact with SVN and US units--I had been unable to make the run down Highway 13 in early 69 without at least one ambush and two mines in the road when we came through by the end of 70 up and down 13 without any issues--and the always neutral local rubber workers had by the end of 70 started openly informing on the VC units something that had never been seen before.

We simply pulled the plug starting in 70 and never looked back.

There is an article here in SWJ about the big IF concerning Iraq--I will take it a step further WHAT IF we had taken up the offer to assist HO when he asked--what would our own history look like today??

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 12:47pm

In reply to by Bill M.


I will persist, only because this is an incredibly important strategic issue, and because you know and represent the majority/official US position so well. So, by point

1. I am not generating facts, I simply consider these situations for myself and am not constrained by the "facts" generated by US governmental/military positions on these events. I find those facts to be highly biased and grossly inaccurate.

2. BH is not legal, but the cause that creates the revolutionary energy in the population that BH draws from IS legitimate. (per the same criteria detailed in the US Declaration of Independence. We focus far too much on "illicit" and not nearly enough on popular legitimacy in assessing these conflicts.

3. CT is our national strategy. Agree with you that it is no strategy, and that applying it as such has resulted in overly reactive, tactical, symptomatic activities that have harmed our strategic interests far more than they have helped.

4. The character of every situation is different, but the nature of situations fall into broad categories. Political conflict being a fundamentally human endeavor leads to the nature of these categories being largely stable, while the characters are infinitely unique. This is the basis of why Clausewitz is worth the paper it is written on for war. The US overly applies Clausewitz to non-war internal political conflicts. So to say they are "all different" is like saying that there can not be principles to forestry since all trees are different. All trees are the same as well. As are all conflicts.

5. Who says their can only be one "legitimate" side or group in a conflict? The fact that Ho was legitimate based on the purpose of freeing all of Vietnam from foreign interference does not mean that others who shared that purpose were not equally so. But those who supported the US created governments in the South supported a de facto illegitimate (thought licit) cause.

6. North and South States of Vietnam was a legal fiction created by the West to salvage some degree of control over the region after the French defeat. The overall revolution never ended, and NVA forces were just as much revolutionaries as the VC were. Legal status be damned. The US fiction that we defeated the insurgency, but that later the North state defeated the South state is pure BS. A dangerous brand of BS that has skewed our strategic thinking on these types of conflicts for generations.

7. facts are complex, but the fundamentals of nature are shockingly simple. From E=MC2 to Pi, to the nurturing instincts of mothers. Good strategic frameworks allow us to deal with complex facts.

8. I do not visualize countering revolutions as warfare at all. It is an internal civil emergency and indicative that there is a major disconnect between governance and some important identity-based population among the governed. Warfare will not solve the racially driven issues of poor governance in the US, nor will it solve the racial, cultural, etc-driven issues of poor governance abroad. We get this at home, but forget it when we get on a plane or ship. It requires a comprehensive approach that recognizes that governance must evolve to stay relevant, and that security forces are a supporting effort that mitigates violence, disrupts the worst actors, and creates time and space for civil officials to fix their problems. Bombing one's own population is no cure for revolutionary causes. Of historic note, the Brits feared that what happened in the American colonies would happen in Canada, NZ, Aus, etc. So they sent out survey teams, and the result was they pre-emptively granted those societies the very rights they had denied the Americans. That activity and the results are "facts" one can lean on.

Last, the US needs to stop taking sides. We need to be more the mediator of evolution, not the arbitrator of stasis or change we think best for us.



Bill M.

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 10:53am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Continue to generate your own facts if you please, all the so called COIN experts that magically pop up at times like these do. BH is legitimate, really? As for CT, I have never viewed it as a strategy anymore than I view most our COIN and FID efforts as strategies, they are operational approaches. Every situation is different, as Outlaw pointed out our operation in South Vietnam was a messy success against the so called revolutionaries, despite the numerous missteps during the early years. Your logic states that Ho was legitimate because of what/who he resisted, yet the Vietnamese in both N and S Vietnam who opposed him are automatically illegitimate in your view? Ho was not the only one who opposed the French. That is what I would call a romantic notion, propagated by group think in our universities. My points are it is more complex than your argument asserts, military force can work (I'm not supporting it's use), and we're in agreement on the power of common interests and the will to fight. In no respect am I defending our current approach to any our current fights. You make many great arguments, but too often extend them to a point where they are unsupportable. You argue as though one size fits all. Since you brought it up, how to you envision counter revolutionary warfare? How does it differ from our proxy wars during the cold war? Why would we do this if you already view our adversaries as legitimate, unless you are agreeing multiple opponents can have legitimacy?

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 06/30/2015 - 8:35am

In reply to by Bill M.

Regrettably, my computer just ate my response to this, so in short.

Bill, you cite American history, not "facts." The fact we buy our own PSYOP, rather than operate off of true facts is probably why we applied the same failed strategy for Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq with similar results (and also why this article above is so dangerously and horrendously wrong).

A few quick points:

1. Legitimacy for Ho, Mao, (and ISIS) comes from what they OPPOSE(D), not what they ADVANCE(D).

2. Military force wins BATTLES, not Revolutionary CONFLICTS (just ask the British in America; the Americans in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, et al.; The Russians in Afghanistan; etc. As was pointed out to Col Summers by his former Vietnamese foe in his seminal work.

3. This in not an issue of bravery. Brave American men and women fought for the British in the Revolution; for South Vietnam, for GIRoA, etc. It is a question of who was fighting for a side perceived as advancing self-determined governance vs. who was fighting for the side perceived as being created or sustained by some foreign power.

4. Lastly, we remain the biggest "pimp daddy" on the planet, but our little collection of "whores" as well as our regular "johns" grow weary of this game. Time for the US to gain a clearer sense of the reality of the world we live within and our place within that world. Then it is time to define a new approach that is more in concert with the realities of human nature, and that recognizes things for what they actually are, and not for what we have labeled them. We cannot continue to create illegitimate tyrannies, but think it is ok because we call them legitimate democracies. We cannot continue to call and treat revolutionary groups like AQAP and Boko Haram as "terrorists" and apply CT approaches when counterrevolutionary responses are demanded.

Bottom line is that we need to get real, and the "facts" as we have called them, are a huge obstacle to that end.

Bill M.

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 10:49pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


And you at times twist historical facts to support a hypothesis that does not always apply. Ho, like Mao, used extreme levels of force to establish their legitimacy. Did they have true believers? Of course, but they also had tens of thousands who rejected their ideology. In the end, a conventional north Vietnamese military equipped by the USSR over powered a bravely resisting south Vietnamese military. Tens of thousands of people fled or attempted to flee the foreign doctrine of communism NV enforced. It no more respected local customs than we or the French did.

The decision was determined by military force, not legitimacy. We simply can't employ military force in a decisive manner due to our values and laws. On a side note, the Taliban don't have legitimacy either. They were a foreign creation that were employed to establish influence in Afghanistan post Soviet era to prevent India from achieving influence. You too readily dismis unpleasant facts and to readily embrace romantic views of insurgencies seeking to toss out illegimate governments. In some cases that is true, but it is not a rule that pertains to every situation. I think you were closer to the truth when you spoke of whores and pimps.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 9:55pm


The massive industrial and military might of the US was able to kill some 3.5 million Vietnamese people, to less than 60,000 of ours with pointy sticks and borrowed weapons from an enemy they hated more than us

You continually underestimate the power that matters most in these internal conflicts we insist on meddling in. The power of the belief that some system of governance has no right to govern.

Revolution is not powered by what it promises to bring, but rather by what it physically stands up to oppose.

Thus is the essence of what terms like "legitimacy" and "hearts and minds" really mean.

Bill M.

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 6:15pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

In simple terms, the strong do as they will, while the weak do as they must. Same as it ever was, thus the importance of a strong defense. Like most wars there are wars within wars between multiple actors, and legitimacy means little compared to overwhelming coercive force. Again same as it has always been.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 11:07am

Any port in a storm.

Revolutionary populations will typically take assistance from any willing to offer the help, regardless the first or higher order potential consequences of accepting such assistance.

Accepting UW help from France, the US, Russia, China, AQ or ISIS in no way means a population wants to be what those current and historic UW conducting parties are or were selling - it just meant their respective backs were up against the wall with the domestic governance (and often foreign internal defense support to the same), and needed help.

Likewise with governments who are unwilling to be more inclusive in their governance to share opportunities and rights across their entire population fairly; or who are illegitimate in their own "right" to govern, haven been put and sustained in power by some foreign power for its own selfish interests.

Typically the party perceived as most legitimate by the largest segment of the population prevails. But both sides of the equation is too often a dirty game of political pimps and whores, wrapped in fancy rhetoric and mischaracterized by media and historians....

Outlaw 09

Sat, 07/04/2015 - 6:53am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

BTW--Reference Russian weapons--together with my Cambodian recon company---we "discovered' by sheer accident--my point man literally fell though the top of a massive storage bunker --the largest underground munitions and weapons bunker system during the entire war within SVN--the Cav came in then to secure it and pulled out over 1700 tons of munitions, weapons, MRLSs in the 220mm range and artillery pieces---they quit at 1700 tons and blew up in place another estimated 500 tons. ALL BTW 70 miles north of Saigon at the end of 1969.

There was not a single Chinese marked crate or weapon in the entire lot.

It is that Russian weapons edge that has been pestering the US for years after VN--it has been large weapons deliveries to Assad that kept him in his fight, large weapons and munitions deliveries to Russian mercenaries in eastern Ukraine that keeps them going, massive shipments to Iran and Yemen and not to speak of the countless "wars of liberation" in Africa.

And again we see them in Iraq and soon in Egypt.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 07/04/2015 - 6:16am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill--you raise almost the same thing I have been saying by 1970 there was not a single NVA and or mainline VC BN or Regt or Div that did not get it's head bashed when they showed it above a bunker and they did take some serious serious loses in the process--by late 1970 most of the mainline really elite NVA Divisions had been forced back into Cambodia.

Largely confirmed by Giap himself in the last few interviews and his last writings before he died. Where we the US military actually "winning" if the definition of winning is high enemy loses and no battlefield loses--yes we were.

BUT here is the big difference WE the US public, politicians and yes even the US military were unwilling to drive it home and take the necessary higher loses in order to "win" in the end.

Example--why has no one mentioned that by 1970 an average 1st Cav infantry company was running with 60 men and the company commander was a 2nd if lucky 1st LT--why because the Army was unwilling to keep feeding the required manpower and "everyone" knew we were pulling out--Nixon knew it, the SVN knew it and the NVA knew it.

But knowing it did not help those in that 1st Cav company fend off sometimes NVA full strength BNs and the loses kept on coming.

When someone finally sits down and writes the truth especially the period 1970 historians might perk up and taken an interest and ask some healthy questions especially of our own politicians and senior military leaders.

It might be fascinating to be able to conduct research into Giap's own library and the NVA field reports from 1970--IMO it would confirm what I often say here--they were barely hanging on BUT they wanted the "win" much more than we did.

That "want" is an important driver we tend to even overlook in 2015 from say IS or the Russians.

Bill M.

Sat, 07/04/2015 - 12:29am

In reply to by Peter Murphy

Regarding what country provided more support may be irrelevant at this point, but it was very relevant at the time for a number of reasons. First, our ability to deter it from it happening. Second, if we couldn't or wouldn't deter it, then the impact on our risk and cost calculations to achieve our objectives via military force. It was especially relevant that it was the USSR, because that deterred us from pursuing more decisive options because we didn't want to risk escalation and what that might entail for Vietnam. LBJ never really attempted to win the war, he only pretended to fight it to maintain legitimacy with his domestic audience (demonstrate creds as an anticommunist), because he believed if he pulled out it would weaken him and the Democratic Party. Don't take my word on it, you can listen to the historical recordings where he said as much in meetings in the Oval Office.

Did the equipment that the USSR provided make a difference? I think it did. While I understand your point about our massive overmatch not being decisive, I think you miss a key point, which is that our forces didn't push into Hanoi, while the North used their force advantage to push into Saigon. Furthermore, Operation ROLLING THUNDER did bring the North to the negotiating table. Could we have defeated North Vietnam with our massive overmatch if we choose to? I think the answer is probably yes, but was it worth the risk since North Vietnam was never a threat to the U.S.?

I think many in the SWJ world tend to carelessly dismiss the efficacy of military force used decisively. We repeatedly see a lot of ahistorical and pseudointellectual arguments on why legitimacy, winning over the population, building their economies, etc. are the right way to win. Those approaches are certainly honorable, and some situations they may even work, but we should never forget that our adversaries more often than not will rely on brute force and terrorism to achieve their objectives. To deny that blinds us reality. The question becomes can legitimacy overcome the adversary's brute force? In my view we have already seen the answer to that. Kilcullen once said or wrote something along the lines that the U.S. forgot that COIN also involves fighting, not just improving economic conditions. Obviously there is a balance of activities, a balance I don't think we found yet. Anyway, in 1975 the South was overwhelmed by a superior North Vietnamese military. The issue was resolved militarily. If the North resolved it another way, then your argument that the donated equipment didn't matter would hold water.

Regarding your last paragraph, most situations we deal with tend to fall in that category. Very few countries have unified populations, but most will unify at least temporarily to fight a foreign occupier. The communists effectively promoted the great myth that all Vietnamese people were united, and they leveraged that myth/narrative against the West. Afghanistan, Iraq, Philippines, Korea, etc. were similar in their many internal divisions.

I'm not justifying our idiotic approach to the war where we destroyed villages to save them, supported terrible Vietnamese politicians and military officers under the belief that "he's a bastard, but he's our bastard," and dropping more bombs than we did during WWII. We continue to discuss this war at length because the way we conducted it ran against our core values as a nation. There remain sharp disagreements as noted in this forum, and of course my views are largely opinion, but I think the facts support most of them.

Peter Murphy

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 8:34pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Good point about Russians being the main supplier of munitions, and the Chinese taking advantage of Russia having to ship their supplies through China. It did not seem worth arguing over who supplied more quantity of weapons, because Chinese weapons were essentially Russian anyway, whether obtained directly from Russia or Chinese copies of Russian weapons. More important is that Americans cannot blame "quantity" of Russian and Chinese supplies for the the US and South Vietnamese defeat. If it was about quantity the vast amounts of US supplies and air power brought to bear would have easily translated into victory. And yes, so much effort devoted to avoiding escalation by avoiding killing any Russians. Must have been frustrating for those involved.

Also interesting point about the ethnic differences. Even among ethnically Vietnamese, one of my friends today who grew up south of Saigon, she tells me that even though her grandfather fought and died as a Viet Cong, her friends and family have never really liked people from the North. Even among communists the Southern and Northern communists were not fighting for the same thing. It makes it difficult when doing these studies that we cannot conveniently group people.


Tue, 06/30/2015 - 7:56pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I still have copies somewhere of pictures of Russian ships going past us carrying SAM Missle Crates tied down on their decks. They knew they were off limits to us and would not be interdicted. They also knew that when they unloaded their cargo, the most that would happen was one of our A-3's or RA-5C's would photograph that unloading. Some of those Merchant Ships carrying supplies into Haiphong Harbor were from NATO Nations. That ship traffic into Haiphong was rather steady.

There were countless restrictions on our actions in the Tonkin Gulf. E.g., S-2's flying routine recon along the coast of North Vietnam would spot convoys moving along the coast (The French Route 1 I believe we called it), but we couldn't fire on them without authority -- and we would get approval 7 to 8 hours later, so after a while you just ignore them. My favorite observation was the medium sized Merchant Ship flying a Formosan Flag -- who always stayed close to the Coast of North Vietnam. Like all other shipping unless they entered into South Vietnam's 12 mile limit, they were off limits. Occasionally we would signal the Formosan flagged ship and ask them to identify themselves. They never answered.

The Soviets also kept one of their "spy ships," for lack of a better term, on station in the Gulf -- monitoring our communications. They would accompany us so often we eventually started communicating using Signal Lights. Our Captain had Ice Cream and Cake sent over to them by Helo. If it didn't bother LBJ that they were there, it didn't annoy us. And, when the seven ships in our TG started forming up to depart from Yankee Station for home -- they came alongside to say goodbye. They probably read our Orders before we did.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 10:34am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

This is an indication of the "infighting among friends" that went on between the Soviets and the Chinese just on the SAM-2 deliveries.

The Chinese in mid-July 1965 suddenly issued a flurry of private and public statements calculated to exploit Vietnamese anxiety and to create pressures upon the USSR to commit the newly-arrived Soviet SAM equipment and personnel to action at once against the United States. On 14 July, the CCP finally answered the CPSU letter of 17 April dispatched after Le Duan's visit to Moscow; among other things, the Chinese defended themselves at length (although rather lamely) against the charge that they had obstructed Soviet aid to Vietnam, and then went on to sneer again at "the quantity and quality of your aid" as having been "far out of proportion to the power of your country," and, in fact, "old, out-moded, impractical and inferior." This was despite the fact that Vice Premier Lu Ting-i had criticized the Soviet "adventurism" in bringing the missiles to Vietnam in the first place.

In mid 1970 we had indications of radar controlled 37mm AD cannons being detected via their radar signatures in the Cambodian Fishhook --you could actually hear the radar sweep in the Huey headsets--standard if heard was to drop to skid level and fly fast and low.

We never did seen any strike data on this type of weapon system but the 1st Cav was well aware of the threat--this was the same time we started detecting Soviet tanks just inside Cambodia Fishhook--ie tank tread tracks but we never did see the actual tanks themselves until the 1973 April invasion when they came roaring out of Cambodia.

There is much about Chinese and Soviet arms being supplied to the NVA that has never made the history books due to classification issues which should have run out in 2000 as most Secret documents had a standard 30 year run before dropping to Confidential.

You could see the Soviet influence as we started to see by early 1969 large numbers of Soviet AKs showing up--while there were always the Chinese copies usually with the VC units--the main producer was the Soviet Union which seemed to be favored by the NVA mainline units--the same for the 120mm mortars that started showing up in early 1969 as well--all Soviet. The Chinese AK copies were rather crudely made at that time vs the Soviet produced AKs.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 06/29/2015 - 9:52am

Little known fact--the Russians were the main weapons and munitions suppliers for a long time during the fighting up through at least 1971--mostly shipped in via rail--THEN about 1967 the Chinese started diverting the Russian rail shipments and started to "repackage them" in new paint and Chinese symbols but when you opened the cases Russian is what you read not Chinese AND made great Chinese PR in their so called "assistance to the NVA".

This forced the Russians to then start shipping their support via cargo ships and if one checks the history books you will find that the Russian cargo ships were off limits to the USAF while they were docked in Haiphong harbor and offloading.

The target maps used for strikes around Haiphong had usually a large red circle to warn the pilots of a "no drop zone".

Also little known was the use of Soviet ground advisors (GRU) who accompanied a number of the major NVA line Regiments and Divisions into northern SVN in the fighting with the Marines.

Soviet KGB officers were often in the same interrogation rooms with US AF pilots especially those that flew the EW and anti EW missions.

Remember ethnically the North as well as the South had a great amount of dislike for ethnic Vietnamese Chinese especially after the attempted invasion by the PLA in 1979. But long before 1979 it was always there and would break out into the open from time to time.

Also a little known fact was that in the Russian shipments of munitions during the 1969 timeframe a warning had gone out to US ground forces to destroy all cased munitions they came across--up to 1969 a lot of times the US units would open the cases and check them for lot numbers etc.--but apparently "someone" began sliding into the Russian supply chain booby trapped munitions cases that exploded when opened and or the munitions themselves were booby trapped to explode when fired--this was for AK and mortar ammunition--occasionally cases of artillery shells were found booby trapped as well.

BTW the munitions cases were straight from the factory as all seals were intact.


Mon, 06/29/2015 - 8:46am

My recollection is that during the French War Chinese help was pivotal, in the transfer of weapons and notably artillery for the Dien Bien Phu battle. I am sure this is well documented in the history books.

Less clear is a recollection that PRC provided logistic support for the 'Ho Chi Minh' trail through Laos, even with construction troops.

Peter Murphy

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 8:47pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

I would be interested to read his work. In my military education I felt we focused too much on studying WWII because it was the "Good War" and the American Civil War because it conveniently pitted Americans against Americans using the same tactics and both sides' strategic goals were pretty clear.

Vietnam is interesting, difficult, and upsetting. And military advising and security assistance in general are interesting to me since I have now spent more than 10 years working in these areas and I do not see it as being very successful.


Mon, 06/29/2015 - 8:42am


A friend, Nate Pulliam, ex-US Army (including time as an adviser in Iraq), is currently writing up his research on the advisory role in Vietnam, in the American era. He is enrolled as a PhD candidate @ Oxford University's Changing Character of War Programme and from memory should be finished early 2016.

I have asked him once he has finished to write an article for SWJ.

Seems to be several inaccuracies in this article, but admittedly I'm relying largely on an increasingly failing memory. Starting with the relationship, it was largely based on communists in both China and Vietnam who cooperated fighting the Japanese during WWII. Communism was a relatively new ideology to both, so if that was the extent of their cultural link it didn't have a long history. They had a longer history of fighting one another, which they continued to do after the war. Regarding comments about China not attempting to industrialize the Vietnamese military, that was true and wise; however, China was in no position at that time to assist any nation in that respect even if they wanted to.

Who provided more military support? The USSR or China? In the 1950s it was China, but after Kruchchev passed, the USSR started increasing their support. The north Vietnamese skillfully played both of them. Toward the end of the 60s Soviet support dominated, especially high tech support related to air defense and attack jets. I suspect it was a Soviet equipped and partially trained army that captured Saigon.

At the tactical level China may have had some success in advising the Vietnamese, but I don't see substantiating arguments or facts in this article to support that claim. At the strategic level it appeared China was the loser from a regional power perspective, since the USSR gained the advantage with its relationship with Vietnam, even without cultural ties with the Vietnamese they found common interests.

I agree with the author's point not to make mini copies of our military when it isn't culturally feasible, but I think the lesson from that conflict more relevant to today is the importance of common interests, which likely will result in the political will to use the capacity we build. China and the USSR recognised the importance of a unifying ideology (communism) as a base to build everything else upon. Our ideology for the south Vietnamese was little more than anti-communism, so there was no unifying vision.

Peter Murphy

Thu, 07/02/2015 - 9:04pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Thanks for the feedback. I find the last point particularly difficult. No two situations are the same but when we provide analysis, we want an actionable conclusion so we stretch for lessons learned in a checklist form to be applied to the next problem. So much of military training strives to reduce situations to checklists and it may be good as mental exercises but not always as real set of instructions on what to do in the next situation.

Also, I think we do the mission a disservice when we dismiss the problems as "They're too stupid," or "They're too tribal," or "They're too lazy." "They" being whoever it is we are working with. There is something that "They" are very good at. They are good at surviving in the reality of their environment, otherwise they would not exist. I do not know if there is an easy way to work with that rather than to always be working against it.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 06/28/2015 - 9:14pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

And a friend responded to my comments on this article on my national security list serve to remind me of this pithy quote that also illustrates one of our American strategic weaknesses:

“The very massiveness of our intervention actually reduced our leverage. So long as we were willing to use U.S. resources and manpower as a substitute for Vietnamese, their incentive for doing more was compromised.” – Komer, Bureaucracy At War.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 06/28/2015 - 8:18pm

Of course how did Vietnam turn out in the long run in its relationship with China? The PLA got their butts kicked by them in 1979 and now there is friction over the South China Sea with Vietnam siding with other regional powers and asking the US for support. The Chinese advisory operations did not result in an alliance that was closer than lips and teeth the way their intervention on behalf of the north Koreans did (though they are probably regretting that relationship now!)

But these three factors for Chinese success (or effectiveness) outlined here are are important considerations and should factor into both decision making and planning. There are a number of very important lessons to which we should pay attention though those with professional advisory experience will tell you they are common sense. E.g.:

QUOTE: In contrast, the US advisors shared no historical background with their South Vietnamese counterparts, and there was a complete lack of cultural understanding between the two. American advisors were confident in their experience from World War II and the Korean War, and any reluctance by their Vietnamese counterparts to do exactly as the Americans would do was often perceived as laziness or incompetence[II]. The foundational relationship for a successful military assistance partnership was simply not strong as it was for the Chinese and the Vietnamese Communists. END QUOTE

The excerpt above is an illustration of our lack of cultural understanding and the one track path we follow, e.g., fight the American way or you cannot fight.

QUOTE To be clear, China’s assistance was critical. As Seals[VIII] points out, China provided professional advice, weapons, logistics, and a strategic deterrence against a US invasion of the North Vietnam. But the fighting was always left to the PAVN and thus China never took the feeling of ownership of away from the Vietnamese. END QUOTE

This is why I advocate that while we need expertise in counterinsurgency we should not be conducting COIN ourselves but instead conducting foreign internal defense to help a friend, partner or ally in their internal defense and development programs so that they can defend themselves from lawlessness, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism. If we are doing it for them then we know how that turns out.

Could we substitute Iraq and Afghanistan below?

QUOTE This is in stark contrast to the ARVN forces who, as US support decreased later in the war, complained that their way of fighting had become dependent on massive amounts of supply and ammunition and significant air support[VI]. They had become accustomed to fighting a materiel and ordnance heavy fight like their US advisors, which was not at all suited to the nature of counterinsurgency warfare fought among the civilian population. Nor were such methods of fighting suited to the ARVN forces capacity to sustain it. END QUOTE

But we should also realize that no two situations are the same and that there are no exact models that are transferable in every way but there are many lessons that do carry over and we should pay attention to them, especially those that are not simply American lessons. Thanks for writing this Peter. It is an important contribution and hopefully a wakeup call for some.

Mark Pyruz

Sun, 06/28/2015 - 7:21pm

This is a good read.

Pertaining to the current conflict in Iraq, the "better fit" might be Iran. To put this in the Vietnam analogy, perhaps the U.S. should adopt the USSR role, and Iran the PRC role.