The American War in Vietnam: Lessons, Legacies, and Implications for Future Conflicts

By Lawrence E.Grinter; Peter M.Dunn | Go to book overview

4

Alan L. Gropman


Lost Opportunities: The Air War in Vietnam, 1961-1973

The Vietnam war was a humiliating, exceptionally expensive, and probably unnecessary American defeat. Had air power been used to its fullest conventional potential, America would not have spilled its blood and squandered its treasure uselessly.

A short essay on the air strategy of the Vietnam war defies generalization. The conflict went on endlessly, numerous decisionmakers had roles, and the views of these players changed. Some policy and strategy formulaters (mostly civilians joined initially by a few military) saw the war as essentially a counterinsurgency and considered the defeat of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam their major objective. Others viewed the war as an effort by North Vietnam to conquer South Vietnam. As it turned out the latter view was accurate: today indigenous South Vietnamese communists are nowhere near the center of power in Ho Chi Minh City.

But the point of this essay is not to upbraid those who saw the war incorrectly for that particular error. The mistake that mattered was not that one, but the failure to realize that even if the war had been an insurgency, victory could be achieved only by shutting off outside assistance to the guerrillas at or very near its source in North Vietnam. There have been no successful counterinsurgencies without effective interdiction of outside assistance. 1 As it happened, Hanoi was the direct aggressor; the war could be decided only in North Vietnam. Striking the heart of North Vietnam and its major logistic arteries was the key to victory, regardless of one's views of the nature of the conflict. Unfortunately, attacking the capillaries in southern North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Laos was the chosen policy. It squandered assets and led to defeat.

Some in the Johnson administration feared Chinese (or Soviet) involvement in the war should bombing of North Vietnam become intolerable to them. The rationale for such apprehensions was (and remains) unclear. Certainly, fears of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and his key advisor on air strategy,

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