Earl H. Tilford is a military historian who has published books on the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars as well as more than 50 articles on military history and themes. He also has been director of research and senior research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He now is professor of history at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. Most recently Tilford wrote the preface to Why the North Won the Vietnam War, an excellent collection of essays from historians including Marc Jason Gilbert, Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young.
As for the lessons he's learned from 30 years of study of the Vietnam War years, Tilford offers this advice, which he says does not originate with him: "The United States of America must never again become involved in a civil war in support of a nationalist cause against communist insurgents supported by allies with contiguous borders in a former French colony located in a tropical climate halfway around the world." Tilford now is finishing a book he has entitled Home by Christmas: The Short War Delusion.
Insight: Why did we lose the war in Vietnam?
Earl H. Tilford: The most important element in victory or defeat is strategy. The short answer is that the communists in both the South and the North employed a strategy that was more appropriate to the war at hand than was our strategy.
American strategy was ill-defined from 1961, when John F. Kennedy embarked upon the major commitment which he said was "to defend the right of South Vietnam to exist." That simply did not have the force that "victory at all costs" would have had.
It was not until the Nixon administration that the United States articulated a clearly defined if limited strategy. It had three goals: withdrawal of U.S. forces, the return of our prisoners of war and "Vietnamization"--turning the fighting back over to the South Vietnamese.
Meanwhile, communist strategy operated at several levels simultaneously, and it remained focused on their ultimate goal: to unite all of Vietnam under a single political system. To accomplish this they pursued objectives of total war against the Saigon government. This meant destroying--or at least incapacitating--the armed forces of South Vietnam. Simultaneously, Hanoi and the National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong) pursued limited aims against the United States. That is, they did not necessarily have to defeat American forces to achieve their objectives. Rather they had to compel us to give up. They did that by inflicting casualties beyond our capacity to withstand as they protracted the war until they had depleted our will to continue supporting the Saigon regime.
Also, at the operational and tactical level, the U.S. put too much dependence on technology and firepower. Our operational art and the accompanying tactics, along with our major weapon systems, were more appropriate to fighting the Soviets in Europe than they were to insurgents and light infantry in the jungles of Asia. Our tendency to rely on firepower as a kind of substitute for strategy simply exacerbated the situation, in the end making it seem as if a cruel and unusual technology had been unleashed on a peaceful and peace-loving people.
Insight: Is America over the "Vietnam syndrome?" That is, the fear of getting involved in any engagement because it might turn out to be another Vietnam?
EHT: I believe we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome everywhere except in some portions of the media and, to a degree, in academia. The majority of Americans have little or no memory of Vietnam. The average age of those who served there is now 57. That is four years older than the average World War II veteran was at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975!
"No more Vietnams" became a kind of talisman within the political arena. Even though not every situation held even the most remote chance of becoming "another Vietnam," we proceeded as though it did. …