Vietnam and Coercive Strategy
Of all limited wars fought by the United States in the Cold War years, none remains as controversial as the war in Vietnam. Some critics of U.S. strategy in Vietnam contend that the Johnson administration erred in choosing a strategy of coercion rather than a traditional military strategy for victory in combat, charging former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara with responsibility for this flawed strategy of coercion.1 But was it indeed a mistake to apply a coercive form of military strategy in Vietnam? Was it this flawed strategy that led to the eventual U.S. withdrawal and South Vietnamese defeat?
This chapter argues that the failure of U.S. policy and strategy in Vietnam was not a necessary consequence of the United States' attempt to employ coercive military strategy.2 Vietnam was not Europe; no U.S. commitment to fight in Southeast Asia, however expansive, could have been permitted to escalate into a direct military confrontation with China or Russia, the outside sources of military and diplomatic succor to North Vietnam. International politics thus dictated, from the outset, a war of limited aims and means. U.S. domestic politics also dictated limited war, especially after both strategy and policy had apparently failed.
The chain of assumptions that led to a dead end for the United States in Vietnam can best be seen in microcosm: the perspectives held by Robert McNamara and shared widely within the highest circles of Kennedy-Johnson policymakers.3 To use McNamara as a conceptual pivot is appropriate not only because of his Cabinet responsibility for the U.S. war effort but for two other reasons, examined in more depth below. First, McNamara was the product of a civilian culture that was, and mostly remains, innocent of serious tutelage in the art of war. Second, McNamara's ideas were partly crafted by a hubris about war that