Lewis Sorely’s effort in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam is a good summary how Creighton Abrams altered the American war effort after succeeding William Westmoreland. Westmoreland executed a war plan from LBJ based upon large battalion strategies that were successful fighting World War II and Korea.
The Viet Minh proved to the French their war was a new type of war. The NVA understood America’s superior firepower and technology could overwhelm their efforts. But for the Viet Cong and NVA this enemy was another war in their long quest for national liberation.
To a larger extent the second indochina war was a war against Diem, the U.S. appointed, French-educated Catholic leader. America selected him to rule a highly corrupt, agrarian and Buddhist society.
Abrams inherited the same political handcuffs trying to pursue the enemy into Laos and Cambodia. LBJ’s Vietnam was a war that limited what American forces could accomplish. American politicians never permitted a ground attack above the 17th parallel. It is disheartening to understand Abrams was not in command control of all US military forces. The Air Force and Navy did not report under his chain of command at MACV.
Abrams clearly understood the role of American forces after Tet. He shifted from large engagements with the NVA to re-establishing protected hamlets and securing the South against Viet Cong guerrillas.
The CIA’s William Colby and US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker worked with Abrams to develop a very effective approach to both the military and political infrastructure in South Vietnam. To a great extent this helped turn the tide of the war somewhat in America’s favor.
Sorley documented how Averell Harriman misled Abrams by reporting to Congress a view of the Paris talks versus the reality on the battle ground. Looking back it is unimaginable that Herriman mislead our country in this manner. At the sunset of his career Herriman wanted to close his years of service in a positive light. His actions in Paris reduced America’s effectiveness.
Yet Harriman was not the only American to mislead Congress in the Nixon Administration. Sorely revealed a reality “gap” about senior military officers traveling back to America as the civil rights movement and rioting drastically changed the political and social landscape across our country. Sorley illustrated how both military and policy leaders were in the dark about riots in Detroit, Baltimore and Washington along with other cities after the assassination of MLK.
Nixon entered the White House with the war turning ever so slowly for the US. The mood of the country was one of impatience. Nixon’s administration asked MACV in November 1969 to prepare “Phase III RVNAF Improvement & Modernization” plan. Secretary of Defense Laird referred to the plan as the “Consolidation Phase” of the American war effort. Clearly the new direction was different from what Abrams had prepared to execute.
Many pages describe a rift between media reporting on the war. Obviously journalists saw the need for America to win the war while others felt the war was lost after Tet. It was a war America never should have fought. The impact of Cronkie’s position after Tet 1968 swayed the mood of the country and accelerated the anti-war movement.
The last major battle of the Vietnam war in the A Shaw Valley challenged the enemy for Hill 937. Ultimately Sorely reveals a sad example of how the US military failed to understand the impact of the changing media views on the American public. The military called the battle a success despite 72 Americans killed. Even today this is appalling. For all of Sorely’s efforts on “Hamburger Hill” the country’s outrage to come was much different. The anger was not based upon a frontal assault against a fortified hill but the fact that after securing the hill, the US Military abandoned Hill 937 just 16 days later. This was escalated when Life Magazine published the photos of 242 American servicemen killed in just one week in Vietnam including five at Hamburger Hill. This is where views split: Sorley implied Hamburger Hill was a victory. The opinion across America ran counter as a senseless act of war.
The lessons in A Better War show the post-Tet effort inherited by Abrams was damaged beyond repair. The revolving door of GSV leadership in Saigon following Diem’s assassination proved a repeated stumbling block for the South attempting to set up a trusted political process. As much as the war was about security of the South against their communist enemies, Abrams knew it was also a social and economic “war” effort to simply feed the South and grow livestock on farms. The view was never about industrializing the countryside.
So much was lost in translation as the US Military embedded advanced weapon and communications systems to defend an agrarian society with the backdrop of the Cold War.
The chest thumping Curtis LeMay’s famous quote “we will bomb them back to the stone age” as we know today, much of the rural South was still living in a the stone age with little industrialization outside of 3 Corps (Saigon). Sorely did not address this issue.
There is a view that the removal of Westmoreland, Nixon’s election and new partnerships with CIA and Ambassador actually led America to victory in Chapter 13: Victory. This is where Sorley has received most criticism. It is delusional to veiw a sliver in time and declare victory.
As the incursions into Cambodia spread to Laos it became very clear to Sorley that both Nixon and Kissinger were giving more respect to Alexander Haig’s view of the war in Washington over General Abrams in Vietnam. Clearly we were repeating the failures of the French a generation before.
Yet Sorley really missed his storyline about the Phoenix Program. The CIA was able to make adjustments after the initial rollout and turn the program into a very effective killing machine by 1969.
Dress it up how you wish, Phoenix clearly helped shift the war against the Viet Cong and devastated their long held infrastructure in the South. Yet the overwhelming success Phoenix generated for the American intelligence effort, nothing was done to stop the program. Maybe Cambodian sanctuaries were the end target of the program?
But Congress and America was no longer interested in hearing of continued war losses. The anti-war movement was strong. The Kent State killings of college students protest the war in Cambodia only accelerated the movement. The majority of Americans felt the war was lost just as the French expressed in their effort in the early 1950s.
Indeed the Cooper-Church Amendment proved America was tired of fighting in Vietnam. There was no way Abrams could win a better war.