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Dispatches from the COIN Wars: a post-revisionist appraisal of American strategy in the Vietnam War

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Dispatches from the COIN Wars: a post-revisionist appraisal of American strategy in the Vietnam War

During the early stages of American combat operations in South Vietnam, the eminent social-historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr issued a stark warning to those in the corridors of power. Unless steps were taken to de-escalate US participation in what was essentially a civil-conflict, he admonished, America would be left, as the French had been before them, with a divisive and bitter legacy. 

In retrospect, this judgement proved to be remarkably prescient. Indeed, the Vietnam War, which took place between 1965 and 1973, has generated a seemingly inexhaustible quantity of historiographical controversies. With the sting of defeat still lingering, a dominant narrative crystallised, propounded by academics and politicians alike, which condemned successive administrations for prosecuting a war that offered “no satisfactory outcome for the US”. However, a growing body of revisionist literature has sought to directly challenge this orthodox interpretation. More specifically, scholars such as Larry Cable and Andrew Krepinevich have criticised the aggressive stance adopted by Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), arguing that the pacification methods implemented by the Marines (USMC) in the I Corps Tactical Zone (ICTZ) provided a greater likelihood of strategic success. 

This article suggests that, although the US ground war in South Vietnam proved to be counter-effective, the potential efficacy of USMC counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine has been overstated. Moreover, it will suggest that wider structural factors, in both Vietnam and the United States itself, precluded MACV from vigorously pursuing a nationwide pacification programme. 

The narrative engages with the principal elements of the ‘Hearts and Minds’ hypothesis. The first section outlines the revisionist critique of MACV’s strategy. Section two examines the operational feasibility of COIN alternatives, with reference to the domestic and international dynamics that limited the options available to US policymakers. 


Academics and former soldiers who adhere to the ‘Hearts and Minds’ premise are heavily critical of the doctrine pursued by the US Army in South Vietnam, especially during the formative years of 1965-1968, when MACV was commanded by General William C. Westmoreland. Presupposing that the southern-based Viet-Cong (VC) and National Liberation Front (NLF) were merely instruments of the North Vietnamese regime, both the White House and Pentagon embraced a strategy of escalation, whereby American power would gradually be brought to bear on the battlefield. This was intended to locate the “threshold of pain” at which the communists would abandon their struggle and accept the finality of the 17th parallel. 

In operational terms, escalation evolved into a twofold war of attrition. The US Air Force (USAF) launched a strategic bombing campaign against targets in the North, while MACV actively sought to take the initiative, utilising its superior firepower, technology, and air-mobility to conduct rapid search-and-destroy missions aimed at disrupting the VC’s infrastructure. With Westmoreland eager to leave pacification to the South Vietnamese armed forces (ARVN), American infantry units relied heavily on the post-battle ‘body count’ to measure success. “Our mission”, observed Phillip Caputo in his memoir, “was…simply to kill; to kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible…war a matter of arithmetic”. 

According to revisionist historians, the problem with such an approach is obvious. The US military establishment fundamentally misunderstood “the true nature of People’s Revolutionary Warfare and therefore could not react appropriately in strategic terms”. By mistakenly identifying the VC as externally ‘directed’ partisans, defence planners failed to acknowledge the deep roots of the insurgency in South Vietnamese society, thereby ignoring the relationship between providing physical and existential security for the peasantry and challenging the strength of the guerrilla movement. Crucially, search-and-destroy enhanced the standing of the Viet-Cong whilst simultaneously undermining the authority of the government in Saigon. As Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann pointed out after Operations ‘Cedar Falls’ and ‘Junction City’—two large-scale main force engagements carried out in early 1967—MACV allowed the North Vietnamese to divert US assets into increasingly futile skirmishes around the lightly populated central highlands. As there was no organisational incentive to launch ‘gain and hold’ actions, it became difficult, if not impossible, to de-couple local communities from the insurrection. 

The Army’s fixation on attrition also encouraged a perverse momentum towards the use of excessive force. The confluence of several destructive practices, including a consistent recourse to overwhelming firepower, the use of defoliants, and forced relocation, engendered considerable socio-cultural dislocation in rural areas. Not only did damage to “civilian life and property” alienate South Vietnamese residents from their own government and the Americans, but the creation of 3.5 million refugees between 1965 and 1969 provided Hanoi and the VC with valuable propaganda material, as well as potential recruits. Guenter Lewy draws attention to the fact that the attitude of US officials towards displacement served to perpetuate this cycle. Peripheral-urban migration was erroneously viewed as a means of denying the Viet-Cong “recruits, food producers and porters”. 

It is clear, then, that a substantial body of evidence exists to suggest that “the lack of progress in defeating the insurgents…can be attributed, in part, to an army strategy reflecting traditional methods of operation in a conflict that was dramatically different from its wars over the previous half-century”. Instead, revisionist historians argue, MACV should have recognised, as a 1966 Army Staff report entitled ‘A Programme for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam’ (PROVN) surmised, that “people and ideas are more effective weapons than military hardware in battling for men’s minds”. Westmoreland ought to have adopted a coordinated counter-insurgency strategy which subordinated military actions to wider socio-political objectives, and focussed obstinately on providing lasting security in the South Vietnamese countryside, where 85 percent of the population lived. Such a policy offered the only realistic, and with regards to the Malayan and Philippine uprisings, tested, means for ARVN and US forces to undercut the Viet-Cong’s potency, and ultimately, the only long-term solution to the weakness of South Vietnam’s state apparatus. 

On a unit-level, the potential for this model to deliver some success is supported by the experience of the Third Marine Division, which established ‘Combined Action Platoons’ (CAPs), constituting 15 Marines and 34 ARVN personnel,  to protect and work with villagers in the ICTZ. According to the Department of Defence’s ‘Hamlet Evaluation System’, CAP-protected zones were more secure than their conventional counterparts and, in relation to security, progressed “twice as fast as those occupied by PFS alone”. Large scale manoeuvres such as ‘Golden Fleece’, whereby Marines inundated coastal agricultural areas to allow farmers to harvest and sell their crop free of VC intimidation, had a positive impact on the battle for hearts and minds. Similarly, the use of traditional COIN tactics forced the Viet-Cong to abandon the village of Than My Rung. 

For revisionists, the notion that America’s Indochinese adventure was doomed to failure from the beginning due to an “asymmetry of political motivation” does not stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, as Dale Walton explains, the lesson to be learned from America’s ‘lost war’ is thus—if a superpower’s civil and military institutions are afflicted with enough inertia and plagued by a poverty of strategic thinking, it is perfectly capable of defeating itself. 


At this juncture, it is important to note that even though the revisionist critique of search-and-destroy is compelling, this does not necessarily imply that a scaled-up programme of pacification would have brought the US victory in Vietnam. Critically, MACV was faced with several obstacles which thwarted the transference of the Marine Corps’ tactical success to the strategic realm.

Academics have not been particularly kind in their appraisal of General Westmoreland and the Army staff. Broad brushstrokes are painted which caricature both as inflexible traditionalists, contemptuous of the so-called “other war” and obsessed with waging strategically worthless, Wagnerian battles. And yet, there is a preponderance of archival evidence, backed by scholarly monographs, which fundamentally contradicts this standpoint. Indeed, Westmoreland repeatedly highlighted the importance of village-based COIN efforts, making it clear to his officers that “the ultimate aim [of US strategy]” was to “pacify the Republic of Vietnam”. However, in light of the entrenched nature of the communist insurgency in the rural south—a 1966 estimate indicated that the VC, NLF, and PAVN, had approximately 225,000 soldiers and guerrillas in theatre—MACV was inclined to conceptualise security in procedural terms,  rather than as a straightforward binary. 

A consensus emerged early on which emphasised a three phased methodology. Immediate operational precedence was given to a series of “raids, thrusts, and limited offensives” which were designed to “stem the tide” of the Viet-Cong advance.  Once conditions had normalised, American forces were to concentrate on counterforce missions aimed at incapacitating the insurgency. This would allow for the gradual pacification of highly populated areas and, eventually, the reassertion of Saigon’s authority. Despite the patently flawed disposition of the strategy—specifically, the utterly counter-productive consequences of search-and-destroy operations—it did at least address an elementary problem which, with the benefit of hindsight, revisionists have largely preferred to ignore—that is to say, the symbiotic link between main-force engagements and pacification. 

Without “sustained offensive pressure” directed at PAVN/VC primary assets, providing meaningful security for the populous would have been tremendously difficult. It is worth quoting Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson at length on this subject:

“If we were to adopt a strategy which emphasises only clear and hold operations, enemy base areas would become relatively secure again. Any change in emphasis away from search-and-destroy operations would free the enemy to operate with relative impunity…In short, a withdrawal to an enclave strategy would simply give enemy Main Force units a license to hunt when and where they choose”.

As Andrew Birtle points out, this opinion was shared by the authors of PROVN and the Vietnam Special Studies Group, the latter being a sub-committee formed by the National Security Council (NSC) in 1969 to assess joint US-ARVN pacification ventures. Drawing on a number of cases, both noted that significant progress in the “other war” only materialised after conventional enemy units in the region had been neutralised. As a result, Army Command was trapped in a predicament which exhibited barely concealed undertones of Faustian irony. The successful implementation of a comprehensive pacification programme required the continued harassment of large North Vietnamese and Viet-Cong formations. However, such actions, which were necessarily destructive, completely undermined the receptivity of rural Vietnamese to these efforts. 

Interestingly, despite the evolution of a distinct Semper Fidelis counter-narrative during and after the war, the Marine leadership was just as beholden to this paradox as the Army. In reality, the CAP concept was a footnote to, and entirely dependent on, the USMC’s conventional campaign against enemy main-forces. Even at the height of hearts-and-minds centred counter-insurgency operations in the ICTZ, only 3 percent of Marine Corps personnel were actively deployed in CAPs. Although revisionists often invoke PROVN to support their central claims, the report was decidedly sceptical about the Marines capacity to consolidate their existing enclaves and to extend them further afield, going as far as to conclude that any such efforts should be suspended.  This was not merely the conjecture of a conservative officer corps. James McAllister persuasively argues that the Army had good reason for being cool towards the idea of sparsely dispersing US forces across the South Vietnamese countryside after the collapse of similarly constituted ARVN units near Binh Dinh in 1964. 

The saliency of this problem was rendered more acute by the constant flow of Sino-Soviet aid to the NLF via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the ability of communist forces to take refuge in Laos. As Birtle observes, these two factors greatly enhanced the ability of the NVA to persistently harass US and ARVN base areas, thus limiting the scope for Marine-style pacification. It is apparent that MACV had little room for manoeuvre on these issues. Firstly, the almost pre-industrial character of North Vietnamese society meant that strategic bombing had little effect on the supply of military and economic aid to the south. Second, successive Presidents were fearful that direct intervention in North Korea or Laos would draw the Chinese into the war, turning an isolated conflagration into a Great Power confrontation. Third, as infantrymen made up only a small proportion of the Army juggernaut, the adoption of a classic counter-insurgency model would have entailed a sizeable increase in US troop numbers. Neither the public nor Congress expressed an appetite for expanding the terms of engagement laid out by the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, especially after the 1968 Tet-Offensive, when opinion is widely accepted to have turned against the war. Pursuing this line of enquiry, Jonathan Caverley asserts that popular opinion “played an essential role in the selection of a capital [rather than labour] intensive strategy to fight the insurgents in the Vietnam War”. 

If one delves into the realm of counterfactual history and assumes that one or all of these variables could have been mitigated to a certain degree, there would still remain one overriding obstacle to pacification ventures—the perceived gap in socio-political relevancy between the NLF and the South Vietnamese regime. On the one hand, the communists were able to ruthlessly exploit the dialectical contradictions inherent in a society in which a minority elite consisting largely of urban, Westernised, Catholics, presided over a nation of poor, rural-dwelling, Buddhists. On the other, the unpopular policies of strongmen like Ngo Dinh Diem created an endemic culture of “theft, corruption, and bribery” in the state bureaucracy. When considered in the shadow of South Vietnam’s eventual collapse during the spring of 1975, the necessity of the 1965 intervention indicates that Saigon was unable and unwilling to construct a workable, indigenous political community capable of sustaining itself indefinitely without United States backing. Once this is taken into account, it is apparent that the hearts-and-minds school of thought relies on the dubious assumption that US resources and counsel could overcome centuries-old social fissures. Revisionists fail to appreciate the Catch-22 dilemma which Saigon thrust upon Westmoreland. If pacification was left to the South Vietnamese, it was destined to fail, and yet, if it was Americanised, MACV would appear to be an imperialist contrivance.  

In sum, given the political context within which it was operating, the US Army pursued the only strategy available to it which guaranteed the maintenance of the south’s existential security.


Although there is little doubt that American military means and political objectives in Vietnam were out of sync, there is little evidence to suggest that the adoption of a Marine-based counter-insurgency approach would have shifted the strategic momentum in MACV’s favour. Revisionist scholars fail to acknowledge the distinctive dimension added to the conflict by the existence of North Vietnamese main-forces. Confronted with such an immediate threat, a village-focussed security doctrine was not feasible without the implementation of a mutually-reinforcing counter-force strategy. Somewhat ironically, the damaging, yet essential, effect of the latter limited any scope for the former. In addition, a combination of factors including geography, the kaleidoscopic composition of the Vietnamese social landscape, politico-institutional attitudes in the United States, and the international political environment, greatly diminished the viability of broadening the CAP programme.

Specifics aside, there is arguably one overriding issue which concerns scholars of the Vietnam War, namely the inability of the wealthiest industrial nation on the planet to impose defeat upon a small, agrarian country comprised almost entirely of peasants. If quantifiable statistics are scrutinised in isolation, it is easy to understand why many people locate the blame for America’s ‘lost war’ solely at the operational level. However, this misjudges the ability of the United States to manipulate events and social relations in distant lands. There is a scene in the 2003 documentary, ‘The Fog of War’, in which an increasingly exasperated Robert McNamara refuses to comment on his culpability for creating a quagmire in Indochina. The interviewer asks; “is there a feeling that you’re damned if you do, and if you don’t, no matter what?” “Yeah that’s right”, replies McNamara, “and I’d rather be damned if I don’t”. Perhaps that is the lesson to be taken from the jungles of Vietnam. 

Authored by British Online Archives

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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