British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery even told Dayan that the Americans had implemented a misguided and “insane” strategy.
On July 12, 1966, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the National League edged the American League, 2-1, in 10 innings in the 37th Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Nancy Sinatra, alluring in a tight sweater, graced the cover of the July 12, 1966, issue of Look magazine. Doris Day was knocking them dead at the box office in her movie The Glass Bottom Boat. In Vietnam, the big U.S. buildup was well underway; some 276,000 American troops were on the ground.
That evening, President Lyndon Johnson gave a nationally televised speech on U.S. foreign policy in Asia—a speech in which LBJ had some strong words for the Vietnamese Communists.
“As long as the leaders of North Vietnam really believe that they can take over the people of South Vietnam by force, we just must not let them succeed,” LBJ declared. The United States, he said, was “fighting a war of determination” in Vietnam. “It may last a long time. But we must keep on until the communists in North Vietnam realize the price of aggression is too high—and either agree to a peaceful settlement or to stop their fighting. However long it takes….”
Also on July 12, 1966, former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan—the flamboyant, controversial fighting general who led the resoundingly successful assault into the Sinai Peninsula during the 1956 war with Egypt—boarded a commercial jet in London on a sojourn to South Vietnam. The 51-year-old Dayan had resigned his military position in 1958, went into politics the next year and had served for five years as his nation’s minister of agriculture. He was now a newly minted author (Sinai Diary), a backbencher in the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) and a private citizen hankering to go where the action was.
Moshe Dayan was used to action. Born in 1915 on the first kibbutz in what was then Palestine, he joined the paramilitary organization Haganah when he was 14 to help guard Jewish settlements from Arab attacks. During the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, Dayan was part of an ambush and patrol squad working for the British. This elite special operations force, the Special Night Squads, was selected and personally trained by the legendary Orde C. Wingate, who later commanded the Chindits in WWII Burma.
In 1941 Dayan served as a Haganah scout for the British and took part in the invasion of Vichy-held Lebanon and Syria. During that campaign, on June 7, 1941, while taking a reconnaissance break from manning a machine gun on the roof of a captured police station in a small Lebanese town, a bullet from a French sniper tore into his binoculars. The glass shattered Dayan’s left eye and left him with the distinctive eye patch he wore for the rest of his life.
When Arab armies moved into Israel in 1948, Dayan was a member of the Haganah general staff working in Arab intelligence. During the ensuing Israeli War of Independence, he fought the Syrians in Galilee, led a commando battalion on raids against Lod and Ramallah, and commanded the Jerusalem front. Dayan became chief of staff of the Israeli Armed Forces in 1953. In that position he drew up—and executed—the plan for the Sinai invasion in 1956.
Ten years later, Dayan was itching to get a look at another war. It had been “ten years since I had been in battle, ten years since I had been at the wrong end of an enemy tank, field gun, and attack plane—and at the right end of our own,” Dayan wrote in his memoir, which was published in the United States in 1976. “I wanted to see for myself, on the spot, what modern war was like, how the new weaponry was handled, how it shaped up in action, whether it could be adopted for our own use.”
Dayan—who would go on to cement his military reputation by leading Israel to victory in the 1967 Six Day War—chose to visit Vietnam in 1966, he said, because it was “the best, and only, military ‘laboratory’ at the time.” So the well-connected Dayan cooked up a scheme to write a series of newspaper articles for three publications: Maariv, Israel’s top newspaper; the London Sunday Telegraph; and The Washington Post.
“The articles will deal with my observations on the political situation there,” Dayan told reporters as he was leaving London. “I am also very interested in the fighting. I hope to be assigned to an American military unit.”
As it turned out, Dayan wrote more about military strategy and tactics than about the political situation. He felt most at home writing about military matters because he had spent nearly his entire career in uniform fighting for his country. But Dayan, who also was involved in high-level Israeli politics, did not ignore the political situation in Vietnam. During his five weeks in-country, Dayan spent time on the ground with more than one American military unit as he enthusiastically immersed himself into the guts of the Vietnam War as few visiting dignitaries had or ever would.
Dayan met Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Commanding General William Westmoreland; he had dinner with General Harold K. Johnson, the U.S. Army chief of staff who also was paying a visit to Vietnam; he conferred with Lt. Gen. Stanley R. “Swede” Larsen, the commanding general of the I Field Force; he hobnobbed with division and battalion commanders; and he went out on patrols with company commanders and the grunts they led. He came under fire more than once.
He also came away convinced that the Americans were fighting the wrong kind of war in Vietnam—and one that he believed, at best, would end in a stalemate.
Moshe Dayan said that he realized he knew very little about the war in Vietnam after he decided to go there. So he traveled to Paris, London and Washington to pick the brains of some experienced military men. In Paris he met with generals who fought in Vietnam during the French War (1945-54). In London, he had an audience with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, whom Dayan had met in the early ’50s. The hero of El Alamein told the hero of the Sinai that the Americans had implemented a misguided strategy that depended on large numbers of combat troops, aggressive bombing and the civilian social engineering plan that moved entire village populations threatened by the Viet Cong into safe havens. That policy, the 78-year-old Montgomery told Dayan, was “insane.”
After his meetings in Paris and London, Dayan flew to Washington, where he spent more than a week getting up to speed on American strategy and tactics. At the Pentagon, Dayan met with three gung-ho colonels who briefed him and then told him the Americans were certain to prevail in Vietnam. He also had meetings with three of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ best and brightest—and most influential—Vietnam War planners: National Security Adviser Walt Rostow; former U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam General Maxwell Taylor (who was advising LBJ on the war); and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. All three Vietnam War hawks confidently touted the effectiveness of the U.S. search and destroy strategy and heaped praise on their South Vietnamese allies.
As Dayan later wrote in his memoir, they “saw the key to victory in the breaking of Hanoi’s fighting spirit…by keeping up the heavy bombing of North Vietnam and wiping out the Viet Cong units in the south.” McNamara and Taylor, he said, “believed that if this American military activity was maintained and strengthened, Ho Chi Minh would not be able to withstand it for long.”
Moshe Dayan arrived in Saigon on July 25. He likened the situation there—with heavily armed South Vietnamese and American soldiers hunkering down behind sandbagged bunkers at the city’s big intersections—to what life was like in Jerusalem and other cities in Palestine under British colonial rule. Not a promising situation.
The U.S. military rolled out the red carpet for him. Everywhere he went, generals and colonels wined and dined him—and gave him pretty much free rein to see the war up close and personally. Although McNamara told Westmoreland (according to Dayan) not to expose him to “too much danger,” lower-level American officers let him “see all the action [he] wanted.”
Before heading into the field, though, Dayan met with influential South Vietnamese political and military leaders, including Nguyen Van Thieu, then the No. 2 man in the government under Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky. Thieu told him—of all things—how much he admired the commanding North Vietnamese Army General Vo Nguyen Giap, who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Two days later, bedecked in American fatigues, jungle boots and an olive drab baseball cap, Dayan was on board a brown-water U.S. patrol boat in the Mekong Delta looking on as American sailors stopped and searched Vietnamese river craft looking for contraband.
The next day Dayan had a VIP tour of USS Constellation, the huge aircraft carrier sitting in the South China Sea from which a constant stream of combat aircraft blasted off on their way to missions over North and South Vietnam. As would be the case during his entire visit to Vietnam, Dayan was very impressed by the might of the U.S. war machine and by the capability and dedication of the American troops. But he voiced doubts about whether overwhelming power, dedication and ability would enable the Americans to prevail in what was then primarily a guerrilla war against an elusive enemy. He also was skeptical of the official explanation of American war aims.
Despite what he saw and was told, Dayan said, he thought that the Americans were “not fighting against infiltration to South [Vietnam] or against guerrillas, or against…Ho Chi Minh, but against the entire world. Their real aim was to show everybody—including Britain, France, and the USSR—their power and determination so as to pass this message: wherever Americans go, they are irresistible.”
Dayan continued to be impressed by American firepower and the military’s can-do spirit after he flew back to South Vietnam from the Constellation. His first stop was a three-day tour of duty with a Marine company on patrol just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). He tagged along with a company of Marines commanded by 1st Lt. Charles Krulak, the son of Marine Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak, then the commanding general of the Pacific Fleet Marine Force, and a man who had a strong hand in guiding Marine Corps policy in Vietnam.
Dayan peppered the younger Krulak (who later became commandant of the Marine Corps) with questions about American aims in Vietnam, and also told the young lieutenant what his own assessment was of the situation on the ground. Dayan, according to Charles Krulak, said the Americans should be “where the people are,” not trying to ferret out the VC in the boonies.
From the DMZ, Dayan went to Danang, then to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, where the Israeli general saw action for the first time. Dayan was met in Pleiku by the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division, Maj. Gen. John “Jack” Norton, West Point 1941, who had jumped behind German lines during D-Day with the 82nd Airborne Division.
“I’ve had word from General Westmoreland,” Dayan quoted Norton as saying, “For you, mon général, all doors are open. Just take care of yourself, and for heaven’s sake, don’t pick one of my units to get killed in.”
Four days later, Dayan was on a helicopter accompanying the Cav in Operation Paul Revere, a continuation of Operation Hastings near the Cambodian border. Again, he was impressed with America’s military might, especially with the Army’s innovations in helicopter-borne warfare. “There are altogether 1,700 in the country,” he wrote, “more than all the helicraft in Europe.”
But Dayan was less than impressed by the American tactics and strategy, and expressed serious reservations about the efficacy of U.S. intelligence. As the Cav went out to search and destroy, Dayan said, “One small item is missing: no one knows exactly where are the positions of the Viet Cong battalions. The air photos and air reconnaissance fail to pick out the Viet Cong encampments, entrenched, bunkered and camouflaged to merge with the jungle vegetation.”
Dayan and company landed in a hot landing zone. “All around came sounds of exploding shells and machine-gun fire,” he wrote in his newspaper report. The Americans responded as per normal, with a massive display of firepower. Then Dayan looked on in amazement as what he called “the assembly line of the 1st Cavalry’s fighting machine” was soon dropped onto the landing zone: 105mm howitzers, mountains of artillery shells, more guns and ammo, bulldozers, command and control equipment.
“But where was the war?” Dayan asked rhetorically. “It was like watching military maneuvers—with only one side. Could they have operated in this way, I wondered, if the Viet Cong had also possessed warplanes, artillery and armor? The heaviest weapon in a Viet Cong unit, a medium mortar, could be carried on a man’s back. But anyway, where were the Viet Cong? And where was the battle?”
That answer came soon enough—a half-hour later, when a 1st Cav company that landed 300 yards away was ambushed and cut to ribbons. According to Dayan, the company took 70 percent casualties, a total of 25 killed and 70 wounded. Among the dead was a platoon leader who “was killed when a chance bullet hit and detonated the grenade hanging from his belt.”
Dayan then spent two days at the Special Forces camp at Plei Me, three miles from the Cambodian border. Soon after arriving, he was out on patrol with a Green Beret squad. But Dayan left the patrol abruptly when Norton sent word that there was a heavy VC attack against a South Korean unit close by. Dayan rushed to the scene and reported that about 130 Korean troops had repulsed a force of about 1,000 attacking Viet Cong, with the critical help of a massive American artillery barrage. Dayan was suitably impressed.
American “support units laid down more than 21,000 shells,” he reported. “This is more than the total volume of artillery fire by the Israeli army during the Sinai campaign and the War of Independence together.”
Dayan found similar situations wherever he went. He concluded that Viet Cong tactics and strategy were working, but that American strategy was, at best, barely succeeding. The Viet Cong’s M.O., he said, “was to attack American units with the aim of destroying them when the prospect of success seemed bright….Ninety out of every one hundred battles in the Vietnam War began as this one did, on Viet Cong initiative, when they deemed the circumstances favorable.”
As for the Americans, Dayan wrote that they did not make the destruction of the enemy “conditional on a favorable tactical situation.” American commanders, he said, “were eager to make contact with the Viet Cong at all times, in any situation, and at any price.”
He continued to be impressed by American firepower. “What the Americans have at their disposal,” he said in his newspaper dispatch, “is all that a commander can visualize in a dream: helicopters to rush his men to any location; well-trained troops with the aggressive spirit and ready for action; air and artillery support; equipment, ammunition and fuel in virtually unlimited supply.”
Despite that, Dayan said, the Americans “have not succeeded in routing the Viet Cong.” Worse, “they have not succeeded in bringing them to decisive battle. They do not always know where the Viet Cong units are; and when they do run across them—the enemy slips from their grasp after the initial encounter, defeating attempts to seal him off.”
Dayan was impressed by the enemy’s determination. He gave one example, after he was permitted to watch the interrogation of a VC prisoner at a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) camp near Pleiku on August 16. Near the end of the session, Dayan wrote, the prisoner looked his American interrogator in the eye and spat in his face. “In an even voice, he said, ‘Now you can kill me. I’m not afraid. It’s you who are afraid.’”
Despite the enemy’s determination and the success of their strategy, Dayan voiced doubts that the Viet Cong could defeat the Americans, mainly because of the overwhelming U.S. superiority in “planes, artillery, armor, modern communications, aircraft carriers, helicopter-cavalry, against an enemy that has none.” The only way Dayan saw a victory for the Communists was a political—not military—one: if the Americans “for political reasons (domestic or foreign)…decide to call a halt to the war before achieving total victory.”
Dayan went on, though, to point out other ways that the Hanoi government could frustrate the Americans off and on the battlefield. “Hanoi can refuse to go to the negotiating table,” he said, and “refuse to sign any arrangement whereby she recognizes the division of Vietnam….” On the field of battle, he said, the VC could prevent the Americans and South Vietnamese from “pacifying the country” by refraining “from pitting regular units against regular units in frontal engagements and organize guerrilla warfare.”
The Viet Cong, he concluded, “cannot drive out the Americans, but they can avoid being driven out themselves. They can deny the normalization of life in the south.”
Dayan was particularly critical of the much-maligned South Vietnamese-American Strategic Hamlet program and its successor, hearts-and-minds initiatives, which since 1962 had relocated Vietnamese villagers from areas threatened by the enemy into stockaded hamlets for their own protection. In his last days in-country, Dayan visited two such places, which he called “refugee settlements.” Dayan did not like most of what he saw.
“The atmosphere was not pleasant,” he wrote in his newspaper article. The women, he said, refused to be interviewed. “When we approached them, they sullenly backed away. Even the children, who are usually bright and jolly in these parts, looked wretched, stretching forth a begging hand while silently following their mothers.”
At a second settlement, Dayan reported that most of the people seemed happier, with the younger children attending a U.S.-supported school and the older ones working in decent-paying jobs in a safe environment. Still, Dayan said, things seemed amiss.
What “the Americans call ‘resettlement of refugees on the land,’” Dayan reported, “is not really the building of farm villages but the creation of slums around their Army camps.”
Dayan spent his last week in Vietnam, from August 20-27, in the Delta and in Lai Khe in the company of Maj. Gen. William Depuy, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division. He came away with more criticism of the Americans’ search and destroy, war of attrition strategy, and predicted again that the Viet Cong could prevail if they stuck to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.
And he reiterated his disdain for the hearts and minds approach, as exemplified in the village resettlement programs. “I do not believe the Americans can bring pacification to Vietnam,” Dayan wrote in his last dispatch from the war zone. “The Americanization of the war can, from the military point of view, succeed, but the Americanization of the peace, of daily life, can only serve the Viet Cong with terrorist objectives and propagandist arguments against ‘American hegemony in Vietnam.’”
Or as Dayan put it in his book, Vietnam Diary, which was published in Israel in 1977, “the Americans are winning everything—except the war.”
Less than a year after Moshe Dayan left Vietnam, he was thrust back into the forefront of Israeli politics. He was named defense minister on June 1, 1967, and—along with General Yitzhak Rabin—led Israel to its overwhelming victory during the Six-Day War from June 5-10, 1967.
Vietnam veteran Marc Leepson is the editor of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War, and is senior writer and books editor for The VVA Veteran. His latest book is Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General.