Modest in number yet extraordinarily influential, proponents of the “better war” narrative maintain that Gen. Creighton Abrams, who became the top commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam in June 1968, jettisoned the failing strategy of his predecessor, Gen. William Westmoreland, and achieved a military victory, only to have it squandered by feckless politicians in Washington.
Withdrawal, the latest from esteemed Vietnam scholar Greg Daddis, nimbly addresses the “better war” narrative and the limits of American military strategy in the post-World War II era.
According to “better war” theorists, Westmoreland was hopelessly wedded to conventional warfare and pursued a flawed attrition-based strategy predicated on big-unit search-and-destroy operations at the expense of “pacification” programs that brought improved security, economic development projects and social services to rural villages. Abrams supposedly reversed course after taking charge of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Daddis, however, astutely observes that Westmoreland recognized the dual nature of the Communist threat and employed an approach that i ncluded both support for pacification and a strong military response to the enemy’s conventional forces.
While Abrams embraced civic action programs as a means of pacifying the restive South Vietnamese countryside, the World War II tank commander did so with the understanding that security had to be established first—using aggressive military force. “Security remained at the core of Abe’s ‘one-war’ approach,” Daddis writes. “Thus, despite ‘better war’ claims that the new MACV commander approached the political-military problem in South Vietnam with a more restrained, even enlightened, outlook, the process of ‘pacifying’ a war-torn country remained as violent as ever.”
Daddis, a retired Army colonel who served in the Iraq War and taught history at West Point, contends that there was far more strategic continuity between Westmoreland and Abrams than advocates of the “better war” theory are willing to admit. A thorough examination of the historical record supports that conclusion. Abrams, much like Westmoreland, believed that the U.S. military was uniquely qualified to provide the shield behind which pacification and an effective, grass-roots village government could succeed.
Both men embraced large search-and-destroy operations to push enemy units away from the local population. The American-South Vietnamese Combined Campaign Plan for 1969, the first under Abrams at MACV, did not differ in any meaningful way from the 1968 strategy. Abrams acknowledged in March 1968 that when he assumed command in June he intended to “avoid any implication of ‘great change,’ ‘new strategy’.”
An argument can be made for a more optimistic interpretation of the war in the early 1970s because of the heavy losses that Communist forces had suffered. Yet, as Daddis makes abundantly clear, at no point did the allies “win” the war in Vietnam, contrary to the claims of the “better war” theorists. The North Vietnamese Army remained very much intact, and Viet Cong guerrillas continued to operate in the villages of South Vietnam. More important, the timetable for President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program—designed to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese and expedite the final withdrawal of American forces—appeared overly ambitious.
Withdrawal, though, is more than a sharp riposte to the “better war” narrative. Nixon, Daddis argues, hoped to fundamentally reshape American Cold War foreign policy, particularly with respect to China and the Soviet Union, but could not do so effectively without first extricating the United States from the war in Southeast Asia. Abrams, consequently, was obliged to fight a war Washington and the American public no longer seemed interested in winning.
Brilliantly building on the success of Westmoreland’s War, Daddis’ Withdrawal is at once a superb re-examination of MACV in the later years of the war and a cautionary tale of what happens when military strategy and grand strategy do not coincide.