war on the rocks

A Vicious Entanglement, Part III: The Asymmetries of Vietnam

September 29, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of “A Vicious Entanglement,” a series by Jon Askonas on The Vietnam War, a new documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Read the first two installments here and here

There’s a subtle gap in American counter-insurgency literature. Given the extent of the problems host nation governments cause the United States (extensive and severe), they don’t receive nearly enough attention in counter-insurgency doctrine. What do you do if your allies are terrible? What do you do if your in-country partners are at a distinct and unmitigated disadvantage relative to your enemies? Though it’s a common complaint of counter-insurgents that their local partners are unreliable, poorly trained, or lacking in legitimacy, there’s still the assumption that something meaningful can be done about it. But there’s no ex ante reason why it must always be possible to train, supply, and legitimize host nation partners to the point where they can stand up on their own within a set timeline. And the historical record on this point is decidedly mixed. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick show us why, in Vietnam, we saw almost the worst-case scenario.

In “Riding the Tiger (1961-1963),” the second installment of their documentary series on the Vietnam War, Burns and Novick lay the foundation for the escalation of the conflict between the North and South, and the massive American intervention. They have to cover a tremendous amount of ground laying out domestic politics in Vietnam and the United States, as well as the overarching Cold War framework. The documentarians focus on America’s full-spectrum counter-insurgency efforts leading up to the escalation of the war. Army Green Berets, CIA agents, and various aid organizations flooded into Vietnam and focused on building South Vietnamese forces, providing security to the population, and fueling economic development. They generally operated under the assumptions of “population-centric counterinsurgency.” This “hearts and minds” approach mixes development goals designed to increase the support for and legitimacy of the government (hearts — the population wants the government to succeed) with security-raising measures and counter-guerilla actions designed to convince fence-sitters in the population that the insurgents will not win and to raise the cost of supporting them (minds — the population believes cooperating with the government is in its self-interest). In the period addressed here, Americans were optimistic that their efforts were succeeding, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara even ordered plans to be drawn up for an orderly withdrawal by 1965. But America’s efforts faced three asymmetrical disadvantages related to its erstwhile ally, the Republic of Vietnam.

The first is an inherent asymmetry that affects all counter-insurgencies. The insurgents do not need to actually provide good governance. They benefit from the poor governance of the existing regime, sometimes even if they themselves contribute to it. The justice, peace, and economic growth the Viet Cong promised was theoretical. Popular grievances against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime’s corruption and hostility towards rural areas were all too real. And the insurgency’s mere existence in an area provided evidence of the government’s inability to provide security. As David Galula says, “insurgency is cheap, counterinsurgency is costly,” because it is easier for the insurgent to create or threaten to create disorder than it is for the counterinsurgent to impose order. Moreover, the government succeeds when the populace is only willing to help the government, whereas insurgencies are often quite content for populations to visibly comply with the government, as long as it means that some in the population aid the insurgency, too. In fact, one of the ways insurgencies get resources is as protection money from locals, often using resources gained directly or indirectly from the counter-insurgency.

But there is a second, deeper asymmetry that especially hampers third-party counter-insurgencies, where an external power is intervening on behalf of a host nation. If the United States or another great power is intervening on behalf of a government, it’s usually because that government was too weak or disorganized to fight off the insurgency in the first place. There is thus a negative selection effect in the history of third party counter-insurgencies, partially explaining why they fail most of the time, whereas normal counter-insurgencies succeed 70 percent of the time. It’s possible that a guerrilla movement could be sustained primarily as a proxy force for another great power, but historically that seems rare, and it certainly wasn’t the case in Vietnam. If they were popular, legitimate, and willing to undertake reforms (all things which population-centric counter-insurgency says they must be to succeed), these host nation governments would not have needed substantial foreign help in the first place. Moreover, once a substantial intervention occurs, the host nation government increasingly needs to please yet another player, its patron, making bargaining (with elites, the people, and the insurgency), much more difficult and increasing the chance of failure.

The first two asymmetries most affect third-party counter-insurgencies. But it’s the asymmetries that were specific to Vietnam that should really give us pause. In terms of personnel, narrative, and organization, the United States was on the side of the junior varsity and facing off against an all-star team.

As we had learned in the first episode, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh were inextricably tied to the Vietnamese independence movement and Vietnamese nationalism. Ho and Vo Nguyen Giap had won great fame as the near-mythical leaders who had delivered a dramatic victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu. Ho also had a well-trained sense for symbolic politics. In a society in which one’s family was the most important thing and a vital safety net, Ho never married or had children, claiming instead that the Vietnamese people were his family. He used simple language to reach more people, and grew out a beard to draw on traditional respect for elders. There’s a reason why Viet Cong propaganda in the South prominently featured Ho: He had national credibility. In terms of organization, surviving leaders of the successful Viet Minh insurgency mostly joined the North, and tens of thousands of experienced soldiers joined them. While many who had fought with or alongside the Viet Minh became anti-communists, the continuity of experience and organizational culture on the side of the communists was a formidable advantage. Moreover, much of the Viet Minh network in South Vietnam was intact, and formed the backbone of the nascent National Liberation Front (aka the Viet Cong).

In terms of personnel, experience, intelligence, and vision, Northern leaders surpassed those of the South. The North’s leaders had almost all joined the cause when the Viet Minh leadership literally met in jungle caves. They were deeply loyal to the regime. The South’s leaders varied dramatically in quality and vision, and many of them had had compromising ties to the French. Diem, South Vietnam’s first prime minister, was often seen as the most talented of the bunch, but he was a polarizing authoritarian and a staunch Catholic in a majority Buddhist country, which contributed to his death in a military coup. Still, it’s easy to see why President John F. Kennedy and other senior American officials worried that allowing the coup had been a mistake; the political leaders who followed Diem were less competent, less charismatic, and more corrupt. Partially, this was by design, as the communists maintained an active infiltration and assassination program in the South. Effective leaders were more likely to be targeted, and ineffective ones left in place. In effect, the North Vietnamese had been engaging in battlefield shaping operations for over 10 years by the time U.S. forces arrived. For example, this episode covers the Strategic Hamlet counterinsurgency programs; it neglects to mention that one of its top leaders was a North Vietnamese spy. Even economics favored the North. As a less-developed economy than the South, it had more underemployment, making for easier mobilization. Even Northern willingness to use women in the workforce and in combat added substantial “man”-power advantages.

None of this is to demean the courage and sacrifice of a great many South Vietnamese soldiers and members of the South Vietnamese government who wanted to build a free and democratic country. But in many ways, they were the chief victims of these asymmetries, along with tens of thousands of American soldiers. It’s a question of heated counterfactual debate under what circumstances the South could have withstood the North Vietnamese Army in 1975. But there is little doubt that the North Vietnamese were right that, without the Americans, the South would have lost the war by 1967. It isn’t clear what it would have taken to establish a legitimate, self-sustaining government in South Vietnam; when the United States left in 1973, the job wasn’t nearly done. Under the best of conditions, armed state building is hard. In the face of a determined insurgency with strong organizational or symbolic advantages relative to the nascent host government, it might require an indefinite and costly commitment.


Jon Askonas is a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin and a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His current research addresses the impact US Army policies in Vietnam had on knowledge production, learning on the ground, and battlefield effectiveness.


Image: U.S. Air Force Photo