The United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam argues Lewis Sorley in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. Sorley blames General William Westmoreland, American politicians, and the antiwar movement for squandering a victory earned by U.S and South Vietnamese forces after General Creighton Abrams assumed command of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Abrams abandoned Westmoreland’s bankrupt war of attrition to fight a “better war” focusing on the pacification of South Vietnam, interdicting supplies and troops from the Communist North, and training South Vietnam’s military. A Better War claims that Abrams achieved military victory in South Vietnam by 1972, despite continuing troop reductions, budgetary constraints, and the efforts of the antiwar movement in the United States. Sorley believes that the antiwar movement fueled by biased media coverage pushed the Nixon administration to prematurely suspend American support of South Vietnam, and that diplomats with their own agendas acted to end the war by every means possible.
From 1965 – 1968, General William Westmoreland pursued a war of attrition against Communist forces by requesting large numbers of American troops to achieve his goal killing enough of the enemy to break their will to continue the war. Westmoreland preferred large unit operations, in which battalions conducted search-and-destroy operations that Communist guerillas easily avoided. Sorley argues that these large-scale operations were expensive in casualties and materiel and achieved few results. Concentration on large operations also led Westmoreland to neglect the tasks of pacification and training of South Vietnamese forces.
Dissent in the United States forced a change in strategy and leadership in Vietnam. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, General Creighton Abrams assumed command of MACV. Abrams implemented a new strategy to pacify South Vietnam based on population security, destruction of the Vietcong infrastructure, and development of intelligence sources. Small units were the focus of the new strategy, which secured South Vietnam’s villages, reducing the Viet Cong’s ability to operate and broadening support for the government.
Sorley asserts that Abrams arrived at the unique understanding that Communist forces deployed logistics support before operations rather than bring their supplies with them when it was time to do battle, which drove American forces to concentrate more on interdicting supply movement than simply killing the enemy. The focus on disrupting Communist access to South Vietnam led Abrams to concentrate American artillery and air assets on closing the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville. Despite constraints due to force and budgetary reductions, Abrams was able to innovatively utilize bombers and fixed-wing gunships to continue disrupting North Vietnamese logistics through 1972.
A Better War argues that the United States had won the war by 1972 by securing all South Vietnam, repelling multiple North Vietnamese invasions, and destroying sanctuary areas in Laos and Cambodia. However, the Nixon administration negotiated away victory by not requiring North Vietnam to remove its troops from the South at the Paris cease-fire negotiations. Worse, the United States failed to live up to its commitment to defend South Vietnam against renewed North Vietnamese aggression.
While Sorley demonstrates the progress made in Vietnam through the focus on pacification of the countryside and training of South Vietnamese troops, there are significant problems with his argument. He frequently steps aside from his argument to criticize negative media coverage and the antiwar movement while ignoring the effect of the Johnson administration’s lack of coherent objectives or Westmoreland’s ineffectiveness. The emphasis on the horrors inflicted by Communist atrocities also detracts from Sorley’s argument when he ignores civilian casualties inflicted by the United States in North Vietnam, atrocities by allied troops on civilians in South Vietnam, and North Vietnamese dedication to reunification.