The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Ends, Ways and Means in Vietnam

Through the Tet offensive in 1968, some have argued that the United States did not have a firm strategy in Vietnam.  For a strategy to be coherent it must logically connect ends, ways, and means.  If you assume that the U.S. end was a stable South Vietnamese government, and that the U.S. had the means to achieve that end, how do you evaluate the ways the U.S. pursued the strategy?  Some things to think about:  What were the U.S. ways?  Were they logically connected to the end?  What was missing from the U.S. strategy?


February 21, 2010 - Posted by | H300 | , , , , , ,


  1. The U.S. strategy during the war in Vietnam was deprived of a unity of purpose. The different perceptions created in Washington among the major government elements (White House, Pentagon, State Department and the Congress) about the nature of insurgent warfare, military strategic objectives, and war aims were some issues. For example: the Vietnamese conflict was a limited war for the U.S. but was a total war for the Vietnamese Communists; the political leadership in Washington failure to understand this concept and the result was U.S. underestimated the fighting power of the Communist, especially their willingness to die. Also, the combination of a hostile media and a large domestic anti-war movement created over the political leadership an additional pressure of how view and manage the military issues. The consequence of lack of unity of purpose was that political decisions limited too much the military actions.

    Comment by MAJ Jose A. Nieves | February 24, 2009

  2. First of all, it was a gross error on behalf of our senior leaders/national policy-makers to simply assume that the “ends” that we outlined in accordance with our national interests were the same as those desired by the South Vietnamese leadership. If the vision and final end-state designed by the United States is not compatible with the primary interests of the South Vietnamese President and his key officials, then how can planners effectively prepare a coherent strategy of “ways” to achieve strategic victory when these South Vietnamese decision-makers won’t cooperate or endorse the end-state envisioned in the proposed strategy? It is no secret that President Nguyen Van Thieu’s primary interest (along with the those of the political elites) in gaining U.S. support, was to maintain power and autocratic rule in South Vietnam… not in establishing democracy or building an anti-communist nation or even providing a stable, safe environment for the people of South Vietnam. So one can see that the development of any strategy is already being built on extremely shaky ground.

    Second, the “ways” outlined in the U.S. strategy to gain victory in Vietnam focused solely on the “military” element of national power. These is little doubt that the U.S. Armed Forces at the time possessed the means and combat capability to execute successful offensive operations across Vietnam, efficient air interdiction, and strategic air attacks against the North Vietnamese. However, one of the key factors of the U.S. strategy not taken into serious account was the “Passion” (or People of South Vietnam), specifically providing security for the population in a conflict that is seen as a People’s War being waged by a strongly engrained guerrilla force already residing in South Vietnam. This important responsibility of providing security for the people was diverted to the South Vietnamese government, who we know from the beginning had very little interest in serving their own population.

    When observing these dynamics through the Clausewitzian model of the Paradoxical Trinity, a U.S. strategy that attempts to effectively connect the ends, ways, and means to achieve success will collapse. Reason being is that although the Probability (Military) and the means to support a sound U.S. strategy exists, it lacks the incorporation of the other important elements of the trinity strategem; it ignores safeguarding and building the Passion (People) of Vietnam and the establishment of a firm Policy (Government) that can’t even agree on what the final end-state of South Vietnam should be.

    Comment by MAJ Lance A. Okamura | February 24, 2009

  3. It is apparent that the U.S. failed in many ways to correctly identify the strategic and operational end-state of Vietnam. This lead military and political leaders to create ones themselves which most likely favored their own personal gains. The varied personal opinions and competing intersts combined with a fractured, volital society kept the idea and vague perceptions of the war center stage instead of a more objective and unified effort in reaching the desired end-state. Therefore, we as a nation spent too much time swinging at pitches in the dirt instead of working the count and putting one in the bleachers. We failed to work concurrently and practically in leveraging our military force and civilian organizations to reach a common desired goal. Without an end in sight, the way to get there or the means in which to do it are worthless and futile.

    Comment by Gary Lyke | February 25, 2009

  4. In order to achieve any lasting success in Vietnam, the United States needed to concentrate its efforts on the creation of a viable, legitimate government in South Vietnam – a government that is answerable to the people. While the CORDS program achieve success in the “pacification” of South Vietnam; as long as the government remained corrupt, it would never achieve any stability or provide a realistic counter to the Viet Cong or North Vietnam’s involvement in the region without US involvement. The people of South Vietnam had little to fight for as long as corruption of the government remained intact.

    Comment by MAJ Mark Libby | February 25, 2009

  5. One must back things to the beginning of the Vietnam War and recall why the United States entered into that particular battle and what legitimacy did they posses. The US reason was twofold, first was to assist the South Vietnamese in preserving the non-communist status quo and second to stop the expansion of Communism worldwide. Additionally, the question remains if the U.S. had legitimacy in their actions. I make this comment, because the U.S. did not attempt to gain approval from the United Nations council, because they were sure that the Soviet would veto the effort of the U.S. Without the U.S. having a legitimate justification, it would make it difficult to determine a solid strategy, which would be back by the American people.

    Comment by Jerry Gaussoin | February 26, 2009

  6. I think that one of the most relevant features of the Vietnam conflict is related the media’s role.
    For the first time in human history (even though we are stll quite far from the “CNN effect” in Desert Storm) a war is covered by indipendent and relatively uncontrolled reportes.
    Unfortunately, this did not guarantee objectiveness.
    I am convinced that media really influenced, directly and indirectly, the war percetion of all the elements of the Paradoxical Trinity.
    If Clausewitz had known the power of media, probably he would have considered them as a key factor that affects the Trinity.

    Comment by fdelfavero | February 26, 2009

  7. Pat of the problem with the U.S. strategy is that we failed to recognize the strength and effectiveness of the insurgency. We saw containment as a viable option while the insurgents used this time to reach out to the local population and spread their IO campaign. They also took advantage of the slow response to improve training and better equip their forces. Our nonchalant attitude towards the initial insurgency allowed us to lose focus on the political nature of the conflict thus enabling the insurgents to build a solid power base. Additionally, we transitioned to a policy of Vietnamization that was supposed to train and equip the South’s Army to defend their own country. The problem with this strategy is that it to was a gradual operation that essentially provided Russia time to supply the North.

    Comment by Richard Myers | February 27, 2009

  8. If one assumes that the end state is a stable South Vietnamese government, then one must understand and accept that it would take an enormous amount of “means” to accomplish it (i.e. time, money, soldiers and resources) due to the long-standing conflict to be independent dating back to France’s colonization in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, the US went into the conflict with the idea that a “limited war concept” would work to get the results they were after, but the elusive enemy did not agree and fought with vengeance and was willing to use all of their “means” without reservation to attack the US and South Vietnamese Army. Additionally, I believe the US focused its efforts primarily on the military goals and failed to focus on the Diplomatic efforts in order to meet the end state. Militarily, the US had the resources, but diplomatically the US seemed to be learning as they went along and failed to understand the culture of the Vietnamese to properly influence the population and to assist with the legitimacy of the government to meet the end state of a “stable” government.

    Comment by MAJ Patricia George | February 27, 2009

  9. The US “flexible” (guerrilla and conventional) military strategy provided security for a stable South Vietnamese government through the TET offensive in 1968. However, the US strategy did not provide a productive IO campaign IOT counter the negative US media messages covering the Vietnam War. The US strategy discounted the influence that tunnel vision images generate on ‘public will,’ and thereby over policy making. Therefore, the US did not have a firm strategy concerning the Vietnam War because the government failed to recognize the “I” of “DIME.”

    Comment by Major Barton Herndon | February 27, 2009

  10. Clearly the strategy used by the U.S. in Vietnam was not a realistic one. No one clearly understood what was goin on in the trenches including many of the commanders in country. And if they did understood, they were unable to articulate it very well to higher. It appeared to me that our leaders in the U.S. clearly underestimated the will of the enemy in Vietnam, overlooking that fact the enemy was seasoned and well trained following a protracted for some 20 years prior.

    Comment by MAJ Dewayne Bailey | March 27, 2009

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