The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

The Vietnam and Korean Wars

Arguably, the US was successful in achieving its desired end state in the Korean War:  stopping the expansion of communism in Asia and preserving the existence of the Republic of Korea.  Given this success, many US analysts in the early years of Vietnam did not see any serious problems with repeating that success in Vietnam.  Was that a correct analysis?  If so, then why didn’t the US repeat its success?  If not, what were the significant differences between the two situations?


February 8, 2013 - Posted by | H300 | , , , , , , , ,


  1. The analysis that victory would be achieved in the same  manner Vietnam as in Korea was wrong. One major difference was how the U.S. entered the war. The U.S. joined the Korean war as combatants ready to end the spread of communism. Although initially poorly trained and equipped the U.S. military was there to fight. In South Vietnam the U.S. military began its role as advisors to the South Vietnamese military. This poorly trained organization had the lead in dealing with its country’s conflict. as a result the transition to combat operations was different and more complex. 

    An additional flaw in the analysis was not recognizing that the insurgent threat must be treated differently than the conventional fight. The people of South Vietnam did not relate to or believe in the political leadership. The military was based on conscripts who were not loyal to the leaders they were fighting for. Therefore the fight against insurgency was missing the most critical component, the support of the people. This was not the case in South Korea. 

    Finally the strategy of the U.S. was different. In South Korea the strategy was simple, stop the spread of communism. This worked because it countered the enemy strategy, which was to unify north and south and spread communism. The U.S. strategy in Vietnam was to maintain the status quo and stabilize South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese therefore had the initiative. They were focused on unifying the north and south who were linked culturally. Every action the North Vietnamese took was toward this end state. 

    Comment by Ryan J. Scott | February 27, 2013

  2. Yes, the U.S. was successful in achieving its desired end of stopping the expansion of communism in Asia and preserving the existence of, then 2-year-old, Republic of Korea (ROK) at the end of the Korean War. However, the Korean War scenario benefited from several factors that had little to do directly with the military effort.

    First, the U.S. entered the Korean conflict partly as a result of its obligations incurred as a victor at the end of WWII responsible for Japan’s overseas colonies and with U.N. authorization for the use of force to defend ROK. The U.N. resolution gave significant diplomatic justification for U.S. military action in defense of ROK and even unification efforts. The U.N. resolution permitted member states to directly support the U.S. and nearly two dozen states did exactly that.

    Second, the aggressive stance towards self-defense and unification by the nationalist ROK leadership and their legitimacy and power in the eyes of many Koreans enhanced the odds that the War would be seen as a Korean project and not an American one providing the impetus for many Koreans to fight for ROK independence.

    Lastly, during the Korean War, the U.S. still benefited from a fairly unipolar world with the U.S. at the top with nuclear weapons; only one other nation (USSR) was able to claim nuclear weapon status. General MacArthur’s repeated and credible threats regarding the use of tactical nuclear weapons must have entered the calculus of the Soviets and the Chinese in right-sizing their support for the North Korean communists.

    In Vietnam, the U.S. had little international legitimacy, did not have a popular and vertically integrated South Vietnamese partner, and no longer benefited from being one of only two nuclear states.

    Comment by Art Terhakopian - SG 11A | February 28, 2013

  3. The analysis is not correct. Many believe that the US was successful in achieving the desired end state in the Korean War. The expansion of communism was halted and the relative nature of the border restored to the status quo at the 38th Parallel. The US involvement into the Korean War was to use military force to repel the communist North Korea from the South. However, the US involvement in Vietnam started out under very different circumstances as the Korean War with Vietnam being prosecuted with different means to the end.
    The initial US involvement into Vietnam began as an advisory role to the South Vietnamese military. The US military advisors faced, over time, a growing force of the Viet Cong based upon Mao Zedong’s revolutionary theories and commanded by Ho Chi Minh. As time progressed, the North Vietnamese regime saw that Phase 1 – Political and Phase 2 – Guerrilla Warfare was not advancing as projected and decided to initiate Phase 3 – Conventional Warfare. It is the introduction of the North Vietnamese Army that changed the course of the war.
    The US involvement in Korea was Conventional Warfare with the primary purpose to rid South Korea of Communist North Korean and Chinese forces. Unlike Vietnam, the US wasn’t focused on providing advisors throughout the war. Additionally, the Korean War was not based on a Maoist Revolutionary Theory and the US didn’t have to fight a Counter-Guerrilla Warfare conflict.
    The significant differences are the US involvement: advising the South Vietnamese Army against a communist revolution rather than combating communist forces from North Korea.

    Comment by Jeremy Guy | March 13, 2013

  4. I would argue that indeed, the U.S was successful in achieving its desired end state in the Korean War. There end state was accomplished by defusing the growth of communism in Asia thus maintaining the ROK. Despite US analysts in the early years of Vietnam, the analysis was still correct. There are many reasons, why the US was unable to repeat its success in Vietnam. The differences of politics, economy and the American people’s support, just to name a few, truly dictated the lack of repetition.
    Politics is always the running adjudication. Between the presidential elections, Nixon promised Americans, that if he won, he would end the war which resulted in the US premature withdrawal out of the Vietnam. And because of it, I would also argue that we did not lose the war. Some strategist believed we were not at war; we were advisors with Congressional limitations.
    Another reason was that the Vietnam War had several effects on the U.S. economy. The requirements of the war effort strained the nation’s production capacities, leading to imbalances in the industrial sector. Factories that would have been producing consumer goods were being used to make items from the military, causing controversy over the government’s handling of economic policy.
    Lastly, unlike the Korean War, the US was able to repeat the success due to the lack of American interest, and not to mention how the media didn’t add much help with unnecessary exposure. No one was interested in stopping the Communists aggression in the Far East, and as the war went on, the cost in blood and treasure seemed extreme and fruitless. When the draft was ended, it made the war more tolerable, but then high profile stories of war crimes and napalming made the war the much more unpopular.
    Our purpose in the Vietnam War is debated to this day.

    Comment by Detrice Mosby | March 17, 2013

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