Edwin E. Moïse

Limited War

Vietnam: Privileged Sanctuaries?

The Communist forces fighting in South Vietnam obtained supplies and reinforcements from bases in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Communist units were sometimes able to withdraw to these bases to rest and refit after intensive combat.

With the exception of one brief incursion into Cambodia, American ground troops conducted no large-scale attacks on any of them. Only Laos was subjected to a comparatively liberal application of American air power over a very long period (1965-73). Communist bases in Cambodia were not bombed at all until 1969, and the bombing was narrowly restricted until 1970. In the southern section of North Vietnam, limits on the use of American air power were fairly permissive from 1965 to 1968, but very restrictive thereafter. In the northern section of North Vietnam, the use of American air power was stringently controlled almost always.

Certainly it would be absurd to look at this record and say that the United States made a maximum effort to destroy the external bases used by the Communist forces. But it would be equally absurd to look at the record and say that the Americans in general left those bases alone.

It is sometimes suggested as a "lesson" of Vietnam that a country cannot expect to win a war if its enemy has the use of external sanctuaries immune to attack. If this is true, how did the Democratic Republic of Vietnam win the Vietnam War? It was the United States, not the DRV, that routinely conducted combat operations from external sanctuaries that remained free from significant attack throughout the war--in Thailand, Okinawa, Guam, etc. Furthermore, most of these sanctuaries were genuinely safe, beyond the ability of the DRV to attack, so the US did not have to take a lot of trouble preparing for possible attack on them. The only Communist base areas that were not subjected to at least a year or two of intense bombing under comparatively permissive rules were in the northern section of North Vietnam, more than two hundred miles from the areas of ground fighting in the South, and during the periods when the US was not actively attacking any particular DRV sanctuary, the DRV forces there had to remain very much on guard against the possibility that the US might be preparing to attack them.

It is very often said that only one side waged a limited war in Vietnam; that Hanoi waged a total war. In fact, some of the limits on American action have parallels on the other side. The unwillingness of the US to do too much bombing in the sections of North Vietnam close to China, for fear of provoking China, is analagous to the way the DRV, for fear of provoking the United States, did not commit even a noticeable fraction of the North Vietnamese Army to combat during the first four years of the war. Hanoi in fact stuck by the principle that combat in South Vietnam was to be conducted by natives of South Vietnam for more than a year after the Americans, around the beginning of 1962, began committing "advisors" to combat on a significant scale.

Next section: Vietnam: Limited Objectives

Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 24, 1998.