Edwin E. Moïse

Limited War

Vietnam: Limited Objectives

A very fashionable book by Colonel Harry Summers, originally published by the US Army War College, comments that the United States publicly abandoned the idea of winning an old-fashioned victory, achieving the destruction or surrender of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The US only wanted to make Hanoi mend its ways and stop intervening in South Vietnam. Summers sees in this a lack of symmetry with the attitude of the men in Hanoi, who were "fighting by the old rules and who kept victory as their ultimate objective throughout the war." (Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War [Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982], p. 95; see also p. 62.) The logic collapses on close examination. The US did not attempt to destroy or conquer the DRV; the DRV did not attempt to destroy or conquer the US. The DRV had as a policy goal the total obliteration of the anti-Communist government in South Vietnam; the US correspondingly had as a goal the total obliteration of the Communist organization in South Vietnam that Americans called the Viet Cong. The goals were perfectly symmetrical; even the propaganda statements with which Hanoi cloaked its goal of totally eliminating the Saigon government behind words about "coalition government" were symmetrical with the statements with which the US cloaked its goal of totally eliminating the Viet Cong behind words about "peaceful political solutions." The difference was that Hanoi cared far more about achievement of its goal than Washington did. This was only natural--South Vietnam after all seems like a far more important place if you are a Vietnamese than if you are an American--but the upshot was that Hanoi was willing to spend enough resources and especially enough lives in the struggle to achieve its limited goal, while Washington was not.

Next section: Vietnam: National Commitment

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