Edwin E. Moïse

Limited War

Vietnam: National Commitment

Generalizations to the effect that the United States did not devote its full resources to the conflict are not exaggerated; indeed they are far more true than most Americans realize. One of the things on which Democratic and Republican administrations agreed was that the American people would support the war in Vietnam only so long as not too many of them had to go and fight it. Government policy was to make the draft relatively easy to dodge. As long as most men who were determined to avoid service in Vietnam did not have too much difficulty avoiding it, they--and their parents, wives, and friends--might not feel an overwhelming need to put an end to the war.

The effect of this policy showed clearly in the size of the US military. In 1945, the United States had had slightly more than 12 million people in uniform. This did not represent the maximum of which the United States was capable; millions more men could have been found for the military during the Second World War, if they had really been needed. Comparison with the maximun strengths reached by the US military during the Korean War (less than 3.7 million) and during the Vietnam War (less than 3.6 million) makes it immediately clear that only a very small fraction of the available manpower was put in uniform for those wars. The size of the military during the Vietnam War seems even less impressive if we consider that available pool of manpower was much larger during the Vietnam War. The population was larger overall, and the percentage of the population who were young adults was unusually high at the time of the Vietnam War, thanks to the "baby boom" of the late 1940's.

The expanding military force that Lyndon Johnson used to fight the Vietnam War was recruited from a pool of young adults that was itself expanding rapidly at the time, as the baby boom generation came of age. The proportion of America's young men in uniform during Lyndon Johnson's presidency did not rise above the levels attained in peacetime under Eisenhower and Kennedy. By 1970, under Richard Nixon, the proportion was actually well below what before Vietnam had been considered normal peacetime levels.

Aside from holding down the number of men sent to Vietnam, the government also tried, of course, to limit the number of Americans killed there. When comparing American losses with the number lost on the other side, one can only make the generalization that casualties on the Communist side were many times greater. With the information now available in the United States, it is not possible to be sure how many Vietnamese died fighting the Americans, even to the nearest 50,000.

There is another measure of the success with which the American government held down the number of American deaths, however, which can be stated in exact and striking terms: there was only one year when the number of Americans killed in action in Vietnam was even almost as large as the number who died as a result of homicides inside the United States. In the year of most intense combat--1968--the official total for American battle deaths in Vietnam was 14,592. The official total for deaths by homicide in the United States that year was 14,686 (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1971 [Washington: Government Printing Office, 1971], pp. 58, 253.), and the actual level may have been considerably higher, given the fact that many murderers attempt to disguise their crimes as accident, suicide, or death by natural causes, and some presumably are successful in such a deception.

One more often hears that the number who died in automobile accidents was larger than the number who died in Vietnam, but it is not necessary to look at a big killer, like automobiles, alcohol, or tobacco, to get a higher yearly death toll than that suffered by the American forces in Vietnam.

The main method for holding down American combat casualties in Vietnam was to rely as much as possible on technology and firepower to win battles. American generals often sent artillery shells to do jobs that could have been done better by men with rifles; artillery shells did not have parents who voted in American elections. This policy cost quite a lot of money. It did not, however, require more than a fraction of America's economic resources. The war did not in fact even use up enough wealth to prevent civilian consumption from growing at a substantial rate. In 1968, the year when American involvement in Vietnam reached its peak, total personal consumption in the United States (adjusted for inflation) was 14% higher than in 1965. By 1973 it was 37% higher than in 1965. And 1965 had been a good year.

It is widely believed that the Vietnam War forced Lyndon Johnson to spend far more on the military than his predecessors had spent. This was not really the case. Defense spending had been 9.1% of the GNP in fiscal year 1963 under Kennedy; the average for the four war years under Johnson (fiscal years 1966 through 1969) was under 9%. The percentage of the federal budget allocated to defense had always been over 46% in peacetime under Kennedy; the highest it went in any of the war years under Johnson was 45% in fiscal year 1968. (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1970 [Washington: GPO, 1970], p. 246). Johnson was spending a lot on Vietnam, but he was cutting all he could from military spending elsewhere (see Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996], pp. 30-32); this held down the net increase in military spending to a level that did not even match the overall growth of the economy, or of the federal budget.

The reluctance to pay the bloody price of victory was in fact the most important limit on US actions in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson could have turned loose the B-52's to obliterate Hanoi in 1967, but it is unlikely that this would have won him the war. The steps that really might have changed the outcome--an extra ten divisions of US infantry, thrown into the jungles and villages of the South in 1967, probably could have done the job--were out of the question because the American people would not have accepted them.

Next section: Afghanistan: The Soviet Union's Limited War

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