Edwin E. Moïse

Limited War

Vietnam: Restrictions on Combat Activities

In regard to the restrictions placed on the combat activities of US forces in Vietnam, popular stereotypes contain considerable truth but also some exaggeration. Americans who believe the United States could and should have won the Vietnam War often sieze upon the restrictions as the reason for the outcome of the war. They emphasize the cases in which American combat actions were restricted, while giving much less attention to cases in which American actions were not restricted, and utterly ignoring the possibility that America's enemies might ever have operated under similar restrictions.

Many Americans today have images of the Vietnam War shaped by books like Colonel (later General) Dave Palmer's Summons of the Trumpet. There are passages in this book conveying the impression that American military personnel were entirely forbidden to engage in combat in the early years of the war. Palmer describes how in 1964,

. . . guerrillas mortared American air bases and terrorists blew up structures housing advisors. Altogether, American losses were light, but over the months, unable to retaliate, obliged to endure the bombing passively, military men began to reach the outer limits of frustration. They fairly itched to strike back. (Dave Richard Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: A History of the Vietnam War from a Military Man's Viewpoint [New York: Ballantine, 1984], p. 66.)

In fact, while some of the Americans in question were required to spend their time on advising and training the South Vietnamese military, for others the nominal title of "advisor" was largely a cover story. These men were, and had been for years, conducting regular combat operations against the Communists. It seems likely that they had a favorable kill ratio--that the number of Communists being killed by so-called "advisors" was far larger than the number of "advisors" being killed by the Communists.

At a later stage of the war, when the United States was bombing North Vietnam, there were complaints that important military targets were immune to attack. Men required to fly against a particular target at great personal risk, and forbidden to divert their attacks to other targets of greater military significance, certainly had grounds for protest. There were, however, sensible reasons for limiting US actions in North Vietnam.

American leaders had good reason to believe that if they went too far, this would provoke China into entering the war. China had made this quite clear, placing tens of thousands of Chinese military personnel in the northern sections of North Vietnam. There was not then and is not now any reason to suppose that the Chinese were bluffing. Those who suggest that China was in no shape to fight the United States in the late 1960's usually ignore the way the Chinese actually put military personnel into North Vietnam as a concrete demonstration of their willingness to fight, and always ignore two other relevant factors: 1) China had been in far worse shape in 1950, but that had not prevented China from entering the Korean War, when the United States ignored Chinese signals that China would not permit an American conquest of North Korea. 2) The Chinese believed enough in the likelihood that they would actually have to fight the United States to initiate, in late 1964, a hugely expensive program of shifting Chinese industry away from coastal regions and into the mountains of western China, to make it less vulnerable to American bombing. (Barry Naughton, "The Third Front: Defense Industrialization in the Chinese Interior", China Quarterly, no. 115 (September 1988), pp. 351-86.)

American leaders were correct in fearing that if they went too far against North Vietnam, China would be likely to enter the war. They probably could have gone somewhat farther than they did. Limits on the bombing of North Vietnam, motivated to a considerable extent by a desire to avoid provoking China or the Soviet Union too much, could have been loosened. There was no way, however, that American leaders could know at the time just how far they could afford to go. The very confusing nature of Chinese politics in the 1960's, combined with the ignorance of China that still persisted in the United States government as a legacy of McCarthyism, made informed judgment impossible. The fantasies about Chinese plans to conquer the whole of Southeast Asia, which one often encounters in American writings about China from the 1950s and 1960s, imply a failure to understand even the broadest outlines of Chinese policy. Given ignorance of Chinese policies, given the fact that by this time China had nuclear weapons, and given the fact that the United States was having real trouble winning the war at acceptable cost even without direct Chinese intervention, it would have been grossly irresponsible for American leaders to have gone absolutely as far as they thought they could go without provoking Chinese intervention, leaving no margin for error.

Restrictions on American bombing, however, did not apply equally to the whole of North Vietnam. It is possible to get a very unbalanced picture if one looks only at the sections of North Vietnam that were closer to China than to South Vietnam. In the areas closer to South Vietnam than to China--roughly the first 200 miles north of the DMZ--US aircraft were for years able to bomb with comparative freedom. Pilots were routinely sent on missions of "armed reconnaissance", in which they would search an area and bomb whatever good targets they could find there.

Next section: Vietnam: Privileged Sanctuaries?

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