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What approach to Vietnam would have succeeded?

Posted by John Reed on

I did a tour in Vietnam. I spent my college years at West Point from 1964 to 1968 where, as you would expect, we studied Vietnam, thought about it, talked about it, and were taught by officers who had served there.

Do I have a single silver bullet that would have worked? Maybe invading North Vietnam. 

But here I will just think out loud about various details and ask my fellow vets to contribute their comments and refutations of my comments.

No sanctuary

When I was there in 1969-70, we invaded Cambodia. One of the firebases in my battalion was Firebase Wade near the Fishhook area of the Cambodian Border. Before we invaded Cambodia, I heard outgoing artillery on a daily basis, and incoming enemy rockets about once a month. After the invasion, I never heard another shot fired by either side for the rest of my tour (about four months).


Lesson learned: We should have invaded North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia early and often.

War in the jungle

What tactic works fighting in the jungle? Not what we did. Ranger ambushes seemed to work, but too little in scale to be a war-winning strategy.

You know what I like in the jungle? Agent Orange, and all the other herbicides we used there. Probably we should pause here while you read my web article on Agent Orange:

I used to drive down roads there where herbicides had been used. On both sides of the road, there was a flat area devoid of even a blade of grass. The width was 300 meters on each side. The dirt looked like the infield of a Major League ball park. That 300-meter width is the effective range of a Soviet AK-47. In other words, there was no place for the enemy to hide that was close enough for them to shoot us. God bless Agent Orange and the other herbicides.

I recently read the book Ripcord about a June 1970 battle there. Seven of my classmates were involved in that battle. Four of them were killed in it.

It was in the Ashau Valley which sounded like thick jungle with no civilian farmers or other inhabitants. Nobody there but North Vietnamese soldiers. So how about spraying herbicide such that we had north-south and east-west barren stripes each about 100 yards wide. If we could afford it spray the whole Ashau. I’m just trying to save a little money here.

If we made all or part of the valley bare dirt, they have to leave. They can only survive against U.S. airpower and artillery if we do not know where they are and that requires thick jungle. No thick jungle, no North Vietnamese soldiers.


They had dikes in North Vietnam. They were talked about as bombing targets it was always ruled out because it would hurt the poor civilians.

Bomb the damned dikes off the face of the earth.


In many modern wars, cutting off the enemy’s petroleum is often key. Not in Vietnam. They walked and used bikes. 

Could we cut off their water as I have recently advocated in Pacific Island warfare and some desert warfare? Nah. They could get all the water needed just from their humidity.

How about food? Could we cut off their food supply? What do they eat? Rice. Rice. And more rice.

Can you bomb rice? I would think. It grows in paddies which are rectangular shallow ponds typically with mud banks only about ten inches above water level round them. On hills they have terraces.

I would think they would easy to bomb with small bombs, although I was not in the Air Force. I would think trying to destroy all the rice paddies in North Vietnam would be a huge job, maybe too huge. But paddies are easy to see super easy to see—probably even from 30,000 feet. They reflect sunlight. Better to attack what you can see than to chase guys in olive-drab clothes in triple-canopy jungle.

Really big bombs

Run-of-the-mill bombs seem rather ineffective in the jungle and against bunkers. But when the size of the bomb reaches a certain point, it is a whole other story. Those 2,000 pound bombs dropped by the B-52s crushed enemy tunnels and the enemy inside them. The 15,000-pound daisy cutters turn triple-canopy jungle into helicopter landing zones. Now I think we needed to refrain from all the choppers landing with troops in that war. I am proposing a different purpose for the daisy-cutter bomb: Killing enemy that we located and destroying caches of weapons and ammo from the air.

No ground support

Bombs in the South were often dropped on the enemy during firefights between U.S. and NVA troops on the ground. No U.S.troops on the ground. We don’t have enough advantages over the NVA to fight them on the ground. Screw the jungle. Drop the big bombs on pressure points and choke points and bottlenecks in North Vietnam.

North Vietnamese infrastructure

The bad news about North Vietnamese infrastructure was that they did not have much to attack. They were and are an extremely poor agrarian country. The good news is that you can wipe out a high percentage of it quickly, maybe 100%.

So wipe it all out. Level the two cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. Would that have been decisive? I don’t know. It should have been tried.

Supplies from China and the Soviets

The strength of the NVA was the determination of their soldiers and the massive supplies they got from China and the Soviet Union. The whole thing was an ant hill of supplies flowing by ships and roads from China into North Vietnam then south by Ho Chi Minh Trail on foot, bicycles, and trucks. 

We bombed the hell out of the trail and were unable to stop the flow. I don’t understand why. Maybe if the war had been seen as an air war with all resources aimed at the air rather than seen as a ground war with the air merely in support of that.

The flow of supplies could be diagrammed and it would have revealed some bottlenecks or narrow points. The Port of Haiphong was a bottleneck. We bombed it and mined it. Apparently not enough. 

Normally, you blockade the harbor of an enemy. I never heard we did that in Vietnam. I guess we were scared of the Chinese/Soviet nuclear weapons. So sink every ship that enters the harbor. We apparently did not do that either. I don’t know why.

 Without the supplies from China mainly, there would have been no war. Those supplies had to be cut.

After we invaded Cambodia, I was up there on the border. At one air strip, I saw the stuff they had taken out of one Cambodian cache. It was stacked exactly like cords of wood—as far as the eye could see. What was it? Chinese Communist flame throwers. I did not even know the enemy had those. But they had them and so many all the way down in the Fish Hook area. I do not ever recall them using them. But the point is they had such huge amounts of Chinese supplies they even had monster caches of stuff they never got around to using.

What we did

What we did did not work. It was putting U.S. troops all around South Vietnam. Artillery fire bases. Green beret A camps. I spent time at both, also division base camps, air bases, and infantry units wandering around on “search and destroy” missions. Then there were the choppers. I spent endless hours in choppers flying over the jungle looking at all the bomb craters that made it look like the surface of the moon. The sound of choppers was almost ubiquitous, my whole tour.

This was a World War II in Europe approach. Indeed, our two commanders—Westmoreland and Abrams—had served in Europe in World War II. Should we have had instead Army or Marine generals who fought in the Pacific in World War II. Nah. That was an island-hopping campaign No islands in the Vietnam war.

The guy we needed from World War II was Curtis Lemay, an Army Air Corps general. He figured out the best way to bomb hell out of Japan.

Generals from the China-Burma-India theater of World War II would at least know the terrain and climate, but I really don’t think those guys accomplished much in WW II. They tried hard and took many casualties, but I think if we had it to do over, there would not have been a CBI theater in WW II. “Land war in Asia.” General MacArthur said not to ever again get involved in one of those. He was the head ground guy in the Pacific in WW II and initially in Korea—deceased by Vietnam.

Invasion of North Vietnam

We did not invade North Vietnam. If we had, we might have won.

I think we could have taken Hanoi and Haiphong relatively easily. After that, it probably would have been what World War II paratroop commander Maxwell Taylor called the “enclave” strategy during Vietnam. That would be a secure American area along the coast. The bad guys would have melted into the jungle west of the enclave.

Dien Bien Phu is up there. That was the location of the decisive battle in which the North Vietnamese defeated the French who were the colonial rulers of Vietnam in the 1950s and before. 

Then what? The enemy gets unlimited supplies from China overland. China has a long border with North Vietnam. We incessantly bomb anything we can locate from the air while the North Vietnamese live in the jungle without visible rice paddies, maybe by importing their rice and do hit-and-run attacks against us. 

Such an invasion would solve a number of the above problems:

  • total denial of Haiphong Harbor to the enemy 
  • capture or destruction of all North Vietnamese infrastructure
  • wipe out dikes and all rice paddies and all enemy air bases and anti-aircraft installations
  • only sanctuary would be jungle
  • Americans would hold all the non-jungle; enemy most of the jungle

The latter point would give us something akin to interior lines. Interior lines means one side in a battle has a smaller area to maneuver in. Like Army A has Haiphong and Army B is out in the jungle sneaking around to attack at different points. It is much easier for the guys with the interior lines to move their troops to the point of attack. The enemy would have to do all their maneuvering and transporting in the jungle, maybe in the dark.


The Ashau, which is close to North Vietnam in South Vietnam, has lousy, cloudy, rainy weather. That adversely affects the ability to use airpower. I don’t know the weather in North Vietnam. It might have been a problem.


The outcome of the war would then come down to our ability to find and bomb them and their supplies in the jungle and mountains versus their ability to mount hit-and-run attacks with stuff they carry on their backs in the jungle. The Americans would patrol outside the wire to prevent any major surprises. The enemy would try to reprise the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, only against a coastal enclave not a surrounded camp in a valley in the mountains—and against the U.S.—which ain’t France.

It would settle into a bitch of a war, especially for the enemy in the jungle. It would then be a matter of endurance for each side. Neither could deliver a knock-out blow to the other. The jungle would protect the North Vietnamese. The industrial might of the US wold protect the enclave. Who says uncle?

Would we have won such a war? Good chance. Would we have lost 58,307 men KIA? Hell, no! This approach would probably have killed more than the 600,000 we killed in the actual Vietnam War. Would it have been cheaper? Probably. But fundamentally this is not a war that America has great advantages over the enemy like we did in Desert Storm. Jungle and mountains are not desert or islands.

Big lesson learned I hope: Don’t get into wars like this.

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