November 2010 Web Mailbag
I’m a new subscriber to Armchair General, and as a long-time military history buff, I’m enjoying the magazine very much. I must take issue, however, with one aspect of the article by James H. Willbanks, “The Fall of South Vietnam.” Not the history; Mr. Willbanks provides a clear and concise exposition on the operational aspect of the North’s conquest of South Vietnam.
But that’s all he provides and he shouldn’t suggest more. His repeated implications in the article that the United States betrayed South Vietnam by failing to continue to provide continued military assistance to the Saigonese government following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords may be historically accurate, but in my view his implications are narrow in their perspective and short-sighted.
I do not know what was in the mind of President Ford when he refused to send in the B-52s to stop the NVA offensives in 1975, or when he refused to order new massive shipments of military aid to the South. Yes, he was hamstrung by a hostile Congress, but we’ve seen presidents get around those sorts of obstacles before and since, and if anybody knew how to work Congress, Gerry Ford did. Still, as a man who believed in the Constitution he may not have been willing to do the sort of end-run around his presidential powers Nixon or later Reagan would do. Maybe, being the long-term congressman that he was and therefore more attuned to what his constituents thought than most presidents are, he knew the American people were sick to death of 20 years of investing lives and treasure in a war they were questioning we should ever have gotten into in the first place.
Whatever the reasons for his decision, it doesn’t matter. In my view, President Ford may have done something that was morally wrong by refusing the try to save South Vietnam, but he did the right thing for the United States. That’s what we expect our presidents to do.
Much as those of us who enjoy magazines like Armchair General might wish it to be, wars are not just about strategies, operations or tactics. They are mainly about grand strategy, and on that level President Ford made exactly the right decision for America in 1975. He cut our losses from a fight we initially thought made sense but then finally realized didn’t. Was this tragic for South Vietnam, as Mr. Willbanks implies? Absolutely. But it was right for America. The U.S. suffered no ill effects. it didn’t cause us to lose the Cold War. No other dominoes outside Indochina fell. We didn’t end up with communists marching on the streets of San Diego, as the pro-war hawks used to warn us would happen back in the 1960s if we failed in Vietnam. I’m old enough to remember such nonsense.
In 1975 President Ford, with the American people behind him, made a grand strategy decision to abandon South Vietnam, and it was the right one for our country. Did this cause horrible human suffering in South Vietnam? Yes, and that was tragic. This is why America needs to choose its wars very, very carefully if we want to be right whether we win or lose.
Palm Desert, CA
Thanks very much for your comments on James Willbanks article, and particularly thanks for being a new subscriber to ACG. We hope you continue to enjoy the magazine.
I sent your email to Jim Willbanks for his comments, and he replies:
“The evidence does not suggest that Ford decided not to support Saigon; he was faced with an ever confrontive Congress who were determined not to honor the commitment that the U.S. had made to RVN. I may have made repeated implications, but the facts are the facts – and the writer acknowledges that the historical accuracy of those facts as laid down in the article. Whether the writer thought it was appropriate or not, promises were made and not kept. That is the fact of the matter. It is clear to me that we let our ally down.
James H. Willbanks, PhD
Department of Military History
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College”
I’d add to what Jim wrote that Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s ‘architect’ for ending US combat troop involvement in Vietnam, wrote in his book “Diplomacy” that “we [ie Kissinger and Nixon] never dreamed that the US would not be permitted to enforce the  peace agreement” (meaning that Kissinger, at least, assumed that if the North broke the treaty, the US would respond militarily to renewed aggression). Of course, Nixon ‘torpedoed’ his presidency with the Watergate scandal, putting Ford in the White House when the North Vietnamese renewed their aggression against the South.
All the Best,
Editor in Chief, Armchair General Magazine
Wow, “Liberation of Manilia, 1945” was a great read. I enjoyed it very much but I did come up with a few concerns about COA 3 “Warsaw Uprising East”, such as:
1) Although the guerillas controlled 60% of Philippine countryside,, the Japanese had a very tight control of large cities like Manila, Cebu, and Davao. The Japanese kempei-tai (military police) had a very effective counter-espionage system composed of Filipino collaborators. Many of whom were former prisoners facing execution. They were given a chance to live in exchange for spying for the Emperor.
Under these conditions, it was very difficult for the guerillas to organize an effective resistance as in Paris or Warsaw. Collaborators were too numerous and they kept track of who would come in and out of the city. Male adult Filipinos were constantly harassed and watched.
Also, it would be difficult for Manila residents to distinguish between guerillas and collaborators, claiming to come to their rescue. To be tagged or discovered a guerilla sympathizer would mean instant death.
2) Filipinos were not trained for urban or city street fighting.
3) Each building south of Pasig River was defended by fanatical, well-trained Japanese troops. They were well armed and supported by armored vehicles and artillery, which would be no match to the Filipino guerillas.
4) Time was of the essence. Each hour that passed would mean more Filipino civilians and POWs saved from certain death by their Japanese captors. American armored units and fire power were in a much better position to come to their aid quickly and effectively.
I found that sorting out and analyzing the 3 COAs is limitless and thrilling. I will keep on wearing my thinking cap and learning from you, ACG, and others. Thanks for the opportunity.
Camano Island, Washington
To the editors of Armchair General,
I find the "America’s ‘Germany First’ Strategy" (Hard Choices, May 2010) article less than convincing. While a lot had changed in the eighteen months between the initial agreement between Roosevelt and Churchill, not all the changes were for the better. Indeed, the whole justification of adopting a Japan First strategy seems to center on a moral obligation to save our troops from capture and the Filipinos from slavery. While this is a noble concept, it is not realistic.
The author states that the UK was not in danger of losing the war, but admitted that the Battle of the Atlantic was still in doubt. Winning the Battle of the Atlantic was the only feasible way Germany could win the war after the Miracle of Dunkirk, so the UK was clearly not safe at this time. Furthermore, the Germans being stopped at Moscow was a much needed respite for the Red forces, but the Germans were far from defeated. Indeed, even after the debacle at Stalingrad (well after the fall of the Philippines), the Germans could still have hoped for a stalemate on the Eastern Front.
Even if Germany had been on its last legs in early 1942, the author seems to ignore the realities of what US forces could do before the fall of Corregidor. If the American army was in poor shape in 1940, it was in even worse shape in 1942. It gave nearly all its battle worthy tanks to Britain during Lend-Lease, not to mention significant quantities of airplanes, fuel, parts, ammo, trucks and everything else needed to fight a modern war. The undermanned US Army did not have weapons to fight with. US offensive action in 1942 was limited to Guadalcanal and Operation Torch, and neither speaks well of a war-winning drive to save Manila.
Guadalcanal has more characteristics of a raid than a true offensive. It was conducted with a small number of elite forces against an unsuspecting and second echelon target. Rather than withdraw the Marines, however, they were left in place to force the Japanese to a war of naval attrition at which US PT boats, destroyers, and B-25’s excelled. It wasn’t until the Japanese were bled white elsewhere and forced to forsake efforts there that the island was taken.
Operation Torch was an offensive that was focused against colonial garrisons of a defeated empire, yet the endeavor was still fraught with worry. Kasserine Pass proved that at least some of those worries were real (although it was greatly underappreciated by non-Germans as to how quickly the US would mature as warriors).
It may have been possible to start a relief effort using the resources sent to Guadalcanal and North Africa, but the only reasonable outcome I can see would have been the complete and utter destruction of both the US Army and Navy. Operation Torch was escorted by two world class navies against a non-existent surface threat, yet there was still worry hours before landing that the effort would be called if the escort had to leave. In contrast, the Japanese were at the top of their game, had land-based aircraft available and a significant Battleship and Carrier advantage. They wanted nothing more than to fight a pitched battle before the American industry could tip the scales against them. The only reasonable outcome of Leyte Gulf 1942 would be to accomplish what the Japanese failed to do at Midway. Even if the Navy could have somehow kept the beachhead supplied, attacking motivated and experienced Japanese at Manila may have looked more like Dieppe than the a simple setback that Kasserine Pass was. The total loss of the American Navy and Army in a single operation would have, at best, given the Japanese years to consolidate their gains before the US could attack again and, at worst, would have forced the US to the peace table.
In my last scenario, a Japan First policy is taken but reasonable buildup is undertaken before serious offensive action is taken. The garrison is still lost and the people are still conquered. Liberation takes place a year to a year and a half sooner, but the worst atrocities have already happened and survivors know how to live under Japanese rule. The moral objectives of the author are still lost, but what about Europe?
The UK, without US resources or ambition, either lost the Battle of the Atlantic or are fought to a standstill following Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy. The Russians may very well still be on the offensive, but without the US built cargo trucks, their advances are slower. It’s hard to predict how the erratic German’s would have benefited from the lack of a US threat, but one can only hope that they would not able to free up enough resources to win the Battle of Kursk and create a stalemate or, even worse, agree to a truce.
To say the US heartlessly left the Filipinos to their fate is unfair. The Philippines were isolated from the US by distance and military capability in early 1942. Their fate was sealed and any attempt to change that would have doomed their eventual liberation. While leaders have to be flexible at the tactical and operational level, it is often counter-productive at the strategic level. The shackles of logistics are very real and no amount of moral outrage can change that. It is best to rely on carefully thought out plans in peacetime than to jeopardize everything in the heat of the moment.