A Golden Anniversary of Bad Decisions

Posted on March 24, 2015 by Dr. Earl Tilford


“A Great nation cannot wage a little war.”

–Duke of Wellington to Parliament, 1838

In September 1964, shortly after Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to conduct military operations against North Vietnam, the administration tasked the departments of defense and state for military options. The recent stalemate in Korea warned against future ground wars in Asia. Additionally, as November elections neared Johnson promised “no wider war” in Vietnam. Johnson instead focused on restructuring America into the “Great Society.”

Meanwhile, after reviewing options the administration turned to air power for quick results with minimal risk. Johnson compared air power to a thermostat allowing him to selectively apply the “heat” to North Vietnam. Johnson opted for a “slow squeeze approach” starting in North Vietnam’s panhandle and expanding northward toward the capital of Hanoi enlarging the target list—94 in all—until communists stopped supporting aggression against South Vietnam and negotiated an end to the conflict. All he needed was the right provocation to get started.

On November 1, 1964, Viet Cong insurgents attacked Bien Hoa Air Base outside South Vietnam’s capital of Saigon killing five American airmen and destroying six B-57 bombers. With the election 48 hours away, Johnson demurred. On February 7, 1965 the Viet Cong attacked Pleiku Air Base in the central highlands, killing eight Americans and destroying nine aircraft. Following two small retaliatory raids rendering insignificant results, the Johnson administration launched “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a 28-day limited air campaign. Rolling Thunder lasted three years and eight months. In July, further attacks in South Vietnam prompted the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to defend American air bases. In November 1965, American and North Vietnamese forces clashed for the first time in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, a bloody fight immortalized in the motion picture “We Were Soldiers.” Two years later, 500,000 Americans were stationed in South Vietnam.

Fifty years ago, to satisfy domestic political considerations, President Johnson chose air power to avoid a potentially costly, bloody ground war. He knew Democrats lost the presidency in 1952 partly because Republicans blamed them for losing China to communists. He feared a communist takeover in South Vietnam risked winning his second term in 1968. Johnson needed two full terms to entrench Great Society programs in education, expand medical care, and pursue civil rights legislation, especially registering Democratic voters in the no longer “solidly Democratic” South. Johnson also feared a military miscalculation might provoke a massive intervention by communist Chinese troops like in Korea in 1950 or a nuclear war with Russia. American strategy revolved around negatives: not losing, not risking a wider war, not causing collateral damage, and not suffering too many casualties. Wars are lost by not fighting to win.

From 1975 until the quick victory over Iraqi forces in Kuwait in Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1991, civilian scholars and military strategists poured over the “lessons learned” from Vietnam. Some concluded the United States should never again become involved in a land war on the other side of the world, in a former European colony governed by an unstable regime against an enemy with outside sources of help, driven by a determined ideology and operating in jungles and mountainous terrain. Syria and Iraq have no jungles.

The greater lesson was that sound strategy wins wars. An appropriate strategy, coupled with superior tactics employing superior firepower, wins quickly. Example: Israel in June 1967 during the Six Day War. A superior strategy employed by larger forces pitted against determined foes with equal technologically-advanced weaponry can be bloody—perhaps enormously so—but the side with the bigger battalions and better strategy wins.  Example: the United States, Britain, and Soviet Union winning World War II.

Superior forces burdened by flawed strategy, even with a decided technological edge, will lose to an enemy driven by desperation or fanaticism and willing to bear the cost. If the weaker side prolongs the conflict despite losing most of the battles, it still can win the war. Example: The Americans during the Revolutionary War.

A significant weakness of democracy is that its policy makers often fail to appreciate the military capabilities and strategic acumen needed to survive in a hostile and envious world. President Barack Obama’s desire to satisfy his far-left base with its polemically skewed understanding of American history will result in a strategic blunder and another lost war. He would do well to study Johnson administration decision making in 1964 and 1965.

10 responses to “A Golden Anniversary of Bad Decisions”

  1. Omegaman says:

    Yes you are so right on, we have the superior forces but the flawed misguided gutless political strategy along with the weak will and commitment will never win the confrontations that we are now embroiled in. The USA has become a country run by fools. sorry I know the truth always hurts.

  2. Scott theczech says:

    Outstanding analysis Dr. Tilford. Is it your belief that the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan was to create a "hedge" around Iran thereby forcing them into check without having to go to war? Further, I would be interested to hear your views regarding what appears to be waning influence of the Russian Federation on Iran and Syria. Thank you for this excellent article!

  3. Gary says:

    The best way to win wars is to not engage to begin with. Nobody wins wars…one side simply loses less. Wars are fought for political power, not freedom. The U.S. is embroiled in conflicts by design. The flawed and misguided policies exhibited by the U.S. government, is one of the few things that truly represent bipartisanship. Both parties consist of misguided sycophants to controlling powers. Continual war keeps the sheep in the pen. Winning isn't the goal…continuing the fear mongering, theft of liberty and individual resources (through taxation and the sacrifice of posterity) and feeding the industrial military complex (of which Eisenhower warned) are their major goals. World politicians are misguided, though clever. Clever in their constant desire for ways to control the "rabble", and misguided as to the true nature and necessity of allowing free individuals… who are the only true hope for advancement and development of human kind…to flourish. The machinations of other governments are not our business. Consider this insightful and instructional quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.”

    • Jim Hallett says:

      Gary, you understand it perfectly! The whole war nonsense, promoted by the politicians and their crony interests have NOTHING to do with freedom, and everything to do with theft and coercion – both with their own citizens and those in other countries. Jefferson's wisdom is lost in a sea of propaganda these days. In fact, the whole goal of the public education system is to control, not "educate", and then the brainwashing continues with assists from the media and other institutions that benefit. I guess the fact that 230 MILLION+ perished in the 20th Century alone due to governments and their bad/criminal decisions taught us nothing. Support individual freedom and let others make their own choices.

      • boundedfunction says:

        tautly taught tots. the carvers tot'em. ever seen those poles in the pacific nw? the mo'ai (more artificial intelligence, please) on easter island? speaking of easter – in its most common vibe here – what about solar crosses? take a look at the persian crosses, carved into cliffside. the terracotta army necropolis in china? we were definitely taught something….

        and, for the majority, once "the cuttin' was done, The only part that wasn't bloody, Was the soles of the big man's feet, ooh…" the lesson learned was "You don't tug on Superman's cape, You don't spit into the wind, You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, And you don't mess around with Slim…"

        or: csn&y. but, disregard the optimistic notes. if you can.

        You, who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.
        And so become yourself because the past is just a good bye.
        Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,
        And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.
        Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
        So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

        And you, of the tender years can't know the fears that your elders grew by,
        And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die.
        Teach your parents well, their children's hell will slowly go by,
        And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by.
        Don't you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
        So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

  4. We say success= Resources x Strategy. How many wars Pentagon has won? When American resources combine with Military strategy of Israel, there is hope for America to win a war. This is simple truth. No nation can win a war with superior resources alone. In the epic Mahabharat, Pandavas with less resources but with Krishna's strategy win the war against enormously high – both quantitatively and qualitatively- t their cousins, the Kauravas.

  5. psychicmindvandervoort231 says:

    American greed versus Islamic fanaticism? I'm confused.

  6. boundedfunction says:

    from a rozeff piece, this morning, re neocon policy:

    Kristol and Kagan, ‘The remoralization* of America at home ultimately requires the remoralization of American foreign policy.’ Going to war, sacrificing both treasure and blood in order to bring ‘democracy’ to strangers—this is a mission worthy of a great nation.”

    *sounds like “remineralization”. like fluoride in the water supply – a posteriori h2o. perps gotta’ keep the peeps ossified, wooden, graven images of their own craven, & venal, selves. & remember to spell-correct "great".

  7. RealitySeeker says:

    "Wars are lost by not fighting to win".

    Almost everybody over the age of 40 has heard or read some variation of that Neocon phrase somewhere at sometime in their life. Over the years it has been repeated over and over again— kind of like the ubiquitous, political question: "are you better off now then you were four years ago?"

    Such phrases are almost always part of a verisimilitudinous narrative which is designed to capture public support for yet another war.

    Hey, everybody! Grab your flag, Bible and gun!
    Hand that shit to your son.
    And send him off to another one.

    We'll fight it right this time.
    We'll fight "to win".
    And it won't cost a you a dime.

    Send your son off to Yeman, Syria or Ukraine.
    Because ISIS, Putin and Assad are such a pain.
    Washington needs your sons again.
    Cold War is back, but that's just fine.
    Because we'll "fight to win" this time.

    The goal of Hitlerian narratives is to convince the public that this time around Washington shall get it right.. American culture is flooded with war propaganda, and people are drowning in it. The U.S. warmonger doctrine—-invented by hegemons like Paul Wolfowitz or Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski— requires that Americans wage endless wars in every part of the globe. This is why there's so much bull shit . Americans are up to their eyeballs in Washington's bull shit. The bull shit is in their eyes, ears and noses. The bull shit artists are preventing the ignorant masses from seeing that China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and dozens of other countries are all Washington's enemies now. And if something doesn't change the way in which Washington is allowed to run its American empire nuclear war becomes ever more likely.

    Nuclear war means nobody wins, and everybody loses.

  8. RealitySeeker says:

    "Connecticut’s most popularly used unofficial nickname is that of the Nutmeg State".

    There is another state with a name and history that fits. Nova Caesarea, the "Garden State":

    "During the English Civil War, Sir George Carteret, the Governor of the Isle of Jersey, in the English Channel, sheltered Charles' young son (the future Charles II) and defended the Isle for the royal family. Because of this loyalty to the crown, the grant of land between the Hudson River and the Delaware River was made to Carteret and another loyalist named Berkeley, and called "New Jersey."

    But why was it also called Nova Caesarea? The name of the Isle of Jersey has been thought by some to be derived from the name of a settlement during the height of the Roman Empire: Caesarea. The way we pronounce Caesarea in English today (suh-SAIR-ee-uh) doesn't sound a great deal like the way we pronounce Jersey today to the non-linguist. But if you think of how the man's name Cesare is pronounced in Italian (CHEZZ-uh-ray) and extend that to Caesarea (chezz-uh-REE-uh) you can better see how the word Caesarea might have morphed into Jersey (the flip of the z/r to r/z is a common sort of language evolution)".

    A garden state which grows potato heads and just plain nuts, loyal subjects of the empire. Drop the "meg" and leave the "nut", and that's what is flourishing in Nova Rome ( aka amerika).

    You write exceptionally well, BF, and thanks for the email. My reply shall be after I reread and digest it.