McMaster vs Spector on Vietnam

Lt. General H. R. McMaster, the U.S. National Security Advisor, wrote a doctoral dissertation on Vietnam that was published in 1997 as Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies That Led to Vietnam. Ronald Spector, former Marine, Vietnam vet, and historian just published this interesting article:  What McMaster Gets Wrong About Vietnam

What caught my interest was the discussion by Spector, very brief, that the Vietnamese had something to do with the Vietnam war. Not an earthshaking statement, but certainly a deserved poke at the more American-centric view of the war.

In my book, America’s Modern Wars, I do have a chapter called “The Other Side” (Chapter 18). As I note in the intro to that chapter (page 224):

Warfare is always a struggle between at least two sides. Yet, the theoretical study of insurgencies always seems to be written primarily from the standpoint of one side, the counterinsurgents. We therefore briefly looked at what the other side was saying to see if there were any theoretical constructs that were proposed or supported by them. They obviously knew as much about insurgencies as the counterinsurgents.

We then examined the writings and interview transcripts of eight practitioners of insurgency and ended up trying to summarize their thoughts in one barely “easy-to-read” table (pages 228-229), the same as we did for ten counterinsurgent theorists (pages 187-201). The conclusion to this discussion was (pages 235-236):

The review of the insurgents shows an entirely different focus as to what is important in an insurgency than one gets from reading the “classical” counterinsurgent theorists. In the end, the insurgent is primarily focused on the cause. The military aspects of the insurgency seem to be secondary concerns…..On the other hand, the majority of the insurgents we reviewed actually won or managed a favorable results from their war in the long run (this certainly applies to Grivas and Itote). Perhaps their focus on the political cause, with the military aspects secondary, is an indication of the correct priorities. 

I do have a chapter on Vietnam in the book also (Chapter 22).

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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  1. There seem to me to be two key elements in an insurgency. One is centred on nation building and ideally addresses what is usually the cause of the problem by trying to provide for a viable state that the people wish to have and will fight for. This means providing basics like clean water, jobs and education as well as having a reasonably honest government ( i.e. not corrupt). This is the main thing. The second element is military force which should only by required as far as is needed to protect the nation building effort. Somehow the military part seems to take over, as it seems to me it did in Vietnam. South Vietnam never succeeded in the nation building and so the war never stopped. The North Vietnamese government was at least viable and so eventually prevailed.

    • The North Vietnamese were supported by the limited resources of China and the USSR (and the passages provided by Laos and Cambodia, an eclat on the political level). Overall, it was rather a result of american political and military inefficiency to force or obtain a quick result. One could even argue that the geostrategical situation (compared to Korea) may have been of higher significance.
      Everything else was just a question of ideology. It was a consequence of communist ambition, aggression and expansion resulting from the power vacuum after the Axis powers defeat.
      Technically it functions more like a disease. “Sick” and destabilized nations are particularly vulnerable to militant clashes (economic instability as well). This is not always the case however. If we observe certain nations we could in fact see that solid systems could be influenced from outside, as it was the case before and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
      The communists were masters of indoctrination and propaganda, always prepared with a preselected politician or “leader” in order to form a puppet government after overtaking.

      Though I would differ between the conflict in Vietnam and many subsequent conflicts (or some of the proxy wars for that matter). The Aorta of any insurgency or group is the support from the locals and their tolerance, respectively.
      I think there are certain variables which people tend to exclude: (Nation) Mentality and other human factors.

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