The University Record, March 14, 1994

O’Neill: Reliance on brute force ‘doomed’ the U.S. in Vietnam

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

If Americans had developed the political savvy the British gained in centuries of “flogging the wogs”—that is, of controlling colonial subjects and putting down national liberation movements—they could have come out of Vietnam with a measure of victory, and at far lower cost of life, resources and wealth than was consumed in their defeat.

That was the message delivered by one of the world’s experts on warfare, Robert O’Neill, professor of the history of war at Oxford University and a veteran of Australian forces in Vietnam. O’Neill’s March 4 lecture “Vietnam and the American Way of War” at the Clements Library was sponsored by the Program in British Studies and other units.

Fighting men—men with “a good eye, a steady hand, disciplined, endowed with adrenaline, stalwart, able to kill”—have shaped the history of the United States since its inception, O’Neill said.

But unlike their former British masters, American leaders have tended to conduct war as a mighty national contest; they have fought wars big and small not to become the dominant partner in a new political arrangement, but to vindicate the national ideal of moral superiority, to impose terms and a new government upon the vanquished, and then to ride off into the sunset, O’Neill said.

George Washington set the pattern. After serving in colonial America’s frontier wars, he respected and learned from the Indians’ skill at fighting in the woods, “but he wanted no indigenous partners” either then or after independence. The United States has always “treated indigenous peoples as part of the background” of war, O’Neill said, whether it was fighting in a developed country like France or an undeveloped one like New Guinea.

O’Neill traced a consistent pattern of American war-making through World War II. But in the Korean War, President Truman saw that the norm was no longer valid. America had to decide to fight not to conquer North Korea, let alone the Red Chinese, but to “punish the Communists so they’d be eager to accept terms,” even if this meant “fighting for a tie.”

Neither the American military nor the public likes wars that hold such mixed strategic and political objectives, however, and that distaste affected Eisenhower’s and his successors’ choices in Vietnam, O’Neill said.

The British had provided in Malaya a model for wars of “counter-insurgency”—that is, wars against national liberation movements. Kennedy embraced the doctrine, but neither he nor his successors understood that “in fighting insurgents, the political factor is critical.”

“The United States,” O’Neill continued, “lacked the colonial governing professions, as the British had—bureaucrats, police, district officers, engineers, medical corps” and other groups who “regarded the [colonized] country as theirs.”

Not knowing how to fight within the structure of another country’s government, nor how to nurture nationalist forces that might have rivaled the popularity of the Communist nationalists through basic political programs, the Americans could only impose the unpopular Diem government on South Vietnam.

As a result, U.S. counter-insurgency rested almost entirely on brute force, which doomed America to a political loss even if it had escalated the war to all-out invasions of Thailand and North Vietnam, O’Neill said.

The Gulf War showed that American strategists had learned valuable lessons in Vietnam, O’Neill said, especially that while continuing to amass high-tech, highly mobile and highly concentrated firepower, they must also “stand back and study” a situation, to “take the time needed to win quickly,” to “handle the media,” to conduct good intelligence and “to respect their indigenous allies and learn from them.”

It is “too soon to tell if the new attitude is deeply ingrained,” O’Neill concluded. But he added that in Somalia and Bosnia, the United States seems to be focusing on military events and not effectively addressing the weaknesses in their social and political structures. “Social and economic dimensions must be paramount,” he said. “This is the great lesson of Vietnam that is still to be learned.”