Vietnam Legacy Shapes Today’s Military Leaders

WASHINGTON, April 29, 2011 — Tomor­row marks the 36th anniver­sary of the end of the Viet­nam War –- a con­flict that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Amer­i­cans and con­tin­ues to affect the Unit­ed States, includ­ing its mil­i­tary lead­ers and cur­rent wartime oper­a­tions.
The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, marked the dra­mat­ic and painful cul­mi­na­tion of the Viet­nam War. The last of the domi­nos were laid when then-Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon announced the end of offen­sive oper­a­tions against North Viet­nam after the sign­ing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973. The accords called for a cease­fire in South Viet­nam, but allowed North Viet­namese forces to retain the ter­ri­to­ry they had captured. 

With near­ly all U.S. forces gone, and Con­gress’ pas­sage of the For­eign Assis­tance Act of 1974 that cut off mil­i­tary aid to South Viet­nam, North Viet­nam became embold­ened. Its forces began a steady march south­ward toward Saigon, the South Viet­namese cap­i­tal. As the North Viet­namese closed in on Saigon, Oper­a­tion Fre­quent Wind, the largest heli­copter evac­u­a­tion oper­a­tion in his­to­ry, com­menced, mov­ing tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary and civil­ian per­son­nel from the city, along with thou­sands of South Viet­namese civilians. 

On April 29, 1975, the North Viet­namese launched a heavy artillery bom­bard­ment that would become their final attack on Saigon. The city fell the fol­low­ing after­noon when a North Viet­namese tank crashed the gates of the pres­i­den­tial palace, accept­ing South Vietnam’s uncon­di­tion­al sur­ren­der. Ho Chi Minh’s dream of a uni­fied, com­mu­nist Viet­nam was ful­filled, and the city once known as Saigon today bears his name. Viet­nam now cel­e­brates April 30 as Reuni­fi­ca­tion Day. The Viet­nam War cost mil­lions of lives, includ­ing 58,267 Amer­i­cans, with more than 300,000 U.S. ser­vice­mem­bers wound­ed in action and 1,711 miss­ing in action. 

The Viet­nam War had a pro­found impact on today’s Amer­i­can mil­i­tary lead­ers, includ­ing Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. com­man­der in Afghanistan. And in many ways, the lessons learned dur­ing the Viet­nam con­flict have shaped the way U.S. forces oper­ate today, par­tic­u­lar­ly in con­duct­ing coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions like those under way in Afghanistan. 

Mullen, the high­est-rank­ing U.S. mil­i­tary offi­cer, is among the few peo­ple still on active duty who expe­ri­enced Viet­nam first­hand. Fresh from the U.S. Naval Acad­e­my in 1968, he report­ed aboard the destroy­er USS Col­lett for duty as an anti-sub­ma­rine offi­cer and par­tic­i­pat­ed in com­bat oper­a­tions off the Viet­nam coast. Mullen speaks fre­quent­ly about how the Viet­nam War affect­ed the nation and shaped him both per­son­al­ly and professionally. 

“The Viet­nam con­flict was a life-defin­ing expe­ri­ence for every Amer­i­can who lived dur­ing that era, and it con­tin­ues to impact us all: the pain, the con­flict, the heal­ing,” he said dur­ing last year’s Memo­r­i­al Day obser­vance at the Viet­nam War Memo­r­i­al in Wash­ing­ton. “The lessons we learned in Viet­nam were bought at a very great price. Act­ing on them is the best trib­ute we can pay to hon­or those who died” — among them, some of Mullen’s own friends and Annapo­lis classmates. 

While he was struck dur­ing that first assign­ment at the inten­si­ty of the con­flict, Mullen said, he soon began to process just how divi­sive the war had become. “What I take away from Viet­nam is the detach­ment of the Amer­i­can peo­ple from the U.S. mil­i­tary — the dis­con­nect and the unpop­u­lar­i­ty of the war,” he told U.S. News and World Report in April 2008. 

Mullen fre­quent­ly tells audi­ences he address­es that he had con­cerns dur­ing the ear­ly days of the war in Afghanistan that it would have the same polar­iz­ing effect. To his relief, he said at the Viet­nam Memo­r­i­al, Amer­i­cans “are so incred­i­bly sup­port­ive of our mil­i­tary men and women now.” 

The chair­man said he attrib­ut­es the changed atti­tudes to the lessons learned from Viet­nam about sup­port­ing troops uncon­di­tion­al­ly. “Dur­ing that time, as a coun­try, we were unable to sep­a­rate the pol­i­tics from the peo­ple,” he said. “We must nev­er allow Amer­i­ca to become dis­con­nect­ed from her mil­i­tary. Nev­er.” Like most oth­er cur­rent mil­i­tary lead­ers, Petraeus, com­man­der of the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, entered a mil­i­tary still heal­ing from the Viet­nam expe­ri­ence. Petraeus grad­u­at­ed from the U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my in 1974, a year before the fall of Saigon. 

But Petraeus has stud­ied the Viet­nam expe­ri­ence thor­ough­ly, even writ­ing his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty on “The Amer­i­can Mil­i­tary and the Lessons of Viet­nam.” That dis­ser­ta­tion, pub­lished in 1987, rec­og­nized the last­ing impact the Viet­nam expe­ri­ence would have. 

“The lega­cy of Viet­nam is unlike­ly to soon recede as an impor­tant influ­ence on America’s senior mil­i­tary,” Petraeus wrote. “The frus­tra­tions of Viet­nam are too deeply etched in the minds of those who now lead the ser­vices and the com­bat­ant commanders. 

“Viet­nam cost the mil­i­tary dear­ly,” he con­tin­ued. “It left America’s mil­i­tary lead­ers con­found­ed, dis­mayed and dis­cour­aged. Even worse, it dev­as­tat­ed the armed forces, rob­bing them of dig­ni­ty, mon­ey and qual­i­fied peo­ple for a decade.” 

This expe­ri­ence, Petraeus wrote, left many mil­i­tary lead­ers over­ly cau­tious. Specif­i­cal­ly, he said, many felt “they should advise against involve­ment in coun­terin­sur­gen­cies unless spe­cif­ic, per­haps unlike­ly cir­cum­stances” ensure domes­tic pub­lic sup­port, the promise of a quick cam­paign and the free­dom to use what­ev­er force is need­ed to achieve rapid vic­to­ry. Lat­er in his career, as he over­saw the revi­sion of the military’s coun­terin­sur­gency field man­u­al, Petraeus applied some of the lessons learned through the Viet­nam expe­ri­ence. That man­u­al has become the guide for coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It empha­sizes that mil­i­tary pow­er alone can’t suc­ceed against an insur­gency, and the impor­tance of pub­lic diplo­ma­cy as part of a “com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy employ­ing all instru­ments of nation­al power.” 

Informed by the Viet­nam expe­ri­ence, the strat­e­gy also rec­og­nizes that clear­ing and keep­ing the ene­my from an area alone does not spell suc­cess. A crit­i­cal third tenet, it notes, is the estab­lish­ment of a legit­i­mate gov­ern­ment sup­port­ed by the peo­ple and infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment that empow­ers them. After apply­ing those prin­ci­ples — first while com­mand­ing U.S. and coali­tion forces in Iraq and now as the top com­man­der in Afghanistan — Petraeus said he is see­ing this strat­e­gy bear fruit. 

Petraeus told the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee last month the coali­tion in Afghanistan con­tin­ues to face tough days against insur­gents, but is mak­ing steady progress in improv­ing secu­ri­ty and help­ing the Afghan gov­ern­ment improve gov­er­nance, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and the pro­vi­sion of basic ser­vices. “These are essen­tial ele­ments of the effort to shift deliv­ery of basic ser­vices from provin­cial recon­struc­tion teams and inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions to Afghan gov­ern­ment ele­ments,” he told the panel. 

As the tran­si­tion approach­es for Afghan forces to begin tak­ing secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty for their coun­try, Petraeus empha­sized that actions being tak­en now in Afghanistan will have con­se­quences for years to come –- just as those in Viet­nam more than three decades ago. “We’ll get one shot at tran­si­tion, and we need to get it right,” he said. 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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