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VIETNAM AND THE ROLE OF INTELLIGENCE
The “Red Scare” placed fear of a communist takeover at the forefront of American consciousness in the 1950s. The perceived spread of communism in Southeast Asia was ignited by Ho Chi Minh’s new alliances with the Soviets and Mao Zedong—following his failed attempts to curry U.S. and Western support. Ultimately, this fear underpinned the U.S decision to go to war, despite evidence suggesting that the Minh movement was revolutionary in nature. An increasingly conservative political culture fostered an environment whereby policymakers and military leaders dismissed options deemed ‘too soft on communism’ and opted instead for a more aggressive approach. Thus, the political apparatus desired the military instrument of power to what could arguably be resolved through diplomatic negotiations. Limited war objectives set the tone for how the war would be fought, with the absolute minimum force possible.
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In examining the role of intelligence in the overall outcome of the war, this paper will focus specifically on lead-up to U.S. escalation between 1962 and 1968. This paper contends that the deliberate politicization of intelligence by senior military officials in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, resulted in the inability of the Intelligence Community (IC) to provide objective assessments, ultimately resulting in a continuation of failed policies and a protracted war that culminated in U.S. defeat in 1973. Two critical inflection points will be discussed, (1) President Diem’s overthrow and (2) the Tet Offensive.
MILITARY ASSISTANCE COMMAND, VIETNAM (MACV)
The MACV was established in 1962 as a central headquarters responsible for directing the war effort in Vietnam and coordinating with President Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. General Paul Harkins was appointed as the Commander and Col Winterbottom as his Chief of Intelligence. The Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), responsible for training the Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces, fell under the MACV headquarters. At MACV’s inception, the guerilla insurgents proved to be a formidable force—evading the large offensive operations and seeking safe havens in neighboring countries. Their strength can largely be attributed to the considerable support provided by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Although the MAAG employed a “Pacification strategy” aimed at countering the insurgency, ARVN training consisted of conventional tactics—easily countered by the Vietcong and ineffective at reducing enemy strength.
National Intelligence Estimates reflected an unfavorable outlook for the political and security environment under President Diem. Despite evidence from the field that the strategy was ineffective, General Harkins persisted in his self-delusion—publicly touting success and claiming the reports were localized in nature. He was also a staunch supporter of Diem, despite indications that his policies were fomenting a general uprising in the south. Thus, Secretary of Defense McNamara tasked MACV with developing an enemy Order-of-Battle (OB) and Col Winterbottom became responsible for assessing the enemy threat and providing finished intelligence products for policy-makers.
THE ORDER-OF-BATTLE CONTROVERSY
The initial OB generated by MACV included 20,000 regular forces (main forces) and 100,000 guerilla forces, but Col Winterbottom revised the total number to 16,300. Under his leadership, the OB would remain static for the next two years of the war and irregular elements (guerilla-militia forces) would never be included. MACV intelligence assessments during the early years of escalation failed to account for the three types of military forces employed in the North Vietnamese strategy, (1) main forces, (2) regional forces, and (3) guerilla-militia forces—the same forces employed during the French conflict. Quantitative metrics would dominate the prevailing understanding of the security situation in Vietnam and U.S. progress was henceforth calculated by the number of offensive patrols, enemy attacks, and the enemy body count.
The MACV’s weekly situation report, the Headway Report, became Washington’s primary source of ‘news’ on military developments. Reportedly, commanders at multiple levels were “estimating upward.” Col Winterbottom rationalized his indiscretions as sound judgments based on the number of bombs dropped in a given location. This politicization of intelligence was made even more apparent during a Spring 1962 briefing by General Harkins to Secretary of Defense McNamara, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Lemnitzer, and the Pacific commander, Admiral Harry Felt. General Harkins argued that the country-wide map depicted an incorrect ratio of Vietcong control and insisted that the ‘contested’ areas be converted to government control to show a more accurate assessment of the situation. Col Winterbottom all too willingly obliged, removing the enemy overlays and thus “improved the security situation.”
Efforts by DIA analysts to provide realistic assessments on Vietnam were stymied by JCS and DoD officials who mandated that agency reports fall in line with reporting from field. MACV reporting was never weighed against ARVN intelligence and military officials refused to accept the notion that enemy forces were being replenished at a rate that could sustain and overcome U.S. attrition efforts. Col Winterbottom refused to update the OB despite intelligence suggesting a growth in enemy forces. In early 1963, the optimistic outlook was briefed to President Kennedy during deliberations on President Diem’s overthrow; ultimately, leading decisions-makers to grossly underestimate the enemy potential and miscalculate what would become an increasingly deteriorated security environment post-Diem.
At a critical inflection point in the Vietnam War, politicized intelligence permitted ill-fated policies to persist. This was further compounded by the pervasive inclination of government officials to overvalue MACV’s rosy assessments while ignoring alternative assessments from the CIA and DIA. This ultimately barred objective assessments and associated analysis on costs and risks from coming to the forefront of U.S. policy decisions. The Diem overthrow drew the U.S. deeper into a losing strategy in Vietnam and led to subsequent U.S. escalation—but, the same limited military objectives from the Kennedy Administration would continue under President Lyndon Johnson.
THE WAR OF ATTRITION
The Diem overthrow only served to reignite Communist hopes of a victory. With continued support from China and the Soviet Union, the combat capabilities of Communist forces increased, despite the ongoing U.S. bombing campaign in the north. By 1964, the Soviets were providing sophisticated weaponry to the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), to include AK-47s, airplanes, tanks, warships, and anti-aircraft rockets and artillery. In the same year, General William Westmoreland, the new MACV Commander, implemented an attrition strategy in his attempt to meet Pres. Johnson’s intent for a “minor reinvigoration” of the war.
PAVN forces flowing from the north reinforced the enemy’s ability to withstand offensive operations in the south, and the range and frequency of enemy attacks started to increase. Westmoreland’s “search and destroy” strategy and use of the ARVN as a conventional force continued to be ineffective. Throughout 1964, enemy attacks increased in intensity and by 1965 Saigon was isolated. McNamara grew suspicious of MACV’s overly-optimistic reporting and tasked the CIA with illuminating the situation in the south. Once again, the Order-of-Battle would play a critical role in U.S. strategy and policy. The self-delusion of General Harkins seemingly matriculated into General Westmoreland’s consciousness.
By 1966, the CIA assessed the enemy force strength to be 500,000. This assessment was derived from a review of hundreds of documents and captured enemy material. The MACV contested CIA estimates on the basis that the new number would mislead consumers into believing enemy strength had increased; and instead, offered an estimate of 300,000—one that excluded the guerilla-militia figures. MACV’s new intelligence chief, Maj Gen Philip Davidson, Jr., was obstinate in his belief that enemy forces were not replacing themselves. In the midst of the debate, MACV intelligence staff briefed the press that the “crossover” point had been reached (i.e., enemy losses exceeded the ability of the enemy to replenish). DIA and CIA capitulated under pressure, agreeing to the new number put forth by MACV. In the year of 1967 alone, 31,700 enemy forces and 6,500 tons of weapons and supplies were infiltrated into the south along with—a prelude to the scale and scope of the 1968 Tet Offensive.
The Tet Offensive would ultimately serve as the second major inflection point for intelligence’s role in the outcome of the Vietnam War. Although the possibility of an attack was known, the scale and timing of the attack was unanticipated. Intelligence analysts overlooked the possibility of an unorthodox strategy that consisted of attacking population centers with the totality of Vietcong and PAVN forces, approximated at 400,000. The ensuing media coverage of the attack resulted in significant political embarrassment. Arguably, the media would not have been so unforgiving had MACV military officials provided a more objective assessment on the war. Public distrust in military and political leaders continued to deteriorate following the media coverage of the My Lai Massacre and release of the Pentagon Papers.
Ho Chi Minh’s initial alliance with Peking was opportunistic in nature, but this alliance would prove to be decisive as victory could not have been achieved without the economic and military support from Mao. China, weary of invoking a larger U.S. intervention, refrained from deploying troops beyond the southern Chinese border. They opted instead to publicly support negotiations and reunification of Vietnam, while covertly supplying weapons and provisions to north Vietnam—thus, indirectly supporting the guerillas in the south. In the lead-up to the 1964 U.S. elections, China believed the U.S. would probably accept the loss of South Vietnam and was prepared to “disengage” along with the Soviets. However, following President Johnson’s victory both countries reversed their strategy. By 1968, the relationship between Mao and Ho Chi Minh became strained. Mao disagreed with the decision to move to a “limited general offensive” war in the south and recommended persisting in a protracted people’s war. Although Mao remained supportive, material support ceased in mid-1968.
Ultimately, Mao’s strategy succeeded in terms of avoiding U.S. confrontation. The extent of external support to North Vietnam was in large part overlooked, and thus never became a vulnerability that the U.S. could exploit as a means to weaken Minh’s base of strength. China’s rhetoric to become involved militarily if the U.S. invaded the north probably served as a deterrent. However, in doing so, China risked invoking greater U.S. aggression. Mao appropriately assessed the precarious nature of the American will and was keenly attune to political sensitivities leading up to U.S. elections. However, had the nuclear-capable U.S. been provoked into total war against the North Vietnamese and the Chinese, both countries would have almost certainly capitulated.
Ho Chi Minh’s adoption of Mao’s protracted war doctrine coupled with Mao’s material support allowed for the preservation of forces and ability to inflict psychological damage in an attempt to exhaust the American will to fight. In the end, the will of the Vietnamese people outlasted the will of the American people. The first missed opportunity in the Vietnam war was the decision to forego diplomatic negotiations with Ho Chi Minh who demonstrated a desire for a Western alliance. This would have allowed for a peaceful resolution and potentially driven a wedge between Vietnam and the two communist states. Cold War ideology arguably underpinned the proclivity to favor aggressive material solutions. Secondly, the Vietcong were decimated after the Tet Offensive (45,000 killed) and the Minh-Mao relationship was fractured. Had the U.S. utilized this battlefield victory to drive negotiations from a position of strength, negative public perceptions of a political defeat might have been mitigated. Arguably, this opportunity was largely lost as a result of the deliberate politicization of intelligence by MACV.
The role of intelligence in the outcome of the war had a two-fold effect: (1) gross underestimations of enemy strength allowed failed policies to perpetuate and (2) gross overestimations of U.S. progress exacerbated the psychological impact of the Tet Offensive on the consciousness of the American populace. MACV’s willingness to alter intelligence estimates reduced the inability for the IC to provide an objective and unified assessment of the war that might have forced planners and policy-makers to adopt a new strategy, such as negotiations. The claims of U.S. success ultimately enabled a losing strategy in an increasingly protracted war and resulted in a loss of public trust in governing officials and U.S. defeat in 1973.
- A&E Television Networks, “Red Scare,” History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/red-scare. Last modified September 13, 2018.
- Cosmas, Graham A. MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967. Washington, DC: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data, https://history.ary.mil/html/books/091/91-6/CMH_Pub_91-6.pdf.
- “How the Media Shapes Public Opinion of War,” PBS, https://www.rewire.org/pbs/vietnam-war-media-shapes-public-opinion/. Last Modified August 04, 2017.
- Hunt, Richard. “On our Conduct of the Vietnam War: A Review Essay of Two New Works.” In Assessing the Vietnam War. Edited by Lloyd J. Matthews and Dale E. Brown. McLean, VA: Pergamom-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1987.
- Lawrence,Mark. Vietnam War: A Concise International History. New York: Oxford Press, 2008.
- Papp, Daniel. Vietnam: The View from Moscow, Peking, Washington. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1981.
- Petersen, Michael. “The Vietnam Cauldron: Defense Intelligence in the War for Southeast Asia.” Defense Intelligence Historical Perspectives, no. 2 (2012): 8.
- Radvanyi, Janos. “Vietnam War Diplomacy: Reflections of a Former Iron Curtain Official.” In Assessing the Vietnam War. Edited by Lloyd J. Matthews and Dale E. Brown. McLean, VA: Pergamom-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1987.
- Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 1973.
 Mark Lawrence, Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford Press, 2008), 35-39.
 George W. Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam (Chicago: Library of Congress, 2001), 19-36.
 A&E Television Networks, “Red Scare,” History.com, last modified September 13, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/red-scare.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 23-25.
 Lawrence, Vietnam War: A Concise International History, 102-107; Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 89.
 Graham A. Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data), 20-21, https://history.ary.mil/html/books/091/91-6/CMH_Pub_91-6.pdf
 Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967, 48.
 Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967, 478.
 Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967, 478; Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 114-116.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 125-131.
 Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967, 89-92.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 151-154; Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967, 11-14.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 134-136; Michael B. Petersen, “The Vietnam Cauldron: Defense Intelligence in the War for Southeast Asia,” Defense Intelligence Historical Perspectives, no. 2 (2012): 8.
 Petersen, “The Vietnam Cauldron: Defense Intelligence in the War for Southeast Asia,” 8.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 134-136.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 27-39.
 Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967, 92.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 142-145.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 142.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 159-235.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 160-161.
 Petersen, “The Vietnam Cauldron: Defense Intelligence in the War for Southeast Asia,” 10.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam,189-191.
 Janos Radvanyi, “Vietnam War Diplomacy: Reflections of a Former Iron Curtain Official,” in Assessing the Vietnam War, ed. Lloyd J. Matthews and Dale E. Brown (McLean, VA: Pergamom-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1987), 57-59.
 Mark Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford Press, 2008), 85.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 168-191.
 Richard A. Hunt, “On our Conduct of the Vietnam War: A Review Essay of Two New Works,” in Assessing the Vietnam War, ed. Lloyd J. Matthews and Dale E. Brown (McLean, VA: Pergamom-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1987), 13-17.
 Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), 1973.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 244-254.
 Cosmas, MACV The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation 1962-1967, 468.
Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 256-259.
 “How the Media Shapes Public Opinion of War,” PBS, last modified August 4, 2017, https://www.rewire.org/pbs/vietnam-war-media-shapes-public-opinion/
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 23-25.
 Daniel S. Papp, Vietnam: The View from Moscow, Peking, Washington (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1981), 21-43.
 Papp, Vietnam: The View from Moscow, Peking, Washington, 41.
 Papp, Vietnam: The View from Moscow, Peking, Washington, 112-119.
 Allen, None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam, 285.
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