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Posted on Sep 9, 2010 in Armchair Reading

November 2010 Web Mailbag

By Armchair General

March 15, 1975. South Vietnamese troops prepare to board helicopters at Phouc An that will carry them to battle at Ban Me Thout in the central highlands. (National Archives)Dear Editors,

I’m a new subscriber to Armchair General, and as a long-time military history buff, I’m enjoying the magazine very much. I must take issue, however, with one aspect of the article by James H. Willbanks, “The Fall of South Vietnam.” Not the history; Mr. Willbanks provides a clear and concise exposition on the operational aspect of the North’s conquest of South Vietnam.

But that’s all he provides and he shouldn’t suggest more. His repeated implications in the article that the United States betrayed South Vietnam by failing to continue to provide continued military assistance to the Saigonese government following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords may be historically accurate, but in my view his implications are narrow in their perspective and short-sighted.

I do not know what was in the mind of President Ford when he refused to send in the B-52s to stop the NVA offensives in 1975, or when he refused to order new massive shipments of military aid to the South. Yes, he was hamstrung by a hostile Congress, but we’ve seen presidents get around those sorts of obstacles before and since, and if anybody knew how to work Congress, Gerry Ford did. Still, as a man who believed in the Constitution he may not have been willing to do the sort of end-run around his presidential powers Nixon or later Reagan would do. Maybe, being the long-term congressman that he was and therefore more attuned to what his constituents thought than most presidents are, he knew the American people were sick to death of 20 years of investing lives and treasure in a war they were questioning we should ever have gotten into in the first place.

Whatever the reasons for his decision, it doesn’t matter. In my view, President Ford may have done something that was morally wrong by refusing the try to save South Vietnam, but he did the right thing for the United States. That’s what we expect our presidents to do.

Much as those of us who enjoy magazines like Armchair General might wish it to be, wars are not just about strategies, operations or tactics. They are mainly about grand strategy, and on that level President Ford made exactly the right decision for America in 1975. He cut our losses from a fight we initially thought made sense but then finally realized didn’t. Was this tragic for South Vietnam, as Mr. Willbanks implies? Absolutely. But it was right for America. The U.S. suffered no ill effects. it didn’t cause us to lose the Cold War. No other dominoes outside Indochina fell. We didn’t end up with communists marching on the streets of San Diego, as the pro-war hawks used to warn us would happen back in the 1960s if we failed in Vietnam. I’m old enough to remember such nonsense.

In 1975 President Ford, with the American people behind him, made a grand strategy decision to abandon South Vietnam, and it was the right one for our country. Did this cause horrible human suffering in South Vietnam? Yes, and that was tragic. This is why America needs to choose its wars very, very carefully if we want to be right whether we win or lose.

Bruce Bonafede
Palm Desert, CA

Dear Bruce,

Thanks very much for your comments on James Willbanks article, and particularly thanks for being a new subscriber to ACG. We hope you continue to enjoy the magazine.

I sent your email to Jim Willbanks for his comments, and he replies:

“The evidence does not suggest that Ford decided not to support Saigon; he was faced with an ever confrontive Congress who were determined not to honor the commitment that the U.S. had made to RVN. I may have made repeated implications, but the facts are the facts – and the writer acknowledges that the historical accuracy of those facts as laid down in the article. Whether the writer thought it was appropriate or not, promises were made and not kept. That is the fact of the matter. It is clear to me that we let our ally down.

James H. Willbanks, PhD
Director
Department of Military History
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College”

I’d add to what Jim wrote that Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s ‘architect’ for ending US combat troop involvement in Vietnam, wrote in his book “Diplomacy” that “we [ie Kissinger and Nixon] never dreamed that the US would not be permitted to enforce the [1973] peace agreement” (meaning that Kissinger, at least, assumed that if the North broke the treaty, the US would respond militarily to renewed aggression). Of course, Nixon ‘torpedoed’ his presidency with the Watergate scandal, putting Ford in the White House when the North Vietnamese renewed their aggression against the South.

All the Best,
Jerry Morelock
Editor in Chief, Armchair General Magazine

Fires from American artillery and Japanese demolition spread throughout the business district of Manila as U.S. troops continue their advance into the city. (National Archives)Dear Jerry,

Wow, “Liberation of Manilia, 1945” was a great read. I enjoyed it very much but I did come up with a few concerns about COA 3 “Warsaw Uprising East”, such as:

1) Although the guerillas controlled 60% of Philippine countryside,, the Japanese had a very tight control of large cities like Manila, Cebu, and Davao. The Japanese kempei-tai (military police) had a very effective counter-espionage system composed of Filipino collaborators. Many of whom were former prisoners facing execution. They were given a chance to live in exchange for spying for the Emperor.


Under these conditions, it was very difficult for the guerillas to organize an effective resistance as in Paris or Warsaw. Collaborators were too numerous and they kept track of who would come in and out of the city. Male adult Filipinos were constantly harassed and watched.

Also, it would be difficult for Manila residents to distinguish between guerillas and collaborators, claiming to come to their rescue. To be tagged or discovered a guerilla sympathizer would mean instant death.

2) Filipinos were not trained for urban or city street fighting.



3) Each building south of Pasig River was defended by fanatical, well-trained Japanese troops. They were well armed and supported by armored vehicles and artillery, which would be no match to the Filipino guerillas.

4) Time was of the essence. Each hour that passed would mean more Filipino civilians and POWs saved from certain death by their Japanese captors. American armored units and fire power were in a much better position to come to their aid quickly and effectively.

I found that sorting out and analyzing the 3 COAs is limitless and thrilling. I will keep on wearing my thinking cap and learning from you, ACG, and others. Thanks for the opportunity.



Best,


Mo Ludan
Camano Island, Washington

To the editors of Armchair General,

I find the "America’s ‘Germany First’ Strategy" (Hard Choices, May 2010) article less than convincing. While a lot had changed in the eighteen months between the initial agreement between Roosevelt and Churchill, not all the changes were for the better. Indeed, the whole justification of adopting a Japan First strategy seems to center on a moral obligation to save our troops from capture and the Filipinos from slavery. While this is a noble concept, it is not realistic.

The author states that the UK was not in danger of losing the war, but admitted that the Battle of the Atlantic was still in doubt. Winning the Battle of the Atlantic was the only feasible way Germany could win the war after the Miracle of Dunkirk, so the UK was clearly not safe at this time. Furthermore, the Germans being stopped at Moscow was a much needed respite for the Red forces, but the Germans were far from defeated. Indeed, even after the debacle at Stalingrad (well after the fall of the Philippines), the Germans could still have hoped for a stalemate on the Eastern Front.

Even if Germany had been on its last legs in early 1942, the author seems to ignore the realities of what US forces could do before the fall of Corregidor. If the American army was in poor shape in 1940, it was in even worse shape in 1942. It gave nearly all its battle worthy tanks to Britain during Lend-Lease, not to mention significant quantities of airplanes, fuel, parts, ammo, trucks and everything else needed to fight a modern war. The undermanned US Army did not have weapons to fight with. US offensive action in 1942 was limited to Guadalcanal and Operation Torch, and neither speaks well of a war-winning drive to save Manila.

Guadalcanal has more characteristics of a raid than a true offensive. It was conducted with a small number of elite forces against an unsuspecting and second echelon target. Rather than withdraw the Marines, however, they were left in place to force the Japanese to a war of naval attrition at which US PT boats, destroyers, and B-25′s excelled. It wasn’t until the Japanese were bled white elsewhere and forced to forsake efforts there that the island was taken.

Operation Torch was an offensive that was focused against colonial garrisons of a defeated empire, yet the endeavor was still fraught with worry. Kasserine Pass proved that at least some of those worries were real (although it was greatly underappreciated by non-Germans as to how quickly the US would mature as warriors).

It may have been possible to start a relief effort using the resources sent to Guadalcanal and North Africa, but the only reasonable outcome I can see would have been the complete and utter destruction of both the US Army and Navy. Operation Torch was escorted by two world class navies against a non-existent surface threat, yet there was still worry hours before landing that the effort would be called if the escort had to leave. In contrast, the Japanese were at the top of their game, had land-based aircraft available and a significant Battleship and Carrier advantage. They wanted nothing more than to fight a pitched battle before the American industry could tip the scales against them. The only reasonable outcome of Leyte Gulf 1942 would be to accomplish what the Japanese failed to do at Midway. Even if the Navy could have somehow kept the beachhead supplied, attacking motivated and experienced Japanese at Manila may have looked more like Dieppe than the a simple setback that Kasserine Pass was. The total loss of the American Navy and Army in a single operation would have, at best, given the Japanese years to consolidate their gains before the US could attack again and, at worst, would have forced the US to the peace table.

In my last scenario, a Japan First policy is taken but reasonable buildup is undertaken before serious offensive action is taken. The garrison is still lost and the people are still conquered. Liberation takes place a year to a year and a half sooner, but the worst atrocities have already happened and survivors know how to live under Japanese rule. The moral objectives of the author are still lost, but what about Europe?

The UK, without US resources or ambition, either lost the Battle of the Atlantic or are fought to a standstill following Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy. The Russians may very well still be on the offensive, but without the US built cargo trucks, their advances are slower. It’s hard to predict how the erratic German’s would have benefited from the lack of a US threat, but one can only hope that they would not able to free up enough resources to win the Battle of Kursk and create a stalemate or, even worse, agree to a truce.

To say the US heartlessly left the Filipinos to their fate is unfair. The Philippines were isolated from the US by distance and military capability in early 1942. Their fate was sealed and any attempt to change that would have doomed their eventual liberation. While leaders have to be flexible at the tactical and operational level, it is often counter-productive at the strategic level. The shackles of logistics are very real and no amount of moral outrage can change that. It is best to rely on carefully thought out plans in peacetime than to jeopardize everything in the heat of the moment.

Raymond Mulholland
Sumter, SC

9 Comments

  1. My question is based on this supposition: After the ‘Munich Agreement’ of 1938, President Roosevelt invites Prime Minister of England Neville Chamberlin and Adolph Hitler of Germany to Washington, for a “Big 3″ summit, to discuss World affairs, and they both accept.
    *Could* such a meeting have been feasible at that time, and what might its implications be, in the political arena and around the World?
    Might Roosevelt be looked upon as a ‘neutral peace-maker,’ or ‘just another tool by Hitler’ in his road to conquest?
    Would a firsthand look at America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” cause Hitler to ‘pause’ on his road to war?
    What if Hitler had said to the others “Protect me from the Russians, and I will be a ‘stumbling block’ to them if it comes to it.”

    Sincerely,

    Charles Ward
    Summerville, SC
    Wardcd@state.gov

  2. Dear Editor: I am writing to you to say that your last issue on the death of George Patton by Carlo D Este was unconvincing that the established cause of Patton’s death was correct. I have read the book, and this man, Mr. Wilcox did his homework. Mr. D Este proved nothing that Mr. Wildox said was irresponsible research on his part.. I have liked your magazine over the years, but I will discontinue my subscription when it expires. That ariticle on Patton, was just a “hatchet job” and proved nothing contrary to Wilcox’s book that would cause me to change my mind. Sincerely,Terry McRoberts

  3. Dear Editor: I am a 17 year-old high school student and am an addict of anything military history. I am very interested in those who lead men to great victories, from Hannibal to Gen. Allenby, and the strategies and tactics used to win their great battles. One class I truly wish my high school would have is military art and science. Luckily, your magazine helps me with my independent studies on military history. Someday I hope to attend West Point, so who knows, maybe what I learn now will help me out in the future.

  4. Mr. MacDonough, we have your comment and we will have someone get this straightened out for you asap.

    –Brian King, Armchair General

  5. Good morning.
    Armchair General is my favorite history magazine,
    One of the reasons that I check out your website is to find out when The new issues are out.
    May I suggest that you place a picture of the current magazine in a prominent place to facilitate this.
    Keep up the good work.
    Thanks
    Greg

  6. I have been going crazy if I my command decision was one of the winning solutions for CDG #41. I would really appreciate it if you could tell me if my plan of attack was a winner or not. Thanks.

    Respectfully,
    D.J. Schaefer

  7. I just picked up Armchair General, and will subscribe.

    However, in your Interactive Combat “U.S. Paratroops in Belgium, 1945 piece, just know that you have the organization and weapons of a WWII US Airborne platoon seriously wrong.
    1. No Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs) in the rifle squads.(3 squads)
    2. No weapons squad in the platoon (the 4th squad) armed with 1-2 x M-1919 A4 machine gun(s) and 1x 2.36 inch rocket launcher
    3. H Company is the heavy weapons company of the 2nd airborne infantry battalion in an airborne regiment. It is not a rifle company. It was armed with 3x 81mm mortars and either .30 M-1917 machine guns or M-2 .50 machine guns.
    Recommend a change in an addendum piece.

    Thanks,

    Wayne Long
    COL, USA (ret)

  8. I thought nobody ever heard of Vilseck, Germany. I was stationed there from January 1964 to February 1966 when it was the Combined Arms School. CAS was a sub-post to Grafenwehr which is the Seventh Army training center for armor and artillery training for NATO forces. I served under Lt Colonel Bertoff, post commander. I was in the chemical warefare department operating the CS chamber, instructing in the use of jelled chemical defense systems and flame thrower offensive use. It was a great experience being part of the cadre and meeting the many different units that came through our post for various training. Thank you for bringing back fond memories of this small post in Germany.
    David Liechty
    Conroe,Texas

  9. I enjoyed reading Carlo D’Este’s article on the silly conspiracy theory about Patton’s death in the November 2010. Many experts refuse to dignify such theories with a comment –thinking that it is obvious nonsense to any thinking person. However, not everyone has access to the facts they have and critical thinking is a skill –not everyone has learned it to a high degree. So the weaknesses of such theories are much less obvious than the experts think. Therefore it was good that Carlo D’Este carefully and pedagogically explained why this theory, or similar murder theories, does not make sense.

    It was, however, a bit sad that you chose to put “was Patton murdered?” on the cover. People who just see the cover are likely to think that this murder conspiracy is reasonably credible and merits serious discussion.

    A minor detail: a weapon that could shoot even a coffee cup is less impossible than Mr D’Este makes it sound. With discarding sabot many things can be made to fit a gun of sufficiently large calibre. The Mythbusters have a chicken cannon. What is silly is the “resembling a rifle” part. You obviously couldn’t make a coffee-cup firing gun that small. It probably wouldn’t even be man-portable.

    Sensemaker

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