John M. Barr
History 6393
Twentieth Century U.S.
Dr. Buzzanco
Robert Buzzanco, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the
Vietnam Era
On September 2, 1945 in Hanoi a Vietnamese Communist, nationalist,
and resistance fighter named Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam an independent
nation; with assistance in translation from Americans, Ho quoted from Thomas
Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, declaring to the crowd that “We hold
these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal.” Shortly
thereafter, American warplanes flew overhead and a band played the “StarSpangled Banner.”1 Thirty years later, when the United States left Vietnam it had,
in the words of University of Houston historian Robert Buzzanco, “dropped 4.6
million tons of bombs on Vietnam and another 2 million tons on Cambodia and
Laos (compared with a total of 3 million tons dropped by Allied forces in World
War II). American forces additionally sprayed 11.2 million gallons of the dioxincarrying herbicide Agent Orange, and dropped over 400,000 tons of napalm.”
Furthermore, Buzzanco writes, “the United States destroyed over 9,000, out of
15,000, southern Vietnamese hamlets, 25 million acres of farmland, and 12
million acres of forest, while creating over 25 million bomb craters. The human
toll was worse: about 2 million Vietnamese, and another 300,000 Cambodians
See George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States in Vietnam, 1950-1975, (New
York: McGraw-Hill, Fourth Edition, 2002) , 3; Also read Robert Buzzanco, Vietnam and the
Transformation of American Life, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1999) , 48, for
the irony of this scene.
and Laotians, died in the war, while over 3 million Indochinese were wounded.”2
How did this catastrophe happen? How did the United States cause such a
humanitarian, environmental, and political disaster, especially since a few
decades earlier the country was favorably viewed by Ho Chi Minh and other
North Vietnamese? How did America lose a conflict in which it obviously wrought
havoc and devastation on a country about the size of Maine to Florida?
It is Robert Buzzanco’s central contention, in this brilliant and important
book, Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, that
contrary to popular opinion, the U.S. military did not fight the Vietnam War “with
one hand tied behind its back” as President George H.W. Bush opined in 1991.
Instead, the U.S. military was forced by civilian politicians to fight a war in
Vietnam they neither wanted nor thought necessary. John F. Kennedy, in
particular, receives harsh – but fair – treatment from Buzzanco for his
responsibility for the Vietnam War. Buzzanco’s work, therefore, is an exercise in
debunking a few of the more persistent myths surrounding reasons for America’s
loss in Southeast Asia. As such, the book meets Noam Chomsky’s challenge,
issued in 1967 to intellectuals in the West, “to expose the lies of governments”
and “analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden
Buzzanco emphasizes in Masters of War “the role of U.S. military leaders
in critically analyzing the American experience in Vietnam and . . . the political
interplay between civilian and service officials in that era.” To that end,
Buzzanco, Masters of War, 351.
Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” The New York Review of Books, February
23, 1967.
Buzzanco’s book has four major themes: “military recognition of the parlous
nature of war in Vietnam and criticism of the U.S. role there; civilian responsibility
for decisions to fight in Indochina; political maneuvering between civilian and
military leaders over the war; and interservice division over the commitment to
and strategy used in Indochina.”4 These themes are interwoven throughout the
book and go a long way towards explaining the American experience – or failure
– in Vietnam.
Unbeknownst to the majority of Americans, the United State’s
involvement in Vietnam dated back to the Truman administration, long before
ground troops arrived in Vietnam near Da Nang in 1965. Several key events
facilitated American involvement in Southeast Asia, including the fall of China to
Communism in 1949 and the concern that other “dominoes” in Southeast Asia
might likewise fall to the “Red Menace,” the explosion of the Soviet Union’s first
atomic weapon in the same year, the establishment of NATO along with the need
for France’s help in Europe, and NSC-68, “which envisioned a huge American
military buildup to pursue containment policies globally.” Consequently,
Buzzanco contends, “the Truman administration inflated the importance of
previously peripheral areas such as Vietnam and began to accelerate aid to
those places.”5
The U.S. military, as noted – and meticulously documented throughout the
book by Buzzanco – never wanted to fight a war in Vietnam. Basing their
opinions on the French experience in Southeast Asia from 1945 to 1954 (e.g. the
Buzzanco, Masters of War, 4.
Ibid. , 30.
“First Indochina War”), as well as the U.S. war in Korea, the military thought
Vietnam was a perilous place to fight. For example, George Marshall – at
different times secretary of state and secretary of defense after World War II argued in 1947, almost as if he were forecasting the American experience twenty
years later, that the French could not achieve victory in Vietnam and he predicted
their war “will remain a grievously costly enterprise, weakening France
economically and all the West generally”6 Furthermore, U.S. military officers were
well aware of Ho Chi Minh’s and General Vo Nguyen Giap’s popularity
throughout Vietnam, and noted their ability to fight either a guerilla or
conventional war in Southeast Asia. American troops, they believed, were
unprepared for either type of conflict. Hence, the American military did not think
any type of war in Vietnam was in the national interest. In fact, they thought
Vietnam peripheral to American interests and that American military involvement
in Southeast Asia would only serve to strengthen the Soviet Union and People’s
Republic of China. In addition, after the Korean War officers did not think
American troops should ever again fight a land war on an Asian peninsula.7
Indeed, in 1956 Matthew B. Ridgway said, quite proudly and in public, that when
“the day comes for me to face my Maker and account for my actions, the thing I
would be most humbly proud of was the fact that I fought against, and perhaps
contributed to preventing, the carrying out of some hare-brained tactical schemes
which would have cost the lives of thousands of men. To that list of tragic
Ibid. , 29.
Ibid. , 25-53.
accidents that fortunately never happened I would add the Indo-China
Ridgway spoke too soon, unfortunately, for Eisenhower, secretary of state
John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s successors, all “ignored or dismissed
virtually every reservation concerning Vietnam that service leaders had put forth.”
Furthermore, American civilian officials, as Buzzanco shows, “did not rush blindly
into Indochina or get mired in a quagmire once there, but simply ignored
knowledgeable counsel and consciously expanded their commitment to the
RVN.”9 (Republic of Vietnam – south) Needing French cooperation in Europe
and, more specifically, NATO, and desirous of expanding capitalism throughout
Asia, Eisenhower and Dulles decided to back Ngo Dinh Diem as the premier of
South Vietnam, despite the man’s obvious shortcomings. Hence, “taking a stand
in Vietnam,” according to Buzzanco, “became unavoidable.”10 Vietnam, therefore,
was not a major concern for civilians or the military in the early 50s, but, the more
important American policy makers made it to the Cold War, as historian George
C. Herring contends, “the more important it became.”11
Furthermore, squabbling between the military and the president over
defense policies and budgets exacerbated the problem of American commitment
to Vietnam, making success there more unlikely. Eisenhower’s “New Look”
military strategy, which relied, in Buzzanco’s words, “on nuclear weapons to cut
Ibid. , 25.
Ibid. , 51-52.
10 Ibid. , 53.
11 George C. Herring, “Vietnam: An American Ordeal,” ed. Richard Lowitt, The Forum Series,
(Arlington Heights, Illinois: The Forum Press, 1976) , 14.
military spending and balance the budget” provide an excellent example of such
Throughout the Eisenhower years, the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff)
and White House engaged in a virulent and eventually public debate
over defense policy and spending. At the same time, the military
services fought among themselves over both the limited resources
available in New Look budgets and the type of military strategy that
would best serve the interests of their respective branches. Ironically,
the results of those battles, including increased defense spending, a
reassertive military in the 1960s and the military doctrine of flexible
response, laid the groundwork for both war in Vietnam and for subsequent military criticism of that very war. Under the New Look and
its concomitant doctrine of massive retaliation, Eisenhower allocated
a lion’s share of resources to the Air Force, which, with its capability
to deliver nuclear weapons, presumably would deter enemies and
wage war more cost-effectively. . . . Thus the Army, stung by shrinking
allocations and fearing for its institutional integrity, if not existence,
pressed for a flexible defense capability to wage “limited” or nonnuclear
war, principally in the Third World. The alternative strategy, which Taylor
[chief of staff of the Army in the 1950s and the Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff under Kennedy] called “flexible response,” caught
Kennedy’s attention and facilitated his intervention into Vietnam.12
(emphasis mine)
Hence, according to Buzzanco, the military strategy of “flexible response” was
not a way to win the war in Vietnam, but rather a way to “score bureaucratic
points for the Army at home,” and “as a result, U.S. soldiers in Vietnam entered a
war to defend an unworthy regime, which they were unlikely to win, with
distrustful politicians and generals leading them, and without any coherent
strategy for success.”13 Thus the groundwork, or foundation, for the U.S. tragedy
in Vietnam was laid by the end of the Eisenhower presidency.
Nor does Buzzanco let John F. Kennedy off the hook for the U.S. debacle
in Vietnam. Indeed, in one of the more interesting and perhaps controversial
Ibid. , 75.
Ibid. , 79.
aspects of the book, Buzzanco argues that the Vietnam War was, in a very real
sense, Kennedy’s war. JFK was, according to Buzzanco, “well informed and
deliberate in making Vietnam policy.”14 Early in his presidency JFK suffered
several foreign policy setbacks, including failure at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, in
Laos, and in his first meeting with Soviet premier Khrushchev in Vienna, where
Kennedy was bullied by the Soviet leader over the issue of Berlin. Thus, in this
Cold War context, and as a young president who promised “to pay any price” and
“bear any burden” to defend freedom around the globe, JFK had to make a stand
against Communism somewhere and that somewhere was in Indochina.
Consequently, under Kennedy, there was an 800 % increase in advisors in
Vietnam, an expansion of U.S. involvement in all aspects of Vietnamese life, and
the overthrow – with U.S. permission – of Ngo Dinh Diem, which led to Diem’s
murder. Furthermore, contrary to the popular mythology created by filmmaker
Oliver Stone and historians John Newman and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that JFK
would have withdrawn U.S. forces from Vietnam had he not been assassinated,
Buzzanco makes clear that Vietnam was a commitment from which the president
would not have retreated, unless victory had been achieved. It is pure myth,
Buzzanco demonstrates, that JFK would have withdrawn troops had he lived.15
Indeed, Buzzanco makes the excellent point that if JFK – like Eisenhower and
later Lyndon Johnson – had “wanted to pull back from Vietnam, Kennedy could
Ibid. , 150.
Ibid. , 81-151; See also, Noam Chomsky, “Vain Hopes, False Dreams,” Z Magazine 5 (October
1992) 9-23 for a refutation of the JFK withdrawal thesis.
have cited the military’s own doubts about the war to cover himself against the
political fallout from such a move. He never chose to do so.”16 (emphasis mine)
Thus by the time Lyndon Johnson sent American ground troops into
Vietnam in March, 1965, the die was cast, so to speak, regarding the eventual
American calamity in Southeast Asia. Buzzanco ruminates on the reasons for
U.S. failure in Vietnam during the Johnson presidency:
U.S. service leaders suffered from the hubris endemic to hegemonic
powers and were seduced by the prospects of waging technological
warfare against Asian guerillas. They also understood, however, the
Johnson administration’s determination to show its resolve in the
Republic of Vietnam (RVN) to whatever degree necessary. Thus, U.S.
officers consistently produced gloomy reports on the war, yet developed
sanguine assessments of U.S. prospects in Vietnam. In that way, they
would continue to fulfill their obligation to evaluate honestly conditions
in the RVN, thereby covering their flanks, if things turned sour, while at
the same time telling the president, the secretary of defense, and other
war advocates what they wanted to hear. There was, it seemed, little
military compulsion to fight in Vietnam. Political considerations overrode
such factors, however, so American leaders optimistically went to war
in Vietnam while fully aware of the risks and problems there.17 (emphasis
Hence, “America’s fate was effectively sealed by mid-1968,” and, as the military
predicted, some for over a decade, Vietnam was “a catastrophe.”18 Indeed, by
1968 there was probably no way America could win in Vietnam, and although
Richard Nixon carried on the war after Johnson for five more years and 20,000
additional American deaths, America was destined to pull out of Indochina in
defeat and ignominy.
Buzzanco, Masters of War, 150.
Ibid. , 188.
18 Ibid. , 339.
Buzzanco, in addition to “Rethinking Camelot,” as Noam Chomsky once
put it, also explodes the myth that Tet was a defeat for the enemy in Vietnam and
a great military victory for the United States. This belief contributed to the widely
held belief that the United States would have won in Vietnam, if only the
politicians had allowed the military to fight the war without “one hand tied behind
their backs.”19 Using contemporary documents and “military . . . evaluations and
analysis of Tet” it is clear that in 1968 the armed services saw Tet as a defeat
and posed even greater problems for the United States in the future.20 William
Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, claimed Tet as a great
victory because the RVN retained control of South Vietnam and enemy
casualties had been heavy. But, Westmoreland, as Buzzanco notes, also knew
that the enemy’s goals during Tet were “primarily psychological and political.”21
Westmoreland admitted, begrudgingly, that the objectives of the DRVN were not
military in nature, but consisted of “undermining the southern government and
military, prompting popular discontent, and destabilizing American policy” and
that these goals “had indeed been accomplished throughout the Republic of
Buzzanco concludes his work by ruminating on the legacies of the
Vietnam War for both the United States and the Vietnamese. Defeat was not an
orphan in Vietnam but had many fathers: the civilian officials that did not heed
the warnings of the military about involvement in southeast Asia; military leaders
Ibid. , 312.
21 Ibid. 312-13.
22 Ibid. , 317.
more concerned with increasing their “institutional power,” rather than developing
and implementing an appropriate strategy for Vietnam; military officers that made
exorbitant troop requests that they knew would be turned down, thereby allowing
them to place the blame for the war on civilians; and, a cold war and capitalistic
culture that necessitated involvement on the Asian continent. For Vietnam, the
devastation was catastrophic, as the statistics noted at the beginning of this
review demonstrate. In addition, to cite one more example, Army chief Harold K.
Johnson surmised that by 1968 “U.S. pilots had dropped enough bombs in the
DRVN alone to cover it with one-eighth inch of flat steel; by 1970 he estimated
that another one-fourth inch could be added to that total.”23 For America, the war
in Vietnam left the United States with an Army whose image was badly damaged,
but since 1975 the military has recouped, and, as Buzzanco argues, “emerged as
virtual partners in a ruling coalition government, or in fact may have the upper
hand whenever questions of American defense policy are being debated.”24
This is an outstanding book the merits of which should be read, studied,
and debated for a long time in American policy circles and among the public at
large. At times the acronyms become a bit dizzying for the reader, and
clarification of the purpose and nature of “war games” as well as the gold and
dollar crisis would have been helpful, but these are mere quibbles about a book
that not only tells the story of the unnecessary tragedy of Vietnam but also
carries important lessons for our own era.
Ibid. , 347.
Ibid. , 361.

John - University of Houston