Formula for Failure in Vietnam
The Folly of Limited Warfare
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 173 pages
Book Review published on: December 27, 2019
Retired Army Lt. Col. William Hamilton, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, has written one of the more thought-provoking works on the Vietnam War in some time. Hamilton examines the strategic mistakes the United States made regarding Vietnam and offers sound advice to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.
Hamilton describes the deleterious impact that then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s managerial style had on the Department of Defense and the military overall; he discusses how McNamara shifted authority at the Pentagon from experienced military leaders to a group of young civilians who eventually became known as McNamara’s Whiz Kids. Hamilton credits McNamara with the up-or-out policy and its officer evaluation report for instilling a sense of fear in members of the officer corps that resulted in lying, cover-ups, false reporting, and obedience to the desires of raters. Hamilton summarizes that McNamara’s managerial approach eventually led to an Army willing to say “can do” to an inappropriate mission in Vietnam.
Hamilton describes how he used a 1936 U.S. Naval War College book titled Sound Military Decision in developing six questions to assess the relationship between the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His results were troubling. He informs us that President John Kennedy was distrustful of these senior military leaders due to their advice during the Bay of Pigs and their eagerness to attack Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Lyndon Johnson was also deeply suspicious of military men, who he found contemptuous of new ideas. Moreover, this was nothing new; Hamilton points out that President Dwight Eisenhower had a similar distrust of senior military leaders going back to his military service.
Hamilton raises a thought-provoking question: Why did an array of talented men believe they could motivate the leadership of North Vietnam when it was enjoying little success in making Jeffersonian democrats of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his successors? Readers will find interesting parallels between our missteps in Vietnam and what we are now learning in the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers.
Hamilton offers some thoughtful advice in chapter 8, “One War Too Far,” on the importance of civil-military relations. He opines that civilian government’s first obligation is to define clearly its vital interests and to evolve a comprehensive policy or grand strategy to achieve or defend it. Effective coordination between civilian leadership and the military is essential to developing a coherent strategy to achieve their desired objectives or end state. Civilian leadership has an obligation to seek and receive advice from the military on issues of a national interest. The military has the responsibility to provide the best possible sound advice to civilian leadership. Hamilton informs us that sound military advice should include an insistence on denying sanctuaries to the enemy and an honest assessment of the means and latitude to accomplish the aims of grand strategy.
The strength of Formula for Failure in Vietnam comes from numerous personal interviews with commanders, use of extensive primary and secondary sources, and Hamilton’s personal knowledge based on his tours in Vietnam. This book serves as a warning to policy makers and defense planners considering military intervention without a coherent strategy. It candidly describes the miscues that led to our involvement in Vietnam and the mismanagement of it afterward. Formula for Failure in Vietnam would make a great addition to any military reading list and is a must read for policy makers, historians, and students desiring a better understanding of our involvement in Vietnam.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas