The Best Defense

Reflections on Vietnam, 1964-65: Trying to get someone to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail

By Lieutenant General John H. Cushman, US Army, Retired

Best Defense department of Vietnam War studies

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

      John Greenleaf Whittier, Maud Muller

This is a sequel to my Reflections on Vietnam 1963-64: Trying to talk to Gen. Westmoreland about COIN, posted January 6, 2011. It is taken from an oral history now in progress.

Returning home from Vietnam in April 1964 I believed that I understood that situation. I had brought back copies of the flip charts that my deputy senior advisor Bob Montague had built to brief visitors to the 21st ARVN Infantry Division headquarters at Bac Lieu and to our Advisory Team 51. They described in detail the oil spot pacification scheme that the division with our help had developed and employed.

While waiting to attend the National War College, I used those charts to brief people at OSD and the CIA. I went up to West Point and briefed the cadets. I briefed at Forts Benning and Bragg.

I briefed LTG Harold K. Johnson, the Army DCSOPS. For about an hour I told him our story. At the end he said, "You know what we have to do to solve this problem in Vietnam? We have to build a command post down in the basement of the Pentagon where we can plot every platoon and every company and plot out the Vietnam situation in detail." I said, "General, even at the 21st Division we didn't keep that kind of detail. I don't see how you can keep that kind of detail in the Pentagon." He said, "That's what McNamara requires."

This was May 1964. If General Johnson had been perceptive he would have said to me. "You have just described the strategy for success in Vietnam's countryside." He would have bought the concept right then. He would have had me briefing everywhere. He did not. Eighteen months later he sponsored a massive study called PROVN which said essentially the same thing that I had been saying.[1]

He missed a huge opportunity. We had the essentials of PROVN in April 1964.

When I got to the National War College that August with ideas on Vietnam, the Vietnamese government was in upheaval. There had been a series of coups. Things were deteriorating in the countryside. Battalions of the ARVN were being ambushed and beat up by main force Viet Cong. It got so bad there was talk of committing U.S. combat forces. It was election season. Barry Goldwater was President Johnson's opponent. That fall LBJ would not mention the possibility of sending combat forces into Vietnam.

As a student my message was, "The countryside is no place for American troops. They will only tear it up. They won't be able to tell friend from foe." I believed that pacification was the answer and that with U.S. advice and assistance Vietnamese troops could deal with the Viet Cong.

In my view there were two problems in Vietnam; one, the instability in the countryside, and two, the reinforcements being received by the Viet Cong from outside South Vietnam. I believed that I had found the solution to pacifying the countryside. I began to study the problem of infiltration.

Some supplies were coming through Cambodia. A small amount came in over the beaches. But most reinforcements and materiel were coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and entering through the South Vietnam's northern provinces. I thought that the best use of American resources would be to block the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Each student was required to write an individual research paper. I began to consider historical examples of counterinsurgency. An office at the Pentagon was keeping a library of them. I compiled a list of recent cases in which established governments had coped successfully with an insurgency (Burma, Greece, Hungary, Korea, Malaya, the Philippines and Tibet) and a list of those in which the insurgents were successful (China, Cuba, Indochina, Indonesia, Israel, and Laos, and a draw, Algeria). There were seven of each type.

For each case I wrote a one-page paper describing the government's internal measures compared to the effort being made by the opposition, grading it on a scale of one to 10. For each case, on the same one to 10 scale, I determined the degree to which the insurgents did not receive outside support.

When I plotted all fourteen insurgencies on graph paper the successful counter-insurgencies were grouped in the upper right, with a "7" or more in both dimensions. I plotted that as a "zone of success." I then gave my assessment of the situation in South Vietnam: it was down in the lower left at about a "3". I said, "You're not going to have a successful counter-insurgency until you solve both problems. The zone of success is up here and the situation in Vietnam is down here."

I derived this general principle that I put in my paper:

In order for a counterinsurgency to succeed, there must be both an internal effort substantially superior to that of the insurgents, and an effective restriction of (or an absence of} external support to the insurgents. Neither action alone is sufficient to success. Both are necessary.

That simple operations analysis with its profound truth was an appendix to my individual research paper, External Support of the Viet Cong: An Analysis and a Proposal. Originally classified TOP SECRET, it has been downgraded to unclassified and can be found in the special collections of the library of the National Defense University.

I had become convinced that a satisfactory conclusion in Vietnam was not possible if the Ho Chi Minh trail were allowed to exist. I thought that there had to be some way to use the great military capability of the United States to solve this problem. I thought air mobility could supply part of the answer. I had been following the evolution of air mobility in the Army for years and especially since the approval of the recommendations of the Howze Board in 1963 as I left for Vietnam.

While at the National War College I kept abreast of the formation of the 11th Air Assault Division at Fort Benning. Employment of that division was a key element of my paper.  My plan was to use the 173 Airborne Brigade (Okinawa), the 25th Infantry Division (Hawaii) and the 11th Air Assault Division to seize blocking positions on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

I thought that the force to seize and establish the positions on the Ho Chi Minh trail must be a coalition force, including Vietnamese and other nations' troops. As a cover plan, a Southeast Asia Treaty Organization exercise in Thailand would provide a reason for moving forces into the area. The assembled force would then launch the trail cutting operation.

Coalition partners would justify their action by citing North Vietnam's operations in Laos since 1961 to seize the trail's territory as flagrant violations of the 1954 Geneva Accords[2]. I offered a U.S. political-military concept aimed at convincing China that it should not intervene in this defensive blocking action.

I thought that with engineer effort positions could be built and fields of fire cleared to establish positions that could be held and from which operations could be conducted to deny enemy use of routes. I made the best terrain analysis that I could based on the available maps. I determined that my planned multinational, multidivision joint force could do the job.

I also described how U.S. forces available at end-1964 were substantially greater than those available at end-1960 during the Laos crisis. In 1965 we had, for example: 1,119 UH-1 and 71 CH-47 helicopters on hand compared to only a handful in 1961. We had 139 Army CV-2B Caribou aircraft and 682 Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft, compared to zero Caribou and 264 C-130s in 1961's inventory. Secretary McNamara had in four years more than doubled the Air Force and Navy's capabilities in tactical air. So I thought that adequate force was available.

After the 1964 election someone at OSD called me wanting to know more about my idea of cutting the Ho Chi Minh trail and using the 11th Air Assault Division. He said, "Tell me more about this division." I sensed that they were thinking of deploying the division and using it in the countryside. I said, "Don't use this outfit that way. It's not the proper mission. This unit should be assigned to seize and secure terrain interdicting the infiltration routes."

My notion was overtaken by events. In April 1965 a battalion of  U.S. marines landed at Da Nang. In June LBJ gave General William Westmoreland the authority to commit American troops to ground combat operations in Vietnam. That summer the 11th Air Assault Division, renamed the 1st Air Cavalry Division, was committed into Vietnam's countryside, as was the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. Search and destroy began. Half a million U.S. troops followed.

Years later, in the 1980s and 1990s, I presented this trail-blocking idea at various symposia as having had merit as a possible solution. I said that it should have been undertaken as a feasibility study. Many commented that it would never have worked, for various reasons. I'm not sure, but someone should have made a proper feasibility study. If done right, there would have been no Ho Chi Minh highway and we could have had a success in South Vietnam.

In 1984 General Bruce Palmer, who was the Vice Chief of Staff under General Westmoreland, came out with a book The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam in which he said we should have done something like this early in the war. I took some comfort from the fact that he had the same notion.

General Cushman commanded the 101st Airborne Division, the Army Combined Arms Center, and the ROK/U.S. field army defending Korea's Western Sector. He served three tours in Vietnam.

[1]Program for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam (PROVN) March, 1966:

"PROVN examines the situation in South Vietnam within the context of history and in broad perspective. Specific problems of pacification and long-term development are identified, and specific actions are proposed to alleviate them...

"PROVN submits that the United States and the Republic of Vietnam must accept the principle that success will be the sum of innumerable, small and integrated localized efforts and not the outcome of any short-duration, single master stroke."

[2] Text: "Final declaration, dated July 21, 1954, of the Geneva Conference on the problem of restoring peace in Indochina, in which the representatives of Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam, France, Laos, the People's Republic of China, the State of Viet-Nam, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom and the United States of America took part...

"In their relations with Cambodia, Laos, and Viet-Nam, each member of the Geneva Conference undertakes to respect the sovereignty, the independence, the unity, and the territorial integrity of the above-mentioned states, and to refrain from any interference in their internal affairs."

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