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
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.
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
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
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
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. 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
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
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
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.
for the Pacification and Long-Term Development of South Vietnam (PROVN) March,
"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."
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...
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."