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Counter Insurgency Failures of Vietnam

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Without a doubt, the United States of America has, throughout recent world history, been considered to be one of, if not the biggest, superpowers and fiercest fighting forces in the world often using “military power as a means of political influence”. With this being said, a highly relevant question is how did a superpower lose a conflict to militarily weaker force in Vietnam, and how did this failure affect its ability to assert political influence through militarised means? The aim of this research essay is to address this question using various viewpoints, such as the United States’ (US) military failure to adapt, along with its counter insurgent strategy, and, finally the public opinion at home that would ultimately shape the war. Furthermore, the essay will also discuss limitations found in trying to assert political influence via military means, providing explicit reference to American failures in Vietnam

The primary issue that can be identified as being of significance, causing major problems in the leadership of US forces and how the conflict in Vietnam was to be fought, resulting in failure to adapt.This is demonstrated in the large volume of differing political and strategic viewpoints that were in place during the conflict. This is evidenced in the various leadership phases and differing plans proposed, which further complicated matters as the “United States had to fight two armies at once, the North Vietnamese (Conventional army) and the insurgents (Vietcong)”. Thus making it significantly more challenging than previous wars. In addition, the first phase of leadership is by US Army General William Westmoreland who recieved command of forces in South Vietnam in early 1964 at the same time, as 50,000 more ground troops were to be sent to Vietnam. “Westmoreland did understand the dual nature of the threat he faced, yet he believed that the enemy main forces were the most immediate problem. (Arndade, ”..This can be considered a strategic move as “the military was effective against conventional warfare and was successful against the North Vietnamese Army”.

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However, it ultimately failed to effectively combat the Vietcong insurgents. As a result of this, Westmoreland chose to use a search and destroy method, using conventional warfare tactics to combat the threat of insurgents. Unfortunately, these search and destroy tactics, for the most part, “produced no lasting effects and were irrelevant to security in the villages”. In response to the war effort, a study known as “The Program for the Pacification and Long Term Development of South Vietnam, also known as PROVN” was created. “The purpose of the study was to create a new doctrine that would result in a successful operation”. Congruent with Milson’s (2011) perspective, this study revealed that “the Army needed to cease the current course of action and commence a campaign to win over the population)”. Moreover, at the time it could be said that the “US army was ‘organizationally disposed against learning how to fight and win counterinsurgency warfare, and that as a result, “Westmoreland dismissed it” limiting US military/political influence.

Following Westmoreland’s departure General Creighton Abrams assumed responsibility of his role. Abrams was a member of the staff that developed PROVN, and, as such, “PROVN became the touchstone for the entirety of operations, operations reconfigured for the conduct of ‘one war’ with population security as its goal” Whilst Abrams strategy for the war was progressing, it is evident that it was not done quick enough. Consequently, in mid 1969 Nixion “changed the strategy to train the South Vietnamese forces to become capable of providing security without the aid of the United States” Following this, Abrams, having formed the opinion that the war was winding down due to Nixions change in policy “encouraged the South Vietnamese to follow this strategy’ of counterinsurgency, in order to beat Insurgent forces. Additionally, Nixions policy change limited Abram’s ability to test and trial new forms of counter-insurgency methods as the numbers of troops in Vietnam declined – along with the fact it was no longer the main priority. Ultimately, these actions and occurrences can all be considered to be contributing factors that led to major problems in Vietnam. Quite simply put, the infighting and stubbornness of the leaders, in resisting change from a conventional force/ strategy, culminated in a distinct failure to adapt to a capable force.

Thus, this highlights a major failure of the US counter insurgency effect, and, in fact reveals opposition to the core premise of an insurgency, which is the ability to rapidly adapt. Therefore, it is apparent that this provided proof that whilst the US may be able to win battles, it cannot effectively impose its political influence.

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Counter Insurgency Failures of Vietnam. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
“Counter Insurgency Failures of Vietnam.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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Counter Insurgency Failures of Vietnam [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from:
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