Journal Article - Quarterly Journal: International Security

Explaining U.S. Military Strategy in Vietnam: Thinking Clearly about Causation

| Winter 2010/11

Summary

Cost distribution theory suggests that the costs to the median voter in a democracy of fighting an insurgency with firepower are relatively low compared to a more labor-intensive approach. Therefore, this voter will favor a capital intensive counterinsurgency campaign despite the resulting diminished prospects of victory. Primary and secondary sources show that President Lyndon Johnson and his civilian aides were very much aware that, although they considered a main force-focused and firepower-intensive strategy to be largely ineffective against the insurgency in South Vietnam, it was politically more popular in the United States. Importantly, civil-military agreement on warfighting strategy does not undermine this explanation, which assumes that civilian leaders, and ultimately the public, play an essential role in that strategy's determination. Appointing and supporting Gen. William Westmoreland was just one means by which the Johnson administration ensured that the U.S. military emphasized the fight against conventional enemy units and relied on the use of firepower for the fight against Vietcong insurgents.  Civil-military disagreements over strategy, however rare, therefore provide the essential test of cost distribution theory's explanatory power. When officials suggested that the U.S. military adopt more labor-intensive pacification approaches to fight the insurgency, the Johnson administration rejected them.

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Jonathan D. Caverley. Explaining U.S. Military Strategy in Vietnam: Thinking Clearly about Causation.” Quarterly Journal: International Security, vol. 35. no. 3. (Winter 2010/11):
124-143
.