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Snookered in Vietnam and Korea, U.S. Learns a 'Peace Talk' Lesson

ON WAR: One in a series of analyses by Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. (Ret.), military specialist

February 23, 1991|HARRY G. SUMMERS Jr.

If nothing else, the war in the Persian Gulf has certainly validated Karl von Clausewitz's famous dictum that "war is the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means." With the Soviet "peace proposal" and President Bush's ultimatum now on the table, it is the "political intercourse," not the war, that dominates the news.

Chinese Communist forces during the Korean War were masters of what they called ta ta tan tan, translated as "fight, fight, talk, talk." For them, diplomatic negotiations were an integral part of war. What they could not win on the battlefield, they sought to win at the negotiating table.

The North Vietnamese followed the Chinese example with a vengeance. Time after time during the Vietnam War, they threw out "peace initiatives" as a means of gaining a cease-fire on the battlefield. While they stalled the diplomatic negotiations with endless wrangling about "modalities," they used the time to rearm, re-equip and reinforce their military units on the battlefield.

The succession of U.S. cease-fires and bombing halts grew out of the erroneous American notion, as Harvard University military analyst Stephen Peter Rosen has pointed out, that the primary purpose of military force is not fighting a war but to serve as a "signaling device" to further diplomatic negotiations.

The United States was certainly sending out a signal, but not the one the government intended. The signal was that the United States lacked the will to prosecute the war.

In both the Korean and Vietnam wars, the battlefield was stalemated by enemy peace offers.

In Korea, after the terrible defeat of a 27-division Chinese offensive in the spring of 1951, the enemy begged for peace, and talks began that summer. For the next two years, as those talks dragged on, the so-called "outpost war" continued, a war that inflicted more casualties on the allied side than the previous war of maneuver. The enemy used these casualties, and U.S. prisoners of war, as psychological warfare weapons against American public opinion.

It was a particularly effective strategy. U.S. support for the war evaporated, and President Harry S. Truman decided not to run for reelection. The Chinese and North Koreans, faced with imminent battlefield defeat in the summer of 1951, were literally able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. They won at the negotiations in Panmunjom what they were unable to win at Chipyong-ni or the Punchbowl or along the Imjin River.

Korea was truly the forgotten war, for we never learned the lesson of how badly we had been suckered by ta ta tan tan. In the Vietnam War, we fell into the same trap.

After the disastrous defeat of the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong from the battle of the La Drana in 1965 to the Tet offensive of 1968, the enemy once again begged for peace. Again the talks dragged on interminably. Again a U.S. President was forced not to seek another term. Again U.S. public opinion was worn down by the casualties suffered in such battles as Hamburger Hill and by the use of American prisoners of war as hostages to the peace process. And again with the Paris peace accords of 1973, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong won what they had been unable to win on the battlefield.

But unlike the experience of the Korean War, the lessons of Vietnam were not ignored. Analysts in and out of the military concluded that public opinion was a primary American vulnerability and that the enemy use of "peace talks" was an effective way of exploiting that vulnerability. It was not that the American people had no stomach for war. It was that they had no stomach for long, drawn-out diplomatic negotiations while American soldiers continued to die for no apparent reason.

It was this pragmatic American attitude--"either win the damned war or or get the hell out!"--not the anti-war movement, that ended the war in Vietnam. Indeed, as University of Rochester political science professor John E. Mueller has documented, the antics of the lunatic wing of the anti-war movement so antagonized the American people that they supported the war long after they otherwise would have turned against it.

Saddam Hussein, according to some reports, took the advice of North Vietnamese "guest workers"--that is, the Vietnamese sent abroad to work and earn hard currency for the Hanoi government--on how to defeat the Americans. It turned out that they sold him a bill of goods.

For one thing, they forgot to tell him about the battlefield where, as North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap admitted, Hanoi had lost over 500,000 soldiers killed (and who knows how many wounded or missing) from 1965 to 1969 alone. And they forgot to tell him that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had never won a major battle against U.S. forces.

"You know, you never beat us on the battlefield," I told my North Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi a week before the fall of Saigon. He pondered my remark a moment, then replied, "That may be so, but it's also irrelevant."

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