OK, so this essay is a little out of place on this " Trip "
website. At least, Presidents' Day is an appropriate enough
occasion for the topic. A trip back to Vietnam inevitably precipitated some
reflections on the war and on what I consider to be the failed national leadership
of the time. I came home from the trip to the current partisan . . . um
. . . uh . . . "debate" about the Vietnam service records of the
likely candidates and I am left deeply fearful that our future leaders may
perform no better. What we need is real leadership - great leadership
- but we can't select that great leadership if we aren't clear about just
what it is. - Presidents' Day 2004
I will briefly describe the essentials of leadership and then examine the
performance of national leadership during the Vietnam-American War.
Americans refer to the Vietnam War; Vietnamese to the American
War. I call it the Vietnam-American War here because I aspire,
at least, to a bilateral viewpoint. Finally, I will
challenge ideas expressed in the current debate as being either political
expediency or, worse yet, simplicity that completely fails to
envision what great leadership might have been then. If one can't see
great leadership with the benefit of hindsight, how could they see it
through the haze of the future?
Leadership consists of three components: vision, motivation,
Vision is conceptualizing some future state that has a much higher
value than the cost of achieving it. Much of the detail of getting there
can be left to execution but vision must also include at least a rough outline
of a viable path.
Motivation is inspiring people to work toward achieving the vision.
Importantly, that inspiration must be of sufficient intensity and duration to
get the job done.
Execution is managing to get it done: developing a detailed, viable plan,
identifying and marshaling appropriate people and other resources,
and coordinating them according to the plan.
Great leadership requires extraordinary performance in all three areas.
One can be strong in only one or two areas and still be a good leader,
but not a great one. Since it's rare for one individual to be
exceptional in all three areas, leadership teams often are structured
with complementary strengths, shoring up each others weaknesses.
The crucial idea is this: Failure in any one of the three areas
means falling short of great leadership.
Hindsight indeed often offers exceptional clarity. Let's use it to apply
the preceding description of leadership to the Vietnam-American War. What
were the objectives of the two sides, how well were they achieved or not,
and how did leaders on the two sides perform?
It is a defensible simplification to say that America fought primarily to
resist the spread of Soviet-style communism and that Vietnam fought for
self-determination. It's now decades later and, ironically,
there has been substantial progress toward both objectives. It took awhile,
but the Soviet Union collapsed and, with it, much of the influence in
the world of their ideas. The world is the better for it, we are
better off, and so are the Vietnamese. We may think the Vietnamese
made an early mess of self-determination, but they have nonetheless been
"enjoying" the privilege of finding their own way. Under recent "doi moi"
policies, they actually are beginning to enjoy increasing democracy,
freedom, and prosperity while maintaining their precious national
I cannot emphasize the following point enough. It is the essential
insight into leadership in the war. The objectives of both sides were not
mutually exclusive. That is demonstrably so because both have been
largely realized by now.
The great tragedy of the war is that both peoples suffered terribly for
what they could both have had without conflict, if only a path forward
could have been found. Millions of Vietnamese were casualties, tens
of thousands of Americans were casualties, a whole generation of American
veterans were left unappreciated and, in the minds of many, betrayed; a
whole generation of Vietnamese were abandoned to malnutrition and other miseries
of a Soviet-style system, and a generation of Americans were left with a
listless and uncertain national consciousness.
The first requirement of leadership is vision and it is there that the
leadership of both sides failed most tragically. Lyndon Johnson and his
predecessors articulated - albeit not persuasively - the necessity
to resist Soviet expansion. Johnson may have been so much of a social
liberal that he was only slightly to the right of Ho Chi Minh and the socialists,
but he undoubtedly understood that democratic capitalism was the best hope for
creating the wealth that he would redistribute. Ho Chi Minh clearly placed
the struggle of his time in the context of Vietnam's long-standing struggle for
independence. I cannot tell you to what extent he was a socialist by
belief and how much by expediency but I have little doubt that he was,
above all, a nationalist. Each leader had a vision of
quite legitimate objectives for their own people, but neither gave us
the great vision that would have encompassed both sets of objectives in a
cooperative, collective effort.
I don't claim to be able to articulate the path they might have chosen
and I will admit that it would have been difficult, if not improbable,
by Lyndon Johnson's time. The best opportunities were in the
preceding decades, after Japan's World War II occupation but before
the Soviet's were so deeply involved. The intensely nationalist Ho Chi
Minh, with his unabashed admiration of American democracy, actually
expected American support and would likely have been a willing ally.
By the sixties, the Soviet genie would not have gone
gracefully back into his bottle. Great political courage would have be
required if America had needed to abandon the corrupt, but capitalist,
regime in the south. Anything that smacked of capitalism could have
been a difficult sell in the post-French Vietnam of the time, where any
distinction between capitalism and colonialism might not have been easy concept.
(Think how often many of us in the West use socialism and communism
interchangeably.) It could indeed have been a difficult path to find but
that's not beyond the demands of greatness.
To lighten up a little on those leaders, they did not fail alone. A
succession of American presidents - Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy,
Johnson, and Nixon - adopted and perpetuated policies that
drove America and Vietnam farther from the great vision. Ardent communists
apparently succeeded in isolating Ho Chi Minh to little more than spiritual
leadership while they implemented the failed communist experiment. OK,
so they didn't fail alone but they did fail. They were the leaders
of my time in Vietnam, they had aspired to that leadership, and I
hold them both personally and individually responsible for their failures.
In that take on Ho Chi Minh, I differ from my Vietnamese friends.
Am I being presumptuous to expect such a great vision of them?
Undoubtedly, but not more presumptuous than their aspiration to
leadership. If they presume to ask us to follow them - even into
deadly combat - then we may presume to demand greatness of them.
Am I being unreasonable to expect such a great vision of them? Again,
without doubt. Greatness is surely beyond reason but we nonetheless
have both a right and an obligation to demand it of our leaders.
OK, so both failed on greatness of vision. Each, at least, had
a vision, if not a great one. How did they do with the other
components of leadership? In the shadow of their failure of vision,
that may seem unimportant but actually offers insight into some current debate.
Let's get execution out of the way first, because it's largely a gimme'
for both sides, at least at execution per se. The Vietnamese were
- and are - as tough and disciplined a military force as any in
the world. They achieved remarkable results with sometimes astonishingly
limited resources. Americans were - and are - a military
force without equal in the world. The Tet Offensive of 1968 can be
considered to be the turning point in the war. The Vietnamese achieved
a great tactical surprise with the offensive but it was not a military victory.
America's superb military machine crushed the offensive itself. It
only became a victory for the Vietnamese politically.
That, of course, brings us to the remaining component of leadership,
motivation. From the beginning, Johnson failed to inspire and
motivate the American people. We were a divided people throughout the war
and never had a dominant, collective will. Surprised by the scale
of the Tet Offensive, remaining American will collapsed.
Ho Chi Minh did much, much better with motivation. He inspired his
people to effort and sacrifice and he sustained that inspiration throughout the
war. He was so effective that even now, a generation later, he
remains an inspiration to the Vietnamese. What he failed to do was bridge
motivation to execution. He lost political control of his government to
Soviet-trained communists who plunged his people into wretchedness.
Before moving up in time to the contemporary presidential candidates, let
me take an aside to eat a little crow. I've never been a great fan of
fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton. I never voted for him. But honesty
in retrospect has required of me that I begrudingly give him high
marks for leadership in more than one area. Vietnam is one of those.
Of all American presidents in the last half century, he alone took
the initiative to turn the American-Vietnamese relationship back toward the
friendship and cooperation that has always been our potential. The
Vietnamese affection and admiration for Bill Clinton is well founded.
The current political debate in this country has invoked the Vietnam era records
of the principal contenders for the Presidency. Unfortunately, it
has generally been in the form of attempts to discredit, rather than
offering direct witness to the leadership potential of the candidates.
Some years ago, a parody by the National Lampoon (I think) asserted that
". . . a walk through the ocean of most souls would scarcely get your
feet wet." The current discussion of the candidates' Vietnam records has
such depth. Give it a rest. Let's be candid, but brief,
about those records and get on with asking about what the candidates
might be capable of now.
During that war, many men - especially those of means and
privilege - used service in the National Guard to minimize their risk
of actual combat duty. It appears that George Bush was one of those.
Hardly admirable, but not the criminal behavior that some suggest.
John Kerry was a decorated serviceman and a very capable small-unit commander but,
in the minds of many fellow veterans, dishonored that service with
the character of his subsequent anti-war activities. George Bush's behavior
was neither honorable nor dishonorable; John Kerry's was both honorable
and dishonorable. It's a wash and, of itself, tells us little of
what kind of leaders they might be tomorrow.
We have George Bush's recent performance to serve as a guide. He may
actually possess a truly great vision for the world and he certainly has
available capable diplomatic and military resources for execution. The
open questions amount to whether he can connect them by succeeding with the
other components of leadership. Can he articulate a viable path?
Can he inspire the American people and the rest of the world to a
sustained effort? Can he surround himself with managers who will actually
reach the vision, not just Kandahar or Baghdad? The book is still
out on those questions. I certainly would hate to be the odds maker
and I'm not even overly comfortable with taking the bet.
John Kerry's Vietnam era behavior may not tell us much about what he can do
today but what he thinks today about that past performance might be very
illuminating. With hindsight, one might forgive his anti-war
activities. At the time, American leadership had already failed and
we were already certain to abandon the effort. It's understandable that,
having recently witnessed young men dying, he would advocate ending
the dying sooner rather than later. The real question is whether, as
I think may be the case, he still stands by the broader anti-war position.
For John Kerry or any other anti-war advocate of the time to continue to
maintain that America should have stayed out of Vietnam or, having
entered, should have abandoned it, fails to recognize the great
vision that was possible but missed, dishonors the sacrifice of thousands
who died for the very legitimate objective of resisting Soviet expansion,
and callously neglects the misery to which we abandoned the Vietnamese
people. If John Kerry can't recognize, with the benefit of
hindsight, what could have been great leadership, why should we
think that he will see it through the haze of the future?
God bless America - and Vietnam - and God save us all from any more