By, Colonel William H. Dabney, USMC (Ret)
For the Marine Corps Gazette, June 1998
I met General Lewis B. Puller in the spring of 1957. I was a sergeant on active duty on leave after a Far East tour, and was near the end of my three year hitch. He had recently retired, lived near my home in Virginia, and was a friend of my father. We met at the funeral of a mutual cousin, to which I had worn my uniform because it was the only appropriate attire I had. Because the old church was too small for everyone, the ladies were inside, and the men were gathered around the grave site in quiet conversation. He spotted the uniform and introduced himself in his gruff way, asking me about myself and what I had done in the Corps. I was flattered by his interest, which I later learned extended to all Marines. After the burial, he asked me to come to see him. When I called to follow up on his invitation he asked me for lunch, after which the two of us repaired to the porch with some Virginia bourbon.
My impressions of that afternoon remain vivid. He was reading when I arrived, and there were books scattered all over the house. As we talked, he was unfailingly patient with my ignorance. I was impressed (awed might be a better word) by the breadth and depth of his thinking about geopolitics and military history, and my respect for this aspect of the man deepened as I pursued my own studies at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Marine Corps schools, and the National War College. In effect, I knew the man before I knew the legend.
The legend, then, does not portray entirely the Marine I knew. He was much more than the medals and 'one liners' for which he is remembered today. I have long felt that to be the Corps' loss because the young men who strive to emulate him today cannot know him for what he really was. God knows we need our heroes. We should not let them be remembered only because they were brave and, as often described himself, lucky.
It is in that spirit that I have written out my recollections of the conver- sation, for whatever value they may have to the readers of the Gazette.
He had many questions about Okinawa, where the 3d Marine Division had recently moved from Honshu Island, Japan. He was particularly interested in how we trained and how much live-fire training we conducted. When he asked what my plans were, I said I'd been accepted at VMI and intended to return for a career upon graduation. I then asked what he thought was in store for the Marine Corps in the future. He replied that he thought a NATO war unlikely, and we'd probably fight next in Vietnam. He recalled his Marines singing about Saigon as they marched into Hungnam from the Chosin Reservoir in December of 1950. ("So put back your pack on/The next stop is Saigon/'An cheer up me lads/Bless 'em all," as quoted in Robert Leckie's The March to Glory, p. 192.)
Vietnam, he said, was essentially a colonial struggle, unresolved because of the Geneva partition. The Soviets were using it, through support of Ho Chi Minh, to extend Soviet hegemony in the area. In turn, the United States regarded a North Vietnamese attempt to conquer the south as a threat to American interests in accordance with the 'domino theory' - that the loss of South Vietnam risked the eventual loss of all Southeast Asia to the Soviets. The Vietnamese, he suggested, regarded the growing American involvement as offering little more than prospect of one colonial power replacing another.
When I asked how he thought the war would end, he replied, without hesi- tation, "The Red Chinese Army will win it without firing a shot."
That leap of military logic was a bit large for a young buck sergeant to understand, and I asked him to fill in the blanks. He began by regretting that he did not have good maps with which to explain. He then discussed Korea, saying that the decisive force in the war and the subsequent peace was the U.S. Seventh Fleet. This was so because the peninsular geography of Korea restricted the maneuver of large armies, whether North Korean or Chinese. They were forced to attack on narrow fronts where they offered good targets for the superior firepower that American industry could provide, and their flanks and supply lines were always vulnerable from the sea. He said that President Truman's decision to accept a partial victory rather than widen the war into China was correct. We could not have fought two continental campaigns at once, and Europe would therefore have been put at risk. Additionally, given our maritime superiority, widening the war was unnecessary to achieve our original Korean war objective. That objective, he reminded me, was to prevent a Communist takeover of South Korea by force, not as General MacArthur had later decided, to reunify Korea. He remarked that he considered General MacArthur's decision the classic example of Clausewitz' dictum that war tends to create its own momentum. (He would have agreed, I suspect, with President Bush's decision to stop after liberating Kuwait.)
All great powers want buffer states, and North Korea was precisely that to Red China. It could accept an American army in South Korea, but could not tolerate its approach to the Yalu. Its reaction was understandable and, he said, expected by most Marine and many Army officers at that time.
It was fortunate for Korea, he remarked, that President Rhee had placed South Korean forces under United Nations (effectively American) command. The ultimate right of command was the power to appoint and relieve subordinates, and we had left the South Korean forces in good shape by appointing competent officers who had proved their worth in battle. (I don't believe it occurred to him that we would not insist upon the same command relationship with South Vietnam.)
He ended his discussion of Korea by saying that the Korean War was strategically necessary because, coupled with our military presence in Japan, it ensured our control of all straits leading out of the Sea of Japan, denying the Soviet Pacific Fleet unhindered access to the Pacific. It also gave us, in Japan, a secure offshore base from which to influence events in Northeast Asia as we chose. He reminded me that Admiral Mahan had called Japan "the England of the Pacific."
Before discussing Vietnam, he said that wars should be fought only for vital national interests, and that those interests were few: survival, strategic position (as in Korea), resources/markets or access thereto, and in limited cases, cultural affinity. He suggested that "saving the world for democracy," however it was phrased, had never been acceptable as a vital interest by the American people. Had it been, we'd have joined the League of Nations after World War I. (He remarked to me in 1961, shortly after President Kennedy's inaugural address, that the President's " . . . we shall bear any burden, pay any price, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty," was grand rhetoric, but lousy strategy.) The domino theory was flawed, he said, because China and Russia were and always had been enemies (the Great Wall faces north, he pointed out). The Chinese would view Soviet control of Southeast Asia as an encirclement, and would either deny the Soviets supporting transportation links across China or march to prevent it.
He explained that in redesigning our armed forces after World War II for the strategy of 'Massive Retaliation' made possible by nuclear weapons, we had neglected the forces and training to win a conventional war quickly and decisively. We would need time to reconfigure and retrain them, and would probably commit them piecemeal to Vietnam, which would give a resourceful and determined enemy like Ho Chi Minh time to adjust and fight on.
General Puller believed that Korea and Vietnam posed similar strategic problems. Both were artificially divided. Both North Vietnam and North Korea were, with Soviet sponsorship, intent upon reunification; they both bordered Red China; they both were regarded by her as buffer states. But there were two critical differences.
The strategic difference was that there was no vital American interest in Vietnam. It did not threaten American survival; it was not located where either American or Soviet bases would provide any strategic advantage; we depended on it for neither resources nor markets; we had no cultural links with its people. Consequently, there was even less justification for risking an all-out war with the Red Chinese over Vietnam than there had been over Korea.
The operational difference was that Vietnam was not a peninsula. A large army can always outflank a small army if it has room to maneuver, and the long Chinese border with Vietnam, Laos, and Burma provides that room. Invading North Vietnam risked catastrophe by confronting the huge Red Chinese Army in a continental campaign where our fleet could not be decisive. Should we invade we would "Stand a damn good chance of being pushed into the sea" (his words). The North Vietnamese could not defeat us; but since we could not go north, neither could we defeat them. (When I later asked whether we could do so by bombing, he suggested I read the Strategic Bombing Survey done immediately after World War II, keeping in mind that North Vietnam was an agrarian nation.) Consequently, he said, should we commit forces to Vietnam, we would condemn our troops to a prolonged defensive campaign in South Vietnam in which North Vietnam retained the initiative. He cautioned that a salient characteristic of Asian peoples is patience.
He then observed that democracies do not fight colonial wars well. Such wars tend to be long, he said. Absent a vital interest, the electorate of the democratic power eventually concludes that the marginal benefits of a victory are not worth the cost in casualties. Witness, he said, the British in India and the French in Indochina. The decision to withdraw were made in London and Paris, respectively, and not by force of arms in the field. He suggested that the same outcome was probable in Algeria and the other European colonies in Africa. In all cases, the defeat was (or would be) not military, but political.
The North Vietnamese understood that reality, he said, having recently been one of its beneficiaries in the 1954 Geneva Accords. They would shape their tactics accordingly. Since a defensive campaign in a place with porous jungle borders would at best result in bloody stalemate, at some point the mothers of Peoria and Pocatello would grow weary of burying their sons and petition their elected representatives to bring them home. North Vietnam would then reunify the country on its terms, and the Red Chinese Army would have won the war without firing a shot. Note: In a later discussion (we had several before his health failed in the late 1960s) he remarked that an eventual rapprochement between America and China was inevitable and essential, and that if we withdrew from Vietnam rather than challenge China, we might create an opening to achieve it. Should that occur, he said, it would profoundly alter the strategic situation of the Soviet Union, which would then face the possibility of a two-front war against a steadily strengthening NATO and an industrializing China.
Reprinted from the Marine Corps Gazette with permission.
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