By Mike Scruggs- On June 23, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, still today considered one of the greatest generals and military tacticians in history, made one of the greatest strategic military mistakes in history. Napoleon gathered his Grande Armee of 685,000 men (300,000 French and 385,000 Austrian, Prussian and Polish allies), perhaps the greatest military force ever gathered at the time, and invaded Russia. Despite fierce Russian resistance at Borodino on September 7, and their scorched earth retreat leaving nothing behind them to sustain the Grande Armee, Napoleon occupied Moscow on September 14. However, the Russians burned much of the city and refused to surrender or engage Napoleon in pitched battle. The Grande Armee had already been substantially reduced by casualties and sickness (including typhus) and was in precarious logistical straits. On October 13, it began to snow. A few days later, Napoleon realized that the Grande Armee’s Russian campaign could not be sustained. In snow and bitter cold, with low food rations, starving horses, no winter uniforms, and sick and exhausted troops, Napoleon began his retreat out of Russia. On December 6, temperatures on his route of retreat into Lithuania dropped to 36 F. degrees below zero, so cold that men falling asleep by a campfire never woke up. By the time his Grande Armee crossed into Lithuania, it had less than 27,000 fit troops. Nearly 400,000 had died, 100,000 had been captured, and the rest scattered, deserted, or missing.
Napoleon’s grand mistake is an exception in terms of U.S. and Western European experience in war in more recent times. Great mistakes in war are usually made by politicians rather than generals. Of the thirteen major mistakes of the Vietnam War, all were the result of poor judgment by political leaders. Moreover, many current political leaders tend to keep making the same mistakes as if drawn by some perverse magnet.
I personally liked President John F. Kennedy. His leadership and judgment during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was extraordinary and extricated the U.S. honorably from a terribly threatening confrontation with the Soviet Union. I remember it well, because I was a photo intelligence officer at Strategic Air Command Headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska. Kennedy, however, was responsible for what I consider the two biggest mistakes during the Vietnam War.
Following the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, France gave up her Indochina colonies, which were partitioned by a Geneva Treaty into North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In 1955 (under Eisenhower), the U.S formerly joined an alliance with France, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan to protect Southeast Asia from Communist aggression. The organization was called the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and part of its umbrella of protection was over South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. These three were associate, non-voting members. In April 1961, Kennedy agreed to a neutral Laos, which was ratified by a Geneva Treaty in July 1962.
North Vietnam, however, immediately violated the treaty and began to build what became the Ho Chi Minh Trail, supplying arms and supplies to Communist forces (the Viet Cong) in South Vietnam through Laos and later Cambodia. Many of the Viet Cong, especially the leadership, were actually from North Vietnam. The first big mistake of the Vietnam War was that Kennedy did not challenge North Vietnam’s serious violation of the 1962 Geneva Treaty. This allowed North Vietnam to build extensive supply channels for the invasion of South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia.
The second big mistake of the war was allowing huge enemy sanctuaries in both Laos and Cambodia. Thus Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, compounded Kennedy’s error by continuing the charade that Laos and Cambodia were neutral territory that could not be violated by Allied troops. Johnson did allow some slowly escalating bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, initially by U.S Air Commandos stationed in Thailand. This was treated as a “Secret War” and went on largely unreported in the press.
The terrible military consequence of this second big mistake (credit Johnson) was that the South Vietnamese and U.S. armies had to defend against 640 miles of Lao and Cambodian border versus the narrow 40 mile border between North and South Vietnam. Behind these borders large enemy concentrations of troops and supply depots were secure from attack. This also gave the enemy considerable freedom of action and strong possibilities for military and guerilla initiatives against South Vietnam. Giving your enemies the initiative in war is Russian Roulette with five bullets in a six bullet cylinder.
The third big mistake was South Vietnamese regime change initiated by Kennedy. The Johnson-McNamara preference for slow escalation of military force is the fourth big mistake. Both will be covered in Part 2 of this series.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist
a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs
Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.
He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.
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