Carl von Clausewitz on Vietnam

What the man who gave us the phrase “fog of war” would think about the American intervention in Vietnam

Carl von Clausewitz (Wiki Commons)

“Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.” –Williamson Murray

CCarl von Clausewitz’s classic On War is a 700-pages case for the importance of political theory in any military engagement. Clausewitz was a Prussian soldier and professor who established the school of thought known as “military strategy.” He remains the most influential thinker in war philosophy. He is certainly the most quoted.

However, Sir Lawrence Freedman, in The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, contrasts conventional warfare strategy with the contemporary challenge of “irregular warfare.” He argues that since the structure of the international system has evolved, strategy for operating within that structure must evolve as well. Freedman observes the new state system that has resulted from decolonization, producing states that are internally unstable and prone to local violence. He comments, “Foreign governments must then decide whether to become involved in helping to restabilize the situation or to mitigate the consequences of failing to do so” (pp. 10). These scenarios do not easily fit into the categories of traditional warfare.

What role do classical theorists such as Niccolo Machiavelli or Carl von Clausewitz have for the post-1945 global scene? Has the nature of world politics rendered irrelevant the body of knowledge known as “classical strategic thought”?

The Vietnam War provides a useful test-case for determining whether traditional strategic thinking applies to postmodern warfare. To the extent that Clausewitz’s principles provide insight into the weaknesses of the American strategy in the War, the classical theory still deserves a voice at the table.

This test-case follows Clausewitz’s own method: “He was dedicated to the modern conception that the knowledge basic to theory, whether of war or of anything else, must be empirical.” (Bernard Brodie, pp. 266). Past wars present such empirical data.

American military intervention cannot afford to be ahistorical.

Vom Kriege, Clausewtiz’s book cover in original German (Wiki Commons)


The Vietnam War (or the Second Indochina War) began in the 1950s as a series of insurgent operations by Communist North Vietnam within South Vietnam. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s Independence from French colonial rule.

Ho was hoping to receive the support of the United States. He drew parallels between U.S. and Vietnamese history and even quoted from the Declaration of Independence. To his disappointment, the United States spent $3 billion to support the restoration of French colonialism in Indochina.

When the effort to prevent the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam failed, “the United States stepped into the role of the defeated French and worked strenuously over the next two decades to create a viable Vietnamese state capable of resisting Ho Chi Minh and all that he represented” (Mark Atwood Lawrence, pp. 23). The U.S. backed Ngo Dinh Diem and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, in opposition to the Vietnam People’s Army in the North and the Viet Cong (National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) guerilla forces in the South.

The United States formally entered the military conflict following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. At the height of the war the U.S. had over 500,000 troops overseas (25% drafted).

Secretary of Defense McNamara at a press conference (Library of Congress)

The American and global context in which these events took place was the Cold War era, the period characterized by the “Red Scare.” A primary foreign policy concern for the U.S. was the spread of communism in Asia.

Truman’s Containment Doctrine dictated the posture of American military engagement. This thinking often involved circular reasoning. Spatial metaphors — such as “Laos is a dagger” (based on the geographical shape of the nation) or “the domino effect” (if one country fell to communism, those adjacent to it were vulnerable)— were sometimes interpreted literally. It was assumed that proximity alone was a sufficient cause for communist ideology to spread into nearby nations, regardless of the social, cultural, and religious environments of those nations.

In any case, Cold War politics provided unclear strategic goals, as the analysis that follows shows.

War Aims

A key principle from Clausewitz is that war is about something. He writes, “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means” (pp. 87).

For war to function as an instrument of policy, there must be clear war aims. A successful military engagement is achieved when the strategic goals are met in a satisfactory way. “The political object — the original motive for the war — will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires” (pp. 81).

The specific war aims for the Vietnam period elude clarity. What was this war actually about? The war was marketed as a fight against communism, but can an ideology be the object of war?

The Vietnam War served as a surrogate war against the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China. It was assumed that the presence of communism in Southeast Asian nations would mean the empowering of the United States’ Cold War enemies. Was this really the case? How is the United States affected by the political-ideological shift in these governments, so that engaging in war there would help to meet U.S. strategic goals? Or was this war simply about assisting an ally (France)? How does that require the continuing involvement of the U.S. after France had lost the conflict?

These are the questions that Clausewitz would raise.

The point is not that there is no Cold War justification for the war, but to note the imprecision with which the strategic goals were formulated and the lack of consistency at the level of foreign policy.

“Integrated long-term strategy requires a much greater consensus, within Congress and among the electorate, on what to do about U.S. interests in Third World conflicts” (Supporting U.S. Strategy for Third World Conflict, pp. 1).

Such a consensus was not present during the Vietnam era.


Clausewitz taught that war is a political machine. It does not exist outside of the political sphere.

The American effort in Vietnam was a counterinsurgency program. However, one cause of the “strategic bankruptcy” of the war was a failure to reckon with its political dynamics.

“American technicians and military advisors with the South Vietnamese armed forces accepted their mission in good conscience, but assumed that political matters — the heart of revolutionary war — were not their responsibility” (Shy and Collier, pp. 855).

There was no unified counterrevolutionary strategy, and the political dimension was undermined.

This was a failure to reckon with what kind of war was being fought. The Americanized war that neglected the necessary political strategy within South Vietnam brought a military force that challenged the opposition but was unsuccessful toward the restoration of the Republic of Vietnam.

American military intervention “exacerbated the basic political, social, and economic conditions that gave revolutionary war, in Vietnam and elsewhere, its impetus,” but Americanizing the war undermined the necessary local civilian engagement to deal with what revolutionized the Vietnamese people in the first place (Shy and Collier, pp. 856).


Clausewitz presents a triad for understanding the dynamics of war. The triad represents cycles of mutual influence, with all three being necessary for a successful war.

He writes:

“The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people.” (pp. 89)

In Clausewitz’s People-Army-Government triad, the People pay for the war and have a vested interest in the survival of the state. War will be unsuccessful if it does not receive the support of the people in whose interest the war is waged. This raises the question of interest. In whose interest was the Vietnam War fought? South Vietnam? The United States? Were these concentric circles of interest, and did the American populace believe that the war represented their interests?

Obviously, the war was surrounded by disappointment, protest, and public unrest. The disdain for the war continues to imprint the postwar consciousness:

“Even though the nation moved abruptly from obsession to amnesia with regard to Indochina, the aftereffects of the lost war penetrate the public consciousness from time to time. The bitter feelings of the wounded veterans, of draft evaders and deserters, and of families of fallen servicemen or those missing in action will not quickly disappear” (Zasloff and Brown, pp. 1).

At least one-third of the Clausewitzian triad was not activated. A lack of legitimacy in the minds of the nation’s people does not make for a successful war.

American Troops in Vietnam (common media)

Fog of war and nonlinearity

Clausewitz coined the phrase “the fog of war” (pp. 140). While Clausewitz probably intended this metaphor to refer to the tactical level, it applies to the strategic level as well.

An associated concept is the nonlinearity of war. War escapes a level of predictability and challenges the assumptions that are brought into the conflict.

On War is suffused with the understanding that every war is inherently a nonlinear phenomenon, the conduct of which changes its character in ways that cannot be analytically predicted” (Beyerchen, pp. 61).

There is an imperfect understanding of the enemy, as well as a need for a thorough contingency plan.

General Curtis LeMay (Wiki Commons)

The American perspective leading into Vietnam was that the conflict in Southeast Asia could be relatively easily addressed. The superior technology and training of the United States, it was assumed, would “bomb Vietnam back into the stone age” (a statement attributed to General Curtis LeMay).

Clausewitz would acknowledge that this attitude, while confident, fails to reckon with the nature of war. There is a difference between winning battles and winning wars.

The Vietnam War defied proportions. Beyerchen notes, “Nonlinear systems are those that disobey proportionality or additivity” (p. 62). On the disparity between the fighting power that a nation has going into a war and the effectiveness of that fighting power against an apparently weaker entity, Clausewitz comments, “But wars have in fact been fought between states of very unequal strength, for actual war is often far removed from the pure concept postulated by theory” (pp. 91).

American military intervention into the twenty-first century has further evidenced this.


The United States had significant weaknesses in its strategic thinking in the Vietnam War. These were problems that Clausewitz’s method for war theorizing is able to diagnose. Postmodern warfare has not rendered classical strategic thinking irrelevant.

Disciples of Carl von Clausewitz can continue to quote him without embarrassment.


Beyerchen, Alan. “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War.” International Security. Vo. 17, №3. Winter 1992/93.

Bradley, Mark Philip & Marilyn B. Young. Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Brodie, Bernard. “Technological Change, Strategic Doctrine, and Political Outcomes.” Historical Dimensions of National Security Problems. Ed. Knorr.

Freedman, Sir Lawrence. The Transformation of Strategic Affairs. International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2006.

Gray, Colin S. “Strategy in the Nuclear Age: The United States, 1945–1991.” The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War.” Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Lawrence, Mark Atwood. Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005).

______. “Explaining the Early Decisions: The United States and the French War, 1945–1954.” Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars: Local, National, and Transnational Perspectives. Ed. Mark Philip Bradley & Marilyn B. Young. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Millett, Allan & Williamson Murray. “Lessons of War.” The National Interest. №14 Winter 1988/89.

Murray, Williamson. War, Strategy, and Military Effectiveness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Schuurman, Bart. “Clausewitz and the ‘New Wars’ Scholars.” Parameters. Spring, 2010.

Shy, John & Thomas W. Collier. “Revolutionary War.” Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Ed. Peter Paret. Princeton University Press, 1986.

“Supporting U.S. Strategy for Third World Conflict.” Report by the Regional Conflict Working Group Submitted to the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy. June 1988.

Zasloff, Joseph J. & MacAlister Brown. Communist Indochina and U.S. Foreign Policy: Postwar Realities. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1978.



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Evan May

Evan May

Pastor | MABS, Reformed Theo. Seminary | @evan_may | | Husband to Rebekah, father of 3 | I write about theology, philosophy, and history.