Written by Yujia Gao
A limited war by definition is a war in which the weapons used, the nations or territory involved, or the objectives pursued are restricted in some way, in particular one in which the use of nuclear weapons is avoided. The development of nuclear and atomic weapons during World War II made the last part of the definition unique to Cold War limited wars. The possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of both superpowers put a weight on the risk of escalation of the limited wars–in both Korea and Vietnam. Both the United States and the Soviet Union understood the implication of Mutually Assured Destruction, so they calculated the risks, which ultimately kept the conflicts in the form of a limited war.
Vietnam War as a limited war
Even having an understanding of the risk surrounding the nuclear weapons, fighting a limited war was still controversial among American decision makers–General MacArthur accused President Truman, who insisted on a limited war, of killing American soldiers; he was later removed from his command. The same criticisms were echoed during the Vietnam War by military commanders who described fighting a limited war as fighting with a hand tied behind their backs. Truman would rather lose the Korean War than use nuclear weapons in an important war that represented the containment of communism in the east because he feared the consequence of provoking the Soviet Union with atomic weapons of such a provocative move.
The Vietnam War began in 1955, althrough congress recognized 1961 to be the start, and the war was not formally approved until 1964. It stretched over four presidencies and was the most costly operation for the United States during the Cold War. President Johnson, the president who approved the most drastic escalations of the Vietnam War, faced the same dilemma as Truman did, except that the United States was more invested in the Vietnam War, which made withdrawing a greater defeat. In 1963, the year Johnson came into office, the United States already had 16,000 military advisors in Vietnam; in two years, the number grew to 75,000. Vietnam’s geopolitical significance was also greater in the first place–the Domino Effect that was “set up” by the Chinese Communist Party’s victory in 1949 and the draw in Korea in 1953, which created an accumulated paranoia around Asia, that the Vietnam War inherited. Therefore, in 1968, when Johnson had to decide to deploy more atomic weapons or not, which his advisors told him would be the only way for the United States to win, the decision was much harder to make than during the Korean War. Johnson eventually chose not to use nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War, which made it by definition a limited war.
While a limited war prevented a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR, Johnson’s advisors believed it also destined the United States’ involvement in Vietnam to end in defeat. Limited war allowed the United States to launch a war without the people’s commitment; it was also used by the Pentagon to gradually expand its influence, resulting in the Vietnam War’s escalation in uncertain times. Eventually, because the Vietnam War was an undeclared war, people’s anti-war movements were able to force the president to withdraw from the war.
The Vietnam War also embodied some characteristics of a limited war, such as the United States having a normally functioning society and economy while fighting the war. And The state of civilian life remained largely unchanged, which was a stark contrast to World War II, when the economy was effectively conscripted by the federal government. Also, the normal consumerist capitalistic economy helped to fund the war, and the largely unaffected civilian life meant the war required little commitment from anyone who was not fighting in it.
However, the Vietnam War was only a limited war in the sense that the United States only refrained from using nuclear weapons during the war. The United States dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs during the Vietnam War–twice as many as were dropped by Allied Powers during World War II on Germany and Japan combined.  The United States government also drafted 2.2 million soldiers between 1964 and 1973.  Although only one-fourth of all military personnel during the war were draftees, the draft was a hallmark of the war.
The characteristics of the war were mixed– it was treated as a limited war domestically but was fought more like total war. However, the fundamental reason why the Vietnam War was a limited war was that the United States government never meant to fight it as a total war–it was not even formally declared as a war. Fighting a relatively small country like Vietnam, and knowing the people were not committed to fighting another total war, the government had no plan to alter its economy to fit its war agenda.
The government’s decision to fight the Vietnam War as a limited war, however, did not indicate that it considered the war insignificant. In April of 1954, President Eisenhower described the falling domino effect at a news conference—“You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” This simple principle was the way he, and the next two presidents, visualized the hypothetical communist takeover of the world. At the time President Eisenhower spoke, the China and Korea dominos had already fallen; Vietnam–divided into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam–seemed to be next. Eisenhower believed the fall of South Vietnam would be the beginning of the disintegration of capitalist powers on a global scale. Along with many other factors in play, this idea propelled the United States to enter the Vietnam War. However, the significance of the theory is that it led American decision-makers to view any emerging communist power as an instrument of the Soviet Union. It was inconceivable to the United States decision-makers that communism could be adopted as a means for self-determination, instead of a coverup for dictatorship. The United States saw the war as a proxy war within the Cold War, whereas North Vietnamese leaders saw the war as a battle for their national independence.
By assuming that the North Vietnamese were merely fighting for communism, the United States underestimated North Vietnamese commitment to winning the war. While President Johnson swore he was “not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went,” Ho Chi Minh said “[Vietnam’s] secret weapon is nationalism.” These two quotes from high commanders from both sides contrasted the ways the two countries viewed the same war. Johnson saw the war as a struggle to prevent a disastrous political consequence–a further ‘leak’ of the containment policy, which had previously failed in China. Ho saw the war as a struggle where nationalism, or determination for national independence, had critical importance.
The Domino Theory was born out of the fear of communism, and it manifested in strategies that motivated the United States to fight in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It enabled the Pentagon to rise to the position that it eventually held during the Vietnam War. The wars that were influenced by the Domino Theory heavily relied on the military branch; and the fear of communism continued to justify the expansion of the military department and its influence on the government. This combination gave it not only the opportunity to expand but also to play a more dominant role in United States politics. The Pentagon rose in power in three major ways: first, the increasing amount of its armaments; second, its growing ability to influence elected government officials who had legitimate decision-making power; third, the diminishing checks on its influence within the government structure and outside of it.
The increasing amount of armaments symbolized the growth of the military-industrial complex, which became the largest sector of the overall U.S. economy, encompassing aerospace, weaponry, research and development, finance, etc.–all of which added to its economic and political influence. On the other hand, the precise number of armaments was less important than the fact that they were nuclear– a form of technology that was unprecedented in human history. Nuclear weapons transformed the relationship between limited war and total war since their only difference is the usage of nuclear weapons. In the past, the escalation from a limited war to total war was a gradual and arduous process that required the consent of the people and needed many layers of governmental branches. After the invention of nuclear weapons–something only the President and high-level military officials have access to–the escalation can be as easy as a nod from the president–which is exactly the situation Kennedy and Johnson were placed in.
Seven years after Eisenhower’s speech on the Domino Theory, in which he warned the American people against communism, he spoke in his farewell speech warning about a subject on the polar opposite of communism. Eisenhower, the retired five-star Army General who was famous for directing the Allied Powers on D-Day, said the council of government “must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence… by the military-industrial complex” and its “disastrous rise of misplaced power.” He stressed that people’s democratic liberty lies in the hands of the Americans who can “[compel] the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals.” However, his warnings on the military-industrial complex were a prophecy that was not understood by Americans at the time. Under the influence of candidate John F. Kennedy’s claim that the Soviet Union seemed to be winning the missile race, Americans voted in Kennedy– the candidate who swore to ensure the United States victory in the Cold War by manufacturing more nuclear weapons.
However, Eisenhower’s warning soon became relevant to Kennedy, when he was pressured by Navy Chief Admiral Arleigh Burke and the CIA’s Chief of Clandestine Services Richard Bissell to send land and air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion. Kennedy refused to authorize the regularized military support; his JCS were furious, saying the decision was “absolutely reprehensible, almost criminal.” This was the beginning of a struggle between the president and the JCS over matters of foreign policy, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the missile race, the space race, and later the Vietnam War. Kennedy resisted the JCS pressure to actively fight the Cold War; and he became increasingly determined about de-escalating the Cold War. Six months before his assassination, Kennedy gave a speech on world peace, in which he warned against the existence of “idle stockpiles [of nuclear weapons]—which can only destroy and never create,” and urged people “not to…see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side.” In an era when supporting socialist policy could be interpreted as treasonous, the president calling for reconciliation with the United States’ ideological enemy was shocking to many. The speech represented an unique wish for the Cold War to end in neither total war nor limited war, but in peace.
The wish for world peace was a key part of the 1964 campaign of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, yet was not realized. Johnson was agreeable to his JCS regarding decisions on the Vietnam War which were mostly escalation, until, according to Johnson, “they wanted [me] to start WWIII.” Nevertheless, the United States still ended up sending more than half a million troops to Vietnam by the end of his presidency. In 1968, the JCS who remained in the government welcomed Richard Nixon to the White House, who ran on a platform of bringing “peace with honor,” but whose real agenda was closer to that of the JCS. “Peace with honor,” which effectively involved a bombing escalation, a peace agreement to withdraw U.S. troops, and support for the South Vietnamese to continue the war on their own. It’s also notable that Nixon proposed the “madman theory” to Henry Kissinger: encouraging him to use the threat of nuclear attack in negotiations with the North Vietnamese, and even with the Soviet Union. 
II. The Road to a Limited War
After visiting Vietnam in December of 1963, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara presented his observations to the new president and advocated for the United States to stay out of Vietnam. He observed that the Viet Cong were so dominant in the conflict with the government of South Vietnam that if the United States did not intervene “in the next two or three months South Vietnam would [likely become] a Communist-controlled state.”  He was also concerned that the United States’ potential ally in the war, South Vietnam, had no organized government and the generals were so preoccupied with essential political struggles that they had no time for war.
McNamara’s concerns about the South Vietnamese government remained true and relevant throughout the war. However, his observations largely agitated people around the president who did not believe the containment policy could fail in an Asian country “roughly the size of New Mexico.” In response to McNamara, the military advisors–General Curtis LeMay, General Maxwell Taylor, and the CIA–argued for a United States intervention. Taylor predicted that South Vietnam’s fall to the Viet Cong would lead to the fall of all of Asia; he urged the United States to confront communism in Vietnam. A classified CIA report supported his stance: “Viet Minh victory would remove a significant military barrier to a Communist sweep through Southeast Asia, [which would] expose the remainder of that region to greatly increased external Communist pressures.”
However, these predictions should not be taken as objective reports. LeMay and Taylor both gained leadership experience and had the definitive moments of their careers during World War II, where they fought against countries with greater military capacities than Vietnam. LeMay, who directed the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was especially confident of his ability to destroy North Vietnam’s fighting capacity. Since both LeMay and Taylor were military generals, who had the responsibility and sole focus of winning their war, they viewed North Vietnam simply as enemies, not people with the goal of self-determination. This might have led them to exaggerate the importance of Vietnam to get further support for their troops, which would help them with their agenda of winning the war.
The two sides’ arguments played a critical role in the Congress’ debate of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is significant because it was the only legislation passed by Congress on the issue of the Vietnam War, which means it had almost the effect of a formal declaration of war. Through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Congress gave the president the power to take”all necessary steps, including armed force to assist the protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty requesting assistance in defense of its freedom.”
Johnson himself commented this was “like grandma’s nightshirt–it covered everything,” but behind the humorous reference, the breadth of the resolution implied that the president was being held responsible for everything that would happen in this war. Since there were no other names mentioned in this resolution, it was up to the president himself to determine what “necessary steps” should be taken to win the war. The word “President” in the legislation was not strictly President Johnson himself but included the cabinet and the JCS. The JCS was especially decisive to the Vietnam situation in the beginning years since Johnson wanted to focus more on domestic politics. And since by 1964, the authority was already allocated to the president through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, it left him no other option than to enter and win the war.
The fact that Congress would not declare war but would still make a war happen suggests that a declared war was considered too high of a commitment for Congress and the country it represented. Domestically, Congress would run the risk of getting criticisms from the people; internationally, Congress would risk alarming the Soviet Union and China, enemies with which the United States did not want to go to war. The record of debate around the resolution shows that Congress understood the risk of passing this resolution. Senator Nelson stated his “concern is that… Congress could give the impression to the public that [they] are prepared at this time to…expand [their] commitment.”  Another strong argument against the resolution was made by Senator Morse, who declared that Article I of the Constitution would be violated if Congress surrendered its authority to check the President’s power. 
Congress as a whole still passed the resolution mainly because they feared the consequence of a failed containment policy. But as Nelson stated contradictingly, Congress was not ready to expand its commitment. Even Senator William Fulbright, who voted for the resolution, said he would deplore a large number of troops being put ashore. The fact that Congress sacrificed its authority to give the president the power to direct the war could indicate that it did not want to be held accountable for the cost and the escalation. Congress passed the resolution not because it agreed to bear the full potential cost of the war, but because it did not want to bear the cost of losing Vietnam. Through this resolution, it could approve the war without putting its reputation at risk. A limited war, the type of war this resolution authorized, was an instrument for Congress to approve a war with the minimum sacrifice on its end.
Waging a limited war allowed the United States to remain in the war, even to escalate, in a militarily unsolvable situation. Long before the United States withdrew in 1973, many who worked for the United States government, especially military commanders in Vietnam, foresaw the pessimistic future of the war. An army historian and journalist described the South Vietnamese’ weak will to fight as their Achilles Heel–a shortcoming which they were never able to overcome.  Thomas L. Ahern Jr., a career CIA operations officer, seconded this opinion. In a classified CIA report on the Tet Offensive, he wrote “[a] more serious problem was the reluctance of South Vietnamese units to pursue enemy forces… most units were more concerned with their own immediate safety and with that of their dependents.”
The concept of the Vietnam War as a civil war was critical to the United States’ possibility of achieving its agenda. Regardless of the United States’ military power, it needed a strong South Vietnamese government to rule the country after it had won. The war situation was dire precisely because the South Vietnamese lacked what it would take to manage the war and the country without the US.
President Johnson also remarked about the paradoxical situation he was facing–“The more bombs you drop, the more nations you scare, the more people you make mad.” As the top commander, and surrounded by the most intelligent strategists, President Johnson, struggling in a paradox, suggested that no matter which choice the United States ended up pursuing, the gain was not going to be much more than the sacrifice.
The year 1963 could have been a year for the United States to leave Vietnam–the United States and the Soviet Union were under a “peaceful coexistence” policy, and the split between China and the Soviet Union had weakened the strength of the United States’ cold war opponent. There was no international pressure to stay in–the French and Indian prime ministers even personally warned Johnson against further intervention. In the best year to leave Vietnam, President Johnson made it the start of a long escalation of the war. While President Johnson struggled between escalating and giving up the war, if he chose to withdraw, he would be held responsible for the United States’ defeat and for failing the containment policy. The limited war, ironically, was a perfect solution that allowed him to continue with the war, even when there was no clear resolution of the situation.
The characteristics of a limited war that were set up by the Gulf of Tonkin resolution continued to impact the direction of the war. Alongside a normally functioning economy, limited war was more financially affordable, or at least seemingly so. The United States spent $111 billion between 1965 and 1967, $738 billion in 2011 dollars, second to the most expensive war the United States had fought. However, the amount which the United States spent in the peak year (1968) of the war was only 2.3% of the peak year’s GDP. This number is closer to the percentage amount the United States spent in the war of 1812 in its peak year (1813), which was 2.2%. The percentage of GDP spent on the Korean war in its peak year (1952) was 4.2%, almost double the percentage in the Vietnam War. In World War I and World War II, the war budget was respectively 13.6% and 36.8% of the United States’ total GDP.
This data is significant because it revealed what the war felt like to the public during the war, which was more costly than it seemed. How the war seemed to cost was perhaps more important since, as later antiwar movements proved, the United States government partially relied on public support to continue and escalate the war. A limited war with its characteristics of flatly-distributed military cost, and seemingly unaffected civilian life, led to underestimating the cost of the war. The economic costs of the Vietnam War were disproportionate to the political results obtained, and the loss of American personnel paved the way for the anti-war movement. From a political perspective, even if the book price of the war was not high, the U.S. government still had to rely on public support to a certain extent to continue and escalate the war, which also triggered the subsequent anti-war movement. The “Tet Offensive” in 1968 exposed the dismal situation the United States military faced in most parts of Vietnam. At this point, people realized that as the war became prolonged, the price the United States had to pay was much higher than expected.
Besides its low annual cost, the fact that the Vietnam War became prolonged can also be attributed to it being a limited war. A limited war can be entered easily but is difficult to end since entering the war costs less than ending it successfully. Ending the war required the country to accept a higher cost and have a higher commitment than the country had when it chose to enter it. A limited war could be entered when the level of commitment of the country did not match the actual cost of the war, which could lead to a situation where there was no clear resolution, or a stalemate–which is a definitive factor of perpetual war. This was the case in Vietnam, where the United States troops were stuck in irregular warfare without solid progress. The limited war gave the government enough support to enter the war, barely enough support to continue, and not enough support to win.
III. A predestined defeat
Although the limited war had allowed the United States to enter a war with low commitment and stay in the war, it also allowed the people to check the power of the executive branch and eventually put a stop to a war they found to be fundamentally wrong. Even before the United States troops’ bleak future in Vietnam was exposed, the people witnessed the brutal killings of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. In both the United States and Vietnam, the United States troops refused to fight. In October 1967, 100,000 people gathered in Washington D.C., to protest the American war effort in Vietnam. Earlier that year, the public refused Johnson’s 10% tax rise proposal for funding the war. Young people also protested by burning their draft cards. From 1965 to 1973, some 25,000 men burned their draft cards and very few of them were convicted. Also, approximately 570,000 young men evaded the draft illegally, although only 3,250 were jailed.
Perhaps more importantly, the protests in the United States inspired rebellions by active-duty soldiers in Vietnam. In 1972, a former military strategist and sociologist declared “[t]he military establishment, and especially its ground forces, are experiencing a profound crisis in legitimacy due to the impact of Vietnam, internal racial tension, corruption, extensive drug abuse, loss of command and operational effectiveness, and widespread anti-military sentiment.” Because of the scale and nature of the antiwar movement, protesters were largely un-prosecuted. Protests were a reflection of people’s lack of commitment to the war, although they had tolerated the war in previous years, possibly due to people’s general fear of communism from the Cold War. People did not want the war to continue if that meant they would be drafted or need to pay 10% more taxes.
Because the protests happened during an undeclared and limited war, the Supreme Court also gave people more freedom to protest. In the Supreme Court case Bond v. Floyd, where Bond, an African-American representative in the Georgia state assembly who criticized the United States involvement in Vietnam, was refused a seat in the assembly for his anti-war comments, the Court reaffirmed Bond’s first amendment right, stating “a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy.”
The Bond case created a stark comparison with another Supreme Court case, Schenck v. the United States, where a representative criticized the United States’ involvement in World War I. In this case, the court decided “[w]hen a nation is at war, many things that might be said in times of peace… will not be endured so long as men fight.” The difference between the two wars was that WWI was a declared war with much more commitment from the people. This suggests that due to the war being limited and undeclared, which are reflections of the United States’ limited level of commitment, people were given more freedom to impact the direction of the war.
The antiwar sentiment not only made fighting the war difficult in Vietnam, but also had a huge impact on domestic politics. In 1968, fighting the war became so unpopular that withdrawing the United States troops became a bipartisan plan–a rare occurrence in the history of United States politics. The Republican Party nominated Richard Nixon as its presidential candidate. Nixon’s campaign promoted the plan of “Vietnamization” to “bring peace with honor.” He became president in 1969 and was able to withdraw the United States troops from Vietnam in 1973.
The Vietnam War was both cursed and saved by being a limited war. The question “was the Vietnam war at all winnable?” has been a subject of intense debate since the war ended. The limited war strategy was imposed on the United States war planners by both military and political realities. Mark Moyar, an official U.S. military historian and military strategist, argued that the United States could have won the war if President Johnson advertised it and boosted war psychology. Then the United States would not have had to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975 and waste all of its work of two decades. Like Moyar, most official historians of the Vietnam war blamed the antiwar protests for the hasty withdrawal from a two-decade-long war. However, that also means if the United States were to maintain the scale and form of the Vietnam War as a limited war, then it had no chance of winning since the precise reason why the government or the president himself did not raise the war psychology was because they feared the potential effect of an escalation of the war.
According to Dean Rusk, U.S. Secretary of State from 1961 to 1969, “[t]he administration made a deliberate decision not to create war psychology in the United States,” because it was “too dangerous for this country to get worked up.” Johnson, Rusk, and other officials had feared that war fever would undermine the domestic programs of the Great Society and heighten tensions with the Soviet Union. Although the ability of the government to stir up patriotism after 1965 is questionable, the United States government was generally unwilling to devote all of its efforts to the war. Instead of external limitations, the ambition of developing domestic programs while fighting a war was a self-imposing limitation. “If history indicts the United States for Vietnam,” Johnson said during the Vietnam War, “it will be for fighting a war without trying to stir up patriotism.”
Unlike the restrictions listed in the definition of limited war, in the case of the Vietnam War, some restrictions did not exist objectively. The limitations of the psychology of war, the use of nuclear weapons, domestic policies, and even the limitations of funding became the real constraints that made war unsustainable. These restrictions have a common root, that is, the country’s lack of commitment to the war. Whether a country decides to fight a limited war depends on a country’s awareness of external restrictions. Viewing the concept of limited war from this perspective clarifies a country’s true commitment for the war. If the country does not have a high level of responsibility, it may indicate that the reasons for participating in the war are questionable.
Eisenhower’s farewell speech was not only a reflection on the past but also a warning of the direction he saw the United States was heading. His farewell speech foresaw the future of United States foreign policy. In some cases, the military-industrial complex had greater power than the people in making war decisions. Judging from the experience of the three presidents after Eisenhower, it can be said that the influence of military planners around the president has always existed; their ruthless attitude towards the escalation of war and even the use of nuclear weapons was also consistent in most cases. In the diplomatic field, the military will exert greater influence through limited warfare. Due to the Cold War, a large number of military-industrial clusters emerged at the domestic economic level; at the government level, the military had more and more say. This allowed the military-industrial complex to influence the president’s decision-making, and it happened that they had a handy tool, which was limited war. Since the Vietnam War was a limited war rather than a full-scale war, it waged the war and escalated without a congressional declaration and the people were less informed. Unfortunately, it did not have sufficient conditions for ultimate victory. These circumstances led to the failure of the Vietnam War.
Technically speaking, the United States had the opportunity and strength to win the Vietnam War, but as long as the United States defined it as a limited war, the hope of victory was very slim. The Vietnam War became an expensive and painful lesson about limited war as a failed form of war. The United States must pay attention to Eisenhower’s warnings and avoid the influence of the military-industrial complex government decision-making to avoid decision-making errors.
The lives of at least 58,200 American soldiers and $843.63 billion 2019 U.S. dollars– such an expensive lesson–call on future generations to carefully analyze every link, from every possible angle, to avoid a repeat of the tragedy. 
Notes and Bibliography
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Stone, Oliver, and Peter J. Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, London: Ebury Press, 2019, p.292.
Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History, New York, NY, Viking, 1991, p. 325.
Ibid, p. 326.
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Bond v. Floyd, 385 U.S. 116, 385 (1966)
Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)
Moyar, Mark, “Opinion | Was Vietnam Winnable?” The New York Times, May 20, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/opinion/was-vietnam-winnable.html.
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