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On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the…

On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (original 1981; edition 1982)

by Harry G. Summers (Author)

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288372,317 (3.85)1
Summer's inspired analysis of America's war in Vietnam answers the most pressing questions remaining from that terrible conflict more than a decade before Robert McNamara's painful admissions.
Title:On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War
Authors:Harry G. Summers (Author)
Info:Presidio Press (1982), Edition: Book Club (BCE/BOMC), 225 pages
Collections:Your library

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On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by Harry G. Summers (1981)


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“On Strategy” by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr.
Reviewed by Paul E. O’Reilly, September 11, 2010

Copyright by Paul E. O’Reilly

“On Strategy” by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr. is a superior book in more ways than one.

First, it is an outstanding critical study and assessment of American conduct of the Vietnam War under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson and his theatre commander, General William C. Westmoreland, up until about April 10, 1968, which is when General Creighton Abrams replaced Westmoreland and radically altered American strategy in Vietnam from Westmorland's strategy of attrition to Abrams' "One War" strategy.

Second, it is an excellent illustration of the enduring nature of the principles of war (best described in von Clausewitz’s classic “On War”) and the application of those principles to different kinds of conflicts and opposing enemy strategies and tactics. In this regard, “On Strategy” traces the history of the development of U.S. military doctrine as contained in successive editions of key Army Field Manuals (FM) and related regulations, including “FM 100-5, Operations,” and “FM 100-1, The Army.” Summers’ history of the evolving nature of U.S. military doctrine through these key manuals and regulations, published in successive editions between 1921 and 1981, demonstrates a sometimes shifting and glaring omission of the strategic application of the principles of war to the U.S. Army’s own official doctrines governing tactics and strategy.

Summers’ book is brilliant and it stands on its own even though at least one later book by another author could be gist for material for a new concluding chapter if “On Strategy” were ever to be updated. I refer here to Lewis Sorley’s book, “A Better War” which describes General Creighton Abrams’ “One War” strategy. Abrams applied the principles of war and his new “One War” strategy and tactics in Vietnam—and under his direction we almost won the war even in the face of withering public and Congressional support. One can only wonder what might have happened if time had not already run out on Abrams by the time he took charge of the war effort from Westmoreland in 1968. I had read “On Strategy” earlier but returned to it after reading Sorley’s “A Better War” and on the second reading I studied the Summers book very carefully as compared with simply reading it.

In retrospect, and based upon all of my reading and study over the years, if I had to rely on only a limited number of books about (or relevant to) the Vietnam War, they would be (in the order I recommend they be read):

(1) “Vietnam at War: The History 1946-1975” (1988) by Lt. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson;

(2) “A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam” (1999) by Lewis Sorley;

(3) “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War” (1982) by Col. Harry G. Summers, Jr.;

(4) “On War” (1832) by Carl von Clausewitz;

(5) “White House Years” (1979) by Henry Kissinger;

(6) “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” (1984) at pp. 233-377 by Barbara W. Tuchman; and

(7) “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam” (1997) by H. R. McMaster. ( )
  poreilly | Sep 11, 2010 |
Summers argues that the United States failed to achieve its objectives in Vietnam primarily because the proper military strategies for success were denied to the military by the civilian leadership. He contends that the military was given intangible and unattainable political objectives by the civilian leaders (such as “nation-building”), for which the military was ill-suited. Summers also asserts that the United States, by following the course of action prescribed by limited war theorists like Osgood and Schelling, failed to truly perceive Vietnam as a war. U.S. military forces were used as signaling tools to the North Vietnamese, as Osgood and Schelling recommend, not as fighting instruments, as Summers believes they should have been. This created a situation in which a military failure was almost inevitable; the U.S./South Vietnamese military failure then made a political solution favorable to the United States impossible to achieve. Summers is also strongly critical of the U.S.’ failure to engage the support of the American public. (Osgood, of course, contends that this is unnecessary, since he avers that the domestic political situation should have virtually no impact on formulating a limited war strategy.) Summers’ position is that the United States failed in Vietnam precisely because it followed the type of limited war strategy suggested by Osgood and Schelling.

Summers’ position is quite favorable to the military establishment, and it echoes a common sentiment within the military: it was not the military’s fault that the U.S. lost in Vietnam. Instead, all (or nearly all) the blame for the defeat has been shifted firmly onto the civilian leadership. Civilian political leaders were guilty of micromanagement. They failed to provide tangible, realistic, and achievable military objectives. They were too sensitive to potential Soviet or Chinese intervention, so they tied the military’s hands by limiting possible targets, weapons, and geographic areas for military operations. They were unwilling to bear the costs necessary to achieve their desired aims. They focused the effort on the Viet Cong insurgency, rather than against the more conventional adversary, the North Vietnamese Army. And they failed to mobilize popular support for the war effort. In short, this “Army Concept,” as Summers’ view is referred to, holds that the United States failed in Vietnam because the war effort was limited by civilian leaders; the military was not “allowed” to achieve a military victory using the total or unlimited war approach (or at least a less limited approach) that the military favored.

Summers attributes the American failure in Vietnam in large part to a number of (Clausewitzian) “frictions.” Especially important was the friction caused by the conscious decision on the part of the government “not to arouse the passions of the American people. The effect of this was that we fought the Vietnam War in cold blood.” This made the war in Vietnam seem harsher, crueler, more repugnant than previous wars. It eventually inflamed the passions of the people against the war. Summers charges this erosion of public and Congressional support for the war with greatly undermining the war effort, eventually leading to its downfall.

Summers makes an important distinction regarding the definition of limited war. He regards the Korean War as a successful limited war because only the objectives of the war were limited. The means for achieving these objectives were not. In Vietnam, however, not only were the objectives limited, but the means were limited as well. This, he says, would have been successful had the opponent followed suit, as say, when both sides are armed with nuclear weapons and agree not to use them, but in the case of Vietnam, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong used all means at their disposal. The United States did not.

Summers also believes that too much emphasis was placed on counterinsurgency warfare, rather than on the traditional role of the military. This, he says, was primarily a political task that should have been left to the South Vietnamese. The American military forces should have been employed solely to resist the external aggression by the North Vietnamese (conventional) Army. They were not properly trained to fight a counterinsurgency, and too many forces were squandered in this effort.

Summers also proposes a course of action he believes should have been undertaken in order to succeed militarily in eliminating the North Vietnamese threat. He suggests that a push should have been made in Laos, and a defensive line should have been created all the way to the Laotian-Thai border. This would have sealed the border between North and South Vietnam, effectively isolating South Vietnam. While the U.S. military held this line, eliminating the North Vietnamese Army’s access to the South, South Vietnam would have eliminated the insurgent Viet Cong, a task made even easier because they would have been isolated from their primary source of supplies.

Review copyright 2009 J. Andrew Byers ( )
  bibliorex | Mar 26, 2009 |
Summers, a colonel of infantry, analyzes U. S. performance in the Vietnam War by applying the strategic principles outlined in U. S. Army's own field manuals. He concludes--as others have--that Vietnam was a string of tactical victories leading to a decisive strategic defeat. The problem, he persuasively argues, was the failure of both civilian and military leaders to agree upon a clear strategic objective that would be achievable with the forces available. The fault lies equally with senior politicians and senior military officers. Their failure to communicate honestly and openly with one another, he argues, crippled the US war effort almost from the start.

On Strategy is not a page-turner in the traditional sense. Nobody is going to mistake Summers' prose for that of John Keegan (The Face of Battle) or Rick Atkinson (An Army at Dawn)--it is workmanlike, but no more than that. The simple, unadorned style keeps the focus on Summers' ideas, however, and it is the ideas that are the book's greatest asset. A lot of simplistic, politically self-serving nonsense has been written, over the years, about why we lost in Vietnam. Summers' cool, dispassionate analysis is an essential corrective well worth the time of anyone with an interest in the war. ( )
  ABVR | Feb 28, 2008 |
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