Reassessing the Sino-Vietnamese conflict 1979 I

A Vietnamese military officer standing on the wreckage of a destroyed Chinese tank in Cao Bang during the Sino-Vietnamese War

China’s invasion of Vietnam, 1979

PLA Operations along the Sino-Vietnamese Border, 1981–1984

The classic Sun Tzu adage of war, “Know the enemy and know yourself,” writ large, is a fundamental tenet of Chinese military strategy. The PLA always maintained an active self-evaluation program to be fully aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Deng Xiaoping reckoned that the invasion of Vietnam was a remarkable experience for the PLA since so many troops endured the combat test. Shortly after military operations ended, he ordered all troops involved in the conflict to write summaries of their combat experience as their primary job. The PLA Daily subsequently published an article, “Transforming the Self-Defense Counterattack Experiences into the Treasury of the Whole Army,” suggesting that the combat experience gained in the war against Vietnam would hold tremendous significance for the PLA. Special teams were assigned to help units document almost all aspects of the military operation in Vietnam, including planning, intelligence, command and control, operations and tactics, logistics, political work, and the aid-the-front work. Since the PLA was a highly politicized military force, analysts paid particular attention to the political work, the principal mechanism for mobilizing Chinese forces.

China claimed military victory on the basis of the geopolitical outcomes that resulted from the PLA’s performance on the battlefield, reflecting the peculiarities of how the PLA undertook its postwar “lessons learned” analysis of the conflict. China’s approach to evaluating military operations differs from Western approaches largely as a result of China’s preference for “subjective measures versus quantitative indicators of performance.” But the differences are at once less and more subtle than such a simplistic interpretation suggests. The PLA does employ quantitative measures, using them to evaluate the direct results of military operations and to understand to what extent the enemy’s effective strength has been annihilated or paralyzed. However, this use of quantitative indicators is secondary to the subjective factors that are embedded in Chinese strategic culture—most notably, the emphasis on “wits, wisdom, and strategy” that largely determine a war’s outcome.

Though the PLA conducted a thorough evaluation with both quantitative and subjective measurements, it failed to disassociate the lessons learned from the conflict from the army’s outdated military philosophy and tradition. Consequently, this failed process restricted the PLA’s subsequent modernization and transformation.

Early Assessments

Various scholars and intelligence analysts undertook a series of early assessments of the PLA’s performance in the 1979 war. These early assessments offer a foundation for better understanding the PLA’s assessment process and methodology. Harlan Jencks, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley, published the first scholarly analysis of the war in August 1979. Jencks acknowledged that “many critical facts remain unknown” and analyzed China’s military performance based solely on media reports. As late as 2002, lack of access to Chinese sources meant that Jencks’s study was described as the “very best work” on the 1979 war.

Jencks examined China’s war objectives and military operations, including timing, command arrangements, forces committed, strategy, and tactics. He found that China had achieved some positive results: Vietnamese military and civilian installations in the border area had been completely destroyed; the PLA had inflicted significant casualties on some Vietnamese regular units; troops had gained valuable combat experience; and the invasion demonstrated to foreign powers that China meant what it said. Nevertheless, he concluded that China had lost more than it had gained. Strategically, the Chinese invasion strengthened the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, intensifying regional tensions and consequently disturbing East Asian and Southeast Asian countries as well as the United States. Overall, the war proved that the PLA remained an ineffective force, fighting with outdated strategy and tactics in “two-dimensional” ground warfare and suffering heavy losses as a consequence.

Other initial assessments emphasized that Vietnam’s combat-seasoned force, equipped with modern Soviet weapons, outperformed the inexperienced PLA. However, the lack of transparency in both China’s and Vietnam’s military establishments made these assessments more speculative than factually insightful. Those writing English-language accounts seemed unwilling to include information from Chinese newspapers, even though they printed a significant number of reports about the PLA’s performance. Though these accounts were often filled with political propaganda, ignoring them meant that scholars missed an opportunity to obtain an analysis untainted by an inadvertent pro-Vietnamese bias.

Complementing these academic and popular assessments, American government agencies undertook more official studies of China’s war with Vietnam. In March 1980, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) produced a highly classified assessment of the PLA’s combat performance and obvious lessons China learned from the war with Vietnam. Since the invasion failed to oust Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, the CIA report concluded that China achieved few of its political objectives. It noted that the PLA’s conservative tactics limited the operation’s scale, depth, and duration. The report asserted that the PLA’s slow advance was more a product of Chinese “cautiousness and concern for reducing casualties” than a consequence of “the difficult terrain and tenacious Vietnamese defense.” Given the fact that it was a short conventional military action with no air and naval power involved, CIA analysts concluded that China’s war with Vietnam did not present enough information for them to assess the PLA’s overall war capabilities.

The CIA’s assessment obviously included information furnished by Beijing. Two weeks after Chinese troops withdrew from Vietnam, Chinese ambassador Chai Zemin visited the White House, where he briefed national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski about the war. Chai discussed Vietnamese strength at the border, the PLA’s deployment, operations and casualties, and combat highlights. Chai tried to convince the Americans that China had achieved victory over Vietnam, emphasizing that the PLA had annihilated two Vietnamese divisions and four regiments, seriously weakened four other regiments, and inflicted five Vietnamese casualties for every one suffered by the PLA. According to the Chinese ambassador, Vietnamese troops performed poorly when fighting large battles but did well when using guerrilla tactics and sabotage attacks, something consistent with America’s experience in the 1960s and that of the French a generation earlier. The biggest lesson the PLA learned was that the hilly and jungle-like terrain impeded large-unit maneuvering, making it necessary to devise on-the-spot mid-battle adjustments that favored small-unit tactics against the Vietnamese guerrilla-type resistance. In conclusion, the Chinese were convinced that Vietnam would be more restrained after having suffered such severe punishment. In retrospect, Chai’s report was itself an incomplete assessment, containing inaccurate casualty information, but it was what Beijing was willing to share with Washington at that moment. Beijing appeared unwilling to furnish insights as to why the PLA did not perform as well as expected because the Chinese did not think it necessary to share anything beyond the outcome of the war with the Americans.

But even at this early point in postwar analysis, a growing discrepancy was evident between a Western view that tended to underscore the PLA’s shortcomings and a Chinese position that stressed the PLA’s victory over the PAVN. All these assessments suffered from the absence of many critical facts, including information about such basic matters as Chinese strategy and campaign objectives, Chinese operational tactics, and the number of casualties on both sides.

Battlefield Claims and Casualties

The PLA had not engaged in such a large-scale military operation since the Korean War. Based on Mao Zedong’s strategy that “in every battle, concentrate an absolute superior force against the enemy,” Beijing had deployed nine regular armies along with special and local units, amounting to over half a million troops. Air force fighter units flew 8,500 border air defense sorties, while transport and helicopter units flew 228 airlift sorties and the navy dispatched a task force to prepare for possible Soviet naval intervention. In addition, Guangxi and Yunnan Provinces mobilized tens of thousands of militiamen and laborers to support the PLA’s military operation in Vietnam. During the conflict, Chinese forces captured three Vietnamese provincial capitals along with a dozen other border cities and district towns, claiming to have killed and wounded 57,000 Vietnamese troops, severely damaged four PAVN regular divisions and ten other regiments, and captured 2,200 prisoners of war. Chinese victory claims also included the destruction of 340 pieces of artillery, 45 tanks, and some 480 trucks and the capture of 840 pieces of artillery and more than 11,000 small arms, along with many other types of military equipment. On this basis, Beijing asserted that military operations against Vietnam ended with China’s triumph.

However, based on the reported heavy casualties China suffered in the war and lack of information about Vietnamese casualties, most contemporary Western studies maintained that Vietnam “had indeed outperformed” the Chinese forces on the battlefield. Such reasoning accepted Hanoi’s disingenuous claims that Vietnam had committed only militia and local forces, who executed constant attacks against Chinese invaders. Apologists for the Hanoi regime argued that Vietnam had lost Lang Son and other cities only after Vietnamese defenders had killed a large number of PLA troops. (At the time, Hanoi Radio announced that a total of 42,000 Chinese troops were killed and wounded in the war, a third more than the PLA’s actual combat casualties.) Vietnam’s 1979 war records remain unavailable. However, the publication of PAVN unit histories reveals that a significant number of Vietnamese regular forces fought against the Chinese invasion, including some that engaged in “last-stand” actions before being overwhelmed by resolute PLA attackers.

A reassessment of the 1979 war based on China’s sources is equally one-sided but is still both intriguing and informative. Battlefield casualties are a common measure of combat effectiveness. Beijing publicly acknowledged that 20,000 Chinese soldiers were either killed or wounded. In reality, the PLA lost more than 31,000 soldiers (including almost 8,000 fatalities), divided between the two military regions: 5,103 dead and 15,412 injured in Guangxi and 2,812 killed and 7,886 wounded in Yunnan. Western observers, however, did not accept Chinese numbers and therefore speculated (with a misleading “precision” based on specious media reports) that the PLA could have had as many as 26,000 killed and 37,000 wounded in action. Over time, these figures have become accepted by scholars and subsequently have been widely cited to support the thesis that the PLA did not conduct itself successfully in the fighting. It is true that China’s casualties in such a short war were significantly high. However, the Chinese believed that their losses were still outstripped by Vietnamese losses.

The most controversial statistic was the number of soldiers killed. The basis of PLA victory claims were body counts after the Vietnamese positions had been sacked, a practice ironically echoing that of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam a decade earlier. For example, the 163rd Division counted 5,293 Vietnamese soldiers killed and 612 Chinese dead. This claim did not include the unknown numbers of Vietnamese troops killed inside the underground bunkers at the French Fort and inside Nhi Thanh and Tam Thanh Caves.

However, that the figures claimed by the PLA forces may be inflated. The battlefield was a dangerous and chaotic place, and perfectly accurate casualty reporting was always difficult. On 16 March 1979, at a CCP Central Committee meeting, Deng noted that the number of Vietnamese wounded counted by the PLA might not be accurate, since battlefield experiences often supported a high wounded-to-killed ratio. This discrepancy cannot be resolved until the Vietnamese records become available. The Chinese leader, however, did not think that casualties were the best criterion for weighing military success. For him, China’s victory was determined by the overall strategic situation, which he thought concluded in China’s favor. According to Deng, the war improved China’s strategic position and China’s world prestige and inspired the Chinese people to be more devoted to the Four Modernizations.” He stressed that the PLA’s battlefield losses were “small” compared to the heroism and bravery manifested by Chinese troops in the war. Deng also felt a sense of relief, speaking of his satisfaction about the PLA’s performance during the invasion with a comment that Chinese troops had not behaved like “ducks” (fang yazi) even when they confronted extraordinary challenges and ordeals. The Chinese leader was convinced that any PLA deficiencies were less important than the strategic gains China had achieved.

Assessment from a Strategic Perspective

From a Chinese perspective, the 1979 war with Vietnam was a deliberately orchestrated military response to Vietnamese policy toward China and its expansion in Southeast Asia as well as to Soviet global aspirations.30 As Deng Xiaoping stressed on 19 February 1979, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia placed at least some of the ASEAN countries under threat, and the Soviet Union could use Vietnam to create an “Asian Collective Security System” to contain China. “Although China’s action to teach Vietnam a lesson just began,” the Chinese leader continued, “it was a limited operation to be confined within the border region with a simple objective”—to “warn Vietnam not to be recklessly aggressive in the region.” The Chinese leader related China’s war with Vietnam to Hanoi’s Indochina policy but did not state that Beijing’s strategic objective was to compel Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia. Accordingly, the PLA’s performance must be assessed from a perspective that examines to what extent the 1979 war served China’s strategic interests.

The Chinese leadership believed that Beijing had met its goals. On 16 March, speaking in front of party, government, and military leaders at the Great Hall of the People, Deng declared China’s “victory” over Vietnam. He believed that the war had boosted China’s prestige and influence in the world, proving that China stood behind what it said and that the war was important for the fight against hegemony. He also believed that the war had inspired the Chinese people to shift the focal point of their work to economic development programs. Thus, for Deng Xiaoping, the war’s outcome had created a favorable situation for China both at home and abroad, enabling China to concentrate its energy and resources on achieving the Four Modernizations. Few Western observers would evaluate the war’s outcomes the same way that Deng did because the Chinese leader assessed the war from a larger international and domestic perspective. For him, the war produced the kind of strategic outcomes he had desired and anticipated.

The military campaign revealed the PLA’s deficiencies in modern doctrine and tactics, but from beginning to end, China controlled the conflict’s initiative and tempo. Beijing, not Hanoi, determined the pace, structure, battlefield and geostrategic engagement, and duration of the war. Beijing surprised Hanoi not only by waging massive attacks but also by its quick withdrawal without becoming bogged down, something that the Hanoi regime, overconfident from its experience against the Americans in a very different kind of conflict a decade earlier, never anticipated. China’s gauge of the Soviet response to the invasion also exposed Moscow’s inability or unwillingness to back Vietnam. This outcome proved Deng Xiaoping’s prophecy that the Soviet Union would not risk its strategic interests in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia to confront China over Vietnam. Hanoi’s reliance on the Soviet Union for security was clearly a disappointing and even disillusioning experience.

Even more critical, the 1979 war marked the beginning of Beijing’s policy of “bleeding” Vietnam in an effort to contain Hanoi’s further expansion in Southeast Asia. While a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia following China’s attack was desirable, the PRC’s leadership never anticipated an immediate withdrawal. After the war, Vietnamese claims notwithstanding, China still commanded all significant strategic options. It was free to maintain military pressure on Vietnam, including constant verbal threats of a second attack. Nor was the pressure limited to just verbal assaults. For almost the entire 1980s, the PLA engaged in occasional intense artillery shelling and major border battles. Indeed, as one study from the early 1990s concluded, “The war was most successful when seen as a tactic in China’s strategy of a protracted war of attrition” against Vietnam.

Similarly, the war did not produce significant international consequences for China. In Cambodia, the invasion not only enabled the Khmer Rouge to escape total annihilation but also encouraged the different political forces to formulate a joint alliance against the Vietnamese occupation as a legitimate course. However, the use of military force against Vietnam raised suspicions in Indonesia and Malaysia, always wary of China’s influence in the region. The Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, which threatened Thailand, enabled the continuing growth of the strong opposition coalition of ASEAN countries against Vietnam. Regarding the Sino-U.S. relationship, China’s punitive invasion appeared particularly successful. Washington publicly condemned both Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and China’s invasion of Vietnam but shared China’s interest in containing Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. Beijing’s willingness to use force, regardless of the casualties suffered, made China “a valuable deterrent” to Soviet-Vietnamese expansionism. Washington thus continued to seek a close relationship with China to counterbalance the Soviet Union.

Perhaps motivated by China’s use of force against Vietnam, in July 1979, the U.S. government signed a trade agreement that granted China most-favored-nation status, a significant economic coup for the Deng regime. In the following month, Vice President Walter Mondale visited Beijing and stressed to the Chinese leadership that the United States had decided to develop close trade and economic ties with China and to treat China differently than the Soviet Union. This new economic relationship, according to Mondale, included the relaxation of restrictions on U.S. exports to China, a two-billion-dollar government loan to China, and export licenses for two sets of advanced equipment (a $1 billion ore-processing complex and a 50 billion electron-volt high-energy accelerator). Deng had wanted an improved relationship with the United States: the war against Vietnam demonstrated China’s strategic value and importance to the ongoing struggle against Soviet hegemony (in Deng’s own phrase, “to the world anti-hegemony united front”), and, in return, the West “would provide money and equipment for a powerful China to deter Soviet revisionism.”

The Chinese leadership also perceived that the 1979 war served China’s domestic interests. Beginning in late 1978, the radical ideology and policies of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Cultural Revolution were increasingly repudiated. Democratic dissidents called for ideological and political changes in China, posting big-character posters and handbills calling for more democracy and freedom on the “Democracy Wall” in the national capital. This alarmed Deng, who wanted a fresh start for China but also believed that China’s new drive for the Four Modernizations required all “citizens being of one heart and one mind.” The Democracy Wall, Deng believed, stirred up sentiments corrosive to stability and unity. Moreover, he resented those people who posted letters on the wall requesting that President Jimmy Carter interfere in China’s human rights situation and the activists who burst into the Vietnamese embassy in Beijing voicing their opposition to the war against Vietnam. Following the Chinese forces’ withdrawal from Vietnam, he directed the Beijing municipal authority to ban all activities that undermined political and social stability and unity.

The Vietnamese leadership never seemed to comprehend the PRC’s strategy and war objectives, persistently maintaining that the 1979 invasion simply constituted a prelude to Beijing’s long-term scheme of infringing on Vietnamese sovereignty and independence. After China announced its withdrawal on 5 March, Hanoi called for a nationwide general mobilization for the war and began constructing defensive positions in and around Hanoi. By the end of May, the PLA had reverted to its normal alert status. Vietnam, however, remained on guard, stationing a large number of PAVN troops (allegedly 300,000) along border with China at a time when the economy was “in a worse state than at any time since 1975.” As a result, Hanoi’s attempts to fight simultaneously in Cambodia and on its northern border took a growing national economic and social toll, subsuming Hanoi’s effort to modernize its economy and, more important, undermining its geopolitical ambitions. According to Fred Charles Iklé, “Governments tend to lose sight of the ending of wars and the nation’s interests that lie beyond it,” and many are “blind in failing to perceive that it is the outcome of the war, not the outcome of the campaigns within it” that determines how well their policies serve the nation’s interests. The Vietnamese leadership clearly failed to grasp the gravity of the situation and continued depending on the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. If the Vietnamese should draw any lessons from the 1979 war with China, one is, as one Vietnamese general later remarked, “We must learn how to live with our big neighbor.”

Reassessing the Sino-Vietnamese conflict 1979 II

Vietnamese artillery bombarding Chinese troops, 23 February 1979

Vietnamese Military Dispositions since 1979

China’s Failure to Use Air Power

Despite China’s strategic success, the campaign revealed numerous deficiencies in the PLA’s doctrine and tactics. Many were associated with its outdated military philosophy and tradition. The PLA continued to exhibit its preference for mobile operations with deep attack penetrations and flanking maneuvers, seeking battles of annihilation with overwhelming forces and artillery firepower and fighting tenaciously.48 Such preferred operational characteristics ensured that the 1979 military campaign would remain a classic two-dimensional force-on-force mass-driven struggle with heavy losses on both sides.

One surprising aspect of the war was that neither the Chinese nor the Vietnamese air force actively participated in combat operations. Neither side flew any counterair, interdiction, or battlefield air support missions despite possessing robust air arms. Western analysts believe that the Chinese were aware that their air force would have been at a disadvantage in any engagement with Vietnamese air units. (Indeed, at least in theory, Vietnam’s air force and antiaircraft forces were highly experienced from almost a decade of war against the world’s finest air power.) However, this Western conclusion appears to have been drawn prematurely, resulting in an unbalanced assessment of the problems that both the Chinese and Vietnamese air forces were facing.

In 1979, the Chinese and Vietnamese air forces were almost identical, flying the same aircraft and operating under the influence of Soviet air doctrine, which stressed no independent air actions but rather a strongly centrally controlled effort heavily dependent on radar-cued and radio-directed ground-controlled operations from takeoff through landing. The PLAAF had a numerical advantage but no technological edge because Vietnamese MiG-21s were better than Chinese J-6s (a MiG-19 derivative) and J-7s (an early MiG-21 derivative). The Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots were allegedly combat-experienced with impressive claims against American pilots during the Vietnam War.52 However, this combat record had been exaggerated. Moreover, the combat environment was different in the 1979 war. The MiG-21s were short-ranged and point-defense interceptor aircraft unsuited for long-range missions; in any case, they had very limited air-to-ground weapons capabilities. Hanoi’s strategy was thus to husband its air resources to defend vital targets (largely in the Hanoi area) rather than send them to engage the Chinese air force at the border. According to the PLAAF records, the Vietnamese air force took no action until the fourth day of the Chinese invasion. Each time the MiG-21s scrambled from their base near Hanoi, ground controllers repeatedly urged pilots not to fly too close to the border to avoid direct confrontation with the Chinese.

On the other side of the border, the PLAAF deployed around 700 aircraft—including all its J-7 units, six bomber and attack aircraft regiments—to Guangxi and Yunnan. The forefront airfields on the border alone fielded more than 200 fighters. During the first day of the military campaign, the Chinese air force flew 567 defensive counterair sorties along the border as part of an effort to deter its Vietnamese counterparts; the PLAAF then flew an average of 300 sorties each day for the duration of the war. Although the PLAAF conducted no aggressive cross-border air operations, it flew 52 reconnaissance overflights, some of them deep into Vietnamese airspace, reportedly collecting valuable intelligence information for PLA ground operations.

The Chinese believed that their numerical superiority demonstrated the might of the PLAAF and accordingly deterred the Vietnamese air force from challenging the Chinese air force. One Chinese J-7 regiment commander later recalled that the Vietnamese air force could launch their MiG-21s only singly or in pairs, while his unit always flew formations of four, eight, twelve, or sixteen. Operating out of their bases near the border also gave Chinese pilots a fuel advantage: Vietnamese MiG-21s could only make one pass before returning to base at Hanoi. During the invasion of Cambodia, Vietnam’s U.S.-made Northrop F-5s and Cessna A-37s captured in 1975 had seen action against the Khmer Rouge forces. The PLA ascribed the Vietnamese air force’s inaction in the 1979 war to superior numbers of aircraft deployed by the PLAAF to the border. In any case, by 1979, many of the aging F-5s likely were no longer airworthy, and some had already been sent to other communist-bloc nations for study and technical analysis, and the A-37s (a light-attack derivative of the T-37 trainer) were incapable of surviving the intense antiaircraft and missile fire the PLA could have brought to bear.

Still, Chinese leaders failed to permit their air force to provide support for ground operations when that support was badly needed. China justified its failure to conduct aggressive air operations on that grounds that doing so might have escalated the conflict to an unmanageable level. The PLAAF, however, maintained that flying a large number of patrol sorties over the border airspace helped to dispel ground troops’ fears about enemy air threats, thus inspiring them to fight. As a matter of fact, on several occasions, both the Guangzhou and Kunming Military Region forward commands urged direct air support when the ground assaults encountered intense opposition from the Vietnamese. The CMC leadership refused to grant such permission. Nevertheless, the question remained whether the Chinese air force could have provided effective support for ground operations. On the early evening of 8 March, for example, one squadron leader flying a J-6A failed to intercept a Vietnamese IL-14 transport over Cao Bang because of poor air-ground communication.

Despite the PLAAF’s questionable capability, the Chinese also maintained a fallacy generated by Mao’s “people’s war” doctrine, which did not envision the need for offensive air power. The PLA experience also suggested that air power had little impact on the victories claimed by China in the past (that is, the Korean War). It was, therefore, not surprising that Chinese political leaders and generals maintained that the war did not require active air participation. Furthermore, given their faith in their war experience, Chinese leaders were convinced that ground forces could overwhelm any opponents. Thus, the 1979 war featured primitive, bloody ground warfare even though China had one of the largest air forces in the world (and, as it subsequently claimed, maintained theater air superiority). The PLA and its generals came from an institutional tradition that was accustomed to fighting infantry warfare with artillery firepower and numerical superiority; thus the “spirit of the bayonet” continued to prevail. Consequently, the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War was particularly deadly and atrocious because both sides engaged largely in traditional ground warfare with many close-quarter battles.

Chinese Operational Characteristics

Chinese tactical and operational styles remained fixated on large-scale two-dimensional army warfare, ground maneuvers, and adeptness in ground combat operations. That was, in many respects, hardly surprising: Deng Xiaoping and his generals were ground-war veterans and faithful students of Mao Zedong’s combat principles, which emphasized the concentration of superior firepower and numbers to conduct a “battle of annihilation” with a willingness to absorb heavy losses.65 But again not surprisingly, such a combat preference determined that although the 1979 war was in many respects a low-intensity conflict, it nevertheless featured exceedingly high casualties. Western analysts criticized the PLA’s employment of human-wave tactics in classic “meat-grinder” operations as irrational and anachronistic. One study was particularly critical, asserting that this Chinese way of warfighting not only was costly but also often failed to accomplish its tactical objectives. The author of that study describes the Chinese human-wave assault as an attack “without attempting to mask or shield its movement.”

The Chinese have objected to the Western characterization of the PLA’s operational tactics as human-wave attacks. According to Zhang Wannian, commander of the 127th Division and later vice chair of the CMC, mustering superior force (jizhong bingli) and human-wave (renhai zhanshu) assaults are two essentially different operational concepts. Human-wave attacks were conducted by the massed groups of infantry soldiers without trying to use fire and maneuver tactics. In the 1979 war, he sent seven battalions to attack one Vietnamese battalion (belonging to the 123rd Regiment of 304B Division) at Chi Ma. His attacking troops were divided into groups and advanced in echelons, with each group supporting the other while engaging in consecutive assaults. Zhang admitted that massed formation occurred as the Chinese used human-wave attacks during the fighting, but he argued that the problem was caused mainly by inept leadership rather than by tactics per se.

Another well-known operational tenet used to obliterate the enemy’s effective strength in the 1979 war was the “one point, two flanks” tactic. Marshal Lin Biao summed up this principle as the PLA’s preferred operational art for surrounding and exterminating the enemy with simultaneous frontal and flank attacks. This operational preference was responsible for the PLA’s success in the Dong Dang and Lao Cai–Cam Duong battles. A unit was assigned to a defensive position as a blocking force to prevent the enemy force from conducting a retrograde operation. Western scholars concluded that Chinese operational success came only after their attacks “with a battalion where a company failed, and a regiment where a battalion failed.” The Chinese reported that each time Vietnamese reinforcements attempted to breach a Chinese blocking position, wave after wave of assaults were conducted, often leaving several hundred dead bodies. PLA studies no longer used the “one point, two flanks” tactic to characterize its military operations in Vietnam after the dramatic fall of Lin Biao in the early 1970s and the subsequent purge campaign directed against him.

The 1979 war offered ample evidence of the PLA’s continuing obsession with artillery and its adeptness in using artillery to provide covering fire to support infantry troops to either maneuver themselves out of difficult situations or press forward toward their objectives. During the 1979 invasion, more than 7,000 pieces of large-caliber artillery were deployed, and they fired a total of 880,000 shells. The Dong Dang and Lang Son battles alone witnessed 1,400 tons of artillery shells dumped on enemy positions. The PLA’s preference for extremely close-range artillery engagement—with gun crews encouraged to site their guns at the closest possible range from their targets—represented a unique PLA form of infantry and artillery cooperation. The PLA’s zealous passion for artillery fire, however, concealed another reality—that is, the PLA’s failure to recognize air power as a main striking force in modern conventional warfare.

Political Work on the Battlefield

In the PLA tradition, political work has been regarded as vital for combat effectiveness and victory. During the preparatory stage prior to invasion, in-depth ideological mobilization and political education increased the troops’ morale and enthusiasm for going to war. After the war commenced, political work was a key mechanism for maintaining high combat morale and ensuring troops’ battlefield performance, which, from a Chinese perspective, was determined by the bravery of soldiers and their obedience to orders and compliance with discipline.

At the core of the effort lay party committees and political organs. Since the early years of the Red Army, the CCP had established committees at all levels of the military apparatus. In particular, the party branch committee at the company level ensured that the party served as a role model during combat. Both rewards and punishments shaped and influenced the troops’ morale. As a result, political work strongly shaped the PLA’s operational tactics.

One recent study by a retired U.S. army officer harshly criticizes the PLA’s political focus in the war against Vietnam. The PLA’s political motivation, he argues, impressed on its troops “the imperative to advance straight at the enemy” but required no “development of professional skills” for combat. In his evaluation, the PLA, an army that had defeated American troops in Korea during the winter of 1950–51, was by 1979 no longer capable of brushing aside a much weaker opponent. A professional soldier might have difficulty agreeing completely with the PLA’s political work system and its importance. Thus, without giving any detailed analysis of how the PLA used political work in combat, the author simplistically equated it to human-wave tactics and concluded that it had led to a PLA defeat.

The PLA certainly was not properly trained and prepared for war, making political work all the more crucial. The political work system arguably motivated Chinese soldiers to fight courageously in the face of intense PAVN and militia resistance. From a Chinese perspective, bravery was the essential element in fighting the war. According to Deng Xiaoping, if properly politically motivated and therefore courageous, poorly equipped PLA troops led by largely inexperienced commanders might suffer severe losses at the beginning of the fight but would gain experience and combat skills. After the war, Deng was gratified to learn that the PLA’s current soldiers had fought as courageously and tenaciously as their predecessors, thereby confirming his faith in them and in the political system of warfare. Since that time, political work has remained an indispensable mechanism of China’s armed forces. Thus, the value and significance of political work to motivate the PLA’s combat forces and thereby ensure victory in the 1979 war cannot be overemphasized.

In 1980, the General Political Department compiled a collection of the PLA’s political work experiences in the war against Vietnam, emphasizing twelve different aspects, among them inculcating understanding of the high authorities’ resolve, strengthening patriotism and “revolutionary heroism,” emphasizing firing-line promotion as a consequence of good combat performance, and stressing the important role party cadres and Communist Youth League members could play on the battlefield. The remainder addressed issues involving different army branches, the front and the rear, and the civilian and military hierarchies, including psychological warfare, the militia forces, and the aid-the-front work. These experiences were compiled and written by political officers who regularly disseminated propaganda, meaning that exaggeration and lack of authenticity were unavoidable. Nevertheless, this 800-plus-page document suggested that the political work system was inseparable from the PLA military system and its combat missions. Without political work, the PLA believed, Chinese forces would have almost no chance of accomplishing any of their tasks. As a result, political officers and party organizations bore responsibility for making sure that soldiers understood their assigned tasks before battle and for helping military officers deal with problems that arose during battle. The troops assigned to deep-penetration maneuvers feared that they were vulnerable to enemy attacks. While explaining that penetration was essential for creating a favorable position from which to annihilate enemy forces, political officers drew up contingency measures for problems that might occur during the operation.

According to a report by the 488th Regiment, to curb the fear of troops in blocking operations, political officers repeatedly reminded them that they did not fight alone because their brother units were fighting to destroy the enemy’s defenses. This regiment later reported that political work played a decisive role in ensuring that the troops would accomplish their blocking mission after they repelled thirteen Vietnamese attacks and killed 779 enemy troops.

Political work also encouraged the rank and file to act in ways that would earn them heroic recognition. Military journalists were sent to combat units to identify soldiers who fought with particular valor and dedication and then to report on these heroic deeds. Later in 1979, the PLA Daily carried a series of reports on Chinese soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for their motherland in the war. Party committees and political organs set standards and requirements for granting merit awards to personnel and units. Individuals were cited for first-to third-class meritorious service. Individual companies received red silk banners inscribed “Shock Hero Company” or “Hero Blocking Company” if they had fought valorously in offensive or defensive operations.

According to Mao’s teachings, “The party member must be the first to bear hardship and the last to enjoy comforts.” Party members were expected to be in the thick of the fight, wherever there were dangers and difficulties. Unit leaders lived up to the party’s requirements during the operation. They were the first to charge forward and the last to withdraw. For example, the 122nd Division reported that cadres and party members had played an exemplary role, enabling the unit’s soldiers to fight vigorously. On 20 February, after all officers of his company had been killed or severely wounded, a squad leader who was also a party member took over the leadership of the company on two separate occasions, continuing to fight until reinforced.

From a PLA perspective, whether party members acted bravely depended on the effectiveness of the leadership of the party branch committees at the company level. 39th Division’s combat experiences confirmed this assertion. The company branch committees, which had performed well in combat, had often called party branch committee meetings to study operational orders and directives from higher authorities so that the entire company could act in concert. One notable achievement of the party branch was preparing a sequential list of all officer positions to ensure uninterrupted leadership on the battlefield. During combat, the party branch actively engaged in political and ideological work to enable the rank and file to maintain their will to fight. To overcome fear and decline in morale as a consequence of the loss of close comrades, the party branch emphasized getting back at the enemy, promoting slogans such as “Seeking revenge on the enemy for the fallen comrades, and making the enemy pay back with his own blood,” to boost the troops’ morale.

Nonetheless, political work was regarded as neither omnipotent nor a substitute for military professionalism, and the PLA’s review of political experiences in the 1979 war occasionally cited failures. For example, one battalion of the 484th Regiment (a total of 212 troops) was ambushed by a Vietnamese sapper team in a rice field at Ban Mau, north of Cao Bang. The leading officers panicked, made no effort to organize defenses or withdraw, and simply told troops to flee for their lives, leaving them on their own. Consequently, by the end of the fight, half of their men were either killed or wounded. In its post-combat summary, the 162nd Division bluntly ascribed this defeat to the unit leaders’ cowardice.

Other such incidents occurred, demonstrating that political work did not guarantee victory. The most notable involved the 150th Division, which entered Vietnam at the end of the invasion to cover the 41st Army’s return from the Cao Bang area. The 150th lacked preparation, training, and experience, and most of its veteran soldiers had transferred to reinforce other combat units. As a result, the division was mainly composed of new recruits, and company leaders did not know their soldiers. A three-person team headed by a deputy army commander was sent to help strengthen the 150th Division’s leadership but only created confusion, setting the stage for disaster. Their fatal mistake was deciding to follow mountain trails instead of the main highway back into China. The unit was ambushed, broken up, and defeated piecemeal. If its officers and soldiers had been veteran fighters, the unit would not have been defeated so easily.

In sum, in 1979, the PLA was far from being a professional army. New recruits accounted for 48 percent of the troops, and 25 percent of officers had been newly promoted, compromising the force’s capability for a large-scale military operation. Most Chinese soldiers came from poor rural families with little education. Raised in a culture that stressed obedience, loyalty, and sacrifice, these soldiers as a group feared neither hardship nor death. They hoped that a few years of military service could help them achieve a better living standard, either through promotion into the ranks of the officer cadre or by training them for nonfarming jobs after leaving military service. Few of them prepared themselves mentally or received adequate training for combat. Thus, political work played a critical role in generating unit cohesion and keeping soldiers focused on performing their mission. Even though the 1979 war was incredibly bloody and savage, in the end, the PLA pulled through to victory, though at a significant cost.

Reassessing the Sino-Vietnamese conflict 1979 III

October 14, 1986: After leading the attack on the Vietnamese position, Ma Quanbin, captain of the Chinese strike force, reports to the command.

The Battles of Laoshan and Bailihedongshan, 1984–1987

Vietnamese Strategy and Tactics

Prior to the late 1970s, the PLA paid scant attention to the combat doctrine and tactics of the PAVN and had never thought that their two communist countries would engage in an armed conflict against one another. As a result, the PLA underestimated the PAVN’s fighting abilities. After the 1979 war, PLA leaders conducted a thorough assessment of the PAVN’s strategy, strength, military objectives, and operational tactics. According to Zhou Deli, chief of staff of the Guangzhou Military Region, Vietnam’s military thought and combat principles emphasized “the national defense by all the people” (quanmin guofang) and “carrying out the people’s war” (shixing renmin zhanzheng), consisting of four basic approaches.

1. Tenaciously defending the border and seeking to win victory on the first line of defense. The Hanoi leadership opposed the strategy of luring the enemy deep into Vietnamese territory given the fact that the area between Hanoi and Lang Son was the heartland of Vietnamese industry. Instead, a military fortress strategy was adopted, turning villages, towns, and cities into strongholds against the invasion. Regular and local forces were employed to defend key positions along the highways and railroads, paramilitary troops were responsible for the first line of defense, and villagers were encouraged to take up arms to help defend areas where military forces were weak.

2. Aggressive defense. Vietnamese defenders needed actively and aggressively to engage the enemy at long range using offensive methods to defeat enemy attacks. Preferred defense tactics included the division of a company-sized force into three-to five-soldier squads and using platoon-size groupings of squads to defend strong points. When positions were lost, defenders would stage successive counterattacks with small groups ranging in strength from a squad to a platoon or a full company. (The PLA nevertheless concluded that the PAVN had too few troops overall and was inferior in combat power and that as a result, few Vietnamese counterattacks broke into Chinese defensive positions).

3. The use of small force to defeat a bigger enemy force. Surprisingly, given the traditionally strong centralized control pursued by Soviet-style forces, the PAVN (likely reflecting its guerrilla heritage back to the anti-Japanese days of the Second World War) fought using both decentralized control and decentralized execution. The Chinese discovered that Vietnamese defenders fought each engagement on their own and did not contact or support each other. While this structure made it difficult to get inside their command and control (their “decision loop”), it also generated problems for the PAVN that were exacerbated by Hanoi’s decision making and thus created opportunities that the PLA exploited. For example, throughout the fighting, Hanoi made no attempts to send reinforcements to help the badly battered PAVN divisions in the Cao Bang, Lang Son, and Lao Cai areas, determined to hold its strategic reserves to engage the Chinese if they invaded the Red River Delta. The Vietnamese defensive strategy—taking no action, failing to send reinforcements, and refusing to run away—made it easy for Chinese forces to encircle and annihilate them piecemeal.

4. Relying on guerrilla warfare tactics to conduct positional defense and counterattacks. According to the Chinese assessment, when Vietnamese troops (both PAVN and militia) were unable to hold their fighting positions, they always dispersed into small groups and then used complex terrain (such as mountain saddles, high growths of grass, small clumps of trees, and limestone caves) to organize guerrilla defense along the roads, trails, and routes PLA troops were likely to traverse. The guerrilla-type attacks inflicted significant casualties on Chinese forces, and PAVN sapper teams effectively sabotaged Chinese rear echelons and rear area supply lines.

It is difficult to know to what extent the PLA’s assessment of the Vietnamese forces’ tactical characteristics is objective when Vietnam’s own assessment remains absent. In retrospect, the Chinese military leadership found itself in a contradictory position when conducting such an assessment. While claiming victory, China nevertheless had to acknowledge the heavy toll the PAVN and Vietnamese militia units had inflicted. In the view of the PLA’s leadership, an impartial evaluation of PLA deficiencies was imperative. However, at the same time, they worried about overestimating Vietnamese military capabilities and performance. In the end, national pride and cultural prejudice prevented the PLA from making truly objective assessments about the Vietnamese military and its tactics. Moreover, for fear of giving too much credit to the Vietnamese military, the PLA assessment concluded that the PAVN’s regular forces lacked persistence in offense and defense and had few coordinated operations. The PLA was also particularly critical of Hanoi’s response to Chinese campaign objectives. It believed that the PLA’s multidirectional attacks on Vietnam had confused Vietnamese leaders, preventing them from recognizing in a timely fashion the main thrust of the Chinese invasion. Facing multipronged attacks, the Vietnamese military command appeared befuddled and frequently changed the mission and location of their reinforcement forces. For the Chinese, the Vietnamese military leadership’s hesitation created favorable conditions for the PLA to concentrate a large number of forces to overpower the PAVN. The PLA’s tactic of pushing its infantrymen into close mass combat against the PAVN and its acceptance of high human losses may help explain why the PLA overwhelmed the PAVN and why the PLA subsequently proclaimed the PAVN incapable of defending against China’s attacks.

PLA literature certainly conceded that the PAVN’s guerrilla-type tactics, its sappers, and its local militias were surprisingly successful in keeping the Chinese forces off balance as they anxiously sought to engage the PAVN in decisive battles during the lightning war. One Chinese frustration was distinguishing civilian refugees from defeated PAVN soldiers, who would shed their uniforms and blend in. These disguised PAVN soldiers would then coerce Vietnamese civilians to instigate attacks on Chinese forces.

The PLA assessment also recognized the effectiveness of Vietnamese defense tactics such as placing mortars and heavy antiaircraft machine guns on the top of hills to suppress PLA infantry movement. The long-range and heavy-hitting multiple 12.7mm antiaircraft machine guns were extremely deadly, particularly because none of the PLA’s infantry soldier weapons had sufficient range to engage them in counterfire. As an American officer once noted, it was impossible “to penetrate, flank, or envelop” the Vietnamese fortified positions “without taking extremely heavy casualties.”

Some Vietnamese accounts supported the PLA’s interpretation of both the performance and the perceived weaknesses of the PAVN. Interviews with senior Vietnamese officers led Henry Kenny to conclude that although the Vietnamese army would have preferred to exploit mobile rather than positional tactics against the Chinese advance, the employment of “mines, mortar attack, and direct-fire ambushes from dominating terrain features” by dug-in Vietnamese defenders had proven an effective means of inflicting heavy losses on PLA forces and delaying their advance. The Vietnamese claimed that three PLA regiments and eighteen battalions had been either destroyed or suffered heavy attrition, while 550 vehicles, including 280 tanks and armored vehicles, and 115 artillery pieces had been destroyed or damaged. The Vietnamese have consistently asserted that they fought a “people’s war,” relying heavily on an armed peasantry and crediting these militias for defending the key border towns of Dong Dang, Cao Bang, and Lao Kai. Hanoi has never publicly admitted the extensive involvement of its regular forces in the conflict. Uncritically accepting Vietnamese accounts—in fact, Vietnamese propaganda—otherwise informed Western observers have stated incorrectly that the PLA failed to achieve its intervention objectives and “did not account itself well in the fighting.” Any honest evaluation of Vietnamese performance in the 1979 war remains dependent on the opening of Vietnamese records, however.

Lessons Learned

Today, notwithstanding the PLA’s persistent assertions of military victory, several critical questions remain to be addressed. How did the PLA perceive its performance in Vietnam in terms of planning, command and control, fighting, and combat tactics? What lessons did it learn from the campaign? And to what degree did this experience affect PLA thinking about its future? Although the PLA’s tradition placed importance on writing summaries of combat experience, Chinese national pride and cultural prejudice prevented the PLA from making candid conclusions about the war. Nonetheless, the PLA synthesized the lessons learned from the war into six themes.

The first theme was in keeping with a traditional PLA maxim that any correct military decision and strategy must involve thoroughly comprehending the situation. But the 1979 war showed that the PLA’s reconnaissance capability and battlefield situational awareness and intelligence were limited. The lack of human intelligence severely hampered the PLA throughout the military campaign. One leading reason was that most of the PLA’s reconnaissance units lacked adequate training before the invasion. During the operation, they were often taken off intelligence duties and simply assigned as replacement forces or adjuncts to assault strongpoints and defend key points along with infantry units. The political officers who were responsible for the POW work had no training in interrogation techniques, further hampering intelligence collection. During the campaign, lower-level units constantly complained that leadership at higher levels did not provide with detailed information about the enemy but failed to conduct any reconnaissance missions to obtain information. This problem was further aggravated by the fact that the PLA’s assessment of the geography and terrain of northern Vietnam often relied on outdated maps and geographic information. In addition, PLA forces generally had poor map-reading skills. As a result of all these deficiencies, the PLA’s postaction report admitted that its forces engaged in many muddle-headed actions in the 1979 war.

The unexpected operational difficulties posed by Vietnam’s surprisingly active militia units led to a second lesson, one involving conflict planning. A key PLA combat principle stressed the concentration of superior forces  to ensure annihilation of an enemy. One major deficiency of the Vietnam operation was that planners failed to consider the large number of militia forces in their calculation of Vietnamese military strength. Indeed, in retrospect, the PLA believed that the militia put up a more relentless resistance and launched more surprise attacks than the PAVN’s vaunted regulars. PLA planners thought they had an overwhelming 8:1 force disparity over the Vietnamese. But the Cao Bang area alone had 40,000 to 50,000 militia members, altering the force ratio to 2:1. During the campaign, the PLA thus never possessed sufficient forces to deliver the knockout strike that its doctrine advocated and its leaders sought, seriously slowing PLA combat operations. The Battle of Cao Bang took ten days rather than the planned five, requiring the deployment of additional troops. In response to these difficulties, the PLA had to adapt quickly to the “objective reality” of the battlefield, doing so in time to engage in a mopping-up campaign against the dispersed Vietnamese forces. Analysts concluded that this adaptation helped the PLA secure its victory, but it was a very close call.

The third lesson involved combined arms operations. The 1979 incursion marked the first time that the PLA leadership conducted combined arms operations with tank, artillery, and engineering elements in support of infantry attacks while assembling an air and naval force to provide cover (even though the latter did not enter combat). But backwardness in doctrine and tactics prevented Chinese forces from carrying out the kind of coordinated operation that could be undertaken at that time by, for example, NATO or the Warsaw Pact. While Beijing’s political constraints and outdated military thinking proscribed the commitment of air forces to support ground operations, ground forces also demonstrated poor coordination between infantry, tank, and artillery units, limiting the PLA’s ability to execute full combined arms tactics. For example, infantry units had never trained sufficiently with tank units and thus could not adequately maneuver with them. Such were the crudities of operational art that PLA infantry soldiers fastened themselves to the top of tanks with ropes so that they would not fall off. Accordingly, when they came under enemy fire, they were effectively bound in place. Conversely, tank units, which often operated without infantry support or direct communication with infantry units, suffered many unexpected losses and damage because they exposed themselves to Vietnamese tank-killing teams. Although the artillery forces performed better than tank units, they also often failed to provide timely support for coordinated infantry-armor assaults, and basic command and control architectures and procedures were clearly lacking. For example, during the PLA’s 1 March drive on Lang Son, the misreading of operational orders caused artillery batteries (under regimental infantry command) to fail to lay down suppressing fire against Vietnamese strongpoints before the infantry assault, which consequently failed, with heavy losses.

The fourth lesson was the general issue of command and control, and it, too, derived largely from the PLA’s traditions and culture. Personal relationships between commanding officers and troops, which had been cultivated in the past, still mattered to the PLA. Because interpersonal relationships were more important than institutional ones, it is not surprising that the leaders of the Guangzhou Military Region later acknowledged that they felt uncomfortable commanding troops transferred from the Wuhan and Chengdu Military Regions. These leaders also received many complaints from rank and filers about Xu’s leadership style because he had not previously commanded them. Even Xu acknowledged that he (and his subordinates as well as most PLA troops) had little knowledge of the challenges of fighting in a tropical, wooded mountain environment. They quickly realized that their combat experience in northern China did not apply to the battleground in Vietnam. The lack of combat-experienced officers further compounded the PLA’s command problems. Despite sending higher-ranking officers who were also war veterans to lower-level troop units to help with command, the PLA’s operations remained frustrated by most lower-ranking officers’ inability to make independent judgments and coordinate operations at critical moments. Instead of radios, the PLA’s squads and platoons received hand flags and horns, and soldiers were instructed in the use of hand signals for communication. But the heavy vegetation covering the hilly terrain prevented the effective use of the signals, forcing troops to stay in close and vulnerable formations lest communication be lost. This lack of radio equipment severely hampered battlefield communication and coordination between squads, platoons, and their company command.

Fifth, logistics posed another serious challenge and thus was a major area in which the PLA could draw lessons. The PLA lacked a modern logistics supply system and structure to support a fast-moving, distant, offensive action in which the average daily consumption included 700 tons of ammunition and another 700 tons of fuel. Instead, a makeshift supply system required every unit to be self-sufficient in “retail logistics,” the supply system employed on the battlefield. Up to 36 percent of supplies were carried into Vietnam by human and animal labor. Without adequate storage and transportation facilities, both the Guangzhou and Kunming Military Regions had to scramble to put together a supply system, and it never functioned smoothly and efficiently. The combination of poor PLA management and Vietnamese attacks caused the loss of considerable quantities of supplies. In one incident, PAVN artillery destroyed a column of thirty-seven trucks along with their loads. Some PLA troops carrying out deep-penetration tasks did not receive food supplies for seven days. As the forces advanced deeper into Vietnamese territory, the PLA’s logisticians had increasing difficulty keeping communication lines open without diverting a large number of forces to protect them. Based on this experience, the PLA concluded it needed a dedicated transportation command. In 2002, when the former vice commander of the PLA National Defense University spoke at a military symposium, he stressed the importance of “control of communication.”

Finally, China’s experience in Vietnam in 1979 caused the PLA to reconsider its thinking about “people’s war” as applied to conflicts beyond China’s borders. The traditional principle of people’s war stressed the importance of mobilizing the citizenry to support the war effort. The 1979 war experience reemphasized this but also took it further, showing that it was almost impossible for huge PLA forces to operate outside the country without popular support for the war at home. Beijing’s propaganda machines had aroused great public patriotism and pride in Chinese soldiers. These strong expressions of patriotism helped the PLA get direct support from the people living in the two border provinces fronting Vietnam. Tens of thousands of local residents served as stretcher bearers, security guards, and porters, and militia soldiers from the border region were involved in direct combat activities. Local governments made things easy for troops by simplifying requisition procedures, thereby helping them receive adequate material and fresh food in the shortest possible time. Such experiences persuaded the PLA leadership that mobilization of local governments and civilians to support a war remained an enduring—and essential—key to victory.


The 1979 war with Vietnam baptized a young generation of army cadres on the battlefield, and many of them later rose to high PLA positions, carrying the experiences and lessons of the war into their subsequent careers. From a Western perspective, the lessons learned from the 1979 war with Vietnam may not seem coherent, comprehensive, or even fully objective, because the PLA evaluates its success in military operations not from the traditional perspective of operational “battlefield” outcomes but rather on the basis of the impact of the conflict on the overall geopolitical-military strategic situation. Deeply influenced by Mao’s teaching that war is fundamentally a political undertaking, as long as China could claim to achieve its strategic and military objectives, the PLA would consider any problems resulting from perceived tactical failures secondary. The PLA’s assessments are also colored by the belief that warfare can be learned through the experience of fighting and that knowledge can be gained rapidly enough to employ it even in the context of very brief conflicts. For example, the PLA was convinced that its forces performed much better during the second stage of the 1979 campaign than they did during the first stage. Overall, the PLA’s self-assessment of lessons learned in the 1979 conflict with Vietnam is comprehensive but varies significantly from those found in Western studies. While some of the Western studies are informative and correct to some extent, they share common failings in attempting to make overarching conclusions based on very limited sources. This approach, never satisfactory, is even less so when applied to an extremely complicated and nuanced subject such as the PLA, its structure, doctrine, culture, operational thought, and combat behavior.

Perhaps most significantly, PLA studies conclude that the infamous Cultural Revolution constituted the single most detrimental factor undermining the PLA’s previously successful—in its eyes—combat tradition. The “battlefield” lessons the PLA may have learned in this war overemphasize operation (command and control, coordination between troops, force structure and weaponry) at the expense of strategy and doctrine.

During its evaluation of the 1979 war, the PLA appeared to make no attempt to hide or overlook its own deficiencies and problems. The PLA nevertheless failed to take into account its flawed military thinking and traditions. If there is any one issue about which the PLA still seems disingenuous, it is airpower—specifically, the importance of air superiority and battlefield air support. PLA literature and textbooks continue to cite the PLAAF’s alleged “deterrent capability” as the primary reason the Vietnamese Air Force did not become more directly involved in the conflict. Marshal Ye Jianying even ridiculously commented that China’s show-of-force air operations in the war against Vietnam were an “ingenious way of employing the air force.” Such a remark demonstrates that China’s military leadership continues to fail to appreciate the critical and complex role of airpower in modern warfare.

While significant differences exist between the Western and Chinese perspectives on the 1979 conflict, the two are nevertheless consistent in some aspects of their review of how Chinese leaders approached matters of war and strategy. First, Chinese leaders were deliberative and calculating about when and how military power was to be used but did not hesitate to go to war once they decided that China’s national interests were at stake. Second, the PLA demonstrated a preference for seizing and maintaining operational initiatives by deploying superior and more powerful forces. Third, the Chinese sense of military victory lay more in their evaluation of the geopolitical outcomes than in their judgment of operational performance on the battlefield. Fourth, political work remains a unique PLA approach to ensure the effectiveness of its forces on the battlefield. This distinct set of Chinese characteristics deserves further scholarly attention and should be considered in any study of Chinese military doctrine, policy, and capabilities.

The war was designed not to pose a substantial threat to Hanoi but merely to erode Hanoi’s will to occupy Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge hoped that the PLA could strike deeply into Vietnamese territory, but China’s invasion was short and limited to the border area. Nonetheless, China’s “symbolic” attack helped the Khmer Rouge escape total annihilation and enabled them to sustain their resistance against the Vietnamese occupation forces. Was the punitive nature of the war a true objective, or was it just rhetoric and a reflection of Beijing’s anger toward Hanoi and the invasion of Cambodia? If teaching a lesson was China’s main objective, the PLA should have struck hard to achieve significant military results. But speaking to Japanese journalists in the middle of the war, Deng asserted that he did not “need military achievements.” He later explained, “Teaching Vietnam a lesson was not based on a consideration of what was happening between China and Vietnam or in Indochina but was based on a contemplation of the matter from the angle of Asia and the Pacific—in other words, from the high plane of global strategy.” His calculus was ultimately dominated by two priorities: improving China’s external security environment and reforming China’s economy and opening up the country.


Russian prisoners of war after the Battle of Tannenberg.

Eastern Front, 17–23 August 1914.

Movements of 23–26 August 1914. Red: Germans, blue: Russians

Movements of 27–30 August 1914.

The general staff had expected that Russia would be slow to mobilize, but the Tsar’s army defied these estimates by coming into action quite quickly against the German forces in East Prussia. There the 200,000 men of the German Eighth Army, commanded by 66-year-old Generaloberst Maximilian Wilhelm Gustav Moritz von Prittwitz und Gaffron, had been deployed to secure the eastern frontier while Germany’s main onslaught fell upon France in the west. Although the Russian army’s preparedness to conduct offensive operations was considerably less than that of the Germans, it nevertheless responded with alacrity to a French request to launch an offensive on the Eastern Front. Having moved two armies into East Prussia in mid-August, III Corps of Russian General Rennenkampf’s First Army struck the German I Corps at Stallüponen on 17 August.

Altogether the Russians fielded some 250 battalions against a German strength of about 144, although the German Eighth Army’s artillery was significantly stronger in terms of the ratio of supporting guns to battalions and of the amount of heavy artillery it had available. In addition, Russian command and control and support arrangements were generally archaic: for example, compasses were available, but few maps were issued, even at formation headquarters. Many Russian junior officers could not read maps in any case. Insufficient availability of telephone cable meant that many operational messages were necessarily sent by radio, but these were often transmitted ‘in clear’ (unencrypted) because the Russian signallers either had no codes or else the message recipients were incapable of decoding them. Meanwhile, little mechanical transport was available to the Russian army, and despite the updating action taken after Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1904 much of the army’s other supporting services and logistical arrangements were still primitive. In East Prussia in 1914 neither the Russian commander-in-chief, General Jilinsky, nor his two army commanders, General Rennenkampf (First Army) and General Samsonov (Second Army) displayed more than average competence as commanders, while at the same time the dislike of Rennenkampf and Samsonov for each other was well known. On the other hand, events on the German side would reveal shortly that the professional ability and judgement of the Eighth Army commander, Generaloberst von Prittwitz und Gaffron, also failed to measure up to that which was expected of an army commander.

In response to the Russian attack, von Prittwitz und Gaffron ordered I Corps, commanded by General der Infanterie Hermann von François, to withdraw his corps to Gumbinnen. But von François refused to do this and instead attacked the Russians, taking some 3,000 prisoners before at last being forced to fall back to Gumbinnen, albeit with the loss of seven guns. Meanwhile, General der Kavallerie (later Generalfeldmarschall) Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen’s XVII Corps43 and Generalleutnant (later General der Infanterie) Otto von Below’s I Reserve Corps moved to reinforce von François, arriving at Gumbinnen at about midday on 20 August. Gumbinnen was then the scene of the next clash, where von François attacked the Russian flank that morning and took a further 5,000 prisoners. Von Mackensen’s XVII Corps was, however, less fortunate. It arrived at Gumbinnen ahead of von Below’s corps and was immediately committed to the battle, where a local Russian advantage in artillery first halted the German advance and then broke the newly arrived corps. There followed the rare sight of an entire German corps rendered non-effective, one division actually breaking and fleeing the battlefield, with many of its soldiers retreating as far as fifteen miles before their flight was finally halted. Although they had lost about 19,000 men, Gumbinnen was a victory for Rennenkampf’s First Army, but it had been achieved in relative isolation, as General Jilinsky lacked both the aptitude and the essential command and control facilities to coordinate the actions of his two armies successfully and thus exploit the Russian success.

In the belief that his rival’s success at Gumbinnen heralded an imminent German collapse, and determined to gain his own victory, General Samsonov advanced his Second Army to the south of the Masurian lakes. Although these sizeable lakes now effectively divided the two Russian armies from each other such that the Second Army could no longer be supported by the First, von Prittwitz und Gaffron assessed that the Russian advance was so strong that the whole of the Eighth Army should now withdraw west of the River Vistula. At 19.00 hours on 20 August he issued the necessary warning order and notified by telephone chief of the general staff Generaloberst Helmuth von Moltke at army supreme headquarters in Koblenz of his intentions. In practice, this decision was somewhat premature, for within 24 hours two of the principal staff officers in Eighth Army headquarters had persuaded von Prittwitz und Gaffron that offensive action rather than a withdrawal was both necessary and feasible. Accordingly the army commander rescinded his earlier order for a retreat to the Vistula, thus stabilizing the operational situation and establishing the foundation from which a major German success would shortly be launched.

But for Generaloberst von Prittwitz und Gaffron it was all too late. His initial call to Koblenz had provoked horror within a high command and general staff that could not countenance either the abandonment of German territory or an apparently blatant disregard of von Moltke’s direction for the Eighth Army to counter the Russian advance by offensive rather than defensive action. Since that fateful telephone call, von Moltke had solicited reports from a number of general staff officers in key posts within the various units, formations and headquarters of the Eighth Army, and from these he had ascertained that the situation was by no means as precarious as that portrayed by von Prittwitz und Gaffron. As a result, and irrespective of the Eighth Army commander’s subsequent change of orders on 21 August, von Moltke decided to replace him forthwith.44 This decision, and von Moltke’s choice of a new commander for the Eighth Army, would have important and far-reaching consequences both for the army and, in due course, for Germany.

The officer now selected by von Moltke to take over command of the Eighth Army was 66-year-old General der Infanterie (later Generalfeldmarschall) Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und Hindenburg, whose chief of staff at the Eighth Army would be Generalmajor Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff, an officer who had already gained a formidable reputation on the Western Front during the siege of Liège, where he had served as deputy chief of staff of the Second Army. Paul von Hindenburg was born on 2 October 1847 and, having gained a commission in the 3rd (Prussian) Regiment of Foot Guards (3. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß), served as a junior officer during the wars against Denmark, Austria and France in the period to 1871. Consistently regarded as a very capable general staff officer, as well as a pragmatic and strong leader, he rose to command an army corps as a Generalleutnant, eventually retiring from active service in 1911. He had achieved command of an army corps despite his well-known preference for service with troops rather than in staff appointments, a preference that rarely resulted in rapid advancement in the peacetime army but which earned him the loyalty and respect of those he commanded. During the later years of his service, von Hindenburg had been considered as a possible contender both for the post of chief of the general staff and for that of Prussian minister of war, but this did not happen. When he retired as a corps commander in 1911 his last first-hand experience of a major conflict had been as an infantry junior officer in 1871, so that when von Hindenburg was recalled to serve his country as commander of the Eighth Army in late August 1914, almost half a century had passed since he had been at war. Nevertheless, the formidable combination of army officer training, the general staff system and a rigorous process of selection for high command – together with the inherent ability and personal qualities von Hindenburg brought to his new assignment – ensured that the right man had been found to produce a German victory in East Prussia. In addition, this was an area that von Hindenburg already knew well, not only due to the number of manoeuvres and general staff training exercises staged there but also because he had been born in Posen (modern Pozna in Poland) in East Prussia.

Dressed in his old 1911-era uniform, von Hindenburg was met by his new chief of staff at the main railway station in Hannover on 23 August, from where they would travel on together to Eighth Army headquarters. Generalmajor (later General der Infanterie) Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff45 was a very different man from von Hindenburg, but the personalities of the two generals complemented each other very well. Born in 1865 and in due course commissioned into the infantry, Ludendorff had no direct experience of combat or of a major conflict prior to 1914. Unlike von Hindenburg, however, he readily accepted that a career in the general staff was the route to speedy professional advancement, and having achieved membership of the staff he quickly demonstrated his aptitude, intellect and professional abilities. Despite his undoubted professional competence, he also acquired a reputation as an ambitious, mercurial, violent and abrasive officer who carried these less-positive traits into his approach to the organization and conduct of warfare. His vision of modern conflict was one of ‘total war’, waged to the uttermost extent of the resources of the nation, with little thought for matters of morality or principle if these should prejudice the army’s operations. From 1904 to 1913 Ludendorff had worked in the operations and mobilization department of the general staff, rising within it to head that department from 1908 until 1913. In that capacity he had been very directly involved in the several measures proposed to increase the size of the army in the pre-war years and had suffered the frustration of seeing the increases essential to the success of the Schlieffen Plan refused by the government in 1912 and 1913. Indeed, he had also been an important contributor to von Moltke’s operational review and modification of various aspects of the Schlieffen plan, having worked closely with him in the years prior to the outbreak of war. So it was, at Hannover Hauptbahnhof (the city’s main railway station) on 23 August 1914, that the leadership duo that would just a year later assume total command of the German army for the remainder of the war, was formed. The two officers’ onward journey to the Eighth Army headquarters at Marienburg (now Malbork) on the Vistula took them north and east from Hannover, and they arrived there later that day. En route they developed their own strategy to deal with the Russians, and on 25 August von Hindenburg signed off the operation order that committed the Eighth Army to what would become known as the Battle of Tannenberg, a defining moment not only of the fighting on the Eastern Front but also of the wider war. On 26 August von Hindenburg was promoted Generaloberst.

In fact, the operations staff at the headquarters of the Eighth Army had already produced a design for battle which virtually mirrored that devised by von Hindenburg and Ludendorff on 23/4 August. There, the chief of operations, Generalmajor Grünert, but more particularly his deputy, Oberstleutnant Max Hoffman, had also identified the disjointed command and control arrangements between the two Russian armies and the very different operational approaches of Rennenkampf and Samsonov. They assessed that this offered the Eighth Army an excellent opportunity to isolate and destroy the two Russian armies separately by conducting a holding action against one Russian army while concentrating and employing the maximum force against the other. In addition, the physical barrier provided by the Masurian lakes further exacerbated what was already the virtually non-existent coordination between the two Russian armies.

Given Samsonov’s over-optimism and recklessness – even now he was pushing his Second Army onwards at best speed in order to attack the German right, with his exhausted infantry regiments marching up to twenty kilometres a day – and Rennenkampf’s caution, the Germans judged that Samsonov clearly posed the greater threat. A captured Russian map showing the First Army’s operational plan, together with the steady flow of intelligence gleaned from German intercepts of Russian radio traffic (all still sent in clear), tended to confirm this assessment. However, if the Germans had miscalculated and Rennenkampf should break through on the northern flank, which was held by a predominantly cavalry force of just one division necessarily deployed on a frontage that exceeded thirty kilometres, then the Eighth Army risked an overwhelming attack into its rear area while its main combat units were still dealing with Samsonov to the south. In any event, the meeting of minds between the new commander and his chief of staff and the in-place operations staff of the Eighth Army meant that the army’s new offensive could be launched in fairly short order.46

As ever, the railway played a crucial part in moving major elements of the German corps speedily and largely undetected to concentrate against the Russian Second Army to the south. The German I Corps was still de-training to the west of Tannenberg on 25 August following its move south-west from Gumbinnen when Ludendorff, concerned by the threat posed by Rennenkampf, ordered its commander, General der Infanterie Hermann von François, to attack Samsonov’s Second Army forthwith. This was despite the fact that none of the I Corps’ heavy artillery was by then available and that neither I Reserve Corps nor XVII Corps would be able to support such an attack as both corps were still moving south by road to join the battle against Samsonov. At first von François refused to launch such an ill-judged venture, but he was then visited by von Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffman. The outcome of the ensuing discussion was a statement by von François that, if the attack order were indeed to be confirmed, he would only agree to carry it out on the understanding that the resulting action would unavoidably have to be carried out by the infantry alone! Hoffman, who was undoubtedly more in tune with the Russian deployment and activities than Ludendorff, supported von François’ decision but did not declare this to the new chief of staff. Fortuitously, however, just then intelligence was received that Rennenkampf’s progress was sufficiently slow for his army to be unable to threaten the Eighth Army’s rear. At the same time, Samsonov had ordered a pursuit of what he had mistakenly assessed to be a still-demoralized and routed German XX Corps commanded by General der Artillerie Friedrich von Scholtz.

As a result, the original assessment of the Russian intentions made by Hoffman and Grünert was validated. Von François was no longer required to carry out his premature attack, while Samsonov’s Second Army was drawn even more deeply into the German trap. Battle was finally joined when Samsonov launched his own attack at dawn on 27 August, advancing north-westwards on a general line from Allenstein to Osterode. At that stage the two corps commanded by von Below (I Reserve Corps) and by von Mackensen (XVII Corps), which had deployed to the north and south of Tannenberg, fell upon the Russian right. By that evening the Russian advance had been halted, with many casualties sustained. Samsonov, however, was relatively undisturbed by this turn of events and still anticipated the imminent arrival of the First Army from the north. In the meantime, early that morning von François’ I Corps – now with its full complement of heavy artillery available – had begun a seven-hour bombardment of the Russian left, accompanied by a series of attacks that virtually annihilated the Russian corps on the Second Army’s left wing. Samsonov threw five more divisions into the battle, but they failed to break through the German forces that had by then almost encircled him. By nightfall on the 27th the Russian army group commander, Jilinsky, was at last becoming aware of the disastrous situation concerning his Second Army and ordered Rennenkamp to hasten his attack from the north.

On 28 August the fighting continued, and the German encirclement of the Second Army was completed when von François again disobeyed an order from Ludendorff, which on this occasion required him to move to assist von Scholtz’s XX Corps. Fortunately, XX Corps did not need this assistance, and by driving instead upon Neidenburg (now Nidzica), von François’ I Corps effectively cut off the Russians’ potential escape route to the south. Although the remnants of the ensnared Second Army fought on bravely and enjoyed some local successes, including the temporary recapture of Neidenburg, the end was not in doubt. Late on the night of 29 August Samsonov walked alone into the dense fir woods, took out his pistol and shot himself. The last units of his decimated army dug in and continued fighting until the morning of 31 August, when they surrendered. By then the last of the Second Army’s ammunition was gone, and there was no hope of resupply or relief. In the defeat of the Second Army 50,000 Russians had been killed or wounded, with 92,000 prisoners taken by 31 August – the ‘day of harvesting’ as von Hindenburg termed it – together with some 500 guns.

Of the great haul of prisoners taken, no fewer than 60,000 were directly attributable to the actions of von François, who had yet again modified Ludendorff’s orders for his I Corps at the end of the main battle, thus ensuring that the remaining Russian troops could not infiltrate away to the south and east. Although his intuitive command of I Corps had been most effective in accordance with the concept of Auftragstaktik, and he was a key contributor to the German victory against the Second Army, von François had not endeared himself to Ludendorff during the Battle of Tannenberg. Consequently, despite his clear professional ability and suitability for advancement and high command, von François was destined to remain a corps commander throughout the war.

Meanwhile, now fully aware of Samsonov’s fate, Rennenkampf withdrew his First Army, only to find himself being pursued by German forces now reinforced by an additional two corps from the Western Front. During the ensuing Battle of the Masurian lakes, fought between 5 and 15 September, von Hindenburg’s forces finally crippled Rennenkampf’s army, which lost more than 125,000 men including 30,000 as prisoners, together with 200 guns. However, the defeat of the Russian First Army was not as decisive as that of the Second Army: Rennenkampf managed to disengage and withdraw part of his command successfully, often marching his men more than thirty kilometres a day on congested roads in blistering heat. The end of this follow-on battle by the Masurian lakes marked the conclusion of the Battle of Tannenberg, a German victory that had great significance for the wider conflict, shaping its future course and that of European history, but particularly that of tsarist Russia.

Tannenberg also assured the future prominence and fortunes of von Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The former continued as commander-in-chief on the Eastern Front throughout 1915, achieving several further successes. By the end of that year von Hindenburg had become a household name within Germany and internationally, and when the Kaiser relieved General der Infanterie Erich Georg Sebastian von Falkenhayn of his post as chief of the general staff in August 1916 von Hindenburg assumed that appointment, becoming in practice Germany’s supreme warlord throughout the remaining years of the war.

Meanwhile, Ludendorff continued as von Hindenburg’s principal adviser, and so from August 1916 he exerted a very significant influence upon many aspects of an army that was by then engaged in a modern, industrialized war of attrition. He addressed the army’s doctrine, tactics, technology and organization with great energy, as well as the key policies and practicalities that affected the means of industrial production necessary to support such an army. Whereas von Hindenburg was unquestionably Germany’s military and national figurehead during those years, he lacked the sheer ability of his subordinate. Ludendorff’s was the intellect and the brain that drove the nature and spirit of the army and, arguably, that of the German nation in arms from 1916 to 1918, while von Hindenburg’s great skill was to recognize Ludendorff’s considerable, if sometimes erratic, attributes and his own limitations, simultaneously directing, supporting and focusing the former while not deluding himself over the latter. The enormous breadth of power and responsibility that was accorded to von Hindenburg and Ludendorff from 1916 made them true warlords of their time and exemplars of more than a century of Prussian and German military professionalism. For both of these senior officers their ultimate wartime achievements were the culmination of a process that began in East Prussia during August–September 1914 at Tannenberg and the Masurian lakes.

The First Domino

Viet Minh. Dien Bien Phu, 1954. Viet Minh soldiers attack a French position. By Steve Noon.

October 2013

By John T. Correll

The French outpost at Dien Bien Phu fell in 1954, 10 years before the United States was drawn into Vietnam.

For 56 days in 1954, the eyes of the world were fixed on Dien Bien Phu, a remote mountain outpost in Vietnam where 11 French army battalions were pinned down by some 50,000 Vietnamese insurgents.

The rebels were led by Vo Nguyen Giap, a former history teacher and self-taught general. Giap’s artillery, firing from the forward slopes of the hills, pounded the exposed encampment in the valley. At the cost of heavy losses in his own ranks, Giap rolled back the French perimeter with a series of human-wave ground attacks.

Airplanes could not land on the besieged airstrip. The only way in was by parachute. There was no way out.

It was the decisive battle in what began as an attempt by the French to re-establish their empire in Indochina after World War II. Before long, though, the conflict escalated to international significance, perceived as a critical step in the global march of communism.

Vietnam was regarded as a test of the “Domino Theory,” which predicted that if one nation in Southeast Asia fell to communism, the others would follow like a row of toppling dominoes. For the United States, that conviction trumped its long-held principle of opposition to colonialism. US aid for the French war in Indochina started in 1950 and by 1954 was funding 75 percent of the costs.

It was not enough. Without direct US military intervention, Dien Bien Phu was doomed. In March and April 1954, ideas and proposals of all sorts were flying back and forth.

Among them was Operation Vulture, a plan—cooked up by French and American functionaries in Saigon—for US B-29s to bomb the enemy positions at Dien Bien Phu. According to the French foreign minister, the United States also opened the possibility of using nuclear weapons. US officials denied it.

In any case, the United States did not intervene. When Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, it was the fatal blow for the French empire in Indochina. However, that did not end the entanglement of the United States which—still pursuing the Domino Theory—was drawn into its own war in Vietnam 10 years later.

Last Grasp for Empire

France’s prewar standing among the nations of the world had not been restored by the ouster in 1944 of the collaborationist Vichy regime. The Free French provisional government continued to struggle for influence in international affairs.

If France could reclaim its colonial empire, it might be able to regain some of the prestige it had lost. “A consensus existed around the proposition that France’s grandeur depended on the preservation of empire,” said historian Fredrik Logevall.

French Indochina—consisting of what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—remained loyal to Vichy during World War II, but the real power was the nominally allied Japanese occupation force. The most important part of Indochina was Vietnam, a French possession since 1887. The French army returned in 1945 to resume control but before it got there, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist Viet Minh, declared independence for all of Vietnam.

Attempts at negotiating with Ho came to nothing. Under pressure, the French offered “independence within the French Union,” which meant that France would retain the sovereignty as well as all the important aspects of government, including military and foreign affairs.

The war began in December 1946, spreading from Tonkin in the north to Annam in central Vietnam and Cochin China in the south. The National Liberation Army, commanded by Giap, was essentially a guerrilla force with only a few pieces of modern military equipment.

The French held the towns and the main roads; the Viet Minh owned the villages and the trails. Outside of the towns, the French concentrated their troops into fortified posts called “hedgehogs.” At night, the Viet Minh easily infiltrated the areas around them.

The French Expeditionary Force in Indochina consisted of professional soldiers, volunteers, and the scrapings of the empire: colonial regiments, the Foreign Legion, and local auxiliaries. They were supported by air force squadrons flying a handful of worn-out World War II airplanes. French draftees were expressly withheld from service in Indochina, assigned instead to the Metropolitan Army, which remained in Europe. After several years of no discernible progress, French public opinion began to tire of the war and begrudge the expense of it.

The End of Neutrality

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was doggedly opposed to colonialism. His successor, Harry Truman, took a more flexible position about the colonial empires of US allies and, until the late 1940s, followed a general policy of neutralism.

That changed with the eruption of communist challenges on multiple fronts, including the blockade of Berlin in 1948, the revolution in China, and the invasion of South Korea in 1950. Communist factions led the insurgencies against the colonial regimes in Malaya and Indochina.

The driving theme of US foreign policy was anti-communism. In 1949, the National Security Council recognized Southeast Asia as “the target for a coordinated offensive directed by the Kremlin,” and in NSC 124/2 in 1952 said that “the loss of any single country would probably lead to relatively swift submission to or an alignment with communism by the remaining countries of this group.”

By 1952, the United States had provided substantial financial assistance to the French as well as 229 aircraft and all sorts of other military equipment for use in Vietnam.

The Fourth Republic in France was notoriously unstable. When Prime Minister Joseph Laniel took office in 1953, it was the 19th French government formed over the previous seven years. Support for the effort in Indochina waxed and waned.

US determination to salvage Vietnam was more constant than that of the French themselves, but the motivation was different. The United States wanted France to agree to full independence as part of the strategy to defeat the communist challenge. This had no appeal for the French, whose reason for fighting was to preserve the empire.

“By the time I entered the Presidency, the French nation had become weary of war,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower said. From 1953 on, the Eisenhower Administration continued the basic previous approach but increased the aid to the French.

At a press conference in April 1954, Eisenhower declared the “Falling Domino Principle,” often remembered as the seminal US commitment to Indochina. “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.” His description was more graphic than Truman’s NSC 124/2, but the meaning was exactly the same.

Light in the Tunnel

The French military position in Vietnam had been slipping since 1950, but Gen. Henri E. Navarre, who arrived in May 1953 to command the French Expeditionary Force, sought to change the momentum by going on the offensive.

Navarre’s plan had several parts. He would employ his best forces in a more mobile role and seek to draw the Viet Minh into an open battle. He hoped to do this somewhere in Giap’s stronghold in northwestern Tonkin, where he also figured to cut off the Viet Minh invasion route into Laos.

An international conference on restoring peace in Indochina had been organized by the major world powers with French concurrence. It was scheduled to begin in Geneva in May 1954, and a victory by Navarre in Vietnam could strengthen the French hand in the negotiating.

Confident of success, one of Navarre’s aides told Time magazine, “Now we can see it clearly—like light at the end of the tunnel.” Years later, that famous phrase would be mistakenly attributed to US Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who never said it.

The place Navarre chose to make his stand was identified on French maps as Dien Bien Phu, close to the Laos border but 185 miles from the French Tonkin theater headquarters in Hanoi. The name meant “big frontier administrative center,” referring to a post established by the French in 1889 at the obscure village of Muong Thanh.

Dien Bien Phu lay in a valley, 11 miles long and seven miles wide, surrounded by mountains. Colonial Route 41 cut through the center, alongside a narrow river and numerous small hamlets. There was also an airstrip, built in 1939.

Fundamentally, the French did not believe that colonial insurgents could defeat a modern European army and in their arrogance made several fatal miscalculations. They assumed that Giap would be unable to transport and sustain a large force in a remote location, and in particular that he would not be able to move in artillery. French airpower would interdict the approach routes. If Giap somehow managed to bring his cannons into action, they could be silenced in minutes by counterbattery fire.

In Operation Castor, Nov. 20, 1953, three airborne battalions parachuted into Dien Bien Phu and captured it from the Viet Minh defensive force. The French repaired and reopened the runway, which had been sabotaged. There was not much timber in the valley, so they tore down every house and shed in the villages for construction materials to build fortifications.

It did not amount to much protection, but the French did not believe they needed much. They placed their own artillery in open pits so it would be free to swing around unobstructed and fire in any direction. Col. Charles Piroth, the French artillery commander, assured Navarre that “no Viet cannon will be able to fire three rounds before being destroyed by my artillery.”

Airhead Under Attack

The commander at Dien Bien Phu, Col. Christian de Castries, established his headquarters near the airstrip, where the village of Muong Thanh had stood. The encampment consisted of nine strong points named Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine, Dominique, Elaine, Francoise, Gabrielle, Hugette, and Isabelle. Gabrielle on the northern point was more than five miles from Isabelle in the south, where a small secondary airstrip was built.

The outpost was an airhead, totally sustained by airlift. The French air force had four squadrons of C-47s and a few C-119s in country, a resource that had to support operations elsewhere in Vietnam as well.

By January, the French presence at Dien Bien Phu had grown to about 11,000 troops. Most of the air support came from bases around Hanoi and Haiphong, but there were usually a few Bearcat fighters at Dien Bien Phu as well as half a dozen Morane Criquet light spotter airplanes to find and mark enemy artillery positions.

The French would have been astounded had they known the size of Giap’s force in the hills around Dien Bien Phu. He had five army divisions—50,000 regular troops—no longer the rag-tag guerillas of days gone by. He also had 144 artillery pieces, 36 antiaircraft guns, and some rocket launchers. Many of the guns were of American manufacture, captured by the Chinese in Korea. All told, Giap had an advantage of four-to-one over the French in artillery.

Giap sustained his force in several ways. Modified bicycles—with wooden struts for extra strength and extensions on the handlebars—could haul up to 440 pounds of supplies. Porters carried additional loads on bamboo poles. The Viet Minh had about 600 Russian trucks, which they used to carry the artillery from the Chinese border over roads kept open by manual labor. Historian John Prados estimates that Giap transported as much tonnage into Dien Bien Phu as the French did.

Incredibly, the French did not see that Giap was emplacing his guns on the forward slopes of the hills, looking directly down on the camp. The peaks were steep, and howitzers on the reverse slopes would have had to fire at unfavorable angles of elevation to clear the ridges. The guns would have been vulnerable on the forward slopes except that Giap placed them in deep casemates, narrow embrasures dug into the face of the hill, protected by several yards of overhead cover with only the muzzles protruding. Since each gun was assigned to a single target, there was no need for the barrel to move.

When Giap began sporadic bombardment in January, the French took it to be pointless harassment. In fact, the guns were sighting in on their specific coordinates. The main attack, which began at twilight on March 13, was devastating. The French batteries were unable to target Giap’s guns and their artillery spotter airplanes were destroyed on the airstrip.

Strongpoints Beatrice and Gabrielle were overrun the first night and Anne-Marie was taken soon thereafter. By the fifth day, the French had lost the equivalent of three battalions. Giap’s casualties were even greater, but he was now able to strike the encampment with mortars and artillery.

French artillery chief Piroth, who had guaranteed that the Viet Minh guns would do no harm, committed suicide.

The Question of Intervention

As the situation deteriorated, the clamor increased for the United States to enter the conflict. Eisenhower effectively ruled out sending ground troops but left the possibility of airpower slightly open. He listed four firm conditions for US intervention: a formal request for intervention; sanction of the response by the United Nations; participation by other nations; and approval from Congress.

Meanwhile, staff officers and bureaucrats were busily conducting studies and putting together contingency plans. At Navarre’s headquarters in Saigon, French and American officers conceived of Operation Vautour (Vulture), in which US B-29 bombers and carrier-based aircraft would attack the insurgents around Dien Bien Phu.

In early April, the French government requested that Operation Vulture be carried out, believing that it had already been approved in Washington. They had gotten that impression, apparently, from enthusiastic discussions between Adm. Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Paul H. R. Ely, the French chief of staff.

The previous month, Radford had sought concurrence from the other members of the Joint Chiefs on a recommendation to commit US airpower at Dien Bien Phu and had been rebuffed. The State Department told the French they must have misunderstood Radford and said no on Operation Vulture.

A further misunderstanding, this one about nuclear weapons, also arose from a freewheeling idea by staff planners. In early 1954, the Joint Advanced Study Committee in the Pentagon reached the strange conclusion that the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu could be defeated with three atomic weapons. It is unknown how the committee figured to do this without also wiping out the nearby French forces.

For reasons yet unclear, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—the strongest advocate in Eisenhower’s Cabinet of US military aid to the French—discussed the Pentagon study with French Foreign Minister Georges A. Bidault, a leading advocate of victory in Indochina. Bidault later said that Dulles offered him the use of two (not three) atomic bombs, but that he had declined.

Dulles said he was “totally mystified” by Bidault’s claim.

The United States loaned the French some additional C-119s and other aircraft and assigned almost 300 US Air Force personnel to Vietnam to provide maintenance and support. The French had few aircrews qualified on C-119s, so they contracted with Civil Air Transport—a CIA proprietary airline that would later be renamed Air America—to fly the C-119s on the Dien Bien Phu run.

French bombers did little damage to Giap’s fortified artillery positions and the fighters seldom caught his infantry in the open during daylight hours. Napalm, employed by C-47s and C-119s, was somewhat more effective, mostly because of the fear it created. From beginning to end, Giap had the initiative.

The last airplane landed March 8, after which the Viet Minh guns prevented any further use of the airstrip. Dien Bien Phu was totally dependent on airdrop for reinforcements and supplies.

The airlifters, coming straight down the valley, were starkly vulnerable. To escape the flak, the French C-47s flew at 10,000 feet and the C-119s, almost all of them crewed by Americans, flew at 5,000 feet. The airdrops, especially from the higher altitudes, often went wide. More than half of the airdropped food, ammunition, and other supplies fell into enemy hands.

Aircraft, both French and American, took hundreds of hits. In April alone, C-119s flown by CAT pilots were hit more than 60 times.

The first Americans to die in combat were CAT pilot James B. McGovern—a big man with a bushy beard, nicknamed “Earthquake McGoon” for his resemblance to a character in the comic strips—and his copilot Wallace A. Buford. On the afternoon of May 6, they came down the valley at 3,000 feet with six tons of ammunition for strongpoint Isabelle. Hit by ground fire over the target, McGovern, Buford, and their two French crewmen made it across the Laos border before the C-119 crashed and exploded.

The Fall of Dien Bien Phu

The last reinforcements parachuted into Dien Bien Phu on May 4, three days before the end. The final French position was no larger than a baseball field when the Viet Minh overran it on May 7.

The French lost 2,080 killed and 5,613 wounded in the eight-week engagement. Viet Minh casualties were much higher, estimated at 7,900 killed and 15,000 wounded.

Of the 6,500 French troops taken prisoner, more than 4,000 died or disappeared in captivity, the result of mistreatment, disease, poor food, and lack of medical care. Of the 15,000 French Union troops who served at Dien Bien Phu, “no more than four out of every 10 ever went home, wounded or unwounded,” said historian Martin C. Windrow.

The French still held numerical military superiority in Vietnam, but Dien Bien Phu had taken the starch out of them. The Geneva Accords on July 21, 1954, partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh got the north. The south remained briefly in the French Union until President Ngo Dinh Diem declared independence. The last French forces left Indochina in April 1956.

The Viet Minh bided their time until 1959 when they moved to consolidate Vietnam, creating what would become the Ho Chi Minh Trail as an infiltration route to the south. The long effort to overthrow the government in Saigon was relentless.

US President John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, subscribed fully to the Domino Theory, as did his advisors and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. US entry into Vietnam began with civilian advisors and trainers and evolved to major combat before the departure, called “peace with honor,” in 1973. South Vietnam finally fell to the North in 1975.

Laos and Cambodia were taken over by the communists, but the falling dominoes stopped there. Next door Thailand kept its independence as well as an alliance with the United States.

In 2005, the French ambassador to the United States presented the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award for service, to the seven surviving CAT pilots who flew missions to Dien Bien Phu.

The scars of battle are gone from Dien Bien Phu, which has been the capital of Lai Chau province since 1993. The mountain valley, now with a population of 60,000, is a destination for both Vietnamese and French tourists. Rusting French cannons are still scattered about, and there is a small museum. The displays include relics from both sides, including one of the bicycles modified to carry 440 pounds of cargo to the Vietnamese forces in the hills.

What Ike (May Have) Said

Disagreements linger, almost 60 years later, about what the Americans and the French said to each other about the possibility that US forces might enter the conflict in Indochina. The most contentious question of all is how seriously the use of nuclear weapons was considered.

The definitive word on US policy was long presumed to be a statement by President Eisenhower. When the thought of using atomic bombs in Vietnam was brought forward, he supposedly said, “You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than 10 years. My God!

All references to that statement track back to a sole source, Eisenhower the President, published in 1984 by popular hstorian Stephen E. Ambrose, who attributed it to an interview with Eisenhower.

Problems set in when the Eisenhower Library at Abilene, Kan., discovered in 2010 that Ambrose had exaggerated his contact with Eisenhower, and that many of the interviews he reported had not in fact happened.

Before his death in 2002, Ambrose admitted to shoddy methods in other works, but none of that compared in importance to the issue of the Eisenhower interviews. The library’s revelations did not specifically invalidate the statement about the atomic bomb. Some of the interviews were real, and some of the attributions were surely valid.

Among those willing to give Ambrose the benefit of the doubt on this one is Jean Edward Smith, a well-established historian whose Eisenhower in War and Peace was published in 2012. To him, the atomic bomb quotation “rings true,” he says.

Heavy Artillery of WWI

To the sentry standing his pre-dawn duty in the trenches of the Western Front, the sight of a jagged line of light on the opposite horizon cannot have been comforting, for behind such a line lay the fire of the largest concentration of artillery pieces in history. World War I was an artillery war and, while large numbers of field guns were involved in. all the major battles of that conflict. It was the heavy artillery that ultimately won or lost battles. It was only the heavy artillery that had the shell power to destroy the earth or concrete protection upon which each side. came to rely for survival in the front line, and it was only the heavy artillery that could smash a way through the lines of defences behind which each side sheltered. By 1914 most European powers had built up large gun parks that contained artillery of increasingly heavy calibres and power. These were necessary to demolish the rings of fortifications that all the major powers used to protect their territories against the intrusions of others, but once those fortresses had been bypassed by the events of the first year of the war the same heavy artillery was equally useful in the strange conditions of the Western Front, where trench lines imposed their own peculiar method of warfare.

The Great War was the heyday of heavy artillery. in the purely static conditions that existed along the Western Front the heavy guns and howitzers could be carefully emplaced with few thoughts of dramatic or rapid moves, and they could be fed with their heavy projectiles for as long as the required logistic machinery remained in being. They had plenty of targets as each side burrowed deep into the earth to survive the storm that daily flew over their heads. The only way to harm such burrows was by the use of heavy projectiles that could smash their way through such protection as there was, and these heavy projectiles could only be delivered by the heavy artillery.

ln an age in which mass-produced mechanical transport devices are common-place, it comes as something of a surprise to realize how scarce such devices were during the early days of this century. Before World War I a great deal of power was generated by the simple application of manual labour assisted at times by the power of the horse, and this has to be remembered in the context of heavy artillery. At that time mechanical traction and powered lifting devices were unusual. So when it came to moving and handling heavy artillery there was often little more than brute force available.

Throughout the centuries gunners have learned to handle even the heaviest of their charges using only what is to hand. This has always involved a complicated system of timbers, joists, pulleys, levers and hard work, and while this can on its own move even the heaviest field gun and its carriage, such methods can have only a limited utility in the movement of large-calibre weapons. Fortunately the monsters in service during World War I had generally been designed at a time when metallurgy and mechanics were beginning to reach an advanced state, so designers were often able to build into these weapons some form of handling system that required only a minimum of physical effort and also offered a greater degree of safety to all concerned. The various systems usually involved built-in rails and ln; inches that enabled a howitzer or gun barrel to be removed or withdrawn on to its transport carriage without the need for special jigs and overhead structures. Some heavy artillery had inbuilt cranes for the same purpose, while some designers simply decided that the best way to assemble and disassemble guns was by suppling a mobile crane that was issued as part of the weapon’s standard equipment.

So by the time of World War I the emplacement of a heavy artillery piece was often not quite the problem it might have been, but usually there was still a great deal of work to be done. Pits had to be dug to accommodate the heavy firing platform needed by most weapons of the period, and in some cases earthboxes had to be filled to counteract the forces produced on firing. Heavy sub-assemblies still had to be manhandled on occasion, and this necessity often led to the allocation of only the largest men to heavy artillery units.

Putting the weapons [together or taking them apart was only one aspect of the labour involved in moving heavy artillery. Once the weapon had been broken down into a number of loads, each load had somehow to be pulled to where it was required. Before World War I this usually involved the horse or other draught animal, but the largest weapons required so many teams of horses that any real efficiency was impossible. Some of the less advanced nations had to rely on the horse, but the more advanced nations came to rely upon powered traction in the form of the internal combustion-engined tractor, the steam traction engine and even railways.

Traction engines were very often normal commercial models impressed into military service, and they rarely required any modifications for their new role. With the motor tractors things were different, however. The motor vehicle was still a relatively simple vehicle, and very often the power generated by the engines was relatively low. The only way to gain the power required tow heavy artillery was by the enlargement of engines to massive proportions.  This in turn led to large and heavy wheels to carry the engines and transmit power, with the result that the specialist artillery tractors of World War I resembled nothing more than huge bonnets carried on large wheels. ln such examples the drive appeared to be a mere appendage to the vehicle. Typical these monsters were the many designs produced in Austria and Germany, such as the Austro-Daimlers and their ilk.  

But it should not be forgotten that all too often the motor tractor and traction engine could not be used for the simple reason that even under war production conditions there were rarely enough to meet all the demands made upon the numbers available. All too often the gunners had to rely on the horse for their traction purposes, and if horses were not available they had to call upon such beasts as draught oxen or even camels. The difficulties involved in using  huge teams of such animals to tow heavy and awkward artillery loads across the shattered terrain of World War I battlefields can barely be imagined, but for the gunners who had to carry out such tasks we can now only offer our admiration.

French self-propelled heavy guns

Based on a large chassis developed by Schneider, the M 280 sur chenilles carried a derivative of the mle I 4/I6 Schneider howitzer. Few of these 280-mm models were produced.

The Canon de 194 mle GPF used the same chassis as the 280-mm model. While elevation was limited, the vastly increased mobility was more than adequate compensation. The driver of the carriage sat at the front of the equipment, with the working area and rearward-facing ordnance behind him. The petrol engine was at the rear of the carriage, below the elevating gear.

The Canon de 194 mle GPF (Grand Puissance Filloux – High-Power Filloux) – was the first French tracked self-propelled gun (SPG). Designed at the end of World War I, it was a pioneering weapon with many modern features.

The vehicle was designed in Schneider’s Le Creusot works. It was originally planned to arm it with a 155 mm gun but a weapon of 194 mm was eventually chosen. A few examples of this SPG were armed with a modified 280 mm siege mortar, this version was known as the M 280 sur chenilles (literally – “tracked M 280”). Both weapons used the same chassis and were powered by a 120 horsepower (89 kW) Panhard SUK4 M2 engine. Compared to its contemporary British SPG, the Gun Carrier Mark I, the Canon de 194 was much more advanced; it was driven by only one person, had hydraulic brakes and the gun had automatically adjusting recoil mechanisms and pneumatic recuperators.

These two weapons shared a common carriage driven by a petrol engine installed at the rear of the chassis. The driver sat at the extreme front with the barrel cradle almost immediately behind him. A small crane was provided to raise ammunition to the level of the crew platform behind the breech. The design had one drawback, the installation so arranged that ordnance elevation was somewhat limited (preventing the full range of the piece from being reached), but the mobility that the carriage provided more than made up for this. Later models were redesigmed to achieve increased elevations.

Not many of the 280-mm (11.02-in) models appear to have been made, Production was apparently concentrated on the 194-mm (7.64-in) model, but even so the main problem during the latter part of World War I was that there were never enough of them, Despite their bulk and weight they were able to cross terrain that no equivalent towed weapon could negotiate without difficulty, and the gun itself had a good range and a useful projectile weight.

After the Great War all M 280 models were converted to take the 194 mm gun. Around 50 were still in use at the outbreak of World War II, some were used against the invading German forces. Surviving vehicles were pressed into Wehrmacht service as the 19.4cm Kanone 485 (f) auf Selbstfahrlafette. At least 3 of them were used by the Germans in Russia in about 1942, serving in the 84th Regiment of Heer Artillery.

For its day the French self-propelled carriage was a remarkable achievement. It now seems safe to say that it was the first true self-propelled artillery platform to be used operationally in any numbers, and it certainly had many features that were carried over to later designs. Apart from the caterpillar tracks these carriages had automatically-adjusting recoil mechanisms to suit all angles of elevation, hydraulic brakes and pneumatic recuperators.

Specification Canonde 194mleGPF

Calibre: 194 mm(7.64 in)

Lengrth of barrel 6,50 m (2i ft 3,9 in)

Weight: in action 29600 kq (65,257 lb)

Elevation: 0* to 37* Traverse: 55*

Muzzle velocity: 725 m (2,379 ft) per second

Maximum range: 20900 m (22,855 yards)

Shell weight: 78.83 kg (173.8 Ib)

LINK [Russian]

Alexander II (1855-1881)

Emperor Alexander II and his wife, Empress Maria, with their son, the future Alexander III by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky 1870

Alexander II, who would one day be known as Alexander the Liberator, was crowned on August 17, 1856. He ascended the throne on the eve of Russia’s defeat in a hastily prosecuted war in Crimea; his first task as the new emperor was to get them out of it. Turning to France, he offered to negotiate a peace; the French demanded that Russia withdraw its ships from the Black Sea. It was the greatest loss the Romanov dynasty had ever known, but Alexander absorbed the blow to his pride. His attention was soon taken up with a more consuming project.

The glory of Alexander II’s reign was the freeing of the serfs. Since the days of tsar Alexei, serfs had been no better off than slaves. Nobles could not kill their serfs outright, but they could punish them so severely that death was the inevitable consequence. Serfs could not leave the estates where they were born, nor could they marry or own property. Serfs were themselves property. An emperor who wished to reward one of his nobles would dispense that reward in the form of rubles and “souls”—that is, human beings, serfs. Ninety percent of the Russian population were serfs, and serfs composed almost all of the army. Every emperor since Catherine the Great had looked for a way to free the serfs without destroying the Russian economy or sparking mass riots in the process, and all had abandoned the project while it was incomplete. But Nicholas I had made Alexander promise to do it on his deathbed—a strong motivation for success. The dying emperor had also extracted a promise from Elena Pavlovna, wife of Nicholas’s brother Michael, nicknamed “the Family Intellectual”, to help Alexander figure out how to do it. The new emperor would need all of her help.

He began on March 30, 1856, when, after informing the upper classes of Moscow that he intended to end serfdom, he instituted the Secret Committee on Peasant Reform. The chief difficulty was the entrenched resistance of the nobility, who were unwilling to relinquish their right to hold the same sway over other human beings that the tsar held over them. The next greatest difficulty centered around land. It was not enough to declare that serfs were free; they must have somewhere to live and a means of making a living. In 1858, Alexander and his empress made a tour of the countryside, visiting nobles who lived at a distance from Moscow and chastising them for not falling into line quickly enough. By 1861, the work was done. Alexander signed his decree in the presence of his brother, the liberal intellectual and reformer Konstantin (called Kostia), and his son and heir Nicholas (Nixa). No one knew what to expect; revolution was a possibility. Cannon were lined up outside the Winter Palace, just in case. But no uprising came. With the stroke of a pen, Alexander II had given to twenty-two million of his people the right to marry, to buy and own property, to leave the estate they were born on, to seek education. They still cultivated the land, but they could no longer be bought and sold. All the souls of Russia were now free.

Reform was the theme of Alexander II’s reign, along with the hope that reform engenders in a rigidly traditional society. Under Alexander I and Nicholas I, any hint of liberalism had been rigidly repressed, for fear that the anti-monarchial spirit that enflamed France during the revolution would spread to Moscow and St. Petersburg and undermine the war effort. Now that the tsar was establishing an independent judiciary and creating representative assemblies at the local government level (a greater degree of agency than any tsar had ever given to the Russian people) a spirit of rebellion was brewing in the so-called Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was composed of modern-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, parts of Ukraine, and western Russia. Alexander responded to this rebellion by sending his younger brother Kostia to be viceroy of Poland. A full-scale revolt, known as the January Uprising, broke out when Kostia began conscripting Polish boys into the Russian army. It was quickly suppressed, but Alexander’s ministers began to blame the tsar’s moderate tendencies for allowing civil unrest to breed. Under Nicholas I, poets, novelists, playwrights, university students and faculty, and other artists and intellectuals had been subject to strict government censorship. Alexander II had lessened these restrictions, and a radical element had arisen as a result. His reforms had given birth to a new element in society, the intelligentsia, made up of people who were poor and lower class but well-educated. Alexander punished them for writing radical articles in the newspapers, but they were not the heavy-handed punishments of his predecessors. Many jailed writers continued to write in prison.

The son and heir of Alexander II was Nicholas, called Nixa by his family. Nixa was regarded as the perfect heir, rather as his father had been. He was handsome, intellectual, independent, daring, and a model student for his tutors. As a very young man, he had taken a shine to Princess Dagmar, daughter of the King of Denmark, whom he had never met—it was her photograph that attracted him. In 1864, when he was almost twenty-one, Nixa traveled to Denmark, which had recently been defeated in a war against Prussia and Austria. His fancy for Dagmar, called Minny, turned to love when he met her in person. But shortly after their meeting, Nixa was diagnosed with cerebrospinal meningitis. He died in Nice, surrounded by Minny and his family, who had rushed to Europe to be with him. His twenty-year-old brother Alexander, called Sasha, was now heir to the Russian throne. Sasha had been devoted to Nixa, but he was unlike him in every way. Nixa had been slight; Sasha was huge. Nixa was intelligent and intellectual; Sasha was narrow-minded, traditional, and bad at foreign languages. Courtiers compared him to a peasant in his coarseness.

If Nixa was among the best-prepared of the Romanov heirs, Sasha was among the least prepared, even by the standards of younger brothers who unexpectedly move up in the line of succession. To give him credit, he was aware of his shortcomings. He worried that he did not have the judgment to tell an honest man from one that was merely ambitious and flattering. A further difficulty soon presented itself. The emperor and empress had become extremely fond of Minny, and it was their wish, as well as the wish of Minny’s parents in Copenhagen, that she now marry Sasha. As for Sasha, he had been impressed by Minny and admired her for her outstanding qualities, but he was in love with one of his mother’s maids of honor. Alexander II was angered by his stubbornness, and Sasha, who felt unfit for the throne, contemplated renouncing his claim on the succession. Nonetheless, he married Minny on October 28, 1866. After their marriage, he fell in love with her in earnest. Their first child was born on May 6, 1868. Named for his grandfather, he would grow up to become emperor Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia.

Earlier in 1866, a young radical named Dmitri Karakozov had lain in wait for the emperor near the Summer Garden, where Alexander walked daily in the company of his eighteen-year-old mistress Katya Dolgoruky. There, every afternoon, they paraded in full view of the admiring residents of St. Petersburg. Karakozov had fired his pistol at the emperor as he boarded his carriage, but the shot went astray and Karakozov was arrested. Alexander’s reaction to the assassination attempt was to tighten restrictions on the liberals in his ministries, and to strengthen the Third Section, the tsar’s secret police. But radical factions only grew in strength and numbers. Then, in 1867, while Alexander was visiting the World Fair in Paris at the invitation of Napoleon III, a young Polish man fired two shots at the emperor while he rode in an open carriage with his sons. Alexander escaped unscathed, and this man too was arrested.

In 1877, Alexander II declared war on the Ottoman empire in support of an Orthodox uprising in Bosnia-Herzegovina, backed by Serbia and Montenegro. The Russian people rallied to the cause of supporting their “brother Serbs” with a nationalistic enthusiasm not seen since Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. The Ottomans were slaughtering Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria, but Alexander was forced to respond slowly, because the British were adamantly opposed to Russia regaining any of the Crimean lands it had conceded after the disastrous ending of Nicholas I’s war. Russia, however, was backed by the new German empire, which, under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, had taken advantage of Russia’s cooling relations with Austria to unify the German states under Kaiser Wilhelm I and march on Paris.

Despite inept leadership, it seemed possibly by December of 1877 that Russia would take possession of the cherished prize of Constantinople at last. But the British, fearing this outcome above anything, deployed their navy in the Black Sea and threatened to enter the war on the Ottoman side. A stand-off ensued, only ended by a conference between the European powers in Berlin, which, among other things, awarded Russia control of part of Bulgaria. By the time matters had been settled in late 1878, Alexander was exhausted and beginning to feel his advanced middle age.

The revolutionary element in Russia was gaining momentum. In 1878, the governor of St. Petersburg was shot by a woman named Vera Zasulich, in full view of multiple witnesses. A jury trial exonerated her, however, because Zasulich’s attack had been motivated by the cruel treatment of political prisoners. Alexander was infuriated, and ordered that she be arrested again, but she escaped Russia before she could be re-apprehended. Her acquittal was a sign of the times. Assassinations and assassination attempts were carried out against other high ranking officials. In April of 1879, the emperor was nearly shot while out walking—the third assassination attempt he had survived. In 1879, Sofia Perovskaya, one of the leaders of a terrorist group that called itself Land and Freedom, made a fourth attempt on Alexander’s life by bombing the train he was traveling in. Then, in February of 1880, a servant at the Winter Palace, Stephen Khalturin, smuggled three hundred pounds of nitroglycerine into the palace, with the goal of bombing the tsar and his whole family as they sat down to dinner. When Khalturin detonated the charge, Alexander and his family were unharmed, but a large number of guards and sentries were killed.

Alexander’s response to the bombing of the Winter Palace was extraordinary. The reactionary heir, Sasha, insisted that he form a Supreme Commission, the head of which would be endowed with the powers of a dictator, to root out the terrorist cells. Alexander did so, but the man he placed at the head of the commission, Mikhail Loris-Melikov, was an unusually broadminded thinker. His goal was to root out, not only terrorism, but the causes of terrorism—such as censorship, judicial corruption, and high taxes. He fired the repressive minister of education and limited the powers of the secret police. These measures were partly successful, but the unrest continued.

In May of 1880, the Empress Marie, who had suffered from tuberculosis for many years, died in her sleep. Alexander had long ago promised his mistress, Katya Dolgoruky, that he would marry her if he were ever widowed. They were accordingly married in a private ceremony in July. Katya became Her Most Serene Highness, Princess Yurievskaya, but she was treated coldly by Alexander’s family.

In January of 1881, Alexander began working with Loris-Melikov on a series of reforms that would pave the way towards a Russian constitution. He intended to announce it before the public on the same day that Yurievskaya was to be crowned empress, March 4, 1881. But on March 1, on his way home to the palace after reviewing a parade of Guards, Alexander II at last fell victim to an assassination attempt organized by Sofia Perovskaya. A bomb was detonated under the carriage Alexander was riding in. The emperor was unhurt, but several people, including one of his bodyguards, a policeman, and two bystanders, had been wounded. The young man who threw the bomb was arrested immediately. Rather than fleeing the scene, Alexander went to inspect the remains of his carriage, when a second bomber rushed towards him. The explosion mortally wounded the emperor, the bomber, and injured others. Alexander’s legs were shattered; he was rushed home to the Winter Palace, where his family, having heard the explosions in the distance, were waiting anxiously.

The deathbed of Alexander II—the most moderate, compassionate ruler of the Romanov dynasty—was unrivaled in the family’s history for its tragic quality. The ruined body of the emperor clung to life long enough for last rites to be administered and for his family to witness his departure. His wife, Princess Yurievskaya, clung to his body until her nightgown was soaked with blood. When he drew his final breath, those present in the room saw a change settle over his thirty-six-year-old son, now emperor Alexander III. As heir to the throne, he had been compared to a peasant for his coarse humor and manners. Now, suddenly, he seemed to grow grave, as the burden of the throne came to rest on his shoulders. His entire reign would be a reaction to the brutal assassination of his father

Lee Rises to Top Command in the Confederacy

The Memorial Military Murals: Lee and His Generals (Summer), 1920 (oil on canvas glued to plaster walls), Hoffbauer, Charles C.J. (1875-1957) / Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, USA / acquired through merger with the Confederate Memorial Association / Photo credit: David Stover / Bridgeman Images

June 1, 1862

In the title to his 1974 biography of George Washington, historian James Thomas Flexner bestowed on his subject the epithet that most adequately describes his significance to the birth of the United States: The Indispensable Man. When it comes to the military history of the Confederacy, this very tag best suits Robert E. Lee. By installing Lee as the principal commander of Confederate forces, Jefferson Davis gave the Southern cause a general who remains among the most universally admired of history’s “great captains.” During the war, the people of the South came to idolize him, while those of the North—especially in the Union army—paid him ungrudging respect. A master of battlefield topography and a bold tactical innovator, he created the only strategy that had any chance of producing victory: break the Northern people’s support for the war with a relentless series of quick offensive blows that would force Union leaders to negotiate a peace favorable to the Confederacy. In this purpose, Lee ultimately failed, but when he judged that the time for surrender had finally come, Lee revealed another dimension of the qualities that made him the indispensable man. The force of his character helped ensure that the Confederates, having laid down their arms, did not take them up again for the kind of endless guerrilla struggle into which so many of history’s civil wars inexorably degenerate.

Henry Lee III left the practice of law at the outbreak of the American Revolution, was elected captain of a unit of Virginia dragoons, promoted to major in Washington’s Continental Army, and earned renown as commander of Lee’s Legion, a mixed cavalry-infantry unit, made up of highly mobile light troops, capable of guerrilla warfare as well as the most disciplined mobile warfare. “Light-Horse Harry” Lee—as he came to be called—emerged from the American Revolution as one of its most universally admired military figures, a hero given a gold medal by the Continental Congress, who went on to serve as governor of Virginia and US representative from the state’s 19th district. This was the glorious and gloried father of Robert Edward Lee.

By the time Robert came into the world in 1807, the Lees’ corner of that world was in steep decline. Light-Horse Harry’s plantation house, Stratford Hall, in Westmoreland, was no longer a magnificent showplace, and the house, the surrounding plantation, and the Lee slaves were in hock to myriad creditors. Nothing, it seemed, could stem the outflow of cash. In 1810, the hero of the Revolution was bundled off to debtors’ prison for a full year, and the rest of the family left Stratford for humbler quarters in Alexandria. When it looked as if circumstances could not possibly get worse, they did. On July 27, 1812, Baltimore newspaper editor Alexander Contee Hanson, a vigorous opponent of the War of 1812, was set upon by an angry mob. His friend Light-Horse Harry sprang to the rescue, waded into the melee, and was gravely injured. He tried to recover in the bosom of his family, but could not, and so, in 1813, set sail for the West Indies, where he lived apart from his wife and children until 1818. In that year, he embarked for home, but died, aged sixty-two, on Cumberland Island, Georgia, before he could reach Virginia.

The absence of husband and father had left the family even worse off financially than it had been, and Light-Horse Harry’s death meant that they were quite frankly poor. It fell to Robert to look after his ailing, aging mother. But if he was at all resentful, he never let on. With his bankrupt father gone, first to the West Indies and then to the grave, young Robert filled the void with the legend. Light-Horse Harry became in his imagination the ideal Virginian, and Virginia became Robert’s nation.

Robert E. Lee grew determined both to live up to his father’s legend and to redeem the man’s living memory. He secured nomination to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1825 and, over the next four years, made himself an academy legend. By the end of his plebe year, he was a cadet sergeant, an achievement literally unheard of at the time. By graduation, he stood second in his class but—and of this he was proudest—he had managed to earn not a single demerit in four years. He was an officer without blemish.

The best cadets were always routed into the Corps of Engineers, not only the most demanding army branch but, in an era when the mission of the United States Army was mainly to defend against invasion by sea, arguably the most important. The engineers designed and built seacoast forts, and Lee was assigned to oversee the laying of the foundation of Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, Georgia, and to work on Fort Calhoun and Fort Monroe—the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.” While assigned to Fort Monroe, he began his courtship of Mary Anna Randolph Custis, daughter of George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Custis Washington’s son, whom George Washington had adopted. They wed in 1831, a marriage of Virginia royalty.

Lee was a truly promising young officer. But there were any number of promising young officers in the American military, who generally struggled financially when there were no wars to fight. West Point graduates of Lee’s vintage typically served for a time before resigning their commissions in order to pursue some more profitable civilian enterprise. For the army at peace could offer very little. Lee was an exception. As an engineer in a time of national expansion, he had much to do. He directed the survey of the Ohio-Michigan state line, and he drew up a successful plan to arrest the Mississippi River’s movement away from the St. Louis levees. By this, he saved the river economy on which the city depended. He went on to other major civil engineering projects, which earned him acclaim and revealed a genius for strategic thinking. It was in 1842, while serving as post engineer at Fort Hamilton, in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, that Captain Lee met Lieutenant Thomas J. Jackson, who, as Stonewall Jackson, was destined to become Lee’s “right arm” in the victory that has been called his military masterpiece, the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863).

Lee could justifiably take great satisfaction in his achievements as an engineer, but, with a heart and mind always dedicated to his father, he longed for glorious combat. Opportunity approached in the spring of 1846 when Major General Winfield Scott named him to his staff during the US-Mexican War (1846–1848). As part of the most ambitious military campaign the US Army had ever attempted up to this point in its history, Lee’s staff service was no cushy rear-echelon job. As an engineer officer, he led topographical reconnaissance in advance of Scott’s army as it invaded Mexico, bound for Mexico City following an amphibious assault (the first in US Army history) on Veracruz. Lee’s mission was to determine the most advantageous routes of inland march and attack, as well as the best schemes for positioning artillery and field fortifications. There were no accurate maps to work from; therefore, there was no substitute for endless riding far in advance of the main columns. The hazard was extreme. Lee embraced it, and throughout the long march from Veracruz to the Mexican capital, it was Robert E. Lee who essentially commanded—and often personally carried out—the most important reconnaissance missions. At Cerro Gordo (April 18, 1847) and Chapultepec (September 12–13, 1847), his battle intelligence enabled Scott to plot overwhelmingly effective flanking attacks executed through terrain so rugged that the Mexican commanders had left them undefended on the assumption that no army could negotiate such ground.

For gallantry, Lee was breveted to the rank of major after Cerro Gordo. He fought at Contreras (August 19–20, 1847) and Churubusco (August 20, 1847) after this and received a brevet to lieutenant colonel. Wounded—though not seriously—at Chapultepec (September 12–13, 1847) in the assault on Mexico City, Lee was brevetted to colonel. It brought as well high praise from fellow Virginian Winfield Scott, who called Lee the “very best soldier I ever saw in the field.” When the Civil War erupted, Scott, as general-in-chief-of the US Army, tapped Lee to assume field command of Union forces. Lee not only turned him down, but resigned his commission, writing to General Scott on April 20, 1861, of his indebtedness to him for “uniform kindness & consideration” and promising to “carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame,” but expressing his own desire “never … again to draw my sword … [s]ave in the defence of my native State.”

The US-Mexican War gave Lee and a generation of American military officers their first experience of battle against a large opposing army. Lee took more away from the experience than most. He honed an already acute sense of how “the ground”—landscape, topography—shapes battle. This was essential to his tactical genius. He also repeatedly saw that frontal attacks, when victoriously executed, could be overwhelmingly effective. Perhaps he called upon the memory of such attacks when he proposed a frontal infantry assault over nearly a mile of open fields against well-defended Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 3, 1863). “Pickett’s Charge” would prove catastrophic for the Army of Northern Virginia and, ultimately, the Confederacy.

It is also likely that an extended experience of war during 1846–1848 made the peacetime army unappealing to Lee. He accepted appointment as superintendent of West Point in 1852 and performed brilliantly in the job, but jumped at the opportunity that President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis, gave him in 1855 to serve as second in command of the 2nd US Cavalry Regiment in Apache and Comanche territory in Texas. His commanding officer was regimental Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, who would become one of the early generals of the Provisional Confederate army.

At between 8,000 and 16,000 officers and men, the pre-Civil War US Army was an intimate band of brothers, and when Lee experienced a family emergency—the death in 1857 of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis—he was readily granted leave to sort out a complex will and an estate encumbered by massive debts. At this time, Lee contemplated resigning his commission to try to save the estate, Arlington, and care for his wife, who was suffering from severe arthritis. But he could never quite bring himself to leave the army. Then, on October 16, 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown raided the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (today West Virginia), taking about sixty townspeople hostage, among them the great-grandnephew of George Washington. Lee was assigned to lead an ad hoc assemblage of Maryland and Virginia militiamen and a Washington-based detachment of US Marines to recover the armory and arsenal and to rescue the hostages. Lee carried out his mission successfully and thus played a role in an incident often seen as a prelude to the Civil War. He himself saw it only as the “attempt of a fanatic or madman” to set off a slave rebellion. But the nation rolled on toward dissolution. On February 1, 1861, shortly after Texas seceded from the Union, Brevet Major General David E. Twiggs, commanding officer of the Department of Texas, summarily surrendered his entire US Army command to Confederate authorities, resigned his commission, and accepted a commission as a general officer in the Confederate army. Now Lee paid attention. He immediately left Arlington for Washington. There he was promoted to full colonel in the regular army and assigned to command the 1st Cavalry on March 28, 1861.

That promotion had come at the urging of Winfield Scott, who also advised President Lincoln of his intention to give Lee the top field command of US Army forces. When Lee turned him down, Scott was both appalled and astonished. He had heard from others that Lee scorned the very idea of secession and thought the notion of a “Confederacy” ludicrous. It is unclear whether Scott knew that Lee had declared that he would “never bear arms against the Union” while simultaneously speculating that it might become “necessary for me to carry a musket in the defense of my native state, Virginia, in which case I shall not prove recreant to my duty.” Yet Scott subsequently learned that Lee, after turning down his offer of command of Union forces in the field, had also deliberately ignored the offer of a commission in the Confederate army. Accordingly, Scott made a final, desperate attempt to give Lee command in the North. That offer prompted Lee’s resignation, to which Scott responded that it was the “greatest mistake of [Lee’s] life.”

Three days after resigning his US Army commission, Lee accepted, on April 23, command of Virginia state militia forces. A short time later, he was transferred to the Provisional Army of the Confederate States as one of its first five full generals. But his maiden battle, in western Virginia (West Virginia today) was hardly impressive. His subordinates, who were state militia officers, were resistant to his authority, and the people of Virginia’s western counties, who never wanted secession in the first place, were openly hostile. Nevertheless, on September 11, 1861, Lee decided to attack the Union position at Cheat Mountain, which looked down on an important turnpike as well as several mountain passes. Intelligence gathered from Union prisoners revealed that four thousand Union soldiers held the mountain, substantially outnumbering Lee’s own force. The Confederate commander hesitated to attack, quite unaware that the mountain top was actually occupied by no more than 300 Union troops. His delay having lost him the advantage of surprise, Lee skirmished indecisively and then withdrew. He was denounced by the Southern press as “Evacuating Lee” and, even worse, “Granny Lee.” Bumped from field command, he was assigned to organize the coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia before President Jefferson Davis named him his personal military advisor. Davis acknowledged that Lee was unpopular with the press, but he shared the opinion of Lee’s fellow officers that Lee had the makings of a great commander. Accordingly, when Joseph E. Johnston was badly wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on June 1, 1862, Davis replaced Johnston with Lee as commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Johnston, who enthusiastically supported Davis’s choice, was widely admired, but he was committed to the defensive tactic of the strategic retreat. He met Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign—the Union’s first major offensive in southeastern Virginia—by yielding ground while claiming Union casualties. Lee believed this approach was fatal to Confederate morale, and as soon as he took command, he shocked McClellan by offering the fiercest of attacks in each of the so-called Seven Days Battles, which spanned June 25 to July 1, 1862. Lee transformed what McClellan had intended as a war-winning offensive targeting Richmond into a succession of Confederate attacks on the Army of the Potomac.

Contrary to both contemporary popular opinion and enduring myth, Lee was hardly at his tactical best in the Seven Days, but he did reveal himself as an inspiring commander with an ability to extract the utmost aggression from his men. The Battle of Oak Grove (June 25) ended inconclusively and with relatively light casualties on both sides, but it put Lee in position to seize the initiative on the following day at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek (Battle of Mechanicsville, June 26). While Lee suffered a tactical defeat—1,484 casualties versus 361 for the Union—he set up a major strategic triumph by forcing McClellan to withdraw from the Richmond area.

The Battle of Gaines Mill (June 27) on the next day again resulted in heavier losses for Lee (7,993 killed, wounded, missing, or captured) than McClellan (6,837 killed, wounded, missing, or captured), but so unnerved the Union general that he began the retreat of the entire Army of the Potomac all the way back to his supply base on the James River. For his part, Lee was not about to let him go. He engaged portions of the withdrawing Union forces at Garnett’s & Golding’s Farms (June 27–28) before mounting a major attack at the Battle of Savage’s Station (June 29), exacting more than a thousand casualties. By noon on June 30, most of the battered Army of the Potomac had retreated across White Oak Swamp Creek. Lee hit the main body of the army at Glendale (June 30) while his subordinate Stonewall Jackson attacked McClellan’s rearguard (under Major General William B. Franklin) at White Oak Swamp (June 30). By the numbers, both engagements were inconclusive, but the humiliating “optics” were incredibly damaging to the Union and just as incredibly inspiring to the Confederacy. Lee was driving McClellan away, whipping him as a man might whip a dog.

The final battle of the Seven Days, at Malvern Hill (July 1), was evenly matched, pitting 54,000 men of the Army of the Potomac against 55,000 of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee suffered 5,355 casualties to McClellan’s 3,214, but persisted in pursuing McClellan. Concluding that McClellan was unwilling to use his army effectively against Lee, Lincoln ordered him to link up with John Pope’s Army of Virginia to reinforce him at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).

It was at this battle that Lee revealed the tactical daring absent from his action at the Seven Days. He attacked the Army of Virginia before the slow-moving McClellan arrived in to consolidate with it his Army of the Potomac. In this attack, Lee purposefully broke one of the supposedly inviolable military commandments by dividing his forces in the presence of the enemy. He sent one wing under Stonewall Jackson to attack on August 28. This deceived Pope into believing that he had Jackson exactly where he (Pope) wanted him. The Union general could taste victory. But, in fact, it was Jackson who was holding Pope, so that Longstreet, leading Lee’s other wing, could launch a surprise counterattack on August 30. This attack, 25,000 men brought to bear all at once, was the single greatest mass attack of the Civil War, and it brought about a second Union defeat at Bull Run that was far costlier than the first. Pope lost 14,642 killed, wounded, captured, or missing. Lee lost half that number.

The Second Battle of Bull Run made Robert E. Lee the general to beat. Pope had been fired, and McClellan was recalled to lead the Army of the Potomac against the ever-aggressive Lee, who had decided to take the war to the North by invading Maryland. McClellan fought him at Antietam in that state on September 17, 1862.

At the beginning of the Seven Days, the battle line had been some six miles outside of Richmond. Three months later and thanks to Lee, it was at Antietam, just twenty miles outside of Washington. At the end of the day, McClellan had suffered heavier losses than Lee (12,410 to 10,316 killed, wounded, missing, or captured) but he had forced Lee to withdraw back into Virginia. President Lincoln used this narrow Union victory to launch his Emancipation Proclamation, but, privately, he was bitterly disappointed—heartbroken, really—that McClellan had failed to pursue the retreating Lee in the way that Lee had earlier pursued the retreating McClellan.

Abraham Lincoln removed George McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside—despite Burnside’s own protests that he was not up to commanding a full army. At Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), Burnside proved his self-appraisal to be correct. Although substantially outnumbered (78,513 to 122,009), Lee dealt Burnside and the Army of the Potomac a catastrophic defeat, inflicting 12,653 casualties for his own losses of 4,201 killed, wounded, or missing.

Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who proclaimed, “May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.” Hooker commanded an Army of the Potomac that now mustered nearly 134,000 men, whereas Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia amounted to no more than 60,298. Lopsided though the numbers were, the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863) was Lee’s tactical masterpiece—arguably the tactical masterpiece of the Civil War itself. Once again, Lee divided his forces in the presence of the enemy, dispatching his cavalry to control the roads and bottle up Union reinforcements at Fredericksburg while 26,000 men under Stonewall Jackson surprised Hooker’s flank even as he, Lee, personally commanded a force of 17,000 against Hooker’s front. The result stunned the Union general into utter confusion. Jackson’s surprise attack routed an entire corps and drove the principal portion of Hooker’s army out of its well-prepared defensive positions. By May 2, the Army of the Potomac, though it outnumbered the Army of Northern Virginia two to one, had been sent into headlong retreat.

Yet Lee understood that he was in no position to bask in his triumph, great as it was. Hooker had suffered 17,287 casualties, but he himself had lost 13,303 killed, wounded, captured, or missing—all out of a much smaller force. Hooker’s casualty rate was roughly 13 percent, whereas his own was a staggering 22 percent. Despite the victories he delivered, Lee was convinced that the Confederacy could not endure such attrition much longer. He therefore resolved to once again invade the North. This time, his objective was Pennsylvania. Not only did he want to raid the countryside for much-needed provisions, Lee believed a successful invasion would utterly demoralize the North and erode its will to continue the war while also opening up an avenue for an assault on Washington itself. This, he believed, would cost Lincoln reelection and bring into office a Democrat willing to conclude a negotiated end to the Civil War.

The grim fate of Lee’s aspirations for the Battle of Gettysburg. Defeated badly here, Lee was nevertheless able to withdraw back into Virginia, his army diminished but still very much intact. He would lead it next against his most formidable adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, in the Civil War’s culminating Virginia battles. In many of these engagements, Lee would, in fact, beat Grant. But, unlike the other Union opponents Lee had confronted, Grant responded to defeat not with retreat, but with continued advance toward Richmond. Each advance forced Lee to pit his dwindling Army of Northern Virginia against Grant’s continually reinforced army. The Union general understood and embraced the ultimate calculus of the Civil War, which was that the North could afford to spend more lives than the South and could replenish most of its losses.

Lee’s objective in the final months of the war was to make his own increasingly inevitable defeat so costly to the Union that the people of the North might demand a negotiated settlement after all. Costly he did make it, but, in the end, Robert E. Lee felt compelled to admit defeat. In this admission was perhaps the most profound and enduring significance of his elevation to top command of Confederate forces. For as he had been uncompromising in his quest for victory, so he proved equally uncompromising in his manner of surrender. He secured from Grant the best terms possible, namely the right of his men to return to their homes unmolested and without loss of honor. In return for this, he exercised his character and influence to ensure that the war would in fact end rather than devolve into a long and lawless guerrilla struggle, which is the fate of so many civil conflicts throughout history.