In 1963, Krulak became involved in a controversy that persists to the present day. In the late summer of that year, President Kennedy dispatched Krulak and the State Department’s Joseph Mendenhall to Vietnam. Their mission was to assess the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the Republic of Vietnam. Both Krulak and Mendenhall briefed President Kennedy on September 10. Krulak concluded that the war was going well, while Mendenhall predicted that the Diem government would either fall to the Viet Cong or that the country would descend into a religious civil war. So opposed were their conclusions that the president quipped, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”
But the two had taken very different itineraries in Vietnam. Krulak visited some ten locations across the country and extensively interviewed U.S. advisers to the Vietnamese army. Mendenhall, who had been recommended to the president by Averill Harriman and Roger Hillsman, longtime advocates of replacing Diem, visited three South Vietnamese cities where he spoke primarily to opponents of the South Vietnamese president.
On March 1, 1964, Krulak became commanding general of the Pacific Fleet Marine Force. By this time, the State Department view had prevailed and the United States had acquiesced in a coup against Diem. The deteriorating situation in the country led the United States to commit ground troops.
The Marines’ approach in Vietnam included three elements, according to Krulak: emphasis on pacification of the coastal areas in which 80 percent of the people lived; degradation of the ability of the North Vietnamese to fight by cutting off supplies before they left northern ports of entry; and engaging the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Viet Cong (VC) on terms favorable to American forces.
Krulak was responsible for the readiness, training, equipping, and supplying of all the Marines in the Pacific, but he had no authority over their operational employment in Vietnam. That was the purview of the Army’s William Westmoreland. Gen. Westmoreland’s approach to the war differed considerably from the counterinsurgency approach favored by the Marines and, as a result, the Marines soon came into conflict with him over how to fight the war.
Westmoreland believed that the Marines “should have been trying to find the enemy’s main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they posed to the population.” Westmoreland’s view was informed by the battle of Ia Drang in November 1965, when an outnumbered U.S. force had spoiled an enemy operation and sent a major PAVN force reeling back in defeat. But Krulak believed that Ia Drang was a case of fighting the enemy’s war, one that North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap predicted would be “a protracted war of attrition.” As Krulak observed, Giap was right: a “war of attrition it turned out to be . . . [by] 1972, we had managed to reduce the enemy’s manpower pool by perhaps 25 percent at a cost of over 220,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese dead. Of these, 59,000 were Americans.”
Interestingly, Westmoreland’s successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, abandoned the former’s operational strategy, which emphasized the attrition of PAVN forces in a “war of the big battalions,” and instead adopted an approach akin to the one that Krulak preferred. This approach emphasized the protection of the South Vietnamese population by controlling key areas rather than the destruction of enemy forces per se. In addition, rather than ignoring the insurgency and pushing the South Vietnamese aside as Westmoreland had done, Abrams followed a “one war” policy, integrating all aspects of the struggle against the Communists. This achieved the military and political conditions necessary for South Vietnam’s survival as a viable political entity.
The Marines’ expeditionary mindset and adaptability — and Krulak’s willingness to roll the dice — is illustrated by an event that occurred in April of 1966. At a meeting in Honolulu attended by the secretaries of defense and state, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, and the principal U.S. military commanders, the group discussed how long it would take to build an airfield at Chu La, to supplement the overworked field at Da Nang. The conservative estimate was eleven months. But the Marines had developed the ability to deploy an expeditionary airfield consisting of aluminum planking along with mobile bulk-fuel systems and arresting gear. Krulak told the skeptical attendees at the Honolulu meeting that the Marines could have a runway in operation within 25 days. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara gave the go-ahead but was not convinced that it could be done. The overall commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. U.S. Sharp, told Krulak, “You know your neck is out a mile.”
By the 25th day, planes were flying sorties from a 4,000-foot field.
When he was not selected as commandant, Krulak retired but continued to devote himself to the nation’s defense as a journalist. In this capacity, he served as a vice president of the Copley Newspaper Corporation and president of its news service while writing a regular column for many years.
“Brute” Krulak was a true visionary. He will be missed but, fortunately, he has inspired many who follow him.
– Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis and professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations, and his study of Lincoln’s wartime leadership will be published in early 2009 by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.