Limited War Doctrine: A Fatal Flaw


Colonel T. Snodgrass, SANE’s resident military expert and strategist, takes a hard look at the Limited War Doctrine and how it plays out in the Open Society Democracy.
by Colonel T. Snodgrass, The Conservative Voice

A curious thing happened in American thinking about warfare in 1961 the rules needed to be rewritten, or so thought the best and brightest civilian strategists that President Kennedy brought with him into the White House.  In his The Best and Brightest book, David Halberstam covers how Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, William P. Bundy, Dean Rusk, George Ball,, arrogantly ignored the historical lessons of warfare and set about to change the rules of war.  This change has had far-reaching negative effects, even to today.

What was at the root of their hubris?

With the advent of nuclear weapons, many civilian think tank warfare theorists believed that direct superpower confrontation had become too dangerous to contemplate.  Thus was born limited war in the national lexicon of strategic thinking when the Korean War broke out in 1950 and President Truman limited the war objectives and means in order to avoid nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Korean War began the change in the American concept of war away from total war, or what was called at the time general war, to a form of war that was more civilized and less dangerous in the minds of social scientists… 


The problem of limited war from an American national interest standpoint was that it assumed U.S. enemies would likewise be restrained in objectives and means.  This fanciful social science assumption rested on the unproven belief that no foreign national leader in his right mind would dare oppose America, following its World War II victory, once U.S. willingness to fight was made clear. However, the advocates of limited war never came to grips with what would happen if a Soviet Cold War client state refused to play by limited war rules.  In other words, how and when would limited war be concluded when the communists were pursuing total war objectives and the U.S. was waging a war for limited objectives? This was the first appearance of an asymmetry in war strategies long before the now infamous contemporary asymmetry on the so-called GWOT battlefield, but more appropriately termed the war against Islam and the Shari’a touting faithful.

This disparity of total vs. limited war objectives first became apparent as the Korean War dragged on and President Truman’s administration could find no way to conclude the conflict.  When President Eisenhower assumed the presidency from Truman in 1953, he quickly recognized the logical solution to the strategic conundrum was shifting U.S. war-fighting from limited to total war means, and he thereby ended the Korean War by communicating to the communists his intention of escalating with nuclear weapons if the communists persisted in their total war objectives.  Civilian limited war advocates should have seen the glaring fallacy of their theory at this point, but they didn’t.  For his part, Eisenhower did not believe that limited war could remain limited.        

As a warrior who knew war first-hand, President Eisenhower opted for a historically-based defense doctrine of Massive Retaliation, which promised an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union in the event of aggression.  Throughout the better part of the 1950’s, Eisenhower’s national security strategy insured that there was no military superpower confrontation.  Because Eisenhower had doubts that a limited war would remain such, his over-all national security policy, called the New Look, was based on the unstoppable nuclear striking power of Strategic Air Command.  During this period of relative peace, Democrat political opponents and social-science civilian theorists were in constant chorus that the New Look Massive Retaliation was simply too risky for the country and the world. 

In spite of the Massive Retaliation doctrine’s success in preventing conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union, in 1961 President Kennedy and his civilian social-science theorists rewrote the rules of war, conceiving and implementing a replacement doctrine they dubbed Flexible Response to counter client proxy warfare.  It was at this point that we completely departed from the strategic thinking that had won World War II.  The change in mindset was profound. The fundamental change in the U.S. approach to warfare now had at its essence the new approach that America would answer communist aggression against its interests with only a limited force that was proportional to the threat, thus inculcating the institutional idea in the U.S. national security infrastructure that American military responses should only be gradually escalated according to the perceived seriousness of the crisis. 

The operative concept was that an enemy would receive the message that the U.S. intended to act militarily to defend its interests, and therefore, would be deterred from escalating the crisis further.  Then, after it was clear to the enemy that his limited war objectives could not be attained, negotiations would ensue that would end the crisis.  Message sending to the enemy through gradual escalation became an integral part of U.S. national security thinking and strategy. 

The Flexible Response doctrine did not contemplate that the North Vietnamese would bear any burden, play any price to plant Vietnamese nationalist communism in the south of the former French colony.  The obvious queries — why Kennedy’s brain-trust thought that only the U.S. was capable of complete dedication to a political concept or military strategy and how this group of men failed to address how an armed test of wills between two completely committed opponents would finally be resolved — both call into question the Kennedy crowd’s basic rationality and the quality and integrity of their thought.

Indeed, what it really suggests is a mind-set that believed that the whole of mankind operated under the same set of values they had. In other words, there is nothing really worth fighting for until the end. Total dedication to national existence and national goals are subject to compromise. If that was the view of the American leadership, they concluded, it must be the view of our enemies.

What were the results?

Ho Chi Minh set out with the total war objective to conquer South Vietnam, while President Kennedy, and later President Johnson, in accordance with the Flexible Response doctrine regarded the conflict as limited, and they answered Ho’s total war with limited war subject to a gradual escalation. Instead of sending the intended message of strength to the North Vietnamese, Ho correctly interpreted the limited U.S. response as the sign of a lack of will on the part of the American political leadership.  Once it became evident to Ho that America would not use its massive military strength to destroy North Vietnam, and thereby end the conflict and communist rule, the North Vietnamese targeted the will of the U.S. body politic and pursued the war with impunity. 

Amazingly, a weak American political leadership refused to even threaten the continued existence of the North Vietnamese Communist Government, thus encouraging and enabling Ho and his successors to drag the war out to the point that the war-will of the U.S. polity was eventually destroyed.  In truth it was not the media or the political opposition that lost the war, as is sometimes alleged, it was a U.S. political and military leadership that was both too timid (a polite word for cowardly) to be successful wartime leaders and too blinded by their own hubris to understand that the impossible asymmetry in the objectives of the warring parties guaranteed that limited war was a sure strategy for defeat in Vietnam. 

Given the long and sustained trend in this country to move away from a constitutional republic as designed by the founders with a safe distance between the national leaders and their constituents and toward an open society democracy where the public voice is heard daily in polling data and elections and statutory and constitutional referendums meant to directly affect day to day governance, it might be arguable that no sustained or prolonged war effort is today possible. But most assuredly, in such system, the public will never support a decision predicated upon a purposefully limited and drawn out war strategy. This was the absurdity of the Kennedy Administration’s limited war doctrine and it is the absurdity of the current administration’s limited-war-while-we-build-a-functional-civil-democratic-government-in-the-war-zone. What makes this latter doctrine even more irrational is that we accept the presence of our enemies in the government, such as al-Sadr.


The failure to understand this issue and to blame the obvious failure to prosecute a war fully with but one goal of a military victory is manifest in both Left and Right on the US political spectrum — among both Democrats and Republicans. On the Right side during the Vietnam debacle we heard that we were doing a splendid job militarily in Vietnam, and but for reporting to the contrary after the Tet Offensive by Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite and the rest of the main stream media that had a virtual monopoly on the attention of middle America, all was still well from the pro-war standpoint.  This is a fairy tale. A poorly fought war, a Tet Offensive and media campaign to call the pro-war optimism into question, the constant demonstrations in the streets by the anti-war Left eroded public confidence in the political elite and their prosecution of the war.  The public’s lack of confidence was well founded.

Having fought a limited war to a standstill, the political leadership could not sustain America’s motivation to continue and as a result there was absolutely no way to favorably conclude the war militarily. The American government’s loss of credibility with its own people foreclosed any military escalation against North Vietnamese capability to resupply its forces in the south.  Such a strategy reversal would have been necessary to force a favorable military conclusion.  America’s war-will was decimated because of the anti-war propaganda which capitalized on bad military strategy.  For the North Vietnamese, the American government’s credibility problem at home was a clear sign that they just had to persevere until the Americans threw in the towel.

On the Left we have a slightly different twist on the same denial theme. The difference here though is the notion that the media and the demonstrators were correct. It was a bad war that could not be won militarily and we could only hope to negotiate a defeat with the rhetoric of a draw. An example of this mindset was on display in an interview for the Fox TV special Give War a Chance. In this special, Richard Holbrooke, would-be Secretary of State for John Kerry and long-time State Department diplomat, made the assertion that the U.S. had done everything possible militarily in Vietnam, purportedly establishing his point that only diplomacy could have provided the solution.  Holbrooke, like his cheerleading Republican counterparts, apparently did not understand that the U.S. had made no effort to win the war using historically-proven military strategy, that is, destroy the enemy’s capability to wage war.

National Security rethinking post-Vietnam to 9/11.

In the years following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell both recognized some of the shortcomings in the intellectual conception of U.S. national security doctrine that led to the Vietnam debacle, and they both attempted to correct these shortcomings by promulgating the Weinberger Doctrine in 1984 and the Powell Doctrine in 1991.  Secretary Weinberger’s national security construct was in response to another defense debacle, the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut, while General Powell’s preconditions for the commitment of American military forces came along during the build-up to Desert Storm.  While both doctrines call for clarity of purpose in the U.S. use of force, they both nevertheless suffer from the debilitating constraint of continued limited war thinking and the inherent problems facing the modern democracy. 

The Weinberger doctrine:

1.      The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.

2.      U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.

3.      U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.

4.      The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.

5.      U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.

6.      The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.

The Powell doctrine:

Questions posed by the Powell Doctrine, which should be answered affirmatively before military action, are:

1.      Is a vital national security interest threatened?

2.      Do we have a clear attainable objective?

3.      Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

4.      Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?

5.      Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

6.      Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

7.      Is the action supported by the American people?

8.      Do we have genuine broad international support? 

Both doctrines are admirable in their attempts to clarify when and how U.S. forces should be used, but they are clearly meant for limited war contexts.  We know this from the doctrines themselves and their historical context. Quite simply, the limited war doctrine reigns today; it has never been re-written. As a consequence, after 9/11 when the U.S. entered into the Global War on Terror (GWOT), our national strategic thinking was not geared for global war.  Hence we have both opponents and proponents of GWOT measuring the Battle for Iraq and Afghanistan soley in terms of limited war.  We continue to be trapped in the same mental box that pre-ordained our Vietnam defeat. It is not widely understood that Iraq is merely a campaign in the GWOT, not a limited Iraq War.  Today we are battling the faithful Muslims of the world who wish a Shari’a-based worldwide Caliphate together with the foot soldiers of Iran, Syria, and al Qaeda in Iraq.

How Democracy fits in.

Moreover, the very idea that America can no longer fight a total war, but only a limited war, has grown out of the enormous democratization of our body politic. When World War I and World War II were fought, the national leaders and especially the Commander-in-Chief, had relatively few political constraints on their war making abilities and strategies. The average citizen simply did not expect to carry on a national debate about how to fight the war — only that it ought to be won and won decisively.

The very fact that women had only a few decades earlier gained the franchise to vote (the women’s movement had not come to fructify as it did in the Vietnam era of the 1960s and 1970s), further illustrates this point. The whole debate over getting the soccer moms’ vote by the political punditry drives the electioneering on both sides. War today is one part war strategy and five parts domestic public relations precisely because an open society democracy demands daily watering and tender-loving care. Courageous political and military leadership is at a great disadvantage in such a polity.

The retort to this by the democracy advocates is that this is why broad-spectrum democracies don’t fight wars. This is no doubt true, but hardly comforting when you are on the receiving end of foreign aggression. This is all the more troubling when the war is an existential threat. Long hard wars, especially against stubborn and ideologically committed enemies such as Marxists and the Shari’a touting Islamic faithful, even wars prosecuted with a total war strategy, will become decidedly more difficult when the political leadership and by implication the military as well are subject to the nightly talking heads and polling data. While the contemporary wisdom is that the greater the reach of democracy the better, this has never been established as fact or even as good theory.

To raise the democracy issue, however, is not to propose a solution. That is not a subject for a military strategist. But it is a fact and it is one the founding fathers and the generations thereafter did not face until the second half of the 20th century.

Can we escape the limited war mental trap of our own making? 

We have no alternative as a nation. We must!  We have Muslim enemies within and without Iraq.  In World War II the Vichy French, Hungarians, Romanians, Croatians, Iraqis,, never attacked the U.S., but they were our enemies nevertheless because they were allied with the Nazis.  Today Iranians, Syrians, Palestinians,, are likewise our enemies because they are allied to the extent that they want a U.S. defeat at the hands of an Islam bounded by the Shari’a.  So long as we continue to define Iraq as the only GWOT battlefield, we are again headed for defeat because of our failure to deal with the fact that warfare does not necessarily stop at national borders.  Limited war paid homage to this fallacious idea at the Yalu and Parrot’s Beak, and was fatally wrong in both cases.

American politicians (with the exception of President Eisenhower and his administration), senior military leaders, think tank civilian warfare theorists, and media pundits have been mesmerized by limited war in their national security thinking since the outbreak of the Korean War.  In Vietnam, successive presidential administrations failed the American people because they were unable to break the paralyzing spell of limited war, and we lost.  In the global war against the Shari’a faithful Muslims, the stakes are existential and not limited, but our national political and senior military leaders are still in the paralyzing death grip of limited war conceptual thinking.  If nothing changes, nothing changes.

About the author: Colonel Thomas Snodgrass, retired U.S. Air Force, spent 30 years in active military duty. He spent much of his time in the military as a senior intelligence officer and has been an instructor at several important war colleges. He is a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran and holds a Master of Arts degree in History and Political Science from the University of Texas.


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