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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It is of course hard to understand the present without an occasional look at the past, which is why this year, we've been examining a pivotal year 40 years ago, 1968. Forty years ago, the United States was mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam. Nearly half a million American troops were on the ground, daily air strikes pounded the enemy, and in 1968 alone some 15,000 U.S. combat deaths were suffered. And there was no end in sight. Walter Cronkite, the anchor of CBS News, and the nation's most influential journalist summed up the war in national broadcast.

(Soundbite of historic audio)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Anchor, CBS News): To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.

INSKEEP: At the White House, the conduct of the war was at the top of the daily agenda, but nothing was working. And on this day in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced a major change in strategy.

(Soundbite of historic audio)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: I have now ordered that all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam cease, as of 8:00 AM, Washington time, Friday morning.

INSKEEP: It was an end to bombing for that moment, anyway. As NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman explains, the bombing halt came not long after a new American commander took over in Vietnam and came up with a strategy that echoes to this day on another battlefield.

TOM BOWMAN: At the beginning of 1968, the American commander in Vietnam was General William Westmoreland, a courtly southerner with upbeat pronouncements.

(Soundbite of historic audio)

General WILLIAM WESTMORELAND (American Commander in Vietnam): Militarily, we have never been in a better relative position in South Vietnam.

BOWMAN: Over time, Westmoreland came to symbolize the stalemate in Vietnam. His strategy was called "search and destroy," hitting the enemy hard, rolling up the body count as a sign of progress.

Gen. WESTMORELAND: The only strategy which can defeat such an organization is one of unrelenting but discriminating military, political and psychological pressure on his whole structure and at all levels.

BOWMAN: But by the time of Johnson's bombing halt, there was a new plan, and a new commander, General Creighton Abrams, a squat, rumpled, sometimes profane Army officer with an ever-present cigar clenched between his teeth, a hero of World War II. As a tank commander, he led the relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. Abrams saw the fight in Vietnam differently. In a counterinsurgency, the important thing isn't enemy body count, it's protecting the population, training local Vietnamese forces, providing money and programs for a better life, as he explained to his staff at this meeting in 1969, a tape from the collection of the Army War College.

(Soundbite of historic audio)

General CREIGHTON ABRAMS (American Commander in Vietnam): It's the government presence with its people all over the country, reasonable security...

BOWMAN: For Abrams, the right strategy was not "search and destroy." He saw it as "clear and hold," words that echoed four decades later as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates grappled and searched for a new strategy, for another insurgency in Iraq.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): Our strategy is to clear, hold and build.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: For our most successful strategies, and parts Iraq have been based upon a clear, hold and build.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): It places new emphasis on the clear, hold and build strategy.

BOWMAN: That clear, hold and build strategy in Iraq came after failed attempts, some akin to Westmoreland's. Shortly after Baghdad fell, there were heavy-handed tactics, sweeping raids, filling up Abu Ghraib prison was suspected insurgents, turning over the country as quickly as possible to unsteady Iraqi security forces. Through all of this, the violence only got worse. Iraq was being compared to the quagmire in Vietnam, at a time when Abram's clear and hold approach was finding its way into a new Army manual created by General David Petraeus.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Former US Iraq Commander): An increased emphasis on securing the population and doing that by, if you will, living among the people. We did see that as at least a useful historical model to look at as we developed the field manual.

BOWMAN: Petraeus took over the Iraq mission, where he and others picked up on Abrams' ideas. Now soldiers were leaving their large bases, living among the people in small outposts, working with American government experts - called provincial reconstruction teams - to bring basic services, water, sewer, electricity, then farms and marketplaces - just as Abrams had done.

Sec. GATES: However uncomfortable it may be to raise Vietnam all these years later, the history of that conflict is instructive.

BOWMAN: That's Defense Secretary Gates speaking last year.

Sec. GATES: After first pursuing a strategy based on conventional military firepower, the United States shifted course. It had the effect of, in the words of General Creighton Abrams, 'putting all of us on one side and the enemy on the other.'

BOWMAN: Abrams was more successful in his strategy. By the end of 1968 and into 1969, an analysis of Abrams' efforts showed the military situation in Vietnam had significantly improved. That analysis was done by a group led by Daniel Ellsberg, who later became disillusioned with American policy in Vietnam, leaking to the press a devastating secret history of the war which came to be called "The Pentagon Papers." So what did Abrams see that Westmoreland failed to appreciate?

Mr. JOHN NAGL (Retired Army Officer; Author): Abrams thought broadly, deeply and widely, understood the political, the economic components of warfare as well as the purely military parts. And he brought all of that knowledge to bear when he finally took command in Vietnam.

BOWMAN: John Nagl is a retired Army officer who served in Iraq and has written widely on counterinsurgency.

Mr. NAGL: General Westmoreland was a very talented general, but he was a very conventional general. So he was not able to get his head around the fact that the kind of war he was fighting was a very different war than the war that he'd fought growing up in World War II and the war in Korea.

BOWMAN: Creighton Abrams believed the South Vietnamese could have been victorious over the North if only the U.S. continued to support them. Still, he was concerned that Vietnamese were too dependent on the Americans.

Brigadier General ROBERT ABRAMS: It's very clear evidence that we helped too much. And we retarded the Vietnamese by doing it.

BOWMAN: That's Brigadier General Robert Abrams, the youngest son of Creighton Abrams.

Brig. Gen. ABRAMS: We can't run this thing. They've got to run it. The nearer we can get to that the better off they are and the better off we are.

BOWMAN: And that quote is included deep in Petraeus' counterinsurgency manual under the heading, "The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well." Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: I'm looking here at photos of some of the leaders who approved the clear and hold strategy in Vietnam 40 years ago. And also some of the civilians on the ground who were affected. You can see those photos at npr.org.

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