I spent the summer of 1977 studying at New College, Oxford as part of The Ohio State University’s program. While I was there, I had the good fortune to meet retired General William B. Rosson, who had served in Vietnam as a Division Commander, a Corps Commander and as General Westmoreland’s chief of staff. General Rosson was at Oxford earning a Master’s Degree in International Relations. (In response to my collaborator’s question, even though General Rosson could get any job in the field in the private sector, he was earning an advanced degree because he jolly well wanted.)
He was close to sixty years old at the time, but to say he was an imposing figure would be quite an understatement. He was built like an NFL linebacker. I later learned that he had been wounded in the fighting at Salerno in 1943 and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. (That’s just one down from the Congressional Medal of Honor.) I also later learned that he held two other distinctions: of the Army’s ten four-star generals, he was the only one not to have attended West Point and was the only life-long bachelor in the bunch. (Editorial comment: any soldier who can attain the rank of full General without being a member of the WPPA must have been extraordinarily.) He also once had been the Superintendent of the U.S. Army War College in Leavenworth, Kansas and Commander of the Green Berets.
Rosson had a sense of humor. Once, while serving as liaison to a British Army unit, they got a visit from Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, a man known for having a very high opinion of himself and no gift for diplomacy. On this occasion, Montgomery announced that he had earned thirty-eight ribbons and then asked each officer present how many ribbons they had. Rosson managed to keep a straight face when he replied, “Thirty-nine.” (Word has it, after that, Rosson was very popular with his British colleagues.)
I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss matters of national security, military history and more with General Rosson on three occasions for a total of five hours. One thing that stays in my mind more than thirty years later is that I asked him why we didn’t, in effect, let the Navy win the Vietnam War by mining and blockading the port of Haiphong. As any student of the Conflict knows, eighty-five percent of all North Vietnamese war materiel entered the country through that port. In 1962, we “quarantined” Cuba to prevent further missile shipments to that country, while the Soviets were outraged, they didn’t dare risk a confrontation with the world’s strongest Navy in America’s front yard.
In 1972, President Nixon finally mined Haiphong Harbor, shutting the port down. It was six weeks later that the North Vietnamese finally signed the Peace Accord. I mentioned that I was aware that, in the closing months of WWII, B-29s had dropped mines in Japan’s coastal waters to attack Japanese merchant shipping with absolutely spectacular results. By V-J Day, Japanese imports were down 90%. Rosson told me that he thought that would have been an excellent idea and that the civilian leadership refused to agree to that step. It is, of course, the knee-jerk response that, had we done the same thing in 1964, the Soviets would have, the very same day, launched an all-out nuclear attack resulting in billions of deaths, the end of civilization and the extinction of not only the entire human race, but the spotted owl as well.
It was not until quite recently, during one of my web surfing expeditions, that I learned that, not only General Rosson, but General Westmoreland, Admiral U. S. Grant Sharpe, the Pacific Theater Commader: Admiral Moorer, the Chief of Naval Operations, and General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all supported the measure. However, Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Nixon rejected that idea.
I was stunned to learn that U.S. planes did mine many of North Vietnam’s navigable rivers, but avoided Haiphong because of possible political repercussions.
There are many sad legacies of the Vietnam War. One of the saddest, I believe, is Lyndon Johnson refusing to use a potentially devastatingly effective weapon. President Nixon also failed to use it for almost another four years. There is no question that, in America, the military is subject to civilian control. However, when an Administration repeatedly ignores the advice of its top military advisors, they bear a terrible responsibility for the defeat America suffered in Vietnam. To ask Harry Truman’s question, where does the buck stop?
A short postscript about General Rosson: He died in 2004, but in the year after he earned his degree at New College, he married for the first time at the age of fifty-eight. He married a woman named Bertha Mitchell. (No relation.)