Understanding the Abrams Doctrine and post-Vietnam U.S. force structure policy

Event details

IR Seminar Series

Date & time

Monday 16 November 2020


Online Zoom event
ANU Canberra


James Blackwell


Nicolas Lemay-Hebert

In the immediate period surrounding the end of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. Army undertook a fundamental restructure of their active and reserve forces, linking them together under the Total Force Policy in such a way as to be inseparable in mobilisation.

The prevailing academic view for many years was that the motivation behind this decision was political in nature, with the Army, disturbed by the flouting of convention and the effect an unpopular war had on American society, implementing the Total Force Policy restructure to create an “extra-constitutional tripwire on the presidential use of military power” to prevent the President from entering unpopular conflicts.

Yet theoretical and empirical evidence does not support this. Claims that the Army, under then-Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams, acted with political intent makes little sense when you consider the prevalence of Huntingtonian civil-military theory relations in the Army at the time, as well as further documentary evidence from the U.S. Army War College Archive, which shows a very different narrative to the mainstream view.

The policy was intended to force a strategic transformation on the Army following the end of the Draft & move to the All-Volunteer Force, as well as Congressionally directed budgetary manpower drawdowns following the end of the War. The policy was designed to maintain strategic relevance and supremacy in the event of conflict with the Soviet Union. There was no intent by policymakers to create a forcing function on the executive, despite later claims to the contrary.

This is a work-in-progress to try and examine the broader implications for international relations, defence policy, and civil-military relations of this somewhat obscure moment in political history. What can we glean from this moment and the representations around it, and the context it still creates?

James Blackwell is Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales, as well as a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University; in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, and the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.

A proud Wiradjuri man, he is one of Australia’s only practicing Aboriginal international relations academics, writing and speaking about U.S. electoral politics, defence policy, and global Indigenous movements. Outside of international relations he is an Indigenous public policy researcher, specialising in higher education policy, Australian First Nations constitutional reform, and racial cultural competency in practice.

He is a member of the Uluru Dialogue Leadership Group, supporting implementation of the Uluru Statement and a Voice to Parliament.

To join this seminar:
Passcode: 770658
Meeting ID: 86218986963

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