Government and International Relations Honors Papers

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William Rose

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This thesis analyses the extent to which the Coast Guard and the Brown Water Navy were successful in carrying out a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign during the Vietnam War (1950-1973). I use Dr. John Nagl’s organizational theory as a guide to my research. This theory states that in order to carry out a successful COIN campaign a military service must first become a learning institution able to adapt to the population-centric nature of COIN operations. Dr. Nagl focused his research on the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps in Vietnam and created a clear picture of the efforts of these two services. He noted that the Army was unable to become a learning institution and this contributed to their failure in Vietnam. The Marines, on the other hand, experienced some success in their CORDS program. Dr. Nagl’s work provides insights into the activities of the U.S. military on land, but leaves out the operations that took place on Vietnamese waterways. In looking at Nagl’s work and at other literature surrounding the Vietnam War it is clear that a gap exists the when it comes to the analysis of the maritime services’ contributions in Vietnam. There is a rich literature surrounding the history of maritime and riverine operations in Vietnam; however, there has been no theory-informed analysis done to explore to what extent these operations were successful. My thesis will expand upon Nagl’s work in order to help close the gap in the literature. The work examines how successful maritime services, namely the Coast Guard and Brown Water Navy, were at carrying out COIN operations in Vietnam in order to provide a more complete picture of the entire U.S. military effort during the Vietnam War. A central point to this work is that success in COIN is not necessarily the same as a military victory. Counterinsurgents can be successful and still fail to achieve a military victory, as was the case with the Coast Guard and Brown Water Navy in Vietnam. Both the Coast Guard and the Brown Water Navy were able to find success in COIN; however, that success did not lead to an overall U.S. victory.

The Coast Guard and Brown Water Navy’s paths to success were quite different. The Coast Guard had many elements of a learning organization before the Vietnam conflict. This meant that they were in many ways more prepared as an organization for the situation in Vietnam. The unique institutional culture of the Coast Guard played a major part in the Coast Guard’s ability to find success in Vietnam. The Brown Water Navy was created to patrol the vast network rivers and canals in Vietnam. Although this was not the first time the Navy was involved in riverine operations, at the time there was little established doctrine to guide the Brown Water Navy’s operations. This lack of doctrine allowed the commanders of the Brown Water Navy to create their own doctrine. Through the leadership of these commanders, the Brown Water Navy became a learning institution and successfully carried out their portion of the COIN campaign. Unfortunately, because of the small size of the Coast Guard and Brown Water Navy, and the services’ focus on the waterways, their successes were unable to translate to overall United States success or victory in Vietnam.

Although the success of the Coast Guard and Brown Water Navy did not lead to a U.S. victory in Vietnam, this success points to ways in which the two services could contribute to modern COIN campaigns. As the Joint Chiefs of Staff continue to think about create new doctrine to counter insurgents and other unconventional opponents it is important to include all U.S. assets including the Coast Guard and Brown Water Navy.



The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.