The extent of the American victory in Vietnam was not apparent at the time. American strategic objectives in Vietnam were complex, and evolved over time as leaders in Washington came and went and as the situation on the ground matured. In general however, it was clear that Vietnam itself was not worth fighting for except as a battleground in the far larger struggle against global communism. In Vietnam, America demonstrated to other allied countries that it was prepared to sacrifice blood and treasure in that struggle. Vietnam eventually fell, but the Free World alliance system scarcely quivered, and within two decades Communism had been consigned to the ashbin of history.
Some thought that Afghanistan would be the Soviet's Vietnam, but it was not. The contrast could not be more striking. The USSR began its invasion in 1979 to support its puppet prime minister, who failed to extend power much beyond Kabul. The Soviets deployed more than 100,000 troops to Afghanistan [a fraction of the 500,000 American troop level in Vietnam]. In 1989, the final Soviet troops withdrew from an embarrassing war in Afghanistan that was seen as a waste of lives and money.
The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was an important turning point contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In 1988, President Gorbachev announced his intention to withdraw Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Over 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in Afghanistan in the 1980s, not even a third of the American losses in Vietnam. The last Soviet soldier left on 15 February 1989. The Berlin Wall came down on 09 November 1989, and with it crumbled the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union itself collapsed two years later, in December 1991.
Although the Cold War was the dominant feature of the post-1945 world, another momentous change in the international system took place concurrently: the end of Europe's five-century-long domination of the non-European world. Some one hundred new sovereign states emerged from the wreckage of European colonialism, and Cold War competition was promptly extended to many of these newstates.
The Vietnam War was the legacy of France's failure to suppress nationalist forces in Indochina as it struggled to restore its colonial dominion after World War II. Led by Ho Chi Minh, a Communist-dominated revolutionary movement-the Viet Minh-waged a political and military struggle for Vietnamese independence that frustrated the efforts of the French and resulted ultimately in their ouster from the region. Vietnam had gained its independence from France in 1954. The country was divided into North and South. The North had a communist government led by Ho Chi Minh. The South had an anti-communist government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.
The Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and Chinese intervention against the United Nations in Korea made U.S.-China policy a captive of Cold War politics. Those events also helped to transform American anti-colonialism into support for the French protectorates in Indochina, and later for their non-Communist successors. American political and military leaders viewed the Vietnam War as the Chinese doctrine of revolutionary warfare in action (using Chinese and Soviet arms, to boot).
The overarching geopolitical aim behind the United States' involvement in Vietnam was to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. To accomplish this aim, the United States supported an anti-communist regime known as the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in its fight against a communist take-over. South Vietnam faced a serious, dual-tracked threat: a communist-led revolutionary insurgency within its own borders and the military power of its communist neighbor and rival, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Preventing South Vietnam from falling to the communists ultimately led the United States to fight a major regional war in Southeast Asia.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) decided to commit American support troops to South Vietnam. Four thousand troops were sent in 1962. There has been an endless debate about what he would have done in Vietnam. He of course, did escalate American involvement by expanding the number of advisors there from 15,000 to 16,000. But there is evidence is there that he would not have Americanized the war to the extent that Lyndon Johnson did. He was skeptical of the military. He feared that the US could get bogged down in Vietnam. He had Secretary of Defense McNamara in 1962 to lay out plans for American withdrawal by 1965. On the day he left for Dallas Texas in 1963, he asked his policy advisor Mike Forrestall to lay plans for a full discussion of Vietnam including a full discussion on getting the United States out of there.
In the fall of 1963, American efforts to build a democratic bulwark against communism in South Vietnam were failing. President Kennedy struggled to get the Diem government and a communist insurgency--under control. On November 3, 1963 Ngo Dinh Diem died at the hands of his generals. Less than two weeks after President Diem's death, President Kennedy was assassinated.
After John Kennedy was murdered, Vice President Lyndon Johnson served the last fourteen months of Kennedy's term. He then was elected to his own full term. It began in January 1965. Much of his time and energy would be taken up by the war in Vietnam. By early 1964, America had about seventeen-thousand troops in Vietnam. The troops were there to advise and train the South Vietnamese military.
In March 1964, after visiting South Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recommended that the United States increase its aid to the Republic of Vietnam. Having later concluded that the South Vietnamese would be unable to defend themselves in any time that would not overstretch the patience of American public opinion, and that the costs of pulling out were tolerable, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara [in retrospect] concluded that the US ought to have withdrawn forces "either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following Diem's assassination or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political weakness in South Vietnam" [three other dates when a pull-out would have been possible and desirable: July 1965, December 1965, and December 1967].
In the latter part of 1964, there was a general feeling that the military situation in South Vietnam was deteriorating. Both Hanoi and Washington, thinking that they were losing, decided that a faster tempo of reinforcement was necessary to prevent defeat. On the ground, Ho Chi Minh, communist leader of the DRV, responded quicker than Johnson. In addition to political and technical cadres and replacements, he infiltrated regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) combat units into South Vietnam. By December 1964, a regiment of the NVA 325th Division was identified in the Central Highlands. The rest of the 325th was in action in the south by February 1965. US ground combat troops did not deploy to South Vietnam until March 1965.
To frustrate North Vietnamese and Viet Cong efforts, and in part to "contain" China, the United States eventually fielded an army of over 500,000 men and engaged in extensive air and naval warfare against North Vietnam. The American military effort provoked stiff domestic and international opposition, led to strained civil-military relations at home, and called into question many of the assumptions that had dominated US foreign and military policy since 1945, but failed to compel the enemy to do its will. In short, America's strategic culture was fundamentally altered in the jungles of Indochina.
The political leadership demanded restraint out of fear that an escalating conflict could cause an intervention by either China or the Soviet Union. These fears weighed heavily on President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was haunted by the twin images of President Harry Truman being branded as too soft on Communism after having "lost" China to the Communists in the first place, and again of Truman letting his generals (especially MacArthur) embroil him in a larger Korean War with the entry of China across the Yalu River. In light of his ambitious domestic agenda, which required robust economic and political support across the spectrum, Johnson would not relinquish control of the situation in Southeast Asia to the extent that it could derail his domestic plans in the press and in the public eye. The president had made a decision and a promise that the war would not seek an overthrow of the North Vietnamese regime. What seemed at the tactical level a bewildering array of restrictions and prohibitions was in fact an attempt by the leadership of this country to resolve the political problem of the spread of Communism without escalating into a larger war.
The phrase "credibility gap" gained wide currency as the war wore on. Who was deceived, and by whom? General Abrams described the RVNAF's performance in LAM SON 719 and in the early stage of the 1972 spring offensive as creditable. In November 1971 and again late in April 1972, he rated Lieutenant General Lam, who had mishandled the Laotian incursion and soon would be overwhelmed at Quang Tri, as "outstanding." In January 1973, Ambassador Bunker accepted General Weyand's assessment that the Military Region commanders were "the best they have been in a long time. . . . " In May 1974, the Defense Attaché in Saigon reported: "Tactically, . . . overall, RVNAF was triumphant. Ever improving . . . avenging . . . the debacle that signaled to the US in 1963-the ARVN could not go it alone." None of these appraisals can withstand scrutiny, but there is no reason to believe that the men who made them were dishonest. Any apparent deception was more likely self-deception.
Search and destroy was a faulty concept, given the sanctuaries, given the fact that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was never closed. It was a losing concept of operation. Allied forces in South Vietnam were never organized into a single combined command, but at lower levels many combined operations were conducted, with varying degrees of success. The war also demonstrated the advantages (and especially disadvantages) of tight operational control by the President, the National Security Council and the Department of Defense in Washington.
The North Vietnamese regime, which received outside assistance from the communist great powers, the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, proved a formidable adversary. Tet was an utter military and political defeat for the communists in Vietnam, yet a political disaster in the United States. Whether the United States should have heavily committed itself militarily to contain communism in South Vietnam remains a hotly debated topic. The debate is closely related to the controversy over whether the problems in Southeast Asia were primarily political and economic rather than military. The United States strategy generally proceeded from the premise that the essence of the problem in Vietnam was military, with efforts to "win the hearts and minds" of the South Vietnamese populace taking second place.
This transfer of the burden of combat, which began in earnest after the inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon in January 1969, came to be called Vietnamization. The United States would supply South Vietnam with weapons to defend itself, provide training, and maintain a shield behind which the South Vietnamese could expand their armed forces. Because the Nixon administration was determined to reduce U.S. casualties, especially among ground troop draftees, Vietnamizing the ground war took priority. Air power, applied by military professionals and volunteers, would have to provide the shield.
For the United States, Saigon's twenty-year ally, the results were more puzzling, and the abrupt defeat seemed to pose as many questions as it answered. What had caused the debacle and who was responsible? Were the South Vietnamese "stabbed in the back" by an American Congress reluctant to legislate further support for a war that seemed to have no end? Or, was the blame to be found closer to Saigon, in a domestic insurgency that South Vietnam had been unable to stamp out or in a host of internal problems that the American advisory effort had been unable to resolve? Given the almost limitless assistance that the United States had poured into South Vietnam, the lack of a successful American outcome appears almost inexplicable. Yet, what has been called "America's longest war" had both begun and ended with little American involvement. Perhaps it was never truly an American war, and a final assessment may conclude that the problems faced by the American advisory mission in Saigon were insurmountable and that, in the end, the South Vietnamese were simply "stabbed in the front" by a stronger, more determined enemy.
McNamara later wrote: "Were such high costs justified? Dean Rusk, Walter Rostow, Lee Kwan Yew, and many other geopoliticians across the globe to this day answer yes. They conclude that without US intervention in Vietnam, communist hegemony--both Soviet and Chinese--would have spread farther through South and East Asia to include control of Indonesia, Thailand, and possibly India. Some would go further and say that the USSR would have been led to take greater risks to extend its influence elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East, where it might well have sought control of the oil-producing nations."
The millions of Vietnamese who died, and were maimed and poisoned and dispossessed by the American invasion, have little place in modern history, not to mention the estimated 60,000 US veterans who took their own lives in the decades after the War.
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