Military


Vietnam - Can you Tell Me Please, Who Won?

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.

The eventual victory of Moscow's North Vietnamese clients did lead to a more aggressive Soviet foreign policy, culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

The idea of victory, let alone decisive victory, was very much out of style during the Cold War. The theory and practice of limited war in the nuclear age was more concerned to minimize the risks of escalation to nuclear holocaust than to win the conflict of the day. That changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War; indeed so much so that from 1989 to 2003, with the painful exception of Somalia, the United States had known nothing but victory in its exercise of military power.

It is reasonably clear from the documents available that in 1964–65 many of the most important policymakers in the United States government considered the problems in Vietnam to be one more part of a larger Communist effort to change the “correlation of forces" to a position more favorable to the so-called Communist bloc. The impression given was that the problems in South Vietnam were but a small part of a much larger problem.

In another white paper of 1965 entitled “Aggression from the North: The Record of North Viet-Nam’s Campaign to Conquer South Viet-Nam," the Department of State asserted that “above all, the war in Viet-Nam is not a spontaneous and local rebellion against the established government." In the State Department’s view, “a Communist government has set out deliberately to conquer a sovereign people in a neighboring state." And in a final reference to other Communist-sponsored struggles, the State Department proclaimed that “North Viet-Nam’s commitment to seize control of the South is no less total than the commitment of the regime in North Korea in 1950."

The American perception, right or wrong, placed the Vietnam War in the context of a worldwide struggle with communism, a struggle controlled and directedby Moscow and Peking. The struggle in Vietnam was not, at least in the State Department’s view, a civil war for control of a nation that had been artificially divided by foreign powers in 1954. Rather than facing an enemy in Vietnam motivated by the passions of nationalism, the United States and its allies were facing a coldly calculating enemy operating as part of a much larger struggle for world power, again in the State Department’s view. Because the US government maintained that the situation in South Vietnam was part of a much larger Communist effort, it was only natural that senior government officials would be wary of the possibility of uncontrolled military escalation.

Perhaps the most direct public expression of American concerns about possible Chinese intervention came from President Lyndon Johnson on 7 April 1965. Speaking in Baltimore, Johnson raised the spectre of Chinese ambitions in Asia, and resurrected memories of the Korean conflict. "Over this war—and all Asia—is another reality: the deepening shadow of Communist China. The rulers in Hanoi are urged on by Peiping. This is a regime which has destroyed freedom in Tibet, which has attacked India, and has been condemned by the United Nations for aggression in Korea. It is a nation which is helping the forces of violence in almost every continent. The contest in Viet-Nam is part of a wider pattern of aggressive purposes." Lyndon Johnson faced many of the same problems in Vietnam that Harry Truman faced in Korea.Johnson’s principal problems were to fight the war successfully without widening the conflict to include intervention by the major Communist powers.

Casting the Vietnam conflict as part of a much larger world-wide struggle meant that American objectives in Vietnam would be part of a much broader agenda, much of which would have only tenuous connections with Vietnam itself. The stakes wagered in Vietnam, from the American point of view, included American credibility and reputation, the stability and strength of Western defense arrangements and alliances, and the deterrence of other aggressive Communist ventures.

Unheralded Victory complements a recent spate of books, the best of which are Michael Lind's Vietnam: The Necessary War and Lewis Sorley's A Better War, which attack the myth that the US military was defeated by the communist forces in Vietnam. The respective authors stress that US forces defeated the enemy in the field; nevertheless, victory was not achieved. These arguments contains elements of truth, but to declare military victory over the communist forces is superficial, naive, and - to invoke the famous rejoinder made to Harry Summers when he first ventured this interpretation to a North Vietnamese general­ "it is also irrelevant."

Michael Lind's justification of America's war in Southeast Asia directly contradicts other recent studies, such as Fredrik Logevall's Choosing War and Robert S. McNamara's Argument Without End. Michael Lind, Washington Editor for Harper's magazine, examines the American military response to North Vietnamese aggression; American credibility during the cold war; domestic politics; and constitutional aspects of the conflict.

Lind's premise is that the war was unwinnable, but that it had to be fought for American credibility. He places the war's center of gravity in American public opinion rather than in the population of South Vietnam or the North Vietnamese army. In doing so, he can be blunt, as when he claims that members of the Western left who made excuses for the North Vietnamese land-reform terror were "apologists for state-sponsored genocide." One of his conclusions is that if the United States is to continue to be the dominant world power, "then American soldiers must learn to swim in quagmires." Viewing America's Southeast Asian adventure in the context of the cold war, Lind regards it not as a crime, betrayal, or tragic error, but as an unavoidable confrontation.

Lind attacks both the right-wing contention that the U.S. could have won the war if only the politicians hadn't interfered with the military and the leftist orthodoxy that maintains the U.S. should never have become involved in the first place. Lind treats Vietnam as simply another battle in the Cold War, no different in principle from Korea or Afghanistan or any other Cold War confrontation. As such, it was both necessary and proper to intervene in Vietnam; a failure to do so, he asserts, would have permitted the Soviet Union and China to tighten their grip on the Third World. But once the U.S. committed itself, Lind argues, presidents Johnson and Nixon were obliged to fight a limited war in order to avoid the very real possibility of China entering the fray (just as it had done in Korea).

If anything, Lind says, "the Vietnam War was not limited enough." Johnson allowed the U.S. military commanders to wage an expensive war of attrition that killed too many U.S. soldiers too fast and eroded public support for both the conflict in Vietnam and for the Cold War in general. The principal culprits in Lind's analysis are Johnson, General Westmoreland and other US military commanders for their misguided tactics; Nixon, for his quixotic attempt to salvage "peace with honor," during which an additional 24,000 soldiers died needlessly; and the antiwar left, which swallowed much of Ho Chi Minh's propaganda.

Lewis Sorley notes that once General Creighton Abrams succeeded William Westmoreland, Abrams completely transformed the war effort and in the process won the war on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese 1968 Tet offensive was bloodily repulsed, as was a similar offensive in 1969. Together, the 1970 American incursion into Cambodia and a 1971 Laotian operation succeeded in reducing enemy combat effectiveness. Renewed American bombing of the North and Abrams's use of air power to assist ground operations further reduced Hanoi's ability to wage war. But the combination of anti-war protests in America and a complete misunderstanding of the actual combat situation by the diplomats negotiating the 1973 Paris accords wasted American military victories.



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