Defeated by Ourselves: The American Perspective on Vietnam

By Gary Burns

For more than a thousand years the Southeast Asian country the modern world would come to know as Vietnam was menaced by the most powerful nations of the time. In her quest for unification and self-determination Vietnam became the always painful and often crippling thorn in the tiger’s paw. As the great tigers, China, France, Japan, Russia and the United States, through the centuries endeavored to tame and control Vietnam; their motives for doing so frequently remained an enigma, even to them. What was certain, as each great power released its feeble grasp, what always remained was Vietnam.

By the end of April 1975, as the last Americans escaped Saigon and the North Vietnamese juggernaut subdued the final bastions and symbols of the South Vietnamese government, Americans everywhere were asking themselves, had any of it been worth the price paid? The United States had set out to halt communist expansion, on the surface it appeared with the country of Vietnam in complete control of the Vietnamese Communists that had been a failure. The world, however, was more than Vietnam. Vietnam had tied up the great powers for two decades, draining their military and domestic budgets, however, in spite of the postwar depletion of America’s armed forces and public opinion’s loss of innocence, the United States was forced to creation new strategy to win the Cold War. The Vietnam War was the catalyst for that eventual victory over communism.

On 27 July 1953 the ceasefire agreement halted hostilities between Communist forces and the armies of several democratic nations, the latter largely made up of American combat troops. With the ceasefire in place what might be construed as the last conventional war between communism and the United States and its allies ended and the Cold War resumed with a new level of intrigue and clandestine strategies. As had been the case of China and Russia during World War II, Ho Chi Minh had aliened himself and his fighters in Vietnam with the Allied forces struggling against the Japanese Empire. He had been an ardent proponent of American democracy since his early encounters with that system of government during World War I. In spite of his being snubbed by the Wilson administration while attempting to solicit recognition from the United States in effort to break free of French colonial rule, Ho remained steadfast to the idea of independence by the American model. As Ho declared his nation’s independence on 2 September 1945, his bonds with the United States were already unraveling, thanks mainly to the embryonic paranoia of communist domination seeping into the American psyche and Vietnam’s trifling role on the world stage at the time.[1]  With the United States’ tenacious funding and materiel aid to China during the war, they had good reason to fear the seemingly epidemic spread of communism as the former ally bolted into the communist column under the banner of 400 million peasants led by Mao Tse-Tung.[2] Russia went on a territory-grabbing spree after the war and they more than any communist government set out on a campaign to challenge America’s hardline opposition to Leninism and Marxism. Ho, though soon caught in the crossfire of the great powers, probably had no idea at the end of the world war what suffering lay ahead for his once irrelevant French colony. He and his people would meet it with the same resilience and courage they had since Vietnam’s people had found a common kinship.

[1] Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin, 1997), 147.

[2] Samuel B. Griffith, Mao Tse-Tung on Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1961), 13.