Winning Vietnam

The flood of humanity, which descended on the city, compounded the fear that had gripped Saigon for almost a month. Chaos and violence boiled over into every corner of the last bastion of South Vietnamese government control. More than a million refugees fought like animals to secure a spot on the shrinking numbers of American aircraft departing for some unknown place that was assumed to be safer than Vietnam under communist rule.[1] In the last days of April 1975 as the mortar fire and rockets grew closer to the center of the city the clank of tanks followed their detonation.[2] The communists were coming and panic prompted many South Vietnamese to risk life and limb by clinging to a helicopter skid or the wing of a taxiing plane. In a last plea for mercy, mothers tossed their babies into the laps of marines or lucky passengers who had found a seat on a helicopter. South Vietnamese soldiers (ARVN) often resorted to using their American issued M-16 rifles to clear a path for themselves to an aircraft. The orphaned babies had to be cast back into the crowd and the faces of the ARVN criminals connected with a rifle butt swung by angry marines as they attempted to board the aircraft. As the last Americans left, the North Vietnamese Army quickly arrived to occupy all that had been South Vietnam.

Americans watched their television screens as human beings lost their grip on helicopters and fell to their deaths. The final curtain dropped on the Vietnam War. For many Americans the scenes conjured the first feeling of defeat. Every one looked for someone to blame: inept generals, presidents, the media, and communist agitators on college campuses, South Vietnamese apathy, or lastly, the American soldier. In truth, it was a combination of them all, but primarily a continuation of flawed foreign policies spanning five presidencies. Could the Vietnam War have been decisively concluded with an American victory? The answer is not only yes, but also on several occasions throughout the United States’ extended involvement.

As historian Stanley Karnow explained, Vietnam was a series of “squandered opportunities,” beginning with the United States’ concessions to the return of French colonial control following World War II.[3] America’s complicity in Vietnam began with the best of intentions: an effort to place another country in the democratic column rather than let it be absorbed into the Communist bloc – China or Soviet Russia. However, at the end of World War II, Vietnam presented a unique opportunity to build the coveted democracy based on and modeled after that of the United States without firing a shot.

Ho Chi Minh, the man who held the longest influence over Vietnamese nationalist movement and later reunification, declared his country’s independence in the spirit and model of the United States on 2 September 1945.[4] He believed at the time the free nations of the world, and especially his idyllic United States, would deny France’s return to the brutal and corrupt colonial rule they had inflicted upon the Vietnamese people before World War II. Like most colonial powers, France had used Vietnam’s people and natural resources as a commodity to advance their position among the great world powers.

Vietnam was a productive agrarian country prior to the arrival of the industrial age and the discovery of resources that made a modern nation function. The Vietnamese farmer typically lost his land to the French and he and his family were often displaced until they found employment in coalmines, with the railroad or on rubber plantations.[5] On the Michelin rubber plantation alone 12, 000 workers died between the two world wars.[6] The conditions were in reality far short of employment, they were simply slave labor. Most humiliating to the former landholders was being forced to pay outrageously high and ubiquitous taxes to fund their own subjugation under colonialism. When the Great Depression of the 1930s caused high unemployment the peasants and working-class began to seize their former property and strike.[7] During these years, Ho, dedicated to nationalism in any form, developed an interest in communism which appeared to value the peasant over the master.[8] The peasant majority, desperate to shake off colonialism and improve their lot, would, in fact, become Ho’s insurgency in the forthcoming First Indochina War against the French, and later the Americans.

After the democratic nations turned their back on Vietnam’s quest to become an independent nation, Ho and his most successful general, Vo Nguyen Giap, designed a military strategy around a prolonged guerrilla war against the better armed and larger French army.[9] In what could be seen as a betrayal of their own anticolonial history and policies, the United States began to fund and supply the French campaigns in Vietnam.[10] In turn, the Chinese Communists and the Russians began to aid the Vietminh (Vietnamese Communists).

The reasons behind the intervention by the United States and Russia had little to do with the backwater countries of Southeast Asia. After World War II a fanatical paranoia of the Red Menace (communist expansion) permeated every American household and government agency. Tangible evidence supporting the threat appeared after the war when the Soviets occupied most of Eastern Europe and instituted a communist state in East Germany. The situation grew dangerously tense in 1948 when Russia blockaded West Berlin – saved only by an unprecedented American airlift. The Berlin blockade was the first of many standoffs between the two largest superpowers during the Cold War. The domino theory, which stated that if one small country, such as Vietnam, fell to communism it could create a chain reaction allowing communism to topple its neighbor and so on developed in the early years of the Cold War.

Applying the domino theory, there appeared only two options for the U.S.; abandon the French in Vietnam or support them and become a vicarious party to their colonial brutality.[11] If Europe was to be saved from further communist expansion, so the theory went, France had to be one of the main buffers against Soviet conquest. The French therefore placed the Eisenhower and then the Kennedy administrations in a situation just short of blackmail and, in turn, more and more American materiel and aid went toward funding France’s war in Vietnam.[12]

As the United States increased its involvement in Vietnam so did China and the Soviet Union. By the time the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu undermined the French negotiations in Geneva, America was paying for almost 80 percent of France’s war.[13]          The Geneva Conference of 1954 ended the First Indochina War and dissected Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel into two countries.[14] The South remained in the hands of elites who had been – as the Vietminh might say, French puppets, most notably the anticommunist, Catholic, and cunningly ambitious Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The communists essentially following Ho Chi Minh governed the North. The crucial stipulation to the agreement was to sponsor free elections and reunification in 1956. Diem refused to carryout the election and assumed permanent rule over South Vietnam. The French remained but slowly faded away until the U.S. was left with the dilemma of whether to assume the role of the French or gamble that the South Vietnamese could stand on its own. The theory that went hand-in-hand with the domino was “nation building;” the concept that aid could be poured into unstable countries such as South Vietnam to build an infrastructure, fund a government administration and army, instill confidence and pride within the population for the nation (a nationalist mindset), and create a stable democratic nation. It had been the wishful counterbalance to communist expansion. Theoretically the United States could outpace the communists in nation building and tilt the scales of world order. As each administration dealt with the Vietnam issue, the philosophy of nation building grew more prevalent with few examples of success. To the Western mind, all people wanted democracy and were willing to fight and die for it. South Vietnamese proved to be an exception to the rule.

The South had long since been assimilated into the French and Western culture and economy. Only Vietnamese who had surrendered their Southeast Asian character and governance to the French prized colonialism or American control. The South had in fact become followers devoted only to self-serving advancement. No surprise that their juvenile efforts at independence made them prideful yet disciples to the French, Japanese, Americans and finally the communist North. Had the U.S. not ignored these facts, perhaps they would have understood that their cause in Vietnam had moved from good intentioned to baseless.[15] The North on the other hand never wanted foreign interference, only a unified nation; it is hard to argue with such reasoning as unjust.

The main problem with the administrations from Eisenhower to Nixon was their generals made the profoundly American mistake of fighting the last war. All four presidents and their generals were products of World War II and Korea, both conventional battlefields with stagnant frontlines and discernable objectives and terrain to be taken and held.[16] Giap’s success against the French through guerrilla warfare denied the U.S. the luxury of fighting their kind of war.[17] Communist cadres infiltrated the villages and did what few Americans or South Vietnamese were able to accomplish, win hearts and minds.[18] The Vietcong (Vietnamese Communists) controlled most of the countryside, sometimes through torture, murder, rape and threat, but generally through liberal amounts of propaganda and education into the communist way of life.[19]

Late in the war, the Americans were employing similar techniques in the countryside and were making good progress in spite of ARVN corruption and offenses equal to those of the worst of the Vietcong. It was also true that as Nixon’s withdrawal of American ground forces came to fruition, small special operations units and American led ARVN rangers were meeting and beating the Vietcong guerrilla at his own game.[20] With the practice of combined arms, small elite teams were easily pinpointing and coordinating surgical bombing and artillery strikes against a once seemly invisible enemy.

The conventional war that the U.S. was waging until 1968 accomplished little tactical progress. In January 1968 the Vietcong launched a massive series of synchronized attacks against several urban centers in South Vietnam, including Saigon, Danang and Hue. The Tet Offensive came during the Tet New Year under the guise of a ceasefire the North had put in place. The most contested battle, Hue, required all of February to root-out and eliminate the Vietcong.[21] The North Vietnamese regular reinforcements and resupply promised to the insurgencies were never dispatched. Mostly hemmed-in in small pockets within the cities, the Vietcong were nearly destroyed as a fighting force; they remained relatively ineffective for the next four years.[22] While defeated on the battlefields of Vietnam, Tet had fortuitously ushered in the victory the North needed to win the war. On the American home front people who had already grown tired of the war, stuck close to their TV screens as Tet unfolded in all its gory detail. Back home, American soldiers, typically not infantrymen, were seen running, shooting, and dying to take back key symbols of America abroad, like the U.S. Embassy. Then came the aftermath, civilians dumped like garbage in mass graves after being executed by the Vietcong and the disgrace of watching America’s supposedly civilized South Vietnamese counterparts executing prisoners in the street. The war now appeared senseless and antiwar protests rose to new heights after Tet. The American public had lost its will to support the war. For the men in Washington public opinion kept them in office. Without doubt, Vietnam contributed to Lyndon Johnson’s not seeking reelection. Johnson had been asked to fill the shoes of John Kennedy, assassinated only weeks after Diem was removed by a military coup and executed in an act of personal vengeance. Johnson had struggled with Vietnam but was guilty of escalating American ground forces to their peak numbers and sending relentless sorties over North Vietnam in strategic bombing raids. He had, in fact, caused the fabrication of the Tonkin incident, the act that sent America to war in Vietnam.

More than any other president, Johnson neglected the opportunity to deescalate Vietnam and choose more suitable terrain to fight the Cold War on, namely in Europe.[23] Johnson was, however, not a president equipped for foreign affairs and his ignorance of Eastern culture and tradition created an obsession for South Vietnam he could not bring himself to look away from.[24] In the end, he sacrificed his beloved domestic programs to finance the war. As he grew more lost to escape Vietnam, the public lamented louder for him to do what to him was impossible. That year, the Democratic convention turned into a warzone between antiwar protestors and police.[25]

The new president, Richard Nixon, perhaps sensing better than any before him the currents carrying the communist superpowers made overtures to China and Russia – both at each others throats and both seeking better relations with the U.S. In theory his, Vietnamization, relinquishing the responsibility of fighting to the South Vietnamese looked encouraging on paper, but it was simply another false hope.[26] The final diplomatic gambit, though, was to enlist the communist giants to coax their Hanoi followers to peace talks. While the administration pushed to expedite the ceasefire agreement or face a possible civil war at home, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu, remained unwilling to acquiesce to North Vietnamese.[27] Withdrawal of the North Vietnamese communists in South Vietnam was at the heart of the sticking points.

In 1972 as visits by Nixon to Beijing and Moscow diluted the proposition of continued aid to Hanoi, their Army, intent on occupying as much territory as possible before a ceasefire was declared, surged into South Vietnam.[28] With Vietnamization of the South’s armed forces almost complete, public opinion prevented Nixon from returning American ground forces to the battles, though it was the battlefield the U.S. military had prepared for. Instead, he renewed the B-52 heavy bomber strikes on North Vietnam with a fury. North Vietnamese delegates quickly returned to the peace talks. Thieu, who had fought more against peace than his army had on the battlefield, finally gave in and on 27 January 1973 the long war ended. Few were naïve enough to believe that the North Vietnamese communists would cease further incursions into the South permanently.[29]

By 1973 high-level military officers agreed that North Vietnam was nearly defeated by the bombing. After Tet exhausted the Vietcong, Giap reverted to conventional tactics.[30] The strategy that held that American airmobile forces could be inserted on top of the NVA, with large numbers of artillery and infantry before Giap’s army could melt into Cambodia or Laos had proved successful. If the U.S. would have combined and introduced the totality of winning strategies after 1972, the North might have capitulated within the year. However, it was the American people who labeled Vietnam as a military loss and they were the major collaborator who made it so.


[1] Mark Atwood Lawrence, The Vietnam War: An International History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 174-175.

[2] Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin, 1997), 682

[3] Karnow, Vietnam, 644.

[4] Lawrence, The Vietnam War, 17

[5] Karnow, 129.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lawrence, 6.

[8] Karnow, 136, 518.

[9] Ibid, 20.

[10] Ibid, 192.

[11] Lawrence, 13.

[12] Karnow, 184.

[13] Ibid, 185, 209.

[14] Ibid, 218.

[15] Ibid, 503.

[16] Ibid, 515.

[17] Lawrence, 93.

[18] Lawrence, 41; Karnow, 476.

[19] Karnow, 254-255.

[20] Lawrence, 139.

[21] Karnow, 538.

[22] Lawrence, 122.

[23] Ibid, 64.

[24] Karnow, 496.

[25] Lawrence, 132.

[26] Lawrence, 165; Karnow, 514.

[27] Lawrence, 161.

[28] Karnow, 655.

[29] Lawrence, 168.

[30] Karnow, 618.