, Research Paper
A quarter of a century after the Fall of Saigon, Vietnam continues to exercise a powerful hold of the American psyche. No deployment of American troops abroad is considered without the infusion of the Vietnam question. No formulation of strategic policy can be completed without weighing the possibility of Vietnanization. Even the politics of a person cannot be discussed without taking into account his opinion on the Vietnam Ware. This national obsession with Vietnam is perfectly national when viewed from a far. It was the only war that the United States has ever lost. It defined an era of American history that must rank with the depression as one of this nation’s most traumatic. It concluded with Watergate and led many to believe that the United States was in decline. Even with the sobering effect of time, passions concerning American policy and behavior in Southeast Asia reach a level normally associated with sensitive social issues. To understand why, one must look at Vietnam in the proper context. American involvement occurred in the middle of, and was the most visible engagement, of the defining paradign of the post World War II era, the Cold War. Only through this prism can the Vietnam experience be defined.
One of the seven global powers entering World War II; the United States emerged as an undisputed “superpower.” Her economic and military night was overwhelming in a world ravaged by five years of total war. The only adversary of comparable power was a notion at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, the Soviet Union. As the vanguard of the communist world, the U.S.S.R.’s raison d’etve was the facilitate the overthrow of the global capitalist system and replace it with a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Thus the explicit mission of American Foreign policy after 1945 was opposition to communist advancement anywhere in the world. This took many forms and was backed by key assumption.
Central among then was the avoidance of a direct military confrontation between the Unites States and the Soviet Union. With the U.S.S.R. achieving nuclear capability in 1947 and both sides expanding their armed forces, a full out war was deemed unacceptable. The result of such a war was seen to be catastrophic to the survival of the planet. The lesson of the Korean War only reinforced this assumption. The infusion of Chinese troops quickly escalated the conflict and some American generals advocated the nuclear option against China. Wisely, President Truman rejected this and avoided drawing in the U.S.S.R. as active participants.
Avoiding a head on clash with the Soviets meant that the Cold War would have to be fought indirectly and on the peripheries. This strategy involved a positive and negative thirst. Positive in that the United States would actively support friendly states and allies. This support would encompass economic, military, and diplomatic aid. The most famous example is the Marshall Plan. By generously helping Western Europe rebuild after the war, the United States was able to effectively quash any Soviet designs in that part of the continent. It is sometimes forgotten how much popularity far-left parties had in certain countries. (France and Italy especially) immediately after the war, American involvement in Greece was another prime example. The United States provided a significant amount of support and material to help the Greek government suppresses a communist backed rebellion. Also, to a lesser extent, the Unites States supported the Shah of Iran in helping drive out Soviet troops who were reluctant to leave. Combined with the invasion of South Korea by the north. American policy makers forged another key assumption. On that would prove central to the Vietnam question. The U.S.S.R. was seen as an expansionist for that had to be countered at every turn possible. There could be no end the United States vigilance. A peaceful and calm co-existence was not viewed as being possible. One can view this version of strategic policy as the zero-sum game. In a zero sum world, every action has a good or bad effect, and your enemy’s gain, no matter how trivial, is a loss for you. Thus, any Soviet advancement comes at the direct expense of American prestige and position. Closely related to this worldview was what became famously known as the domino theory. If the United States allowed even a small and strategically unimportant state to fall into communist hands, she would be gravely damaged. This was because the communists would then use the country as a spring board to dominate the neighboring county and so and so on. Soon, all the countries of that region would fall into the soviet camp and the United States would become slowly encircled by communist states. Also the abandonment of an ally by the Unites States would shatter confidence of other countries in the determination of America to fight communism and could cause those countries to warm to the Soviet block.
Another assumption that American policy makers held was that the colonial system was obsolete and would have to be scrapped. They had both idealistic and pragmatic roots. The Unites States had always viewed itself as a beacon of freedom and democracy to other peoples and nations. As such, the majority of this nations elite always viewed colonialism with disdain. Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points reinforced this after the end of World War I. The self-determination of peoples was a main foundation of that vision. The Unites States thus sympathized with the nationalistic aspirations of people in the post-war world.
The final assumption made by American policy makers (military mostly) was that if the U.S. did find itself engaged in an armed conflict, superior America firepower would ultimately win out. No on challenged the premise that the Unites States was the most technologically advanced country in the world and that this transferred easily to the military. Only the U.S. boasted a fleet of nuclear-powered mega carries. Only the U.S. possessed long-range strategic bombers. American jets and submarines were unchallenged as the finest in the world. Given American economic might, her military leaders had no doubt that the United States would simply grind down and wear out opponents in a drawn-out conventional war.
As applied to Vietnam, these assumptions were transformed from beneficial guide points of sound policy to dogmatic assertions that precluded American leaders from carrying out a strategy suited to the unique situation of Vietnam.
Following World War II, France and her nationalist leader, Charles de Gaulle, was eager to regain control of her overseas colonies. This applied particularly to Vietnam. (Which had been taken over by the Japanese during the war) This was the first dilemma faced by American leadership. Roosevelt loathes de Gaulle and felt that a return to the status quo ante-bellum was unacceptable. However, as the prospect of a struggle with the Soviet Union began to loom ever longer, “Roosevelt retreated sharply from his earlier forth night stand…At Valta in February 1945, the President endorsed a proposal under which colonies would be placed in trusteeship only with the approval of the other country. In view of France’s announced intention to return to its former colony, this plan implicitly precluded a trusteeship for Indochina.” (p.14) This shift coincided with the growing fear of the Soviet Union and its global designs. “American skepticism about French policy in Asia continued to be outweighed by European concerns. In the spring of 1947, the Unites States formally committed itself to the containment of the Soviet expansion in Europe.” (p. 70) Because France was seen as an essential component of this strategy, American support for French designs in Vietnam was to become policy. As France was dragged deeper and deeper into war with nationalist rebels in Vietnam, American support grew more and more overt. The Unites States committed $133 Million in aid to the French in 1950. By 1952, the Unites States was now bearing more than 40 percent of the cost of the war and had established a stake in the outcome. The Geneva Conference proved to be a key landmark in American involvement in Vietnam. The Americans still clung to the fantasy that the French could hold on militarily. In fact, France was not willing to sacrifice what was needed to keep Vietnam. Also, in what was to become a reoccurring theme, the United States was unwilling and unable to separate nationalistic from communist aspirations. What many Vietnamese saw as a struggle to kick out the French colonizers and regain independence, the policy makers in Washington saw a sinister plot emanating from the corridors of Moscow and Beijing. “The only freedom that most Vietnamese wanted was not from Communism, about which they knew little and understood less, but from France and Communist-dominated though it was, the Vietnam was the only force in the country fighting for an independence which the France were persistently unwilling to grant.” (p. 47) This was perhaps the most damaging assumption that Washington made and found difficult the change. The White House and the Pentagon saw Ho Chih Migh was nothing more than a puppet of China and the U.S.S.R. They felt he was merely a minion doing the bidding of his masters in Beijing. The U.S. repeatedly rejected overtures by Ito, whose main goal was to eject the French. As it became more apparent that the French would be unable to hold on, American strategy shifted in 1955. American policy makers decided to build their assumptions around Ngo Dinh Dien. President Eisenhower was steadfast in his support of Dian and felt that there was no other option. He “never wavered in his conviction that the survival of an independent, non-communist government in South Vietnam was a vital strategic imperative for the United States.” (p.33)
When asked the reasons for America’s loss in Vietnam, many people reply that the military was never given a chance to truly win the war. Their hands were tied behind their backs. The leaders in Washington never gave the armed forces a green light to win. This argument has been made for over thirty years. It follows closely the assumption that America firepower would be too strong for anyone, let alone a poor third world country. But was this, or could it ever have been, the case in Vietnam. The military of the United States during the Cold War was structured so that that it could take on the forces of the Warsaw Pact on the plans of Central Europe. “The army was primarily geared to fighting a highly sophisticated, mechanichized war in Europe.” (p. 229) The terrain of Vietnam precluded this type of clash. Densely forested and mountainous, Vietnam was the last place a division of heavy tanks could enjoy success. It was a “light infantry war of several units, mostly rifle platoons and companies, rarely of formations larger than a battalion.” (p. 224) Thus, the army had to change tactics even while preparing for its main objective, defending Western Europe from Soviet aggression. The Air Force was also utilized heavily. From the enormous B-52 strategic bomber to the new FB-111 fighter-bomber and carrier-based fighters, the military utilized the latest that technology could offer. These included laser-guided “smart bombs,” chemical defoliants (Agent Orange and Napoleon) and cluster bombs. More bombs were dropped in Southeast Asia than in all of World War II. “Combat aircraft pilots and crews preformed exceptionally well under very tough conditions…enemy air defenses were the heaviest and most formidable ever encountered by our air and naval forces in history.” (p. 227) While the United States lost more than 55,000 people in the war, estimates of Vietnamese dead range in the lower millions. So why did the Vietnamese hold out militarily?
In the starkest terms, instead of fighting a communist backed army from North Vietnam, the United States was facing a war of national liberation that was the last thirty years. There was no way for the U.S. to win on military terms alone. It would have taken the complete annihilation of North Vietnam and the use of savage and brutal tactics in the South to “pacify” the population. Something in the order of German and Japanese behavior during World War II was needed. This would have been detrimental to any American goals and was thus unacceptable. American counterintelligence (something unimportant in a full-scale Nato-Warsaw clash) was also seriously lacking. Communications security was lax. “Because of our careless habits, talking in clear (uncoded) text over insecure phone or voice radio, and our frequent failure to use truly secret codes, the enemy all too often knew our planned moves well in advance.” (p. 232) The morale of troops suffered under such adverse conditions. The nations civilian and military leaders certainly never assumed that this could happen to American Gils. Many American soldiers no longer believe that they could win the war. Unlike the top brass, they were not fooled by their superior hardware. Many gained respect for their enemy. “They were hard core too. The enemy would do anything to win. You had to respect that. They believed in a cause. They had the support of the people. That’s the key that we Americans don’t realize yet. We can’t do anything in the military ourselves unless we have the support of the people.” (.p202)
By the end of 1968, American strategy began to change again. Domestic pressures played a very large part. The offensive had convinced many that the war was unwinable and Richard Nixon won the presidency partly on his pledge to make peace. This, not coincidentally, occurred at the same time that d?tente was becoming a byword in the relationship between the superpowers. A tentative policy of co-habitation (highlighted by the Helsinki accords of 1475) was to be followed by successive America presidents until Ronald Regan. This that in relations between Washington and Moscow was occurring at the same time that Nixon was preparing to visit Red China in pursuit of his triangulation policy. This policy was designed to use the growing Sino-soviet rift to the benefit of the Unites States. Arousal American withdrawal from Vietnam was certainly consistent with this new strategic shift. One of the main obstacles to relations with Beijing was Chinese displeasure with the huge American presence in Southeast Asia.
Nixon, however, could not simply walk away from Vietnam. He needed leverage at the negotiating table and elevating the American presence with more ground troops. His main objective was a “Vietnamization” of the war. This meant slowly turning over the bulk of the fighting to regular South Vietnamese troops. Fighting along the front lines became more integrated as South Vietnamese solders took their place next to American ones. While viewed to the American public as a success, Nixon’s Vietnamization was in shambles. Troops were poorly trained, ill paid, and badly led by their officers. This forced Nixon to pressure the North with a campaign of salvation bombing to cause unacceptable damage. Operation Linebacker II commenced in December of 1972. it involved 200 B-52’s and FB-111’s and F-4’s. It was aimed at “crippling the daily life of Hunoi and Itaiphony and destroying North Vietnam’s Ability to support Forces in South Vietnam.” (p. 138) The destruction caused by the B-52’s was legendary. A usual mission would drop 276 500 and 700 pound bombs in a rectangle one and a half miles long and half a mile wide. The North Vietnamese, however, had fortified their air defenses and brought down dozens of the massive bombers. Why did Nixon risk the prospect of d?tente and an arms control summit at this late stage in Vietnam? Nixon still believed in his core that regardless of the warning of relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, America could not afford to look weak in the face of communist aggression. As he said himself, “Both Halderman and Henry seem to have an idea – which I think is mistaken – that even if we fail in Vietnam we can still politically. I have no illusions whatever on that score, however. The U.S. will not have a credible foreign policy if we fail, and I will have to assure the responsibility for that development.” (p. 129)
Historians always have the luxury of looking at events in hindsight. There is no urgency in their analysis, no decisions to be made. This one can easily conclude that the Unites States tragic involvement in Vietnam could have been avoided had policy makers not formulated and then stuck to incorrect assumptions about Vietnam and its role in the overall strategic interests of the United States. The one sighted most often is the “domino theory.” All those premonitions of doom, that would befall the United States if Vietnam were “lost,” never occurred. Communism did not spread much further in Southeast Asia and America’s position in the world did not suffer for long. This is too facile of an analysis though. After Vietnam, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. His reign of terror was so grotesque that Vietnam itself had to intervene and expel them from power. The Soviet Union and China also refrained from too actively supporting communist insurgencies around the world. (Afghanistan excluded) The Soviets relied more on proxies such as the Cubans. Thus one can say that at the height of the Cold War, the United States put its own forces in battle to protect what it felt was a national interest, and even if it was not ultimately successful, showed a resolve that was not to be taken lightly.
Perhaps the most incorrect assumption was that Minh was a tool of the Soviets and Chinese and that Vietnam was going to become a belligerent state hostile to its neighbors. In fact, relations between Vietnam and China cooled considerably and even led to a brief border war between the two in the late 1970s. Vietnam also never became a threat to its region. While undoubtedly communist, Vietnam has never become a stridently aggressive Marxist state in the mold of North Korea, or even Cuba.
The Cold War was to the rubric with which America Foreign Policy was formulated during the post World War II era. Confrontation and what was thought to be an inevitable war with the Soviet Union became the starting point of all American Strategic thinking. In this context, the U.S.’s relations with all countries had to be looked upon with the Soviet Union and communism in mind. This particularly held true with regards to Vietnam. Having “lost” China and gone through a war on the Korean peninsula, American policy makers felt that any more communist aggression had to be stopped at all costs. Mixing in the fact that an important ally was intent about keeping her colony, and distrust of Ho Chih Minh and his regime all combined to draw the Unites States into a conflict that was neither winnable or so unimportant as to allow the United States to disengage itself.