Kelso High School
Rural scenes near Hanoi.
The Second Indochina War:
Why did the United States lose the war in Vietnam, and why did the North Vietnamese win?
Historian David Chandler, like most historians today, believes that the Second Indochina War was a conflict that the United States could never have won. French President Charles de Gaulle said to President Kennedy in 1962, "I predict that you will, step by step, be sucked into a bottomless military and political quagmire". Even General William Westmoreland said to writer Peter MacDonald, "The politicians in Washington just had no idea about the complexity of the situation in South Vietnam". The same could be said of the US military.
The US underestimated the force and strength of nationalism, supported by communism, in the war. At the same time they overestimated the threat of communism in the context of Cold War rhetoric. Similarly, the military genius of Vo Nguyen Giap was completely underestimated. After centuries of domination by Chinese, French and Japanese, the Vietnamese had emerged as one of the most potent militarist–nationalist forces in history. Nationalism was Ho's secret weapon.
Our objective was national independence... (Vo Nguyen Giap)
There is nothing in our history except struggle. Struggle against foreign invaders, always more powerful than ourselves... Because we had nowhere else to go, we had to fight things out where we were. After two thousand years of this, our people developed a very stable nervous system. We never panic. (Pham Van Dong)
The US misread the struggle that was taking place and resorted to military means as a solution when perhaps a diplomatic or political solution would have been wiser and easier. The US military involvement inexorably increased from the 1940s. De Gaulle said it all. There was no pressure placed on Diem to match the reform of the North, and thus the communists were allowed to run the race. The US should have insisted on elections and accepted the result in 1954.
If insurrection is an art, its main content is to know how to give the struggle the form appropriate to the political situation. (Vo Nguyen Giap)
The US and its allies intervened in what was essentially a local war, which some observe was a civil war. Such wars were not unusual in Vietnam's turbulent history. The Americans backed the wrong side; a weak and popularly disliked regime. The fear of Chinese expansion through Vietnam seemed to override all foreign policy considerations. In fact a bitter conflict emerged between the Chinese and Vietnamese as the People's Republic and the USSR fell out. Successive administrations in Washington misjudged the internal dynamics of Vietnam.
The struggle must build, however slowly. The way to win is by small defeats, one after the other until the coup de grace. (General Giap)
The US failed to develop a popular and democratic government in the South. The corrupt, inefficient and brutal despotic and military governments which emerged in the RVN diverted much US energy and policy. US and RVN propaganda did not match the reality, especially as the war was broadcast into the lounge rooms of America. Aid was thrown at the RVN without any conditions such as moves towards reform and democracy. Military dictatorships became oppressive, repressive, censorious, corrupt, and featured nepotism. A credible, popular, united alternative to the North was never offered.
It is my belief that socialism would motivate the farmers and the workers. (General Giap)
By escalating the conflict into the Cold War, the Americans, and to a lesser extent their allies, became increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. The Americans continually raised the stakes and were drawn into an international quagmire from which they could not easily extricate themselves. The more the US became involved, the more aid and support the Chinese and Soviets offered Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia. The lesson should have been learned when only a handful of nations actively supported the Americans.
It is impossible for Westerners to understand the force of the people's will to resist, and to continue to resist. The struggle of the people exceeds the imagination. It has astonished us too. (Pham Van Dong)
Media coverage made the people at home aware of the contradictions between the propaganda and the reality. This was the first televised war. Nightly images on television, especially after the Tet Offensive, radically altered public opinion against the war. It was the first war the Americans lost! The impact was devastating, especially as violent protest swept across the US. The Americans could no longer pretend that they were winning the unwinnable. A deep sense of moral decay set in after 1968.
US military tactics were wrong. They should have learned from the Vietnamese war against the Japanese and especially the French. The US tacticians and politicians firmly believed that massive military and industrial might would win out. The hearts and minds of the Vietnamese and Lao could never be won with the destruction wrought on peaceful villages by US B-52s and ground forces. The NLF and Vietcong used guerilla tactics to textbook perfection. The Americans never came to terms with this, although there is a case that the Australians did, following their experiences in the jungles of Malaya. Too many civilians were killed or wounded. This gave the Vietcong guerillas enormous political advantages as they won the hearts and minds of the locals. One old Vietnamese told this author in 1995 that the US and RVN "never controlled more than twenty metres either side of Highway 1" an exaggeration perhaps, but it is an appropriate metaphor. Technological superiority of the Americans did not translate into military success. The Americans could not win unless they turned Vietnam and Laos into wastelands.
The bastards have never been bombed like the way they're going to be bombed this time. (Richard Nixon)
The inability of the Americans to achieve a decisive victory meant that they became bogged down in a widening and open-ended war which began to alarm many in the administration. This allowed the anti-war movement to get the upper hand in America and thus undermine the morale of the "boys" in Vietnam. No army can fight a successful war without the support of the home front. This had been proved in the two World Wars. Many US servicemen did not know why they were in Vietnam or what they were fighting for. They made almost no attempt to understand the Vietnamese: "I know there is no way you can talk civilised to these people." (Corporal Mike Brown USMC at Khe Sanh) People in the administration such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara began to doubt the war.
I never thought that it would go on like this. (Robert McNamara)
Many military leaders and conservatives in America and Vietnam believed that civilians, the media and other politicians prevented a victory by a failure of will, especially after 1968. Again the Tet Offensive was decisive. Following Tet, Westmoreland's requests for an ever increasing number of men were turned down by Johnson. The military (and historian Stanley Karnow) argue that the Americans should have been involved in a large-scale commitment from the beginning. The gradual build up allowed the situation in the RVN to deteriorate and the North to gain the upper hand. The war became indecisive at a time when the military success of Tet should have been forced. Basically a war of attrition, such as the Americans waged, would never have succeeded against a strong and determined enemy.