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Why did the US lose the war in Vietnam?

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James Ferns looks at how the world's biggest military power lost in Vietnam and what lessons we should take from this for the anti-war movement today

The US was (and is) the most powerful economic and military force in the world. Their no.1 position is maintained by intervention into countries they deem ‘hostile to US interests’. But superpower status has not always brought victory. In 1973, after 58,000 Americans had lost their lives in Vietnam, they had been defeated. This is despite outstripping North Vietnam and the VC’s peasant guerrillas completely. How can we understand this failure and what lessons does it hold for those opposed to US imperialism in the future?

To answer this we must examine the Vietnam War on two fronts. Firstly, in Vietnam itself, paying attention to the effectiveness of the American military; the lack of legitimacy of the southern government, the Republic of Vietnam; the appeal of the VC politically and the effectiveness of the National Liberation Front militarily. Secondly, in America domestically, examining the anti-war movement alongside financial burdens.

Geo-politics

The geopolitical struggle spurned on by the Cold War set the stage for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In 1954, after a long struggle, the resistance movement known as the Viet Minh broke French colonial rule in Vietnam. July of that year saw the signing of the Geneva accords by the Viet Minh, France, Britain, The People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union, which divided Vietnam on the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh took control of the North while the French would oversee the South until elections promised in 1956. By 1956 a new power had rose in the South which refused to allow elections, the following American backed regimes also refused to allow elections in the south. In 1957 the political organization and army known as the Viet Cong began attacks on the Southern regime. An openly communist political doctrine, as the Viet Cong’s claimed, was deemed a threat to American foreign policy, as  a communist Vietnam would trigger a ‘domino effect’ for other southeast Asian nations to ‘go red’. Therefore, financially, politically and militarily, backing any non-communist Southern government was deemed essential for the US.

American Military effectiveness

In evaluating the US military it is vital to understand that rather than ‘winning’ the war its role was directed towards holding back the Vietcong, until the Republic of Vietnam was able to become stable politically and militarily. There would have to be a perpetual US military presence in Vietnam until resistance to the RVN had ceased. This immediately put America at a disadvantage as its military strength had no means of engaging the social and economic factors generating the resistance.

Furthermore, the geopolitical climate dictated the terms of America’s involvement. A policy of total war including an all-out land invasion of North Vietnam or the use of atomic weapons was ruled out due to the risk of provoking Chinese or soviet military action. Indeed the American administration took the threat of a Chinese reaction very serious. For example the CIA office of current intelligence concluded ‘the Chinese communists in June 1965 began developing a limited number of military support units into North Vietnam’1. The massive casualties and global consequences of a war with the communist bloc would have been disastrous, and so the US from the outset could not extend its full military might.

In the North activity was limited to an aerial bombing campaign (pictured). Even this however had major drawbacks, for example a study from the state department found that ‘the bombing of North Vietnam had no significantly harmful effects on popular morale’. In reality, as a direct result of the bombing the North was able to instil an energetic war mentality in its population which provided it with more benefits than draw backs2. The North overcame the heavy bombing organizing 90,000 civilians and digging 30,000 miles of tunnels to keep transportation flowing3, additionally the predominantly agricultural economy was resistant to bombing. Furthermore the bombing campaign was widely inaccurate and killed indiscriminately, it was later found that 80% of all casualties were civilians4.

The air war not only failed to adequately harm the North it inversely rebounded upon the US in the form of casualties and costs, for example from 1965 to 1968 the US lost around 900 aircraft and over 800 pilots had lost their lives5. Furthermore by the end of 1972 the US had lost 3,689 fixed-wing aircraft plus 4,857 helicopters valued over at $10 billion6. The North Vietnamese as a result of the bombing developed a very effective anti-air craft system which in itself destroyed a quarter of US gunships7. It’s worth noting that before the bombing campaign the North had withheld its troops from the south in fear of US retaliation. Therefore in summery the air war had little negative impact upon the north and instilled in them a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude, as well as bringing into question the US’s international reputation, as sectary of defence McNamara said:

The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one’8.

Like the air war in the North the so called ‘search and destroy’ missions in the South proved limited. US soldiers would attempt to track down the VC and once engaged would call in artillery and air strikes, if more VC lost their lives than Americans a good ‘kill ratio’ was recorded and a victory was declared. The drawback to this method was that from 1966 to 1967 the vast majority of actual battles were started by the VC9, who possessed the ability to retreat into the foliage as soon as tactically necessary. Furthermore, following successful search and destroy missions the military – unable to police the entire country – would withdraw back to base, leaving open the opportunity for the VC  to instantly retake territory, this fostered in the army a constant sense of futility and sowed the seeds of discontent within the rural population. Along with this Clement Zablocki reported that ‘an average of two civilians were killed for every Viet Cong’1, this along with almost 14,000 GIs being killed in action by 196711 added to the restricted nature of search and destroy missions.

US Military morale

During the beginning of the conflict one marine lieutenant noted ‘when we marched into the rice paddies… we carried the implicit conviction that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten’12. This level of morale entered a state of decline throughout the war culminating in the almost complete breakdown of the Armed Forces by the early 1970s. The futility of search and destroy missions severely affected the psychology of soldiers who were living under the prospect of death daily. Many turned to drugs, and in 1973 it was acknowledged that 35% of the army serving in the South had tried heroin with 20% being addicted at some time during their tour of duty13. Race relations also began to break down, with 1/5 of black troops stating they hated whites14. Officers unrelentingly pushing for ‘positive’ kill ratios overtime became alienated from their soldiers, this along with drugs, despair and racial mistrust culminated in frequent attempts on officers’ lives, around 200 reported in 197015. Indeed acts of mutiny, insubordination and disobedience had risen from 252 in 1968 to around twice that in 197116. Lastly, during the 1970s the anti-war movement reached its peak within the tree branches of the military, and by 1970 almost 70,000 American soldiers had deserted whilst to those who remained demonstrations17, strikes, and sit-ins were common place. In light of this the immediate withdrawal of the American military was vital in order to escape the total degeneration of the Armed Forces.

Failure of politics

As the American solider began to question the reason for intervention, the one being put forward by the American government was ‘to insure that the South Vietnamese have the right and opportunity to control their own destiny’ (South-Vietnamese flag pictured). This proved to be an entirely hypocritical statement. The US consented and aided a number of political coups in the South, all of which installed undemocratic regimes uninterested in furthering political or economic reform, which therefore stood them in alienation from the Vietnamese people. By backing RVN, which had no popular support, the US began to look like a colonial force.

This simply added fuel to the fire of Vietnamese nationalism. Blinded by its own national bias the American administration never gave full credit to the depth of national aspiration prevalent in Vietnam, as the policies of the RVN proved empty, unemployment soared, and civilian contracts were given out to Americans and their allies rather than the Vietnamese people.18 A patriotic resentment began to ferment. The ‘struggle movement’ campaigning for democracy and reform led by Buddhist monks arose and developed into a mass movement. The movement believed that a democratic Vietnam free from foreign interference would vote for the necessary reforms, thus ending the economic and nationalistic antagonisms the VC was dependent upon. In the same vein John Paul Van said ‘a viable non-communist government’ would be more easily attained through ‘socialist inclined leaders…in tune with the aspirations of the rural population’19. However the US administration viewed the struggle movement as a threat to the RVN stability, a sample of the population in 1970 and 1972 found that under a fifth of the South viewed the departure of the American military negatively2, therefore the threat of letting the South Vietnamese people have a say in their country risked an embarrassing end to US intervention, perhaps resulting in a South-North negotiation against the US.

At its height in 1966 the struggle movements looked likely to win democratic reform, US ambassador Lodge mounted pressure upon the RVN to take action. What followed was a wave of American backed corruption, brutality and political and religious repression which effectively destroyed the only legitimate political movement offering an alternative to the VC or the authoritarian RVN. The vacuum left by the struggle movement was one of intense political polarization; many Vietnamese now felt that the VC was the only alternative to an American backed dictatorship.

The RVN itself eliminated any chance of support due to its land policies, the pacification programme ordered peasants to leave their homes and relocate to areas within the RVN sphere of influence, along with tearing up whole communities and ignoring ancient traditions of ancestral worship which tied families to specific plots of land, this policy sent the social fabric of the south into turmoil, by the end of 1966 refugees numbered 1,616,63321. The areas peasants were relocated to usually lacked proper facilities and employment opportunity. This environment proved fertile for radicalization, with a large amount of military aged men leaving to join the NLF22. The RVN deepened its antagonistic role upon the peasantry through a failure to offer compensation for land destroyed by the US or to pacification.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that villages under VC control had their land communalized to the peasantry. ‘Liberation’ by American forces saw this land given back to the original landlords23, this coupled with RVN rates being almost double that of the VC24 increased resentment from the peasantry. In a country where the vast majority of the population were peasants the US military was on the side of a minority in direct social conflict with the majority, as such the role of the US was completely devoid of social legitimacy. The RVN failed to generate support within the population and as such had to rely on military – or more accurately American military – support. Naturally, the VC took advantage.

Support for Vietcong

The VC was a political movement of the people. Vietnamese joined irrespective of its communist ideology due to the wide appeal it generated by representing national liberation as well as land reform. The VC completely submerged itself into village life, VC guerrillas were predominantly drawn from the villages, and members not only lived among the peasants but helped them grow food, provided medical services and schooling25. Land was given to the peasants themselves to run, taxes were also set at reasonable rates which would not burden the peasantry too greatly. This all proved immensely popular, showing many peasants that they directly benefited from VC policies, whereas high tax and conscription under the RVN directly hurt the agricultural community26.

The popular support for the VC allowed it to mobilize large amounts of guerrillas against the US. Kennedy’s comment that ‘American military assistance can’t conquer an enemy which is everywhere’27 demonstrates the level of popular support the VC enjoyed. Kennedy’s military adviser Maxwell Taylor noted that:

The ability of the Vietcong continuously to rebuild their units… To make good their losses is one of the mysteries of this guerrilla war… not only do the Vietcong units have recuperative powers of the phoenix, but they have an amazing ability to maintain morale.’28

The NLF exploited everything they could in order to overcome their technological disadvantage. Night attacks, extensive tunnel networks and jungle ambushes left little room for the American military to manoeuvre, and its solution of deforestation and aerial bombing proved in reality to be one of the most effective recruitment devices for the NLF in the war. Due to its high level of morale and the growing discontent among the population, the NLF could afford to has side the NLF have a drawn out conflict. Unlike the NLF the army of the RVN was not made up of volunteers but of draftees, suffering form low morale and high desertion rates29. For many it was preferable to join the local NLF than be drafted to a distant location3.

Anti-war movement

The Sectary of defence McNamara touched on a vital point when he said ‘the test of endurance may be as much in the united states as in Vietnam’31. General Westmoreland was brought home from Vietnam in 1967 in order to dispel the growing antiwar mood. The media reported the administration’s line that the war was being won and that Westmoreland could see ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’32.

On January 31st 1968 Westmoreland and the administration were forced, by the realities of Vietnam and the Tet offensive, to reassess this statement and the war as a whole. The VC mounted major attacks on almost every southern city and stormed the American embassy in Saigon. The VC experienced massive casualties totalling 33,000, whilst around 1,600 Americans lost their lives33. Despite the positive kill ratio, Tet brought Ho Chi Minhs declaration ‘you can kill ten of my men for every one of yours. But…you will lose and I will win’34 into the American consciousness. Images of the American embassy being stormed were broadcast into living rooms shattering the belief that all was well in Vietnam. Simultaneously the retaking of the city of Ben Tre exposed the insanity of the war where one US major said it was ‘necessary to destroy the town in order to save it’35.

Incidents like Tet gradually polarized the American public over the war, with many becoming active in the anti-war movement. The climbing death total numbering 10,000 in 1967 alone36 provided a major influence in shaping public opinion. Whilst casualties were announced nightly on television the kill ratio method of warfare did not ease the minds of distraught parents, who cared little for a protracted war of attrition involving their drafted sons. The anti-war movement itself was a broad church of different political ideologies. Including far-leftists, students, trade unionists, businessmen, religious groups, and a growing number of national newspapers such as the New York Times. By 1966 thirty-six anti-war chapters existed37. This broadness and level of organization allowed a number of anti-war politicians to come into the limelight, providing the opportunity for an anti-war presidential campaign.

Students were by far the most radical, occupying their universities and holding huge ‘teach-ins’ against the war, staging acts of civil disobedience, and organizing public burnings of draft cards. ‘Stop the draft week’ mobilized 30,000 people on a march to the pentagon38, culminating, like a growing majority of demonstrations, in mass riots against the police.

The anti-war movement acted as an effective check upon further interventions by the administration. This is demonstrated by Nixon’s abandonment of ‘operation duck hook’, after massive public demonstrations and riots erupted following the invasion of Cambodia. By 1971, 71% of Americans felt that the war in Vietnam was wrong39, this public consensus piled further pressure upon the administration, which would have to accept civil unrest as a fact of life if America were to remain in Vietnam. Further disillusionment for war was brought on by the My Lai massacre of 1968. In one afternoon 300 innocent villagers were tortured, raped and killed4. A year later the incident shocked the American public when it received wide media attention. Reinhold Niebuhr stated that My Lai provided a ‘moment of truth when we realized that we are not a virtuous nation’41. Events like My Lai served to undermine the American notion that they where the ‘good guys’. In spawning such atrocities the war was seen to undermine the very essence of Americanism42.

Outside moral objections many Americans opposed the war over its negative financial aspects. The war was costing the tax payer $150 billion43, and a poll found that 70% of Americans opposed any rise in tax to help fund the war44. Furthermore the war was draining money form promised social projects. In 1968 $322,000 was spent on every dead VC opposed to $53 per person in poverty programs45. This led to many prominent anti-poverty campaigners coming out in opposition to the war, including Martin Luther King, who was ‘compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor’46. The cost of the war was climbing to unacceptable heights rising from $5.8 billion in 1966 to $26.5 billion in 1968, creating a federal deficit47 and risking the post-war boom with dangerous increases in inflation.

Conclusion

The US lost the Vietnam war on many fronts, domestic hostility to war coupled with a powerful anti-war movement and growing concern for the economy meant electoral suicide if a hard-line on Vietnam continued. The US military was unable to pursue total war, the methods left at its disposal proved ineffective, furthermore its general collapse in morale was a major factor in defeat. However, as Stanley Karnow states, ‘Victory in war is not simply the result of battles’48. By supporting a regime with no popular legitimacy the US could only apply ever increasing amounts of military pressure to a country which was in dire need of political and social reform. In suppression of political alternatives the US pressed the Vietnamese people towards the VC, who increasingly provided the only answer for the peasantry. The US completely overlooked the power of land in Vietnam. Its crusade ignored the material antagonisms acting upon Vietnamese people themselves. Therefore the inability to win a political victory pushed the US into an unwinnable war of attrition against an enemy which was everywhere.

Comparisons are often drawn between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Whilst its not the place to delve deeply into the similarities and differences here, its fair to say that political unpopularity combined with an unwinnable military strategy is grinding Afghanistan towards the same conclusion as Vietnam. We should take confidence from the US’s withdrawal from Vietnam because it’s an example of the difficulties involved in imperial conquest, despite all of America’s military and economic dominance. They are not all powerful, and the role of the anti-war movement in the West can be the key to demoralising the imperialists and motivating the resistance.

 1 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p 338

 2 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p285

 3 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p290

 4 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p190

 5 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p199

 6 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893)p190

 7 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p191

 8 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p199-200

 9 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004)p19

 1 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987)p403

 11 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p291

 12 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p290

 13 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p363

 14 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p364

 15 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893)p647

 16 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893)p364

 17 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)p405

 18 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p410

 19 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p411

 2 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p396

 21 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p410

 22 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p131

 23 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p412

 24 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p130

 25 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p8

 26 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893)p128

27 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p263

 28 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p81

 29 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p34

 30 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p128

 31 George McT. Kahin, Intervention how America became involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Press, 1987) p356

 32 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p344

 33 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p346

 34 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893

 35 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p231

 36 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p297

 37 William H Chafe, The unfinished journey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995) p325

 38 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p193

 39 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p399

 4 Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai massacre in American history and memory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) p1

 41 Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai massacre in American history and memory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) p2

 42 Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai massacre in American history and memory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) p282

 43 George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America a narrative history (New York: W.W. Norton el al, 2010) p1329

 44 Milton J Rosenberg et al, Vietnam and the Silent Majority The Doves Guide (New York: Harper and row, 1970) p40

 45 George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi, America a narrative history (New York: W.W. Norton el al, 2010) p1334

 46 Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided the civil war of the 1960s (0xford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p200

 47 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p198

 48 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam a history (London: Century Publishing, 1893) p545

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