If we ask the question was the American military involvement in Vietnam doomed to fail because the United States was engaged in a "limited war," the answer is "no." It is "no" not because the war was not "limited" (at least at the beginning) or because it was poorly managed on the ground, or because the leadership lacked clear strategy, these are all true; the war was doomed first and foremost because it was an unnecessary, blindly conceived conflict. It proved to be a useless war. It started on the base of dubious arguments, 1 and as Lyndon Johnson admits, without "any plan for victory militarily or diplomatically." 2 The lack of strategy had been complimented by something more alarming - the lack of clear goal. The lack of clear goal behind big decisions, always leads to failure. Using 10 million tons of bombs, sacrificing nearly 58 000 American lives 3 and causing more than a million Vietnamese deaths, 4 simply because Johnson administration did not want to "lose face," 5 is something bordering with insanity.
It is easy former politicians and past decisions to be criticized. Every generation judges its predecessors from the hillock of its position, yet every generation repeats one or another old mistake. The war in Vietnam started without a clear answer of "Why it was necessary?" but finished with a clear question "How did America lost her prestige of invincible military power?"
In this short essay, I will try to reconstruct the Vietnam War on the poor basis of a few historical interpretations and a short number of primary sources. There are two questions that I will try to answer: What caused the Vietnam War, and why did it turn out a failure for the United States?
Clearly, the Vietnam War was a result of the Cold War. At the time when the war started what America was doing was really important, and the stakes of how the United States were presenting in the eyes of the world seemed much higher than today. The fundamental reason for American involvement in Indochina was the demonstration of commitment. 6 The United States felt obligation to act in every point of the world where a country or a nation was still hesitating to which of two camps (capitalist or communist) to stick. The fear of American government from a "domino effect," where the emerging post-colonial nations bend towards the Soviet Union, was incorporated in the American politics of "containment." Thus Indochina had the unfortunate fate to be chosen as a battlefield where Moscow and Washington could measure their brawns. In this war, such as in Korea ten years before, Kremlin acted indirectly, supplying the communist guerrilla and North Vietnamese Army with money and arms, while Washington acted openly starting a real intervention.
The actual value of Vietnam as a territory, economy or political presence on the world stage was insignificant. This has been proved after the war and this was not properly estimated by the American government at the time. When Vietnam finally became a communist state, the world system did not move even a bit. Indeed the event that shaken the world was the war itself and this "cold blood" conflict, far from the American shores, resonated unexpectedly hard in the United States and all over the western camp. Or if we return to the question that tormented Lyndon Johnson - how America will be perceived - the basic goal of Vietnam War was not achieved. The politics of "containment," in the form of limited, dispassionate war, proved not to apply to Indochina.
The mistaken understanding of "limited war theory" 7 by American leaders explains the character of Vietnam conflict and the reasons for its outbreak. The nature of Cold War required types of behavior appropriate for a world under the shadow of nuclear threat. In the bipolar world of the twentieth century the balance of power was important. The existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) made the opposing states careful in their actions. On the one hand WMD kept the existing status quo in a grip, on the other hand the U.S. and the Soviet Union were using every opportunity to change the balance of power in favorable direction (Or better, as J.L. Gaddis explains in his "Long Peace" - the Russians wanted to change the status quo, while the Americans were striving to save it). "Limited war" was considered as an instrument for accomplishing of such goal. Both powers regarded limited war option as a conflict, conducted on the world periphery 8 where the powers can check their determination without entering in full-blown conventional war and where the high morale of their armies can be kept awake. Indeed the limited wars prove to be more risky and bloody than expected. And the problem was their character: in every unconventional war the enemy is ghostly, often regular troops have to fight guerillas - a fight that exhausts the resources, the morale and power of the armies; the expected support from the native population is never certain and the limited war has complex goals, questionable justification and often turns into a bog, where the "invader" has little chance for easy and safe escaping. 9 Thus the outcome of Vietnam War can not be regarded as a surprise as the outcome of Afghanistan war, conducted by the Soviet Union, was not surprise as well.
George Herring, in his book "LBJ and Vietnam: A Different Kind of War," gives a good, pragmatic explanation of the failure of American intervention. According to Herring the main cause for the American troubles was the character of the war. He says that this was a "guerilla type of war." America was not ready to lead a conflict "without distinct battle lines or fixed objectives." 10 The limited war, he argues, has "complexity in establishing ends and formulating means." 11 Herring says that the American government considered Vietnam initiative more as an "exercise" than as a real war. These factors had been reinforced with other reasons leading to failure: lack of clear strategy from the top; lack of talks for change of the existing strategy; lack of synchronous between the bureaucratic units; lack of imagination in conducting the war, although it was was not a conventional conflict. The strategy did not change, even after reports such as the CIA conclusion in 1967 that the Rolling Thunder campaign "had not meaningfully degraded North Vietnam's material ability to continue the war." 12 All these flaws were unfortunately mixed with the dominant character of the President Johnson. Johnson, says Herring, had the wrong feeling that he can control everything - from his ranch to his domestic and international politics. President's political style was a big factor for the outcomes of his political decisions. "Johnson's middle-of-the-road approach, writes Herring, gave everybody something and nobody what they wanted." 13
Herring's theory about the failure of American actions in Vietnam is a highly pragmatic, in the style of "realpolitik," 14 but not conflicting with the Loren Baritz's "socio-cultural" approach in his "Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did." Indeed both theories give a more complete picture of American fiasco.
As it has been already said, Vietnam had the unfortunate fate to became a battlefield in the fight of global powers. It was not a strategically significant place where the result of the conflict can really turn the world balance of power. This fact means a lot, although it had been never admitted by Johnson's administration. The insignificance of Vietnam defined the American attitude to the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese were not Germans, Russians or Italians. They were Asians with different culture and history, alien to the American society and culture. In addition to this missing emotional and cultural connection, Americans still treated the Asians from the position of the "white man's burden." 15 Moreover, the Cold War was not only a conflict between two big powers; it was also a great ideological battle. Imperial interest of Soviet Russia was covered behind the ideology of Communism, while the America's national interest was traditionally concealed behind the idea of freedom. Russians were fighting for "justice and equality," Americans were defending the "democracy and freedom." This ideological battle was hardly suited to the realities of Cold War and the people on the frontlines quickly got disillusioned with the mass propaganda. The disillusionment and emotional disconnection of American soldiers (and leaders) from the real fate of Vietnamese people, was the main reason, according to Loren Baritz, for the American failure in Indochina.
The United States explained their intervention as a liberating action. But neither the solders (at least after their contact with the reality), nor the Vietnamese believed in this justification. In his book Baritz cites Vice-President Humphrey who says that perhaps thousand times it was repeated that Americans were in Indochina because they wanted freedom for other people, not land or recourses. 16 Yet one American solder recalled: "The Vietnamese did not like us and I remember I was shocked. I still naively thought of myself as a hero, as a liberator. Every, every, every firefight that we got into, the ARVN (South Vietnam army) broke, the ARVN fucking ran." 17
Baritz says that North Vietnam finally won this war because it was able to accept "more death than we [the Americans] considered rational." 18 In connection with this conclusion McNamara's viewpoint is interesting to be known. It shows how the American leaders build some form of "strategy" based on false predictions of Vietnamese behavior, misjudging important factors such as culture, political willingness and stakes (for the Vietnamese the fight was more than a "limited war"). In his book "In retrospect: the tragedy and lesson of Vietnam" McNamara writes: "The body count was a measurement of adversary's manpower losses; we undertook it because one of Westy's objectives was to reach a so-called crossover point, at which the Vietcong and North Vietnamese casualties would be greater than they could sustain. "This guy McNamara," they [critics] said, "he tries to quantify everything." Obviously, there are things you cannot quantify; honor and beauty, for example. But things you can count, you can count. Loss of life is one, when you are fighting a war of attrition." 19 The "war of attrition" and "body count" was a measurement with critical importance, but as the history showed mostly for the Americans, not for their enemies. Actually these were the factors that ensured the communists' victory.
In this war not the American superior technology, recourses and power failed. American "cultural perceptions" failed, argues Baritz. The reality finally proved that the American notions to play "cold blood" games on the world periphery, without considering or support from the local population, cost more than the U.S. can afford.
The Courage to Confess: Why Was The Vietnam War Doomed To Fail?
In his last speech in Austin (December, 1972) Johnson said, "If our efforts continue, and if our will is strong, and if our hearts are right , and if courage remains our constant companion, then, my fellow Americans, I am confident we shall overcome..." | read |
1 President Lyndon B. Johnson reports to the Congress that North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 2 and Aug. 4, 1964 . The resulted Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was used by Johnson as declaration of war. There are serious doubts about what happened on these dates. See "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers." ( New York : Viking Penguin, 2002) by Daniel Ellsberg.
2 Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam , (Random House, 1995), pp. 190-191.
3 John Hollitz, Thinking through the Past ( Houghton Mifflin, 2004 ) p.275
4 According to Twentieth Century Atlas (http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat2.htm#Sources) the total death toll of Vietnam War (1965-73) is 1 700 000.
5 Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam , (Random House, 1995), pp. 190-191. (John Hollitz, Thinking through the Past ( Houghton Mifflin, 2004 ) p.275)
6 Before the U.S. got heavily involved the French were in Indochina . In fact the Americans supported financially French fight with the North Vietnamese communists in 50s.
7 It is a theory of Clausewitz.
8 Limited war was unthinkable in Europe and this explains the vain hopes of Hungarians, Czechs and Polish for receiving military support from the West for their uprisings against the Soviet Union .
9 We have numerous examples of the dangers of invasions failed because of guerilla activity - from Napoleon campaigns in Russia and Spain to the recent examples of Iraq and Afghanistan ; although both wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan , are not classical case for guerilla resistance they have its characteristics, complexity and dangers for the occupying forces.
10 George Herring, "LBJ and Vietnam : A different kind of war," (University of Texas Press, 1994.) (John Hollitz, Thinking Through the Past , p. 281)
11 George Herring, "LBJ and Vietnam : A different kind of war," (University of Texas Press, 1994.) (John Hollitz, Thinking Through the Past , p. 287)
12 CIA Intelligence Memo, May 12, 1967 , reprinted in Vietnam: the Definitive Documentation of Human Decisions . (Stanfordville, Earle M. Coleman), II: pp. 470-472. (Holittz, 291)
13 George Herring, "LBJ and Vietnam : A different kind of war," (University of Texas Press, 1994.) (John Hollitz, Thinking Through the Past , p. 280)
14 Hans Morgenthau highest principle for conducting a real politics is existence of "prudence." In short - the lack of prudence in American leadership leads to unwanted results.
15 Rudyard Kipling , "The White Man's Burden," 1899. Loren Baritz quotes a young solder: "We were there to help but Vietnamese are so stupid, they can't understand that a great people want to help weak people." (Loren Baritz, " Backfire: A history of how American culture led us into Vietnam and made us fight the way we did." 1985)
16 Loren Baritz, " Backfire: A history of how American culture led us into Vietnam and made us fight the way we did." (Holitz, p.286)
17"American Views of the Vietnamese," from The Bad War edited by Kim Willenson, 1987 by Newsweek Inc.
18 Loren Baritz, " Backfire: A history of how American culture led us into Vietnam and made us fight the way we did." (Hollitz, p.288)
19 Robert S. McNamara "In retrospect: the tragedy and lesson of Vietnam " (Random House, 1995). (Hollitz 292)