Forty years after the Vietnam War ended, we are still troubled by the “only U.S. military defeat in history” in an “unwinnable” war.
Since then, suggestions of US military intervention have evoked “no more Vietnams.” We have, unfortunately, failed to view this war in historic perspective which has clouded our perception of what actually resulted from it. In the 1930s, we somewhat tolerated Japan’s rampaging all though China.
However, when, in 1940, Japan invaded what is now Vietnam (then part of French Indochina), we correctly saw this as a threat to Southeast Asia, especially to the resource rich Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), and took the strong measure of promoting a boycott of critical oil, scrap iron and rubber deliveries to Japan. Japan, realized that a now especially hostile US would most probably attempt to block its planned invasion of Southeast Asia.
It therefore sought to disable our fleet at Pearl Harbor as a preventative measure. Japan then proceeded to use its new-found base to invade and conquer most of Southeast Asia.
President Eisenhower must surely have had this mind when he was asked, at an April 7, 1954 press conference, about “the strategic importance of Indochina [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia] for the free world.” He then described the “falling domino” principle whereby “the beginning of a disintegration there would have the most profound influences” leading to “ the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the [Malay] Peninsula and Indonesia.” He added that Japan, Formosa [Taiwan], the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand “would also be threatened.”
Eisenhower’s “domino theory” was pooh-poohed by a number of people in the U.S., but, given the perilous, unstable conditions in Southeast Asia, it was taken seriously by leaders there as well as in Australia and India and by leaders in Hanoi and (then) Peking. For example, China’s famed Marshal Lin Piao stated in September 1965 that the defeat of “U.S. imperialism” in Vietnam would show the people of the world “that what the Vietnamese people can do, they can do too.”
Our introduction of US combat troops (Marines) in March 1965 clearly had a bracing effect in Southeast Asia. For example, in the late 1960s, Indonesian leaders Suharto and Malik (not great friends of the U.S.) told U.S. officials that this first introduction of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam helped embolden them to resist the October 1, 1965 Communist coup supported by China, which came very close to succeeding. (The two later told columnist Robert Novak the same thing.)
Had this coup succeeded, the Philippines would have soon been threatened which could well have triggered our intervention under a 1954 treaty. Then we would have been facing a far more threatening adversary than in Vietnam. This bracing effect also encouraged the British defense of Malaysia against a Communist invasion from Indonesia.
By the end of the Vietnam War, the victorious Communist side, which lost over two million dead was too weakened to pose a threat to any country save nearby Laos and Cambodia. The war also bought precious time to enable the countries of Southeast Asia to strengthen their positions.
Generally overlooked, we basically got into the war to prevent the toppling of dominoes in Southeast Asia and we succeeded.
One could thus say that this was a strategic victory while the loss in Vietnam was a tactical defeat. But also little understood is just how the war was lost, indeed unnecessarily lost.
Critics of the Vietnam War had long insisted that this war was, in any case, “unwinnable” and therefore should never have been fought. After “Vietnamization” had removed all U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, Hanoi, on March 30, 1972, launched its “Easter Offensive” with largest conventional attack of the war consisting of the equivalent of 23 divisions equipped with hundreds of Soviet tanks, long range artillery, rockets and surface to air missiles. The brunt of the fighting fell on the South Vietnamese ground forces with massive U.S. air support as well as naval and logistical support.
The only American ground forces left were advisors and forward air controllers. South Vietnam forces eventually moved from the defensive to counter offensives and by mid-September 1972 were clearly winning.
On September 15, 1972, South Vietnamese marines retook Quang Tri, the only provincial capital captured during the offensive, which was only 20 miles from North Vietnam and was by far the strongest position of the Communist forces. If they couldn’t hold Quang Tri they couldn’t hold anything else and were clearly losing. The Communist forces had already lost about 100,000 killed in action, twice as many as the U.S. had lost in the entire war. Sometime after Hanoi’s final 1975 victory, a former top commander in the South, General Tran Van Tra stated in the Party organ Nhan Dan that, by late 1972, his troops had clearly reached the verge of defeat. Had the war continued some months further, the South with continued US support could have emerged victorious by evicting all enemy forces from Vietnam. Indeed, former CIA Director William Cody, in his 1984 book Lost Victory, stated that already “on the ground in South Vietnam the war had been won.”
Faced with certain defeat, Hanoi saved the day by offering substantial concessions sought by Henry Kissinger in previous negotiations. With the best of intentions, Kissinger, who was devoted to negotiations, took this bait and the resulting negotiations process brought South Vietnamese military operations to a halt thus snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
We then dragooned our Vietnamese allies into accepting the ill-conceived 1973 Peace Accords.
One of its most pernicious features was a “ceasefire in place” which left substantial Communist troops in South Vietnam.
The director of the National Security Council’s Indochina staff, mid-level Foreign Service officer John Negroponte, courageously went mano a mano with Kissinger over this but to no avail. (I raised my objections in memos to Henry.) (John then left, eventually to go on to a brilliant career.)
By the time the Peace Accords were signed on January 27, 1973, I had become director of the National Security Council’s Indochina staff which was the most senior US official who dealt exclusively with Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia).
The Peace Accords were soon massively violated by the Communist side and somewhat by our Vietnamese allies. For example, in one major violation the primitive Ho Chi Minh Trail supporting Communist forces in the South was converted to a super highway. Once our troops and our released POWs had left the country, Washington largely lost interest in Vietnam. I had a very difficult time getting military equipment and supplies for our Vietnamese.
Then Congress reduced military aid from $2,270 billion for fiscal 1973 to $700 million for fiscal 1975. North Vietnamese Chief of Staff General Van Tien Dung in post victory writings stated, “The decrease in American aid made it impossible for Saigon troops to carry their combat and force development plans…Enemy firepower had been reduced by nearly 60 percent … its mobility was reduced by half.”
The crowning and decisive blow which sealed South Vietnam’s fate was the June 4, 1973 Case-Church Amendment which, in effect, banned all US military operations in Indochina.
The South Vietnamese then, inter alia, permanently lost the US air support upon which it had very much depended in combat. And we lost the ability to enforce the Peace Accords through military action.
Finally, after three years of recovering from their 1972 losses and well supported by its loyal allies, the Soviet Union and China, Hanoi launched the campaign which resulted in victory on April 30, 1975. 1270 words
William Lloyd Stearman, PhD, Senior (flag rank) U.S. Foreign Service officer (Ret.),
White House National Security Council staff under four presidents, director NSC Indochina staff, Jan. ’73 to Jan. ’76, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs Georgetown University (1977 to 1993), author of memoir An American Adventure, From Early Aviation Through Three Wars to the White House (Naval Institute Press, 2012)