The Vietnam War which lasted from 1955 to 1975 was fought between North Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea) and South Vietnam (supported by the United States,and its allies) was the longest war during the Cold War period. Besides being a stigma on the acumen of the political leadership and a blot on the military capabilities of the USA, the Ghost of Vietnam defeat still shadows every misadventure of the USA
What were the reasons for the USA to enter the fray, the course it took, causes of their failure, and more importantly, the consequences of this American misadventure are the topics discussed in this article
The Vietnam War which lasted from 1955 to 1975 was fought between North Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea) and South Vietnam (supported by the United States, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.) While the Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front, or NLF), a South Vietnamese communist force helped by the North fought a guerilla war against the anti-communist forces in the South, the North Vietnamese Army engaged in a more conventional war, at times putting large forces to battle.
The War was an unfinished agenda of the past; the French colonized Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Captured in the late 18th century but lost control of these colonies to Japan during the ww2 when it was occupied by Germany. However, Viet Minh, a Communist-led common front under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh started an armed struggle to oust the Japanese with the support of the USA, USSR, and China.
When WWII ended and Japan lost these territories, France tried to recolonise them but had to meet huge resistance from the local population under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Thus started the 1st Indo-China war in December 1945
It gained momentum when in January 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized the Viet Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in Hanoi, as the legitimate government of Vietnam. Soon afterwards, the United States and Great Britain recognized the French-backed State of Vietnam in Saigon, led by former Emperor Bảo Đại, as the legitimate Vietnamese government.
Korean war of 1950 accentuated the Cold War rivalry between the communist bloc led by the USSR and the capitalist bloc led by the USA. Vietnam too became a part of this Cold War. Chinese started assisting Viet Minh to turn their forces into the regular army; the USA started advising the South and training their army. It is estimated that the USA spent a billion dollars to support the French during the period 1950-54
However, the French surrendered and signed the Geneva Peace Accord in 1954 which ended the 1st Indochina war. Besides granting independence to Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned at the 17th Parallel into North Vietnam where Ho Chi Minh, a communist became the president, and South Vietnam where Bao Dai remained the emperor while Ngo Dinh Diem, a catholic anti-communist became the Prime Minister. This Partition was supposed to be temporary till 1956 when were to be held and Vietnam unified.
Diem turned out to be a ruthless tyrant who did not hold elections in 1956 as agreed and started arresting communist sympathizers to stay in power. Resistance against his rule resulted in the formation of NLF aka Viet Cong in Cambodia in 1960. Major support for the Viet Cong was from the peasants of the South who were unhappy with the reversal of land reforms by Diem. Till 1960, it is unclear whether the North supported the South’s rebels.
Why the USA entered the Fray?
Several explanations have been given for the entry of the USA into this conflict. Some of these are as follows
Commitment to France
During the final stages of World War 2, the USA told Great Briton that they shouldn’t expect to get their empire back after the war but didn’t tell France the same thing. Reason? President Charles de Gaulle of France is reported to have insisted on American help in South-east Asia as a quid pro quo for its joining NATO. Were it not for the Cold War the French would possibly have quietly packed up and left and the Americans would never have got involved.
The Domino Theory postulated that if communism took hold in Vietnam, it would spread to other countries. It was fuelled by the McCarthyism Madness of the fifties within the USA. Consequently, the United States started supporting the anti-communist government in South Vietnam by first sending military advisers to help train and support the South Vietnamese army to fight against the Viet Cong.
When it failed, the USA started sending its regular forces in the 1960s which remained in Vietnam till its humiliating defeat in 1975. Once in, getting out was a political quagmire. Anyone leaving Vietnam to the communists would have ended their political career. Nixon said he was moving forward while moving backward
The Hegemonic Theory
America, at that time was one of the two hegemons (the other being Russia) and she considered herself the leader of the free world. As a hegemon, it was important for the USA to keep iterating her powerful position by increasing her sphere of influence and protecting her allies. Abandoning South Vietnam was therefore problematic since America had, by then, engaged herself in several alliances. It needed the trust of other allies in her, to keep having allies. Since she had aligned herself with France first, and later with South Vietnam, it was highly important for her to keep pushing in and not show any weakness. Because of this, it continued getting involved more and more in the war.
Course of the 2nd Vietnam War
Like any other major war, the Vietnam war had its ebbs and flows with the following clear milestones
- 1955-American Engagement starts
- 1961-Strategic Helmet program whereby USA-South Vietnam started to resettle the rural population through forced segregation in fortified camps to isolate peasants from communists but it failed and officially ended in 1964
- 1962: Laos neutrality was promised by 14 nations including China, the USA, and others.
- 1963: 16,000 USA army personnel and 900 advisors arrived in Vietnam where prime minister Diem became killed Buddhists. Americans begin to suspect that he was striking a deal with Ho Chi Minh. With American blessings, generals in Vietnam carried out a coup, killed Diem along with his brother.
- Johnson took over as American president and declared that “the battle against communism … must be joined … with strength and determination.”
- 1964-Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which granted the president unilateral power to launch any military actions he deemed necessary. North Vietnam anticipated American full participation and started helping Viet Cong with military equipment and training.
- 1965: Americans launched a carpet bombing campaign after a base was attacked. Operation Rolling Thunder and Operation Arc Light which lasted for 3 years.
- 1965: American ground war started. 3,500 US marines and encouraged its SEATO allies to contribute troops. Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines obliged but NATO countries declined.
- 1967: Tet Offensive-“direct attacks on the American and puppet nerve centers including assaults on key military installations
- 1969: Nixon takes over as POTUS and formulated Nixon Doctrine: build up the South Vietnam army so it could defend its own country (aka Vietnamization). Started troops withdrawal. He also tried to scare USSR by ordering a squadron of 18 B-52s loaded with nukes to fly to the air space of the soviet to prove that he could do anything to end the Vietnam war. Also sought détente with the USSR. Rapprochement with China to decrease global tensions. Did not scare them and they continued their support.
- 1969: Ho Chi Minh died. the mood in the USA shifted to anti-war.
- 1970: troops started withdrawing. Other nations started calling back their troops as well. The USA helped staged a coup in Cambodia. Put pro-American govt in place. It started rounding Vietnamese in Cambodia and killing them. Both North and South Vietnamese protested. The USA then also intervened in Cambodia to attack alleged Viet Cong bases. A strong reaction from Americans who protested this escalation. 4 students got killed in a university protest. Public outrage. The anti-war movement gained more traction. The heavy bombing continued in Cambodia though.
- 1971: the USA tasked the South Vietnamese army to attack Laos to capture Viet Cong. Vietnamization. Pentagon papers leaked to the NYT. Trust in the USA government is broken. US troops in Vietnam faced a problem of low morale. Disobediences started. Deaths. Questioning of why they were there. Hit all-time low on 1974.
- 1972: American elections. War centrally featured. more operations by the USA. Bombings to scare the Vietnamese into a deal.
- 1973: Paris Peace Accord. Officially ended the American involvement in the Vietnam war. All troops withdrew
- 1973-1975: “War of Flags” both sides attempted to maximize the land and population under their control in a campaign. Fighting continued despite the ceasefire. Nixon threatened another US intervention to scare parties. Senate passed the Case-Church amendment to prohibit any intervention. The fighting continued between the Vietnamese.
- 1975: finally war ended.
Causes of Defeat of USA
There were multiple causes for the defeat of one of the two superpowers of the day
Although at a strategic level the USA was quite clear why it was fighting the war namely stopping communism in getting firm footholds in Asia to obviate the possibility of the Domino Effect, it failed to understand what Vietnam wanted to become. They thought it was about communism vs capitalism, and that as a result, the Vietnamese would support the Americans if they understood what America was promising.
And at the tactical level, there was even greater confusion about the objectives and goals of the military intervention- what the actual goal was at the military level. It just jumped in without properly defining any tangible and verifiable goals and objectives in terms of military achievements. The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, knew exactly what they were doing and why. They wanted an independent sovereign Vietnam.
Consequently, all the North Vietnamese had to do was to drive out the Americans to isolate South Vietnam from its sources of economic and military support. They finally succeeded in accomplishing this by avoiding a decisive engagement in the South and resorting to hit and run tactics until American forces pulled out of Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords were signed.
Lack of clear American Policy
Lack of clarity about the overall objective of the military intervention resulted in inconsistent policy and strategy formulation by the Pentagon. Consequently, every change of guards resulted in a different set of strategies. “Heart and Mind” policy was coupled with brutal tactics so Americans paid lip service to Vietnamese while treating them horribly. Eisenhower’s presidency was the best time to engage which was wasted in using an advisory role. Johnson’s administration made the Vietnam war an ego issue. And when it was time to give a final push during the Nixon period and have the war reached a suitable conclusion, his ouster from office resulted in the USA withdrawing troops and abandoned the South. This inconsistency in policy formulation and implementation adversely affected American troops’ morale and it showed in their lack of performance.
Terrain plays an extremely crucial role in any war. Vietnam is a land of swamps and jungles, ideal for Vietcong fighters to attack and hide. The USA did make many bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, which only alienated the population but could not degrade the fighting force of the Vietcong. It was just like the Japanese invasion by the USA; it bombed entire Japan to ashes, but Japan still had 5 million Kwantung troops on the mainland and 10 million more in reserve in the homeland. Japan only surrendered when their Kwantung army was defeated by the Soviet Union’s Red Army.
Public Support for Vietcong
The “hearts and minds” strategy was completely undermined by the use of search and destroy tactics, which frequently got civilians killed or otherwise negatively affected by US presence. When it came to propaganda inside Vietnam, the Vietcong did it better; they just had to paint the US as an invading force. The widening schism between the public and the regime due to their religious differences further aggravated the situation. Although an overwhelming majority of the South Vietnamese was following Buddhism, the country was ruled by a clique of Catholic Christians, led by the president Ngô Đình Diệm.
His pro-Catholic policies such as civil and military promotions, as well as in the allocation of land, business favours and tax concessions etc antagonized the majority Buddhists. Not only the Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, exempt from the land reforms, Catholics were also exempt from the compulsory corvée labour. Similarly, public spending was disproportionately distributed to Catholic majority villages. Under Diệm, the draconian Order 46 which permitted the state to detain and send anyone to the concentration camps to preserve law and order was invariably used against dissenting Buddhists.
Support of China
One of the most crucial reasons for the defeat of the USA was the whole-hearted support of China to North Vietnam. The Chinese support for the Vietcong was not only for strategic security concerns of China but also motivated by the sense of an international responsibility to help brotherly comrades and promote anti-imperialist revolution. China considered itself to be “a natural ally of the oppressed peoples of the world in their struggle for national liberation,” justifying efforts to help North Vietnam. Lastly, the personal friendship between the Chinese leadership and the Vietcong leader Ho Chi Minh was an added factor for this unflinching support . Ho became familiar with them when he worked for the French Communist Party in Paris and later served as a Comintern agent in Canton assisting the labour and peasant movements there.
Consequently, despite the best efforts of the USA, there was no interruption of supplies of food and war material for the Vietcong from China which escalated its assistance to Vietcong after the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964. In response to the U.S. overwhelming air strikes, Ho Che Minh personally requested Mao Ze Dong for Chinese assistance. Accordingly, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces began flowing into North Vietnam in July 1965 to help defend Hanoi and its major transportation systems. The total number of Chinese troops in North Vietnam between June 1965 and March 1968 amounted to over 320,000
Lack of understanding about Political Dynamics
The USA failed to comprehend the political dynamics of the local and regional landscape. Instead of understanding the complex inter regional and intra-regional conflicts and using them for divide and rule policy, Americans antagonised everyone by reducing all the complex issues into one big “capitalism vs communism” issue. They did not comprehend the wave of nationalism sweeping the world in an age of decolonization
Similarly, they did not utilise the Chinese-Vietnamese tension, instead their terrible policies brought these two closer. China had forcefully ruled this region for years before France showed up. The landlord community in Vietnam was mostly Chinese and the Vietnamese did not like them for their exploitation. Americans could have used it in their favour to draw a wedge between peasants and landlords, instead, they brought them into cooperation. That’s how terrible American strategy had been.
Intelligence failure of the CIA
CIA is an overrated institution that failed at both levels-strategic and tactical, a classic example of an intelligence agency not only lacking foresight and a clear direction but also neglecting the basic fundamentals of intelligence gathering. It failed to gauge the scope of the war and underestimated the strength of the Vietcong. his losses. It was compounded by confusion about definitions, faulty accounting techniques, and figure fudging. Focussing too much on technology instead of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) resulted in a disconnect that prevented the integration and fusing of information to achieve efficient, accurate intelligence assessments. These failures, in turn, led the USA to adopt conventional military solutions for an unconventional problem
Dwindling Domestic Public Support
Vietnam War was the first fully televised war creating its supporters as well as opponents in every house in the USA. News about the atrocities and horror stories like the Mai Lai massacre soon made the war very unpopular. The use of the draft made it even more detestable
Change of Guards
Richard Nixon who managed to keep North Vietnam out of the South by bombing the North into the stone age and mining all the seaports, was hounded from office by the Watergate scandal in 1974. It had an immediate effect upon the North – forcing them to resume negotiations leading to a truce and the Paris Peace Accords. Had the U.S. Government continued the policies of Richard Nixon. North Vietnam would have agreed to an amicable settlement like the one USSR got from the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. But the U.S. Congress cut off financial support to South Vietnam – and, without the military aid they had become reliant upon – the South Vietnamese were finished.
Show of Power Approach
Americans tried to use bombing campaigns, advanced weaponry and coupled it with brutal tactics to show how strong it was, and how futile it was for Vietnamese to continue resisting. It wanted them to submit by scaring them which worked the opposite way. The images of American atrocities horrified the world, especially America’s population. It did not achieve any objective of America. If anything, it made the local population hate America even more and join Viet Cong.
Difference of Political Leadership
Being a visionary leader like Mao ze Dong of China, Ho Chi Minh brought long term fundamental structural changes in North Vietnam. In his tenure, he transformed the North Vietnamese economy by introducing land reforms, bringing equality, and helping lower classes to enhance their living standards. These reforms were good politics too creating a huge popular support base for the Vietcong in both -North and South Vietnam. On the other hand, Americans supported the government in the South that not only killed its population but also reversed land reforms. This made the South Vietnamese look up to Ho Chi Minh and help the Viet Cong, which played a crucial part in the defeat of Americans.
Like any momentous event, the Vietnam War had some far-reaching repercussions. Some of these are
Myth of US Invincibility
Americans had won two world wars and emerged as the main superpower. The Korean war too ended not in humiliation but a deadlock. It has successfully handled the Cuban Missile Crises and was considered invincible. Until this war, Americans had thought that a bigger army, advanced weaponry, capitalist economy, and a moral high ground (liberal order as opposed to communist/autocratic) meant that they could intervene and win wars. American defeat in Vietnam shattered the myth that a technologically advanced resource-rich superpower cannot be defeated by a small country. It helped the Afghan Mujahadeen to defeat another superpower of the day in the 1980s while it is again being proved in the case of the Taliban against the USA in Afghanistan
Ghost of Vietnam
Ghost of Vietnam defeat still shadows every misadventure of the USA; imagine how the ruthless USA would have been if it had won in the Vietnam War. Steve Coll in his book argues that since a lot of current army generals/seniors and politicians have seen the Vietnam War first hand, they are always hesitating to go full force in their recent campaigns. As an example, he provided the case of the Bush administration vs. the Taliban during the Afghanistan war. He presented accounts of army officers who were frustrated as to why they were being limited to few places, few troops, and limited warfare. They were sure that had they been given full power in the initial years of the war in Afghanistan, they could have finished the Taliban.
The American military has become even more cautious of their image. They hesitate to directly participate in battles and often third parties/contractors are hired to do the job. This gives them plausible deniability. The contractors/third parties have become a huge industry in America. The Raymond Davis too was a hired hand, who was captured in Pakistan for murdering civilians. The research toward what went wrong took a lot of American attention as well.
Afghanistan War -2 (1979-1989)
After realizing that defeat was imminent in Vietnam, Americans started to destabilize Afghanistan to take revenge from the Soviet Union for this humiliation. By 1978, the CIA had recruited more than 5000 fighters from all over the Islamic world and started infiltrating Afghanistan. This infiltration had the full support of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Bhutto’s refusal to go along with the American scheme cost him his life later. In his autobiography (From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War) Robert Gates states that the CIA had got involved in Afghanistan to cause a Russian invasion, “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire”.
China USSR Rift/Sino-American Rapprochement
The Vietnam War played an extremely crucial part in the reconfiguration of friends-foes relations in global power politics. The USA escalated the war tempo by increasing the scale and scope of its military operation hoping an irreconcilable differences between China and the USSR would them to assist the Vietcong in a big way. It proved wrong; both outbid each other to assist them. One of the lessons learnt by the Americans was that they could not simultaneously antagonize both the communist regimes namely China and the Soviet Union. It led to the efforts by the USA to befriend China which had developed differences with the Soviet Union for multiple reasons, one being the latter’s playing larger than life role in the backyard of China.
The Vietnam War strengthened the politics of protests as a mainstream strategy for bringing socio-political change when there were widespread anti-Vietnam War rallies throughout America. Its first fallout was the Black Empowerment. Although Americans of African origins had been taking part in all the wars America fought since its independence including the civil war, their contributions were never recognised or acknowledged. However, the Vietnam War being the first televised war had a deep impact on the socio-political landscape of the country. Even those black American families whose near and dear ones did not take part in the war as combatants felt themselves to be part of mainstream America and clamoured for equal rights. There were several movements springing up for black empowerment leaving no choice for the white ruling elite of the USA to grant them equal rights
American Psychology toward war Changed
The Vietnam War had a profound impact on the public attitude towards the war. It was the first war which was televised and seen by the public on TV screens in their homes instead of government-sponsored films in the cinema houses. It created a lot of resentment among the public regarding the way successive government lied to them. The publication of the Pentagon Papers developed a sense of scepticism toward their government, and the goodwill, the government had developed during the FDR period was lost. A large number of Vietnam veterans soldiers later joined politics and advocated against more military adventures. They stressed the importance of dialogues. John Kerry, who later became secretary of state during the Afghanistan war; and Senator John McCain too stressed this point.
Failure to achieve US policy objectives in Vietnam through the use of military power led to the development of what is known as the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine, suggesting guideline under what circumstances the United States could effectively employ military power in the future. On 28 November 1984, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger proposed the following six criteria to determine the conditions under which the use of military force was warranted:
- The United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies. . . .
- If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. . . .
- If we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. . . .
- The relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed–their size, composition, and disposition–must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. . . .
- Before the United States commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. . .
- The commitment of US forces to combat should be a last resort.
No doubt this doctrine seemed relevant in 1980s, since any use of military power in those times carried the threat of superpower confrontation with dire consequences for the humanity. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Americans just forgot these guidelines with disastrous results in their Afghan, Iraq and Syrian misadventures.
From the e-book “International Relations; Basic Concepts & Global Issues- A Handbook”, published by Amazon and available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QZSRWT1