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"No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now. Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic" (Nixon, 1990).
At the mention of the Vietnam War, or, as it is referred to by the Vietnamese, the American War, most people would probably have the mental image of a heavily camouflaged Sylvester Stallone rising from a swamp. Yet stories abound of conscripted teens forced to fight an enemy they did not hate, and America has been viewed as a hostile bully who got her nose bloodied in this conflict. But this is, like most cases where the truth is unclear; one’s belief in who is the antagonist/protagonist is heavily influenced by what side of the conflict they stand. It is said that history is recorded by the victors, so it becomes difficult to see conflict from the view of the vanquished. Quite often, the justification of armed conflict is a result of the aggressors perceived superiority over those they seek to subdue, meaning that the accounts of said aggressors will be heavily weighted.
An impartial, entirely bias-free position is difficult to attain, but in reviewing a broad variety and number of resources and viewpoints, we may be able to come close to one. Furthermore with preconceived notions already present due to an exposure to the perceptions put forward by popular media, any attempt to change this opinion is often met with some scepticism, or even accusations of grand conspiracies.
The onset and duration of the Vietnam War was accompanied by a lot of heat and emotion, and had all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Assassinations of powerful personalities no less than the President of the United States and his brother, claims of the involvement of government agents and agencies, a grand conspiracy that involved the mafia all formed a tapestry too attractive for film-makers and theorists to turn away from.
Websites, books, recordings, films and programmes, all purporting to hold a hitherto hidden detail to reveal the truth behind America’s involvement are always popping up. Moreover, while not discounting an a grand conspiracy, it is also possible that there was a simpler, more acceptable chain of events that culminated in possibly the only international conflict that rivals the Second World War in terms of cost and expenditure of human life and effort; the single mindedness of America and its allies to keep communism in check.
In order to attempt definitive depth, the discussion in this paper will be focused to the question, “Did America lose the Vietnam War?” and try to answer that question using three key indicators:
- Local Impact
I believe it is essential to try and exclude emotion from an objective debate, though it may prove difficult. It was a brutal conflict, with great losses and immeasurable suffering, which is beyond doubt. Personally, I only seek to challenge the view that, despite the heavy investment, the prize pursued was eventually obtained.
To arrive at the objectives of American involvement, we should first consider the origins of the conflict. Throughout the decades preceding the officially acknowledged start date of the engagement, there had been constant fighting in Vietnam, then occupied by the French for roughly sixty years (See Fig 1.). The French exerted heavy taxes on the local population, ostensibly to fuel grand infrastructural projects such as the Hanoi – Saigon railway. Workers often perished under inhuman conditions on plantations and in industries, and the insistence that colonialism was meant to be beneficial to locals was deceptive, as the local economy deteriorated. By 1940, The Japanese joined the French as colonisers, further engendering strong nationalist feelings within local people, united by their hate of foreign occupation. Under the returning Ho Chi Minh, who set up a base of operations in Northern Vietnam, they formed a new government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973).
The French, by then fighting the German invaders back in Europe, felt that Vietnam was not worth holding onto, and was too far to be able to defend her effectively, and chose to give in to the Japanese. Seizing the opportunity to rid his country of colonialists, Minh accepted weapons and ammunition from the Soviet Union, and later from the United States as well. They learnt a vast deal from their benefactors, in terms of military strategy, defence tactics and maximising the use of their surroundings in battle. They were able to fend off the Japanese, who surrendered at the end of the Second World War, after falling out with Allied nations following their rain on America’s Pearl Harbour, which caused the US to formally join the Second World War.
At a treaty in Potsdam conducted without the knowledge of the Vietnamese, America, consequently, the Soviet Union and China had agreed to divide the country into a Northern territory, governed by the Chinese, and the South, left to the British. However, the French returned to Vietnam and negotiated with the Chinese a handover of territory back into French hands. The French refused to acknowledge Minh’s government, and sought to forcibly impose their authority. With new-found weapons and tactics, still, the Vietminh were a now a formidable adversary, and pushed the French to surrender in 1954 after a decisive offensive (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973).
An election was then planned, but fearing the fall of Vietnam into the hands of the vastly popular and communist backed Minh, the Americans elected to divide the country, so that Ngo Dinh Diem, a man who was very anti-communism and favoured by the U.S., won a flawed election that conferred upon him leadership of South Vietnam, and with it sweeping powers to imprison and detain communist sympathisers. A clause, Law 10/59 made it legal to hold suspected communists without trial (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973).
Opposition to such oppression followed swiftly from all quarters. Intellectuals and peasants, business people and students, clergy and professionals were quick to hold public demonstrations of their displeasure, some even going to the extent of setting themselves on fire. Pro-Diem supporters, especially back in the US, viewed him as a key ally in halting the spread of communism in the South East Asia. They could not afford to let communism grab a foothold in the region. In the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the "falling domino" principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences" (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973). (See Fig.3).
However, the protests back in Vietnam increased, making his position untenable. A group of the US-backed generals led a coup in 1963, and after his execution, the succeeding generals were just as erratic and unpredictable, leading to their United States sponsors to fear that power could be wrested from them by the more organised communist movement.
The constant inclination to effect regime changes in Vietnam were aimed expressly at stopping communism at whatever cost, and in the cold light of day, appears to hold water. Before the takeover of Vietnam, communist campaigns had little or no impact in the South East Asia. The Hukbalahap Rebellion in the Philippines and the Emergency in Malaysia both were attempts to introduce communism in those two nations, but did not bear fruit.
To paraphrase General William C. Westmoreland, the South-East Asian nations of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines all remained free of communism, because of the American commitment to Vietnam. He continues by saying that the citizens of these countries do not hold the view held by most, that the U.S. lost. The consensus is that Vietnam was a major turning point in the battle against communism, and in the aftermath of the Cold War, roughly 93% of sovereign states now conduct elections to choose their leaders democratically, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union based in Geneva.
The sheer cost of the war is undeniable, the numbers are staggering:
However, in spite of Vietnam being united and turning to communism after the war, it is primarily run on capitalist motive, rather than on the communist-Marxist system, which seems to have helped the growth of cordial relations between these two former enemies. America is now a huge contributor to the growth of Vietnamese infrastructure, with more than 400,000 American tourists annually, direct trade investments totalling almost 10 billion US dollars in 2010, and support and funding activities to clear unexploded bombs and mines (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973). Good intentions, no doubt, but beyond the physical cost, emotional scars run deep, and these are not easily glossed over with promises of investments or tourism.
Not forgetting the impact it also had on the Americans who served during the war, many of them returned home to at best an apathetic people, and at worst, openly dismissive of the entire war effort. Post-traumatic stress disorders were commonly reported, as were suicides from depression. Surprisingly, when interviewed, a large majority (91%) said they would serve again, with a further 74% stating that they would still serve knowing full well the outcome of the conflict (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973).
Additionally, it has been found that early introduction into service and combat in itself impacts the physical and mental health of soldiers, because the increased exposure to the rigours of an early military service increase one’s chances of suffering long-term injuries and complications. Serving in difficult situations, plagued by disease and infection, high-risk missions and training accidents also tend to incline soldiers to substance abuse and difficulties in relating to others socially (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973). As far as local impact is concerned, it would be fair to say that there were no winners in America or Vietnam.
By far, the thing that lingers most in the mind about the Vietnam War is the human cost, including an estimated 2 million Vietnamese civilians. Then there is the environmental devastation caused by the massive amount of bombing and the use of chemical agents. Agent Orange caused enormous and long-lasting damage to the environment and health of the Vietnamese people. However, the devastation did not end with the departure of American soldiers.
With the departure of American troops in early 1973, the North Vietnam invaded the south, and after two years, the South capitulated. Upon re-unification, the newly founded Socialist Government of Vietnam established its capital at Hanoi, and renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, in honour of the former North Vietnamese ruler. In neighbouring Kampuchea (Cambodia), Pol Pot was embarking on a bloody campaign to create a utopia. He was ruthless, with his infamous killing fields claiming the lives of over 2 million people (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973).
In order to stem the tide of the Khmer Rouge, who had the tacit support of China, Vietnam attacked Cambodia, removing the Khmer from power and installing an alternative leadership. While this succeeded in securing the border areas that had been under Cambodian attacks, the action of invasion caused the Chinese some measure of unease. China felt threatened by Vietnam’s growing influence in the region, and saw the new-found courage to invade Cambodia as the result of the Soviet Russia’s push to gain a foothold in the South East Asia. Russia responded to this by sending arms and supplies to Vietnam, but avoided open declaration of hostilities with China.
From Cambodia and Vietnam, an estimated three million people fled the wars, with fatalities of about half a million civilians. In an effort to further reduce the impact of the damage done, the United States took in refugees who were being turned away by other the South East Asian countries, and were joined in this by Canada, Australia and France (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973).
In 1986, Nguyen Van Linh led a group of politicians that had grown disenchanted by the stagnating economy, and together began a period of restructuring for the economy. They embraced a socialist as opposed to a communist economic system and encouraged free enterprise. Foreign investments grew, and great improvements were recorded in agricultural production, industrialisation and exports.
As a matter of fact, to stimulate renewed growth in the agricultural sector that was devastated by the war, the government introduced a “collectivization” of economic capital, farms and millions were put to work on state-owned farms. For America, the aftermath was primarily a look at lessons learnt so as to avoid a similar occurrence in future. As pointed out by General Maxwell Taylor, “...we did not know ourselves... neither did we know our allies” (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973). Paraphrasing Sun Tzu, he added that until America knew itself and her allies, it would be erroneous to engage in any combat.
Many questioned the methods employed against an enemy that was nearly invisible, and fought via very unconventional means. Their tenacity, especially against the French was seemingly indefatigable; with Ho Chi Minh famously quoted as saying to the French “You can kill ten of my men for everyone I kill of yours... But even at these odds, you will lose and I will win” (Leitenberg & Burns, 1973). The war got American commanders to re-evaluate their tactics, and rethink new combat techniques as traditional forms of overcoming a stubborn enemy like aerial superiority, failed to bear fruit.
In conclusion, the Vietnam-American war can only be considered as a Pyrrhic victory. It can be argued that each war fought carries with it an unnecessary expenditure of lives and resources, but if the objective that was set out at the beginning was achieved, then it counts as a success. America’s stated ambition to halt the spread of communism in the South East Asia was thus, albeit at a horrendous cost, “Mission Accomplished” (Nixon, 1990).