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What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam?
That was the question an Oklahoma high school teacher sent out in a handwritten note to men and women who had been prominent movers or observers during the Vietnam War. Politicians and journalists and generals and combat veterans answered him. Secretaries of Defense answered him. Presidents answered him. Taken together, the answers form a powerful and moving record of the national conscience.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
- 1. The war was fought in a “noble cause”—defending South Vietnam from a Communist takeover. Events confirmed that a Communist takeover brought great harm to the Vietnamese people; more than a million fled.
- 2. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon tried to fight the war “on the cheap.” They did not ask for a congressional declaration of war; they did not mobilize the country behind the war; they did not work out a long-term strategy for winning the war; Lyndon Johnson did not face the issue of whether or not the defense of South Vietnam, and all it entailed, was vital to America’s security.
- 3. American troops, at least until President Nixon began troop withdrawals in 1969, fought as well as (or better than) their elders in World War II or Korea. They were neither victims nor psychopaths (as portrayed in the movie Platoon). They were probably better disciplined than their elders; less damage and fewer civilian casualties were inflicted on the South Vietnamese than on the Koreans during the Korean War.
- 4. The South Vietnamese ally was caught up in a civil war—abetted by outsiders from North Vietnam. The South was historically less united than the North; the South Vietnamese officer corps was the only relatively coherent national organization; hence its members were embroiled in politics. There was no southern counterpart to the extraordinarily well-organized, battle-tested Communist party organization run from Hanoi. Even so, no South Vietnamese army unit ever deserted to the foe. South Vietnamese died in battle in far larger numbers than did the Americans. Some South Vietnamese units—for example, the Marines and the Airborne—were superb; others were badly led, badly trained. South Vietnam suffered from mediocre political leadership. Yet, in peacetime, South Vietnam would have been as prosperous as Taiwan or Singapore. It was outmatched by the North in a war for survival.
- 5. Geography and political constraints made an allied victory impossible under the ground rules that were in effect between 1965 and 1973. Hanoi was able to use Laos and Cambodia freely to reinforce the southern battlefield, always protected by U.S. self-constraints. It was an Indochina war, as seen from Hanoi, if not from Washington. United States forces were not allowed to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia. As long as the trail was open, the war could not be won, and peace could not come to the South. Being able to use the trail gave Hanoi the strategic initiative. The North Vietnamese could choose to fight or fall back to the “sanctuaries.” As the United States set it up, they simply could outlast us in a contest of wills.
If you really want to win a war, you’re best off fighting it on your own, with as little help from outside as possible.
Your question is about as tough as a question can be, and I certainly don’t pretend to know the answer. Put another way, how could you explain to an English or Russian kid living in 1860 what the Crimean War had been all about? A century from now will anyone remember Vietnam at all, or was it just a footnote to the twentieth century?
Maybe there are a couple of ways to look at it.
One is to suppose that there were two sets of good guys, one led by John F. Kennedy and the other by Ho Chi Minh, who were equally convinced that the other side was the bad guy. Ten years later, after the loss of nearly two million lives and economic damage on both sides, we decided to call it a draw.
We can also look at it as a local test between Soviet expansionism and American resistance to the Soviets. For now, with Hanoi as a loyal Moscow ally and with Soviet warships based at Cam Ranh Bay, it certainly looks like a Soviet victory. But time has a way of changing such things. In 1939 the Fascists gained a clear-cut victory in Spain over the combined forces of the Communists and democrats. Opposition to the Falange was wiped out, and as long as Franco lived, Spain remained a Fascist dictatorship. Who could have guessed that four decades after Franco’s smashing victory, a peaceful and almost uneventful transition would bring to Spain a liberal political democracy in which dissent and freedom of choice are vigorously encouraged?
Maybe the lesson of Vietnam was this: If you really want to win a war, you’re best off fighting it on your own, with as little help from outside as possible. I watched South Vietnamese fighting spirit evaporate in direct proportion to increases in the level of U.S. aid, combat assistance, and advice that was poured in. It’s just possible that Saigon would have waged a better war if we had simply stayed out. In the early 1960s it cost one of the Trung Lap rangers about thirteen cents to kill a Communist guerrilla. When we began using Guam-based B-52s for that job, the cost rose to about $137,000 for every guerrilla killed. The Saigon troops stood back and laughed at us, until they realized they were laughing at their own doom, and then it was too late. Fed up, the United States pulled out, and the roof caved in.