Between the end of World War II and 1975 Vietnam was in almost continual conflict, firstly against the French for independence, and then in a civil war that expanded to involve (to some extent) the major superpowers of the world: the United States, the Soviet Union and China. “In human terms at least, the war in Vietnam was a war that nobody won – a struggle between victims. Its origins were complex, its lessons disputed, its legacy still to be assessed by future generations.” In a military sense, it is clear that the North Vietnamese troops defeated those of South Vietnam in April 1975, with the fall of Saigon and the eventual reunification of Vietnam. However, the economic performance of Vietnam since reunification has been poor, and the country remains one of the poorest in the world as the result of the destruction caused by the war, and subsequent economic sanctions placed against the Communist nation. In 1973 the United States finally withdrew from Vietnam under immense public pressure, leaving a highly vulnerable South Vietnamese government to defend itself against an increasingly strong North Vietnamese army. Unsurprisingly, just over two years later the South Vietnamese forces were crushed by a major offensive by the Communists, which led to reunification. In this essay I will explore the role of the US, and asses how important their withdrawal was in the defeat of South Vietnam, as well as analysing whether or not anything has really been ‘won’ by the people of Vietnam through the thirty years of war.
Vietnam had been a part of French Indochina prior to World War II, and was occupied by the Japanese during the war. When the war ended in 1945, there was increased pressure for independence while the French sought to reassert their control over the area. Supported financially by the US, France fought a war against the Vietnamese from 1946-1954, where they lost a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu. Subsequently, Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel, and a referendum was planned in the next three years to ask the Vietnamese people whether they wanted to reunify the country. This referendum was blocked by the US, who were fearful that a unified Vietnam would adopt Communism, which could then spread throughout the rest of Southeast Asia, and the world – known as the ‘domino theory’. The South Vietnamese government, established in 1954, was financially supported by the US, who began to add military support through advisors in the early 1960s. The number of Americans in South Vietnam began to slowly increase during the early 1960s, as the threat of a Communist takeover became more acute. From 4000 US advisors in Vietnam in 1960, the presence increased to 11,300 by the end of 1962, and 16,000 by 1963. Funds, commodities and technicians were poured into South Vietnam during the early 1960s, in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds of the [South Vietnamese] people.” In 1965, US president Lyndon Johnson escalated the war; by introducing US combat troops to counter the advance of Communist forces. Through their huge technical advantage, the US expected to be able to beat the Communists easily.
However, the war did not progress as the Americans expected. Instead of fighting a conventional style of warfare as US troops had been trained for, there was a clear lack of any battle lines, of any large-scale battles or any military manoeuvres that could gauge the success of the campaign. The conflict had a highly fragmented nature, as the US were drawn into guerrilla style warfare by the Communists. “It was a multi-dimensional politico-military conflict encompassing not only out-of-country bombing and ‘main force’ war of more or less conventional forces, but a guerrilla struggle, a clandestine terror campaign, and the like.” Traditional methods of gauging success, through the position of armies, never really gave any indication about what was happening until the very end of the war, instead the US relied upon gruesome body counts that were often misreported, or were fairly irrelevant given the totally committed nature of the Communist enemy. The ‘war of attrition’ tactic adopted by the US clearly was not working as early as 1966; although by this time nearly half a million American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam – as well as a considerable South Vietnamese army. This was not necessarily unexpected, as the Communist forces “saw the struggle against America and its South Vietnamese allies as another chapter in the nation’s thousands of years of resistance to Chinese and, later, French rule. And they were prepared to accept unlimited losses to achieve their sacred objective.”
The North Vietnamese quickly realised that they did not have the military strength to drive the US from Vietnam; instead they sought to break the will of the US government to continue the conflict. The will of the US government, and the people, was definitely waning by 1970 as the public became increasingly opposed to the war. Although the US public was prepared for the blood and sacrifice of war, just as they had been in previous wars, progress needed to be shown and they needed to know when the war would end. Many began to question the purpose of the war, not only radicals on university campuses but those who had supported the war initially – convinced that it was a necessary part of ‘containing global communism’. “But as the Vietnam War dragged on, those arguments lost their allure – until, in retrospect, they would sound absurd.” Antiwar protests at home began to spread to the battlefield, with some US troops wearing peace symbols as they became increasingly perplexed and dispirited by the war. US president from 1968 onwards, Richard Nixon, had always ruled out the idea of a complete military victory in Vietnam and instead directed his foreign policy towards achieving an ‘honourable peace’, and handing the war over to the South Vietnamese through a process of ‘Vietnamisation’. “By shifting the human burden to local surrogates, the United States could project its global power at a cost tolerable to Americans.”
Clearly, the reluctance of the US to continue fighting the Vietnam War played right into the hands of the Communist forces, as they knew how weak and unstable the South Vietnamese regime was. Nixon realised this, and as he was not keen on becoming the first American President to lose a war, he compensated for the removal of US troops by stiffening the South Vietnamese army with advisors, equipment and air support. However, it was clear that these measures could not replace having US troops in South Vietnam, although Nixon had little choice about withdrawing the troops as “surveys showed that increasing numbers of Americans wanted a firm deadline for US troop withdrawal from Southeast Asia, whatever the risks for the Saigon government.” Similarly, “as they [the US public] viewed hideous scenes on television, Americans at home saw Vietnam as both an exercise in futility and a metaphor for horror.” More than 400,000 troops had been withdrawn by 1972, and although this appeased the public, it took away much of the bargaining power of the US with the North Vietnamese. Eventually a ceasefire agreement was reached on October 8 1972, this agreement allowed all Communist troops to remain in position while US troops would be withdrawn and prisoners of war exchanged. It also proposed that all political matters be discussed between North and South Vietnamese politicians at a later date, although there was no set deadline for this meeting to take place – and in all likeliness fighting between the Vietnamese was set to continue.
Due to their ‘forced’ withdrawal from Vietnam, it is fairly clear that the US lost the Vietnam War in a military sense. The South Vietnamese government they attempted to bolster through vast amounts of aid, clearly lacked leadership and commitment of their troops and almost inevitably seemed doomed to lose against their northern countrymen. The US claimed to have achieved peace with honour when the peace agreement was formally signed in Paris on January 27th 1973, however due to the purely military focus of the agreement, there was no long-term solution proposed, and both North and South Vietnamese forces continued to battle after the agreement was signed. In order to protect the South Vietnamese, the US granted a massive amount of aid which led to South Vietnam having the fourth largest air force in the world. However, the poor leadership and organisation of the South Vietnamese meant that this money was largely wasted.
Sure enough, any debate over Hanoi’s policies had ended by late 1973. The ceasefire had left many areas under North Vietnamese control, and they sought to consolidate this control while constructing the infrastructure that would be required to fight a conventional style war to topple the Saigon government. On January 7th 1975 the city of Phuoc Binh fell to the North Vietnamese, as the start of a series of battles for the major cities of South Vietnam still under government control. A strategic withdrawal of troops by the South Vietnamese, to secure the Mekong Delta and Saigon, was conducted in a haphazard manner which led to further disintegration of any hope the South Vietnamese government had of withholding the inevitable North Vietnamese onslaught. Defiantly, Saigon dismissed any notions of coming to an agreement with the North Vietnamese by stating “we will never accept a coalition with the Communists.” Inevitably, the North Vietnamese attacked, crushed any resistance on April 30th 1975 and South Vietnamese leader Duong Van Minh announced his unconditional surrender. Therefore it is clear that the North Vietnamese had won the war in a military sense, however assessing the impact of the war on Vietnam, as well as how the victors have ruled in the past 25 years make it a bit less clear as to who the real victors (if indeed there are any) of the Vietnam War are.
The Communists were fanatical in their resolve the reunify the country as quickly as possible. After thirty years of war it became clear how different the two Vietnams had become, with the North being run by a centralised party state in direct contrast to the South – still swollen by the legacy of the US. It became clear that “there would be no pluralistic government in the South, no neutrality, no gradual evolution and no reconciliation.” However, and highly ironically given the stated reasons behind US involvement in Vietnam, there was no ‘domino theory’, as “it was clear that a unified Vietnam must put greater priority on national rehabilitation than on continuing to spread international communism.” The economic problems faced by the new regime were handled in a dogmatic fashion, and little regard was paid to the mobilisation of popular support. Former government officials were given periods of re-education that turned out to be years of imprisonment, and the fashion in which the new government undertook the massive task of reconstructing a country after thirty years of war alienated those who had supported and welcomed the result of the war.
In the eyes of many today, Vietnam can still be seen as “a country ravaged by two generations of almost uninterrupted conflict, its problems exacerbated by the blunders of its geriatric leaders who knew little else than war.” The income per capita of Vietnam is less than US$300 a year, making it one of the poorest countries in the world – pragmatic reform undertaken out of almost desperation during the early 1990s has led to an improvement in the standard of living, but the legacy of the war still lives on. Even some former Communist officials such as Dr. Duong Quynh Hoa have admitted, “Communism has been catastrophic. Party officials have never understood the need for rational development. They’ve been hypnotised by Marxist slogans that have lost their validity – if they ever were valid. They are outrageous!” More than four million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides – roughly ten per cent of the population – were killed or wounded during the thirty years of conflict, while roughly 25 per cent of farmland and 15 per cent of forests in the country were destroyed by US bombing.
It is clear the enormous impact the war has had upon Vietnam, in the US the Vietnam War has had a vast psychological impact upon a whole generation. It divided the nation more than any other issue since the civil war, and destroyed its overwhelming sense of supremacy. “The days were gone when Americans, convinced of their invincibility, felt comfortable and confident in the posture of international gendarme.” The military defeat of the US and South Vietnam is clear, although the US claimed to have handed over the war to the South Vietnamese and given them a real chance at victory, it is clear that as soon as US troops left it would only be a matter of time before the South Vietnamese government fell. Moreover, the withdrawal of US troops was exactly what the North Vietnamese had attempted to do, by frustrating the military as well as the US public, the North Vietnamese managed to get an army to withdraw, where they knew there was no way they have enough firepower to drive the US out of South Vietnam. However, the legacy of the war on South Vietnam has been disastrous, and the benefits of victory have not been forthcoming. “The necessities of war had justified the people’s immense sacrifices; the necessities of peace, more difficult to determine, could prove harder to accept.”
Therefore, in a socio-economic sense, the Vietnam War was a war that nobody has won. The immense toll on Vietnamese society, which they still face today as one of the world’s poorest nations, has only been made worse by ideological leaders stuck in the nineteenth century.
Jamieson, Neil. Understanding Vietnam, Los Angeles, 1993.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: a history, New York, 1997.
Lowe, Peter. The Vietnam War, Basingtoke, 1998.
Thayer, Thomas. A War Without Fronts: the American experience in Vietnam, Colorado, 1985.
Turnbull, C.M. ‘Regionalism and Nationalism’, in Nicholas Tarling (ed.) The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia: Volume Four – from WWII to the present, Cambridge, 1999. pp. 257-319.
Young, Marilyn. The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990, New York, 1991.
Originally published at http://portal.jarbury.net/essay/vietnam.html