How the U.S. Could Have “Won” the Vietnam War (1982) — Updated

The look of defeat: Saigon, 1975

The look of defeat: Saigon, 1975

W.J. Astore

Much like my father, I can be a pack rat. Going through old files, I found a “blue book” exam that I took as a college freshman in 1982. The essay question I had to answer was whether the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War.  Recall that in 1975, South Vietnam had fallen to the communist North Vietnamese invaders, with U.S. diplomats ignominiously escaping by helicopter from the roof of our embassy in Saigon.  In the 1980 Presidential Election, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, with Reagan declaring that the unpopular Vietnam War had been “a noble cause.”

I have not edited my answer (except for a few additions, in brackets, for clarity), which follows below. This is what one U.S. college freshman thought about Vietnam and the U.S. involvement in that war seven years after the defeat in 1975.  (You can’t even call it sophomoric, since I was only a freshman.)  I think my answer reflects a certain naivete as well as can-do optimism: That we were fighting for the right reasons but in the wrong way, and if we had followed a better strategy, and bossed around the South Vietnamese more, we could have, in some sense, “won.”

Today, I don’t believe the Vietnam War was winnable, and I lament the enormous amount of destruction we visited on the Vietnamese and their country, which I’ve written about in other articles, here and here for example.

Update (8/27/2014): Having watched the recent HBO documentary Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, it’s now glaringly obvious that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.  Indeed, that’s precisely what Nixon and Kissinger (secretly) concluded.  As they talked publicly about “peace with honor,” Nixon and Kissinger were privately conceding that the war was lost.  They were looking only to deflect blame from themselves, for “a decent interval” between when US troops withdrew and when South Vietnam collapsed, which is exactly what they got — roughly three years, by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace due to Watergate.  Nixon and Kissinger also cast about for scapegoats; at the time, they planned to blame the inevitable defeat on the corruption of South Vietnamese leaders.  

Why did the U.S. lose in Vietnam?  A big reason, I think, is the dishonesty of our own government in consistently misleading the American people about the war and the region as well.  This dishonesty started just after World War II and extended to LBJ and Nixon as revealed in “The Pentagon Papers.”   In other words, Nixon’s “silent majority” wasn’t silent because it supported his policies.  It was silent because it had been lied to by Nixon and his predecessors.  If the U.S. government had had the guts to level with the American people, the worst of the war may have been averted.  Even Watergate would have been averted, since you can draw a clear line from Daniel Ellsberg and “The Pentagon Papers” to attempts to “get” Ellsberg to the “dirty tricks” of the Nixon Campaign in 1972 that ended in his resignation.  Lies begat crimes that begat more lies that begat more crimes…

[Winning the Vietnam War, as written in March of 1982]

The Vietnam War was a costly struggle involving over 500,000 U.S. troops [at peak deployment strength] and billions of dollars of equipment.  The war was attacked both at home and abroad, and when the U.S. finally did pullout in 1972, the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] collapsed in three years.  The Vietnam War was a failure of U.S. foreign policy making, but if other alternatives had been pursued, the results would have been much better for the United States.

The U.S. became involved in Vietnam to contain communism, to prevent the takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnam, and to contain China.  Unfortunately, the U.S. underestimated the strength of the North Vietnamese will, and turned a local civil war between two conflicting ideologies into a major conflict.  The U.S. believed that South Vietnam was a vital area of American interest, but it really wasn’t.

The South Vietnamese government was politically inefficient and corrupt.  Most of the natives did not support the government, which was why the Viet Cong were able to succeed the way they did.  U.S. foreign policy concentrated on defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, not realizing that the reform of the South Vietnamese government and the pacification of the local villagers were of more importance.

What could we have done, then, to “save” South Vietnam from North Vietnam?  The answers are not concrete or exact.  Most people believe that if the U.S. Army had had fewer restrictions and more men, North Vietnam would have lost.  This pedestrian view is wrong for two basic reasons.  One is that the U.S. Army fought the wrong type of war.  Instead of conducting counterguerrilla activities, the U.S. Army adopted tactics intended for conventional warfare in Europe.  The U.S. tried to defeat North Vietnam by sheer firepower, but superior numbers and materiel lose their advantage against a determined guerrilla enemy.  Employing hit-and-run tactics, the Viet Cong fought only when they wanted to fight, and on ground of their choosing.  Cincinnatus [Cecil B. Currey], in his book Self-Destruction:[The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army during the Vietnam Era] stated that the U.S. Army could not have won the war because of the way they fought it.

The second reason is that each escalation of American troops in Vietnam could be easily matched by North Vietnam.  Each year over 200,000 men [in North Vietnam] became eligible for the draft.  When General Westmoreland asked for 200,000+ troops to launch a major counteroffensive after Tet [in early 1968], he was denied them on the grounds that more numbers would have had little or no effect in ending the war.

What can one conclude from this?  A definite conclusion is that U.S. tactics were totally unsuited to the type of war fought in Vietnam.  This suggests one change in our policy that would have improved the result.  If we had pursued a policy of counterguerrilla warfare, and if we had protected the local villagers better, then we could have concentrated on the main problem—reforming the South Vietnamese government and creating an ARVN that didn’t lose every battle they fought.

The Vietnamization policy [under Nixon] was a step in the right direction, but it was implemented haphazardly and inefficiently.  U.S. foreign policy should have recognized that the support of the government by the people was of paramount importance, but needed reforms [in South Vietnam] were not carried out and the people became disillusioned and bitter.  If the government cannot protect us, the people thought, what good was it?  The U.S. should have forced the various South Vietnamese governments to implement reforms, and it also should have pursued a more vigorous pacification program.

The handling of ARVN was also a mistake.  ARVN came to rely upon the U.S. Army to great extent, and when the U.S. Army withdrew, the ARVN desertion rate reached an all-time high.  The U.S. should have realized that giving the South Vietnamese billions of dollars in equipment and, among other things, the fourth largest air force in the world, was not enough.  It did not cure the disease that afflicted ARVN, which was corruption and the lack of experienced officers.

What conclusions can be reached?  U.S. foreign policy was definitely flawed, but we could have attained better results if other policies were implemented.  A more effective pacification program, combined with counterguerrilla activities and increased defense of local villages, would have eroded the support of the Viet Cong, since a guerrilla war needs the support of the populace to succeed.  The most basic flaw in U.S. policy, however, was ignoring the faults and corruption of the South Vietnamese government.  Needed reforms of the overbearing totalitarian government would have gained the support of the South Vietnamese people, and this more than any other factor might have changed the results of 1975 and “won” the war for the United States.





52 thoughts on “How the U.S. Could Have “Won” the Vietnam War (1982) — Updated

    • I disagree wholeheartedly on the massive firepower failure. The fact is, we DID pummel the enemy, but we did othing to occupy what we had pummeled. If you were actually there, and I am not sure if you were or were not, you would recognize that we slaughtered the enemy wherher they used gurilla tactics or not, whether they “decided to fight when they wanted to” or not. We killed pthem where they stood. Then the call came down from Washington…”Back off, do not occupy.”

      I am just amazed at he lengths people go to to distort what we actually did to th enemy.

      • What a crock of shit you are in denial .
        You would have never occupied the north for one you got taken apart by the Migs that is why top gun started up and to do so would have had the USSR and China involved if you invaded the north .
        America is not known as a good fighting force the USSR won WW2 and you have the firepower but that is it , your not a good army you like to think you are but your not in the same class has the top armies in the world . Back to Vietnam ever wondered why the gorilla forces were called the Vietnam Cong go ask the American marines they would surround you in minutes and the only difference in this dreadful conflict was your helicopters they saved thousands of your men unlike the poor Vietnamese soldier who had to lay there for days to die if he was wounded .
        You lost the war like in Afghanistan and not forgetting the botched up Iraq war you guys botched up that is why we have Isis you lot done that dropping bombs in Iraq killing over a Million Iraqis , that was terrible under that tyrant Bush and that other idiot Blair both should be in The Hague now .
        I like American people there bright very beautiful down to earth wonderful people but there brainwashed by a tyrannical media who controls the great country and it is run by an Elite who control Tv and Media and these people are the Richest 10% in your great country who own 85% of all America’s Wealth that has to stop and Americans need to wake up surely you agree .

      • Alessio, you are right. When the enemy got desperate, they initiated the Tet Offensive, and got destroyed to the point that they could not even do anything offensive. But the US media decided to say it was a defeat, when the military had destroyed the enemy’s ability to fight. At home, the young people who did not want to fight some foreign war, and the media, decided for everyone else. Does that mean I think we should have been there? Hell no.

    • oh my god. Im am a Vietnamese and can belive that American think about that. Many people death and they were so young. Do you know Thành Cổ Quảng Trị and what America did?

  1. Col. Astore, I am astounded that 32 years after penning that essay you STILL have not learned that “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam” were fictitious entities created by the US and its tool, the UN. (I refer, of course, to your Introduction.) The will of the people of one nation, Viet Nam (if I had option of placing the correct accents, I would do so), to resist foreign invaders/occupiers could not be defeated by all the personnel and equipment the US aggressors threw at it. There was never the least, infinitesimally small “noble” aspect to this shameful episode in our country’s history.

    • Greg: I’ve read a lot about the history of the Vietnam War, to include the French prologue in Indochina. Yes, I know if elections had been held after Dien Bien Phu in the 1950s, Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won, and Vietnam would have been united politically, avoiding the catastrophic war of the 1960s and early 1970s.

      All that being said, North and South Vietnam were not merely fictions precisely because our foreign policy “experts” made them real. They were real — or real enough — in their minds, if not in the minds of most Vietnamese.

      There’s a larger point to your comment, I think: Just because you think something is so, doesn’t make it so, no matter how many billions of dollars you spend and no matter the bomb tonnage you’re prepared to drop.

      • I have to take issue with the following statement: “North and South Vietnam were not merely fictions precisely because our foreign policy “experts” made them real. They were real — or real enough — in their minds, if not in the minds of most Vietnamese.”

        Nothing makes a figment of the imagination real. Reality, as scientist/philosopher/logician Charles Sanders Peirce noted: doesn’t care what people think about it. Believing in a figment or fable — if not an outright lie — does not make it true, no matter how intensely one insists on believing in it. In fact, the persistent belief in a figment of the imagination, despite the readily available evidence debunking it, constitutes psychological — if not psychotic — delusion, not reality. So one always has to carefully distinguish reality from delusion. As Francis Fitzgerald wrote in Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam:

        The basic problem was, of course, that the U.S. official picture of the “‘Viet Cong’ as an army and a coercive administration fighting over an apolitical peasantry was simply a misrepresentation of facts. In many regions — and those where the greatest U.S. military effort was made — the unarmed peasants actively and voluntarily cooperated with the Front troops, giving information, carrying supplies, laying booby traps. Where, then, was the distinction between ‘soldiers’ and ‘civilians’? In many regions ‘the Viet Cong’ were simply the villagers themselves.

        So if one wishes to distinguish reality from delusion, one can find no better example than the American use of terms like “invader” to describe foreigners in their own lands fighting for their independence while refusing to apply that designation to the American military who in fact constitute the invader. The wanton destruction wrought by the American military invader constitutes reality for the foreign victims and American soldiers who victimize them. And no amount of self-exculpatory fantasizing or outright misrepresentation — i.e., lying — by U.S. government officials, civilian and military, can make reality out of a propaganda fable. Constructing a fictitious picture for use as self-interested propaganda constitutes simple mendacity. But simultaneously believing and not believing one’s own fiction goes by the Orwellian term doublethink. We ought to use the proper words in the proper contexts. Not just any word or phrase used at any time or place will do.

      • As a slogan on a button proclaimed c. 1967: “They May Be ‘Vietcong’ But They Live There!” I haunted the legendary Strand Bookstore in NYC in the 1970s until a used paperback copy of Bernard Fall’s HELL IN A VERY SMALL PLACE, about the Viet Minh defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, became available and hustled it to the cash register. I’ve never read STREET WITHOUT JOY.

        Col. Astore: I am every bit as American as you, growing up reciting The Pledge of Allegiance, watching “Howdy Doody,” learning to “duck and cover” when the atomic bombs start falling, delivered of course by the evil Russkies. But I overcame the propaganda and I DO speak of Saigon as liberated (becoming Ho Chi Minh City) and I combat ignorant statements like “North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam.” Your own reluctance to learn, to learn to change, to change your thinking, makes you part of this nation’s problem, not part of any solution. Other former commissioned officers of the US military have managed to change their views and oppose actions they formerly participated in or simply supported. What is hanging you up??

      • Yes, I take your point, Mike. My point is that our foreign policy types believe they can create their own realities. They act as if their concoctions are real; they become intoxicated on them. They persist in their addiction until harsh reality intrudes and they can no longer deny that their attempt to create reality was another trip down the rabbit hole.

        To Greg I say this: Accusations do not make for persuasive discourse. If I may borrow from Rhett Butler’s apology from “Gone With the Wind,” “I apologize again for all my shortcomings.”

      • Again, as in another post, I offer the words of George Marshall: “The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” Prevention is the goal we should seek rather than how prevail militarily. There is, however, an almost insurmountable problem “. . . under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Another problem is it only takes one party to start a fight or war.
        Playing ‘what if’ is great fun, but there are significant situations that need analysis, such as how to defuse the ‘wars’ in the middle east and deal with China and Russia’s efforts to reconstitute their empires. Any thoughts, anyone?

      • The USA needs to learn that “global reach, global power” is a recipe for global unrest rather than stability. It’s simply too expensive, as well as counterproductive, for the USA to deploy military forces in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Africa, and so many other places. Historically, China has not strayed far from Asia; historically, Russia has not strayed far from Eurasia. Only the USA has worked since World War II on global dominance, flattering itself that everywhere it went, things got better. No — they largely got worse, because other peoples and countries ultimately want to find their own way.

        So — the first step is for the USA to learn the limits of military power, while seeking to rein in a Pentagon/Intelligence/Security/Corporate apparatus that has grown remarkably in power and reach since 9/11.

        I know: the foreign policy experts always say the U.S. “must lead” — but this always translates to “send troops and/or weapons” while spending scores of billions. The result: we’re impoverishing America while encouraging foreign blowback against us.

        You’ve perhaps heard the saying: “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” We need to do a lot more of the latter — just get out of the way. We have enough of our own problems to solve right here in America.

      • Professor, I’m trying to understand the path to the US involvement in Viet Nam. I’m not finding good information on the period immediately following the end of WWII, for example after searching for the Haiphong Massacre I can find only a summary, all the detailed sources require ‘registration’ or $$.
        I would appreciate a summary of the conflict up to 1963 and the role of influence of Edward Lansdale on the nature of the war.

      • “equote”–I highly recommend Christian Appy’s recent book AMERICAN RECKONING–THE VIETNAM WAR AND OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY. He airs the dirty laundry on how the US propaganda machine concocted a narrative of “saving” Christians (converted under the French colonial influence) from “Communist persecution” (a campaign lubricated by one Tom Dooley, MD, who published an influential book with made-up tales of torture). I had never read these historical details, having been too young at the time to know of the Dooley book. Also, very good historical overview of Vietnam’s plight, having to fight endlessly to maintain its independence. If money is an issue, there are always public libraries (wotta concept!) or used copies doubtless available via Internet.

      • I know details are important, but I would stress long-term causes for Vietnam, as follows:

        1. The U.S. policy of Containment that saw communism as monolithic as well as an expansionist and international threat. Applicable to the USSR, for sure, but not to Vietnam.

        2. The lingering effects of McCarthyism and U.S. domestic politics. No “serious” candidate could be seen as “soft” on communism, just as no candidate today can be seen as “soft” on ISIS and terrorism (or Iran for that matter).

        3. JFK’s embrace of Flexible Response and his affection for the Green Berets, with Southeast Asia as a testbed for new doctrine and forces.

        4. Constant preparations for war and the pursuit of profit by the Military-Industrial Complex.

        5. A sense of fighting the last war, with Korea as the “last war” in the case of Vietnam. In other words, we can intervene successfully while keeping China out, i.e. we can limit the war, we can “manage” it.

        6. An overwhelming sense of hubris that we are the puppet masters, and when our puppets no longer obey (Diem in South Vietnam), we can just get rid of them and make new puppets.

        Yes, there was a Catholic angle. Yes, Lansdale played a role. But I think these overarching causes are more important, and indeed most of them are still in force today. We now need to contain ISIS/Iran; no one can seem “soft”; the MIC has only grown stronger after 9/11; and hubris — well, America still sees itself as the puppet master. Hence Iraq and Afghanistan, both quagmires.

        The big change: No Draft. No big overseas deployments in battle. So no anti-war movement, which suits the military just fine, except that the military needed that anti-war movement in Vietnam to force them to confront their own illusions.

      • Bill Astore–The proof that the US military assuredly did not “benefit” from the anti-war movement’s opposition to its activities in Southeast Asia is precisely the neverending hubris on exhibit today. Do you really think the top ranks of the military establishment contemplated their navels and had a collective epiphany about their former self-delusion? Is this notion based on classes you suffered through at the Air Force Academy or something??

      • “Benefit” is your word, Greg. My point was that the size and extent and commitment of the anti-war movement forced the military to consider that the Vietnam war truly was unwinnable. Of course, the military didn’t like this; few of us wish to be confronted by our illusions. So the military response was to neutralize future anti-war movements by eliminating the draft and isolating the military from the people — exactly the case today.

      • ” Yes, I know if elections had been held after Dien Bien Phu in the 1950s, Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won”—-wrong. Communists don’t like elections, because nobody wants to be a slave. Liar.

      • Apparently “Al” is calling Gen. of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower a liar and a Commie dupe! Yeah, “Al,” you might want to study history a little before posting here. It was Ike who publicly admitted Uncle Ho would have been elected in 1956 as leader of united Viet Nam…Oh, how foolish of me! Of course Ike WAS a Commie dupe, because Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin said he was! Is the Senator a hero of yours, “Al”? Beyond this little attempt at having some fun, I feel it would be beneath my dignity to comment further on your foolish statements.

    • It never ceases to amaze me the hipocrisy of calling the US an invader and at the same time embracing Chinese occupation. I guess what you people don’t like is the western democracy, and that’s fair as long as you call it that and refrain for portraying it like “good vs evil”.

      • J.C. Rodriguez: Dude, this is one of the most hilarious posts I have ever encountered here on TCP!! Congrats for tickling my funny bone! But wait, reviewing context of the previous posts, I now don’t know if you’re referring to Korea or Viet Nam!! No matter! Neither was “occupied” by China in the 20th Century. China assisted “north” Korea in resisting the US/UN invaders. China has been hostile to Viet Nam for a long time, and they have had border skirmishes. It was the USSR that provided the Vietnamese liberation forces (did that phrase make you wince? Too bad!) with material aid. I guess by “you people” you mean those who can see through the BS of what passes for history in the US schools system. Or do you think anyone who criticizes US policy is some kind of “jihadi,” hating US “values”?!? What THIS writer hates is the hypocrisy of this country’s spokespersons as they lecture the whole world about “values” they don’t even respect themselves. We could start with the matter of simple human rights, or call them legal rights (i.e. denial of same), a la Gitmo. Abu Ghraib, anyone? But we’d be at it a long, long time.

  2. “……..Unfortunately, the U.S. underestimated the strength of the North Vietnamese will, and turned a local civil war between two conflicting ideologies into a major conflict……..”

    I have to side with Greg. There were not “two conflicting ideologies” . There was one nation with a leader , Ho Chi Minh, respected by all the people and there was a foreign occupier of the southern territory who inflicted a foreign “ideology” upon a damaged third world country. Our rulers are making the same mistake in Afghanistan and throughout the world today. The American elite political rulers have been making the same mistake since the Chinese Opium wars. Hubris leads them to believe that they know better than any local people what is good or tolerable for them.
    We are making the same misbegotten mistake with Ukraine today. We have as much business in Ukraine as we had in Indochina, none! Ukraine will have problems whoever is in charge and it will really not effect our country. This is another “domino theory” excuse just as we were fed the same phoney story on Indochina.
    Russia, as much as we don’t like Putin’s aggressiveness, has more reason to establish Ukraine as a buffer, than we have to expand our empire there. They have the lesson of the German invasion where Ukraine became the scene of the largest tank battles in history that ultimately led to the defeat of the Wehrmacht. They earned it. We didn’t.

  3. I think that Professor Astore’s introduction (2014) and essay (1982) make a useful comparison. Some quintessentially American attitudes have changed while others have not. The use of the phrase “fallen to” instead of “liberated by,” for only one example, continues to plague American thinking about any number of foreign struggles for national independence. It would prove even more enlightening, I think, to know for which college course Professor Astore wrote his essay and what reference works he had read in preparation for his exam. By 1982, the interested student could have picked from any number of first-rate works on the history of American military involvement in Asia since the end of the Second World War. For instance:

    In 1969, as part of my military training at Counter-Insurgency school (Coronado Island, San Diego) we had to read Bernard Fall’s excellent history, Street Without Joy: the French Debacle in Indochina (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1963). Mr Fall’s book dealt with The First Indochina War, lost by France in 1954, and the start of the Second Indochina War, lost by the United States in 1961-62 at the very beginning of overt U.S. military involvement. One brief excerpt:

    Chapter 14: The Second Indochina War

    “The point needs to be made, and made clearly before a new mythology becomes accredited which blames the military setbacks of 1963-64 not upon the military and civilian bunglers who are responsible for them, but on the Buddhist monks or the American press corps in Saigon.

    The hard and brutal fact is that, for a variety of reasons which can be as coldly analyzed as the French defeats described earlier in this book, the strictly military aspect of the Vietnamese insurgency was being as rapidly lost in 1961-62 as its socio-political aspects were.

    Again, I read this and other observations like it in 1969, a year before I deployed to the now-defunct (or defunct already) Republic of Vietnam. How comforting to realize that the U.S. military had already lost the so-called “War in Vietnam” during my freshman year in high school (1961-62) but would insist on continuing to lose it — with my reluctant participation — for years to come. Hence one of our sardonic G.I. slogans: “We lost the day we started and we win the day we stop.”

    As another example of what a college student could have read in 1982: after I completed my eighteen months of indentured service in Vietnam, I returned to Taiwan the fall of 1972 — ten years before Professor Astore entered college — as a foreign exchange student studying Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. I also had to take a course in Sino-American Relations. My Professor, interested a Vietnam Veteran’s perspective, assigned me to write a paper comparing and contrasting the failed U.S. military involvement in the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49 and the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, then its desultory death throes. As principle sources, I read Stillwell and the American Experience in China, by Barbara Tuchman; Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, by Frances Fitzgerald; and The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. Asked to give a summary of my findings, I quoted Barbara Tuchman’s final sentence: “In the end, China went her own way, as if the Americans had never come,” and noted that, substituting some Vietnamese names for Chinese ones, one could say the same thing about Vietnam. This did in fact come to pass in only a few more years. Vietnam went her own way as if the Americans had never come.

    So I would like to know the name of the course and the required reading before commenting further on Professor Astore’s article. I do not mean this in any pejorative sense, but if the teacher of the course did not challenge his or her students to read the best materials available even a decade earlier, then he or she did them a profound disservice and any innocence or ignorance revealed in their essays belongs as much to the instructor as the pupils.

    • Hi Mike: It was a course on U.S. foreign policy since WWII, if I recall correctly. We read Spanier as well as George Herring’s general history of the Vietnam War (I think). I don’t think we read Fall; I read him on my own, later. My reference to Currey’s “Self-Destruction” was reading I had done on my own. In high school, I was more of a WWII history buff. Most of my serious reading about Vietnam came later in college and after. I read “The Best and the Brightest” but I can’t recall exactly when I read it.

      It’s an interesting point about “fallen to” rather than “liberated by.” I am what I am: an American, a retired lieutenant colonel, and a student of history whose interpretations are colored by the Cold War and American attitudes toward communism. I don’t think my essay (or introduction) is necessarily fresh or insightful; what they are, I think, is representative of certain American attitudes and viewpoints (or biases) that persist to this day.

      Sorry: I’m not going to speak of the NVA as “liberating” Saigon. I’ll let them speak of liberation.

      • No offence intended, Professor, but I noticed that in neither your introduction nor in your article do you mention the National Liberation Front: namely, the guerrilla forces who organized and carried out resistance to the sequence of corrupt, musical-chairs “governments” in Saigon — all American supported or created — from 1954 to 1975, a period of over twenty years. They took that “liberation” thing seriously, to say the least; and with the coordinated assistance of the NVA — one of the world’s great infantries — achieved their liberation at great sacrifice. Especially in the Tet Offensive of early 1968, the NLF pretty much won their war by completely discrediting the American government and its military in the eyes of the American people. A battle fought for a political objective, not just for a body count — a concept that the American military never understood. That it took the United States seven more years to face up to our defeat, does not change anything. And a refusal of Americans to acknowledge what the Vietnamese won for themselves and their country strikes me as something akin to nationalistic petulance. If the U.S. military had frankly admitted its defeat in Vietnam, then perhaps the American military would not have had to suffer defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well.

        As Nick Turse writes in his recent book Kill Anything That Moves: the Real American War in Vietnam:

        Despite the decades that have passed, despite the presidents who have attempted to rebrand the war or dispatch it to the dustbin of history, Americans are still in the thrall of a conflict that refuses to pass quietly into the night. Never having come to grips with what our country actually did during the war, we see its ghost arise anew with every successive military intervention. Was Iraq the new Vietnam? Or was that Afghanistan? Do we see ‘light at the end of the tunnel’? Are we winning ‘hearts and minds?’ Is ‘counterinsurgency’ working? Are we applying the ‘lessons of Vietnam’? What are those lessons, anyway?

        The true history of Vietnamese civilian suffering does not fit comfortably into America’s preferred postwar narrative — the tale of a conflict nobly fought by responsible commanders and good American boys, who should not be tainted by the occasional mistakes of a few ‘bad apples.’ Still, this is hardly an excuse for averting our eyes from the truth.

        To me, the failure of some Americans to acknowledge the great victory achieved by the Vietnamese pretty much amounts to just hiding our eyes from the truth. It scarcely becomes a country that likes to consider itself “great.”

  4. Another excerpt from Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy: the French debacle in Indochina (1963):

    Why is it that we must use top-notch elite forces, the cream of the crop of American, British, French, or Australian commando and special warfare schools; armed with the very best that advanced technology can provide; to defeat the Viet-Minh, Algerians, or Malay “CT’s” [Chinese Terrorists], almost none of whom can lay claim to similar expert training and only in the rarest of cases to equality in fire power?

    The answer is very simple: It takes all the technical proficiency our system can provide to make up for the woeful lack of popular support and political savvy of most of the regimes that the West has thus far sought to prop up. The Americans who are now fighting in South Vietnam have come to appreciate this fact out of first-hand experience.

    I have heard it said that most U.S. military officers deploying to Southeast Asia fifty years ago had to read Bernard Fall’s book. It has never appeared to me that many did; or, if they did, that they understood its two profound messages: “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop;” or, if they read the book and understood it, that they gave much of a damn anyway. As the career lifers used to put it: “Don’t knock the war, it’s the only one we’ve got.” Not a lot has changed in the U.S. military over the past fifty years, from what I have experienced and observed. They get beat up and bloodied by some barely armed peasants somewhere. Then they make endless excuses for their manifest failures. Then and demand even more troops and money so they can do it all over again, one more time. As Bullwinkle Moose used to promise every time he tried and failed to pull a rabbit out of his magic hat: “This time for sure!” To which Rocky the Flying Squirrel would reply in exasperation: “Aw, Bullwinkle. That trick never works!” It still doesn’t.

  5. Mr. Astore – thank you for posting your essay. Yet one more reason, and perhaps the biggest reason, the United States lost the Vietnam War, is that we didn’t bring the fight to the enemy and send troops north into North Vietnam to attack their capability of raising new armies. Instead we primarily fought a defensive war, reacting to their offensives and allowing N. Vietnam to replenish its ranks. Presumably if the U.S. *had* invaded N. Vietnam, the Chinese, who were a nuclear power at that time with vast manpower, would have entered the war and the situation would have been far uglier.

    • What you speak of is the truth. America was fighting the Korean War all over again but without going over 38th parallel. We were bombing empty jungles instead of North Vietnamese Cities. That would have been unheard of in World War 2 as they believed innocent civilians and their cities to be apart of that war effort. I have come to the belief that any nation that fights wars and worries about how it might look hypocritical about ignoring its national values and morality has already been defeated. Remeber your enemies will have no morality! Why should you? I would like to use the analogy of an endangered neighborhood when it comes to helping your allies in a time of war or crisis. Your neighbors might not agree on how each home conducts its affairs. Maybe you have to go over to the Grenada to say something about their dog getting into your garbage or Panama to stop Mr. Noriega from beating his wife. But they all share one thing in common though. The safety of your neighborhood! You all have many things in common like Constitutional rights and democracy or even back yard cookouts. Then there comes along the big bad fire. That fire would be in the form of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, ISIL, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Communism, Socialist and Rosie O’Donnell. The fire is spreading from house to house. The most sensible thing to do is to help your neighbors(Allies) in stopping that fire. You have no crystal ball telling you that it won’t spread past the 3rd house on your block. But you do what you think is right. You flood the 4th house with water and look foolish in doing so. We as a nation were also foolish to believe that the domino theory was possible(except in South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Nicaragua, American Universities and nearly in El Salvador, Afghanistan within a 5 year or so period after 1975). We did not know that we were oppressing millions of people who were then liberated after we left and then later liberated again from their bodies or as you say executed after the shooting had stopped.
      I say again when you go to war you must throw out any notion of morality. I’m not saying after the shooting stops that we should execute the oppressed peoples we are now oppressing the way the Khmer rouge did in Cambodia and what ISIL is doing today in Syria and Iraq. We should help them up and dust them off. I as a Soldier had no intentions of shooting Iraqi or Afghani families. Many of them looked at us as liberators and I felt I was there to help them. Then of course some off them looked at us as occupiers. Sunnis how does it feel to be liberated by ISIL from the Iraqi goverment and then starved to death and watch your non Muslim neighbors get murdered? Maybe I wanted HE mortar rounds fired on that one families home in Baghdad who had that 9-11-01 picture of the twin towers on fire on their wall. On rare occasions hou also have a group of animals who incapable of change like radical Islam or the SS. So just kill them off. It’s okay!
      If anything Vietnam or any conflict after 1945 has taught us is that the crueler you are the faster that war will end. Yea and be flexible in your strategy(like the surge in Iraq). Oh and have a real strategy for winning period and not body counts! Yea you Westmoreland and Mr. Mac! I’m talking too you!

      • Congratulations, “Dave3187”! You’ve completely befuddled me. I have no idea if your comments are meant to be dripping in irony/satire or “taken straight”!! But I think I detect a hint of the myth that “We [US military] weren’t allowed to really fight to win in Viet Nam.” Too much of the TNT dropped on that country–exceeding the total used in all the European Theater of War 1939-1945–falling on empty jungle, eh?

        GREG LAXER
        US Army 1967-71

      • Great comment Dave3187 especially the help your neighbors put out the fire, just an awesome example. And I totally agree with your comment “When you go to war you must throw out any notion of morality”, man you nailed it.

  6. Read the memoirs of Cordell Hull, F. Roosevelt’s secretary of state. They wanted to make Vietnam a UN trusteeship after WWII leading to independence. It is doubtful there would have been a war had we not allowed the return of their colonial masters. Prof. Astore, please verify this for me, I has about 40 years since I read Hull’s memoir.

    • Interesting historical footnote, but I can guarantee an independent Viet Nam with Ho Chi Minh as president would not have been tolerated. Precisely to prevent this coming to fruition, the UN played along with US wishes to scuttle the planned 1956 election in VN.

    • Without cracking the books (which I obviously should do), my sense is that FDR, the anti-colonialist, would have been sympathetic to this idea. But the problem was winning the full support of Britain and France in the aftermath of WWII. And the way to do that was to allow the British and French to attempt to keep their empires, their colonies. Or so it was thought in 1945-46.

      You could say that Vietnam was sacrificed on the altar of the European Cold War, in the sense that the U.S. thought the French had to be pacified with their old colony in order to convince the French to permit the rearmament of West Germany and its eventual incorporation into NATO.

      • Yes, I recall “le grand Charles” (DeGaulle) giving the US a very hard time about rewriting alliances in Europe and foreign policy matters in general. Of course he was a solidly committed colonialist-imperialist himself but he felt compelled to try to make France look somewhat independent of Big Daddy USA.

  7. “ In my opinion the Vietnam War was a great waste. There was no need for it to happen in the first place. At all. None whatsoever. During all the years of the Vietnam War no one ever approached me to find out what had happened in 1945 or in ’44. In all the years that I spent in the Pentagon, Department of State in the White House, never was I approached by anyone in authority. However, I did prepare a large number, and I mean about, oh, well over fifteen position papers on our position in Vietnam. But I never knew what happened to them. Those things just disappeared, they just went down the dry well” ”
    —From Interview with Archimedes L. A. Patti, 1981 (

    Reading about the Viet Nam war in college I saw references to ‘our’ (US) man in Indochina, Ho. Patti’s name (An OSS officer) wasn’t brought up … That war can best be described as SNAFU. Professor tell us more about the prelude to that war.

  8. Pingback: Tourists of Empire | The Contrary Perspective

    • That is a droll observation, and did make me chuckle. But the next step is to ponder the question: was this “victory” worth 58,000 lives of American citizens, to say nothing of those left physically and/or psychologically damaged for life?

  9. Pingback: Tourists of Empire from Tom's Dispatch by William Astore | TomDispatch | Op-Ed | Daniel C. Lavery, author, former naval officer, and civil rights attorney website

  10. Pingback: We still think we’re heroes: The sad denialism that plagues American foreign policyViralStorms | ViralStorms

  11. Pingback: We still think we’re heroes: The sad denialism that plagues American foreign … | Vietnam Tours

  12. Pingback: Tourists of Empire | Global Times

  13. Pingback: Los turistas del Imperio | El Portal Informativo de la Clase Obrera

  14. Pingback: Taking Selfies in Iraq and Afghanistan ~ by William Astore, published in | thewallwillfall

  15. Pingback: Henry Kissinger’s Big Stick: Bombing | The Contrary Perspective

  16. Pingback: Vietnam ‘What If’s’ Still Haunt U.S. – 'What Ifs' of History, Almosts and Alternatives

  17. Nixon ran on a platform to get us out of Vietnam. He did so through the process of Vietnamization. Not really understanding your comment that they wanted “to deflect blame”. Vietnam was LBJ’s war. Nixon just tried to clean his mess up, albeit, much too slowly for my taste.

Leave a Reply to Greg Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s