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.