American Reckoning: Why the U.S. Lost the Vietnam War

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W.J. Astore

Christian G. Appy, professor of history at U-Mass Amherst, has written a new and telling book on the Vietnam War: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York, Viking Press).  Reading his book made me realize a key reason why the U.S. lost the war: for U.S. leaders it was never about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.  Rather, for these men the war was always about something else, a “something else” that constantly shifted and changed.  Whereas for North Vietnam and its leaders, the goal was simple and unchanging: expel the foreign intruder, whether it was the Japanese or the French or the Americans, and unify Vietnam, no matter the cost.

Appy’s account is outstanding in showing the shifting goals of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam.  In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. first supported the French in their attempts to reassert control over their former colony.  When the French failed, the U.S. saw Vietnam through a thoroughly red-tinted lens.  The “fall” of a newly created South Vietnam was seen as the first domino in a series of potential Communist victories in Asia.  Vietnam itself meant little economically to American interests, but U.S. leaders were concerned about Malaysia and Indonesia and their resources.  So to stop that first domino from falling, the U.S. intervened to prop up a “democratic” government in South Vietnam that was never democratic, a client state whose staying power rested entirely on U.S. “advisers” (troops) and weapons and aid.

Again, as Appy convincingly demonstrates, for U.S. leaders the war was never about Vietnam.  Under Eisenhower, it was about stopping the first domino from falling; under Kennedy, it was a test case for U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics and Flexible Response; under Johnson, it was a test of American resolve and credibility and “balls”; and under Nixon, it was the pursuit of “peace with honor” (honor, that is, for the Nixon Administration).  And this remained true even after South Vietnam collapsed in 1975.  Then the Vietnam War, as Appy shows, was reinterpreted as a uniquely American tragedy.  Rather than a full accounting of the war and America’s mistakes and crimes in it, the focus was on recovering American pride, to be accomplished in part by righting an alleged betrayal of America’s Vietnam veterans.

In the Reagan years, as Appy writes, American veterans, not the Vietnamese people, were:

portrayed as the primary victims of the Vietnam War.  The long, complex history of the war was typically reduced to a set of stock images that highlighted the hardships faced by U.S. combat soldiers—snake-infested jungles, terrifying ambushes, elusive guerrillas, inscrutable civilians, invisible booby traps, hostile antiwar activists.  Few reports informed readers that at least four of five American troops in Vietnam carried out noncombat duties on large bases far away from those snake-infested jungles.  Nor did they focus sustained attention on the Vietnamese victims of U.S. warfare.  By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (p. 241)

Again, the Vietnam War for U.S. leaders was never truly about Vietnam.  It was about them.  This is powerfully shown by LBJ’s crude comments and gestures about the war.  Johnson acted to protect his Great Society initiatives; he didn’t want to suffer the political consequences of having been seen as having “lost” Vietnam to communism; but he also saw Vietnam as a straightforward test of his manhood.  When asked by reporters why he continued to wage war in Vietnam, what it was really all about, LBJ unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and declared, “This is why!” (p. 82).

Withdrawal, of course, was never an option.  As Appy insightfully notes,

LBJ and most of the other key Vietnam policymakers never imagined that withdrawal from Vietnam would be an act of courage.  In one sense this moral blindness is baffling because these same men prided themselves on their pragmatic, hardheaded realism, their ability to cut through sentiment and softhearted idealism to face the most difficult realities of foreign affairs.  They could see that the war was failing.  But they could not pull out.  A deeper set of values trumped their most coherent understandings of the war.  They simply could not accept being viewed as losers.  A ‘manly man’ must always keep fighting.” (p. 84)

A few pages later, Appy cites Nixon’s speech on the bombing of Cambodia, when Nixon insisted the U.S. must not stand by “like a pitiful, helpless giant,” as further evidence of this “primal” fear of presidential impotence and defeat.

Even when defeat stared American leaders in the face, they blinked, then closed their eyes and denied what they had seen.  Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1975, America shifted the blame for defeat onto the South Vietnamese, with some responsibility being assigned to allegedly traitorous elements on the homefront, such as “Hanoi Jane” (Fonda).  As Appy writes, “Instead of calling for a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, Ford called for a ‘great national reconciliation.’  It was really a call for a national forgetting, a willful amnesia.” (p. 224)

As a result of this “willful amnesia,” most Americans never fully faced the murderous legacies of the Vietnam War, especially the cost to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Instead, our leaders and government encouraged us to focus on America’s suffering.  They told us to look forward, not backward, while keeping faith in America as the exceptional nation.

Appy notes in his introduction that America needs “an honest accounting of our history” if we are “to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.” (p. xix) American Reckoning provides such an honest accounting.  But are Americans truly ready and willing to put aside national pride, nurtured by a willed amnesia and government propaganda, to confront the limits as well as the horrors of American power as it is exercised in foreign lands?

Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view.  Far too often, that field of view is a thoroughly militarized one, most recently captured in the crosshairs of an American sniper’s scope.  Appy challenges us to broaden that view while removing those crosshairs.

4 thoughts on “American Reckoning: Why the U.S. Lost the Vietnam War

  1. fr. above: “Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view.”

    ” One who does not seek to learn from history is condemned to repeat history”. Our well educated current leader should have learned this high school history class.

    I did short economic-cultural missions for the U.N. in South Korea, Morocco with the Mediterranean Arab states, and Chile. The main thing I learned was that we are so suffused with our own culture that we cannot accept the fact that other people look at the world and think quite differently from us. We thus try to bring the same solution, capitalist democracy, to countries that have had bad experiences with authoritarian proto capitalist regimes and virtually no experience with democracy. we thus fail, over and over again.

    I would agree with the author that our country needs an “honest accounting of history” and I would add that we could use a dose of prison time for those political leaders who lied us into these disasters and destroyed our Constitution by ignoring its restrictions on such action. .

    • Indeed. And, from a strict military perspective, U.S. leaders failed – through sheer hubris – to appreciate the strategic miscalculation of the French in Indochina (i.e. backing a thoroughly corrupt regime despised by its own people).

  2. Once a President becomes engaged in a war, his principle objective is to “win”, or at least not lose; no President wants to be known as the one “who lost (fill in the blank).” Announced objectives and strategies begin to change with the course of the war and public opinion. Exit strategies become unspokenly entangled in “not losing” and finding or creating a fig leaf to explain extraction of US forces without allowing use of the word defeat. This script has played faithfully in all our major wars since Korea and is on display today in Afghanistan.

    By 1968 or so, it was obvious the US and our South Vietnamese allies were not going to win (in the WWII sense) the war, and that the US would find a way to explain beginning to withdraw its ground forces; this became “Vietnamization”. Once withdrawn, those forces were never coming back. The thing that puzzles me the most to this day is why the North Vietnamese did not at that time (say 1969) go to the peace table, make the best deal they could, promise the US to be good, and then wait a year or two and do exactly what they did in 1974.

  3. Don’t agree with those who think we could have won. Not because we didn’t have the military might to get the job done……whatever “getting the job done” means. I suppose we could have done as General Curtis Lemay said…..”bomb them into the stone age.” Somehow I don’t think that would have worked either.

    1. We were dealing fundamentally with a civil war.

    2. We supported corrupt regimes. Didn’t support the election that had been agreed to following WWII for allowing the Vietnamese people to vote on whether to unify the country of Vietnam.

    3. We didn’t have support of the people. As you’ve mentioned before, we were in their country, killing them, some 2 to 3 million of their people. And then the ultimate insult….we’re going to “Vietnamese” you……hard to believe we (Americans) are going to re-invent for the Vietnamese what it means to be “Vietnamese”.

    4. Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving the President the authorization to wage war, was built on a lie. It was later repealed in 1970.

    5. American people are not of the temperament to endure long wars. As you mentioned the Vietnamese had been fighting forever….against the Japanese, the French, the Chinese, and finally the U.S. Over time the American people didn’t support the war. In a democracy it’s hard to conduct a war without their support.

    6. A draft that was not applied fairly. Those with the means, financial or politically connected, could be deferred. 100,000 +- draftees were mentally handicapped, so much so that special training programs had to be created to get them marginally qualified to serve on the front lines (whatever front lines meant in VN).

    7. Guns & Butter policy sold to the American people by another blowhard Texan, full of hubris, trying to go down in history as another wartime president FDR, his political hero. No sacrifice required of the American people as the body count reached a high of some 3000 KIA a week.

    8. Civil unrest, riots, university takeovers by students against the war, Kent State, draft dodgers, drugs, etc. Unrest not seen since the days of the Civil War. Patriots being called unpatriotic, even guilty of treason because they dared to speak out, not against the grunt, but against dishonest and dishonorable leadership. It’s been said, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

    9. The war was considered unwinnable as early as 1965 (right after la Drang) by the President (LBJ) and his Secretary of Defense, McNamara. Again just prior to the election of 1972 another President (Nixon) and his chief National Security Advisor Kissinger talked about the VN war as being unwinnable. The use of technology and Presidents wanting to document their conversations with their advisors using room/phone tapes for historical accuracy backfired on them, instead, documenting for non-intended posterity their feelings that the war was unwinnable. If 2 presidents, the commander-in-chiefs, and their advisors knew the war was unwinnable where did that leave the grunt(s) who were putting their life and limb on the line everyday, essentially for political purposes.

    Excerpts from Joe Gallaway’s commentary: Lessons of Vietnam Applicable to Today

    “It was half a century ago, on the night of July 8, 1959, that the first two American soldiers to die in the Vietnam War were slain when guerrillas surrounded and shot up a small mess hall where half a dozen advisers were watching a movie after dinner.

    MSgt. Chester Ovnand, of Copperas Cove, Texas, and Maj. Dale Buis, of Imperial Beach, Calif., would become the first two names chiseled on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — the first of 58,261 Americans who died in Vietnam during the next 16 years.
    The deaths of Ovnand and Buis went largely unnoticed at the time, simply a small beginning of what would become a huge national tragedy.

    Presidents from Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Lyndon B. Johnson to Richard M. Nixon to Gerald R. Ford made decisions — some small and incremental, some large and disastrous — in building us so costly and tragic a war.

    The national security handmaidens of those presidents, especially those who served Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, were supposedly the best and brightest that Harvard and Yale and Princeton could contribute.

    Presidents right up to today’s like to surround themselves with such self-assured and certain men, men whose eagerness to find war the answer to most problems often grows in direct proportion to their lack of experience in uniform or combat.

    This small history lesson can be read as a cautionary tale to President Barack Obama’s team as they oversee an excruciating slow-motion end of one war, Iraq, and a pell-mell rush to wade ever deeper into another one in the mountains and deserts of remote and tribal Afghanistan.

    The story grows out of a battle in the very beginning of the American takeover of the war in South Vietnam in the fall of 1965 when a defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, counted the bodies and the beans and offered his president two directly opposing options.

    In the wake of the Ia Drang Valley battles of November, 1965 — the first major collision between an experimental airmobile division of the U.S. Army and regular soldiers in division strength from the Peoples Army of North Vietnam — President Johnson ordered McNamara to rush to Vietnam and assess what had happened and what was going to happen.

    Up till then, just over 1,000 Americans, mostly advisers and pilots, had been killed in Vietnam since Ovnand and Buis. Then, in just five days 234 more Americans had been killed and hundreds wounded in the Ia Drang.

    There weren’t even enough military coffins in the country to handle the dead.

    McNamara took briefings from Gen. William Westmoreland, the top U.S. commander in Vietnam, and from Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and assorted spy chiefs and diplomats. Then he flew to An Khe in the Central Highlands and was briefed on the Ia Drang battles by then Lt. Col. Hal Moore who had commanded on the ground in Landing Zone XRAY in the Ia Drang.

    On the plane home to Washington D.C. McNamara dictated a Top Secret/Eyes Only memo to President Johnson dated Nov. 30, 1965. In that report he stated that the enemy had not only met but had exceeded our escalation of the war and we had reached a decision point. In his view there were two options:

    — Option One: We could arrange whatever diplomatic cover we could arrange and pull out of South Vietnam.

    — Option Two: We could give Gen. Westmoreland the 200,000 more U.S. troops he was asking for, in which case by early 1967 we would have over 500,000 Americans on the ground and they would be dying at the rate of 1,000 a month. (He was wrong; the death toll would reach over 3,000 a month at the height of the war). “All we can possibly achieve (by this) is a military stalemate at a much higher level of violence,” McNamara wrote.

    On Dec. 15, 1965, the president assembled what he called the “wise men” for a brainstorming session on Vietnam. He entered the cabinet room holding McNamara’s memo. He shook it at McNamara and asked: “Bob, you mean to tell me no matter what I do I can’t win in Vietnam?” McNamara nodded yes; that was precisely what he meant.

    The wise men sat in session for two days. Participants say there was no real discussion of McNamara’s Option One _ it would have sent the wrong message to our Cold War allies — and at the end there was a unanimous vote in favor of Option Two — escalating and continuing a war that our leaders now knew we could not win.
    Remember. This was 1965, 10 years before the last helicopter lifted off that roof in Saigon. It’s a hell of a lot easier to get sucked into a war or jump feet first into a war than it is to get out of a war.”

    I0. I might add that just prior to the 1968 presidential election LBJ wanted to get out of Vietnam. Being LBJ I believe he wanted to go out having ended the war and by doing so hoping his place in history would have been much different……ultimately a peace maker. I personally wouldn’t have changed my mind about him, but then that’s me.

    He & Kissinger had pressed for truce talks between Ho Chi Minh (North Vietnam), South Vietnam, and the US. North Vietnam originally didn’t want SV involved in the truce talks. They believed that had no legitimate right to sit at the table. They didn’t recognize SV. The US finally convinced NV to allow SV to sit at the table and negotiate a peace treaty. Nixon, who was campaigning for the presidency was afraid that if LBJ pulled it off that he (Nixon) would lose out to Hubert Humphrey. Nixon communicated with Thieu (?), leader of SV, that if he’d refuse to be a party to the truce talks he (Thieu) would get a better deal when he (Nixon) was elected. Thieu pulled out of the talks and refused to take part.

    Peace talks collapsed and the war continued for another 7 years, with 21,000+- more casualties added to the casualty list. Turns out the lives of the grunts weren’t as important as the political ambitions of our leaders. Shameful, and in my opinion, criminal.

    **Interestingly Nixon’s liaison with Thieu was Anna Chennault, wife of Flying Tiger Fame commander Claire Chennault.

    11. I believe that ultimately success in anything depends on leadership…….good leadership. In this case it’s not the military leadership so much that I take issue with, rather the politician(s) at the highest levels and their appetites for power and a place in history that I find so much fault with. I tire of reading of young men & women dying by the handful, living off meager pay, qualifying for food stamps, not receiving proper medical care, and all the while (11 years and counting) being patronized by a nation that stands by while 1% of our citizens spill the blood, are maimed, or die while the rest of us go about our daily lives. Media coverage is shamefully lacking. Newspapers relegate war coverage to the back pages, if at all. Hardly ever hear anything on the evening news or even 24/7 news channels. I read about those KIA from the Patriot Guard, a motorcycle organization that I belong to and who, on request from family, stand flag lines and/or ride escort for the deceased. And so out of sight, out of mind. They (our leaders) like it that way.

    12. We need to come home, fix our own country, and quit trying to dictate to the rest of the world. During the VN war a former Commandant of the Marine Corps and a recipient of the Medal of Honor had this to say about the Vietnam War:
    “I don’t think the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is worth the life or limb of a single American [and] I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty bloody dollar crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own design and want, that they fight and work for. And if, unfortunately, their revolution must be of the violent type…at least what they get will be their own and not the American style, which they don’t want…crammed down their throat”

    There, I feel better too. Maybe now I’ll miss the 4 AM nature call……

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