As I hear people talking about Iraq as being the next “Vietnam,” I wonder if it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because we begin to withdraw a bit or don’t commit enough initial forces , take a defeatist attitude, lose as a result, and then ultimately withdraw completely. I’m wondering if Iraq will only be the next “Vietnam” if we end up pulling out or undercommitting ourselves. Would Vietnam be viewed so negatively if we had completely committed ourselves to the objective once we started and “won” (whatever that means)? To what extent did half-heartedness cause Vietnam to be “Vietnam?” Please don’t let the thread degenerate into a debate of whether or not we should pull out of Iraq.
Please. There was no “half-heartedness” about Viet Nam, depending on what you mean. I’ll take you at your word, though: lack of commitment, lack of sufficient deployment of force.
Let’s start with: we didn’t nuke the place to desolation. Is that what you mean by “half-hearted”?
The US was fully committed in Viet Nam, for many years. Opposition to the war at home didn’t soften the military attitude.
Viet Nam was a debacle and defeat for a number of reasons. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the chief reason was that we had no real (legitimate) rationale for being there.
- “Stopping Communism” seemed pointless – this wasn’t the battleground to Stop Communism (Reagan found the correct battleground a few years later.)
- Protecting Asia against the domino theory also seemed hypocritical. Vietnam was not of strategic or economic importance to the U.S.
- Helping the Vietnamese defend themselves seemed legitimate at first, but we eventually learned that the vast majority of Vietnamese didn’t care in the least… or supported a Communist government. I suppose that, as soldiers and the public became aware that we did not have the support of the majority of Vietnamese, you could say that they became “half-hearted”. But that was a much later result, after years of quagmire.
Can we let it degenerate into a debate of whether or not we should pull out of Vietnam?
Yes, Vietnam could have been “won” had we committed the necessary number of troops, except that number would have been several times what we had in there, AND if neither the USSR nor China (or worse, both) went in with similar determination to prop up their own proxy. Remember that a couple decades before we had taken down larger and more dangerous nations than Vietnam, but that had been with the considerable help of the USSR (a case could be made that the USSR beat the Nazis with our help) and the lesser help of the Chinese. Had we gone in there with overwhelming force without worrying about ending the world we could have taken the North and had we won over “the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people” by helping their economy grow while (or by) kicking out the scoundrels who ran the government and helping the Vietnamese elect people they could respect and trust without the US getting hung up on political labels Vietnam could have been an Asian Tiger thirty years ago.
However, that using overwhelming force could trigger WWIII was the sword hanging over our head in Vietnam, just as a wrong move triggering an uprising of all Muslim countries against us is staying our hand in Iraq. The fact that we have failed to do the same things that would win hearts and minds in Iraq as we failed to do in Vietnam is the other side of the coin. Success requires the use of both the carrot and the stick and, as in Vietnam, we are using neither enough to succeed.
I also want to know what the OP means by fully commit in Vietnam ?
The number of troops and casualties seem to indicate that it was a fully fledged war… and it was lost the same way. Iraq is no different… military force alone won’t do the job.
darn… clicked to soon.
I thought the South Vietnamese Government lost popular support rather than the commies from the north being more popular down south. The US presence itself created a corrupt Southern Vietnam and with that a weak resolve to defend themselves properly… differently from South Korea.
I had read somewhere that Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force” was something he learned from the US failures in Vietnam. Perhaps I misunderstood the context. I created this thread to better understand the Vietnam war, not grind an ax with it.
Have you read A Bright Shining Lie : John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
by Neil Sheehan? It won a Pulitzer, and provides a great deal of information about our involvement and why we were involved in Vietnam. Also I suggest ABOUT FACE : THE ODYSSEY OF AN AMERICAN WARRIOR
by David H. Hackworth. Both of these books offer a critical analysis by high ranking members of the American Military who served in Vietnam. Also Hazardous Duty, also by David H. Hackworth is a good critical analysis of more recent US military involvement including Mogodishu, Bosnia and Desert Storm. Hackworths critique of our methods and motives is relentless and scathing. And in my opinion is not based on ideology, he points out culprits on both sides of the political fence.
Another aspect of the Powell Doctrine is to have a clear and attainable objective, something that wasn’t really possible in Vietnam. What Powell meant by overwhelming force in relation to Vietnam is that US commitment started gradually, starting off with observers, then direct ground troop commitment which started small and grew steadily larger. US commitment in Vietnam wasn’t halfhearted. To put some numbers on the level of the US commitment to Vietnam, the US was directly engaged in combat for 8 years, had a peak troop strength in Vietnam of 625,000 in 1969, lost 58,000 dead, dropped more bombs during the war than it did in WWII, and it’s forces along with the ARVN and other nations (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Philippines and Thailand) killed an estimated 900,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
The only ways the US could have become more committed would have been direct invasions of Cambodia and Laos to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail (the trails in both nations were bombed heavily), continued unrestricted bombing of the North, or an invasion of North Vietnam. Occupying Laos and Cambodia would have just shifted the war more into those countries, and China might have gotten itchy about Laos, as this would put the US on its southern border. North Vietnam wasn’t swayed to give up the ghost by the unrestricted strategic bombing when it occurred, and there was a general lack of useful strategic targets, though some of the bombing restrictions weren’t very wise. An invasion and occupation of North Vietnam would have extended the scope of the guerilla war, and ran a very real risk of having China intervene, just as they had during the Korean War.
The problem that the US faced in Vietnam was that it was fighting a war of attrition against an enemy who was willing to keep it up longer than the US was. The Vietnamese had been fighting the French, then the Japanese, and then the French again for decades before US involvement. As Ho Chi Minh said “Kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours. In the end, it is you who will tire.”
The US troop levels in Vietnam were approximately:
1964 - 25,000
Tet occurred in January 1968 and pretty well ended the majority public opinion that the war could be won. More than half US deaths were after that however.
YOu pretty much nailed it. The US was involved/committed in Vietnam from 1950-1974, sending millions of our troops there, spent billions of dollars, and dropped more bombs than we did in WW2. Lyndon Johnson even gave up his presidency/legacy for Vietham.
30 years later, our government is trying to make vietnam a most favored nation trading partner, in spite of it being communist, and we now know that all of asia did not become communist just because vietnam went communist(domino theory was untrue).
If it was so bad for vietnam to become communist, if our boys did not die in vain, why is our government trying to be friends with them.
Remember, South Vietnam was completely unable to defend itself. Even if we’d succeeded in driving away the Vietcong, we’d still have to keep keeping them at bay, perhaps indefinitely. With a commesurate cost in both lives and money. Somehow, I doubt the American people would ever support such an action, even if we’d “won”.
As for hearts and minds, I think that one of the prerequisites of defending ones country against a hostile foreign country is one’s country being preferable to the enemy’s. President Diem ruled with an iron fist, cruelly suppressed free religion, siezed countless acres of private land for government use, and put cronies into positions of power. How is this better than Communism?
It had nothing to do with commitment. The war was expensive, bloody, dishonest, and ultimately unwinnable. And in light of this, I think it’s easy to draw parallels with what’s going on in Iraq right now.
Strictly military speaking, the commitment in Vietnam was not whole-hearted because no invasion of north Vietnam was ever attempted, for fear, largely unfounded we know now, that it would escalate into a conflict with China and Russia, and even though not invading north Vietnam was clearly a breach of a very long western tradition of military strategy. It seems obvious now, that the situation was untenable in the long run and that the conflict could never have been won without such an invasion. Nuking aside, bombing campaigns in north Vietnam was far less comprehensive and effective than what is commonly believed, again from political considerations and a wish to avoid hitting Soviet and Chinese targets.
Since when has lack of “legitimate” rationale had anything to do with success on the battleground? Do you think Cesar had a legitimate rationale to invade Gaul? Or Hitler to Poland? Or the US in California?
The battleground may have been wrong but “Stopping Communism” was, and is, hardly a pointless exercise. In those years I’d say it was of absolute vital interest.
Disregarding whether it was correct or not, and in backlight it seems it was, the domino theory had nothing to do with whether Vietnam was of either strategic or economic importance to the U.S. since the heart of the domino theory prescribe that should one fall others, that would be of strategic or economic importance to the U.S., would fall also.
In fact neither you nor we ever learned such a thing, it was simply believed by large segments of the press. And falsely at that, judging by the massive waves of refugees out of Vietnam following their takeover, first from north Vietnam and later from all of Vietnam. In fact there is no reason to believe the communists ever had very wide backing, since almost 100% of refugees went from north Vietnam to south Vietnam, and out of Vietnam.
Iraq may very well turn out to be a mess (it might very well also turn out not to be), but it won’t be a Vietnamese mess. Iraq has no massive military power to back them. The Iraqi resistance has no safe haven to withdraw to, and they have no uniting ideology. Though there is obviously quite a bit of western opposition to the Iraq war, none of the opposition can really find it in their heart (and with good reason!) to back up the opposition in Iraq either (there will be no Falujia-Jane). There have been, what, less than 1000 American casualties in Iraq, vers. 58.000 in Vietnam. Etc. There is simply very little comparison between the two.
The fear of escalating the conflict to include China wasn’t unfounded in the least, an invasion of the North would have led to contact with Chinese forces: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/vietnam.htm
An invasion of the North would have led to a repeat of the Korean War, only this time China had nukes as well.
It was believed by the US government and Diem: http://encarta.msn.com/text_761552642___17/Vietnam_War.html
Perhaps so, of course we’ll never know now. It has been argued out that the Chinese had no heart or will for a repeat of the Koran war and the abyssal losses they sustained therein and that they probably would have backed off. Anyway that, the political constraints to avoid invading north Vietnam, is I believe what is commonly meant by America not committing fully.
First notice that this is from 1955 (before the main communistic atrocities of north Vietnam). And, while the south Vietnamese government was probably little liked, I don’t know of any further polls that were made on whether the Vietnamese would chose the communists over the corrupt south Vietnamese government – or another government completely, and no serious effort was made for a Korean-like solution with a permanently split country. However, what we have is the Vietnamese voting with their feet – in very great numbers, and at considerable risk to themselves. Can’t see how it’s possible to reconcile the overwhelming popularity of the communists with 50,000 refugees from north Vietnam to south Vietnam and more than 1,000,000 refugees out of Vietnam after the communistic take over, as well as practically not a single refugee going the other way.
Perhaps China would have backed off after taking heavy casualties, but given that their government was perfectly willing to kill off millions of its own during this timeframe during the Great Leap Forward I find this highly doubtful. Either way, Chinese involvement was insured from the start of an invasion of North Vietnam, as their forces were already there, unlike the Korean War.
It was clear that the Viet Cong insurgency had popular support in the South, if simply as the alternative to Diem. The Pentagon, for example was well aware of this. From The Pentagon Papers:
One of the driving factors in Diem’s immense unpopularity was that his methods of rule weren’t very distinguishable from the communists. From the same cite: