Vietnam War -- wrong to fight or wrong to quit?

The U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended when I was still an infant. Growing up though, I was definitely aware of the collective guilt Americans felt for the way we conducted the war … bombing of villages, use of napalm and Agent Orange in populated areas, environmental devastation, the massacre at My Lai. The list goes on. Vietnam became synonymous with misapplication of American power.

However, I have a Vietnamese friend, now studying in the U.S. on a Fulbright Scholarship, who was recently stunned by a classmate saying that America felt a lot guilt for losing the war. She was stunned that it was just the losing part that America felt guilty for. I told her that I thought most Americans still felt that the war itself was wrong, but there seems to be a rising sentiment that we just quit too early. If we had just stayed the course, everything would have been fine. I confess to also being a bit stunned by this idea. I’d like to hear other opinions though.

Some other points for the discussion:

Were John Kerry and other servicemen patriotic or disloyal for testifying about atrocities they had witnessed in Viet Nam?

President Bush, on his visit to Ha Noi, used the current success and prosperity of Viet Nam to show why we cannot quit in Iraq. To me, it seems to show exactly the opposite. (The turmoil and poverty of the 80s and 90s might support his point, but as far as I know he didn’t bring that in.)

Don’t you mean synonymous for politicians not letting the military fight the way it needed to fight?

Both LBJ and Nixon gave the military a free hand in Vietnam almost to the end. Michael Lind argued, in Vietnam: The Necessary War, that it was a mistake to give primary leadership to the Army, whose field is conventional warfare, when the Marine Corps had much more recent experience in counterinsurgency operations, but I believe that’s the sort of decision that the Joint Chiefs make among themselves.

The Vietnam War is the prime example of the fact that you can’t liberate people by murdering them, destroying their country, and ruling them by force. Other examples might be foundi n Guatemala, Chile, Iraq, and just about anywhere else that the United States has invaded or undermined within the last 60 years. The idea that Vietnam would be better off if only we’d killed a few million more people is pretty absurd.

Telling the truth is patriotic, covering up the government’s crimes is not patriotic.

“I have always held that criticizing one’s country is the most patriotic of acts.” - G. K. Chesterton

The fact that we did quit in Vietnam proves that we can quit it Iraq. The fact that Vietnam is infinietly better off now than when it was ruled by the American military suggests (but does not prove) that Iraq will also be better off after it’s free from the American military and has a few decades to clean up from the disaster caused by that military.

“She was stunned that it was just the losing part that America felt guilty for.”

Just to clarify, does she want us to feel guilty for the whole thing, or for quitting when we did? I assume the former, but I don’t know any Vietnamese.

If one of the goals of America is to be a decent, civilized country then it was patriotic; you can’t stop soldiers from commiting atrocities if you never hear of them. If the goal of America is to be brutal and evil, Nazi-Germany style *, then it’s disloyal, but such a country doesn’t deserve loyalty. Either way, it was the right thing to do, patriotic or not.

And I agree with what ITR champion said. You can’t liberate people by force; not when the force is against them.

  • And no, I don’t think America is as bad as Nazi Germany at the moment **; it’s just that when I tried to think of an example of national malice they naturally came to mind.
    ** But when slaughtering the Indians and enslaving the blacks; yes, it was as bad then.

It’s not a rising sentiment, it’s been there all the time. The war had the support of the majority of the American people in the beginning and quite a few people were appalled at the idea of America losing a war before, through and, after the withdrawal. There was a contingent that thought that using nukes would be better than losing.

I’d guess that over time the sentiment has lessened, rather than risen.

That is true, but recently the sentiment is rising again as a Republican talking point to keep up support for the war in Iraq. Not many people are buying it, though - most people long ago accepted that Vietnam was a huge mistake.

Yes, she thinks that the main sense of guilt should be over things like the destruction to the country and the continued lack of support for Agent Orange victims. not over withdrawing. She wouldn’t be upset about the U.S. withdrawing, since from the perspective of the North Vietnamese, that allowed the country to be reunified, and she’s from the north.

That’s sort of what I mean, but that one has been around for awhile, and really doesn’t seem to have a chance of getting mainstream acceptance. The idea that does seem to be gaining some traction, and which I find even more bizarre, is that we were doing fine; the only thing that kept us from winning was leaving. I personally believe that idea is being put forward because the current administration needs that to have been lesson of Viet Nam, so that it can now be applied to Iraq. That is, it’s based more on expedience than reality.

I’d be interested to hear an elaboration of your ideas though. Let’s say you are Nixon in 1969. You’ve inherited a war that is already becoming unpopular. How do you proceed? I can’t promise to agree with you, but I do promise not to ridicule.

Invade the North and hope like hell China or the Soviets don’t come in?

That Nixon! Who’d’a thunk he was a closet Commie/Frenchman/whatever.

The thing is, we know how Nixon proceeded. He widened the war to include Laos and Cambodia, and he bombed the crap out of North Vietnam. He may have reduced the number of U.S. troops somewhat from its high of 545,000 in 1969, but it wasn’t like he tied the hands of the military - quite the opposite.

Does anyone think Nixon would have folded his hand in late 1972 if we’d been winning in Vietnam? No freakin’ way.

And (aside from the troop reductions) after ignoring the antiwar protests in 1969 and 1970 (and rounding up the May Day 1971 protesters en masse), if anyone believes that Nixon yielded to peacenik pressure in late 1972, a year and a half after the last major antiwar demonstration, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell them.

by 1969, we had devastated large parts of Vietnam, dropped millions of pounds of defoliants, and more bombs than in WWII. WE expended over $800 billion, and killed hundreds of thousands of people. I am quite sure that “winning” would have meant rebuilding the devastation, and caring for the thousands of refugees.

I rather fear that winning would have either involved saturation bombing of NV cities and factories or nuclear weapons. Either way, there would have been massive loss of life, but if the objective is to win, then that’s what you have to accept.

I’m not really getting that. What would we win? The Viet Cong would have still survived in the south, and the more savage we were, the stronger they became.

Even the architects of the Vietnam War, such as Robert McNamara, have now admitted that it was a mistake. I think a lot of Bushies and their supporters are just engaging in some combination of wishful thinking and revisionist history.

That isn’t actually true, sort of misses the boat on who the USA was actually fighting, and in a way actually circumvents one of the more common “we coulda won the war” arguments, which I realize you’re not making but I may as well cut it off at the pass.

The United States was fighting against two distinct combatants; the North Vietnamese Army, who I’ll refer to as the NVA, and the Viet Cong, more properly called the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, hence PLAF for short. The former was a conventional armed forces, the latter more or less a guerrilla outfit, but a very large and reasonably well organized one.

OVer the course of time the Vietnam war seems to have become remembered as a fight against guerrillas. But actually the majority of the USA’s combat efforts, over the course of the war, ended up being against the North Vietnamese, and was fought as a conventional war, with set peice battles, jet fighters dogfighting, the whole nine yards. The escalation of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam resulted in an escalation of NVA involvement in South Vietnam. In fact the Viet Cong didn’t fare well against their American and South Vietnamese opponents, militarily speaking, but were propped up by the NVA (and, through them, the Soviets.)

The USA’s unwillingness to open the floodgates against North Vietnam directly was a rational response to the political reality of the situation; American intervention was justified on the basis of supporting the government of South Vietnam against the PLAF insurgency. North Vietnam had the opposite justification; they justified THEIR involvement by saying that they were supporting a popular movement against an illegitimate puppet regime. Both the USA and North Vietnam were fighting a proxy war through South Vietnam; the PLAF, as it happened, were caught up in it, but eventually took a military back seat to the NVA for the simple reason that disorganized militias usually get slaughted by regular armies, and the PLAF was no exception.

A full scale attack on North Vietnam may well have crippled, or destroyed, the NVA, and so the Vietnam War as it was being fought could have been “won.” As RTFirefly has pointed out, expansion of the war didn’t help matters and probably made things worse, but for shits and giggles let’s just assume that a full scale invasion of North Vietnam would have worked, and they would have “won.”

Of course, the Iraq War as it was being fought in March and April of 2003 was “won” too, in the sense that the Iraqi armed forces was destroyed. However, the USA would simply have been trading one problem for an even larger problem - occupation of the entire country, a loss of what popular support they had in South Vietnam, and an intensified insurgency on a grand scale (Vietnam is 75% the size of Iraq, but has three times the population.) International opposition to the USA’s involvement, which was already there, would have quintupled. It would have been about as fun as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, except against an enemy eight times larger.

The Vietnamese objective - which crossed to both sides of the border - was quite straightforward; Get the foreigners out so we can run our country. There was no state that could have existed involving American occupation of either or both sides of Vietnam that would have satisfied that objective, and so in one way or another the war would have continued unabated, likely with the enthusiastic support of China and the Soviet Union.

On top of that, an invasion and occupation of North Vietnam makes detente with China in 1973 almost certainly impossible. So in addition to fighting an endless war of occupation, the USA has two superpower enemies from 1973 on instead of one, who are continguous to Vietnam and can likely support the Vietnamese insurgency from now until the cows come home. How does that sound?

No victory was possible.

Extremely highly relevant thread, especially the contributions of our Vietnamese Doper, GeekMustNotDie.

The most disturbing thing about the legacy of the Vietnam War in America is that almost everybody who acknowledges it as a tragedy still thinks of it as an American tragedy. Hello?! America lost 58,000 dead. What about the Vietnamese? It was their civil war, and they lost 1.35 million. And not just soldiers, either.

Did we quit? Or did we just lose? You can’t really debate a topic like “was it wrong to lose the war?” We tried our damndest and got our asses kicked, and right or wrong doesn’t change it.

No need for anyone to be greedy… there was plenty of tragedy to go around! More than enough for everyone!

I think it was an American tragedy. It was a tragedy that we felt we had to project force there so we could somehow stop the communists from taking over the world or whatever it was that we were so scared of. It was, of course, a tragedy for our service-persons, and it was a tragedy for all Americans that our country would so naively believe that we could simply fight and kill our way into stopping the Dominoes from falling.

The Vietnamese had a nice little tragedy going already with their civil war. When we launched our American tragedy we just multiplied the Vietnamese tragedy by an order of magnitude.