Why did the Korean and Vietnam wars produce such different results?

In both cases, a communist North tries to annex its southern half with support from the USSR and China. US intervenes to stop that.

So, why did it work for Korea but not Vietnam?

Why was the Korean war much shorter than the Vietnam war?

Some reasons:

[li]Eisenhower hinted at using nuclear weapons if the conflict continued much longer - While this was almost certainly a bluff, the Soviet Union and China weren’t going to call it.[/li][li]The UN (read: US) forces were essentially winning the conflict - People today forget that the DMZ lies roughly 25 miles south of what was the front line at the time of the armistice. While the UN couldn’t force China out of North Korea, they were going to win a war of attrition against them.[/li][li]Josef Stalin died - THE USSR was in turmoil after his death and the Korean War was no longer a priority in the wake of his death. Had Stalin remained alive longer, its likely that the war would have lasted at least another year.[/li][li]The primary objective of the war had been achieved - The North Korean invasion of the South had been halted and reversed[/li][/ol]

Had the US invaded North Vietnam and driven its forces into southern China or defeated them, then it’s a reasonable assumption that the results in that war would have been the same or similar. However, that’s not how the US fought that war and the quagmire that became the Vietnam War was the result.

Might these also be factors?

  1. The general terrain in Korea is not a jungle, and therefore guerrilla warfare is harder to carry on. In any case, I don’t think North Korea ever tried guerrilla warfare. It was all brute force and awkwardness. That’s the kind of war we knew how to fight and win.

  2. I also don’t think we were ever in doubt as to the loyalty of the South Korean people to the South Korean regime (or their antagonism to the North Korean regime, or both). It’s a lot easier to fight and win a war in front of you if you’re not always looking behind you for snipers and sabotage.

(Let me be the first to point out that technically the Korean War is still going on since all we have is a cease-fire, not a treaty. De facto, of course, that war is over.)

eta a 3rd item: there was a lot more anti-communist solidarity at home in the U.S. as well, and although the war was not as “popular” as WWII, it was viewed as a very unpleasant necessity. The loss of China to communism was quite a shock over here and was still reverberating during the Korean War. Compared to that, the wars in SE Asia seemed much less critical - it had been a long time since a major communist victory of that kind.

There’s some debate (I’m not sure why that archived article looks so strange) about how each war actually began, and who was responsible, but in any case:

In Korea, the evident actions of the North, combined with a Soviet boycott of the UNSC, led to a huge UN coalition arriving to bolster the South Koreans. The North Korean forces, seemingly close to victory, were then driven back, all the way to the Chinese frontier. MacArthur stupidly sent his forces too far north, creating an intolerable situation for the Chinese, who intervened, sending the coalition forces back until a stalemate ensued in late 1951. The front line moved little for the rest of the conflict, making the conflict even shorter (in some ways) than the dates indicate.

There was no drawn-out guerilla campaign. The geography and politics of each region were quite different. The Vietnamese struggle for independence was seen far more sympathetically (or at least neutrally) around the world, and had a better reception at home than Kim Il-Sung had. A coalition was involved on the Southern side in Vietnam as well, but they were mostly local. Invading North Vietnam could have sent China into the conflict directly, with no guarantee that they could be stopped like last time.

I think the reasons are largely political. The American people weren’t in the mood to continue an occupation of South Vietnam in the same manner as Korea; they’d already learned how costly that was. There was political pressure to get out, not to accept a stalemate.

Although geography played a part. South Korea is surrounded by water, relatively easy to defend, but South Vietnam had a long border with a land mass, which made military harassment easier to stage from a country we couldn’t control.

In both cases, the horrifying spectre of China entering the fray discouraged the US/UN from probing too deeply into the northern entity. If you don’t completely defeat the north, you have a hard time holding on to the south with a hostile neighbor always present.

Anyone remember M.A.S.H. I believe that many people think it was set in Vietnam.

We were also constrained by strategic and political reasons from invading North Vietnam. We bombed them but we didn’t send troops north of the border.

On questions of war and peace it’s vital to ask whom the word “we” refers to.

Don’t discount the religious factors. In Vietnam the US was supporting an unpopular regime with tremendous religious conflicts to deal with internally. Then add in a well-trained and experienced guerilla organization that had been fighting for over a decade against the French, one of the greatest generals in history on the side of the Communists, constrained ROE for US forces and there is no longer any question why the second war didn’t work.

It was. Only the names were changed to protect the anti-war protesters. :smiley:

I think people tend to forget how unpopular the Korean War was. Within six months the public was evenly divided on whether it was a mistake or not, and by the second year the large majority was convinced it had been. It took Vietnam almost four years after the Gulf of Tolkin to poll as poorly.

Had the Korean War dragged on as long as Vietnam, I think public opinion and Social unrest would’ve forced an end to it in the same way it did Vietnam. The Korean War ended up better for us because the US was able to force a tolerable stalemate relatively quickly, rather then having to stick around for years until public anger made a precipitous withdrawl necessary.

And many believe it was set in California.

Americans are often too self-centered. We feel the outcome of a war is based solely on what the Americans did in that war. America either wins the war or loses the war and the other countries involved just go along with what we do.

The differences in the outcomes of the two wars is mainly due to factors external to the United States. The Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were much stronger in the late sixties than they had been in the early fifties and were able to offer more support to Hanoi than they had been to Pyongyang. And the South Korean regime we were fighting alongside was much stronger than the South Vietnamese regime.

The Korean peninsula ensured that there was no flank to turn, just a line of trenches from one sea to the other - unlike Vietnam with the long flank open through Cambodia or Laos. So infiltration into the South was impractical for the Communists on any large scale. Korea was also a limited war, in which both sides tacitly agreed not to escalate it too far (the Chinese never attempted to interfere with the sea traffic between South Korea and the UN logistical bases in Japan, while Chinese air bases in Manchuria remained off-limits). Stalin’s death gave the new Soviet leadership a chance to shut down the war, which was a sideshow in a theater that didn’t matter to them all that much. For the West, too the fear was that Korea would turn out to be the wrong war in the wrong place if the Soviets decided to escalate the confrontation over Berlin or some other hot spot.

Or, looking at it another way, in an otherwise failed attempt to prevent them both from going Communist (as they were otherwise inclined to do) the U.S. and its allies succeed (only temporarily in the case of Vietnam) in dividing two countries, both with long histories of cultural and political unity, into a Communist north half and a non-Communist south.

Apart from that, though, and the fact that they are both long, skinny east Asian countries, the two situations were so different that I do not really understand why you would expect similar outcomes. Why were the outcomes of the War of 1812 and the Spanish-American War (or any other two random wars) different?

The Korean War was mostly a straight forward conventional conflict. The North invaded, the Americans repelled them; the Americans invaded the North, the Chinese repelled them. Stalemate, end of fighting. There were minor communist rebellions, but they didn’t do much. There was the Bodo League massacre, but it’s debatable if that prevented a potential insurgency or just killed a bunch of people for Rhee’s paranoia.

Vietnam was a messy civil war, a guerrilla insurgency and a nationalist independence movement. “Hearts and minds” and all that, and America’s crude tactics didn’t help much. Many regular Vietnamese saw the U.S. as just another Western imperial power like the French and joined or aided the resistance. Diem stoked the fires with his heavy handed pro-Catholic policies in a super-majority Buddhist nation. After his assassination the leadership situation didn’t get much better. On the other side Ho Chi Minh was a national hero.

I wouldn’t say the South Koreans were throwing rose petals at U.S. troops, but they weren’t throwing grenades either.

You can’t win a guerrilla war . . .

Another largely unknown (but significant) aspect of the Korean war was that there was fierce
competition among the officer corps for some combat time in their record in order to rise above
field grade – there were instances of Majors as platoon leaders, which resulted in some rather unconventional actions . . .

The event transpired during a winding down period following WW-II, so training and readiness
was somewhat less than adequate – if there is anything printed about the Pusan debacle
it would prove interesting . . .

In Korea the two sides were seperated at the start of the war, in Vietnam the North Vietnamese had a large force of Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Then at the end of the war, the only way for the Norht Koreans and Chinese to attack South Korea was through a well defended front line or a amphibious assault, which was beyond their capabilities. In Vietnam there was the Ho Chi Minh trail which brought fresh troops and supplies to the Norht Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. Because it was partially in other countries it was very hard to shut down the trai. Thus the Vietnamese could fight a guerilla war which was not possible in Korea. Guerilla wars take a long time to win and wars gets less popular overtime. This did not matter in North Vietnam but it did in the US. Because it did not last as long there was not that much opposition to leaving troops in South Korea and supporting the South Koreans militarily. By the time the US left Vietnam political sentiment was so antiwar that the US did not support South Vietnam militarily and since North Vietnam had a superpower backing it and South Vietnam did not. When the North invaded after a few setbacks they were able to conquer South Vietnam. A similar fate would likely have befallen South Korea had the US and its allies left totally.

Simple: Walter Cronkite.

The Korean war received relatively little media coverage, but the Vietnam war was the first war ever with blanket mass media coverage, embedded journalists, etc. The media’s focus on the carnage of the war was a primary reason for the growing antiwar sentiment in the US. Then came the Tet offensive, during which US forces delivered a smashing defeat to NVA regular forces, so much so that they ceased to exist as a fighting force. Cronkite and others painted it as a defeat. No one knew any better, so from that point on, there was very little popular support for the war.

The war could have been won in three weeks after the Tet offensive, as there were no significant armed forces standing in the US’s way. But thanks to the media, there was no longer any will to win it; rather, from that point, the objective was to get out without too much loss of face, and the Communists knew it. Walter Cronkite was worth as much as a million-man army to the Viet Cong.

No, it couldn’t have. Bitter vets and retconning war-runner autobiographies aside, I think it’s long since been established that there never was a winning scenario short of nuking the country top to bottom. To insist there was an alternative is to perpetuate profound misunderstandings of the era and situation.

But in person, I let bitter vets have their rant and then politely change the subject. It’s the least we can do for them.