Why was the United States unsuccessful in Vietnam?
The communist beliefs began in 1848, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote a book called The Communist Manifesto. This book defined the beliefs of communism, along with portraying the natural evolution of a communist utopia from a capitalist society. Marx and Engels defined communism to be a concept, or system, of society in which the major resources and means of production are owned by the community, rather than by the individuals. In theory, such societies provide for equal sharing of all work, according to ability, and all benefits, according to need. This, however, did not work because people are generally selfish and lazy. Each person wants to do the least amount possible to gain the most from it. This is where the conflicts arise.
The Soviet Union began its communist regime under Vladimir Lenin. His ideas and teachings led to mass popularity due to a poor economy in Russia at the time. Lenin was not a bad leader, however he died before he was able to see his plan take full effect. He had only one warning to the people of Russia: never to let Joseph Stalin get into power. Lenin was able to foresee the tyrant when many others were blind. The people did not realize their error when Stalin succeeded. But by then, it was too late; Stalin had turned Russia into a fascist dictatorship.
During World War II, Communism, combined with fascism, had proven to be very dangerous. The Communists saw their way to be perfect, and they had the idea that everyone should practice their beliefs. Communism had started in Asia, with the likes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tsetung. In the mid to late nineteen forties, communism was thriving in Asia. The Chinese and the Russians had pushed the spread of Communism south into countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam. The United Stated saw this as a very real threat, and kept a close eye on the communist advancement.
Between 1945 and 1975, the number of countries under communist rule increased greatly. This is partly because of the way the victorious powers of World War II divided the world amongst themselves. This is also due to the fact that countries such as China and The Soviet Union pushed their beliefs tyrannically on other weak countries.
One of such countries was Vietnam. . From 1946 until 1954, the Vietnamese had struggled for their independence from France during the First Indochina War. At the end of this war, the country was temporarily divided into North and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel. North Vietnam came under the control of the Vietnamese Communists who had opposed France and who aimed for a unified Vietnam under Communist rule. Vietnamese who had collaborated with the French controlled the South.
The foreign policy of the United States during the Cold War was driven by a fear of the spread of Communism. Eastern Europe had fallen under the domination of the Communist USSR, and Communists ruled China. This policy was known as the "domino theory." United States policymakers felt they could not afford to lose Southeast Asia as well to the Communists. The United States therefore offered to assist the French in recapturing Vietnam.
Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, from May 8 to July 21, 1954, diplomats from France, the United Kingdom, the USSR, China, and the United States, as well as representatives from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, drafted a set of agreements called the Geneva Accords. These agreements provided for the withdrawal of French troops to the south of Vietnam until they could be safely removed from the country.
They also agreed that Elections were to be held in 1956 throughout the north and south and to be supervised by an International Control Commission that had been appointed at Geneva and was made
up of representatives from Canada, Poland, and India. Following these elections, Vietnam was to be reunited under the government chosen by popular vote. The United States refused to sign the accords, because it did not want to allow the possibility of Communist control over Vietnam. The U.S. government moved to establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a regional alliance that extended protection to South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in case of Communist "subversion." SEATO, which came into force in 1955, became the mechanism by which Washington justified its support for South Vietnam; this support eventually became direct involvement of U.S. troops.
On July 30, 1964, the government of North Vietnam complained that South Vietnamese ships, protected by an American destroyer, had attacked two of their islands. On August 2, North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats attacked the American destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin but were driven off. Five days later, on August 7, Congress adopted what became known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It stated that the President could “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against armed forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” The Vietnam War had become Americanized. Following the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, North Vietnam began infiltrating regular army units into South Vietnam. In the mean time, the President Johnson and his advisors decided that the United States should bomb North Vietnam and send troops into South Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese fought the guerrillas war. They hid in underground tunnels and in jungles. In an effort to destroy the jungles the United States sprayed huge quantities of toxic chemicals on the countryside. It caused mass starvation and birth defects in Vietnamese children, as well as to liver damage,
muscular disorders, and other health problems for the adults who were exposed to the chemicals. By 1966 many Americans were beginning to have serious doubts about the nation’s growing
involvement in Vietnam. Without the support of their fellow Americans at home, it became increasingly difficult for soldiers at war to fight effectively. The anti-war attitude and the atrocious treatment of returning veterans, made young men much more likely to evade the draft. In the event that they ended up Vietnam, they would fight less effectively due to the fact that they did not support the cause they were fighting for. Undermining of the war by activists at home continued to increase with the increase in American casualties. This problem is best described by Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson: " A nation's deepest strength lies not in its military prowess, but rather, in the unity of its people. We [America] failed to maintain it."1 Without this vital unity, it was a near impossible task for America to win the war. As America became increasingly divided between anti-war activists and those who supported the war, soldiers became increasingly disillusioned with their role in the war. The soldiers realized that perhaps what they were fighting for was not a just cause. The moral high ground held by soldiers at the beginning of the war began to slip as more and more soldiers realized that they did not truly believe in they were fighting for. This coupled with low morale that resulted from the fashion that new recruits were placed into combat secured the North Vietnamese victory.
Also there is the low morale and lack of combat effectiveness resulting from poor command of the Army's resources. One mismanagement that resulted in dire consequences for America was the fashion in which new recruits were introduced into the war. Instead of sending brand-new squads that had trained together, individual soldiers were sent to fill the space left by a soldier who had just been killed or injured. For the
veteran soldiers, the new recruits served as reminders of fallen friends, and thus were never truly accepted into the unit. With this being the attitude of many soldiers, it was very difficult for a sort of esprit de corps to develop. The lack of comradely severely hampered the fighting ability of the
army as a whole. The detrimental effects resulting from the lack of teamwork (around which every army needs to be based) were further confounded by a lack of commitment to the war it had become involved.
Involvement in Vietnam was increased in very incremental fashion. " Some...have criticized the Government's...gradual force buildup...in lieu of striking the enemy with full force."2 Had the Government completely committed itself to the war, it may not have degenerated into a lengthy defeat from a decisive victory. The amount of firepower America could have brought to bear would have been near impossible to stand against. While it is easy to theorize the outcome of the war had the full might of the American Army been brought to bear at once, it is much more difficult for one to judge the reaction of the South Vietnamese people to an American victory.
Finally, and most important, the support given by the South Vietnamese was a deciding factor in the outcome of the war. It is logical that the support of those one is trying to liberate is required for liberation
to be achieved. This is something that was, in part, lacking during the Vietnam War. A stable government was never established in South Vietnam, and therefore the people of the south did not feel that they had something worth fighting for. This opened a gulf between the Americans and the Vietnamese as described in the following:
" The Vietnamese people saw the Americans as perpetrators of the suffering
Which the war had brought...the American soldiers did not want to know
The Vietnamese, but wanted only to use them for menial labor, self-
Gratification, and often as scapegoats for the frustrations and anger they felt
Against the enemy and the war...America gave them nothing and expected
Loyalty in return. The Vietnamese people saw only one side of the American
People and the United States and most often it was the worst side."3
The lack of support from those the Americans were trying to save, coupled with increasing anti-war protest at home, created a climate unsuitable for winning the war. This situation only worsened as the war progressed up to American withdrawal and the eventual fall of Saigon. The final outcome of the war was inevitable without the full support of the South Vietnamese people.
Eventually, the United States had no choice but to withdraw and leave the war to the South Vietnamese. Even as the fall of Saigon was imminent, America would not re-enter the war despite the mass amounts of money and human life spent in an attempt to halt the spread of communism.
In conclusion, the most important factor in deciding the outcome of the Vietnam War was the lack of support that came both from South Vietnam and from activists at home. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives were sacrificed for a cause that was lost from the start: the liberation of a people who did not want the American brand of freedom being offered. The war left behind an embarrassing legacy as well as deep wounds that have yet to heal even today. Many veterans were left disillusioned as they returned home to be treated as villains rather than heroic defenders of freedom. Casualties were suffered even by those who did not fight in Vietnam, as protestors were shot at Kent State University. The United States had
drastically altered its image throughout the world, driving away her allies as a result of the war. In a war without support, " an entire American army was sacrificed on the battlefield of
Vietnam"4 and "it will be at least a generation before. Vietnam' will mean anything but a war of agony, frustration, and humiliation."5
1) Colby, William. Lost victory. Markham: Beaverbooks, 1989.
2) Fulbright, J. William, The Arrogance of Power. Random House, Inc., 1966
3) McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Toronto:
Random House of Canada Limited, 1995.
4) Stanton, Shelby L. The Rise and Fall of an American Army: US Ground Forces in Vietnam.
Novato: Presidio Press, 1985.
5) Welsh, Douglas. The History of the Vietnam War. Greenwich: Bison Books Corp, 1981
6) William A. Link et al., American Epoch: A History of the United States since 1900 Affluence and Anxiety 1940-1992, Volume II (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993)
7) Winthrop D. Jordan. The Americans. Illinois: McDougal Littell/Houghton Miffin Inc., 1996
1 McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. (Toronto:
Random House of Canada Limited, 1995 ) p.322
2 Colby, William. Lost victory. (Markham: Beaverbooks, 1989) p.362
3 Welsh, Douglas. The History of the Vietnam War. (Greenwich: Bison Books Corp, 1981) p.188
4 Stanton, Shelby L. The Rise and Fall of an American Army: US Ground Forces in Vietnam.
(Novato: Presidio Press, 1985) p.368
5 Welsh, Douglas. The History of the Vietnam War. (Greenwich: Bison Books Corp., 1981) p.189