Why the U.S. Lost the Vietnam War - CSPAN video of authors and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam debating the reasons why the U.S. lost the Vietnam War. Comments LL & MiH What made Shoup even more unpopular after 1975 was he refused to back down from the position he took in the early 1960s. You suggested he would have changed his mind after the war ended. Why – because he was right? Do you think that what he went through in the China and the Pacific somehow did not inform him as to what a war in Asia in a former European colony would entail? He resented the blame game both the military and the administration fell into after 1975. A great many pushed the lie ‘I was an early opponent of the war ’ in the case of the administration and the media and ‘If only we’d been allowed to fight’ for the military. Like-wise Ridgeway - what would he know about fighting a war in Asia you might ask? As it so happens more than anyone else. His extensive survey on the ground for Eisenhower vis-a-vis intervention in Vietnam basically stated no matter what we did it wouldn’t work. Ridgeway was particularly incensed by individuals who claimed he didn’t understand modern air-power and the air-mobile and how this RMA was a game-changer. He got that right as well. This is the Beltway flip-flop denial bullshit that got us into the mess in the first place and isn’t much different to the bullshit that got us into Iraq. If you don’t have the stronger political will - you get beaten. It is as simple as that. When one speaks of political will it is the ' warts and all kind ' - the good the bad and the ugly. Hoping courage, discipline, firepower, religion, technology, pysops, democracy, money, troop numbers etc. in isolation or in ‘surges’ is going to get you over the line is delusional. Unless these elements are integral to a broad-based body politic they are the proverbial “noise before defeat”. If you get it wrong it’s a hopeless shit-storm; but getting it right means you have a fighting chance. Ridgeway, Gavin, Shoup, Donovan and many more who didn’t have the courage to speak up understood we got it hopelessly wrong in Vietnam even when troop numbers were still a few thousand and US KIA less than one hundred. This is what caused the bitterness amongst some of the most highly respected individuals in the military both during and after the war ended. Furthermore you didn’t have to rub shoulders with the brass to encounter knowledgeable individuals who understood the strategic folly of Vietnam. In 1944-5 when the OSS Deer Team was advising Ho on the finer points of the US Declaration of Independence to include in the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam it wasn’t because they didn’t like the French (Patti had fought with the Marquis in France) or that the OSS was communist, anti-Buddist, anti-Catholic or pacifist. What they recognized was that the political appeal of Ho and the DRV to many in the south as well as the north would enable the NLF & PAVN to sweep all before them. I imagine most of those who were opposed to US escalation were perfectly aware that the nationalist movement was communist, racist, corrupt and deceitful and were equally aware these attributes would not make one iota of difference to the political outcome – in fact some might have argued them to be essential for victory. The suggestion that any of the old guard actually changed their minds in 1975 after they were proven correct is debatable. I find it hard to dismiss the judgement of these uniquely experienced men who were there at the very beginning and got it right and never wavered. The commander of the Deer Team Major Archimedes Patti probably spoke for many when he said in 1981: “ In my opinion the Vietnam War was a great waste. There was no need for it to happen in the first place. At all. None whatsoever. During all the years of the Vietnam War no one ever approached me to find out what had happened in 1945 or in ’44. In all the years that I spent in the Pentagon, Department of State in the White House, never was I approached by anyone in authority. However, I did prepare a large number, and I mean about, oh, well over fifteen position papers on our position in Vietnam. But I never knew what happened to them. Those things just disappeared, they just went down the dry well.” But perhaps like you suggested they may have all been wearing John Lennon T-shirts. Regards, RC 1) Re: The Korean analogy: I'm old enough to recall the shrill cacophony from the left, both at home and internationally, berating the US for thwarting the Korean people's intense desire for reunification by propping up an illegitimate, corrupt and dictatorial regime. 2) Re: Buddhist protests: To be sure, Saigonese got dragged in, but Hue -based (as you've pointed out) An Quang was a Central Vietnamese phenomenon, Mahayanist as opposed to the Theravada of most Southern Buddhists, and with some evidence of infiltration/recruitment having turned it into a useful agit-prop op. Cheers, Mike. Rantcorp, a worthy reply. Some quick comments. First, we were quite willing to recognize Tito when it suited our interests in the Cold War. Unfortunately for Ho Chi Minh and Indochina, he lacked the same stature. Both aimed to place disparate populations under the yoke (Yugo) of Communism to forge a new nation, but Ho had no Winston Churchill in his corner, or the equivalent of a manageable (Greek) civil war on his doorstep to trigger U.S. interest. Yes Ho Chi Minh was a Communist first, last and always. But his actions suggest he would have been a very Vietnamese Communist. For all his Party's faults, they did recognize that the had (Vietnamese) history to answer to. As for most inhabitants of Indochina accepting HCM as an acceptable political unifying figure; No one in 1945, save for some members in the Party, even knew who Ho Chi Minh was. But at the moment he declared the DRVN, every Vietnamese was willing to follow any Vietnamse. (Not so the Cambodians and two out of three Laotian princes) Even the French were willing to accept him at one point, at a time when HCM needed French troops to winkle the Chinese Yunnan Army out of Tonkin. Once the war started, many Vietnamese began to take positions pro, neutral, and con. I liked Gerald Hickey's noting of a bon mot making the rounds in Saigon on the day those elections were supposed to take place: "If Vietnam were capable of an honest election, those in the North would all have voted for Diem, and those in the South for Ho Chi Minh". Surely you are not going to argue that honest elections for a reunification of Vietnam under a Communist government were possible in 1956. Now, as to whether or not we should have cared? That's another matter. What in 1956 Vietnam was worth the bones of a single U.S. Marine? (Something that may not have been so apparent to decision makers who had lived through 1945-56 with the Cold War as their frame of reference.) The bottom line is that the French were not militarily wiped out, which ia partially why HCM agreed to the division. He didn't have the manpower to eject the French, who were, after all, no longer interested in Indochina as a colony. What the Geneva Accords said, and what everyone expected, were two different things. The division of Korea is still considered temporary, and that's been going on since 1948 (the year of the ROK and DPRK founding) A French speaking Catholic dictatorship? I've seen a list of senior ARVN officers from the Diem years, and the majority were Buddhist. And as I recall, the nexus of "Buddhist" opposition was Hue, where the most violent protests and crackdowns took place. And French speaking? Every educated person in Indochina spoke French, and most especially the Communists. So what? Can you show us a decree that established French as the official language of RVN? (Ignoring the fact that the present government participates in Francophone nation international forums.) You are aware that the French Army had to use force to bring the Catholic bishophrics of Phat Diem and Bui Diem into supporting the Bao Dai government in 1949, aren't you? Yes,the majority of northern Catholics were Nationalists, and not French supporters or lackeys. Many were VNQDD supporters. As for cracking down on the rural Buddhist populations, you wouldn't be able to reference me to a list of those hamlets, etc., would you? I know for a fact that they did not do it in Hau Giang province during that period. My impression was that protests took place in major population centers, and some took place after Diem's murder. As for the Keenedy's killing Diem, there were internal South Vietnamese political fingerprints all over it. Was U.S. support a Ipsa Qua Non? Perhaps it was. I do agree it was one of our greatest mistake there. WSe couldn't get along with Syngman Rhee or Chiang Kai-shek, but we continued to support them. Yes, a comment by General Shoup. I wonder what his opinion was after 1975? I always wanted to make a John Lennon tee shirt. It would be red with a faded grey John Lennon face in the background, and a pile of skulls from the killing grounds in the foreground, under the slogan: Give Peace a Chance. MiH, I would like to believe most people are aware of the appalling suffering many Vietnamese endured in the 30 years after WW2 as a result of many things, including differences in ethnicity, but I would dare to suggest most Vietnamese believe they suffered most because they refused to accept foreigners telling them how to run their own country. Some poor souls are still getting it in the neck because of their ethnic culture but I just don’t think it had much influence on the outcome of the warfare. The Vietnam War is over because the strongest political will triumphed. If ethnic division was a prime motivator in the war it would still be going and/or we would have three or four different countries - as in the former Yugoslavia. Certainly the various cultural factors characterized the conflict but IMO they amounted for very little in the face of the nationalist’s political will. You made a good point as to the “skin deep” nature of formal religion. I believe this misconception also applies in our current woes. In the hundred odd so-called jihadists I have had dealings with I could count on one hand the number I considered to be driven by genuine religious conviction and most individuals I dealt with were supposedly extremists. This idealism meant this handful died somewhat pointlessly which in no small way explains to me at least, the rarity of this characteristic in warfare generally and in the current one in particular. You suggest the birthplace of the Catholic Ngo brothers and their Northerner officer corps created significant problems among the various communities south of the DMZ – I’m sure you are absolutely right but to what extent did the ethnic cleavage prevent them from exercising effective political leadership? More importantly on that basis – what chance would Ho and Giap and their Northerner cadre have of getting anywhere? Speaking of fish out of water - Ho spent much of his formative adult life living outside of Asia (let alone Vietnam) and was married to a Chinese. The upstart Northerner Giap had to take on the native Southerners, Central highlanders and the not to be forgotten firepower of 80% of the USAF, 60 % of the US Army and 40% of the USN along with 100,000 odd other foreign military combatants. IMO religion and ethnicity are much like machines and firepower, if they are not hitched to the strongest political bandwagon they will only delay inevitable defeat. Regards, RC RantCorp: Americans consistently failed to accord Vietnam's ethnic cleavage the seriousness it deserved. Traditionally, the Vietnamese-speaking (three principle dialects) people considered themselves as belonging to one of three distinct ethnic groups, Northern, Central and Southern, each of which despised the other two. Diem evoked antipathy on the part of the Southern (Delta and adjacent areas)people not because he was Catholic (in a country one of whose proverbs was the eclectic, "Wherever there is a God, there you should pray"), but because he was a Central Vietnamese whose regime favored a Northern refugee constituency and whose members--both officer corps and civil service--were overwhelmingly of Northern origin. (Keep in mind that at this time, by contrast, Party cadre were local folk.) No, reunification was decidedly not the message that struck a chord with rural Southerners; Southern NLF supporters had other reasons for joining the struggle. On the other hand, Buddhism among peasant Southerners, except for the Hoa Hao, was never more than skin deep: Survey after survey we conducted in MR-3 yielded unequivocal majorities among the rural population who insisted they were "ancestor worshipers," the Vietnamese term for Confucians. As for Diem's regime being "French speaking," this is incorrect. Diem and Nhu were extreme chauvinists and violently anti-French. In this bias, they reflected the character of Northerners generally, including Catholics. The church was nativist to the core, as chauvinist as its parishioners. This was in stark contrast to the Southern people, whether peasants or feudal landed gentry, who were rather remarkably lacking in chauvinist sentiment. Yes, the Southern gentry were decidedly Francophile (but not Catholic--here's a segment of society that actually was Buddhist), but this class and the Diem regime were hostile to one another. Cheers, Mike. Lirelou, As you correctly pointed out if you go back far enough you will find political legitimacy within various regions of Indo China but you could probably make the same claim for any country on earth without too much difficulty. Stentiford has an interesting take on the subject at; http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/the-most-dangerous-dumb-idea-that-will… The great tragedy for Vietnam was despite the existence of a political figure in Ho Chi Minh, whom most inhabitants of the region recognized as an acceptable unifying political figure, the country was essentially destroyed in an attempt to prevent unification. Certainly some regions and communities had their differences owing to French colonial or more ancient historical factors but in the then and there Ho was an acceptable political leader on both sides of the DMZ. After the French were both militarily and politically wiped out Ho agreed to two separate military zones divided by a DMZ which would be united by a free election in 1956. This was a temporary demarcation line. The Genève Accords pointed out this DMZ did not constitute any sort of legal or legitimate political boundary. The Nhu brothers refused to go thru with the elections and instead set up a French speaking Catholic dictatorship and unleashed a violent crackdown on the essentially Buddhist rural population. This blatant disregard for the will of the general population was never going to work and the CIA and the US military made it crystal clear to Kennedy that Ho’s nationalist movement was unstoppable for just about every legitimate political reason anyone cared to mention. By the early 1960s the Nhu brothers began to see the writing on the wall and allegedly proposed reunification with the north and the withdrawal of foreign troops. Kennedy’s response in 1963 was to send Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon ‘Cable 243’ which essentially had the Catholic Nhu brothers murdered and replaced with a succession of Catholic military juntas who dutifully requested more foreign troops. To nobody’s surprise (including the Kennedy/Johnson White House) the nationalist communist movement went ape and just as unsurprisingly (to everyone outside of the White House) there was not a power in the world that could stop it. So many people blame the military in Vietnam but in actual fact from WW2 onwards the military leadership was probably the only organ of the USG that was 100 % opposed to a US military war in Vietnam. So many people blame the jungle, Jominic delusions of firepower, COIN, Strategic Hamlets, Phoenix Program, the press, drugs etc. but it was the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon who refused to accept the political realities on the ground in Vietnam that caused the disaster. After Tet everyone outside of the military began carping about how they were “ an early opponent of the war” which is complete BS (especially so the mainstream media) and the myth that the naive Beltway (lol) was rolled by the nasty perfidious military and not the other way round is still causing us problems (WMD Mk II in Syria anyone?). Needless to say when three different administrations perpetuate the same deceit the ‘Green Machine’ leadership is going to fill with the likes of Taylor, Westmoreland and Abrams but long, long before that the administration had plenty of authoritive advice that Ho was going to win no matter what. Eisenhower, MacArthur, Ridgeway, Gavin (not too many long-haired freaks there) bolstered by thousands of now declassified documents (not including the Pentagon Papers) from hundreds of field operatives over the best part of 30 years declaring anything but a nationalist government under Ho was never going to happen. I think Shoup said it best in a public speech in 1966; “I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own—and if unfortunately their revolution must be of the violent type because the "haves" refuse to share with the "have-nots" by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don't want and above all don't want crammed down their throats by Americans.” You can’t send two million twenty-something year-old draftees off to a war which was publicly described as such by the former Commandant of the Marine Corps with a Medal of Honor on his chest and hope something worthwhile is going to happen. This is what surprised me during the video conference heading this thread – the old spook Sorley described Westmoreland as a liar and the uniforms sprang to Westy’s defense. With so many good men to choose from who attempted to avoid disaster and/or fought the good fight, why would anyone stick up for that lying SOB? RC Just a comment in re: There never was a place called South Vietnam. Absolutely true in one sense, and false in another. Yes, the DRVN and RVN refused to recognize Vietnam's separation. The fact is that Vietnam had been ruled as two separate states since the Trinh-Nguyen split in 1598 until Gia Long's ascendance to the throne in 1802. And right up until the French took control of all Indochina in 1887, various parts of the "Tonkinese Alps", Central Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta remained independent of Vietnamese control. It was the French who pushed Vietnam's boundaries to its present trace, with one notable exception, and that was the Mekong Delta. Under Gia Long and his immediate successors, the South was ruled by the Eunich warlord Le Van Duyet, who dealt with the Court at Hue much like the Nguyens had dealt with the North. Duyet recognized the multi-cultural frontier character of the "Gia Dinh" region from Bien Hoa to Camau and Ha Tien, so he ignored any decrees which would have undermined its peace and prosperity. Upon his death, however, the royal desecration of his tomb, and the annulment of many of his decress, sparked a series of rebellions. The hard handed measures taken by his officials did much to pave the way for the success of French intervention. Up until 1949, the French had recognized Cambodia's claims to certain parts of the Mekong Delta. In 1946, when the French were scrambling for troops to re-establish order in South Vietnam, Prince Sisowath Monireth ordered the drafting of two battalions of troops to serve under French command. One of these was drafted within Cambodia itself, and the 2nd Battalion of the Far-East Brigade was recruited out of Cochinchina's Mekong Delta, underscoring that a Cambodian administration continued to function within South "Vietnam" as late as 1946. These multi-cultural characteristics of Cochinchina is what induced Thierry d'Argenlieu's ill-fated attempt to recognize Cochinchina as a separate republic. In any event, on the face of it, South Vietnam had a better chance of surviving as a separate state than Korea did. Self-government independent of central authority was not an alien concept in the South. Just a comment in re: There never was a place called South Vietnam. Absolutely true in one sense, and false in another. Yes, the DRVN and RVN refused to recognize Vietnam's separation. The fact is that Vietnam had been ruled as two separate states since the Trinh-Nguyen split in 1598 until Gia Long's ascendance to the throne in 1802. And right up until the French took control of all Indochina in 1887, various parts of the "Tonkinese Alps", Central Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta remained independent of Vietnamese control. It was the French who pushed Vietnam's boundaries to its present trace, with one notable exception, and that was the Mekong Delta. Under Gia Long and his immediate successors, the South was ruled by the Eunich warlord Le Van Duyet, who dealt with the Court at Hue much like the Nguyens had dealt with the North. Duyet recognized the multi-cultural frontier character of the "Gia Dinh" region from Bien Hoa to Camau and Ha Tien, so he ignored any decrees which would have undermined its peace and prosperity. Upon his death, however, the royal desecration of his tomb, and the annulment of many of his decress, sparked a series of rebellions. The hard handed measures taken by his officials did much to pave the way for the success of French intervention. Up until 1949, the French had recognized Cambodia's claims to certain parts of the Mekong Delta. In 1946, when the French were scrambling for troops to re-establish order in South Vietnam, Prince Sisowath Monireth ordered the drafting of two battalions of troops to serve under French command. One of these was drafted within Cambodia itself, and the 2nd Battalion of the Far-East Brigade was recruited out of Cochinchina's Mekong Delta, underscoring that a Cambodian administration continued to function within South "Vietnam" as late as 1946. These multi-cultural characteristics of Cochinchina is what induced Thierry d'Argenlieu's ill-fated attempt to recognize Cochinchina as a separate republic. In any event, on the face of it, South Vietnam had a better chance of surviving as a separate state than Korea did. Self-government independent of central authority was not an alien concept in the South. RCJ, From what I could glean all of the panelists argued a position much as you have expressed. Perhaps the least sympathetic was Hicks but I think a personal gripe with one of the panelists colored his position. Interestingly the uniforms mirrored your take on VN, and the by extension Iraq and Af, which poses disturbing questions as to who is the dog and who is the tail and whilst it may be true that war is too important to be left to Generals an adherence to this adage may in fact be bad for the nation’s political, economic, spiritual health - which many would argue is more important. There was a definite fissure between the uniforms and the Vets in calling Westmoreland a liar (some who actually worked with him) which I suppose is understandable with their positions at the USMA and his Pershing Sword etc but it raised the question in my mind as to how deeply held is the view that the military has limited power when it comes to projecting international US policy. Is this argument a fashionable ‘Young Turks’ attitude the ambitious O6 drape over themselves and is promptly discarded once the first star is tightly pinned and your trajectory is dialed in for a onwards and upwards career? Ball got a mention as a maverick (which he wasn’t) but there was no mention of Ridgeway, Shoup, Donovan and others who were the public face of many senior leaders’ anti-escalation views but tellingly careerism kept quiet. In my mind at least the most disturbing element I took from the discussion, which suggested to me that the ‘no more Vietnams’ is indeed a Red Herring mantra for the ambitious, was that not one person in the room argued that in the mind of for those living in SE Asia there was never a place called ‘South’ Vietnam. RC Eric, Many see this in the same way you do. I respect that perspective, I simply disagree with it and believe it to be self-serving, tactical, biased, and borderline delusional. We have engaged in several wars of choice (a benefit of the tremendous geostrategic advantage America holds over most competitor nations - for us war is usually a choice we make, not a situation forced upon us). When we have acted to liberate other occupied against their will we have fared well, but when we have acted to save others from some self-imposed situation we convinced ourselves was inappropriate, intolerable, or potentially a threat to some broad definition of our interests, it has fared poorly. The jury will not be in on Iraq for another 20 years or so, so hold your applause until the end, please. Of course there were large elements of the population in every place we intervened who were more than happy to ride our coattails into positions of power, authority and opportunity that they could not create for theirselves under the current regime. I.e., conditions they could not self-determine. Conditions created by foreign military power and therefore defacto illegitimate. Conditions that were equally unsustainable unless left connected to massive lifesupport systems of aid, security support, etc. But we are talking about framing problems for sustainable enduring effects at the front end, not about how we can frame them for failure and then apply massive military and economic energy to sustain such systems for some period of years. The military is too quick to take credit for false victories in such conflicts, and then equally is too easy of a target to take the full blame for the ultimate collapse of what they have built once the sustaining lifesupport energy is removed. We argue the tactics, we capture the tactial lessons learned and then we go out and make the same damn strategic/policy/political mistakes the next time because we refuse to discuss the true sources of failure. It is my position that it is our failures at the start that produce our failures at the end. As Sun Tzu warns: "Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat." What you are discussing, what we love to discuss on forums like this and elsewere is just that - tactical noise. Best, Bob Robert, US military history didn't begin with the Vietnam War. We have conducted successful occupations. Cheney was right: Our soldiers were greeted as liberators by the majority of Iraqis. Except Saddam wasn't the only bad guy in Iraq. The CPA's decision to de-Baathify had a basis. There was a minority of Iraqis loyal to the deposed regime that was willing to express their opposition to the liberation with disproportionate violence as well as host terrorists who added their violence. Also, a portion of Iraqis who greeted Americans as liberators had their own idea of majority rule in post-Saddam Iraq that was different than the American notion of pluralism. And when they acted out, that caused a reaction by their countrymen that made things worse. My impression from speaking with Iraqis is that many, maybe most Iraqis were on-board with the original American promise of post-Saddam Iraq. The problem is the Iraqis and non-Iraqis who weren't on-board with our promise to Iraq did something about it and, for a while, we lost control of the situation. Our promise required basic security, stabilization, and functioning services and economy, but the insurgents beat us to 1st base, and as GEN Petraeus said, "every Army of liberation has a half-life". The amazing recovery accomplished in the COIN "Surge" makes one wonder whether we could have fulfilled our original promise to Iraq if we hadn't been outmaneuvered by the enemy in the immediate post-war. I will watch this when I have the time - but if the focus is not about the political/policy decisions leading up to the 1956 elections, it will be a waste of time. We love to argue the relative merits of tactical approaches to put the horse back into the barn...but no one ever wants to take on the flawed wisdom of letting the horse out in the first place. We did what we felt would best serve our interests in the fear-laden strategic environment of the times. We convinced ourselves that what we offered was so good that it would be received differently than how any society, any place, any time has responded to such external manipulation of their governance. We applied the same rationalization process going into Iraq (Anyone seen the Cheney interview where he talks about how, on the basis of talks with a handful of self-serving Iraqi expats that he believed the US would be greeted as liberators?) and also in our decision to "fix" Afghanistan and build a friendly government around the Northern Alliance. We are 0-3 on these decisions, and getting ready to go 0-4 in Syria. But I suspect this will be another debate of the relative merits of generals, bombing, not invading the North, sanctuaries, strategic hamlets etc. We love our tactics.