When the Korean War ended 60 years ago, July 27, 1953, soldiers returned home to little fanfare and a growing belief that their efforts ended in a tie.
Forty years ago, at the conclusion of the war in Vietnam, Aug. 15, 1973, soldiers returned home to abuse, shunning and knowing they lost.
Sixty and 40 years later, it is time to tell the truth: The United States of America won the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
This is contrary to what everyone “knows.”
Our national folkway has come to define Korea as a draw. That war ended in an armistice rather than in surrender – an agreement to stop fighting rather than capitulation by the loser. This is true, but also meaningless in terms of victory or defeat. World War I ended in an armistice, yet was a decisive win for the Allied powers.
And it’s hard to even start talking about Vietnam when most Americans “know” the U.S.A. was driven out of the jungles and rice paddies as “documented” by that last iconic helicopter abandoning desperate hordes on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Nationally and worldwide, the inchoate feeling is Korea was a tie because things ended where they began and Vietnam was a loss because the U.S.A. is gone and the Vietnamese are still there.
These feelings are not evidence. Worse, most historians to this point remain opinionated agenda-promoters. If a disinterested observer were to look at both wars without preconceptions and use a measurable standard rather than feelings, the answer would be: The United States of America won in Korea and Vietnam.
To understand this, we must clarify the notion of “winning.”
THREE LEVELS OF war – tactical, operational and strategic – are the military’s measuring sticks. Success can occur at any of these levels and generally, for the U.S. military, continued success tactically, operationally and strategically means winning.
But that’s not enough for a nation-state to define winning or losing in war. Why do nations war at all? Strategist Carl Von Clausewitz said, “War is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will ... War is a continuation of policy by other means.” Thus, a nation wars to force a desired behavior and to inflict its national will upon another.
If war is chosen by a nation-state, how is winning determined? Tactics, operations and strategies do not mean national victory. They are processes and tools to gain victory, but they are not victory. For a nation-state to chalk up a win it comes to this: The political goals of the national leadership are achieved.
If we audit the Korean and Vietnam wars through this objective lens – whether outcomes sought by the elected leaders of the United States of America were achieved – the impartial observer will agree America won.
The second key to understanding these two victories is to understand why our soldiers fought there at all. That key is (brace yourself) that neither the nations nor peoples of Korea and Vietnam mattered. The lands, the resources, the locations, the populations – none of them were important. The countries were isolated, underdeveloped, under-resourced backwaters, and the populations insignificant. Korea and Vietnam were battlegrounds only because other battles in more important places with more important populations had to be prevented. This is harsh, but it is true.
The enemy was not small-scale communism in Korea or Vietnam. The enemy was the Soviet Union and, to a much lesser degree, China. By fighting in Korea and Vietnam, World War III was prevented and half the world’s population saved from the aggressive expansion of totalitarianism.
Understanding National Security Council Report No. 68, dated April 14, 1950, explains this. NSC-68 identified the Soviet Union as the main threat to the U.S.A. and world peace. It created the policy of containment of communist expansion. The central theme was how to contain Soviet/Sino adventurism while at the same time avoiding a nuclear war:
“FOR SEVERAL CENTURIES it had proved impossible for any one nation to gain such preponderant strength that a coalition of other nations could not in time face it with greater strength. The international scene was marked by recurring periods of violence and war, but a system of sovereign and independent states was maintained, over which no state was able to achieve hegemony.
“(Now) the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world ... any substantial further extension of the area under the domination of the Kremlin would raise the possibility that no coalition adequate to confront the Kremlin with greater strength could be assembled.”
So, Korea was about preventing World War III in Eastern Europe. Vietnam was about keeping aggressive communism out of India, the Middle East, Indonesia, the Southwest and Western Pacific, and Japan. Those places mattered. Those populations were significant. Lines had to be drawn in the sand, and those lines were drawn in Korea and Vietnam.
The war in Korea was won because all the national goals of the United States were met, Europe was secured against the Soviet threat and World War III never happened. The war in Vietnam was won because the ever-changing goals of each successive U.S. president were met, threats against India, the Middle East and Indonesia were turned back, and World War III deterred.
The United States terminated both wars and left both countries under terms set by our own presidents. Because battlegrounds were chosen in Korea and Vietnam, the real enemies – Russia, and to a lesser degree China – changed their behaviors and U.S. goals were accomplished.
The United States won in Korea and Vietnam.
(The writer is a lifelong military historian, a lieutenant colonel in the Kansas National Guard and an Iraq War veteran. This is the first of a three-part series.)