Just ask anyone: The United States lost the war in Vietnam.
This is a horrible lie, and a tragic disservice to every American who served there.
To understand the American victory you must understand why Americans were there at all.
Answer: Vietnam as a nation and the Vietnamese peoples were just not important. Vietnam was only important as the domino triggering world-wide communist expansion. It was too late to save China or Eastern Europe, but Western Europe, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan could be saved. Vietnam became the proxy battleground in the war for Europe and preventing World War III.
adopted policies demanding the United States take a stand before the communist Soviet Union and China dominated so many lands and peoples that no coalition could be mustered against them. Truman, focused on his hot war in Korea, allowed the French to fight their own war in Vietnam. Truman’s goal was to block communist expansion in the region but not to get involved in further warfare. His policy was achieved. Under Truman, the United States won in Vietnam.
Eisenhower’s Vietnam policy was low-cost containment to prevent other nations from falling to communism. Robert McNamara explained: “In exchange for mere money and a few Americans in Saigon to offer advice of various sorts, communism was being contained at the 17th parallel in Indochina.” During Eisenhower’s two terms he fought a covert war in Laos, established a U.S. political presence and hegemony over South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and sent advisors into South Vietnam. He prevented dominos from falling, using minimal military effort, meeting his stated policy goals. Under Eisenhower the United States won in Vietnam.
Eisenhower told Kennedy that Laos was the key, and if it fell it was just a matter of time until South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma would collapse. It was a concern that Laos would spill out in all directions that made this Eisenhower’s priority to Kennedy rather than the handful of U.S. advisors in Vietnam.
As predicted, the Laotian conflict quickly enveloped Vietnam, especially over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, already in 1961 funneling soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam.
KENNEDY INCREASED the U.S. presence in Vietnam, funded the Diem administration, accepted the coup of Diem and intended to increase the number of U.S. advisors on the ground. His policies were implemented and sustained by the U.S. military. No additional dominos toppled. Under a reluctant Kennedy, the United States won in Vietnam.
President Lyndon Johnson found himself thrust into a war he did not want, could not understand and was totally unprepared to handle. Johnson wanted the military to tell him what “winning the war” meant, and then Johnson and company wanted to tell the military how to do it. This was completely backward.
Johnson blundered ahead, increasing troop strength and expanding the war.
In 1965 Johnson sent 150,000 soldiers to Vietnam and they started dying in noticeable numbers. But that is also the year that cut the legs out from under the domino theory. India won its border disputes with both East and West Pakistan, and went in its own independent direction. Instantly 500 million people were off the path to communism and a solid barrier was in place to the west of China and south of the Soviet Union. In Indonesia leftist strongman Sukarno was driven from power and in a violent belch 300,000 Indonesian communists were killed – many of them Chinese. Another 100 million people were removed from the communist path and another solid barrier set in place south of China.
THIS RADICALLY altered international map was not recognized in Washington. The domino theory underlying all Vietnam policy slammed into a wall. At this point, had Johnson and others pulled the plug in Vietnam, the dominos of Laos, Cambodia and perhaps Burma would have toppled, but no more. Instead, because he was weak and indecisive, Johnson escalated the war, but not enough for a conclusive combat victory.
Johnson saw all his fears come true. He looked like an unmanly appeaser; he was distracted from pursuing his dreams of domestic welfare statism; he failed to hold the United States united in prosecuting the war, and he failed to hold onto office. It was total personal failure for LBJ.
But in terms of winning or losing in Vietnam, Johnson achieved his stated goals. South Vietnam did not fall; no dominos fell. He avoided war with the Soviet Union and China. Under Johnson, the United States won in Vietnam.
Richard M. Nixon understood the changed political landscape and knew the world was much safer than it had been in the 1950s and early ’60s. Nixon ran on the platform of “peace with honor” and immediately began to disengage. By the end of 1969, Nixon
had 60,000 soldiers out of the country and had North Vietnam into secret negotiations with Ambassador Henry Kissinger.
Re-elected President Nixon attained a peace agreement, winning peace for the United States and leaving South Vietnam a self-reliant, independent nation in charge of its own affairs. During his time in office South Vietnam was independent and no other states fell to communism. Nixon’s policies were achieved. Under Nixon, the United States won in Vietnam.
GERALD FORD was president when the helicopters evacuated the Saigon embassy in 1975. America had been out of the Vietnam War for two years by then. Under Ford the United States neither won nor lost anything in Vietnam.
There simply is no loss there. When you achieve all your national policy goals and win all the significant military engagements, you have won.
In the future, our most senior elected and appointed governmental leaders must clearly define winning – before the combat starts – and stop asking military leaders to do so after the fighting begins. And thank the warriors-in-arms who won in Korea and Vietnam for a job well done.
(The writer is a lifelong military historian, a lieutenant colonel in the Kansas National Guard and an Iraq War veteran. This is the last of a three-part series.)