HOW THE US WON ALL THE BATTLES, BUT LOST THE VIETNAM WAR

“…we were winning the war of attrition. The price that the enemy was prone to pay greatly exceeded our expectations…”

“We were winning on the battlefield, but whether we were winning strategically is another matter”

General Westmoreland,

Commander of US forces in Vietnam, 1964-68,

During an interview with CNN in 1996

“The Americans are winning everything – except the war”

General Moshe Dayan,

Former Chief of the Israeli Defence Force,

After visiting Vietnam as a war correspondent in 1965)

The US defeat in the Vietnam War provides a most compelling example of how victory on the battlefield does not necessarily bring about the desired political objectives that would lead to war success. By all measures, the two sides went into the war with vast discrepancies in military capabilities. The US was the foremost military power in the world, one that had never been militarily defeated in its history. What was frightening about American military power was not just its awesome capabilities that of course included nuclear weapons, but also the huge industrial capacity behind any war effort that it might choose to undertake, one that had brought the major powers of Germany and Japan to their knees a mere sixty years ago.

In contrast, North Vietnam was a peasant society subjected to French colonial rule for much of its recent history, and exhausted from fighting the French, the South Vietnamese and now the Americans for more than a decade.

There were few if any doubts that the American forces would be able to overcome the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in all the military engagements, and this was what largely transpired. In every major encounter or minor skirmish during the war, the Americans were able to call upon their superior firepower and mobility. Throughout the war, the Americans had total air superiority. Even the 1968 Tet Offensive, celebrated in Vietnamese military folklore today, cannot be construed as an American military defeat. As General Westmoreland made clear during his interview with CNN, the Americans saw it coming and were prepared for it.[1] Indeed, the military outcome of the war was a crushing defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, who suffered about 35,000 dead, 60,000 wounded and 6,000 captured as prisoners of war without any meaningful operational gains. In comparison, the American and South Vietnamese dead totalled 3,900, of which 1,100 were Americans. Following the offensive, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap was removed from total command of the war effort, and the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were so operationally crippled that they never attempted another major offensive for the remaining seven years of the war. The overall casualty statistics for the war were just as lopsided in favour of the Americans. 58,000 Americans died in the conflict, while 3.6 million Vietnamese were killed. Yet the period after 1968 saw increasing efforts by the Americans to turn over the fighting to the South Vietnamese, even as President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger tried to achieve an “honourable peace”. The war finally ended with the humiliating American withdrawal from Vietnam and the rapid collapse of the South Vietnamese government in April 1975, as the victorious communist forces marched into Saigon.

To understand why the US lost the war, it is necessary to examine the political objectives of the two protagonists, and their respective strategies to achieve these ends. The US entered the war to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, to prevent the scenario of what President Eisenhower and his advisors had earlier coined as the “Domino Theory” from becoming reality. The US believed that with its superior and proven military capability, it would be able to end the war quickly by defeating the North Vietnamese forces south of the 17th parallel, even without committing its full resources or bringing the war into North Vietnam.[2] As the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong continued fighting, the US stepped up the pressure from 1964/65 onwards through massive bombing operations and the commitment of more ground forces that reached a peak exceeding 500,000 in 1968. The US intention was clear: it adopted a strategy of attrition in a limited war, so as to exploit its overwhelming advantages in mobility and firepower against an overmatched adversary. Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara was reportedly obsessed with the number of enemy forces that were being killed, believing that a 10:1 kill ratio would be the tipping point that would so deplete the enemy that it would have no choice but to sue for peace.

The North Vietnamese and its allies in South Vietnam, on the other hand, saw the war as a continuation of their earlier struggle against the French for national independence. North Vietnamese strategy operated at several levels simultaneously to address both total and limited war objectives. Against the Saigon government, Hanoi’s war aims were total.  They never relented in their objective of destabilising South Vietnam and unifying the country under a single communist system. Hanoi’s war aims against the United States were more limited.  All that was necessary was to compel Washington to withdraw its forces and abandon the Saigon government.  Major battlefield victories were useful, but not necessarily fundamental to achieving these goals.  Ironically, after the Battle of the Ia Drang in November 1965, Hanoi also opted for a war of attrition, believing that their determination and willingness to sacrifice would endure longer than American patience so that, over time, the United States would tire of the war and withdraw. As it turned out, the North Vietnamese strategy proved to be superior, as it compelled the US to reduce its political support and military aid to the Saigon government so by 1975 South Vietnam was abandoned to its enemies.

There are a number of reasons why the US strategy did not succeed. First and foremost, the US failed to appreciate the nature of the conflict from the perspective of its Vietnamese rival, and was guilty of superimposing American beliefs and values into their assessments of Vietnamese behaviour. In assuming that the North Vietnamese would capitulate once a certain threshold of pain in the form of casualties was reached, the Americans did not understand that the Vietnamese were not just fighting as communist guerrillas but also for their survival as a independent nation of people free from external influence, the very same reason that they had fought the French and before that the Chinese for the best part of a thousand years. As General Giap explained, the Vietnamese were prepared to accept such massive casualties because they were involved in a national war of liberation, and that the people participated enthusiastically in the resistance and “consented to make every kind of sacrifice.”[3] Under such circumstances, the Americans belatedly realised that their attrition-based strategy underpinned by a vastly superior kill-ratio was not going to be enough. Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara, in a draft Memorandum for the President dated November 17, 1966, wrote, “If MACV estimates of enemy strength are correct, we have not been able to attrite the enemy fast enough to break down their morale and more U.S. forces are unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future… the data suggest that we have no prospects for attriting the enemy force at a rate equal to or greater than its capability to infiltrate and recruit, and this will be true at either the 470,000 personnel level or 570,000.”[4] To drive home the point, consider that the 3.6 million Vietnamese war dead was proportionately equal to 27 million Americans at that time!

In comparison, the Americans demonstrated no such stomach for sustained conflict and the toll of casualties that it would entail. With the Vietnam War being the first major conflict in which the media was able to bring home real-time images from the battlefront, the American people could for the first time see the full horrors of war from their dinner tables. With no signs that victory was in sight, American public opinion turned quickly and strongly against the war, particularly after the Tet Offensive. Once that happened, it was only a matter of time before Americans start to demand that their government cut its losses over a conflict that seemed so far away and in their perception involved such obscure and non-core national interests. With the benefit of hindsight, it is questionable if the US government would have been willing to sustain the escalating body count even without the role played by the media. In truth, the media may simply have brought forward the inevitable and helped to end the conflict earlier, without necessarily changing the eventual outcome.

The propaganda campaign did not only apply to the domestic US audience, it also involved the people in North and South Vietnam.  Away from the battlefield, the war was essentially a struggle over the moral right to govern Vietnam. Failing to fully appreciate this, the US put too much attention on bolstering the military capability of its South Vietnamese allies, and expended too little effort on winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people. The little that they did, such as the strategic hamlet program, focused on isolating the guerrillas from the people and not directly strengthening the moral authority of the South Vietnamese government. Worse, these programmes were not carried out effectively or with any real conviction. This allowed the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong to make extensive use of propaganda to attack the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government as being corrupt and stooges of American imperialism. Through guerrilla actions and the occasionally spectacular operations like the Tet Offensive, they were able to convince much of the population that the Viet Cong was the real power in the country, and that the incumbent regime in Saigon was unwilling and unable to perform its fundamental security and service functions. While the North Vietnamese were no doubt helped in this by the incompetence and corrupt nature of successive governments in Saigon, there was little doubt that Hanoi held the upper hand in the propaganda war during much of the conflict.

The US was also plagued by the fact that its war goals were never as well defined as nor as consistent as the Vietnamese. While Hanoi remained focused on victory defined as removing the Saigon government and uniting all of Vietnam under a single communist regime, under the successive administrations of presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon American strategy operated toward different goals. Kennedy’s goals were idealistic and driven by a sense of urgency in the face of recent communist gains, as he perceived them.[5] In his inaugural Presidential address in 1961, he had said that the Untied States would “bear any burden…support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty”.[6] Vietnam became the place to make a stand. Johnson, on the other hand, saw Vietnam as a threat to his Great Society. As Valenti noted,” No matter what we turned our hands and mind to, there was Vietnam, its contagion infecting everything that it touched, and it seemed to touch everything”.[7] Accordingly, Johnson limited his war means with strategies designed to prevent a widening of the war and deepening the US involvement. Nixon came to power with a mandate to end the war, and he devised three limited and achievable goals. Firstly, the US would start to withdraw its forces under the so-called Guam Doctrine. Secondly, he would turn the war back over to the Vietnamese through “Vietnamization”. Thirdly, the US would seek the return of American prisoners of war.

Given such diverse war aims, there is little doubt that the US was never as single-minded as the Vietnamese in pursuing its war goals. Indeed, one can argue that the asymmetry of will in favour of the North Vietnamese in the course of the war was as great if not greater than the asymmetry of means enjoyed by the American military forces. American military might and its strategy to make the enemy realise that it could not win a military victory became largely irrelevant, as it could not do enough to degrade the enemy’s will to fight. The situation might have been different if the Americans were able to close the Ho Chi Minh Trail and prevent the resupply of arms and replenishments from outside the country.  But they could not and in the escalating stalemate in which the Americans kept killing more North Vietnamese forces but the North Vietnamese kept coming back for more, the war became a contest of will in which the advantage of time eventually accrued to Hanoi.

In conclusion, the US strategy in the Vietnam War was flawed for a number of reasons. It failed to understand the nature of the conflict and the motivations of its Vietnamese adversary, resulting in a gap between the means with which it was willing to commit and the means that would have been necessary to achieve its ends. Secondly, the US strategy overly focused on the military aspect, in the belief that its superior capability alone would overcome the will of the enemy. By doing so, the US put all their eggs in one basket and did not pay enough attention to shaping the perception of Hanoi nor on winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people. In the final analysis, the asymmetry of means that the US brought into the conflict was more than matched by the asymmetry of will demonstrated by its North Vietnamese adversary and its Viet Cong allies.

(Agus Yudhoyono – Singapore, 2005)


[1] General William Westmoreland, Interview with CNN, 1996, (http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/11/interviews/westmoreland/).

[2] Mindful of the Chinese response when American troops crossed the 38th parallel during the Korean War, the US wanted to avoid triggering a similar response from China during the Vietnam War.

[3] General Vo Nguyen Giap, People’s War, People’s Army, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962, p. 34.

[4] Memorandum for the President, November 17, 1966, in The Pentagon Papers, The Senator Gravel Edition, Volume IV.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1975, pp. 369-71.

[5] These include the Bay of Pig fiasco in April 1961, an unsettling summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in July, renewed threats over Berlin and the raising of the Berlin Wall, and the neutralization of Laos.

[6] Kenney Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961, reprinted in Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1965, p. 246.

[7] Valenti quoted in, Frank E. Vandiver, Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson’s Wars. College Station, Texas:  Texas A&M University Press, 1997, p. 148.


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