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America’s Gradual Slide, Experience and Withdrawal From Vietnam - Part 2

Politics / US Politics May 01, 2019 - 02:43 PM GMT

By: Raymond_Matison


Continuation from Part1 - Vietnam, Part I: Colonialism and National Liberation

The Kennedy Years

Before he became President, a tour of Vietnam convinced John Kennedy that the US must align herself with the emerging nations, and that Communism could never be defeated by relying solely of force of arms.  His Indochina experience led him to that conclusion, as did a dinner conversation in New Delhi with Jawaharlal Nehru, who called the French as an example of doomed colonialism and said Communism offered the masses “something to die for”  whereas the West promised only the status quo.  War would not stop Communism, Nehru warned him; it would only enhance it, “for the devastation of war breeds only more poverty and more want.”  In 1957 JFK declared in a Senate speech “The most powerful single force in the world today, is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missile – it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent.”

By 1959, a new war for Vietnam had begun, a war the Vietnamese would come to call “the American war.”  We are more and more becoming colonialists in the minds of the people, Kennedy writes in a trip diary.  The United States was now the principal enemy, not France.  And a secret U.S. war was under way.  Ostensibly, Americans were serving purely as advisers and never engaging the Viet Cong except in self-defense; in reality, their involvement extended further – in the air as well as on the ground.  During Kennedy’s presidency U.S. Special Forces advisors flowed into Vietnam.  The growing U.S. military investment in Vietnam was kept secret, partly because it violated the Geneva agreement, and partly to deceive the American public.  Kennedy did not want to escalate, but U.S. withdrawal was unthinkable.  With the burden and constraints of presidential office, and diverting from his earlier beliefs about “man’s eternal desire to be free and independent” when asked in a television interview if he had any reason to doubt the validity of the Communist domino theory, Kennedy said, ”No, I believe it.”

By mid-1962, American military advisers in Vietnam numbered 8,000, by the end of the year over 11,000, and by the time of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963, almost 16,000.  Just three weeks before the Dallas tragedy, Ngo Dinh Diem had
himself been murdered along with his brother Nhy, after a U.S-sanctioned coup d’etat by dissident generals. The deaths of Kennedy and Diem led to a new phase in the American involvement in Vietnam.

Comparison of the combatants

The disparity between the two sides was vast.  On the communist side were guerrillas in black “pajamas” and tire-tread sandals armed with homemade booby traps and perhaps AK-47 assault rifles or mortars. 

Bicycles, for years a favored mode of transport for the Viet Minh, were called into service.  A specially equipped bicycle – with wooden struts to strengthen the frame and bamboo poles to extend the handlebars and the brake lever – could take more that an elephant could carry.  The carrying capacity of transport bicycles was more than ten times greater than that of porters carrying loads on poles. They could operate along roads and trails that trucks could not use.

The needs of the Communist fighting forces were minimal.  Unlike the American or South Vietnamese armies, they had no aircraft, tanks or artillery, and they could do without fuel, spare parts, and shells. They needed no more than a total off fifteen tons of supplies a day from the North in order to sustain their effort in the South.  Rice was the medium of exchange of the Viet Minh economy.  Troops were paid in rice; services and supplies were purchased with rice.

The U.S. side had sensors, ground radar, infrared equipment, defoliants, herbicides, cluster bombs, missiles of various varieties, tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery of various caliber, naval vessels ranging from small patrol boats to giant nuclear- powered aircraft carriers, and of course all the aircraft – everything from B-52 bombers to UH-1 Huey helicopters to specially fitted C-47 airplanes known as Puff the Magic Dragon equipped with automatic machine guns capable of spitting out 6,000 rounds a minute.  To say nothing of the infantryman’s tools – M-15 and M-14 assault rifles, mortars, machine guns, flame throwers grenade launchers, claymore mines, C-4 plastic explosive, rocket launchers.

The average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was nineteen – idealistic and uninformed.  Of the almost 3 million men (though never more than 540,000 at one time) who would fight in Vietnam - 58,000 of them would die.  Troops over the years fathered over fifty thousand American-Asian children – most of whom were treated as outcasts by the Vietnamese.

America’s war strategy

Advisors figured that the most likely threat to the South would come from a Korean War-style invasion.  In the 1950s this was not an unreasonable bet, but it turned out to be disastrously wrong.  General Westmoreland took over in 1964 as the senior U.S. officer in the country. It was his job to figure out how to defeat the Vietnamese Communists.  The obvious solution, from the Pentagon’s perspective, would have been to invade the North, but that was off the table.  President Johnson was afraid that an invasion of the North might spark a war with China; a concern that, as newly released documents reveal, was well-founded.  For similar reasons, the president ruled out cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail by occupying Laos.  Westmoreland was discouraged by these limitations but undaunted.  He simply resolved to fight the war his way within the parameters laid down for him. 

Westmoreland wanted “a well-balanced, hard-hitting force designed to fight in sustained combat and just grind away against the enemy on a sustained basis”.  His was the army way, the American way, the World War II way: find the enemy, fix him in place, and annihilate him with withering firepower.  The U.S. soldiers never lost a battle, but neither did they manage to pin down enough of the enemy so that a victory meant something. The French like the Americans later, could conquer Vietnamese territory but could not hold it.  The Vietcong had the initiative; they could either accept battle or not.  The U.S. estimated in 1967 that 88 percent of all engagements were initiated by the enemy, clearly implying that the U.S. was fighting on the enemy’s terms.  But the biggest dilemma for American soldiers in Vietnam was distinguishing friendly from hostile peasants.
Westmoreland was one of the pillars of the army establishment that had successfully resisted fundamental change.  Westmoreland’s war strategy would have been the right answer if South Vietnam was fighting a conventional invasion, but it was not.  With the ability of the enemy to disappear in the jungle, the failure of the big-war strategy had become glaringly obvious.  After it became clear that victory was no longer the U.S. objective in Vietnam, that support of the home front was dwindling, and that a slow-motion pullout was beginning, unit discipline and cohesion crumbled.

In Vietnam unlike Korea the US commanders did not have nor ask for field command – nor would Saigon grant it, because to do so would have given credence to the communist claim that the Americans were “neocolonialists” come to replace the French. As a result inappropriate training and poor leadership severely hobbled the South Vietnamese armed forces.  In Saigon, the ruling generals were paralyzed by ineptitude; therefore, the South Vietnamese army was no match for the Vietcong.

Destruction of its few factories scarcely deprived North Vietnam of the means to carry on the conflict.  A rural society could not be blasted into submission - no amount of bombing can end the war, claimed McNamara. The bombing had not broken morale, since the North Vietnamese were accustomed to discipline and are no strangers to deprivation and death.  Most air strikes and artillery bombardments were not conducted in support of U.S. ground forces in combat but were designed to interdict enemy supplies and personnel.  Nor were the US air strikes effective against the infiltration of North Vietnamese combat divisions into the South.  Yet every time we killed an innocent person we lost ground in our battle to win the people.

Desperate to come up with some measure of progress, Westmoreland turned to the infamous body counts.  He thought that killing the enemy in great number would force them to give up the struggle, just as soon as he reached the crossover point: when the enemy could no longer replace its casualties.  It did not work out that way.  North Vietnam was ruled by a dictatorship impervious to the pressure of popular opinion.  Its leaders could tolerate staggering casualties with equanimity.  After the war, Hanoi admitted losing 1.1 million dead and 300,000 missing, out of a population base of 20 million.

The Vietminh war strategy

By 1950 the Viet Minh had grown to a force of about a quarter of a million troops.
Senior Viet Minh planners determined that maintaining an infantry division in action away from its base required the use of roughly fifty thousand local peasants as porters, each carrying about forty-five pounds in supplies.

The North did not invade the South, instead it began infiltrating South Vietnam to organize a secret Communist infrastructure, building a political base for guerilla war.
The People’s Liberation Armed Forces – popularly known as the Vietcong – launched a campaign of assassination and intimidation aimed at officials of the Saigon government. Viet Cong campaign of assassination, targeting village leaders and other notables, picked up pace in 1960 to more than 1600 for the year.  North Vietnamese were masters of guerrilla tactics, a type of warfare that is virtually impossible to defeat. North Vietnamese forces had to be admired for their tenacity, aggressiveness and bravery, who sincerely believed that they were saving their southern brethren from the clutches of imperialism. Their will to persist was inextinguishable.

Much of Viet Minh activity occurred at night, giving rise to one of the themes of the war: areas controlled by the colonialists during the day would become guerrilla territory after sundown. The colonialists were lords of the towns and the main roads: the Viet Minh of the countryside, the remote villages, and the walking trails.  Land trails, which had been hacked out of the jungle during the war against the French, would become known to the world as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The guerillas operated in a familiar atmosphere.  Secrecy and surprise are the general conditions for their success in confrontations with a clumsy adversary who is badly informed and operates in an unfavorable climate.  It was a war without fronts, where the enemy was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. You never knew who was the enemy, and who was the friend.  They all looked alike.  They all dressed alike.  They were all Vietnamese.  In addition, the thick overhead foliage filtered out almost all the sunlight, making it difficult to see.

From July to September the war came to a stop. The rain fell almost continuously, and rivers overflowed.  The spongy, saturated jungles were virtually impassable.  Soldiers were overwhelmed and blinded by the forces of nature, by the soaking vegetation, the mountains that vanished in the clouds, the rivers swirling with turbid, dangerously rapid water, mud, heat, by everything.  In Vietnam the mobility of individual soldiers outweighed the mobility of armies.

The Maddox ship incident

North Vietnamese boats patrolled outside the three-mile limit recognized by the United States; Hanoi claimed sovereignty up to twelve-mile limit.  On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the Maddox, a U.S. destroyer operating in the Gulf of Tonkin on a mission to gather intelligence and support South Vietnamese commando raids against North Vietnamese coastal installations.  Only senior officers knew about commando raid support, the crew of the ship was not aware of increased risk related these additional clandestine military operations.  So the Maddox and the Turner Joy was effectively being used to bait the Communists.

The next day the Maddox and the C. Turner Joy, reported being attacked again.  The Maddox’s skipper concluded afterward that the second attack was probably a phantom, which he attributed to “freak weather” and an “overeager” young sonar technician.  Nevertheless the president seized on this incident to seek from Congress authorization to use whatever force he deemed necessary to protect South Vietnam and America’s other allies in Southeast Asia.  It justified the grant of war powers on the rather spongy ground that the United States regards as “vital to its international interests and to world peace, the maintenance of international peace and security.”

In his book “The Secret Sentry” author Matthew M. Aid states: “But whatever doubts may have existed in August 1964 about the credibility of the evidence provided by NSA about the Gulf of Tonkin naval engagement, in the end it really did not matter.  It was no secret that, wanting to “look tough in an election year, Johnson administration officials were looking for a casus belli for attacking North Vietnam.  So President Johnson, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and the JCS appear to have cherry-picked the available intelligence, in this case SIGINT from NSA, in order to justify a decision they had already made to launch air strikes against North Vietnam.”

At the time of the attack, Captain Herrick of the Maddox had appealed to the carrier Ticonderoga, and shortly afterward eight U.S. aircraft led by Commander Stockdale hovered above the two destroyers.  The Joy was firing the Maddox could not track on sonar, and the Maddox, was dodging ‘torpedoes’ the Joy couldn’t hear on its sonar.  Immediately following his return to the Ticonderoga, Commander Stockdale debriefed by an intelligence officer, said he had seen no boats, no boat wakes, no ricochets of boats, no boat gunfire and no torpedo wakes – nothing but black sea and American firepower.  Promoted, Admiral Stockdale who devoted years to studying the episode, finally called the mix-up “a tragic way to commit a nation to war”.

Senator Fulbright announced that the Senate’s reinvestigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution had shown it to have been obtained by “misrepresentation,” and it was therefore “mull and void.”  Ultimately, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was repealed.

The Johnson years

In 1964, under President Johnson the number of military advisers grew to 23,000, and after the Maddox incident Congress voted to authorize the president to use military force as he saw fit in Southeast Asia.  Faced with the presidential election of 1964 against Senator Barry Goldwater, he had to appear as the peace candidate. “We are not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” When six months later American boys were sent into combat these phrases were easily recalled, beginning the erosion of Johnson’s own credibility.

By early 1965, after he won his own mandate as president, Johnson concluded that only direct American intervention could prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam – and, more importantly, shield him against charges of having been “the first president to lose a war.”  Johnson: Losing the Great Society was a terrible thought, but not so terrible as the thought of being responsible for America’s losing a war to the Communists.  Nothing could be worse than that.  The first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam in March 1965.

In February 1965, following Viet Cong attacks on American installation in South Vietnam that killed thirty-two Americans, Johnson ordered Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing program that continued uninterrupted almost daily until October 1968, dropping a million tons of bombs, rockets and missiles – roughly eight hundred tons per day for three and a half years.  Soon B-52s armed with napalm and cluster bombs joined the action.  With the exception of nuclear weapons, nearly every piece of equipment in America’s mighty arsenal was sooner or later used in Vietnam.  Bombing strategy too was directed toward attrition by famine through the destruction of dikes, irrigation ditches and the means of agriculture.  Napalm amounted to official terrorism.

By the time the Nixon administration signed a cease-fire agreement in January 1973, the United Sates had dropped on North Vietnam, an area the size of Texas, triple the bomb tonnage dropped on Europe, Asia and Africa during WWII (my emphasis).  Napalm was used to devastating effect.  (To correct this book quote, please note that the area of North Vietnam is actually approximately one fourth the size of Texas -increasing bombing saturation twelve times that of Europe.)

After one month it was apparent the ROLLING THUNDER was having no visible effect on the enemy’s will to fight.  When Rolling Thunder had extended to more than a year without noticeable will-breaking a group of 47 prominent scientists commissioned by the Institute of Defense Analysis concluded that bombing had not created serious difficulties in transportation, the economy or morale.  The Air Force, in concern for its own future role, could not admit that air power could be ineffective.

The support in arms and anti-aircraft missiles provided by Russia made U.S. bombing war expensive. Since 1961 nearly nine thousand U.S. airplanes and helicopters had been lost in action; some two thousand pilots and crew members had been killed.
The United States had become overextended by a little war that had become a large war.

Ho Chi Min had warned the French, the Vietnamese Communists would risk annihilation rather than capitulate.  That concept was beyond the comprehension of Johnson and his advisers.  How could it not succeed against what Johnson called ”that raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country.”  The conclusion should have been self-evident.  North Vietnam predominantly rural society with an apparently inexhaustible people prepared to die for their cause, could not be blasted “back to the Stone Age” as Curtis LeMay wanted to do.

The plan to boost the number of American troops in Vietnam to some three hundred thousand by late 1966 would merely serve to avert disaster.  The United States could stick without stated objectives by providing what it takes – a total of at least six hundred thousand men by the beginning of 1968.  But, McNamara had cautioned, even that will not guaranteed success.  McNamara said that we must perforce find a diplomatic solution – that no matter what we do militarily, there is no sure victory.  With the deployment of a total of four hundred and seventy thousand U.S. troops in Vietnam by late 1967 – he could “do little better than hold our own.”

By the beginning of 1966, Vietnam had become an obsession for Lyndon Johnson - as
student opposition to the war was spreading in response to larger draft quotas. However, Johnson generously deferred US college students from the draft to avoid alienating the American middle class.  The weakest chink in our in our armor is American public opinion, Johnson warned his staff.  Our people won’t stand firm in the face of heavy losses, and they can bring down the government.  As it turned out, American casualties of 58,000 – roughly equal to the death toll on America’s highways during one year, 1970 – were enough to help drive the U.S. out of the war.

The actual cost of the war ran at multiples of their estimation.  Johnson wanted to wage the war without paying for it.  He juggled and faked the statistics to avoid increasing taxes.  The subterfuge worked until 1967 when the numbers could no longer be fudged.
To prevent South Vietnam’s collapse more than a doubling of U.S. troops was needed.
For Johnson the choices were simple: either the United States plunged into war or faced defeat.  The CIA echoed his sentiment; a large U.S. force would need to halt the Communists.

This was war by the Executive, without Congressional authorization, and in the face of evasions or denials by the president was virtually without public knowledge. The United States is now involved in an undeclared war in South Vietnam wrote Janes Reston.  This is well known to the Russians, the Chinese Communists and everyone else concerned except the American people. 

Johnson had sunk deeper and deeper into the quagmire of Southeast Asia until his senior aides turned against him.  Many top advisers or government officials supporting the war later turned against it.  High government officials who had the guts to voice misgivings about the war had resigned.  Eventually McNamara would resign also.  It was slowly becoming clear to Johnson that there was no way the Vietnam entanglement could end to his advantage.  The country’s trust in Johnson’s authority had evaporated, and his credibility – the key to a president’s capacity to govern – was gone.

Replacing McNamara as Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford found a Systems Analysis report that stated “despite a massive influx of 500,000 United States troops, 1.5 million tons of bombs a year, 400,000 attack sorties a year, 200,000 enemy killed in action in three years, 20,000 United States KIA, our control of the country-side and urban areas in now essentially at pre-August 1965 levels.”
On January 31, 1968 nearly seventy thousand Communist soldiers had launched a surprise attack, called the Tet offensive.  They surged into more than a hundred cities and towns, including Saigon, audaciously shifting the war.  On the evening of March 31, 1968, Johnson stunned the nation by announcing that he would not run for reelection.  He appeared to have been defeated by recent events in Vietnam.  Beleaguered LBJ in 1969, he was a man broken by the war.

Nixon Years

Having observed Johnson’s futile escalations, candidate Nixon ruled out a military victory, and to court voters he ended the inequitable and unpopular draft.  Nixon had campaigned for election on a pledge to end the war and win the peace, but once Nixon was installed in the presidency, the promised process of stopping the war was stood on its head to become one of prolonging it.  He had extended the war beyond Vietnam and he had brought the war home with greater intensity.  And despite his pretension of toughness, he was not going to extricate himself without offering significant concessions to the Communists.

At home, polls showed a majority beginning to emerge in favor of removal of all troops by the end of the year, even if the result were Communist control of South Vietnam.
For the first time a majority agreed to the proposition that “It was morally wrong for the U.S. to be fighting in Vietnam,” and that getting involved in the first place was a “mistake.”

By early 1972, Nixon could justly claim that he was fulfilling his pledge to reduce the U.S. combat role in Vietnam.  He had withdrawn more than four hundred thousand GIs since he entered office. To show the American public his earnest desire for peace, he also revealed for the first time that Kissinger had been talking secretly with the North Vietnamese.  Kissinger’s secret mission failed of result, essentially because the United States was trying to negotiate itself out of a war it could not win and look good at the same time.

The right to dissent is an absolute of the American political system.  Protest blazed after Kent State, where the National Guard fired on demonstrators, killing four students.  An angry crowd of close to 100,000 massed in the park across from the White House.  At the Capitol, Vietnam veterans staged a rally marked by each man tossing away his medals.

A collected record of mostly classified government documents originally authored by McNamara in an effort to uncover the roots of American involvement, the papers were purloined by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon official now an ideologue of anti-war convictions, and made available to the press and certain members of the House and Senate. The government’s response was the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office with the object of framing him as a Soviet agent.  But no matter what they might have discovered about Ellsberg it could not in any case have discredited fourteen volumes of photocopied government documents.

Nixon announced a campaign as the decisive military action to end the war,
ordering Operation Linebacker II, the Christmas bombing of the North in 1972.
A month later Kissinger offered a plan for ceasefire which omitted the requirement of Northern withdrawal from the South and which declared American readiness to withdraw all forces within four months after return of prisoners.  Prodded by the Christmas bombing, and the allowance to keep North Vietnamese troops in the South, they came to terms.  On January 27, 1973, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Thos signed the Paris Peace Accord.

Hanoi achieved its strategic objectives, Washington did not - the Communist insurgency really did win the war but not by defeating the U.S. forces on the battlefield.  As general Giap later explained, “We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim.  Our intention was to break the will of the American Government to continue the war.”  Hanoi had accurately concluded that the war’s center of gravity was American public opinion.  Reunification of Vietnam was achieved in 1975.
Communists established their rule over the whole of Vietnam, and similar results were accomplished in Cambodia.  The political order in Vietnam was approximately what it would have been if American had never intervened.

Nixon had been publically accused of covering up various illegalities.  To avoid impeachment president Nixon resigned from office in August of 1974.  It is safe to say that if there had been no Vietnam War, there would have been no Watergate, and the history of the United States would have taken a more wholesome path.

Fed up with the war in Indochina, Congress drastically reduced aid to the South and prohibited any U.S. combat action, direct or indirect, in Indochina.  No longer was the conflict worth winning. The commitment was not absolutely imperative to the defense of strategic U.S. interests.  No army can operate effectively if it is critically short of vital materiel, as South Vietnam was in 1975.  Because it was not forthcoming, North Vietnamese T-54 tanks soon rumbled into Saigon.

Lessons to be considered or learned

Why did America go to war in Vietnam?  Americans were deeply engaged in Frances’s “twilight war” from its very beginning but failed – tragically- to learn any lessons from France’s miserable defeat.  Instead, hubris, naiveté, idealism, and expansive global ambitions led American leaders to believe they could succeed where others had failed.  General Leclerc, returning to Paris from Vietnam had warned that “anti-Communism will be a useless tool unless the problem of nationalism is resolved.  The Americans had failed to learn from France’s example as de Gaulle had said that the fighting “will last a long, long, long time.”  Soon de Gaulle offered a more precise estimate: Unless the Johnson administration moved to halt the war immediately, the struggle would go on for ten years and would completely dishonor the United States.

Dean Acheson, a central player in the drama of the late 1940s and early 1950s that saw the United States become a global hegemon, the self-appointed defender of Western civilization.  He had been among the wise men who, who after his decades-long experience with Vietnam had counseled that there was no light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.  In addition, the Vietnam War was misrepresented to the American people.  Vietnam had essentially been a civil war in which the United States supported its anti-Communist adversary while the opposition was backed by the Soviet Union and China.

For America, the Vietnam War was never about Vietnam, but always about some larger abstraction of concern to the United States – concerning China, dominos, credibility.
The idea that Asian countries would fall like a stack of dominoes into the hands of Marxist-Leninists if Communism were to prevail in Vietnam turned out to be wholly fanciful.  Having invented Indochina as the main target of a coordinated Communist aggression, and having in every policy advice and public pronouncement repeated the operating assumption that its preservation from Communism was vital to American security, the United Stated was lodged in the trap of its own propaganda.

General Ridgway wrote in 1971, “It should not have taken great vision to perceive … that no truly vital United States interest was present …and that the commitment to a major effort was a monumental blunder.”  General Maxwell Taylor, one of Kennedy’s advisors on Vietnam and subsequently Johnson’s ambassador in Saigon, had been a key architect of U.S. intervention.  But not long before his death in 1987, he confessed to me (author Karnow) that the involvement had been both a blunder and a lesson.  “First, we didn’t know ourselves.  We thought that we were going into another Korean war, but this was a different country.  Secondly, we didn’t know our South Vietnamese allies.  We never understood them, and that was another surprise.  And we know even less about North Vietnam.  Who was Ho Chi Minh?  Nobody really knew.  So, until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we’d better keep out of this kind of dirty business.

In dissatisfaction with the war, Time magazine stated “that victory in Vietnam – or even a favorable settlement - may simply be beyond the grasp of the world’s greatest power.”
For many, confidence in the righteousness of their country gave way to cynicism.  Who since Vietnam would venture to say of America in simple belief that she was the ‘last best hope of earth”?  What America lost in Vietnam was virtue.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said he could no longer reprove acts of violence by his own people without speaking out against “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”

In human terms at least, the war in Vietnam was a war that nobody won – a struggle between victims.  More than four million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on both sides – roughly 10% of the entire population – were killed or wounded.  So polarized was the domestic anti-war agitation, that many American soldiers received a warmer welcome as an American vet returning to Vietnam than as a Vietnam vet returning to America.
With hindsight, it is impossible to avoid asking why the American government ignored the advice of the persons appointed to give it.

Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a “fourth-rate” Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies.  The irony of history is inexorable.  Senator Kennedy’s comment about man’s eternal desire to be free and independent being the strongest force in the world seems confirmed once more.

What we had most to fear was a general loss of confidence in American judgement.
As the struggle lengthened, America’s faith in its invincibility faded. The goal subtly changed from blocking Communism to saving face.  War is a procedure from which there can be no turning back without acknowledging defeat.  This was the self-laid trap into which America had walked.  Planners pretending it was “external aggression” were not eager to escalate in what really was a civil conflict in Asia.  Denying the argument of “external aggression,” Walter Lippmann stated the obvious: that there were never two Vietnams but only “two zones of one nation.”

Final observations

Information documented by these authors confirms that every administration after Truman has shown itself to be tainted with public misleading, duplicity, evasions, denials, misrepresentation, self-deception, deceit, compromise of personal values, and outright lies to the American people for over three decades.  Yes, the international prestige of the United States was at risk since a Communist victory would damage the reputation of the United States throughout the world.  But the Vietnamese persisted and America lost this war, yet the greater damage done was that not only the world, but more importantly American citizens lost faith in its government leaders- likely never to trust them again.

There was an important message in sage observations and recommendations which deaf administrations, its State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and military was not listening to, and wise policies from trusted advisors it refused to follow.  It required a plurality of Americans who had concluded that the United States had made a mistake in committing combat troops to Vietnam.  It was the wisdom of crowds - American citizens - that made the right decision to extricate the United States from an unnecessary war.  Leaders, necessarily self-centered, are rarely that wise or courageous.

Reflect upon the fact that America was the most admired country in the world after winning in WWII, and a beacon of freedom to people everywhere.  However, just a couple of years later, America’s war in Korea resulted in a divided country – we weren’t able to conquer it all.  A few years after that, our military efforts in Vietnam resulted originally in a divided country, which we ultimately ceded to the enemy.  When the Iranian revolution took place in 1979, with the taking of America’s embassy workers as prisoners, we judiciously refrained from a military invasion.  Our subsequent military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, have produced results which hardly anyone over time could consider as resounding successes.  In addition, our government once again confirmed its willingness to deceive its citizens about weapons of mass destruction and reasons for starting a war with Iraq and elsewhere.  Our multiyear effort to replace the government in Syria cannot be referenced as a success.  Our nation’s gambits in Ukraine and Venezuela may not provide desired outcomes.  Accordingly, it does not take a military career strategist or U.S. War College graduate to notice the trends in America’s success over the last eighty years in using military or covert force.

America’s military might can conquer lands, but it has proven difficult to hold it.  It takes “boots on the ground” to do that.  We only have so many boots.  Therefore even the strongest military in the world is constrained by the number of soldiers available.  Other countries of the world, especially when acting together with their allies, has many more “boots” than America.  Therefore, our military power is necessarily limited!  We should learn and acknowledge this – particularly since the “enemies” of America are coalescing into a formidable opponent to America’s foreign policy.  These countries do not seek to conquer or destroy America.  They merely seek the freedom from America’s financial colonialism or sanctions such that they can develop and prosper.  Therefore it is wise to remember that freedom and independence is the strongest force in the world, and its oppression will be met with unrelenting unified resistance.

Communism was a growing oppressive, militant force; however, international communism collapsed together with the Soviet Union.  Today, Vietnam is a thriving country with a Communist government, one which the United States is happy to conduct trade.  It, like China, has a decidedly un-communist approach towards production and trade.  Meanwhile over the last fifty years America become more socialist as individual freedoms, such as freedom of speech and religion, have been increasingly assaulted.

Raymond Matison

Mr. Matison was an Institutional Investor magazine top ten financial analyst of the insurance industry, founded Kidder Peabody’s investment banking activities in the insurance industry, and was a Director, Investment Banking in Merrill Lynch Capital Markets.   He can be e-mailed at

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Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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