There is no denying that from either side of the political fence, the War in Vietnam was a disaster for all involved. The USA lost so much political capital that it would take decades to regain its prestige in international relations, if indeed it ever did. The USSR angered its superpower rival to the extent that the USA spent the subsequent years building up a military force that would ultimately lead to the bankruptcy of the communist bloc. And for the Vietnamese, so much blood was shed on both sides of the 17th parallel that the scars of the conflict will be felt possibly for centuries.
The USA withdrew its last troops from Vietnam in a stunning capitulation on the 29th and 30th of April, 1975. During this action, its people were helicoptered from the rooftops of buildings whilst the army of North Vietnam entered the city of Saigon. Civilians and military personnel alike were unceremoniously dumped on naval vessels, whilst helicopters and military equipment were dumped overboard to ensure enough space. This was hardly a Dunkirk-style evacuation; even the USA were unable to draw positive political propaganda from this failure.
The war was marked by numerous horrific actions from both sides, from the capture and torture of US airmen and soldiers, to the massacres of civilians by the US army. Towns were wholly destroyed, and ancient tropical jungle subjected to chemical defoliation agents that turned lush, green scenery into desert land, and in turn causing a generation of Vietnamese children to suffer lives plagued by painful birth defects. There is no denying the grotesque nature of what took place during those years.
Yet, for all of the action and counter-action, the question has to be raised as to whether or not the USA really lost the war in Vietnam. In order to answer that question, one must first consider one crucial thing; what was the USA’s objective, and was it achieved?
In the mid-1950s, a particularly virulent and extreme form of capitalist fervour had swept the USA under the name of McCarthyism. The premise was simple; capitalism very very good, communism very very bad. At its height, it was not vastly different to the Salem Witch Trials, in that people were accused of supporting, favouring, or even just sympathising with communist or socialist principles, and were turned into social pariahs at best, or incarcerated without evidence or trial at worst. Those accused of even the slightest socialist leanings were outcasts within their society – something which was frequently weaponised against foes. Is a political rival becoming too popular? They are a communist sympathiser. Neighbour annoying you? They have socialist tendencies. It was all so very ugly.
Whilst the reasons for the diametric opposition and incompatibility of the two political philosophies is deep, and most likely irreconcilable, I will not go into detail here (although it makes an interesting post for another day!). Suffice to say, it must simply be accepted that each side saw the other as the devil – as evil personified. And so imagine the horror in the minds of middle-Americans as they watched the formation of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, and as China fell to communism, and as South East Asian countries slowly but surely revealed their leftist leanings. Imagine the fear and panic as a red wave swept slowly and inexorably across those nations, all the while the USSR was testing nuclear weapons far more powerful than the USA was capable of. In the minds of the public and politicians, something had to be done.
The first attempt to curb the spread of communism in the East was in Korea, and led to a conflict that was every bit as brutal and deadly as the Second World War. The war ground down to a stalemate, and the ancient country of Korea was divided into two parts; the communist North, and the capitalist South. To the USA, this was a devastating loss.
Yet, not as devastating as seeing its neighbour, Cuba, fall to communism. Oh, the USA tried to prevent it by sending an overwhelming force. And the world expected the greatest economy and pinnacle superpower to steamroll the tiny island nation into acceding to its political will. So imagine the embarrassment when the USA failed in its primary objectives. Now multiply that by the chagrin when Cuba opened itself up to the placement of Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil.
The loss of diplomatic capital on the international stage was about as much as the USA could take, and be damned sure that the next nation daring to fly a red flag upon its capitol buildings would have unleashed upon it the wrath and fury of a nation whose wealth and military might totalled that of the rest of the world combined.
And that nation would be Vietnam.
The USA entered the war under the pretext of preventing the ‘Domino Theory’ – President Eisenhower’s belief that if Vietnam fell to communism, it wold not be long before Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, India, and Bangladesh would fall in quick succession. It was a relatively sound theory, after all, it is exactly what had happened in Eastern Europe only a handful of years previously.
So, when Ho Chi Minh sough the support of communist China and the USSR to gain its independence from the yoke of French colonial oppression, the USA decided it simply would not do. A political entanglement saw the USA first of all ditch its anti-imperialist ideology to support the French, then support a capitalist independence movement, then… well, it’s all a bit messy and could quite frankly be the subject of a many-volumed book series (and indeed it has). But suffice to say, the upshot is that the USA ended up supporting a puppet capitalist government based in the South of the nation, aiming to prevent the North from taking over the entire country under the banner of communism.
The primary goal of the USA was to prevent the spread of communism across South East Asia. And whilst its military muscle was entirely embarrassed by the resourceful guerrilla warfare tactics of the North, it has to be said that it did not fail in this goal. Whilst Vietnam would eventually fall to communism, of those other nations that were feared to turn left, only Vietnam and Laos are communist today. Cambodia had various flirtations with the ideology, and there is no denying that there is a strong socialist leaning in those other nations. But the fact remains that South East Asia is predominantly capitalist. So the USA, regardless of its numerous cock-ups (and there are hundreds, worthy again of a separate post) in the field, largely achieved its goal in the Vietnam War.
Why then does the world remember the Vietnam War as a loss for the Americans? Well, it is a simple answer. The actions of the USA during the decades of the war were at times utterly deplorable. It was a national embarrassment. Mass protests were held across the nation against the war, which even led to the killing US citizens on their own soil and at the hands of their own security forces. The US withdrawal was similarly a chapter in their history that they would prefer to forget; helicoptering scared individuals from rooftops is not an image of victory. It is not raising the flag on Iwo Jima; it provides no newspaper-friendly photographs, and it cannot be propagandised. But it must be accepted that neither embarrassment nor morally-questionable actions equate to a loss of war. After all, many of the actions taken under Churchill in the Second World War were morally reprehensible, yet it is not in doubt which side won.
Furthermore, it must be remembered that the war was not for the USA to either win or lose. It was, in essence, a civil war between the communist north and the capitalist south. The USA was merely a supporting party. Albeit, one who ran around-the-clock bombing missions against North Vietnamese targets, and fought at close quarters with the enemies of the South. It would be hard to argue that an external nation can either win or lose the civil war of another nation.
So. The USA did not lose the war in Vietnam; it achieved its wider goals in the long-term. However, it did lose something far greater; its perception of power, dominance, and impenetrability. Prior to the war, as noted above, the economic power of the USA was equal to that of the rest of the world combined. It’s military might was seen as an insurmountable force. Yet, by the time the war ended, it had lost both of these statuses leading to increased challenge from other parties across the globe.