The Vietnam War is viewed by the majority as one of the worst periods in American history. The Americans moved into Vietnam in 1954 under the pretence of fighting against an “evil and aggressive Communist regime”1. The government stated the Domino Theory as a reason for involving themselves in someone else’s war, whereby if America did not stop Vietnam from falling to Communism then other countries would follow, and American liberty, free enterprise and security would be put at risk. It is hard to define one important reason for the American’s defeat in Vietnam.
There are many factors that explain it: restrictions on the military and tactics that the American army employed, coupled with the strength of the North Vietnamese Army. The war also cost a lot of money, which meant inflation, tax rises and America’s economy suffering. The collapse of the home front and the lack of support from the media was cause for the presidents to retreat and was another reason for the undermining of the war effort. This information from home often leaked to the front line and caused the deterioration of troops’ morale, also, the government was often criticised for not understanding the political nature of Vietnam, where no-one really understand or cared about the term democracy.
The general consensus by most historians is that the military tactics employed played a large part in determining the outcome of the war. Justin Wintle’s ‘The Vietnam Wars’ concentrates on the military aspects, and suggests that while the Americans had a superior military and equipment, the tactics they used were useless due to the environment in Vietnam – Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy operations would have been an effective opposition to guerrilla combat, ‘or would have done had they been able to take place in a sealed environment ventilated by the Ho Chi Minh Trail’2, proving that the tactics used were inappropriate and not well thought out by the army generals. Even Major John Fenzel in the US Army agreed that defeat was due to tactical failures, which meant that they could not compete with the ‘multi-faceted strategy of insurgency and protraction’3 of the North Vietnamese army. General Bruce Palmer Jr. stated that Vietnam was ‘…a devilishly clever mixture of conventional warfare fought somewhat unconventionally and guerrilla warfare fought in the classical manner’4.
It was not just that the American strategy was ineffective; it was ineffective in the conditions and against a strong North Vietnamese army perfectly adapted to their environment. Due to the absolute strength of American air power, the Americans were lucky enough to keep a good death ratio where the number of Vietnamese deaths heavily outnumbered their own, however the fact that the war dragged on for so long greatly deteriorated the troops’ morale. Obvious tactical failures were the Phoenix Program under Nixon where troops agents infiltrated into Vietnamese peasant districts to detect activists, and while its effect was obvious, its methods were seen to be violent and news of innocents being murdered soon reached home. Operation Apache Snow, where American soldiers attacked Vietcong taking refuge on Ap Bia, now more commonly known as ‘Hamburger Hill’.
Troops attacked with fire-fight, hand-to-hand combat and aerial bombardment, however this only served to increase opposition to the war, so ‘Hamburger Hill’ was abandoned, which impelled Senator Edward Kennedy to label the operation as ‘senseless and irrseponsible’5. Morale among the troops was also decreasing. When tactics looked successful, morale was high. But as strategies resorted to a degree of barbarism with innocents being killed and bombing raids, news of lack of support from the home front reached the front line and the drawn out nature of the war ensured that morale soon deteriorated.
Also, the experience of war was reasonably comfortable, as Saunders points out in ‘Vietnam and the USA’; soldiers spent a considerable amount of time away from the front line and in Japan or Saigon for ‘Rest and Recuperation’, this obviously led to an ‘air of unreality and disorientation’6, where drug abuse was common. This lack of morale led to even more barbarism, one marine unit was known to say- ‘our emotions were very low because we’d lost a lot of friends…so…we gave it to them…whatever was moving was going to move no more – especially after (our) 3 days of blood and guts in the mud’7. There were
other factors, which led to this low morale. It was often frustrating for some soldiers as men in authority were not always as experienced as them; this meant that there appeared to be little structure to strategies, leading to confusion. They also could not capture the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, with the hamlet programme set-up by Diem, and the bombing of Vietnam by Americans, the Vietnamese peasants disliked American troops. However, it is easy to understand the Americans lack of reaction to the Vietnamese, as the circumstances of the war were obviously frustrating, and they felt that they were fighting someone else’s war, resenting the American government for sending them. This dislike for those who they were supposed to be helping meant that it was a difficult task for the American troops to win the war.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) on the other hand were very well suited to the surroundings and made the most of their environment. The situation in Vietnam appeared to be, as James Cameron stated, ‘from the moment the US prepared its first bomb in the North of Vietnam, she welded the nation together unshakeably. Every bomb was a bonus for Ho Chi Minh’8. It seemed that whatever hindered the American army only strengthened the Vietnamese. What the Americans did not realise was that the blitzes from firepower united the North Vietnamese. Chinese and Soviet aid meant that the NVA could enjoy modern hardware: rocket launchers, anti-aircraft batteries, mortars and flamethrowers. The view shared by many historians is that ‘they could be defeated but they could never be vanquished’9, they had great perseverance and their tactics were clearly laid out, in summary:
Americans attack and NVA retreat
Americans camp and NVA raid
Americans tire and NVA attack
Americans retreat and NVA pursue
The structure of the army also seemed more advanced than that of the Americans. Someone carrying supplies and ammunition maintained each unit. Structure was built upon the idea of ‘cells’ of three or ten men, so if they were discovered or captured, they would not lose large numbers of troops. This also meant that they could move around more stealthily and communication around the cell was easier. The NVA became expert at setting booby traps and it became hard for Americans to effectively fight them as they attacked enemy units and then quietly disappeared into the jungle. The communists were also better at winning over the Vietnamese population. Their combination of brutality and kindness allowed them to gain the support of the Vietnamese peasants. This obviously gave them an advantage over the American Army.
The actions of the American Presidents also went some way in undermining the war effort. Eisenhower had restricted involvement in the war, rejecting any idea of bombing the country – ‘you boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years.’10. While he did give support to the French in their Vietnam battle, Eisenhower saw that sending troops in would be unwise. When Kennedy became president, he increased America’s commitment to Vietnam, needing a more adventurous foreign policy and bigger defence expenditure. The war is seen as ‘Johnson’s War’ as it was Johnson who started major escalation. With the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, it appeared that the population was behind Johnson and his efforts to send more troops to Vietnam, but towards the end of his term, public opinion had swayed and their was pressure to start bringing soldiers back
home. Nixon had initially supported the war, but soon he was under a lot of pressure to allow fewer troops out, and bring more back. Nixon soon began to organise secret bombing campaigns so that he could fulfil his own wishes concerning Vietnam without losing the public’s confidence. Nixon was able to manipulate the situation by making announcements of troop withdrawals at times so that it would decrease opposition. Eventually, Nixon ended the war due to public opposition, the realisation that the war was not winnable, the need for a vote-winning action, and opposition from Congress. The main problem with the presidents is that they seemed to have their own personal agenda for Vietnam, knowing little about the actual situation. After a meeting with, Johnson and Kennedy, a State Department expert said – ‘…I was asked to say something at the end of the meeting and they looked at me absolutely helpless, the whole group of them.
There was not a single person there who knew what he was talking about…They simply did not understand the identification of nationalism and Communism’11, this issue was also brought up at a National Teach-In, ‘the obsession of American policymakers with what they see as monolithic Communism has blinded them to the fact that Communism in Asia has adapted itself to nationalism’12. Those in power often fooled the public and therefore undermined American involvement in the war, as there was a good kill ratio, where it looked like the American forces were winning, officials could fool themselves into believing it would be a victory; however the Tet Offensive showed the reality of the situation. Presidents seemed to be set on destroying Communism, being blind to the fact that building a feasible South Vietnam was outside of America’s power, what was needed was for them to understand Vietnam and ‘work with rather than against this powerful force’13. The majority of Vietnamese did not ‘even know the difference between communism and democracy’14.
The Vietnam War was the first war with free press, so the media played a huge part in undermining the war effort, undermining public opinion and demoralising American troops in Vietnam. The media had started off supporting the American presidents and their decisions about the war, however, their support soon decreased as news of the brutal reality of the war and the campaigns that had been covered-up leaked to the press. Press coverage was a major factor in ensuring lack of public support, and therefore the retreat of presidents from Vietnam. One notable example is the issue of ‘Life Magazine’, which saw a full edition with two hundred and forty-two photographs of the soldiers killed in Vietnam during just one week of fighting.
As well as showing the hardships which Americans had to endure in Vietnam, the media showed ‘footage of the bulldozing of human carcasses into mass graves, the napalming of children, and the ravaging of villages by American soldiers’15, so that the public began to dislike soldiers, causing many men to try to dodge the draft. Not only did the media allow public opposition to spread, it also undermined the military; less people were drafted into the war, low morale, and secrets were leaked to the press from troops in Vietnam which the media was able to exploit.
The NVA would then be able to see this and could expect attacks. The images that were on television were so powerful that they have been used as one of the main reasons why America was defeated due to the impression left on the public. Although, Riddick argues against this analysis – ‘while the media can influence public opinion, inVietnam media reportage merely reflected, and did not create the national mood of disillusionment’16. The government, however, understood how influential the loss of media support could be. In February 1968, a CBS reporter, Cronkite, left an aside not meant for broadcast – ‘what the hell is going on? I thought we were winning this war?’ President Johnson supposedly said – ‘If we’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Mr. Average citizen’.
In order to cope with the expansion in Vietnam, US financial aid was greatly increased, Washington had, for example, sent out approximately $2billion worth of aid in the time running up to the Paris Peace Agreement. The war was costing money, and started to interfere with the economy. Johnson, however, would not admit to the extent of expenditure in case Congress decided to cut budgets on his domestic programmes. In 1965 the government deficit was $1.6billion, in 1968, it was $25.3billion, Johnson had not requested the required wartime tax increases. This resulted in inflation, and eventually taxpayers became indignant and they increased the pressure on Johnson to put an end to the war, or to take a different approach. The war was a great hindrance on America’s economic stature. It denied funds to America and other needs, such as hospitals and education.
In the early sixties, Vietnam was popular; patriotism was strong in a confident nation, who assumed that they had the necessary weapons and firepower to assure victory. Opinions on the war differed according to geography and age. The Southern and Mid-West counties were conservative and patriotic whereas coastal counties were liberal and democratic. The older generations supported the war because of the effect of World War II, which had brought prosperity. The younger generations had more liberal attitudes. They were concerned with freedom of speech and self-expression. Conscription also made the war unpopular with young adults, which resulted in low morale in the army and a fall in the number of troops as draft papers were torn up. Further into the sixties, anti-war sentiment was growing in America, the turning point was the Tet Offensive, where the public was able to see the reality of the war and the fact that they were not winning.
Soldiers returning home were jeered at and called ‘baby-killer’, and trust in the American government was lacking. At the onset of war, those who opposed it could be split directly into three categories: ‘people with left-wing political opinions…pacifists who opposed all wars…liberals who believed that the best way of stopping the spread of Communism was by encouraging democratic rather than authoritarian governments’17. The fact that presidents had decided to use chemical warfare especially upset the public as they saw images and heard stories of innocent men, women and children dying as a result.
The mid-sixties was also a time of black rights. There were disproportionate numbers of blacks fighting in Vietnam, and it seemed unfair for America to expect blacks to fight this war for ‘freedom’ when they enjoyed little of this at home. Historians saw the blacks as ‘comparing themselves with the Vietnamese: both were, in their view, victims of a racist government’18.
An International War Tribunal was set up and they, along with other critics, claimed that ‘US behaviour in Vietnam is comparable to the atrocities committed by the Nazis in WW2’19. In 1967, the ‘Vietnam Veterans Against the War’ was formed, one member stated ‘I hope that someday I can return to Vietnam and help to rebuild the country we tore apart’20. Also, anti-war leaders claimed that if troops were not withdrawn from Vietnam, the government might need to bring them home to stop a revolution. Apart from these comments to the government, several protests were taking place. By 1965, organised rallies were being held in approximately forty American cities and a few foreign capitals. There were a lot of students protests as the younger generations refused to accept the authority of the government.
Groups against the war were dedicated to protesting for the withdrawal of troops, putting a lot of pressure on the government. Violent protests started to become more common as more atrocities became apparent in the press, specifically the incident of My Lai where about 400 innocents were murdered, which damaged the morale argument about the need to save Vietnam. In November 1965, Norman Morrison imitated the actions of Buddhist monk in Saigon by setting fire to himself out side the Pentagon. A protest at Kent University where four students were killed by open fire brought the message to the public that ‘loss of life as a result of the Vietnam War…was no longer confined to Indchina’21.
There was still a considerable amount of support for the governments policies, however, even a minority in America can protest vociferously and make a huge difference, especially when figured of respect and authority speak out. For example, Senator J. William Fullbright spoke out against ‘that arrogance of power which has inflicted, weakened and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past’22, Martin Luther King also spoke out about how ‘the Great Society has been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam’23.
Public pressure meant that in 1968, Johnson had lost confidence in his decisions and his war and he announced he was calling of bombing raids and was prepared to open discussions on the possibilities of peace talks. However, the war was prolonged into Nixon’s term as president, which served only to strengthen the disquiet against the war. As C. Reich stated, ‘the War seemed to sum up the evils of our society: destruction of people…environment…war by the rich and powerful against the poor and helpless, justification based on abstract rationality, hypocrisy and lies’24. The presidents knew that unless public opinion was swayed towards them and the war, they would not be able to stay in power. By the time Vietnam ended, it was clear that a major reason for withdrawal was down to public opinion.
There is no doubt that public opinion went a long way in ensuring that presidents retreated and the war effort undermined. Opposition resulted in a decline in troops and protests throughout America which demonstrated the unrest which politicians had to act on. However, there are other factors which add to this to explain America’s defeat, the failure of the American army against a strong Vietcong force, the role of the media, the economic situation due to mass expenditure, and the blindness of the government to the real situation in Vietnam.
Saunders – ‘The USA and Vietnam’ (p.2)
2 Wintle – ‘The Vietnam Wars’ (p. 136)
3 Major John Fenzel – ‘Vietnam: We Could Have Won’
4 General Bruce Palmer Jnr. – ‘The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in
5 Wintle – ‘The Vietnam Wars’ (p.165)
6 Saunders – ‘The USA and Vietnam 1945 – 75’ (p.85)
7 Ibid. (p.89)
8 James Cameron – ‘Witness’
9 Wintle – ‘The Vietnam Wars’ (p.165)
10 Saunders – ‘The USA and Vietnam 1954 – 75’ (p.32)
11 State Department Report 1963
12 National Teach-In – Gettleman – ‘Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions on a Major World Crisis’ (p.411)
13 Gettleman – ‘Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions on a Major World Crisis’ (p.411)
14 Vietnam Veterans Against the War Statement – John Kerry to the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations – 1971
15 Franklin H. Bruce – ‘From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America’s Wars’ (p.441)
16 Riddick – ‘The Vietnam War’
17 A Vietnam Overview – www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/VietnamWar.htm
18 Higgins – ‘Vietnam’ (p.101)
19 A Vietnam Overview – www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/VietnamWar.htm
21 Wintle – ‘The Vietnam Wars’ (p.168)
22 Ibid. (p.157)
23 Ibid. (p.161)
24 C. Reich – ‘The Greening of America’ (p.194)