The US failure in Vietnam Essay
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Examine the view that the US failure in Vietnam resulted more from losing the hearts and minds of the American people than from military defeats
The US failure resulted more from losing the hearts and minds of the American people than from military defeat due to many reasons such as the Tet Offensive and ruthlessness in Napalm, My Lai, etc. However, there were other factors such as the loss of confidence by Johnson’s administration and the communist popularity and ingenuity that also resulted in the US failure in Vietnam.
One of the main reasons the Americans could not defeat the communists is because they were unable to win the hearts and minds of American people. America’s inability to distinguish the enemy meant that their tactics did not work and led to further failure. ‘My Lai’ on 16th March 1968 was an example of American hatred of the Vietnamese. 347 unharmed civilians were beaten and killed by American soldiers and their officers. Women were beaten and shot and water was contaminated by buffalo, pigs and chickens being dropped in wells. Generally, the Americans were better at winning the hearts and minds however they were ruthless when necessary.
‘Operation Phoenix’ was introduced whereby thousands of Vietcong’s were sought out and interrogated. Few of these came out alive. This shows that torture was normal and that there was a lack of military tactics and the extent the Americans would go to find out who the enemies were. Moreover, the ruthlessness of Napalm and its victims who were melted into a kind of gelatine and some of who were disfigured lived in caves and remote areas. Also Agent Orange which was used to defoliate 20% of South Vietnams jungles so the enemy could be seen more easily had a tremendous impact; there were incidents of cancer and toxic related diseases which still remains high in Vietnam. Therefore due to all the torturous methods and killings, the US lost the hearts and minds of the American people.
America was unable to win the war as their attitudes to the Vietnamese made it difficult to. They never really understood any of the Vietnamese people and classed them as less than human.
Furthermore, America’s failure was due to the actions of both Washington and Saigon frequently antagonising the South Vietnamese peasants. Once the Americans entered Vietnam life for the South Vietnamese went from bad to worse. American bombing and Diem’s strategic hamlets programme forced many peasants to move away and away from the things which meant a lot to them such as crops. Johnson usually tried to avoid targeting non-combatants; however this was difficult as they never knew who their enemies were.
However, due to the Americans fighting a Comfortable war, the soldiers became unmotivated and ineffective. American army officers were less experienced than some soldiers he commanded and unpopular officers were shot. It was therefore hard to win the war with so many inexperienced and increasingly unpopular officers.
Moreover, the average age of a Grunt in Vietnam was 19 which made them vulnerable. Many shot themselves in the foot or hoped for a small wound, but they never felt safe. Any time Americans or ARVN moved out of an area, the communists would move in. There were a lot of ‘booby traps’ which wounded 20% of American victims. There were many traps as such which blew away limbs and resulted in huge explosions. The trouble for the Americans was that they never knew which Vietnamese was the enemy, which also was demoralising as they didn’t want to hurt innocent victims. Therefore it was hard to win the war when Grunts were demoralised and terrified which links to losing the hearts and minds of the American people.
Furthermore, over 8 million volunteered to serve in the army as they were inspired by a sense of duty, patriotism, family tradition or a sense that communism should be stopped. Many wanted to learn new skills such as fighting or enjoyed the war (found it fun to fight, the drama and heroics). Others enjoyed killing other men, but this always attracted the army. However, there was a lack of realism as there were bad soldiers who were not properly trained for the war. This helps to explain why these men were unable to defeat the communists.
The Navy did not like taking orders from Westmoreland’s ground army and they did not get along. The soldiers did not believe in what they were doing and disagreed with tactics. There were a higher proportion of black soldiers who were combat troops rather than doing desk jobs which shows the racial discrimination of the US. Therefore this links to losing the hearts and minds of the Americans and many back individuals would not support the US for doing such things. Furthermore, there were discipline problems; $10,000 reward for the death of the officer responsible for Hamburger Hill. Additionally, there was an anti-war feeling at home which was lowering morale. There was lack of motivation therefore the men were not going to do well and they were not fighting properly therefore they were not going to win. However, the communists on the other hand, had high motivation and they knew what they were fighting for unlike the US.
Many soldiers never actually fought in the war, they had to organise the American lifestyle for everyone else. Westmoreland said that the only way soldiers would fight is by a comfortable war which would be motivating. This was important as the communists had ideological motivation unlike the Americans. Army discipline was a problem due to drugs, STD’s, prostitution, which led to problems in battle. Many soldiers were dent to Saigon or Japan for R&R. Lots of children were fathered by Americans. Overall, everything was made to feel comfortable and the US bribed its soldiers. But they just felt ‘soft’.
The US openly admitted that their strategies were wrong and that they should have targeted the North. There was a search and destroy mission to clear out any VC. There was only 1% success and there was mostly children casualties. There was a huge fall in morale because as soon as the US cleared an area, the VC would be there, therefore there were no gains. This also links to the poor hearts and minds feeling of American people as many children were being killed. Also, the VC could tell when the US were approaching as they used hi-tech weapons which did not suit Guerrilla Warfare.
Moreover, another reason that the US failed in Vietnam was due to communist popularity and ingenuity. The VC won the admiration from American foes as they were inspired by communism and nationalism. They went through a lot of trauma such as skin diseases. This helped the communists win as they out laughed the Americans and proved that they could put up with anything. Furthermore, the battle of la Drang was a good illustration of communist determination and it helped insure ultimate victory. There was a network of tunnels set up underground where the VC could hide, shelter and regroup. Both sides thought they won.
However the US could not cope with 300 of their men dying therefore they lost morale, even though the VC lost more men. This links to the morale at home as people were dying which links to losing the hearts and minds of American people. As there were underground communist organisations, the communists knew when they would attack therefore they were one step ahead of the US and they could deal with it in advance. In addition, Saigon became an unsavoury city in the US war years. This made the country weaker and weakened the army and there was a negative impact of US on Saigon. Due to drugs and prostitution, the Vietnamese could not concentrate on the war as much as they were concentrating on what Americans were doing.
Overall, US failure in Vietnam resulted more from losing the hearts and minds of the American people than from military defeats because what it came down to in the end was the support the US lacked as their tactics were not working and they were killing innocent victims as they never knew who their enemy was. US failure in Vietnam was also due to communist popularity and ingenuity and the fact that they knew what they were fighting for and had the knowledge of Vietnam that the US lacked. Therefore, although the failure in Vietnam was due to military defeat, it was more from losing the hearts and minds as people were unmotivated.