Vietnam was a costly war for the United States both politically, socially and economically. Some 58,000 American lives were lost; billions of dollars spent. The war was protested both at home and abroad. Its society was deeply divided due to the conflict that some even consider it as American second civil war. The fall of Saigon within three years since American troops withdrawal likewise makes the Vietnam War a bitter pill for U.S. foreign policy makers.
In retrospect, there are many questions asked if other solutions had been pursued, would the outcome of the conflict have been different – or at least much better for the U.S. and its ally South Vietnam?
On the one hand, many believe that the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War even without huge American troop and Vietnamese civilian deaths, and therefore, avoided this tragedy in its history.
Choked off Ho Chi Minh Trail
Ho Chi Minh trail whose importance was undeniable to the Viet Cong survival in South Vietnam could have been destroyed. Had the U.S. successfully cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos, North Vietnam could not have won the war – Bui Tin, former People’s Army of Vietnam Colonel, admitted in a interview with The Wall Street Journal in 1995. In fact, the trail could have been choked off with far less than half a million American troops at the peak of its involvement in Vietnam. General Bruce Palmer Jr., deputy to General William Westmoreland of American troops in South Vietnam, in his book “The 25 Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam” even suggested that 60,000 troops – instead of more than 500,000, could have done the job.
Bombed Strategic Infrastructures in North Vietnam
Operation Rolling Thunder was implemented in as early as 1965, right after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. However, the gradualist approach with piecemeal air strikes on limited targets excluding shipment points where Soviet and Chinese war material was imported to North Vietnam had little significant effect on the Communist major infrastructures in the North, its will to fight and Viet Cong build-up in the South.
Former South Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky in his book “How We Lost the Vietnam War” explained how he wanted to send South Vietnamese troops across the DMZ and set up a based in North Vietnam. If the communists could establish a stronghold in the South, there was no reason why South Vietnamese could not build a secure base in the North, he justifies his plan. With such a base, South Vietnamese could mobilize anti-Communists in the North and become strategic thorn to the Communists, who considered North Vietnam a secure base from which to send their troops and supplies to attack South Vietnam, Ky explains. He even proposed to volunteer to lead South Vietnamese troops to go North and command the base. However, President Johnson rejected the plan and South Vietnamese forces did not have the capability to sustain such a base without American support and supplies.
Moreover, not until President Nixon covertly launched a limited Cambodian incursion in 1970, American and South Vietnamese troops were not even allowed to go into Cambodia where North Vietnamese troops based in, stored and transported weapons and other materials to the South.
Many argue that while American generals were given the responsibility of fighting the war, they were not allowed to win, only to repel attacks when and if they came.
Stopped Negative & False Media Reports
Vietnam was the first war to be televised. All of its brutality, futility and tragedies came into American homes every evening. Regular exposure to ugly realities on the battlefields is thought to have turned American public against the war. Likewise, American media reports albeit not always negative did play a role in turning the public against the war before the anti-war movement gathered its momentum. Tet Offensive in 1968 was such a case.
Chaos and bloodshed all over South Vietnamese major cities’ streets as well as initial incorrect news reports that the Viet Cong had managed to seize the first floor of U.S. embassy in Saigon shocked American public. It also caused some American media gurus notably Walter Cronkite to interpret Tet Offensive as a communist victory whose suffered more than 40,000 casualties – half of its attacking force. American media converted a massive failure of the communists into a defeat for the United States and its ally, provoking massive riots and protests on the streets of America. Following Tet, public opinion swung dramatically against the war, leading to President Johnson’s announcement not to seek for re-election.
Implemented Vietnamization from the Beginning
Last but not least, Vietnamization of the war should have been implemented from the very beginning of American involvement in Vietnam rather than much later near the end of the conflict. Up until Nixon’s Vietnamization in 1968, America had took over what was the essentially South Vietnamese people’s job – defending their country’s freedom and independent.
It ironically helped to strengthen communists’ claim of being patriots defending their fatherland against American imperialists and to accuse South Vietnamese government of being American puppets. Those propaganda seemed appeal to many South Vietnamese people who did not enjoy foreign intervention, and hence, decided to join and support the Viet Cong instead.
The United States bullied its way into Vietnam and tried to run the war our way instead of recognizing that our mission should have been to help the South Vietnamese build up their forces so they could win the war. – Richard Nixon
The U.S. should have instead given support and trained South Vietnam’s generals more effectively and much earlier, empowering and supporting them to respond to the Viet Cong threats themselves as many South Vietnamese officers such as general Ngo Quang Truong were competent, courageous and highly rated by American fellows. That would have made a huge different and South Vietnam would then not have been thrown into chaos and collapsed as fast and tragic as what happened after American troops withdrawal in January 1973.
To conclude, American airpower alone may not have won the conflict, yet with such a strategy implemented, the U.S. would not have lost more than 58,000 killed in action and untold numbers of wounded and most importantly, the anti-war movement would never have had enough wind in their sail to keep up their opposition to the war and to pressure Congress to cut off all assistance to South Vietnam, leaving it defenseless against the Communist invaders after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords.
On the other hand, many argue that the Vietnam War was never winnable and that the United States could have not won the conflict given the corruption, unpopularity of South Vietnamese government. Futhermore, the global and strategic context at the time gave the U.S. no option but to deploy a strategy of Limited War in Vietnam.
What do you think? Is the conflict in Vietnam winnable? If yes, how could the U.S. have won it?