We Could Have Won Vietnam
Pursuing a line of thought inspired by yesterday’s post, I think I finally understand what people mean when they say the USA could have won the Vietnam War if we hadn’t fought with our hands behind our backs. That’s the beauty of age and wisdom, if one thinks about other people’s viewpoints long enough and studies the background and history long enough, one can eventually get an inkling of why people think the way they do. People usually have some reason for thinking something, and if one tries to understand another’s point of view, often common ground can be reached. Or at least a better understanding of how the world got to be so messed up
So anywise, I concur. The USA no doubt could have won the Vietnam War in a conventional sense if we had chosen to do so. We could have invaded North Vietnam, captured Hanoi and Haiphong, thus ending the North as a nation state and military power, and pretty much ending its ability to send aid and comfort to the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Some thousands of Americans would have died, but it would have been worth the price as a democratic government would have been installed in North Vietnam as well as South Vietnam. If we had just had the national willpower to carry this out, the Vietnam war would have a legacy of pride instead of a legacy of defeat. Instead, we let defeatism and protesters sway us from our course.
Seems simple enough, why can’t the liberals understand this? Well, they can. There are however a few problems with this rosy scenario. The first being that it assumes China wouldn’t intervene when we escalated the conflict. This is a pretty big assumption. They sent hundreds of thousands of troops to fight us when we invaded North Korea, and there is no reason to believe they would have done otherwise had we invaded North Vietnam. Could we have defeated China in a war? Maybe, but at what cost? By any sober analysis, a war with China was a risky proposition. China had nuclear weapons and millions of troops, winning Vietnam at the cost of a war with China was not a trade to make lightly. Solving one problem by creating a potentially much bigger problem should give anyone pause, it certainly gave Nixon and Johnson pause.
Another rather unpleasant aspect of this is that North Vietnam was not World War Two Japan or Germany, they would not have unconditionally surrendered and prostrated themselves before us. Ho Chi Minh would have just retreated into the hills and continued the fight, and many if not the majority of Vietnamese would have continued to support him. China and Russia would have continued to provide the Vietnamese insurgents with all the weapons and supplies they needed. Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh fought France and Japan for more than a decade, they would not have hesitated to fight the USA for the same.
Could the USA have defeated a determined insurgency that France and Japan couldn’t defeat? France in fact suffered one of the great disasters of the 20th century at Dien Bien Phu, where 12,000 French troops were killed or captured by Ho Chi Minh. The USA had far more firepower than France at its disposal, but firepower doesn’t defeat insurgencies. Hell, the USA dumped more bomb tonnage in the Vietnam War than was dropped by all of the participants in all of World War Two, if dropping enough bombs guaranteed victory, winning Vietnam should have been a snap. So basically by choosing to win the Vietnam war in a conventional sense, we would have traded fighting an insurgency in South Vietnam for fighting an insurgency in all of Vietnam. With the significant risk of a war with China (or even World War Three) tossed into the pot as well.
Even if someone makes tries to make the case after hearing these objections that “we should have just persevered,” they are still basically advocating expanding a problem in the short run in order to eventually fix the problem. And logically, this sort of thinking isn’t really logical because this argument could be used to justify any course of action. IE escalation is always an option, but it’s not necessarily a solution. And when the answer to any potential problem is “more escalation,” well, where does it end? Even a cursory examination of history shows that it often ends very badly indeed.
So yes, the USA could have “taken off the gloves” and won the Vietnam War. And while political considerations no doubt did play a role in what Nixon and Johnson chose to do and not do in Vietnam, the idea that the USA could have achieved a military victory if only we had fought with fewer restrictions…is based on some very questionable assumptions and ignores considerable real world risks. Only if one is wearing blinkers would an expanded US war in Vietnam have guaranteed eventual victory, and it’s these risks and considerations that primarily guided Nixon and Johnson.
Does the same apply to Iraq? Here also we are fighting a foreign supported (allegedly) insurgency and trying to install a democratic government? Could we just blast our way to victory in Iraq if we chose to do so? Let’s examine this. Bush has shown he doesn’t give a hoot about popular and world opinion, he’s shown little restraint when it comes to military adventures, and Congress has given him everything he wants. So if victory in war was simply a matter of unleashing the dogs of war, why didn’t he simply issue the orders as soon as he was re-elected? He’s afraid of Code Pink? I rest my case.
(The above image of an abandoned M-41 tank in Vietnam is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, is a low resolution reproduction, and is central to illustrating the post. The use of the image here in no way detracts from the copyright holder’s commercial use of the image, arguably the opposite. Credit: Odyssey Tourism and Trading. The M-41 was a fifties era US tank that was supplied to the government of South Vietnam. This one remains in use as a tourist attraction. My American tax dollars at work.)