by Dr. Nicolas Waddy
Given the public interest that Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War generated, now seems like an ideal time to revisit some of the lessons of that conflict. In particular, I wish to dispel two oft-repeated myths: that the U.S. effort in Vietnam was hopelessly morally compromised, and that the U.S. effort was doomed to failure. Neither of these notions, which have become conventional wisdom on the left, stand up to serious scrutiny.
First, with respect to the moral foundations of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, we must begin by acknowledging the context: in the midst of the Cold War, America was committed to a strategy of “containment”. That is, from Truman to Reagan, every U.S. President sought to prevent the spread of communism and Soviet influence by supporting non-communist governments around the world. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy decided that the U.S. needed to take a stand against communist infiltration in South Vietnam, partly because we had recently been embarrassed by the communist takeover in Cuba and the defeat of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion there. U.S. credibility was on the line: having pledged our support to those who were fighting communist subversion, we would have looked impotent and unreliable if we allowed South Vietnam to fall to the communist North.
Lest we forget, communism was a force for evil of unparalleled strength and ruthlessness. Communists held sway over a significant portion of the planet for only about 70 years, but in this time they killed approximately 100 million people. Those who suggest the appeasement of communists, or the abandonment of South Vietnam, must therefore explain where in the world they would have been willing to take a stand against such a formidable enemy – and if the answer is Georgia, or Oregon, or Connecticut, then we must ask: how much greater would the casualties have been in such a war, if the advance of communism had been allowed to proceed unhindered to our very shores? Vietnam was arguably of trivial importance to the United States, yes, but its very triviality made it an ideal location to fight a holding action against the communist menace.
The related argument that the means that the U.S. employed to fight the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were immoral is equally specious. True, American soldiers sometimes committed war crimes, and Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. bombing raids in the North, but the more salient point is that civilian casualties always represented a failure of U.S. precautions, which were designed to preserve innocent life, whereas for the communist enemy such casualties represented deliberate murder on a lavish scale. The Viet Cong assassinated its political opponents, obliterated thousands of villages, and massacred civilian prisoners, intentionally and repeatedly, in order to terrorize the people of South Vietnam. There is no moral equivalence between the United States of America and the Viet Cong. Anyone who says otherwise has been watching entirely too much network news.
Moreover, whatever moral compromises the U.S. may have made in supporting a flawed regime in South Vietnam, the consequences of abandoning our friends and allies in that country to their fates under a communist dictatorship were infinitely worse. The fall of South Vietnam to the communist North in 1975 led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, including “boat people” who died attempting to flee a communist-instigated apocalypse. Make no mistake, therefore – those who advocated a U.S. abandonment of South Vietnam, who consider themselves advocates of “peace and love,” have blood on their hands no less than the soldiers who fought there.
Finally, with respect to the notion that victory was not possible in the Vietnam War, I invite the reader to consider the events of 1972, which prove that victory was not only possible, but easily within our grasp. By 1972, the U.S. policy of “Vietnamization” had dramatically improved the fighting capabilities of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN), which permitted a vast reduction in the number of U.S. troops deployed. In late March, the North mounted a massive conventional invasion of the South, hoping to take advantage of the U.S. drawdown. This invasion was defeated, and much of the North Vietnamese Army was shattered, by ARVN counterattacks, supported by U.S. military aid, advisors, and airpower.
In November 1972, as if to seal this victory, the American people dealt George McGovern, the avowedly anti-war Democratic candidate for President, a historic thrashing. He won one state to President Nixon’s forty-nine. The “Christmas bombings” of December 1972 gave the North Vietnamese the last push they needed to sign the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, ending the war with an American victory, i.e. a successful containment of communism in southeast Asia.
All that was required to consolidate this triumph was an ongoing American commitment to support our friends in South Vietnam. It was, therefore, the ultimate abandonment of this sacred duty, instigated by leftist propaganda and communist disinformation, that led finally to North Vietnam’s conquest of the South in 1975. Had President Nixon remained in office, and had Congress not undermined U.S. support for South Vietnam, it is my firm belief that that country would never have fallen.
The Vietnam War today serves as a prism through which one can view almost any question of U.S. foreign policy, national security, or even morality and popular culture, and there is still much to be learned by studying the conflict. The lessons, however, are certainly not as simple as the ex-hippies who dominate academia and the mainstream media would have us believe.
“The Vietnam Syndrome,” as President Reagan described it, which has hobbled our country for decades, persists even today. Among its most pernicious effects has been to instill in the American people the false belief that America itself is evil, and any mission we undertake overseas must be rooted in selfishness, greed, ignorance, and racism. The truth about the Vietnam War, however, is that we fought it for a noble cause, and, in the end, sadly, by ceasing to believe in that cause and in ourselves, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History in the State University of New York and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com