Why did the US lose the war in Vietnam?
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When the year 1973 came around, the most powerful economic and military force America, were being forced to come to terms with the fact that they had suffered defeat in their war in Vietnam. Despite the vast gulf in financial and military prowess which swung in favour of the Americans, 57,000 of their troops1 had lost their lives or were missing in action2, in a defeat so unanimous that the American armed forces today, use Vietnam as their key example on how not to engage in warfare.
The sixteen year period between 1959 to 1975 in which the war took place, is described by the majority, as a prolonged struggle and a war America had no way of winning. ‘However the defeat of a military and industrial superpower, by a small south-east Asian country is no everyday occurrence3’, and that is why throughout this essay I will be discussing a variety of reasons, as to why America lost the war in Vietnam and stating what I personally felt the most pivotal reason was. The view of Historians whose expertise lay in Vietnam, such as George C. Herring and Stanley Karnow correlate with the contempary view of Robert S. Mcnamara that the Vietnam defeat was a tragic misadventure that could have been avoided had American leaders only been wiser4. With hindsight, I find myself agreeing with this point as an overview.
However historians such as Gabriel Kolko, who believe that America’s meddling in Vietnam was inevitable, could very easily counter this argument by using examples such as the invasion of Afghanistan, to show that Vietnam wasn’t a one off, tragic misadventure, as they were not victorious when meddling in “Afghanistan’s internal politics5” And are only just withdrawing troops 13 years on. I am looking to delve deeper in this essay, and look at number of factors that accounted for the American loss in Vietnam. I will break these factors down into two sections; firstly where it went wrong for America whilst in Vietnam, and secondly where it went wrong for America domestically. Within these sub categories, in Vietnam itself, I will be discussing the effectiveness of an American military force in an unknown environment, the illegitimacy of the government in southern Vietnam in which they were defending and the unforeseen struggle politically and militarily against the Vietcong and the National Liberation Front (NLF) respectively.
The factors for the American loss which came from home soil, stemmed from a rise in anti war movements as the war progressed unsuccessfully and the financial burdens the country was suffering as a
result of facing a stronger enemy than first thought. Each point I have just given holds a certain validity in arguing how America lost the Vietnam War. In my opinion however, I feel that the lack of legitimacy of the Southern government is the most pivotal reason for the American defeat and I will look to argue, compare and contrast why I feel that is, throughout this essay. The lack of legitimacy of any type of government installed in the South during the war is the key reason for why the US lost. America’s choice to back the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) as the ruling force of the south was a pivotal error of judgement. By making the decision to back the RVN due to their fear of Communism spreading, America chose to go against the will of the Vietnamese people as the RVN held no popular support from the masses in southern Vietnam.
To the Vietnamese people and the watching world therefore, America’s decision to back and install an unpopular regime, made America start to look like a colonial force, looking to insert its will on any countries regime it disagreed with. As a result of America not listening to the views of the Vietnamese people, a patriotic resentment began to tumult, strengthening the rising tide of Vietnamese Nationalism, which in turn led to the strengthening on America’s biggest political and military opponents in Vietnam; the Vietcong and the NLF. Furthermore as a result of America trying to force a non elected government upon South Vietnam, it catastrophically backfired, as it created another opponent to the regime that they wanted to secure. A group known as the ‘Struggle movement’ was formed in the year 1966. It was started by Buddhist monks and began to campaign for mass reform away from the RVN.
Their key point was that a democracy in Vietnam without American intrusion would be able to democratically vote for the reformations needed and as result end the antagonisms that gripped the country, which were allowing for violent groups such as the Vietcong to gain popularity. Now although the Buddhist struggle movement were clearly not in tandem with the Vietcong in terms of how they dealt with American presence (struggle movement were peaceful protesters), they still wanted to deal with it. This gave America yet another monumental problem to deal with, as it introduced “religious warfare into a country already torn by Guerilla Warfare6”. It is clear to see therefore then, that America’s ill advised decision to support an unpopular political regime (RVN) was a clear catalyst for their overall defeat. It played its part in all the following negative ways; firstly America were forced to apply more military pressure to keep control and peace in a country that actually was crying out for a complete social and political reform that the people of South Vietnam advocated. Secondly America’s decision to install an illegitimate government created a horrific knock on effect, resulting in more fighting, as it created more opposition.
Thirdly more troops were deployed to fight an enemy that the American army had not prepared significantly enough for, and as a result, were outfought and outmanoeuvred by the Vietcong Guerrillas. America’s underestimation and lack of ability to adapt to the Guerilla tactics was epitomised by the Secrety of State in 1965 Dean Rusk who voiced “A sense of frustration that things are not somehow moving more rapidly towards a conclusion7”. As the enemy grew against the illegitimate government, more money had to be spent by the Americans to keep the country stable with the RVN at the helm. And lastly, the more fighting and animosity that arose as a result of all these decisions by the American government and armed forces saw more popular anti-war movements build momentum at home as the death toll in Vietnam rose. As stated in my opening remarks, it is fair to say that the struggles concerning the Vietnam War that America faced on their own soil did play a seismic role in why they were defeated. Secretary of defence at the time, Robert McNamara encapsulated the validity of this point, when he stated that “the test of endurance may be as much in the United States, as in Vietnam8”. The fact that Vietnam was the first televised war backfired horribly for the American governments and advocates of the war. The images beamed into every living room up and down the United States of the disaster of the Tet Offensive. Seeing a highly organised, unified opposition of Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops storm the American Embassy in Saigon, put pay to General Westmoreland’s claims that America were going to be victorious in the war, and that the American Army could see “light at the end of the tunnel9”. Isolated incidents like the Tet Offensive contributed to the loss in the war for America, in America, as well as 8568 miles away in Vietnam.
Many American citizens, with many different political ideologies, came together in unison to form Anti-war movements across the country as a result of what they had seen, making it akin to a kind of twisted war on two fronts for the American government. These citizens ranged from students of “American Universities counting themselves among the opponents of war10”, (in particular at the University of Oklahoma) to Labour Unions such as the Labour Leadership Assembly For Peace (LLAP), who held “several marches and rallies11”. These anti- war movements only grew stronger when “The horrifying story of the My Lai massacre broke in November, 196912”, when in one horrific afternoon, around 300 Vietnamese villagers were raped, tortured and killed by American troops, hunting for allies to communism. After events such as these, it is of no surprise to me, that by 197, when asked about the war in Vietnam, 71% of the American populas voted against it.
I have clearly stated here therefore, that a major part of the Vietnam War was lost on home soil, but I feel however that the resentment to war in America wouldn’t have been allowed to fluctuate on home soil, if it had not originated from the lack of legitimacy of the Southern Vietnamese government, that had pushed Americas on the back foot from the start of the War. To conclude therefore, over the course of this essay I have looked to delve into and inform why the United States of America lost their highly controversial war in Vietnam. I have discussed that over the period spanning sixteen years, factors both in Vietnam and America led to the eventual loss. I have argued how in America, anti war movements put a pressure on the war to be ended, after the events of the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre and how that much of an impact that held on the American loss. I have also explored how the decision making in how to deal with Guerrilla warfare in hindsight, could have been handled differently preparation and battle wise and how that shaped the outcome of the war. Throughout all these contributing factors however, I have argued that none were more important to the loss of the Vietnam War than the lack of a strong, stable government that the people of Vietnam wanted at the helm of their country. So ultimately, it was America’s complete fixation in installing a government of Anti-Communist values that lead to their incapability to win a political battle, which finally left them with the impossible task of defeating an enemy which could not be labelled by a uniform, and were everywhere. Word Count-1649
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