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The United States Lost the Vietnam War -- or Did it?

Updated on January 2, 2013
Flag of the Former Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam)
Flag of the Former Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam)

The Premise

Okay, we didn't "win" in the military sense, nor in the political sense. There was no document of surrender of North Vietnam, no parades, no "Victory in Vietnam Day." In fact, it has only been in the last twenty years or so that those of us who served in Vietnam got our due. But, after thinking about this for some time, I came to a few conclusions.

Here's my premise: we actually "won" in Southeast Asia if you consider the long run.

 We were not defeated militarily on the battlefield. There were a few significant battles we lost but US forces prevailed in nearly encounter with the enemy where they actually fought. Tet '68 is a good example (more on that later).

 Prior to the massive US intervention in Vietnam in the early 1960s, our government believed in the "Domino Theory," whereas if South Vietnam went Communist, so would Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, etc. Indeed, there was already a Communist insurgency in Laos (as a teenager, I remember hearing quite a bit about Laos on the news before I even heard of Vietnam). After 10 years of fighting, the Communist forces in Southeast Asia were, for all intents and purposes, exhausted. Yes, Laos has still has a nominally Communist government, but Cambodia is now a constitutional monarchy. There is virtually no chance of Communism spreading throughout the region today. But what if we had not intervened in the 1960s? What then? Who knows what mischief a consolidated Vietnam under Hanoi's rule would have gotten into? Bear in mind they would not have suffered the casualties incurred between, say, 1964 and 1975, and the north would not have suffered the massive bombing, which caused them to spend time and money rebuilding infrastructure.

 Vietnam has, in essence, embraced capitalism. Although the government is nominally "Communist" (i.e., the Lao Dong Party), their actual economy is much more attuned to Wall Street than to Marx and Lenin. In 1986, the Sixth National Congress, tired of the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the old, Marxist-based system of collectivization, implemented some reforms known as "Doi Moi" to transform to a "socialist-oriented, market economy," and encouraged private ownership of farms and factories. "Socialist-oriented, market economy" sounds like an oxymoron but their economy started to grow after that. Relations between Vietnam and the US were "normalized" in 1995. Now tourists, including many former US military who served there, travel to Vietnam on a regular basis.

 The US lost approximately 57000 personnel in the Vietnam War while casualties for the enemy were somewhere north of one million (Viet Cong - "VC" and North Vietnamese Army -"NVA"). Yes, I know, I'm playing in the "body count" sandbox, but losing one million men while killing some 50,000 is certainly a "Pyrrhic victory" at best.

Enemy Dead after the Tet Offensive
Enemy Dead after the Tet Offensive

Tet 68 - Victory or Defeat?

Does the sum total of the above constituted "victory?" No, certainly not in the normal sense of the word. The question is, how close did we come to actually "winning" the Vietnam War? The answer is a lot closer than you might think. First of all, after the Tet Offensive in 1968, the NVA and VC suffered terrible casualties; in fact, the VC were virtually eliminated as an effective fighting force. At this point, we most likely could have brought Hanoi to its knees. But what did Lyndon Johnson do? He suspended the bombing campaign over the north and began to limit offensive operations in the south. If I had been a North Vietnamese leader, I would have said "Well, thank you Mister President!" The media, in its infinite wisdom, portrayed Tet 68 as a major defeat for allied forces by playing up the fact that the enemy could still attack at any time in virtually location, but ignoring the fact that, militarily, the Tet offensive was a dismal failure. So, a military defeat became a propaganda victory.

B-52 Dropping its Load (Called "Arc Light" Mission)
B-52 Dropping its Load (Called "Arc Light" Mission)

Another opportunity presented itself a few years later during Operation Linebacker II when the North Vietnamese were down to their last few surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Again, the president (this time it was Richard Nixon) stopped the bombing in order to step up the "peace process" and once again Hanoi escaped likely defeat. The bombing brought Hanoi back to the Paris Peace Talks although they, of course, denied this.

"We Gotta Get Outta This Place . . ."
"We Gotta Get Outta This Place . . ."

The rest, as they say, is history. The negotiations ended up leaving North Vietnamese forces in place in South Vietnam, let the VC into the government in Saigon, and set the stage for the eventual takeover of the south by Communist forces while we stood by and did nothing in 1975. (By the way, remember the "boat people?" The thousands of Vietnamese who risked their lives -- many were lost -- trying to get out of the country. Like a lot of Cubans, I guess they weren't thrilled by the thought of living in a Communist "workers paradise.")

As an aside, the victory in the "propaganda war" by Hanoi gave impetus to the anti-war movement in this country which contributed significantly, in my opinion, to the eventual abandonment of our mission in Vietnam, leading directly to our inaction as Hanoi broke the "peace" treaty and mopped up South Vietnamese force with little difficulty. The iconic picture of Americans scrambling aboard a helicopter on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon in April 1975 says it all.

Aid and comfort to the enemy?
Aid and comfort to the enemy?

Win, Lose, or Draw?

Given the current state of affairs as outlined above, who "won" and who "lost?" I'll let the reader decide. I will say one thing, however, on a personal note. I served in Vietnam for one year (thankfully in a non-combat role) and I, like most other Vietnam veterans, am proud of my service. I have a T-shirt that quotes Ronald Reagan saying "Ours was a noble effort." The fact remains that Vietnam seems to be "slouching toward capitalism," and maybe more freedom for its citizens. (The demise of Communist governments in Russia and eastern Europe, some of its major supporters, certainly had a hand in this.) Perhaps that effort was not in vain after all.


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    • AlexDrinkH2O profile image

      AlexDrinkH2O 4 years ago from Southern New England, USA

      @lions44 - Thank you!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Very well said, Alex. Tet was especially poorly reported. I wish you publish this in every major newspaper in the country. I'd settle for some high school newspapers at this point. Great job.

    • AlexDrinkH2O profile image

      AlexDrinkH2O 5 years ago from Southern New England, USA

      Thank you, billdo1603 - that's an interesting perspective (about the Cold War).

    • billd01603 profile image

      billd01603 5 years ago from Worcester

      Hi Alex. Great Hub. Voted up and interesting You made some good points. It's refreshing to see a different point of view instead of the usual. I've always thought that the war in Vietnam was a battle in the overall Cold War.

    • AlexDrinkH2O profile image

      AlexDrinkH2O 5 years ago from Southern New England, USA

      Thanks, ib radmasters, for your comments. What I was referring to by "winning" was the fact that Vietnam is now more like the country we wanted it to become than it was in 1965 or so, and that (in my opinion) we halted the spread of Communism outside of Indochina. I do agree that we could have won militarily and definitely agree with your comments about the draft dodgers and liberal politicians!

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 5 years ago from Southern California

      I disagree, winning military battles doesn't win the war. In that respect we lost WWII because the politicians gave away the farm to Russia. This served for the future wars of Korea, Vietnam and any dispute that was backed by China, and Russia.

      We lost the Korean War because the politicians refused to invade North Korea for fear that China and Russia would come out of the closet to support North Korea.

      Russia at this time was developing the cold war to a science because they were a nuclear capable world power.

      In Vietnam we not only lost North Vietnam we lost the entire country. Once again, the politicians backed out because of China and Russia. President Johnson escalated the Vietnam War from 15,000 US military advisors to 550,000 troops engaged in the war.

      Militarily we could have won both wars, but liberal politicians and draft dodgers made it a political issue as opposed to a military issue.

      So actually if the winning of war settles the dispute that started the war than that would be victory. But, even WWI just deferred WWII, and WWII deferred Korea, and Korea deferred Vietnam.

      Desert Storm just deferred the post 911 invasion of Iraq. Had Desert Storm actually tried for a win, there wouldn't been a need to go back into Iraq over a dozen years later.

      my opinion.