My latest read on the Vietnam War was The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War (The Politically Incorrect Guides) by Phillip Jennings. After reading this book, I had to evaluate many of the points made by Jennings. After much thought, I find myself agreeing with many of his points, but not all.
Before getting into the book, I need to explain something first. With regard to Vietnam War historians and readers, there are two main groups. One group argues that the War was never winnable no matter what the United States did and the other group argues that the War was lost by the politicians in Washington, D.C. This latter group argues that if the military was allowed to prosecute the war without the constraints put on by the politicians, the U.S. would have easily defeated North Vietnam.
Jennings falls into the second group. He brings forth many of the well-used explanations for how the war ended the way it did – U.S. Air Force bombers were not allowed unrestricted bombing of North Vietnamese cities and installations and U.S. ground forces were not allowed to attack into Laos or Cambodia in order to destroy the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong supply and rest areas.
Jennings does bring forth one that I have not heard before – we won the war. His reasoning (and I think it is rather weak) is that when the Paris Peace Accords were agreed to, we were winning the war and the South Vietnamese military was fully capable of defeating any threats. My question is – how could we think we won when enemy troops were still in the country (as part of the Accord, 150,000 NVA soldiers were allowed to stay in South Vietnam)? These troops weren’t going to pack up and go home. Jennings argues that the U.S. could have sent forces back in to help the South Vietnamese defeat these troops. However, he is ignoring the reality of the situation – the American public was tired of the war and did not want to lose any more of our men in this war.
With that said, I do agree that the war could have been prosecuted better – more bombings of strategic targets in Hanoi, Haiphong, and along the China/North Vietnam border. In addition, American and South Vietnamese troops should have been allowed to attack the NVA and VC concentrations in Cambodia and Laos (these countries were already fighting communist forces tied to the North Vietnamese – thus the argument that these were neutral countries is bunk). I also think that the search and destroy operations advocated by General William Westmoreland were more harmful than good – we should have embraced the tactics espoused by General Creighton Abrams. Abrams advocated a more “ink blotch” approach where troops would occupy areas and slowly expand control beyond those areas. On this latter point, Jennings does not spend much time on the differences in strategy.
Jennings takes special exception to the media bias against the war. He especially calls out Neil Sheehan who worked for UPI and David Halberstam who worked for the New York Times. According to Jennings, these men and others used their position in the media to project their views to the American public. They purposely reported on the defects of the South Vietnamese government and military while ignoring the defects of the communists.
One last piece – some of Jennings’ statements are a bit over-the-top. For example, he states that when the Kennedy administration allowed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem – it had “just overseen the biggest American foreign policy blunder of the twentieth century.” That statement is a bit overdone. I think the Roosevelt and Truman administration’s decision to allow the Soviet Union to control Eastern Europe was far worse and had larger ramifications.
Although Jennings makes some valid points, I am a little wary of other points.
(From the author)
Jeff, I appreciate your comments. I’ll respond to just a couple. It is argued that winning or not winning is just semantics. I don’t disagree. What I do disagree with is the importance, given how the war is treated or dismissed by written American history. The fact is that North Vietnam by year end 1972 could no longer field an effective fighting force against the U.S. and was forced to sign a peace treaty. Our troops came home, the POWs were freed and South Vietnam still had its elected government. What else besides a win would that be called. The 150,000 NVA troops were a problem, but without resupply or replacement (which the Peace Treaty forbid) the South Vietnamese could arguably handled the situation. That the communists ignored the Peace Treaty from the start and invaded a free sovereign nation and overwhelmed it in violation of all that the free world supposedly stands for should be known. Simply saying the “U.S. lost the war” is inaccurate and damaging in many ways.
“Biggest blunder”? I won’t argue that it isn’t a bit hyperbolic, but would say that, again, the semantics are important. Those events you mentioned were somewhat carefully discussed and reasoned mistakes and miscues. The coup against Diem was just the result of internecine warfare between U.S. agencies, and a weak administration waffling through the whole mess. That’s a blunder.
Thanks Phillip for your comments. I find this whole argument about who won our Vietnam War fascinating. Obviously, we won every battle between us and NVA/VC and we killed hundreds of thousands of NVA/VC, but I still see victory as fleeting. The reason I see this is because I think Ho Chi Minh and his buddies would have sent every capable male down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in order to attain victory. Their will to win was greater than our political will to win. I do think that a majority of our military leadership was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to win, but our political leaders were not willing to stick with it because of the unrest at home. Because of this political unwillingness, I just do not think that we could have maintained a lasting peace in South Vietnam.
We will never know. But don’t trap yourself in amber. The world was changing, the Communists (Russia and China) were changing. And Hanoi (even if it survived, and I don’t think it would have) would have found itself more and more of an outcast–look at N Korea and Burma. If the Paris Peace treaty had been enforced, Hanoi would have either had to revert to guerilla warfare or face the unfaceable wrath of American air-power.
Many of the arguments ‘against’ the American ability to militarily win the war assume that Hanoi would keep getting unlimited arms, and that the population of North Vietnam would forever see it’s sons and daughters sent south to be killed. A case in point is the Xmas bombing. We lost plus or minus 25 aircraft. The nay-sayers pointed to this as an unsustainable loss. First, anyone who ever doubted America’s industrial strength (and it’s ability to make weapons when needed) paid dearly for the miscalculation. Second, the argument ignores the fact that the last two or three days of the bombing were virtually milk runs. The communists had simply run out of SAMS. And we were, finally, blockading and interdicting their supply lines from their communist pals.
American firepower could have stopped that war in a matter of days or weeks given unfettered attacks on the enemy. And that stoppage and damage would have at least given South Vietnam a fighting chance–look at South Korea (where, by the way, we still have troops) and see what was possible.
What is being ignored here is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. That being that the war should have not ever occurred in the first place. What was the total amount of fighting forces lost on both sides to include U.S troops? What were the casualties counts of innocent north and south Vietnamese that died in collateral damage of the war? When you add it up probably several million. What was the cost of the war? Probably billions if not close to a trillion. The excuse by Johnson to escalate was a lie. There was no Gulf of Tonking incident. It was minor scrimmage that was manufactured as if torpedoes were being directed to a U.S. Navy ship. Research has now shown that story was manufactured to say it was true in order to have an excuse to escalate the war. Maybe the real purpose of the war like most wars because its good for business especially big business.
Here is the rub. If we had never gotten involved in Viet Nam the North would have taken over S. Vietnam without any major fighting and killing. Thee might have been some killing but no where as it was because there would have been no resistance. In fact there might w not have been the massacre of Cambodia which IMO was done because of their support to the U.S. cause So since the North took over anyway in the end what was the purpose of all our involvement. In fact the country is much better off now today than it would have been had there been a north and south division which would have never know peace even up to today. If you believe that North Vietnamese would not have invaded the south after the Paris Peace Accord then you are living in la la land. Sooner or later they would have moved in no matter how much support the U.S. congress would have supported the S. Vietnamese. You were fighting on their turf. They had nothing but time on their side and could just wait you out.
All this fight for democracy has to be questioned. We were fighting to bring democracy there, now they are better off then ever with their type of government. The hypocrisy is the north Vietnamese were being supplied by China. China is not a democracy it is a communist country just like north Vietnam. So he do we deal with every day and who holds most of our debt? You got it China. We do not deal with Cuba because of their communist beliefs and political prisoners. China does the same thing yet we deal with them all day long. If your fighting cause to fight in Vietnam was for bringing democracy then why don’t you practice that with China to show you are true to the same cause you had in Vietnam especially when China was supplying the North Vietnamese. Where is your outrage.
So the moral of the story is we should not have ever gotten involved in Vietnam. Yes the North took over but what you do not see is the amount of lives and monies that could have been saved had we never been there.
So who am I to talk. A Vietnam veteran. You need to look deeper my friend and when you do you will find that the war should have NEVER been started.
I will point out the obvious. The NVA attacked in force across the Ben Hai on Easter sunday in 1972. They initialy had some success. They were stopped at Quang Tri, and after regrouping the South Viets attacked north and drove the NVA back across the Ben Hai. Reported NVA losses were 50,000 men. A resounding victory for the S Viets. The NVA tried the same thing in ’75 with different results for the South Viets.
The difference? No US Air support and little or no resources as a result of the Democratically controled congress refusing to fund the S.Viets – as we had promised as part of the Paris Peace Accords. The NVA had a couple of years to re-arm and supply –
I donot care what the political climate was at the time – we abandoned the S. Viets by the shameful actions of congress.
The US military did not lose the war-South Vietnam did as the result of political cowards in the US congress.
Jarhead – Marine grunt, RVN 1968-69 Semper Fi