The Vietnam War is one of the most disgraceful periods in American history. Not only did the greatest superpower in the world get bested by an almost third-world nation, but we lost badly. Perhaps this war could have been won, or even prevented in the first place. The United States could have and should have won this war, with a combination of better weapons usage, better tactics, and better support from their home country.
Even years before the war, Vietnam was a hotly disputed territory. Many countries had taken Vietnam over, and after World War II, Vietnam was in the hands of France. Obviously, the Vietnamese wanted their own country, and their long history of being a colony prompted the oppressed people to fight for their independence in the French-Indochina war. 7
Ho Chi Min, a leader of the Communist party, organized the Vietnamese independence movement, Viet Minh. Asking for support from America first, Ho Chi Min did not want to have to turn to communist support for the freedom of his people. Since the United States viewed helping Ho gain his independence from France as a move against their own allies, they declined. It was only after Russia and China offered to help that Ho adopted communist ideals and wanted to make all of Vietnam communist.
The Vietnam war started simply because Ho Chi Min and his communist supporters wanted South Vietnam to become communist after the South split off in 1954 to become its own democratic nation. The United States saw this as a threat to democracy, and using the Domino theory, successfully threw the U.S. into the one of the worst wars it has ever seen.
If only the United States had looked past its petty alliances and helped another country gain its independence like we had gained ours so many years ago, this war would have been completely avoided. Unfortunately for the families of over 64,000 soldiers, it wasn’t.
As early as 1954, the United States started sending financial and military aid to South Vietnam, hoping to stop the spread of communism. The flow of ‘military advisors’ from 700 to over 14,000 1 built up steadily through John Kennedy’s presidency, and after he was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the war to the point of no return.
Johnson used the ludicrous domino theory to justify the military buildup in Vietnam. American people were so scared of communism by McCarthyism in the 1950’s, that they were willing to do anything to stop communism where it started. The people of the United States let Johnson build up a huge force in Vietnam, and he was also almost unanimously backed by congress. By the end of the war, Johnson was so ashamed that he didn’t even try to run for reelection.
If the American populous would have stopped and thought about what they were getting themselves into and not jumped gung-ho into a frivolous war, their representatives wouldn’t have felt so pressured to back Johnson.
In 1964, the event every war-hungry Commie-killer was waiting for happened. In the Gulf of Tonkin, several VC torpedo boats reportedly fired on a U.S. vessel. 6 Even though the American ship sustained no damages, Johnson drafted the ‘Gulf of Tonkin Resolution’, which authorized him to use any force necessary to beat back the North Vietnamese. Congress never declared war or even directly authorized troops, but Johnson twisted enough words around to have his own little executive war.
At first, Johnson limited the conflict to an air war, hoping to pound away and demoralize the VC into submission. He used planes such as the B-52 bomber and the F-4 Phantom to try to win the war as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the United States’ air power had many shortcomings.
The F-4 Phantom was the latest and greatest piece of technology out there during Vietnam. Manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas, this plane was capable of multiple roles, as a dogfighter, bomber, recon, and support aircraft. However, the F-4 had its share of problems. First, the engineers who designed it neglected to mount any type of gun on the F-4A through the F-4D, thinking that the Phantom’s frightening compliment of missiles could take out any enemy threat. They were wrong. Not having a gun made the dogfighting role of the Phantom extremely hard, because the AIM-9 and AIM-7 missiles were not as effective at closer ranges against the enemy MiGs. Only after almost 2 years was the F-4E Phantom fitted with a 6-barrell gatling gun. 4 Also, many pilots were poorly trained, only having 6 weeks of training as opposed to the customary 1-year. These excitement-hungry flyboys, these air cowboys had a voracious appetite for combat, but were ever-cognizant of the end of their tour of duty.
The B-52 Stratofortress was the largest bomber ever produced at that time. It could deliver its massive 60,000lb payload up to almost halfway around the world, and could do it at an altitude that VC MiGs couldn’t even reach. 4 There were, also, shortcomings in the use of the B-52 also. During World War II, the allies could depend on decimating the industry of their enemy, thus destroying its fighting power. As will be explained later, the VC didn’t rely on industry and big guns, but guerrilla tactics and small arms. The U.S. also believed by bombing the living hell out of the population centers and by using napalm, the enemy would be demoralized and surrender.
Both of these hypotheses proved to be direly wrong. By bombing industry, the U.S. just wasted billions of dollars and precious time and manpower for nothing. Also, the bombing of population centers rallied the enemy and brought the North Vietnamese closer together, instead of its actual goal. Napalm was also another mistake. By using a flammable jelly to literally burn up all of North Vietnam, the U.S. not only killed more civilians than soldiers, but also raised several ethical questions. Napalm coated anything it came within reach of, and burned continuously for up to a week. Doctors who treated napalm victims said their wounds would still glow green with heat at night, while the patients writhed in pain. Also, many international scientists and influential people around the world protested the use of napalm very adamantly.
Yet another type of bomb was dropped by the B-52s, this one containing a large amount of the defoliating gas, Agent Orange. Hundreds of millions of acres of jungle were destroyed and even more fields and rice paddies were poisoned because of Agent Orange. South Vietnamese farmers complained about the detrimental effect Agent Orange had on their rice paddies, and its use flooded camps and cities with refugees from outlying areas where entire crops were destroyed. Agent Orange was supposed to eliminate the VC’s advantageous hiding places, but it only turned the people we were fighting for against us even more. Even more so, Agent Orange cause countless birth defects and deadly illnesses in returning vets. Thousands of soldiers came back with reoccurring sicknesses, and even cancer. 6 The use of Agent Orange was perhaps one of the largest mistakes made in Vietnam.
By simply thinking ahead, weighing the consequences of using weapons such as napalm and Agent Orange, the U.S. quite possibly could have won the Vietnam War completely through the use of air power. More tonnage of ordinance was dropped in any given week during Vietnam than during all other wars in the history of the world combined. One would think this would make the war easy to win. Unfortunately, ethical problems and lack of planning made it impossible to settle the war in the air, thus forcing the U.S. to invade with ground forces.
President Johnson chose General William C. Westmoreland to command the land forces in Vietnam. Westmoreland, a tall, rugged man from South Carolina, was know for his enthusiasm, and for always having good news from the front lines. Westmoreland commanded over 500,000 troops at the peak of the war, and was still unable to crush the Viet Cong, as hoped by most of Washington. 3 But there were many factors that contributed to our startling defeat on the ground in Vietnam.
The first and foremost was the difference in tactics between the Americans and the North Vietnamese. The VC were ruthless soldiers, who, even though sometimes poorly trained, fought with as much drive and enthusiasm as the best trained soldiers in the world. The VC used something called guerrilla tactics. They would recruit children, tie themselves to trees, use babies as bait for booby traps, and other ‘unethical’ things. American soldiers stopped accepting the drinks offered to them by young Vietnamese boys after a few unfortunate GIs found out the ice was really crushed up glass. These and other fighting techniques such as strapping explosives to kids and having them run up to soldiers, were a few of the toils U.S. soldiers had to deal with.
Also on the tactics side, the entire U.S. offensive consisted of a myriad of ‘search and destroy’ missions. S & D missions involved a patrol, (usually 10-35 soldiers), going out of the base and finding (then killing) the enemy. Unfortunately, the booby traps placed by the VC and the fact that they knew the land and could hide, meant the S & D missions were like throwing soldiers away. In fact, more U.S. soldiers were killed from booby traps than any other cause of death in Vietnam.
Weapons were another problem in Vietnam. Again going back to World War II, the massive armored assaults that won the war for the allies were useless in the dense jungle. U.S. armor was limited to using M113 troop carriers with machine guns on them, instead of using the more effective M60 tanks and artillery. 3 So Westmoreland was forced to rethink tactics, as well as use weapons and strategies untested in the history of American warfare.
Other difficulties with weapons were rampant. The M-16, a revolutionary new infantry rifle, was prone to frequent jams as well as water damage. And in a country when it rains almost every day, that wasn’t good news. Also, U.S. commanders underestimated the power of the Viet Cong’s weapons, thinking that they only had muskets and bolt-action rifles. But since the Chinese and Russians were supplying the VC with modern AK-47s and other similar arms, the officers were faced with one nasty surprise after another.
Weapons, though new and advanced, can still have weaknesses, and the battlefields in Vietnam exploited almost all the weaknesses of our weapons. However, with tactics that could use the strengths and all but eliminate the weaknesses, the ground war would have also been a snap. This shows that relying too heavily on technology and not enough on battle-tested weapons can be downright deadly.
Leaders, Washington, and the Morale Issue
While Johnson and Westmoreland had loads of support at the beginning of the war, as the American people started to see that the war was unwinnable, their support began to decline. 1 in 5 of every soldier who fought- and died- was drafted, 1 and this caused distress among the public. Draft cards were burned publicly, schools walked out in protest of the war, and even large music events were held to somehow stop the fighting. With all this public opinion against the war, one would wonder why the fighting continued.
The reason is evident to us now, considering that hindsight is 20/20. General Westmoreland manipulated the body counts for both side to make it look like we were always winning. Not only did Westmoreland lie, but he failed to mention that the pool from which VC and NVA soldiers came from was almost the entire country. With lawmakers telling you one thing and the television telling you another, what would you think. Obviously, it is extremely hard to fight a war where your home country doesn’t even support you putting your life on the line. Life on the battlefield wasn’t exactly pretty, either.
Daily firefights, dead comrades, and officers who were fresher than you were were a few of the troubles grunts had to deal with on the battlefield. Drug use was rampant, soldiers would get high before battles to help them forget about what they were doing. 4 Mutiny was common, and the amount of soldiers who went AWOL was higher than any other war. With soldiers who didn’t know what they were fighting for and people at home who didn’t support you, what else could go wrong? Only one thing, and it happened to go wrong.
The largest reason why we lost the war is very apparent, and fits in nicely with this section. When one is fighting for a country’s independence, and the citizens of that country don’t support the efforts, trouble abounds. 7 The South Vietnamese were not happy about U.S. soldiers being in their country, and it showed. Every day, thousands of South Vietnamese joined the Viet Cong, so the American soldiers never knew who to trust, and who to shoot. Not having the support of the people you’re fighting for is the worst curse that can be bestowed onto a military.
Westmoreland and Johnson should have figured out the root of the problem before sending more troops, and the problem was that the American weapons were destroying the peaceful farmer’s fields and burning their villages. For a people as far away from the conflict and as apathetic towards the war as they were, it is surprising we lasted this long without being forced to capitulate.
The saddest chapter in American history could easily have been avoided, with a combination of good leadership, planning, preparedness, and morale. Perhaps in the future, American soldiers will know what they are fighting for, be equipped for the conditions, and not be thrown mercilessly into the meat grinder of an already-lost battle. Only the future, however, will tell…
Bibliography (Note; numbers are used for identifying citations)
1. Becker, Elizabeth. America’s Vietnam War. New York: Clinton Books, 1992
2. Gregory, Barry. “River War”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York: Marshall Cavendish corporation, 1988.
3. Gregory, Barry. “The Grunts”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York: Marshall Cavendish corporation, 1988.
4. Gregory, Barry. “The Air War”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York: Marshall Cavendish corporation, 1988.
5. Gregory, Barry. “The Green Berets”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York: Marshall Cavendish corporation, 1988.
6. Lomperis, Timothy J. The War Everyone Lost – and Won. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993
7. McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect. New York: Random House, 1995
8. Westmoreland, General William C. A Soldier Reports. New York: Doubleday ; Company Inc., 1976