Mistake # 1
People have asked me over the years, where did we go wrong in Vietnam? Historians share a variety of opinions but for me I believe that the long chain of American mistakes started with Woodrow Wilson. China was the traditional enemy of the Vietnamese for at least a thousand years. The Vietnamese had close cultural ties with China. However they were like the big brother that was a bully. In 1858 the French began military actions in Vietnam that were primarily designed to protect the Catholic faith in a predominately Buddhist country. This was also a colonialist expansion aimed at exploiting the natural resources of Vietnam. The country that came to be called French Indochina was formed in October 1887. They also wanted the Vietnamese to speak French and adopt to their culture. By the 1920's the French were encouraging the the Vietnamese Mandarin, who were the upper class, to be educated in French universities. This would qualify them to work in the lower levels of French civil service jobs. Many of these Vietnamese even converted to Catholicism and would later dominate the South Vietnamese government such as Ngo Dinh Diem, who became the leader of the future South Vietnamese government. The French on the other hand alienated many of these mandarin class. They were very nationalistic. In addition the French were arrogant, imposing oppressive economic and political policies on the Vietnamese people. The majority of the Vietnamese people were poor peasants. Ho Chi Minh was a Mandarin that hated the French. He was studying in France while negotiations were going on between the Big Four in Paris at the Versailles conference ending WW1. Ho was always a friend of the United States and wrote the Wilson administration asking for Vietnam to be included in the drive for self-determination of nation states.
Letter to Secretary of State Robert Lansing in Paris, June 18, 1919 - We take the liberty of setting fourth the claims of the Annamite people on the occasion of the Allied victory. We count on your great kindness to honor our appeal by your support... Since the victory of the Allies, all subject peoples are frantic with hope at the prospect of an era of right and justice which should begin for them... in the struggle of civilization against barbarism.
It soon became evident that the racist Wilson was only interested in the self-determination of European states. This pushed Ho into the welcoming arms of Leninist socialism. Just before the outbreak of WW2 the Japanese drove the Vichy French out Indochina in September 1940. Their brutality made the French look like Boy Scouts and Ho Chi Minh became an O.S.I. agent, which was the forerunner of the C.I.A. He sided with us in order to defeat the Japanese.
|Ho Chi Minh at Versailles|
Although I have mixed emotions about Franklin Roosevelt, to his credit he was anti-colonialist. Roosevelt died early in his fourth term and was succeeded by Harry S. Truman, who is one of my favorite presidents. Truman was not as anti-colonialist as Roosevelt. The French had every intention of reclaiming their colony in Indochina. Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to Truman on February 16, 1946, asking him to block the French in their efforts to reclaim their former colony. The letter was never answered and was declassified in 1972.
DEAR MR. PRESIDENT:
Our VIETNAM people, as early as 1941, stood by the Allies' side and fought against the Japanese and their associates, the French colonialists.
From 1941 to 1945 we fought bitterly, sustained by the patriotism, of our fellow-countrymen and by the promises made by the Allies at YALTA, SAN FRANCISCO and POTSDAM.
When the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, the whole Vietnam territory was united under a Provisional Republican Government, which immediately set out to work. In five months, peace and order were restored, a democratic republic was established on legal bases, and adequate help was given to the Allies in the carrying out of their disarmament mission.
But the French Colonialists, who betrayed in wartime both the Allies and the Vietnamese, have come back, and are waging on us a murderous and pitiless war in order reestablish their domination. Their invasion has extended to South Vietnam and is menacing us in North Vietnam. It would take volumes to give even an abbreviated report of the crisis and assassinations they are committing everyday in this fighting area.
This aggression is contrary to all principles of international law and the pledge made by the Allies during World War II. It is a challenge to the noble attitude shown before, during, and after the war by the United States Government and People. It violently contrasts with the firm stand you have taken in your twelve point declaration, and with the idealistic loftiness and generosity expressed by your delegates to the United Nations Assembly, MM. BYRNES, STETTINIUS, AND J.F. DULLES.
The French aggression on a peace-loving people is a direct menace to world security. It implies the complicity, or at least the connivance of the Great Democracies. The United Nations ought to keep their words. They ought to interfere to stop this unjust war, and to show that they mean to carry out in peacetime the principles for which they fought in wartime.
Our Vietnamese people, after so many years of spoliation and devastation, is just beginning its building-up work. It needs security and freedom, first to achieve internal prosperity and welfare, and later to bring its small contribution to world-reconstruction.
These security and freedom can only be guaranteed by our independence from any colonial power, and our free cooperation with all other powers. It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United Sates as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.
What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.
I am Dear Mr. PRESIDENT,
(Signed) Ho Chi Minh
Truman sided with the French since we had been allies in the war and Ho Chi Minh was a communist. Truman was anti-communist. When I was growing up in the 1950's and 60's most Americans had a monolithic view of communism. It was better to be dead than Red. To this day I hate communism but I have come to realize that communism in North Korea is a different animal than communism in China, the old Soviet Union, and Cuba for example. Communism under Mao in China and Stalin in the Soviet Union was much harsher than it is today in China and it was even under Khrushchev, or Brezhnev in the old Soviet Union. Then there was Khmer rouge in Cambodia that was off the charts evil. Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first, and a communist second in my opinion. In theory Marxist-Leninist ideology stressed the unity of the worldwide proletariat and de-emphasized nationalism. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks were officially opposed to nationalism as being reactionary, a bourgeois creation, and contrary to the interests of proletarian class struggle and communist revolution. Lenin separated patriotism into what he defined as proletarian, socialist patriotism from bourgeois nationalism. However Stalin had to unite the Russians against the German invasion by appealing to their nationalism. Stalin used terms like the Great Patriotic War. Tito of Yugoslavia, was a nationalist that stood up to the Soviets, but he realized that his country fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. Ho Chi Minh was a communist more for pragmatic reasons. He was in a fight to reunite his country and the communists would give him the material support he needed in weapons and supplies. Ho aligned himself more with the Soviet Union than China. I believe that if Truman had honored Ho's wishes and worked to keep the French out of Indochina, Vietnam would have proved to be a loyal and worthy ally and would have moved into our political orbit. The Truman and Eisenhower administration supplied the French with logistics and military aid until the French suffered their Waterloo at a place called Dien Bien Phu in 1954. During the 1950's Eisenhower talked about the (Domino Theory). Most Americans believed in this theory. It was believed that if Vietnam fell to communism, it's neighbors would soon follow suit. Since the end of the Vietnam War this has not proven true. Vietnam has not threatened it's neighbors or tried to spread communism in the region. Cambodia was a monarchy before American involvement in Vietnam. Because of the war, the murderous Khmer rouge would take over Cambodia and kill half the population. It would be the Vietnamese that would eventually overthrow the Khmer rouge and end the killing. In fairness to Truman I don't know if he could have helped Ho Chi Minh keep the French out of Indochina. By 1946 the Republicans were accusing Truman of being soft on Communism and would win back the congress that year. Because of Stalin's ruthlessness and hostility toward American foreign policy American's were becoming more and more anti communist. The following is from a speech that Ho Chi Minh gave in Hanoi on September 2, 1945 declaring the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The first lines of his speech repeated verbatim the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence.
All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free. The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.” Those are undeniable truths.
Mistake # 3
The 1954 Geneva Accords established North and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. This was a temporary arrangement until a national election could be held by July of 1956 to determine what form of government that the Vietnamese preferred. The northern sector was controlled by the Viet Minh headed up by Ho Chi Minh and the southern sector was the State of Vietnam headed by former Emperor Bảo Đại. When the Geneva Convention began in April 1954 the French were fighting at Dien Bien Phu. The French were defeated on May 8, and by October they were leaving Indochina for good. A year later Ngo Dinh Diem deposed Bảo Đại and established the first Republic of Vietnam. Diem was also a Mandarin but he was pro French and a Catholic. The promised referendum of July 1956 never took place. This was a mistake in my opinion. The United States should have insisted on the referendum promised by the Geneva Accords. In 1955 Eisenhower committed the first American advisers to South Vietnam. To his credit as a soldier he realized that the logistics of fighting a war in Vietnam would be and kept our involvement to a minimum. By 1957 a low level insurgency began in South Vietnam after it became evident that Diem would never allow an election to be held. Two Americans would be the first KIA's in 1959 after an attack on Bien Hoa A.F.B. Kennedy would escalate our involvement in Vietnam after his election and by 1963 we would have 21,000 troops in Vietnam, which were mostly support troops and advisers. I have read many books on Kennedy and I am convinced that Kennedy had arrived at the decision not to escalate the war in Vietnam. Evidence of this was a an interview that he did with Walter Cronkite on September 2, 1963, just a few weeks before he was assassinated.
Walter Cronkite: Mr. President, the only hot war we've got running at the moment is of course the one in Viet-Nam, and we have our difficulties there, quite obviously.
THE PRESIDENT. I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it, the people of Viet-Nam, against the Communists.
We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort and, in my opinion, in the last 2 months, the government has gotten out of touch with the people.
The United States should have used it's power and influence to fulfill the provisions of the Geneva Accords and helped to make sure that 1956 referendum was carried out.
Mistake # 4
The assassination of John Kennedy was the worst disaster that ever happened to this country. Not because Kennedy was an exceptionally great president. In my view he was a good president that had the potential for greatness. His mafia connections and sexual addiction robbed him of greatness. The disaster was this. Kennedy's death opened the door for Lyndon Johnson. Obama has fundamentally changed this country but Lyndon Johnson created the cultural and political environment that would allow a radical leftist like Barack Obama to even be elected. Johnson fought two wars during the 1960's. The War on Poverty, aka the Great Society and the war in Vietnam. Much of the entitlement mentality that we have today was created by the war on poverty and helped to destroy the modern family structure in America by expanding Aid to dependent children. The war in Vietnam spurred the counterculture movement and the Hippie movement. Hippies popularized the use of drugs, free love and open relationships that would work to undermine our families and culture. Many of our radical politicians would come from the counterculture and anti-war movement. Johnson's favorite war was the war on poverty and he would come to hate the war in Vietnam. He was heard to say “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved -- the Great Society.” Because Johnson was prosecuting both wars he tried to hide his escalation of the war in Vietnam. Eisenhower's emphasis had been on the development of our nuclear forces in order to save money. Nuclear forces are cheaper than conventional forces. Kennedy on the other hand built up our conventional army and created the special forces like the Navy Seals and Green Berets. His intention was to prepare an army to fight war's of counterinsurgency. As a result Johnson had a ready made army to fight in Vietnam. He didn't have to call up National Guard or Reserve units like in WW1, WW2, Korea and both Gulf Wars. In order to protect his wars he didn't want to raise taxes and he was determined to hold down inflation. When egg prices rose in the Spring of 1966 Johnson ordered the surgeon general to issue an alert that eggs were high in cholesterol. This was really damaging to the egg industry and worked to hold down inflation. He also worked to avoid a draft as long as he could in order to divert attention from the gradual escalation of the war. In the Spring of 1964 the Johnson administration was planning major attacks on North Vietnam. His advisors didn't believe that the American people would support a major escalation of the war. On August 2, 1964 North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox. Two days later the Maddox and another destroyer were supposedly attacked but it has since been determined that this second attack did not happen. However it was a pretext for escalating the war in Vietnam. The first attack was retaliation for a South Vietnamese gunboat attack on the North Vietnamese coast. Johnson ordered retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution would be passed, which was the equivalent of a declaration of war. It proposed “all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska voted against it. Morse warned his fellow senators that Johnson couldn't be trusted and they should not rush into anything. In March 1965 Johnson would escalate the war even further by sending in the Marines. By the end of 1965 there would be 180,000 troops on the ground in Vietnam and by 1968 there would be over 500,000.
|Attack by North Vietnamese gunboats on the U.S.S. Maddox, August 2, 1964|
Mistake # 5
When America commits it's men and resources to war, regardless of the reasons, it should do everything necessary to win that war. America owes this to the men and women that it sends off to experience the horrors of war. There is no such thing as a war that is unwinnable. Any war is winnable when the right strategy is employed and the people have the will to win. Unfortunately America did not employ the best strategy in Vietnam. The war was micromanaged from the White House and there were many mistakes that I wont go into here. Even though these mistakes prolonged the war it became evident that like the American Army fighting against the British Army in the revolution the North Vietnamese Army could not defeat the Americans in a head to head match-up. Their best strategy, like Washington in the American revolution was not lose. The Communists would infiltrate the American anti-war movement in America. Ultimately America did not lose the war on the battlefield. It lost it on the streets of America and in the halls of Congress. Over time the American military was actually hurting the Viet Cong. Until the Tet Offensive of 1968 the Viet Cong shouldered the brunt of the fighting in South Vietnam. General Westmoreland had been saying that our forces were making progress. From 1965 until February of 1968 when the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive they had fought a guerilla war consisting of small unit hit and run tactics. Because we were putting the hurt on them they gambled on an all out conventional attack on South Vietnamese cities that played right into Americans hands. Conventional war is what we excel in. For the first 48 hours we took a butt kicking. In much the same way that Allied forces did at the battle of the Bulge in 1944. Once commanders on the ground adjusted to the situation we inflicted a crushing defeat on the Viet Cong. The American and Allied response was overwhelming. The Viet Cong lost ten thousand men in the first few days. This was opposed to 249 Americans dead along with five hundred South Vietnamese. During the months-long battle, the Viet Cong would ultimately lose forty-eight thousand men. The Communist failed in a big way. One point to make here was that the North Vietnamese were hoping for a popular uprising of the people of South Vietnam in favor of the communists but it never happened. In addition the North Vietnamese slaughtered thousands of civilians in the ancient city of Hue. For the remainder of the war the North Vietnamese regular army would shoulder the brunt of the fighting in Vietnam. The American press on the other hand did what they do best. They reported that Tet was a resounding defeat for American forces rather than the huge victory that it was. Walter Cronkite of CBS News went to Vietnam to look at the situation first hand. At a critical moment of the war, the prospects of victory never looked brighter. Cronkite on the other hand, the most trusted man in America, concluded that the war was a stalemate and probably unwinnable. Not until years later did I come to realize just how left wing that Cronkite really was. Peter Braestrup said in his 1977 book, Big Story. "Rarely, has contemporary crisis-journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality." To have such a defeat for the enemy portrayed also as a major defeat for America, cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism." The media, the communist inspired anti-war movement, and the Democratic Party helped to push America toward defeatism. On March 31, 1968 President Johnson declared that he would not run for reelection and that he was declaring a bombing halt on North Vietnam.
|Air Force Security Policemen fighting during Tet|
|VC attack on the American Embassy in Saigan during TET|
|Walter Cronkite reporting from vietnam|
Mistake # 6
Richard Nixon was a lot like Trump in one sense. He promised that he had a plan to get us out of Vietnam and we would have peace with honor. Of course he never divulged the specifics of the plan. Ultimately he put in place Vietnamization which was a plan to expand, equip, and train South Vietnam's forces and assign to them an ever-increasing combat role, while at the same time steadily reducing the number of U.S. combat troops. Which in reality was a return to the original plan of John Kennedy. The only problem with this plan was that it nearly destroyed the American Army as an effective fighting force. Once Nixon began pulling troops out of Vietnam in 1969 our remaining troops realized that America was no longer interested in winning the war. Troop morale hit bottom. No one wanted to die in a losing effort. Drug use radically increased and troops were refusing to obey orders. Unpopular officers were being fragged. It is estimated that as many as half of the men who left Vietnam in those last years were addicted to hard drugs such as heroin. I believe that this factor led to the large number of homeless Vietnam veterans that we have seen on our streets over the years. By 1972 our troop levels had decreased dramatically and the South Vietnamese were now the primary fighting force against the North Vietnamese. General Vo Nguyen Giap had banked on the idea in the 1968 Tet Offensive that there would be a popular uprising against the south Vietnamese government but it never materialized. Now, four years later he was banking on the fact that with fewer American troops in country and the anti-war movement in America that he could defeat South Vietnam in an another all out attack. The chance that the United States would reenter the war in a big way was slim. This time the attack would be led by the North Vietnamese Regular Army. On March 30, 1972, three North Vietnamese divisions crossed the DMZ into the northern part of South Vietnam, to be joined, by the end of April, by an additional three divisions. This was the beginning of the Eastertide offensive. The fighting would rage throughout South Vietnam until the middle of July 1972. South Vietnamese and American forces fought effectively and bravely. American Air and Naval forces decimated the North Vietnamese in effective air strikes. The B-52 strikes were especially effective. Targets in North Vietnam were bombed and Haiphong harbor was mined. The Easter Offensive cost the North Vietnamese 40,000 killed and 60,000 wounded and missing. South Vietnamese and American losses were estimated at 10,000 killed, 33,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing. The offensive was defeated, but North Vietnamese forces occupied about ten percent of South Vietnam when the battle was over. Both sides would soften their stance during the Paris peace talks and were willing to make concessions during negotiations. Nixon would order a massive bombing campaign from December 18, until December 29, 1972 consisting mainly of B-52,s called Linebacker II. Ostensibly to force the North Vietnamese back to the peace table. On January 27, 1973 a peace agreement was signed in Paris and the war was over. President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam had major reservations. He did not like the fact that so many North Vietnamese troops were still in the South. Thieu wasn't sure that he could count on the continued support of the Americans. It had been American air power that had made the difference during the Eastertide offensive. Nixon assured him that the United States would continue economic aid and would use it's air power to help the South Vietnamese to repel any future North Vietnamese threats. There was only one problem with this promise. Nixon was sinking deeper and deeper into the Watergate scandal. By August 1974 Nixon would be forced to resign as president and would be succeeded by Gerald Ford. In the Spring of 1975 the North Vietnamese took advantage of the chaotic political situation in the United States and launched an all out offensive. Ford's hands were tied because of the Watergate scandal and the Democratic Congress drastically cut funding to the South Vietnamese. No one was willing to make good on Nixon's promises of air power. South Vietnamese forces collapsed quicker than even the military experts imagined. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975 and it was all over. In my view the major mistake here was letting down our troops who served so honorably in Vietnam. They had sacrificed their lives, their bodies, and their minds for their country. There is no way that the North Vietnamese could beat us militarily. We won every major engagement on the battlefield. Our men and women deserved a victory in Vietnam. The same could be said about the soldiers who fought in Korea. We won the war in Iraq and Obama allowed ISIS to occupy areas that had been paid for so dearly by American bravery and blood. He completely pulled out of Iraq in 2011. Warriors have suffered from PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after every war that we have ever fought. However I have to believe that the pain of losing intensifies the pain even further. The veterans of Korea can at least take pride in the fact that they saved South Korea from the hellish fate of the North Korean people. South Korea is now a democracy and one of the most prosperous nations in the world. What is left of Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein and Sunni rule. Although we lost in Vietnam it is my understanding that even with all the bad blood between Vietnam and America they seem to have no ill will toward us. In my mind the only positive accomplishment of the Clinton administration was establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam on July 11, 1995. In conclusion Vietnam was one of the most avoidable wars in American history. Once we committed to the fight however there was no substitute for victory.