Friday, May 06, 2005

Vietnam revisited--again

Vietnam's been on my mind recently, for obvious reasons. I've been thinking and writing so much about it lately that I've only just gotten around to reading this article by Stephen J. Morris, which appeared in the Op-Ed page of the May 1st NY Times.

I've never done this before, but I've decided to reproduce the entire piece here. I figure that, since the Times is a registration-only venue, many people to whom it might be of interest will have missed it. The article is an excellent example of the type of thing I can't recall reading at the time the events in it took place--certainly not in the NY Times, one of the newspapers from which I got most of my news for much of my life.

I wanted to present this article because it is a relatively concise summary of the sort of information I've been reading lately, information which represents another look at the history of the Vietnam War as it was told in the newspapers of the time. I am very glad--and, to tell the truth, surprised--that the Times saw fit to publish it in honor of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. As Morris himself writes, "out of respect for the evidence of history, we need to recognize what happened in the 1970's and why." I second the motion.

I find the facts in this article and others like it quite compelling. You may or may not agree. Here is the complete text:

The War We Could Have Won
By STEPHEN J. MORRIS

Washington

THE Vietnam War is universally regarded as a disaster for what it did to the American and Vietnamese people. However, 30 years after the war's end, the reasons for its outcome remain a matter of dispute.

The most popular explanation among historians and journalists is that the defeat was a result of American policy makers' cold-war-driven misunderstanding of North Vietnam's leaders as dangerous Communists. In truth, they argue, we were fighting a nationalist movement with great popular support. In this view, "our side," South Vietnam, was a creation of foreigners and led by a corrupt urban elite with no popular roots. Hence it could never prevail, not even with a half-million American troops, making the war "unwinnable."

This simple explanation is repudiated by powerful historical evidence, both old and new. Its proponents mistakenly base their conclusions on the situation in Vietnam during the 1950's and early 1960's and ignore the changing course of the war (notably, the increasing success of President Richard Nixon's Vietnamization strategy) and the evolution of South Vietnamese society (in particular the introduction of agrarian reforms).

For all the claims of popular support for the Vietcong insurgency, far more South Vietnamese peasants fought on the side of Saigon than on the side of Hanoi. The Vietcong were basically defeated by the beginning of 1972, which is why the North Vietnamese launched a huge conventional offensive at the end of March that year. During the Easter Offensive of 1972 - at the time the biggest campaign of the war - the South Vietnamese Army was able to hold onto every one of the 44 provincial capitals except Quang Tri, which it regained a few months later. The South Vietnamese relied on American air support during that offensive.

If the United States had provided that level of support in 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed in the face of another North Vietnamese offensive, the outcome might have been at least the same as in 1972. But intense lobbying of Congress by the antiwar movement, especially in the context of the Watergate scandal, helped to drive cutbacks of American aid in 1974. Combined with the impact of the world oil crisis and inflation of 1973-74, the results were devastating for the south. As the triumphant North Vietnamese commander, Gen. Van Tien Dung, wrote later, President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam was forced to fight "a poor man's war."

Even Hanoi's main patron, the Soviet Union, was convinced that a North Vietnamese military victory was highly unlikely. Evidence from Soviet Communist Party archives suggests that, until 1974, Soviet military intelligence analysts and diplomats never believed that the North Vietnamese would be victorious on the battlefield. Only political and diplomatic efforts could succeed. Moscow thought that the South Vietnamese government was strong enough to defend itself with a continuation of American logistical support. The former Soviet chargé d'affaires in Hanoi during the 1970's told me in Moscow in late 1993 that if one looked at the balance of forces, one could not predict that the South would be defeated. Until 1975, Moscow was not only impressed by American military power and political will, it also clearly had no desire to go to war with the United States over Vietnam. But after 1975, Soviet fear of the United States dissipated.

During the war the Soviets despised their North Vietnamese "friends" (the term of confidential bureaucratic reference, rather than "comrades"). Indeed, Henry A. Kissinger's accounts of his dealings, as Nixon's national security adviser, with President Thieu are models of respect when compared with the bitter Soviet accounts of their difficulties with their counterparts.

In secret internal reports, Hanoi-based Soviet diplomats regularly complained about the deceitfulness of the North Vietnamese, who concealed strategic planning from their more powerful patron. In a 1972 report to Moscow, the Soviet ambassador even complained that although Marshal Pavel Batitsky, commander of the Soviet Air Defense Forces, had visited Hanoi earlier that year and completed a major military aid agreement, North Vietnamese leaders did not inform him of the imminent launch date of their Easter Offensive.

What is also clear from Soviet archival sources is that those who believed that North Vietnam had more than national unification on its mind were right: Its leaders were imbued with a sense of their ideological mission - not only to unify Vietnam under Communist Party rule, but also to support the victory of Communists in other nations. They saw themselves as the outpost of world revolution in Southeast Asia and desired to help Communists in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and elsewhere.

Soviet archives show that after the war ended in 1975, with American power in retreat, Hanoi used part of its captured American arsenal to support Communist revolutions around the world. In 1980 some of these weapons were shipped via Cuba to El Salvador. This dimension of Vietnamese behavior derived from a deep commitment to the messianic internationalism of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Vietnam today is not the North Vietnam of 1955, 1965 or 1975. Like post-Mao China it has retreated from totalitarianism to authoritarianism. It has reformed its economy and its foreign policy to become more integrated into the world. But those changes were not inevitable and would not necessarily have occurred had Mikhail Gorbachev not ascended to power in Moscow, and had the Soviet Union and its empire not collapsed. Nor would these changes necessarily have occurred had China not provided a new cultural model for Vietnam to follow, as it has for centuries.

Precisely because Vietnam has changed for the better, we need to recognize what a profoundly ideological and aggressive totalitarian regime we faced three, four and five decades ago. And out of respect for the evidence of history, we need to recognize what happened in the 1970's and why.

In 1974-75, the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Hundreds of thousands of our Vietnamese allies were incarcerated, and more than a million driven into exile. The awesome image of the United States was diminished, and its enemies were thereby emboldened, drawing the United States into new conflicts by proxy in Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America. And the bitterness of so many American war veterans, who saw their sacrifices so casually demeaned and unnecessarily squandered, haunts American society and political life to this day.


Stephen J. Morris, a fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is writing a book on the Vietnam War in the Nixon years.

13 Comments:

At 2:13 PM, May 06, 2005, Blogger Huan said...

tragic that this realization came 30 years late.

 
At 2:31 PM, May 06, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

"What if" is a sad question to ponder all these years later. I was at the old special forces camp at Dak Pek, Kontum Prvc. when the Easter offensive kicked off in 1972.

 
At 3:06 PM, May 06, 2005, Blogger KeithM, Indy said...

Until 1975, Moscow was not only impressed by American military power and political will, it also clearly had no desire to go to war with the United States over Vietnam. But after 1975, Soviet fear of the United States dissipated.

*************

One has to wonder, if the United States had kept the will to back South Vietnam, would the Soviets have invaded Afghanistan.

Since college (82-86), I've always held that the Vietnam War was lost because of a loss of political will, and that the missteps leading to the end would have been forgivable had South Vietnam won.

All the more reason to see Iraq and Afghanistan through...

 
At 5:51 PM, May 06, 2005, Blogger VietPundit said...

As someone said, For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, "It might have been."

 
At 6:26 PM, May 06, 2005, Blogger Joan said...

I'm stunned that this was published in the NY Times. How did it manage to slip through?

I'm quite pleased, though, because it always helps to link to the NY Times when debating with folks on the Left.

 
At 10:08 AM, May 07, 2005, Blogger jj mollo said...

This revisionism is very easy at this distance from the cost and suffering. We should have done more, but the North was used to defeat. They would have come back in 1976, 1977, 1978, etc. Unless South Vietnam could have turned itself into a South Korea, which I doubt, it would have had little chance in the long wrong.

 
At 2:35 PM, May 07, 2005, Blogger Michael B said...

"This revisionism is very easy at this distance from the cost and suffering." jj mollo

Revisionism is easy at virtually any distance. Ad hoc revisionism was taking place contemporaneous to Tet and post-Tet developments. Despite the rather thorough-going military victory, despite any number of other developments (e.g., the North's atrocities or purge at Hue), the Left/MSM was reporting in a revisionist manner at the very time the events were occurring.

Your final statement is more simply a resignation accepting of a defeatism that was not at all obvious, especially so given that the South was much more simply attempting to repel the North's invasion, not invade and defeat them on their territory. Further, the Soviets were growing weary of supporting the North. Many other factors (e.g., one of the North's objectives in initiating Tet was to incite a rebellion among the South's populace against both the Americans and the South's regime - it never occurred) could be listed as well.

It's deeply ironic and particularly telling that your own account itself is simply a perpetuation of the Left/MSM's revisionist and status quo line.

 
At 9:01 PM, May 08, 2005, Blogger jj mollo said...

I was resigned to defeat because we would not do what it really would take to win. We were going nowhere until we took the fight to the North.

 
At 6:38 AM, May 09, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

I, too, was resigned to "defeat" because of the unwillingness to "fight to win." Where is the decision to NOT mine Haiphong Harbor, for instance?

It was NOT clear that Vietnamization was working -- because the MSM refused then to give the hated Nixon any credit for doing anything good. MSM Leftis bias led to US/ S. Vietnamese defeat (led directly to defeat).

And what enrages me is that the Leftists, whose policy of leaving was followed, are unwilling to accept that they supported the bad results.

Whenever one's strategic policies are followed, like war in Iraq or leaving Vietnam or invading at Normandy or agreement at Yalta, one is responsible for the outcomes, even though many specific tactical issues (like Abu Ghraib) were not part of the plan. The Leftist dishonesty is why we lost. (It's great you linked above to the Vietnam site.)

 
At 1:28 PM, May 09, 2005, Blogger Michael B said...

"I was resigned to defeat because we would not do what it really would take to win. We were going nowhere until we took the fight to the North."

I can agree with and applaud that.

Here too there is an apt, if also limited, analogy with the Korean War wherein we not only advanced beyond the 38th parallel but overtook Pyongyang and even advanced to the Yalu River, at least in the east, where North Korea borders Mongolia. Of course, that far advance in turn was the rationale China used for entering the war, nonetheless that simply allows that similar strategies needed to be attuned to the specifics of Vietnam, not excluded altogether, or at least virtually so (there were some tactics deployed against the North, but not major initiatives and not more sustained for comprehensive, strategic advantage - if I need to be corrected in that vein I'd welcome the correction).

The concern that China might have entered the Vietnam conflict in a more concerted manner (with the Soviets they provided logistical support and some covert personnel support) is a perfectly valid concern as such, but it does not adequately provide the rationale for the various misstakes that were committed primarily at the political level by the McNamara's of the world back in D.C. - in turn variously instigated by the Left, and then disseminated by the MSM more broadly, of that era.

 
At 11:01 AM, May 13, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

The left needs Viet Nam to be an unwinnable war.
No way. No how. With no conceivable combination of strategy and tactics. Not possible. Doomed from the beginning or sooner. Shouldn't have started.

That way, labeling a proposed military operation "another Viet Nam" means it's completely unwinnable, no matter what we do, so we shouldn't even start.

Because, if we start, we might win, and that would never do.

 
At 2:08 AM, January 10, 2006, Anonymous jacko492 said...

Stopped by your blog to get some ideas for mine http://vietnaminpictures.blogspot.com/. As the name implies it's mostly pictures with a few comments. Take a look if you get a chance, I'm not selling anything ! ---Jack--- vietnam war history

 
At 6:53 PM, March 22, 2007, Blogger Todd Boyle said...

May I point out that the U.S. invasion of Vietnam was illegal, not a matter of defending the territory or jurisdiction of the U.S. The U.S. aggression in Vietnam was also unnecessary and harmful to the interests of America. And similar to the Iraq war, it was also horribly cruel and unjust, killing many hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Morris' article neglects to mention this essential context, leaving the reader to assume the U.S. role was legitimate, and that some valuable thing was somehow lost in Vietnam. It wasn't. America awoke from its crime, its murderous project, and has tried since then to regain our peace of mind. Until this latest crime in Iraq we were healing.

 

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