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Thread: Vietnam: Where Did the US Go Wrong?

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    Vietnam: Where Did the US Go Wrong?

    Reading a great history of Vietnam War. It really raises the question of where we went wrong. Obviously we did at several points. It’s hard to pinpoint one moment in particular - aside from paying the French to stay in there after WWII. The problem is compounded by the myriad of issues facing the United States at that time. The accusation of losing China. The relative success of establishing a stable South Korea - although run by a dictator. No way could any politician advocate just walking away. Both right and left we’re determined to save Vietnam.

    So why couldn’t we recreate the model of South Korea? If I would point to one event it would be the coup against Diem. That just resulted in a succession of coups and military infighting. Diem sucked for sure but removing him just worsened the situation. It’s still conceivable that Vietnam could’ve evolved differently and ultimately into a pseudo South Korea had Diem been allowed to stay on. Maybe not. The one advantage SK had was geography. Being on a peninsula meant it was hard for NK to launch a guerrilla campaign. The Viet Cong could be easily supplied by sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.

    Thoughts?

    SLD

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    Veteran Member Ford's Avatar
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    I've got a book on my shelf - long out of print - called "A Nation of Sheep" by one of the authors of "The Ugly American." Some of the language in it is very dated, as are some of the conclusions, but the titles of the first few chapters should give you an idea of what it was about. Titles like "The Laos Fraud," "What We Aren't Told about Formosa" and "What We Aren't Told about Korea."

    The US didn't just stumble into Vietnam and screw it up. Vietnam was the culmination of bad decisions at every level in Southeast Asia for a decade or more. The book was in part a roadmap of where we went wrong in the region, and it was published in 1961. If someone had been paying attention...well, they weren't.

    A movie that's sitting on another shelf is "The Fog of War." The documentary/interrogation of Robert S. MacNamara. If memory serves, there was a moment in the film where he recounted his meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart years later. Basically, he said that the US didn't understand what the Vietnamese were fighting for. We thought it was about communism vs capitalism or democracy vs autocracy but we were wrong.

    It's not really a question of which event led to the failure, but rather the fact that we tried to impose our version of success upon a people who weren't buying it.

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    Veteran Member skepticalbip's Avatar
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    Vietnam: Where Did the US Go Wrong?
    I don't think there was any reasonable option to "go right" in Viet Nam. It was the middle of the cold war and Viet Nam was just a proxy war to show the "Communist block' that the U.S. was willing to spill American blood to halt their expansion (the old domino theory). There was no attempt to win because winning would have required an invasion of North Viet Nam... which was feared would have brought in China and/or the USSR creating WWIII. So rather than a plan to win, the strategy was to defend the population centers of South Viet Nam thus denying the North a victory... a planned stalemate. The mistake of this strategy is that the American population are not that patient and North Viet Nam was...
    Last edited by skepticalbip; 07-10-2019 at 04:23 AM.

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    Contributor Trausti's Avatar
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    The US was fighting a war against Communism. The Vietnamese were fighting a nationalist war against foreigners. They weren't fighting the same war.

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    Veteran Member Sarpedon's Avatar
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    1. We took on a failed colonial endeavor that France had given up.
    2. We backed a minority, non democratic government against the majority.
    3. When that government did not perform as we expected, we overthrew it with a military junta, rather than replacing it with a more popular government (which likely would have not done as we said, but not necessarily be hostile)
    4. Our contempt with the military junta's performance led us to essentially occupy the country, causing us to lose any hope of popular support.
    5. Our military leader's contempt for the people of the country led them to disregard popular support as necessary, and focused on purely quantifiable goals such as 'body count.'
    6. Our conscripted soldiers, unhappy to be there in the first place, absorbed the contempt of their leaders and translated it into brutal treatment of the inhabitants.

    So from go, we did the wrong thing. In the end, only a tiny minority which comprised our puppet government and its immediate supporters were on our side. One and all of the people of the country opposed us. Military objectives captured could not be held in the face of an unrelentingly hostile populace. Military leaders did not understand this. Political leaders refused to comprehend that we could lose.

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    Also, if the first casualty in war is truth, and if all our previous wars had involved some intentional misinformation from the government, that trend intensified with Vietnam. Our mission was deranged by Cold War thinking that would not adjust to reality for decades. Outright deception followed. Tonkin Gulf now seems to be as shabby a story as anything Cheney cooked up in '01/'02. LBJ running as a sensible alternative to warmonger Goldwater resulted in a huge buildup of U.S. forces in 1965. Our policy of wiping out villages and moving farmers off their land, of widespread chemical warfare, of extensive use of napalm, of the incursion into Laos, were pieced together by reporters while Pentagon spokesmen kept referring to the light at the end of the tunnel. After four years of this, it blew up in the government's face when Tet seemed to prove to the public that Vietnam was a hopeless endeavor. It probably was. It's very hard to imagine that a fully resolved U.S. that was willing to put in yet more personnel could have prevailed against the insurgent fighting of the North Vietnamese.

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    From the old VN documentary post war Ho Chi Mihn approached the Americans with a plan for intendance with a constitution loosely based on ours. It was rejected in favor of France having a colony. Economics. He had lived in the USA.

    South Vietnam Never really existed. It was corrupt. During the war drug lords ruled areas.

    We are making the same mistake today in the mid east, people do not really want all of our culture, they have their own history.

    The VN fighters were very much patriots willing to die.

    The war was fought politically instead of tactically . We could not bomb ships in Haiphong Harbor loaded with weapons. Cambodia was bombed secretly. Regional and global polices preventing us from waging full scale war. Russia and China reaction prohibited a outright invasion of NK. It was an insane war.

    In contrast in the first Gulf War it was the Powell Doctrine. Have a clear end goal and go in with overwhelming force.

    The strategy devolved in VN to 'body counts' which were inflated. We did not take and hold territory, the idea was kill enough to deplete manpower. It failed.

    There was the corruption on our side. The military industrial complex. It was big profit for weapon's.

    The publishing of the Pentagon Papers revealed that as early as the mid 60s the milt ray had concluded there was no military solution. ds a lot lot like today, we ignore history.

    The ARVN were never a fighting force. A friend's brother was in country during Tet. As he put it ARVN sat in trenches firing guns in the air.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    As to why not a big knockout blow against North Vietnam early in the war, I once came up with a theory, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it confirmed. It's not as discussed as much as I think it ought to.

    The reason is a fear of repeating what happened in the Korean War. At first, it seemed like the US and its allies were winning, conquering all of North Korea. But then China sent about a million troops across the border and pushed the the US troops back to the NK-SK border. The war ended up much as it began.

    So if the US did a big push into North Vietnam early in the war, that might have provoked China to send in a similar-sized army.

    South Vietnam was, it must be noted, a very poor advertisement for the Free World, as non-Communist nations were often called by opponents of Communism. Like Catholics vs. Buddhists there, even though both had a common interest in not being treated like drug addicts.

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    Veteran Member Treedbear's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SLD View Post
    Vietnam: Where Did the US Go Wrong?
    ...
    Thoughts?

    SLD
    The bombings. My heart bleeds for that country thinking of the civilians whose lives and land were scarred and destroyed by land mines, napalm, agent orange, cluster bombs and indescriminate carpet bombing. I got a 4F in 1972 and didn't have to go. But I've known many Vietnamese refugees and they are such a gentle, caring, and hard working people. America lost it's soul over that war and it tore my generation to pieces.

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    Junior Member ralfy's Avatar
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    And it wasn't just Vietnam but various forms of intervention in different parts of the world which led to significant levels of human suffering.

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