Dr. William Lloyd Stearman, Founding VVFH Member
A poll taken on this 40th anniversary would no doubt reveal that most Americans believe we should not have fought in this small obscure country half a world away, and do believe that the war there was unwinnable and that our huge expenditure of blood and treasure there was totally in vain. Most people are nonplussed at hearing that we got into World War II because of what is now Vietnam. In the 1930s, we somewhat tolerated Japan’s rampaging all though China. However, when Japan invaded what is now Vietnam, we saw this as a threat to Southeast Asia and took the strong measure of promoting a boycott of critical oil, scrap iron and rubber deliveries to Japan. Japan, then realizing a now hostile US would try to prevent its planned invasion of Southeast Asia, sought to disable our fleet at Pearl Harbor as a preventative measure. Japan then proceeded to use its new-found base to invade and conquer most of Southeast Asia. President Eisenhower must have had this mind when he was asked, at April 7, 1954 press conference, about “the strategic importance of Indochina [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia] for the free world.” He then described the “falling domino” principle whereby “the beginning of a disintegration [in Vietnam] would have the most profound influences” leading to “ the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the [Malay] peninsula and Indonesia.” He added that Japan, Formosa [Taiwan], the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand “would also be threatened.” (He could also have added India.)
Eisenhower’s “domino theory” was pooh-poohed by a number of people in the U.S., but, given the parlous unstable conditions in Southeast Asia, it was taken seriously by leaders there as well as in Australia and India and by leaders in Hanoi and (then) Peking. For example, China’s famed Marshal Lin Piao stated in September 1965 that the defeat of “U.S. imperialism” in Vietnam would show the people of the world “that what the Vietnamese people can do, they can do too.” In the late 1960s, Indonesian leaders Suharto and Malik (not great friends of the U.S.) told U.S. officials that our first introduction of U.S. combat troops (Marines) in Vietnam in March 1965 helped embolden them to resist the October 1, 1965 Communist coup supported by China, which came very close to succeeding. (The two later told columnist Robert Novak the same thing.) Had this coup succeeded, the Philippines would have soon been threatened which could well have triggered our intervention under a 1954 treaty. Then we would have been facing a far more threatening adversary than in Vietnam. The 1965 introduction of US Marines apparently had a generally bracing effect in Southeast Asia. For example it also encouraged the British defense of Malaysia against a Communist invasion from Indonesia. By the end of the Vietnam War, even the victorious Communist side that lost over two million dead was too weakened to pose a threat to any country save nearby Laos and Cambodia. The war also bought precious time to enable the countries of Southeast Asia to strengthen their positions. In essence, we basically got into the war to prevent the toppling of dominoes in Southeast Asia and we succeeded. One could say that this was a strategic victory while the loss in Vietnam was a tactical defeat.
Was the war in Vietnam truly unwinnable? After “Vietnamization” had removed all U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, Hanoi, on March 30, 1972, launched its “Easter Offensive” with largest conventional attack of the war consisting of the equivalent of 23 divisions equipped with hundreds of Soviet tanks, long-range artillery, rockets and surface to air missiles. The brunt of the fighting fell on the South Vietnamese ground forces with massive U.S. air support as well as naval and logistical support. The only American ground forces left were advisors and forward air controllers. South Vietnam forces eventually moved from the defensive to counter offensives and by mid-September 1972 were clearly winning. The Communist forces had lost about 100,000 killed in action, twice as many as the U.S. had lost in the entire war. Sometime after Hanoi’s final 1975 victory, a former top commander in the South, General Tran Van Tra stated in the Party organ Nhan Dan that his troops had eventually reached the verge of defeat. Had the war continued some months further, the South could have emerged victorious by evicting all enemy forces from Vietnam. Facing defeat, Hanoi saved the day by offering substantial concessions sought by Henry Kissinger in previous negotiations. With the best of intentions, Kissinger took this bait and the resulting negotiations process brought South Vietnamese military operations to a halt. The 1973 Peace Accords broke down. The U.S. drastically reduced aid, and then Congress banned all U.S. military operations in Indochina sealing Vietnam’s doom.
William Lloyd Stearman, PhD, Senior U.S. Foreign Service officer (Ret.)
National Security Council staff under four presidents, director NSC Indochina staff, Jan. ’73 to Jan. ’76, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs Georgetown University (1977 to 1993), author of memoir An American Adventure, From Early Aviation Through Three Wars to the White House (Naval Institute Press, 2012)