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Why Was Vietnam Lost to Communism?

Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher

Millions of words have been written about the Vietnam War, or as we prefer to call it, the 2nd Indochina War. Many thousands of those words have been about why the war was lost. There are as many opinions about why the 2nd Indochina War was lost as there are writers to express them. 1

Some say it’s because we never should have been there in the first place, or because it was a civil war. Others say it’s because a bunch of peasants in sandals beat the greatest military in the world with determination and grit. Still others say it’s because it was a war for independence and any outsider would have been thrown out just as the French were.

Many of them want to teach us the lessons they think we should learn from the war yet few of them recognize or accept the facts when they are presented to them. Or they want to ignore them or interpret them to fit their preconceived notions about the war.

Many brave men and women have served this country. More than a few have given their lives in those efforts. Most of them served with honor and courage. Too many of our politicians, on the other hand, have no principles and stand for nothing. At the first sign of trouble, rather than making their case for why we need to stand and fight, these cowards will turn and run and abandon the battlefield.

Enthusiasm ebbs and flows depending upon the Presidential or political will to win. After the initial enthusiasm for the war has faded and the shooting has started, some opportunistic politicians turn inward and begin to look for openings to score political points. If they can undermine another politician by undermining the war effort, they will. The cost to the nation is seldom even a secondary consideration for them.

Anyone’s opinion, no matter how outlandish or how unproven, is more easily accepted if it helps the political cause. For a communist with political propaganda to spread, it’s fertile ground.

The end result is that military men and women can go to war, supported by an enthusiastic public and a supportive government. Then, when the war isn’t resolved quickly, men die because of gradualist tactics and no winning strategy. The mood can turn, and then those same people can betray the military a few years later while men and women are still fighting and dying far from home.

There are many reasons for this. Not least is that a large segment of the media is hostile and reports every rumor, innuendo and lie that is repeated without determining its veracity. In the 2nd Indochina War many journalists sat at their favorite bars in Saigon, the Continental, the Rex and the Caravelle, and soaked in the stories of Pham Xuan An, a North Vietnamese spy as well as other English-speaking malcontents and coup plotters.  Then they repeated those stories to an unsuspecting public. They even hired An to report and to run their local bureaus. 2 3

Antiwar activists repeated what the journalists wrote. Many were naïve and idealistic. Some were communist agents or collaborators intent on seeing the United States defeated. Some even traveled to communist countries to be briefed and supplied materials to be used in communist propaganda. 4 Then they returned to the US and repeated the propaganda as instructed. They even advised the communists on how to improve their propaganda for American audiences. 5 The politicians were eventually swayed and became antiwar. 6

The one enduring lesson of the 2nd Indochina War is this: the US cannot be trusted as an ally in long wars because of our system of government. Our country can be fully committed to a war in one year and be completely opposed to that same war just a few years later, because the political winds have shifted.

Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution with two dissenting votes in the Senate and none in the House. Just ten years later Congress abandoned Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, cutting their funding and guaranteeing communist victories in all three countries. The same Senators who voted for the Tonkin resolution now voted to abandon our allies, without the slightest remorse for the millions who would die. 7

In 2013 Major General Ira Hunt Jr. (Ret) published a book, Losing Vietnam: How America Abandoned Southeast Asia, that directly addresses some of the questions about why the war was lost. Some of the information in his book is eye-opening. Much of it is information that the academic left refuses to admit.

For example, Hunt proves statistically that the ARVN forces acquitted themselves quite well, right up to the final collapse.

“Exchange Ratio. This factor is a measure of friendly efficiency. On a countrywide basis, the ratio of enemy killed to friendly killed was a respectable 4.3 for 28 January 1973 to 31 March 1974. The exchange ratio for friendly-initiated attacks was 6.7, compared to 3.5 for enemy-initiated attacks, again indicating that aggressiveness paid off.”  8

There were exceptions, of course, but those exceptions were more due to very poor decision-making on the part of President Thieu and very poor leadership from some parts of the ARVN officer corps, especially Maj. Gen. Phu, Commander of II Corps and Lt. Gen. Truong, Commander of I Corps.

Even in early 1975, when the US had reduced aid to South Vietnam to the point that ammunition was being rationed to ridiculously low levels, the South Vietnamese military still performed well.

“Yet, for all of this, the South Vietnamese soldiers were still seriously attriting the enemy and still had a strong military capability. Man for man, they were probably superior to the enemy.”  9

His analysis of the US performance after leaving Vietnam is devastating.

“The United States reneged on almost all of the pre–peace treaty promises made to South Vietnam. It did not replace major combat system losses on a one-for-one basis; it did not maintain the pre-treaty level of the stocks of ammunition; it failed to intervene militarily when North Vietnam overwhelmingly renewed its aggression; and most importantly it did not continue to provide adequate financial support.”  10

Ask most academics and they will tell you that the ARVN were unreliable, ran from the fight and could never have beaten the NVA. 11 The facts say they lost because we abandoned them in their hour of need.

Having studied the war a great deal over the past few years, I can think of many reasons that the war was lost. First and foremost, the political leadership of our country failed us in spectacular and very troubling ways. Nixon had the will to aid South Vietnam, but the Watergate scandal stripped him of his power and drove him from office. The US Congress, emboldened by his downfall, defunded aid to all our Indochina allies, dooming them to communist reprisals and tyranny.

These are some of the things our politicians did that doomed the 2nd Indochina war to failure and the three states of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to decades of darkness.

  1. They refused to face reality.
    1. The communists never bargained in good faith and never had any intention of obeying the terms of any agreement they signed. 12 Yet our leaders, time and time again, caved in to their demands. For example, when we finally signed a peace agreement with the communists, we granted them two things they never should have had.
      1. The NLF, a front organization for the North, was allowed to be a party to the negotiations, giving the communists two parties to the negotiations when everyone on the planet knew they were a front. 13
      2. The NVA was allowed to keep troops in the South, an insane concession that doomed South Vietnam to years and years of war, if not defeat. 14
    2. They insisted on the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia, despite the fact that the NVA invaded both countries, established bases there from which to launch attacks in the South and built a logistics system, the Ho Chi Minh trail, that allowed them to resupply, refit and rest their troops without worry of harassment. 15 The single greatest reason the allies never defeated the NVA is because they stubbornly refused to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail. 16 17
  2. They didn’t respect the Vietnamese. No matter what we thought of them, the Vietnamese were fighting for their nation and their freedom. We were supposed to be supporting them. In far too many cases, our leaders tried to push their ideas down the Vietnamese leaders’ throats rather than working toward a common goal. We even encouraged the coup of their elected leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, who was then assassinated, a black stain our nation will never outlive. 18
  3. They let hubris and politics overcome reason and facts and made decisions based on foolhardy criteria that led to disastrous results. 19
  4. They made promises to the South Vietnamese and then reneged on them, dooming the South to failure despite their superior performanceagainsttheNVA.
    1. President Nixon promised President Thieu that the US would provide air support if the NVA invaded after the treaty was signed. (Of course they were already there because of the awful concessions we made in the treaty.) Congress passed a law preventing air support in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, dooming all three countries. 20
    2. The US signed a treaty that, among other things, promised to replace, item for item, any war materiel that the South used up. We never lived up to that promise.
  5. They micromanaged the war, even though they had no training in military tactics, strategy or logistics. That cost many American and Vietnamese lives for little gain in the war. 21
    1. They forbade the military to attack legitimate military targets inside North Vietnam. E.g. a pilot spotted barges filled with weapons and ammunition and asked for permission to engage. He was not allowed to engage. Another pilot spotted MIG-21s sitting on the ground but was not allowed to fire on them. 22 Even operational SAM sites were off-limits to our fliers. 23
    2. They actually tipped off the enemy in advance of the targets chosen for bombing raids. This is an act of treason in war and undoubtedly cost many American lives unnecessarily. The justification was dumbfounding. Dean Rusk stated, “We didn’t want to harm the North Vietnamese people, so we passed the targets to the Swiss embassy in Washington with instructions to pass them to the NVN government through their embassy in Hanoi.” 24 No thought was apparently given to how many American lives this decision would cost.  NOTE: Further research has confirmed that this claim is untrue.  Both Peter Arnett and Tom Johnson, a White House aide who participated in all White House meetings regarding Vietnam affirmed that the statement is untrue.
  6. They utterly failed to address the propaganda war, allowing the communists free hand to turn the American politicians falsely fearful of public opinion against the war. 25
  7. They articulated utterly unrealistic goals for the war.  E.g. General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified at a Senate hearing that the US was not trying to defeat North Viet Nam but only to “cause them to mend their ways”. 26

There were many reasons that the 2nd Indochina War was a failure. Chief among them was the political leadership of the United States. These same mistakes continue to be made, because we have learned nothing from the 2nd Indochina War.

We’ve learned nothing from the war because historians have failed utterly in their principal task, to analyze history and dispassionately reveal its intricacies and realities. Many of the academics who are so-called experts on Vietnam were antiwar activists in their youth. (Some were even affiliated with communists.) They carried that same mindset into their studies of the war and never managed to separate their personal beliefs from their study of its history.

The result is a history replete with falsehoods, misrepresentations, suppositions and myths that teach us nothing of value about the war and its lessons.