Who Won the Vietnam War and Why It Matters

Earl H. Tilford, Jr.

Professor of History

Grove City College

There are several ways to look at the issue of who won or lost the Vietnam War.  Professor Timothy Lomperis wrote a book entitled, Vietnam: The War Everybody Won…and Lost.    Sometimes the answer to the question who won or lost reminds me of those who, having lost a football game, retort, “We beat you in the statistics.”  In football what matters is the final score, not how many first downs, completed passes, yards per carry, or how few penalties a team gets on its way to victory or defeat.  In that sense, the flag over Ho Chi Minh City provides the starkest evidence of who won and who lost in Vietnam.

Carl von Clausewitz defined war as, “an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.” [1]   North Vietnamese and Viet Cong strategy, in Clausewitzian terms their “use of engagements for the purposes of war”, compelled the United States to withdraw its forces and reduce its political support and military aid to the Saigon government so by 1975 South Vietnam was abandoned to its enemies. [2]  

Around three thousand years ago, Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, “What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy.” [3]   The short answer is that North Vietnam won the war because their strategy was superior to that of the United States and its Saigon ally.  North Vietnamese strategy operated at several levels simultaneously to address both total and limited war objectives.  Against the Saigon government, Hanoi's war aims were total.  They never relented in their objective of disestablishing South Vietnam as an independent country and unifying the country under a single communist system. 

Hanoi's war aims against the United States were comparatively limited.  All that was necessary was to compel Washington to withdraw its forces and abandon the Saigon government.  Major battlefield victories were not needed to achieve these goals.  After the Battle of the Ia Drang in November 1965, Hanoi opted for a war of attrition, betting their determination and willingness to sacrifice would endure longer than American patience so that, over time, the United States would tire of the war and withdraw.

The United States, after examining the lessons of the Battle of the Ia Drang, also opted for a strategy of attrition based on advantages in mobility and firepower.  Calculations were based on an assumption that an achievable 10-to-1 kill ratio eventually, at what was termed a “crossover point”, would deplete the enemy of soldiers.  General Vo Nguyen Giap, likewise, calculated that if the People's Army of Vietnam inflicted one casualty for every ten it sustained, the United States would tire of the war when it sustained fifty-thousand combat deaths.  The two strategies complemented each other and what resulted was an escalating stalemate in which the advantage of time accrued to Hanoi. [4]

In this escalating stalemate, American air and ground strategy, reflective of Industrial Age Warfare, devolved into quantitative measures of success entailing body counts, sortie counts, and bomb damage assessments.  By every conceivable measure, American kill ratios were vastly superior to those of the enemy.  But by late 1966 it was evident that this attrition-based strategy was ineffective.  Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, in a draft Memorandum for the President dated November 17, 1966, wrote, “If MACV estimates of enemy strength are correct, we have not been able to attrit the enemy fast enough to break down their morale and more U.S. forces are unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future…the data suggest that we have no prospects for attriting the enemy force at a rate equal to or greater than his capability to infiltrate and recruit, and this will be true at either the 470,000 personnel level or 570,000.” [5]

American strategy was neither as well defined nor as encompassing as that of our enemies.  While Hanoi remained focused on victory defined as removing the Saigon government and uniting all of Vietnam under a single communist regime, American strategy was to make its enemies realize they could not win a military victory.  Not only was the disparity in totality of ends great, under the administrations of presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon American strategy operated toward different goals.  President John F. Kennedy's goals were both idealistic and driven by a sense of desperation.   Idealistically, the Untied States would “bear any burden…support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” [6]   In desperation, after the fiasco a the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, an unsettling summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in July, renewed threats over Berlin and the raising of the Berlin Wall, and the neutralization of Laos, Vietnam emerged as the place to draw a line in the sand.

President Johnson saw Vietnam as a threat to his Great Society.  As Jack Valenti noted, “No matter what we turned our hands and minds to, there was Vietnam, its contagion infecting everything that it touched, and it seemed to touch everything.” [7] Accordingly, Johnson limited his war means with strategies designed to prevent a widening of the war while also expanding and deepening the American involvement.

Under the rubric “peace with honor” the Nixon administration devised three limited, clearly defined, and achievable goals: (1) withdrawal of U.S. Forces, (2) turning the war back over to the Vietnamese through “Vietnamization”, (3) the return of American prisoners of war.  The Nixon administration achieved these goals but, in doing so, sacrificed South Vietnam. 

Who won or lost the Vietnam War is only one way of evaluating the war's outcome.  A better, perhaps more intriguing question, might be “who benefited from the Vietnam War?” 

Obviously, Hanoi's victory in April 1975 united all of Vietnam under a single government.   Independence and national unity are good things but what has been lacking in Vietnam is freedom.  The re-education camps, the flow of nearly one million refugees with perhaps another million lost at sea, the continuing human rights violations, especially those associated with freedom of religion, continue to mark the Hanoi government for what it is: a Marxist-Leninist regime dedicated to the preservation of the Communist Party in its current position of power.  After thirty years of fighting and several million deaths, the people of Vietnam deserve a government that serves the people rather than a government that exploits and dominates its subjects.  When the Communists won the Vietnam War, the people of Vietnam lost.

The case can be made that the United States benefited from the Vietnam War.   At the strategic level, a great nation can lose a small war and still survive.   Some conservative scholars from what I call a “neo-post revisionist” school posit that by standing firm in Vietnam the United States and its Saigon ally provided time for Thailand to mature its economy and democratic institutions and for the rest of Southeast Asia to shore up their own regimes and economies.  A part of this argument is that in order to get out of Vietnam, the United States exploited the Sino-Soviet split both to open the door to China and to embark on a policy of détente with the Soviet Union.  This loosed forces that led ultimately to the fall of communist regimes across Eastern Europe and, finally, contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Thus the Vietnam War becomes a lost battle enroute to a greater victory in the Cold War which, under American leadership, the West won.

One can also make the case that the American military benefited from the Vietnam War.  Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Defeat is a school in which truth grows stronger.”  The U.S. Army suffered more than any other service during the Vietnam War with nearly 31,000 combat deaths. [8]   From the end of the war, particularly during the times of budgetary pecuniary during the Carter administration, the Army undertook a concerted self-examination.  With the support of the Chief of Staff, it took on issues having to do with integrity and rampant careerism.  At another level, in the late 1970s, the Army instated the study of history as fundamental to the development of sound doctrine and effective strategies.  The physical rebuilding of the Army during the times of budgetary plenty from 1981 to 1988 brought on-line the so-called “Big Five” systems to put meat on the reconstructed skeleton. [9]   Additionally, in the immediate post-war period, General Creighton Abrams fundamentally reorganized the Army so that any future commitment of forces for an extended period of time would require the involvement of the total force.  That would mean involving the American people by using the Reserve components thus ensuring that the burden of future wars would not be born on the shoulders of a conscripted Army.

The United States Air Force came out of Vietnam convinced that it had won the war, and that it did so in the twelve days of bombing in December 1972 popularly called “the Christmas bombing” but officially known as Linebacker II.  To many, Linebacker II was a confirmation of strategic bombing doctrine issuing from Guilo Douhet and Billy Mitchell.  The “Christmas bombing” attained mythological status within the Air Force as an operation that “brought them to their knees.”  Those who could not go so far as to say that the return of prisoners of war and being allowed to withdraw constituted “victory”, argued instead that if the United States did not win the Vietnam War with air power, Linebacker II demonstrated that it might have done so had it not been for politicians who “tied our hands”, a pernicious press, liberals in Congress, and the anti-war movement epitomized in that great whore of Babylon herself…Jane Fonda.

At an institutional level, the Vietnam War fostered a dramatic shift within the Air Force from a service dominated by bomber pilots and focused on strategic bombing doctrine to a service led by fighter pilots.  Flyers who survived Operation Rolling Thunder, men like repatriated POW General Charles G. Boyd, Jr., General Merrill McPeake, who as Chief of Staff fundamentally reorganized the USAF in the early 1990s, and Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, who put together the air war in the Persian Gulf, were all Rolling Thunder veterans.  They vowed that when their turn came to lead the Air Force they would not be party to operations so strategically-flawed and poorly executed as Operation Rolling Thunder. [10]

All the services benefited from a return to the study of war at the strategic and operational levels.  Each service also trained more realistically as a result of the Vietnam War.  The Navy's Top Gun program began dissimilar air-to-air combat training in the late 1960s and the Air Force followed suit with the Red Flag program in the immediate post-war era.  The Army and the Marine Corps also moved to realistic training.  The Army established training centers at Ft. Irwin, California for armor forces, at Ft. Polk, Louisiana for infantry, and Ft. Knox, Kentucky for urban warfare.   The Marine Crops combat training center is at Twenty-nine Palms, California, adjacent to Ft. Irwin.  Both Ft. Irwin and Twenty-nine Palms abut the Air Force's Red Flag training facilities at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.  Fundamental to the success of realistic training is the willingness to suffer occasional losses, including accidental deaths, so that when our crews fly into combat they will be better prepared.  In summary, the military excellence demonstrated by all the services in Operation Desert Storm resulted from the bitter experiences and hard lessons of Vietnam.

One cannot really assess who won or lost in Vietnam without also looking at its impact on the American society.   The War wrecked the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  It led to the demise of old values and the rise of post-modernist notions of relative truth both in politics and in our academic institutions.   Perhaps the most invidious effects have been in education and in our churches.

During the Vietnam War, colleges, universities and seminaries lowered standards to keep students in school for as long as possible.  While the effects cannot be measured precisely, the lowering of standards in our graduate schools and seminaries fostered a generation of scholars, spiritual leaders, and politicians who believe that there can be competing truths and that several truths can be valid simultaneously.   With the loss of truth has come a loss of certainty.   What does American stand for?  

Since the 1960s, our moral compass has been skewed.  Mainline churches, in an effort to be more reflective of society, debate issues like ordination of homosexuals and whether homosexual unions can be blessed.  In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, some Christians, Jews, Moslems, and Buddhists joined together in demonstrations of spiritual unity which could not but inspire those who believe our cultural center has little spiritual substance.  Meanwhile, some media pundits tarred all fundamentalists with the same brush of intolerance intimating that Christian evangelicals might themselves be as dangerous as those who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center.  Much of this cultural degeneration can be traced to the era of the Vietnam War.

In military terms, the Vietnam War was a pontifex, a bridge from Industrial Age Warfare to war in the Information Age.  At Gettysburg, more than a hundred thousand soldiers fought over a few square miles of Pennsylvania.  In less than a generation, the introduction of rifled muskets and rifled artillery had extended the deadly zone tenfold from one hundred to a thousand yards.  Larger formations were needed to attack and break enemy lines.  While the telegraph could bring large armies to the battlefield, once the forces were deployed, commanders still depended on couriers, reflective mirrors, semaphores, and bugles to signal troops.  Larger formations could not be controlled effectively simply because battlefield communications had not advanced beyond the pre-Napoleonic era.

The battlefields of World War II were larger still and battles went on for longer periods.  By then, wireless communications in the form of field radios and telephones made it possible to control armies over larger distances.  In Vietnam, the air war against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Operation Commando Hunt, was a case in point.  Airborne communications, command and control (ABCCC) aircraft made it possible to coordinate air operations along the 250-mile infiltration corridor. [11]

During Commando Hunt, electronic emissions from seismic and acoustical sensors were relayed to Task Force Alpha computers and analysts at Nakon Phanom (NKP) Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand.  At NKP, analysts developed targets which were then transmitted to ABCC aircraft which, in turn, directed AC-130 gunships to the areas most likely to contain enemy traffic during darkness.  During daylight hours, fighter-bombers and B-52s hit suspected supply caches, truck repair facilities, anti-aircraft guns, and enemy encampments.  It was the beginning of the electronic battlefield. [12]

Even in the Information Age, war remains an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.  Today's battlefield, however, is global.  B-2 stealth bombers can fly from their base in Missouri to strike targets in Afghanistan, receiving targeting information in flight.  Likewise, the enemy can communicate and coordinate strikes around the globe through FAX, electronic mail and cell phones…though not without risk.  America itself has become a target.

In the final analysis, humans have only two guides to the future: faith and the study of history.  The Apostle Paul tells us faith is the belief in things we cannot see nor objectively prove.   That leaves us with the study of the past as the only factual guide we have to the future.   For that reason, books like Why the North Won the Vietnam War have an enduring value.

Earl H. Tilford, Jr., Ph.D.

Professor of History

Grove City College

Grove City, Pennsylvania

[1]    Carl von Clausewitz, On War.  Michael Howard and Peter Paret edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 74.

[2]   See:  Ibid., p. 177 and Arthur J. Dommen, The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 2001. In this tour de force of the Vietnam War, Dommen relates the sad story of how American perfidy played out as the Nixon administration sought not “peace with honor” but the return of American prisoners of war at any price.  Accordingly, Dommen characterized the Paris Accords as the biggest ransom payment in history.

[3]   Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffith edition.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 77.

[4]   Robert J. O'Neill, General Giap: Politician and Strategist.  New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969, pp. 190-93.

[5]  Memorandum for the President, November 17, 1966, in The Pentagon Papers, The Senator Gravel Edtiion, Volume IV.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1975, pp. 369-71.

[6]  Kenney Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961, reprinted in Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy.  New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1965, p. 246.

[7]   Valenti quoted in, Frank E. Vandiver, Shadows of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson's Wars. College Station, Texas:  Texas A&M University Press, 1997, p. 148.

[8]   Thomas C. Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam. Boulder: Colorado:  Westview Press, 1985, p. 115.

[9]   The “Big Five” systems included the General Dynamics M1A1 tank, the M24 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, the HU-60 helicopter and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.  

[10]   Rolling Thunder, the bombing of North Vietnam lasting from March 2, 1965 to October 31, 1968, was the longest bombing campaign in the history of the U.S. Air Force.  It failed for three reasons.  First, it was strategically flawed in that it entailed conventional aerial attacks carried out against North Vietnam when the war was stalemated in South Vietnam and Communist forces held the initiative.  Second, the assumption that bombing North Vietnam's industries, rail and road networks would force Hanoi to abandon its war efforts was likewise flawed.  Third, the enemy was determined to move troops and supplies south and committed to putting enough effort into it to overcome the damage inflicted on their rudimentary but functional transportation network.  See:  Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam.  New York: The Free Press, 1989; Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back: The U.S. Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973.  Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000; and Earl H. Tilford, Jr., Crosswinds: The Air Force's Setup in Vietnam.  College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1993.

[11]   Jack S. Ballard,  The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: the Development and Employment of Fixed Wing Gunships, 1962-1972.   Washington:  Office of Air Force History, 1980,  pp.110-12.

[12]    Jacob Van Staaveren, Inderdiction in Southern Laos: 1960-1968.  Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1992, pp. 216-225.

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