Lesson From a Total Defeat for the US

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The
war in Vietnam that ended 30 years ago with a complete triumph for
the Communists was the longest, most expensive and divisive American
war in its history, involving over a half-million U.S. forces at
one point-plus Australian, South Korean, and other troops.

If
we use conventional military criteria, the Americans should have
been victorious. They used 15 million tons of munitions (as much
as they employed in World War Two), had a vast military superiority
over their enemies by any standard one employs, and still they were
defeated.

The
Saigon army commanded by Nguyen van Thieu also was far stronger
than their adversaries. At the beginning of 1975 they had over three
times as much artillery, twice as many tanks and armored cars, 1400
aircraft and a virtual monopoly of the air. They had a two-to-one
superiority of combat troops – roughly 700,000 to 320,000. The Communist
leadership in early 1975 expected the war to last as much as a decade
longer. I was in South Vietnam at the end of 1973 and in Hanoi all
of April 1975 until the last four days of the war, when I was in
Hue and Danang in the south. I am certain the Communists were almost
as surprised as the Americans that victory was to be theirs so quickly
and easily; I told them from late 1973 onward to expect an end to
the war by the Saigon regime capsizing without a serious fight – much
as the Kuomintang had in China after 1947. As a future Politburo
member later confessed, they regarded my prediction as "crazy."
They were completely unprepared to run the entire nation, and their
chaotic, inconsistent economic policies since 1975 have shown it.

The
Americans and Communists alike shared a common myopia regarding
wars. What happens in the political, social, and economic spheres
are far more decisive than military equations. That was true in
China in the late 1940s, in Vietnam in 1975, and it is also the
case in Iraq today.

South
Vietnam was an artificially urbanized society whose only economic
basis was American aid. The value of that aid declined when the
oil price increases that began with the war in the Middle East in
1973 caused a rampant inflation, at which point the motorized army
and society the Americans had created became an onerous liability.

South
Vietnam had always been corrupt since the U.S. arbitrarily created
it in 1955 despite the Geneva Accords provision that there should
be an election to reunify what was historically and ethnically one
nation. Thieu, who was a Catholic in a dominantly Buddhist country,
retained the loyalty of his generals and bureaucracy by allowing
them to enrich themselves at the expense of the people. The average
Vietnamese, whether they were for or against the Communists, had
no loyalty whatsoever to the Thieu regime that was robbing them.
After 1973, soldiers’ salaries declined with inflation and they
began living off the land. The urban middle class was increasingly
alienated; the Thieu regime’s popularity fell with it. It admitted
there were 32,000 political prisoners in its jails, but other estimates
were far higher.

By
the beginning of 1975 the regime in South Vietnam was beginning
to disintegrate by every relevant criterion: economically and politically,
and therefore militarily. The Saigon army abandoned the battlefield
well before the final Communist offensive in March 1975. Moreover,
with the Watergate scandal, the Nixon Administration was on the
defensive after 1973, both with the American public and Congress,
and after Nixon’s forced resignation the new American President,
Gerald Ford, was simply in no position to help the economically
and politically bankrupt Thieu regime. The American army, at this
point, was too demoralized to reenter the war. Washington correctly
assumed that its diplomatic strategy had won Moscow and Peking to
its side by threatening to swing its power to the enemy of whatever
nation would not support its Vietnam strategy – triangular diplomacy.

But
it was irrelevant what Hanoi’s former allies did – and essentially
they did what the Americans wanted by cutting military aid to the
Vietnamese Communists. The basic problem was in Saigon: the regime
was falling apart for reasons having nothing to do with military
equipment. The Communists were stunned by their fast, total victory
over the nominally superior Saigon army, which refused to fight
and immediately disintegrated.

Thus
ended the most significant American foreign effort since 1945. There
are so many obvious parallels with their futile projects in Iraq
and Afghanistan today, and the lessons are so clear, that we have
to conclude that successive administrations in Washington have no
capacity whatsoever to learn from past errors. Total defeat in Vietnam
30 years ago should have been a warning to the U.S.: wars are too
complicated for any nation, even the most powerful, to undertake
without grave risk. They are not simply military exercises in which
equipment and firepower is decisive, but political, ideological,
and economic challenges also. The events of South Vietnam 30 years
ago should have proven that. It did not.

May
9, 2005

Gabriel
Kolko [send him mail]
is the author of Century
of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914
, Another
Century of War?
, and Anatomy
of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience
.

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