My blog post of yesterday leads directly into today’s. What happened during the 1968 Tet offensive was characteristic of the war as a whole. For years, I’ve struggled with the question, why did we lose the Vietnam war. Now I’m ready to try to answer that question.
Some will argue that we didn’t lose the war. We turned the war over the South Vietnamese, and they lost it. I argue that the American people wanted us out of the war, even if that meant we lost. We were already reducing troop strength long before we signed the so-called peace accords with the North Vietnamese in 1973. But that agreement was in itself a capitulation. We agreed to withdraw all out forces from South Vietnam, but the North Vietnamese were not required to withdraw theirs. Few doubted they would resume their effort to conquer the south. Later, we reduced and finally eliminated first air support for South Vietnamese forces and then funding to aid South Vietnam. With Chinese and Soviet help pouring into North Vietnam, the South Vietnamese, stripped of our help, were overwhelmed. Nominally, our side was defeated due to decisions we made.
The contention that it was not our war I find implausible. By 1968, we had 549,500 troops committed to the war. By the time the war was finished, we had suffered 58,220 combat deaths. There can be no question that the Vietnam war was, as the Vietnamese call it, the American war.
So one way to judge the ending of the war is to say that the U.S. populace turned against the war and forced the withdrawal of U.S. forces no matter what the outcome. Another way to say the same thing is that we chose to lose the war rather than pay the price of winning it.
But that position assumes we could have won the war had we been willing to go on fighting it. I argue that short of risking World War III—against China and the Soviet Union—we could not have won the war. And ultimately, not even then.