Why We Lost the Vietnam War (2)

Continuing on the question of why Americans lost the Vietnam war: Why couldn’t we have won it?

First of all, because we never understood the enemy and the fierce resistance to foreign domination among the Vietnamese that went back millennia. From the beginning of the war, none of our leaders had any knowledge of Vietnam, its history, or its culture. We assumed that we were fighting a primitive nation, hopelessly behind the times with little modern technology. Lyndon Johnson referred to North Vietnam as “a raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country.” His subordinates shared his view. Their ignorance spread through the ranks. Throughout my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam, I never met or even knew of a single senior U.S. military or civilian leader who had any depth knowledge of Vietnam, certainly none who spoke Vietnamese.

Second, we didn’t understand how the North Vietnamese chose to conduct the war. Earlier in this blog, I quoted Mao Tse Tung’s description of guerrilla warfare: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” The North Vietnamese doggedly clung to this stratagem in virtually every encounter in the war until the U.S withdrew in 1973. The only noteworthy exceptions were the battles of Dak To and Khe Sanh. Repeatedly, the North Vietnamese ambushed and harassed U.S. forces, then disappeared into the population, the jungle, the mountains or all three. The U.S. military spent most of its time looking for the enemy and not finding him.

Third, because we were so technologically superior to the enemy and so much better armed, we fought a war of attrition, measured by body count. We presumed that eventually the Vietnamese communists would suffer so many casualties they’d give up. We never appreciated their determination to achieve a unified Vietnam free of foreign domination even if every one them had to die to make it happen. Our resolve was nowhere near that strong, and we couldn’t imagine such tenaciousness.

More tomorrow.

One thought on “Why We Lost the Vietnam War (2)”

  1. Ignorance is why we made bad strategic decisions. It’s also partially why the French lost. There were some, perhaps many,who understood this. I personally felt frustrated by this during anti war discussions at UW Madison.


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