I have ruminated several times in this blog on why we Americans lost the Vietnam war. Over the years, I’ve changed my opinion. I now believe that, given the inherent decency of Americans, we could not have won the war.
Until 1968, the U.S. had followed the Westmoreland strategy of search and destroy, assuming that if we killed enough Vietnamese Communists, they would give up. We underestimated the will of North Vietnam to win the war no matter what the cost. Ho Chi Minh had told the French, “It will be a war between and elephant and a tiger. If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges only at night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina.”
More succinctly he said, “You will kill ten of us, and we will kill one of you, and in the end it is you who will be exhausted.”
When Creighton Abrams took over the command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1968, he altered the way the U.S. fought to stress working with the population, shifting the focus from body counts to population security, that is, protecting the people from the Communists. He emphasized small unit operations aimed at defending villages and hamlets, forcing the North Vietnamese to attack U.S. forces in places and at times advantageous to the U.S.
Abrams’ approach showed promise. But by then the U.S. population had turned against the war, and, after the peace accords of 1973, Congress eventually stopped even our air support to the South Vietnamese and withheld weapons, supplies, and funds from the South Vietnamese military, assuring that the North Vietnamese would win the war.