Following the change of policy under General Abrams, could we have persevered and won in Vietnam? I now believe that we could have achieved victory only by invading North Vietnam and creating huge damage. That probably would have drawn China into the war. It would have turned into World War III. We could have won such a war, but the cost would have been overwhelming. And it would have required enormous damage to North Vietnam, reducing it and its population to a stone-age level of existence. We chose, wisely I believe, not to proceed.
One handicap we faced during the war was that the government of South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem and those who replaced him was inherently autocratic and corrupt. The government had between minimal and no support from the populace.
Whether the U.S. could have reshaped Vietnamese politics so as to assure democracy and the rule of law in South Vietnam is open to question. We did try, without success. But militarily, we thought we were on our way to victory when the people of the U.S. decided the war must end, even if that meant shame and defeat. Meanwhile, our political leaders concluded privately that the price—World War III and North Vietnam all but destroyed—was not worth the gain. In short, we chose withdrawal and defeat.
That said, if we as a nation have learned nothing else from our failure, let us learn not to abandon the allies who have fought at our side and leave them to the mercy of our joint enemy as we did in Vietnam. We left behind literally hundreds of thousands upon whom the North Vietnamese wreaked vengeance. Our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest to me that we have not learned that lesson.
Could we have won the war in Vietnam? Yes, at great human cost and with world-scarring destruction. We had the wisdom and decency to accept defeat.