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.
His 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, who were totally dependent upon us for resources. That assured that the North Vietnamese would win the war.
Whether the U.S. could have had the wisdom to shape Vietnamese politics so as to assure democracy and the rule of law in South Vietnam is another question entirely. And on that question hinges whether we could have achieved political victory. But militarily, we were turning things around when the people of the U.S. decided the war must end, even if that meant shame 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. Our actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—where we abandoned the Kurds who had fought by our side for years—suggest to me that we have not learned that lesson.
What does it take for us to learn the lessons of our failures?
2 thoughts on “Rerun: Could the U.S. Have Won the Vietnam War? (2)”
Tom, I honor you for your outstanding service to our country.
I understand why you were profoundly disturbed by the abandonment of our Vietnamese allies. You personally knew and had great respect for those South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers among whom you served. You saw many of them fight on to the very end in the face of almost certain death or imprisonment. We had encouraged them in this struggle, and some of our leaders, including President Johnson, had promised them our undying friendship and support.
What went wrong? Should we condemn our leaders for failing to support South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese violated the peace agreement and struck south in the spring of 1975?
Truth is, there was no way that the American people would have tolerated our reentry into the Vietnam conflict in April 1975. They were sick of the war; and the national media, including the revered Walter Cronkite, had helped turn their hearts and minds against any further involvement. President Nixon had promised that he would build up South Vietnamese military capabilities and turn the war over to them, and he tried to do that. Many Americas believed that it was time for the South Vietnamese to take care of their own problems.
There were other Americans who felt that we had broken our sacred promises and betrayed our late allies. They felt a profound sense of shame.
We now face similar moral dilemmas in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. We get involved in an area, we form alliances, and then we withdraw, leaving our allies to hold the bag
Some months ago I posted an article on my blog (jordans-journey-com) titled “Expediency and Honor.” I pointed out that our beloved nation has a long history of abandoning allies when our national interests dictate such a move. This behavior is not unique to the United States. Other nations do it as well, usually with much less compunction than we often exhibit in those circumstances.
The bottom line is this. Anyone who cooperates with the United States should always be aware that we are a fickle and unreliable ally. Presidents who make promises may be voted out of office, and their promises go with them. A war party may be replaced by a peace party, and the constant call to “bring the boys home” often wins the day. The generals cannot go it alone. Thus, in the final analysis, the somewhat nebulous concept of national honor is always trumped by what our citizens and its leaders perceive as our nation’s and their own self-interest.
That’s just the way things are.
Sandy, thank you. You expressed very well my own thoughts. I only wish that we’d learn not to abandon our vulnerable allies to their enemies when we withdraw. We left our friends to their fate in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria (the Kurds). What does it take for us to change our ways?