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May 29, 2017
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Victor Davis Hanson

Why did America fight the Vietnam War? The military suffered over 58,000 casualties, and America withdrew in defeat. What for? Historian Victor Davis Hanson explains.

America lost the Vietnam War because of the premature withdrawal of U.S. peacekeepers—for political reasons and against military advice.

  • The Vietnam War was conducted during a period of the most significant social upheaval in American history, which resulted in the war being heavily politicized.View Source
  • Historian Victor Davis Hanson on America’s tragic and unnecessary defeat in Vietnam: “By 1974, a series of congressional acts radically cut funding of U.S. military support of South Vietnam. The Saigon government abruptly collapsed in April 1975. More than a million refugees fled the south. Tens of thousands of boat people drowned or starved. Another million were either killed, imprisoned or sent to re-education camps. The Cambodia holocaust followed.”View Source
  • WATCH: Hanson on “The meaning of the Vietnam War.”View Source
  • Related reading: “Carnage And Culture: Landmark Battles in Western History” – Victor Davis HansonView Source

The cause of the Vietnam War was just, but social upheaval and political calculations back home undermined America’s military efforts. 

  • A number of factors in the U.S. worked to undermine the military’s efforts in Vietnam, including new media technology allowing unprecedented access to the realities of war, major social upheaval, and unprecedented affluence supporting record numbers of students and intellectuals.View Source
  • Though the U.S. was successful in helping to establish a viable democratic government in South Vietnam in 1973, American politicians’ refusal to adequately support South Vietnam resulted in its tragic defeat in 1975 by the communist north.View Source
  • WATCH: Historian Victor Davis Hanson on “The meaning of the Vietnam War.”View Source
  • Related reading: “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” – Victor Davis HansonView Source

The real lesson of Vietnam: America disengaging from unresolved messy problems only leaves murderous chaos and dictatorial oppression.

  • At the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, the United States achieved victory in Vietnam, and two separate Vietnamese states were declared. As a part of the peace, the U.S. promised South Vietnam support and aid should the communist north invade.View Source
  • However, American politicians cut most of the funding for military support of South Vietnam within the next year. In 1975, when the communist north invaded the south, U.S. politicians did not follow through on their promises.View Source
  • The results of America’s failure to act ended with millions of Vietnamese fleeing as refugees or sent to reeducation camps, followed by the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that claimed approximately 1.7 million lives.View Source
  • WATCH: Historian Victor Davis Hanson on “The meaning of the Vietnam War.”View Source
  • Related reading: “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” – Victor Davis HansonView Source

If U.S. politicians had the political will to support South Vietnam in 1973-4, it likely would’ve followed South Korea’s successful model.

  • The Paris Peace Accords in 1973 helped formalize two separate Vietnamese states: the communist North Vietnam and the democratic South Vietnam.View Source
  • Despite promising South Vietnam military support should the communist north invade, when the communist north invaded the south in 1975, U.S. politicians did not follow through.View Source
  • The results of America’s failure to act ended with millions of Vietnamese fleeing as refugees or sent to reeducation camps, followed by the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that claimed approximately 1.7 million lives.View Source
  • WATCH: Historian Victor Davis Hanson on “The meaning of the Vietnam War.”View Source
  • Related reading: “Carnage And Culture: Landmark Battles in Western History” – Victor Davis HansonView Source

The U.S. defeat in Vietnam was a political choice, not a military necessity. 

  • At the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, the United States achieved victory in Vietnam, and two separate Vietnamese states were declared. As a part of the peace, the U.S. promised South Vietnam support and aid should the communist north invade.View Source
  • However, American politicians cut most of the funding for military support of South Vietnam within the next year. In 1975, when the communist north invaded the south, U.S. politicians did not follow through on their promises.View Source
  • The results of America’s failure to act ended with millions of Vietnamese fleeing as refugees or sent to reeducation camps, followed by the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia that claimed approximately 1.7 million lives.View Source
  • WATCH: Historian Victor Davis Hanson on “The meaning of the Vietnam War.”View Source
  • Related reading: “Carnage And Culture: Landmark Battles in Western History” – Victor Davis HansonView Source

The Vietnam War lasted ten years, cost America 58,000 lives and over a trillion dollars, adjusted for inflation. It brought down a president, stirred social unrest, and ended in defeat.

No one in hindsight believes fighting a losing war is ever worth the cost. Consequently, the Vietnam War is usually written off as a colossal strategic blunder and a humanitarian disaster.  

Yet, historical appraisals might have been much different had the Vietnam War followed the pattern of the Korean War, which the United States fought for almost identical reasons: the defense of freedom in Asia.

The U.S. had military advisors in Vietnam during the 1950s, but didn’t become involved in a major way until 1963. President John F. Kennedy firmly believed in the “domino effect,” the foreign policy theory that vulnerable nations without help would fall, one after another, like dominos, to external communist aggression.

Kennedy thus hoped to stop Soviet and Chinese-backed communist invasions in the manner President Harry Truman had in Korea by taking a stand in Vietnam.

As with Korea, it was a war the United States did not seek. As with Korea, Vietnam presented no “imperial” advantages: no natural resources, or resources of any kind, that the United States needed to protect or wished to obtain. As with Korea, the aggressor was a communist government in the North intent on taking control of the South, and its military crossed an internationally recognized border to do so.

Following Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963, President Lyndon Johnson vastly escalated America’s role in 1964.  But even as he did so, Johnson prosecuted the war with deep ambivalence, authorizing significantly more troops and money for the war, but never pushing for total victory. In contrast, the North Vietnamese never wavered. They ignored every one of Johnson’s many offers to negotiate a settlement.  

By 1971, the war was at a stalemate, neither side able to establish a clear advantage. The president, Richard Nixon, pursued a two-prong strategy – to turn over combat operations to the South Vietnamese, and to bomb North Vietnam. The effort brought the communists to the Paris Peace Talks. And by 1973, the North agreed to a general settlement, establishing two autonomous Vietnamese nations – one communist, one non-communist – in the manner of North and South Korea.

However, the Watergate scandal, the subsequent resignation of President Nixon, and the Democrats’ sweeping congressional victory in the 1974 mid-term election all helped to convince the North Vietnamese that America would not enforce the peace agreement.

They were right.

Without U.S. air support and material aid, the South Vietnamese had no chance against the North.  Well supplied by the Soviet Union and the Chinese, the communists gained full control over the country in April 1975.

The war proved far more costly than Korea because the geography and landscapes of Vietnam were far more conducive to insurgency operations. There were also far more restrictions placed on American commanders than during the Korean War. And the United States in the 1960s was a far less conservative and cohesive country than America of the 1950s.

Yet despite the long ordeal and terrible costs, South Vietnam was saved in 1973 – only to be lost in 1975. The US defeat in Vietnam was a political choice, not a military necessity.

Had the U.S. protected an independent, but vulnerable, South Vietnam in 1973 and 4, that country would have most likely followed the model of South Korea. Millions of Southeast Asians would not have become boat people and refugees, or been sent to gulags and reeducation camps.

A viable U.S.-backed democratic Vietnam would have stabilized the region and almost certainly prevented the neighboring Cambodian genocide, in which one-fifth of that country – 2 million people – were slaughtered by its communist leadership.

And much of the bitterness over the war on both sides of the American political spectrum, still with us today, would have vanished.

And for the communist Vietnamese – the instigators and aggressors of the terrible conflict – what was it all for? Today, ironically, the Vietnamese government aspires to nothing more than the capitalist affluence that it once reviled.

I’m Victor Davis Hanson, of the Hoover Institution, for Prager University.

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