The U.S. Won the Vietnam War

March 4th, 2012

Don’t yell at me – this is Robb’s latest perspective, and it’s a lulu.  He’ll be disappointed if nobody jumps in, so have at it.


Let’s start with a couple of riddles:

Two nations went to war. One side lost over a million people. The other lost 58,000. Which side won the war?

Didn’t like that one? Cheap shot? Let’s try another.

Two nations went to war. One side immediately went on to be the world’s sole unchallenged economic, military and cultural superpower, the other went into decades of virtual isolation, quickly fought small wars with two of its former allies and was pretty much never heard from again. Which side won the war? Or…

Two nations went to war. At the war’s conclusion, one side immediately morphed into a small but effective tool for the success of the other’s foreign policy. Which side won the war?

By the way, the side that supposedly ‘lost’ won every battle.

Okay, you see where I’m going but you’re resisting. These are just tricks… trompes l’oeil (however the hell you pronounce that). Here are the more serious arguments.

Wars are fought for strategic purposes. The Vietnam War was fought to stem the tide of communism in Southeast Asia. The so called Domino Effect. Now I am aware that some of the great geopolitical minds of our time (such as Rob Reiner) have called bullshit on the idea of a domino effect but let’s see. With the occasion of U.S. military resistance, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma all fell under autocratic communist dictatorship; so, I think the idea of a domino effect is pretty well vindicated.

So, how then was the war won, you ask? Because our strategic goal was accomplished.

All of the great tides of history rest upon an idea. Christianity, Islam, Chinese hegemony or Aryan superiority and lebensraum; just add these to the mix and border scrapes and tribal clashes turn into great wars.

The American Revolution is an excellent example. Without the Age of Reason philosophers of the previous century propounding a totally revolutionary idea: that man’s creator has endowed him with unalienable rights, (instead of endowing kings the right to rule, the Hobbesian notion that animated the two previous millennia) all you have is an incidental colonial revolt. With these ideas, the fight became the first battle in a world democratic transfiguration.

As I said, the idea at issue in Vietnam was communism. Prior to World War II only one country was under the rule of the communists: Russia. From the end of the war in 1945 up until 1962 when America entered the Vietnam war, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, the Baltic States, Albania, Belarus, the Ukraine, several Stans, China, Tibet and North Korea, to name a few, all fell to communism, so I don’t think the idea that this plague was spreading was exactly alarmist.

The only effective counterbalance to this tidal wave was American determination to stop it.

And in the thirteen years between 1962 and 1975, when we withdrew from Vietnam, something happened that was hugely significant but largely unremarked upon by the world’s historians. The idea of Communism died.

The rot around the edges had been present before. There were events that put the lie to the dreamy notion of a ‘people’s revolution’ before ’62: the von Ribbentrop/Molotov pact, the Iron Curtain, Khruschev’s speech to the politburo, the invasion of Hungary – all served to raise doubts in the minds of the intellectual vanguard.

But victory erases a lot of these doubts. We witnessed this phenomenon in pre-war Germany when the German aristocracy was searching for any excuse to depose Hitler but his string of victories made this impossible until it was too late.

In the 60’s, the slow-to-comprehend intelligentsia were beginning to grasp the lie of communism but its winning streak still made it look like the wave of the future. The west only had a tie in Korea and a murky outcome in Greece to cling to.

But by 1975, the shameful Czech invasion, and most importantly, enough time to observe the economic and social failures of Stalinism were apparent to the majority of political thinkers (Sartre and a few die-hards continued in a state of denial but were getting lonelier. The new breeds of radical leftists were content with simple anti-Americanism).

There are some great stories about knuckle-biting poly-sci students at the University of Moscow. By ’75 virtually no one still believed in the Marxist vision. We could leave Vietnam without an existential threat to Thailand or India, which was our bottom line.

And…a mere 15 years later, an augenblick in geopolitical terms, our main rival, the USSR imploded and lost most of its vassal states.

I’m not saying Kennedy or any other American president had the vision to see this end game. I’m just saying this is what happened. The luckiest country on earth won the war simply by fighting it.

(Brevity demands that I stop here. Coming: Part II, fleshing out the idea.)

28 Responses to “The U.S. Won the Vietnam War”

  1. EverettK Says:

    You almost have me convinced… except…

    The spread of communism, or any other social idea, is really little different from the spread of a religion (like Christianty, Islam, etc), and I think communism was doomed to fail from the start. People have been fighting against religions for millennia, to little avail, because religions make promises of things that can’t be tested. Communism made the mistake of promising things that not only COULD be tested, but were certain to become obvious to “the most casual observer.”

    The Vietnam war may have HASTENED the downfall of communism (and maybe not), but it’s pretty clear that two (related) things DID hasten the downfall of communism:
    1) The weapons race with the US, which the Soviet Union’s economy had no HOPE of winning. We basically spent them to death.
    2) The Soviet Union’s 9-year war in Afganistan, which was simultaneously draining their economy.

    And obviously the US didn’t learn from the Soviet Union’s mistake, because look what the US’s war in Afganistan has done to OUR economy after ELEVEN years of dumping hundreds of billions of dollars into that desert swamp.

  2. Gary Says:

    As someone who has a Vietnamese partner, and who believes that Oliver Stone’s “Heaven and Earth” is the only honest movie he ever made, I’m keeping my mouth firmly shut.

  3. Robert DeVere Says:

    You have spoken my own thoughts, and better than I have. With the benefit of hindsight I have come to believe that the fall of Communisim was made possible by our own staunch opposition, as expressed in our war in Vietnam. I had no such long-term vision at the time, and given a realistic option would have chosen not to participate personally. But I was there, and for all its faults and all its pains, and I agree they were many, I think we drew our own line in the sand and said, “NO.” We might not have understood it as such at the time, but I think that’s what we did. For those who lost friends or family over there, that is small or no solace.

  4. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I think we “lost” the war because we didn’t prevail. The amount of suffering experienced by the ordinary Vietnamese people is immeasurable. We lost 58,000 souls and for what? The irony is that the so-called communism of these countries still concentrated power and money in the hands of the the few, and these same are about to surpass us in capitalism. Reconciliation is important, but in my mind, nobody wins a war. I’ve worked with Vietnamese vets, and they are still haunted, just as the veterans of Iraq, and Afghanistan are struggling today. And the the U. S. is in extreme debt to the most “communistic” country of all. But philosophers have been arguing this for hundreds of years, haven’t they?

  5. Robert DeVere Says:

    I may be mis-representing Robb’s meaning here, but I think he is saying, and I certainly am, that we should not think of “The Vietnam Experience” as a war, which we may have won or lost, but rather as a battle in a larger war which we appear to have won.

  6. robb royer Says:

    Oh boy here we go, just upon what I’ve read so far, I’m gratified.

    Before I get into any other comment I want to say this to Lil: (I was thinking about adding this disclaimer to the original article but knew I would have a chance in the ensuing debate)

    To anyone who has lost a parent, child or sibling in a war, the war wasn’t worth it. I understand that. No war is worth it to those who have lost loved ones except possibly a victoirous battle to preserve the family farm or homestead.

    My thoughts are addressed to those who debate the issue in geopolitical terms and say simplistically that we ‘lost’ the war, dismiss the domino theory or other tides of history out of hand; or to those of the Chomskyistic left who claim that if the US is in a battle, we must be the bad guy.

    Yes, Bob, you interpreted me correctly.

    Everett. I agree with you that communism was fatally flawed and would eventually fall of its own weight, but events still determine the how and the when. Given other scenarios, communism could have easily gone on for another couple of centuries. Remember it still technically exists in China, who knows for how long.

    You and I probably agree there isn’t much we can hope to accomplish in Afganistan.

    Back to Lil, I understand your point and might agree on an emotional level, but I do maintain that a nation, especially a world leader, cannot renounce war as a matter of policy unless they are willing to cede everything they hold dear to whomever would wish to claim it.

  7. EverettK Says:

    Just to continue the devil’s advocate position against your argument… 🙂

    As you mention, communism still technically exists in China, and it WAS China that was largely the power behind the North Vietnamese (ditto for North Korea), NOT the Soviets. Yet it was the Soviet Union and its hegemony of satellite states that fell apart in the late 1980s, not China. So I still have trouble with your direct linkage from the Vietnamese War to the failure of communism.

    Of course, the strings of history are incredibly tangled and interwoven. The Vietnamese War (on top of the Cold War) gave the US a fine reason to feed massive resources into the “military industrial complex,” which forced the Soviet Union to try to feed its machine as a counter-balance, so I can’t deny that there might well have been some cause-and-effect. But I still hold that the same result would have happened, just perhaps delayed somewhat.

    Of course, given chaos theory and the butterfly effect, it’s impossible to know how much or how little things would have turned out differently had something as massive as the Vietnam War never escalated from a minor “police action.”

  8. robb royer Says:

    Ev. Of course the issue is of such complexity no justice can really be done to any position with less than a tome (or a library of them). That is part of my point. The one ingredient I would throw in the stew is: re Russia and China – I think Russia WAS the principal political actor early in the South Asian conflict because it was a mighty nation with a monster army that had just defeated Hitler, while China was still forming itself as a communist state. Remember Vietnam (American Version) was underway when China was just a child of twelve. So I think at the beginning Russia was the engine and China was the conduit; the balance shifted toward China as the conflict matured.

    One of the reasons their fates were so different is: Russia tried to loosen the screws politically while keeping rigid economic control. China, having had Russia to serve as a bad example, tried the opposite approach, so far with excellent results.

  9. Stephen Cohn Says:

    I agree with Everette’s last paragraph. We can throw analytical arguments at this forever and never really prove anything. However, I like the fact that Robb’s blog contributes some positive perspectives to a subject which which has viewed prejudicially with overwhelmingly negative moral judgments and without any of the considerations which Robb illuminates.

  10. EverettK Says:

    Stephen, are you quite comfortable, perched so delicately upon that fence post? 🙂

  11. Stephen Cohn Says:

    Everette – I don’t feel perched anywhere nor do I feel I have to choose which side of the fence to jump off. We’re examining an issue which, as I think you implied, will not be decided or changed as a result of our conversation. It’s only a matter of POV.

    I’ve always felt the Vietnam War was a travesty as I absorbed this from the culture of which I was a participant. One of the benefits of aging is that time and distance reveal new perspectives, even on deeply felt issues. Robb has articulated one of these…and yes, I’m comfortable looking at it.

  12. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    Robb, I don’t disagree with you on a practical level, but the results aren’t in yet on the state of our country’s influence. I think this is a hard time for a nation that is regarded as a democracy, I talked with a friend whose Grandson served in Iraq and Afghanistan-he is still struggling with his experiences. We quoted the old canard that if mothers ran the world, there would be no war. I don’t have quite as much faith in women as I used to, but, honestly, I think war and conflict is part of the human condition.

  13. EverettK Says:

    I agree with everything you said (in both of your messages), Stephen, just couldn’t keep myself from poking you a little. 🙂

  14. robb royer Says:


    I guess if there’s anything we can draw from this it’s: war can sometimes work out on a geopolitical level but never on a personal one.

    I agree with you that it seems to be an inseparable part of the human condition.

  15. michael hallinan Says:

    There should be a branch of history that deals with the unintended consequences of good intentions. Vietnam would be a good place to start. After reveling in our victory and dividing the spoils we could study the ensuing fifty year national hangover and chart our downward spiral from the world’s last best hope,to meddlesome neighbor, and finally to international bully. We became a nation that fought wars with countries that did not threaten our sovereignty or national security while engaging in an unsuccessful attempt to export our own peculiar form of government and economic philosophy to largely indifferent cultures. No country proved too small or insignificant. Grenada, Panama, and Somalia all became unwilling and unlikely dominos, victims of a post Vietnam “victory” policy whose only consistent and predictable results were failure and ensuing chaos. Iraq is experiencing this unfortunate legacy as will Afghanistan in the coming years. If victory means something gained it is difficult for me to view the war in Vietnam as a victory.

  16. Gary Says:

    Amen, Michael.

  17. robb royer Says:

    Okay you’ve given some red meat for me to deal with, Michael, let me try. Your point of view, though passionately and articulately stated, is exactly what I am attempting to challenge.

    It is the classic Chomskyite view that puts the most negative possible spin on every American endeavor. You seem to stipulate good intentions, but quickly snatch them back and lavishly heap calumny and criticism on this country.

    My mind surges in a dozen directions at once, but let’s start with Granada. Here you have a small island country infiltrated and invaded by Castro, trying to extend his influence over another Caribbean Island. We were asked by the president of that country for help, dispensed with what would have been years of conflict and misery for those people with a simple one day operation. This should be a situation beyond debate, but instead it is characterized by the America haters as a US vs Grenada conflict. I remember the left wing voices at the time saying ‘gee can’t you find someone bigger to pick on’? As if they would have actually been gratified if we had attacked Russia or China. Ridiculous. It was a perfect example of a minimum of power smartly applied which radiated positive, yes positive, results throughout the whole region. Had we allowed Castro’s putsch to succeed, the whole Caribbean would have become a battleground. Did we keep Grenada for our trouble? No. Exact tribute? No. Attack Cuba? No.

    Did the job and left. You really have to twist and torque to make something negative out of it.

    As far as something gained, you don’t think the fall of the Soviet Union is something gained? Really? The conversion of slave states such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia, to name a few, to vital functioning democratic free states is not something gained?

    From the start of the century through World War II and the Cold War, America has had temporary military control of North Africa, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, Korea and many others. Did we attempt to add them to an empire? No. Gave them their freedom and left.

    …usually after adding a lot of foreign aid to the mix. Winston Churchill has correctly characterized the Marshall Plan as the most unsordid event in human history.

    I didn’t see that on your list of US evil deeds. When demonizing all US war efforts in that fashion you end up with some pretty uncomfortable bedfellows: besides Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Stalin and Castro; when you mention Somali and Panama as victims of US ‘bullying’, you add Noriega and Somali radical Islamists to the list.

    I’m not trying to engage in flag waving. There are plenty of cases with 20/20 hindsight or better judgement, our choices could have been better. We need to constantly improve ourselves and hopefully we will learn.

    I will also take exception to your condemnation of us trying to export ‘our from of government’. There’s a problem with spreading democracy? Yeah, we really do fundamentally disagree. That’s exactly what we should be doing. We should be doing a better job of it and hopefully find less military means of getting it done, but I put it to you, sir, that there are only two kinds of government in the world: democracy and tyranny. I make no apologies for trying to spread democracy.

    In fact I’ll go further. You’re an artist, Michael, a special one, and I’ll bet if you lived under any kind of tyranny, you’d be the first, risking your neck, to stand up and demand democracy.

    I believe the far left has slipped into some kind of weird elitism when they allow themselves to believe that THEY deserve freedom but if others don’t have it, oh well, that’s their culture.

    So the Assads and Ghaddafis can rob their countries blind, lavish wealth and power on themselves and their cronies and if we attempt to counteract this, that’s just us being bullies. Enslavement and circumcision of women, tribal genocide… oh well… just their culture. Boys will be boys.

    There are three periods in history where one nation had garnered so much power that they really could affect events throughout the known world. Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. Rome and Britain built huge empires. We expended boundless blood and treasure ‘trying to spread our form of government’, packed and left.

    I’ll take it, no apologies.

  18. Gary Says:

    Perhaps if we showed them this:

    there’d be no need to invade.

  19. robb royer Says:

    Well, if we’re searching for areas of agreement, Gary, we’ve definitely found one in the Republican candidates.

  20. Remittance Girl Says:

    Is it going to make you feel better to think you did? Fine, then go ahead.

    Actually, ideologically, and 40 years later, you DID win the war, as evidenced by the following:

  21. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, this is a brisk exchange. I knew Robb would get everyone’s blood pumping. It’s like moral aerobics.

    I can’t come in here and pretend to be all magisterial, claiming an expertise I don’t have at all. What seems to me it that the war was a vast tragedy–millions dead, and I don’t really care how many were “ours” and how many were “theirs,” — and God alone knows how many lives were ruined, physically, emotionally, financially, and even spiritually in order to delay the triumph of the North by a few years. It also seems to me that Communism would have collapsed globally under its own putrid weight whether we had “won” or “lost,” and, in the long run, we probably strengthened the Vietnamese commitment to Communism by our invasion; and our bombing a country with which we weren’t even at war certainly helped to bring in the Maoist lunatics in Cambodia.

    By the way, the figure of a million dead in Vietnam reflects only North Vietnamese, Vietcong, and NVA deaths — in other words, deaths among combatants. R.J. Rummell, who did extensive quantitative analysis of the casualties of the war, puts deaths among Vietnamese CIVILIANS at two million. And once again, that doesn’t take into consideration the injured and the lingering threat of herbicides, etc.

    On another topic, I think it’s selective of Robb to defend our ousting of dictators such as Ghaddafi and Noriega, and so forth without noting that we also helped to put and/or keep a bunch of them in power (Saddam is a good example, but there were also Franco, Batista, Duvalier, Pinochet, Lon Nol, and even Pol Pot. I’m not passing moral judgment, and I’m certainly not far left; it just seems to me like pragmatic politics, pretty much devoid of morality.

    And I firmly agree with Robb that the choice between good and evil was clear when it was us versus Stalin and Mao, and that it’s also clear (to me, at least) that fundamentalist Islam is a repressive, sexist, retrogressive, murderous movement with both feet in the eighth century, and that the entire Arab world hasn’t produced one idea worth a silver dollar in the last 100 years. America has often held the moral high ground at a time when the people holding the low ground were terrifying individuals who could have, would have, and did destroy millions of people and also most of the values on which Western culture rests, and I like Western culture, although not exclusively. I do think Western culture is the best thing going for women.

    Nonetheless, I believe there’s a difference between trying to spread our values among those who might benefit from them and trying to force those values upon others. “Nation-building” was wisely abandoned for a while, and I think it should be abandoned again, as soon as possible.

    We also might note that we let go of Granada, etc., but we grabbed the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal Zone, Guam, Hawaii, and a bunch of other places and held onto them for varying lengths of time.

    To get back to the main topic, I personally think the Vietnam war was morally indefensible, in ways World Wars I and II (and even Korea) were not. As I say, I don’t pretend to any special expertise, and I’m not trying to refute anything anyone has said. I just think our actions were undertaken at a lower moral standard than we had previously held as a threshold for sending troops to a country and killing a lot of people — maybe as many as three million. And I think that’s true whether ultimately it looks like we won, or like we lost.

  22. Remittance Girl Says:

    “I personally think the Vietnam war was morally indefensible”

    I tend to take Andrew Bacevich’s view on it. Most countries act out of self interest; often, the one’s that don’t are more frightening.

    But at least Vietnam required a draft, and that, ultimately, is what forced a democracy to put its foot down and question its wisdom in being there at all.

    These days, America’s government goes to war without declaring a draft. It pushes the desperate and most underprivileged into the meat grinder and, where they won’t do, it hires its guns and logistics from corporations like Blackwater. Then it leaves behind a massive bill for the next generation to inherit.

    Almost positive that is morally worse, on all sorts of levels.

  23. michael hallinan Says:

    There never was a time when it was us against Stalin and Mao. The major flaw in the Domino Theory was that the two biggest dominos never formed a true alliance. They simply never trusted each other. Each stared warily across the world’s longest common border occasionally engaging in mutual sniping and predictable border bravado. Despite this fact it was erroneously thought that when small counties choose communism it was something more than the death rattle of post war colonialism and that countries that had communism forced upon them would miraculously embrace it. As Tim pointed out the Soviet Union would eventually collapse under its own weight. Russia was only a world power militarily. Behind the tanks and missiles were farmers hauling rotting produce to markets with mostly empty shelves. The price of competing militarily on a global scale was too large a burden on the Soviet economy as was the administration of what were then called satellite states The point of this long winded response is the assertion that the Vietnam War and the Domino Theory played at best a minor role in the demise of the Soviet Union and one could argue that its demise was prolonged by both by galvanizing independent communist countries in their opposition to America.

  24. robb royer Says:

    Well, I wanted to stir up discussion, which I did, along with a bit of a hornets nest. I think I now know how a dizzy field goal kicker or a black Republican must feel. I salute my attackers along with my defender(s).

    The only push back I will offer is this:

    To any of you who felt I was advocating the war or war itself, I wasn’t. Again I was only pointing out that…

    A reassessment of the POLITICAL fallout from the war is long overdue and I will go out on a limb and predict that at some point in the near future some serious historian will come along and say (better) pretty much what I said.

    I knew going in, this would not be a popular idea with the majority of the bloggers and posters. I hope no one was offended either by the post or the subsequent exchange. My goal was to try to challenge certain long and firmly held views possibly evoking a ‘hmmmmm’.

    Best to all.

  25. Philip Coggan Says:

    Once there were soapboxes, now there are blogs.

  26. Robert DeVere Says:

    This has been an interesting conversation. Here’s a link to a point of view worthy of consideration:

  27. Mike Schimmer Says:

    Kudos to Robb, Stephen, and Ev K. for a courteous and spirited exchange with no polemics or name-calling. The Vietnam War is a a complicated and emotional subject. Thanks for addressing it in civilized fashion. You guys rock.

    I was stationed in Thailand 1974-75. I was too late for the Vietnam War, but I was there for the fall of Saigon. Not pretty, but a defining experience for all. Thanks Robb, for your take on the domino effect. It’s ironic that we have reasonably good relations with Vietnam, compared to some of our “partners.” I suspect that political foes can find common ground, but religious and cultural enemies will never bend. Just a thought.

    Re China. I took a trip to China in 1985, visiting one of their new economic zones. I saw everyday folks with leisure time and money in their pockets. Right then I knew the genie was out of the bottle. Apparently, so did Chinese leadership. They opted for increased economic freedom at the cost of political serfdom. They were willing to back it up at Tianamen Square.

    I’m all over the map here, but thanks for a very enjoyable discussion.

  28. Yes, Me Says:

    No one wins wars.

    War is hell.

    Everyone loses.

    Love is the answer to every question.

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