Best Defense

Setting the record straight on Vietnam War’s end (I): Some false assumptions

Who lost the Vietnam war? Forty years after the event, the facts on that question have been increasingly challenged by a series of myths.

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By Arnold R. Isaacs
Best Defense guest historian

Who lost the Vietnam war?

Forty years after the event, the facts on that question have been increasingly challenged by a series of myths. Those alternative histories come in several variations, but in general, they minimize America’s failure in Vietnam and create a new narrative that is more consistent with our self-image as a righteous, successful nation. As we approach this spring’s anniversary, we’re likely to hear quite a bit of that revised narrative, so this is a good time to remind ourselves of the actual historical record.

Here are some facts that should be remembered:

— The United States did not, as is often alleged, cut off aid to South Vietnam after American troops left. In a series of votes in August 1974, lawmakers cute back but did not end Vietnam’s military assistance appropriation, reducing it from a little over $1.1 billion the previous year to $700 million for FY1975. (These figures do not include economic aid.) That was not an insignificant cut, but not a complete cut-off of funds. The reduced aid budget was a contributing factor, but not the only one and almost certainly not the most important, in South Vietnam’s collapse in the spring of 1975 — at which time, incidentally, South Vietnamese forces were still vastly better armed and equipped than their Communist enemies.

— The votes to reduce aid were not the work of antiwar activists, left-wing radicals, and other forces of defeatism and disloyalty. In 1974, with the U.S. war over and the military draft a thing of the past, the mass protest movement was a spent force. But the country as a whole was overwhelmingly relieved to be done with Vietnam and wary of anything that might lead to further involvement. Once American soldiers were no longer engaged in Vietnam, Americans had little concern for what happened there. That mood was reflected in Congress across both parties and the whole span of political beliefs. The voice expressing the national sentiment was not that of a long-haired war protester chanting “Ho ho ho, Ho Chi Minh is going to win!” It was (to give one of many possible examples) the voice of Senator Norris Cotton of New Hampshire, a Republican of the kind that used to be called rock-ribbed, who declared a few months after the last U.S. troops came home that he no longer had any reason to support hostilities in Southeast Asia. “I think perhaps it has a little more significance for me to say it than for some of my friends who have been fighting the battle all back through the years,” Cotton went on. “They have been doves all the time. I have just been a dove since we got our prisoners back.” In the coming debates over military aid for South Vietnam, it was the votes of those new doves, not the old ones, that were decisive.

— The claim advanced by some historians (call them the “we-really-won” school) that U.S. forces accomplished their mission and successfully beat the enemy in Vietnam has been welcomed by many veterans, along with more recent soldiers and others who like to think that American wars are always just and victorious. But that claim stretches the facts beyond the breaking point. It rests on false assumptions, beginning with a false definition of the U.S. mission in Vietnam. The revisionist argument is that Americans “won” because they beat the Viet Cong insurgency in the South, so the Communist victory had to be ultimately achieved by regular forces from North Vietnam. The claim of defeating the Viet Cong is a considerable overstatement, but even if it were completely accurate, it still would not mean American forces accomplished their mission. The legal and strategic basis of the U.S. intervention was that South Vietnam was the victim of foreign aggression — that is, from North Vietnam. The U.S. role was to defend its ally against those aggressors. (The South Vietnamese insisted that the Viet Cong didn’t exist, that there was no southern insurgency and that the enemy forces were all invaders from the North. The United States did not go quite that far, but consistently took the position that the Viet Cong was not a separate combatant force but wholly owned and controlled by the Communist government in Hanoi.) Thus, the U.S. military objective was never defined as defeating the southern guerrillas but to beat back the North Vietnamese. Clearly, that did not happen.

(To be continued)

Arnold R. Isaacs was the Vietnam correspondent for the Baltimore Sun from 1972 to 1975, and is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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