Best Defense

Setting the record straight on the end of the Vietnam War (3): Not a lost victory

Did we really win in Vietnam?

Jampacked with more than 7,000 refugees, the South Vietnamese Navy ship HQ-504 arrives at Vung Tau port, the South Vietnam' s most popular sea resort, and now the only port city in the Government hands. More than 20,000 Vietnamese refugees including those from Hue and Danang arrived at Vung Tau from Cam Ranh Bay, on board the Navy ships. The cease fire agreement was signed during the international peace conference on Vietnam the 02 March 1973 in Paris. (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)


By Arnold R. Isaacs
­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Best Defense guest historian

Did we really win in Vietnam? Some more facts to remember about the final years:

— Beside the claimed victory over the Viet Cong, the other key premise of the we-really-won narrative is that South Vietnamese forces on the ground and U.S. forces in the air decisively defeated the major North Vietnamese offensive in 1972, proving that the policy of Vietnamizing the war had worked. In that telling, the war on the ground was effectively won when the January 1973 peace agreement was negotiated. But that claim is not supported by the facts. The South Vietnamese recaptured the one province capital that was occupied by the enemy (though completely destroying it in the process) and managed to defend the two others that were threatened. But they permanently lost a chain of bases in the mountainous hinterland, leaving the Communists more strongly entrenched than ever in their traditional base areas. And South Vietnamese casualties, nearly twice as many as in any previous year of the war, were so high that some divisions, including several of the best ones, had still not recovered in morale or combat effectiveness by the time of the next and final Communist offensive in 1975. Casualties and destruction also permanently depressed civilian morale. At the same time, the Communist side also fell far short of its goals despite huge losses. Far from the decisive victory pictured in revisionist myth, the bloody 1972 fighting only recreated the old stalemate at a higher level of violence, in which South Vietnam’s national will and fragile institutions continued to weaken over the next three years.

— A key question the revisionists don’t answer is this: if things were so peachy at the end of 1972, why did the United States, after insisting for five years that any peace settlement must include withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from the South, have to drop that demand (over the desperate resistance of its ally in Saigon) in order to get an agreement? If we really had the war won, why couldn’t President Nixon and his negotiator Henry Kissinger settle on their terms without making such a major concession? The question answers itself: by definition, the compromise on that issue means the war wasn’t won after all. On the other side, Hanoi met Washington’s concession with an equally fundamental one of its own, dropping its long-standing demand that the South Vietnamese regime be disarmed and dismantled as part of the ceasefire process. That is to say, they hadn’t won either.

— Once the Paris agreement was signed, the revisionist accounts put all or nearly all the blame on North Vietnam for its failure to bring peace. But the truth, obvious to anyone who was there and was not completely blinded by ideological loyalty to one side or the other, is that the agreement’s breakdown was an entirely mutual affair. Neither side observed the letter or spirit of the ceasefire. Neither took a single step toward carrying out the agreement’s political provisions, which were supposed to lead to free national elections and eventual reunification. Both continued to deny all political rights to their opponents and to outlaw the expression of opposing ideas. On other issues, one might sympathize more with one side than the other. But by any possible reading of the facts, the blame for destroying the peace agreement falls equally on both.

(To be continued) 

Arnold R. Isaacs was the Vietnam correspondent for the Baltimore Sun from 1972 to 1975, and is the author of Vietnam Shadows.

Staff/AFP/Getty Images

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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