Best Defense

Setting the record straight on the end of the Vietnam War (4): Facts are important

A key fallacy in the we-won mythology is that it pictures the war as an American event, whose outcome was decided entirely by American actions and decisions.

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By Arnold R. Isaacs
­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Best Defense guest historian

Closing thoughts for this trip down Vietnam memory lane:

— A key fallacy in the we-won mythology is that it pictures the war as an American event, whose outcome was decided entirely by American actions and decisions. It gives no weight to the character, strategies, strengths and shortcomings of either our enemy or our ally. It ignores relevant Vietnamese realities such as the endemic corruption that drained away South Vietnam’s political and military strength — for example, the diversion of huge amounts of fuel, medicine and other supplies sold off on the black market (with significant quantities ending up in enemy hands), or the common practice of keeping dead and wounded soldiers or deserters on official rosters so that commanders could continue pocketing their salaries. As a result of those practices, the real number of troops available for duty in many units was half or less than was listed on charts at higher headquarters, while supplies — fuel in particular — were often not available where they were supposed to be. Corruption undermined leadership, too. With command positions regularly purchased and used for personal gain, promotions were not based on courage and military competence but often, exactly the reverse.

— Similarly, the revisionists ignore the economic catastrophe — equivalent in its effects to America’s Great Depression — that demoralized South Vietnam in 1973 and 1974. That downturn had almost nothing to do with the cuts in U.S. aid. It reflected a disastrous combination of events: the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs with the closing of U.S. bases, while successive years of poor harvests and the Mideast oil embargo led to sharp rises in rice and fuel prices. Skyrocketing living costs brought hardship and hunger to both soldiers and civilians. Desertions soared in the army, where a soldier’s pay was no longer enough to buy rice for his family. So did black-market sales of military supplies. The devastated economy was another major factor in the 1975 collapse, but almost always goes unmentioned in the revisionists’ tunnel-vision history.

That history, and the “Congress lost Vietnam” myth that derives from it, brings to mind a story about Confederate general George Pickett’s response when he was asked why the South lost the Civil War. According to historian Ronald Spector, Pickett supposedly answered: “Well, I kinda think the Yankees had a little something to do with it.” The Vietnamese, both our allies and our enemies, had a little something to do with the American shipwreck in Vietnam, too.

It is not hard to understand why a fictitious, feel-good history has taken such hold in America’s memories of Vietnam. Putting all the blame on Congress, war protesters and left-wingers for the defeat exonerates those who were actually responsible for U.S. policy and those who conducted the war; not surprisingly, that makes it a popular argument among former U.S. policymakers and military commanders. The myth that not only were U.S. military forces not defeated in battle (true, more or less, but also irrelevant, as a North Vietnamese officer told an anguished American in the war’s last days), but that the American military effort was actually successful, and that U.S. troops left Vietnam having beaten the enemy they came to fight, is comforting for veterans and for a country that wants to admire and respect its soldiers. But making ourselves feel better is not a valid reason for remembering a false history.

The factual record shows beyond any reasonable doubt that America did not win in Vietnam. Nor was the war lost because a successful effort was undermined by opposition at home. The defeat was due to flawed policies rooted in a profoundly faulty understanding of both our enemy and our ally, a consistent refusal to face unwelcome facts on the ground, and a highly unrealistic idea of what military force can accomplish. Also beyond doubt is that four decades later, remembering those painful truths is not just a matter of seeing the past more clearly. They are unmistakably relevant to today’s conflicts as well. The more we refuse to see the facts of those earlier mistakes, the more we risk repeating them — in wars where the stakes are far higher and failure carries far greater dangers than Vietnam ever did.

THE END

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 and Vietnam Shadows.

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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. @tomricks1

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