Victory in Vietnam: The Myth That Won’t Die But Can’t Stand Up

post to UNC Press Blog, 6 May 2010

Taking academic history into the public square is always eye opening. A recent round of appearances following the publication of A Vietnam War Reader reminded me of the continuing hold on the public imagination of the myth of victory in the Vietnam War. Triumph was possible, so the argument goes, had only the public kept its resolve and were the military allowed to move decisively. While this myth refuses to die, it also won’t stand up to scrutiny. An expanding body of scholarship, including notably fresh contributions over the last decade, make ever less plausible this “woulda, coulda, shoulda” version of the Vietnam War. [See New views on the the Vietnam War: Suggested readings. (updated 6/6/2011)]

The myth of victory rests, in part, on the assumption that foreigners don’t matter. The enemy figures in the myth as a cipher or a bit player in a U.S.-dominated drama. As a result, political will and the concomitant willingness to sacrifice — both critical to explaining the war’s outcome — fall from sight.

Among Vietnamese leaders, the man who directed the struggle against the United States embodied that will to win in spades. Not nearly as well known as Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan was deeply invested in bringing southern Vietnam into the national fold. He had risen to prominence there during the French war; he had opposed the division of the country by the Geneva conference in 1954; and he had then lobbied for taking the offensive against the U.S.-backed southern regime. Finally, in January 1959 he got his way. John Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon faced a foe who had no interest in diplomacy except as a means to to ratify a U.S. defeat and who was ready to pay the high costs of wringing victory from the United States. The bold Tet offensive gamble was his creation, which he pushed through despite opposition from the more cautious, patient Ho and the famed party strategist, Vo Nguyen Giap. [see Ho’s objections in the Reader, p. 94.]

The men and women who carried the burden of Le Duan’s war shared his political determination. Victory would have been impossible had the Communists not been able to maintain the morale of their own regular forces and the National Liberation Front organization in the face of devastating losses and grinding hardship. In the course of the long struggle with the French, Communist forces had devised a system of political education, unit solidarity and collaboration, and family support. Applied during the anti-American struggle, this system helped to maintain a level of political morale that American forces never had to an equal degree and gradually lost entirely. [See Interview with a North Vietnamese private in the Reader, pp. 154-155.]

Political will extended to Le Duan’s main ally, Mao Zedong’s China. Its support was critical, perhaps indispensable to securing victory over the Americans no less than the French earlier. As Washington steadily upped the ante in South Vietnam during the early and mid 1960s, Beijing responded by gradually increasing its backing for Hanoi. [See Consultations between the Allies in the Reader, pp. 71-72.] Beijing put its troops on alert along the border with Vietnam, and it prepared airfields in readiness for any escalation of the conflict. It sent troops into North Vietnam (as many as 170,000 at peak deployment) freeing Vietnamese forces to go south. It supplied a wide array of goods in quantities essential to keeping the northern economy afloat and its war machine turning. China’s strong commitment in turn forced Moscow to keep up with its rival by sending high-tech equipment to Vietnam. Perhaps most important of all, the Chinese commitment — expressed verbally and materially — served as a deterrent to U.S. leaders fearful of blundering into another Korean War.

The myth of victory is no less faulty in its fixation with what Americans did or failed to do. Beginning with the assumption that only Americans could defeat Americans, the myth focuses on an assortment of supposed villains guilty of stabbing the war effort in the back: the liberal left, the antiwar movement, the media, Congress, or Johnson’s or Robert McNamara’s meddling in military affairs. However emotionally compelling, this blame game is poor history. The collapse of support for the war was a result of the pressures that the war itself created and that spread throughout the U.S. political system between 1965 and 1968.

Bit by bit, Americans — from policy elites to ordinary citizens — lost the political morale that the enemy had in such abundance. Even before the July 1965 decision for a major U.S. troop commitment, Vietnam specialists, close Johnson advisers, and even the president himself entertained profound and prescient misgivings. [See Johnson’s deep pessimism in the Reader, p. 76.] By late 1965, McNarama had also succumbed, and U.S. troops in the field were beginning to figure out and to communicate the hard realities of this war. [See Soldiers’ doubts in the Reader, pp. 65-66 and 128-129.] By early 1966, opinion leaders started speaking out publicly, lending respectability to antiwar sentiment already simmering on campuses.

By late 1967 the war was lost on virtually all major U.S. fronts. Polls showed that Americans were by then split on whether the war was a mistake, with a steadily increasing percentage of the “mistake” respondents favoring withdrawal over escalation. At the same time, antiwar demonstrations attracted massive turnouts and revealed a broadening social base of opposition. Reflecting and reinforcing these trends, media coverage broke from its heavy, uncritical reliance on the U.S. government perspective and gave more coverage to the very real ferment at home and in the field. The Tet offensive in early 1968 provided shocking confirmation of a war gone wrong. Johnson began and Nixon continued the slow and painful search for a way out. For U.S. troops, the name of the game had become survival; sacrifice had lost any broader meaning.

A substantial segment of the public clings to the victory myth for a variety of reasons, none more powerful or pervasive than the call of American nationalism. Believing in another, better ending to the war offers a way to silence or evade all the questions that this fall from grace raises about the United States as an exceptional nation, omnipotent and invincible, moving from triumph to triumph.

But this attempt at wringing a sort of redemption from defeat has a pernicious side. It fails to recognize that war is ultimately about politics — in other countries as well as in the United States. The proponents of the myth minimize the determination and ingenuity of other peoples and thus perpetuate the very ethnocentrism that got the United States into trouble in Vietnam in the first place. They also overlook the fault lines that overseas adventures can create or accentuate within American society. An ever better history of the Vietnam experience offers hard but valuable lessons about the limits of U.S. will and thus of U.S. power in a world where others live by their own compelling dreams.

For an audio version of the original presentation on this topic for the Program in the Humanities, visit the Program iTunes gateway and look under “Michael Hunt” or “Vietnam War”.

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