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As far as I know, the Vietnam War was won by the communists. But a colleague of mine, a former US Marine, insists vehemently that US won in some way or, at least, was set to win but they had an early withdrawal. Is there any criteria that could consider the South Vietnamese coalition as victorious? Did the US troops have any foreseeable chance to win before they withdrew?

Edit: Added a source of notability

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Sklivvz Jul 8 '14 at 2:10

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

A germane quote: “One of the iconic exchanges of Vietnam came, some years after the war, between Col. Harry Summers, a military historian, and a counterpart in the North Vietnamese Army. As Summers recalled it, he said, "You never defeated us in the field." To which the NVA officer replied: "That may be true. It is also irrelevant."” In my mind, a “win” for the USA would have been the surrender of Vietnam without casualty. The US did not achieve this, thus their efforts were defeated, in my eyes. What would be evidence that US did not win in the eyes of your colleague? –  Brian M. Hunt Aug 30 '11 at 16:56
Notability, please. What is the actual claim and is it repeated anywhere? Sounds like "if we didn't leave we would have won" which is not a real question! :-) –  Sklivvz Aug 30 '11 at 17:17
I would like to know in what sense your colleague considered the Vietnam war a 'win', but if he actually fought in the war I would be wary of directly challenging his belief in a US win. –  DJClayworth Aug 30 '11 at 17:22
@Chad: That's troublesome. I totally understand the military pride, and it's heartfelt. The problem with that is, the only justification a war needs is to have been started. –  Mike Dunlavey Aug 30 '11 at 21:41
@Chad: So much for respectful exchange... –  Mike Dunlavey Sep 1 '11 at 1:08

3 Answers 3

up vote 25 down vote accepted

From Wikipedia: "The U.S. government viewed involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of their wider strategy of containment." In that sense the Vietnam War was clearly a loss. Vietnam ended up taken over by the communist North, who remain in charge until this day. This was exactly the result the war was fought to prevent.

There are a number of ways in which the war might be considered a victory in some sense.

  1. Militarily the US were not losing until they had to pull out. The basis of this argument is that militarily the US forces were holding their own and might well have won the war if they had been able to continue. The withdrawal was for political reasons, not military, and the South Vietnamese regime was intact when the US left (although the 'political reasons' were at least partly due to high losses in the US forces). It is if course impossible to say whether the US would really have won under these circumstances - the war was certainly not going entirely the US way, even discounting the loss levels.
  2. The US won all the open battlefield battles, and only lost because of the guerilla war. Not much of an argument, even if it were entirely true, and there were certainly 'conventional battles' that the US lost. If you lose a war you lose it, even if your opponents used 'unconventional' tactics.
  3. The domino effect didn't happen. Part of the reason for committing so many resources to Vietnam was the fear of the 'domino effect' - that if Vietnam went communist then nearby countries would follow, and eventually the whole region would be communist. This domino didn't happen. While some would argue that this was because the Vietnamese Communists were only interested in Vietnam itself, others might argue that the opposition provided by the US prevented the spread. I offer no opinion on which is the case.
  4. As this article puts it: "Although the U.S. was defeated on the battlefield, two decades later Vietnam appears to have surrendered its economic sovereignty to its former Wartime enemy." That's certainly an argument, but doesn't address whether the same would have happened even if the US had sent no troops to Vietnam. Maybe "lost the war but won the peace" might be a better description.
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the strategic reason for the war was to prevent the domino effect (basically, by showing USSR that we would use armed resistance to communist takeovers). Therefore, your bullet #3 argues that the war was, indeed "won" in a certain sense. –  DVK Aug 30 '11 at 21:35
I think some cambodian may tell a different story about "Vietnamese Communists were only interested in Vietnam itself". –  Nikko Aug 30 '11 at 22:15
As far as the domino effect went, Laos and Cambodia went Communist (or what passed for it in those parts), while Thailand didn't. You could argue that South Vietnam lasted through the old war and was defeated by a new one (massive conventional invasion from North Vietnam) if you liked, though. –  David Thornley Aug 31 '11 at 0:58
“The withdrawal was for political reasons, not military” – this sounds like an American version of the Stab-in-the-back legend. It’s certainly just as wrong. The withdrawal was because military victory couldn’t be achieved with the given resources. It was enacted by politicians because the military doesn’t decide policy in the USA. Loss doesn’t always equate being overrun. –  Konrad Rudolph Aug 31 '11 at 14:05
"have surrendered its economic sovereignty to its former Wartime enemy" - sorry, I don't quite get it. Is exporting products to US a surrender? –  vartec Jun 6 '12 at 10:35

The argument that the US won the war in Indochina rest on the assessment that the US had accomplished it's strategic goals by 1973 and that South Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia were capable of defending themselves against the Soviet and Chinese attacks if provided logistics and air support.

We were never going to win the war in Vietnam like we won WWII because the peoples of South Vietnam and Cambodia were under constant assault by the Soviet Union and China. There was no way we could have brought a definitive end to the conflict until the fall of Communism in the 1990s. South Vietnam would have looked like South Korea.

In Vietnam, the indigenous Viet Cong were completely destroyed in the Tet Offensive of spring of 1968. Deluding themselves into believing that the people of South Vietnam would rise up and join them if they could only seize control even temporally, the North Vietnamese and their Soviet masters, threw the whole of the Viet Cong into a single roll of the dice to seize as much of the country as possible. However, the people of South Vietnam did not rise up, not even in places held for weeks. And the Viet Cong were virtually exterminated. The the mass murders, tortures and general brutalities committed by the Viet Cong while they did have control ended forever any remaining positive beliefs the people of the South had of the communist.

For the next 7 years, the war would be exclusively one of fighting off successive waves of invasions from the North.

With the change in US administrations came a radical change in US tactics. Westmorelands attempts to refight WWII in Europe with just non-Vietnamese troops were replaced by the Marines proven success with hearts and minds and Vietnamization. A vast militia system was set up wherein every small town and village was trained and armed to protect itself form North Vietnamese raids and terrorism.

In 1973, the US began a rapid draw down of ground troops who were replaced by the South Vietnamese. In early 1974, the North Vietnamese attacked across the border. The attack was bloodily repulsed by South Vietnamese ground troops supported by US airpower. South Vietnam was largely politically stable and had a functioning military. It could defend itself if the US provided an offset for the huge amounts of money and material the Soviets and Chinese were pouring into the North.

In late IIRC 1974, early 1975, Edward Kennedy in the US Senate and Tom Harkin in the House of representatives sponsored a bill that, despite our promises otherwise, cut off all military and humanity aid to South Vietnam and Cambodia. North Vietnam invaded the south with a conventional heavy military force using more tanks than Hitler used to conquer France. The south Vietnamese military held out until their ammunition ran out and it became clear they had been betrayed and left to face alone North Vietnam, operating as a fully supported proxy of both the Soviet Union and Mao in China. At that point, South Vietnam disintegrated as each family tried to save who they could. Very much like those who fled the German invasion of Western Europe in WWII.

The results of our abandoment of the defense of the people of Indochina are beyond the scope of the question and to horrible and extensive to detail in the space available.

Suffice to say it was every bit the equivelent of abandon Europe to the Nazi's and the Holocaust. Cambodia suffered the worse proportional mass murder in the 20th century with 1.5 million out of a population fo 5-7 million killed within five years. Everyone with education was killed and the country was left littered with mines. The Stalinist Ho Chi min murdered 180,000 outright, "reeducated" and starved unknown thousands more and drove millions of more out as destitute and exploited refugees. Endless atrocity filled intricate Communist war dragged on 20 years until the fall of Communism.

Our abandonment of Indochina was the worst thing that America has done since at least since the Civil War and probably ever. It was ever bit as cruel and callous as if we had known fully about the Holocaust of WWII and then just left the Nazi in charge of Europe.

Worse, we did so purely for matters of internal domestic social and political conflict.

Those who claim we won the war really mean that we had reached the point where Vietnam could defend itself with enough American help to offset the Stalinist. superpowers. This is completely true (as far as any version of history is true.)

The arguments that the war was impossible to win were just attempts to explain the strategic blunders and systemic mismanagement of two Democratic administrations. What better excuse is there for bungling a war than the assertion that nobody could possible win it? The end of the Cold War revealed that all the arguments against continue to support the people of Indochina were at best wrong and at times, simply delusional.

But the reality is that even though we could have won to the extent we won Korea at the very least, in actuality we lost and lost bad. We lost for the reason most polities in history lost wars, we focused on our internal conflicts and ignored the external enemy. We weren't divided by the war, we lost the war because were we were divided.

But we did lose, and there no sense sugar coating it.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

The question is problematic. The nature of the war was perceived very differently by different parties.

There is a school of thought saying it was all a huge mistake, for example:

Barbara W. Tuchman, "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam" Balantine, 1984, ISBN 0-345-30823-9.

Americans tended to see it in terms of containing Communism and avoiding the "domino effect".

Vietnamese tended to see it in terms of freedom from occupation (by the French, then the U.S.), and would get help from anyone willing to help them.

The whole idea of distinguishing North from South Vietnam was artificial.

America was definitely of two minds about it, and there were opportunities to bring peace early. There is strong evidence that the war was extended for political reasons in the U.S. Here is part of a conversation in which president Johnson is noticing that Nixon is trying to sabotage the Paris Peace Accords weeks before the presidential election in 1968.

> We have found that our friend, the Republican nominee—our California friend—has been playing on the outskirts with our enemies and our friends, both—our allies and the others. He’s been doing it through rather subterranean sources here.

> He has been saying to the allies that “you’re going to get sold out. Watch Yalta, and Potsdam, and two Berlins, and everything. And they’re [the Johnson administration] going to recognize the NLF. I [Nixon] don’t have to do that. You better not give away your liberty just a few hours before I can preserve it for you.”

So asking if the U.S. "won" or "lost" it seeems to presume that it should even have been fought.

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Whether you when or lose a war has nothing to do with whether the war should have been fought in the first place. You can win an unnecessary and unjust war and lose a necessary and just war. America won the War of 1812, a war that started after its cause was resolved. For the latter just ask Poland, or do you think they simply shouldn't have resisted the German/Soviet invasion? –  TechZen Jul 7 '14 at 23:52

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