Historical story

Could the Americans have won the Vietnam War?

USA vs North Vietnam. The greatest power on Earth and one of the poorest countries in the world. There could be only one winner in this match ... Or maybe the United States had a chance after all?

US goals in Vietnam were limited. The United States did not intend to overthrow the communist rule in the north of the country, but only to prevent them from conquering the south. For eight years, from 1965 to 1973, this task was successfully accomplished.

An infantry patrol to attack the last position of the Viet Cong during Operation Hawthorne (source:US Army Signal Corps - National Archives and Records Administration, public domain).

The US Army was not defeated and successfully protected the Saigon authorities from collapsing, but eventually had to withdraw. What should the Americans do to win?

1. Go ahead

Communist guerrillas in the South received support from the North in the form of weapons, equipment and soldiers. The so-called stream of meals and supplies flowed. along the Hồ Chí Minha trail, running through the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. North Vietnamese military bases were also established there, where Việt Cộngu troops could take refuge from the American pursuit and recharge their batteries.

It was not possible to combat the communist guerrillas without cutting them off from this base. The Americans, however, did little to bring it about. It was feared in the White House that the escalation of the conflict could lead to greater involvement of China and the USSR, and even to a new world war. Therefore, land operations in the territory of North Vietnam and theoretically neutral Laos and Cambodia were initially excluded.

Going outside Vietnam might have been a recipe for winning the war. Pictured in 1959, captured from Vietcong, shows Lao backstage on the Ho Chi Minh Trail heading south for delivery (public domain).

The stalemate that arose in this way was aptly summed up by Henry Kissinger in his "Diplomacy":

The [...] "Catch-22" situation arose:if nothing is done about the bases in Cambodia, the Vietnamese from the North will be able to attack South Vietnam and withdraw to hideaway sanctuaries abroad to rest and replenish supplies, making South Vietnam impossible to defend at all. If, on the other hand, the areas where the bases are located are attacked, South Vietnam and its allies will be pilloried as guilty of "aggression" against the "neutral" state.

In the end, however, the Americans abandoned their scruples and launched a massive bombing in all of these countries, but the effectiveness of these actions was limited. In addition, the Washington administration from time to time ordered the air strikes to be stopped and did not allow the attack on certain targets chosen by the military.

The US also did not decide on full military commitment, which would involve, inter alia, mobilizing the reservists. Sending additional units to Vietnam may have tipped the scales in favor of the Americans, especially after the defeat of the Tết offensive started by the communists in early 1968. Partisan forces were mostly destroyed at that time. Việt Cộng never regained his former strength. Also the regular North Vietnamese army was severely weakened.

Taking advantage of the communists' temporary powerlessness, the US military wanted to follow the blow and finally move the conflict beyond the borders of South Vietnam. However, policymakers in Washington were losing faith in victory, and the political and financial costs of expanding hostilities would be too high. On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that the United States would no longer increase its troops in Vietnam.

President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he would leave Vietnam. Pictured with Ngô Đình Diệm, President of South Vietnam (public domain).

2. Stop chasing the guerrillas

Until the aforementioned Tết offensive, the war in Vietnam was primarily partisan. Of all possible ways of fighting in such a situation, the Americans chose the worst. As Henry Kissinger writes in "Diplomacy":

They were deluded by the prospect of establishing 100% security on absolutely the entire territory of the country, and efforts were made to exhaust the guerrilla forces by undertaking exploratory and destructive operations. No expeditionary force, however large, could deal with an enemy whose supply lines ran outside of Vietnam, who had an extensive network of safe hiding places abroad and had such a determined will to fight.

The guerrillas did not have points to defend, because they did not want to control a particular territory. They could successfully avoid fighting when it was unfavorable to them. As much as 88% of clashes with US troops were initiated by Việt Cộng. The Americans couldn't take the initiative. They chose an extermination war, but were unable to kill enemies faster than they replenished their ranks.

This was the war of destruction. Civilians in Cholon, ruined after the Tet offensive (photo:Joel D. Meyerson, public domain).

Rather than chasing down invisible opponents, it was preferable to adopt a defensive stance and focus on defending civilian communities. This would allow the partisans to be cut off from the hinterland among the favorable inhabitants of the country. It would also help win the support of the Vietnamese countryside, which the American scorched-earth tactic effectively prevented.

3. Introduce censorship

During World War II, American citizens did not view hundreds of photos showing the effects of devastating carpet raids on Japanese cities. There was also no television coverage yet. At first, media coverage was not a problem. Journalists assessed the war positively as a fight for a good cause against the communist threat.

Everything changed with the Tết offensive. Although it ended with the undoubted defeat of Việt Cộngu and the regular North Vietnamese troops, it caused a shock in the US. Public opinion, as well as journalists, has so far been fed with information about the impending victory. The communists were supposed to be incapable of major offensive actions, meanwhile they carried out a major military operation and initially even threatened the American embassy in Saigon.

The media, impressed by the scale of the offensive, told the Americans a story that was far from the truth. Instead of portraying the failure of the communists, they focused on their initial partial successes. Coupled with the growing number of deaths among soldiers sent overseas , this sparked massive anti-war protests . Meanwhile, the presidential election was looming in the US. It was won by Richard Nixon, who promised an "honorable" exit from Vietnam.

Richard Nixon won the election promising to exit the war with "honor." He is pictured at an election rally in 1968 (photo:Oliver F. Atkins, National Archives and Records Administration, public domain).

American civil and military authorities have neglected the political and internal aspects of the conflict in Vietnam, focusing on its military side. They did not do enough to sustain public support for the protracted intervention. As a result, they also had to contend with the growing anti-war opposition.

All for nothing?

Many authors stop at the above conclusions. In their opinion, the Americans really could have won the Vietnam War. Some go so far as to accuse the media and the anti-war movement of stabbing the army in a "stab in the back" and undoing the entire US military effort. However, there are many indications that even fixing all the indicated errors would not be enough to achieve lasting success.

First, by the time of the Tết offensive, the guerrillas also had supporters in the South. So they could recruit new fighters and acquire the necessary resources from the local population. Consequently, cutting off the support from the North would be far from sufficient. For the same reason, it would probably be ineffective to increase the scope of the air raids. Anyway, the Americans dropped out during this war eight million tons of bombs and it is doubtful that the addition of more millions could make the game win.

Even if the struggle of American units against the North Vietnamese guerrillas began to bear fruit, the communists could switch to conventional operations and use regular troops. In such a situation, the US would simply lack the people and materials to conduct effective hostilities. They were unable to simultaneously control the territory of Laos and Cambodia, defend the South Vietnamese countryside from Việt Cộng, and fight in North Vietnam.

Total war… half-heartedly

For the communists, the only acceptable end to the conflict was the control of all of Vietnam. This goal was achieved at all costs, regardless of the sacrifices required. Meanwhile, the Americans, interested only in maintaining the independence of the South, wanted to achieve victory with limited resources. This would doom them in advance to fail.

The US did not fight the Vietnam War with full commitment. They were also not prepared to drag it indefinitely, as they only defended a fraction of their global interests. Meanwhile, communists, for whom victory was a matter of life or death, had plenty of ways to prolong the struggle and were ready to endure the consequences with perseverance. So to win, they just had to… not lose.

The US secretary of state, who brought his country out of Vietnam, devoted much of his considerations to whether it could be avoided. Henry Kissinger pictured on the right. The photo comes from his book "Diplomacy" (Bellona 2017).

The only hope for the United States was to strengthen the South Vietnamese state so that it would be able to defend itself. The chances of the success of such plans were soberly assessed by Henry Kissinger:

[…] reforms and state-building in South Vietnam could bear fruit, but only decades later. […] Vietnam was a completely new state, with no institutions to rely on. The main dilemma was that it was simply impossible to achieve the political goal of establishing a stable democracy in Vietnam in such a time as to preclude a guerrilla victory.

As Richard Nixon himself admitted, we could not win the war for the Vietnamese from the South [...], they had to win it themselves . Unfortunately! The government in Saigon was incompetent, corrupt and deprived of social authority, while the communists had a reputation for freedom fighters fighting colonial oppression. No wonder that just two years after the Americans withdrew in 1975, South Vietnam fell under the blows of the North's offensive.