The big turning point in lost contemporary wars was the Vietnam War. It was waged by the United States, replacing France, which had just been defeated in Diên Biên Phu (1954).
Việt Minh advantages and the American adversary’s mistakes
The Việt Minh victory was due, among others, to its ability to ensure logistics far from its epicenter: all the material was brought over through several hundred miles of jungle on bicycles loaded with about two hundred kilos and pushed by men on foot. Such an exploit supposed an exceptional mobilization capacity.
Other factors were at play, particularly the mistakes made by the United States and their ally, Ngô Dinh Diêm. The latter, brought into power by the United States, was a Catholic, hence necessarily part of a minority. It was not long before he alienated all the sects and other religious currents, including the Buddhists, through a narrow policy of rejection. The Việt Minh had gained control of parts of southern Vietnam, confiscated big landowners’ land, and distributed it to the peasants. Ngô Dinh Diêm returned the land to them.
In 1956 (the year when there was supposed to be a vote on possible reunification), Diêm made the capital mistake of getting rid of elected village councils and replacing them with his Saigon agents. The villages’ autonomy had always been guaranteed, whatever the regime. State authority “stopped at the bamboo fence surrounding the village.” Diêm’s agents, foreign to the villages, distinguished themselves by their corruption and authoritarianism. They would be the first targets of the future Việt Cộng, which would then be able to have influence in the rural areas. The Communists came in as defenders of village autonomy and were soon to have the villages under their control. The National Liberation Front was officially born at the end of 1960.
Between 1961 and 1963, US advisers (they were sixteen thousand under John F. Kennedy’s presidency) applied to Vietnam the “Strategic Hamlet” experience that had been effective in Malaysia. The idea was to regroup the population in order to isolate it from the guerrilla.1 But Việt Cộng officers had already blended in with the population and the hamlet experience was a failure. In September 1963, however, US Commander General Paul D. Harkins reported that the United States was winning the battle of the Mekong Delta. This was the year when the South Vietnamese army, with US approval, got rid of the cumbersome Diêm whom they had brought to power.
One year later, out of the eight and a half thousand strategic hamlets, more than seven thousand had been broken up. In addition, in a total of sixteen thousand hamlets, ten thousand village chiefs had been killed by the Việt Cộng. War correspondent Bernard B. Fall provided a political explanation of this (1961) by noting after his investigation that three-fourths of the villages were no longer bringing in tax receipts. In other words, they were no longer controlled by the Saigon regime.
In 1964, General William Westmoreland replaced General Harkins and in July, the number of US advisers (some of which were taking part in the operations) had risen to twenty-one thousand five hundred.
Robert S. McNamara, US Secretary of Defense, declared that military action could essentially be completed by 1965. That was the year, in fact, when the Vietnam War became a full-fledged US war. The marines landed at Da Nang. General Westmoreland was confident, US fire power was considerable, and air control was massive. US technology was sure to be victorious, all the more so that the war was being waged assertively by the United States, confident that it was morally right and that this would prevent South Vietnam, and through the domino effect Southeast Asia, from falling under the Communist yoke.
Given that the assistance that North Vietnam had been providing to the South since the 1960s via Cambodia had to be stopped, the United States decided on a gradual escalation of air strikes north of the Seventeenth Parallel. The idea was to force the North to cease its assistance or else they would pay a very heavy price, that is, the destruction of all the infrastructure patiently built by Hồ Chí Minh’s regime (despite some serious agrarian policy mistakes that ended up causing a revolt in the Nghệ An province, the effects of which would be the subject of a correction campaign).2
Hanoi’s response to this air offensive was to move urban officers to the provinces and districts, and the industries to provincial workshops. The regime was determined to stand, whatever the cost. The destruction was significant.
In the south, the Việt Cộng forces suffered considerably under the deluge of US fire. The tonnage of bombs combined with the use of napalm, phosphorous bombs, fragmentation bombs, the free-fire zones, and so on, took enormous amounts of lives among combatants and civilians, but the Việt Cộng were not eradicated.
At the end of 1967, after two years of bombings and counterinsurgency operations carried out by the United States and their allies, General Westmoreland announced that the final phase would soon begin.
The Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive was launched in South Vietnam on January 31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese lunar new year. It involved thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals as well as more than twenty US bases. Until early March, Huế, the precolonial capital, remained completely under the control of the Việt Cộng, who proceeded to liquidate the regime’s agents. With painstaking efforts, US troops eventually regained control of the city. In Saigon, in a highly spectacular way, a sacrificed a Việt Cộng commando broke into the US Embassy and held its ground for many long hours. Việt Cộng battalions led an attack against the presidential palace and occupied the radio station. It took US troops nearly one week to regain control of the capital.
On the strictly military level, this direct confrontation was a failure for the Việt Cộng. But it was a considerable political success. As the offensive was unfolding, US and Western media described it as a disaster for the Saigon regime and proof of the failure of the US war.
The Tet Offensive marked the turning point of the war. After that, it became honorable in the United States to be against the war in Vietnam. US public opinion had been misled, the Việt Cộng was not in its death throes. The North Vietnamese had done all it could to get US public opinion on its side (visits of Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, Noam Chomsky, and so on).
Never, before or after Vietnam, was war shown so freely; never has public opinion been so well informed during a conflict. Criticism was liberally expressed in the media (Walter Cronkite and his daily reports). In fact, after the Tet Offensive, the center of gravity of the war was largely US public opinion, in a country where, at the time, people expressed themselves at liberty. This would no longer be true with the Patriot Act in the wake of September 11, 2001, no more than it would be ten years earlier during the Gulf War, when the only images shown and commented on were those aired by CNN, which was ruling over all information.
A long period of negotiations followed the Tet Offensive. The resounding publication of leaks from The Pentagon Papers by the New York Times at the end of 1971 dealt a very hard blow on US authorities.3
Lessons of the Vietnam War
Mobilizing the whole of the nation for a colonial-type war seemed counterproductive. This type of conflict can, in theory, only be engaged in with professional troops. When the war ended after a grueling but short period of intensive bombing (late 1972 to early 1973), the United States had lost more than fifty-eight thousand soldiers and officers. A great many were wounded for life and traumatized. Politically speaking, the “Vietnamese syndrome” prevented any reaction in 1975 when the North Vietnamese pushed around an extensively trained and well-equipped South Vietnamese army, which had no desire to fight and save the Saigon regime.
This was a total political defeat. Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, declared in 1995, thirty years after the military intervention in Vietnam of which he had been one of the architects: “I had never been to Indochina and did not understand its history . . . its culture . . . .” It would have sufficed for him to read Bernard Fall.4
The belief that technology was the answer to all and ultimately solved everything had not factored in the undoubtedly most important aspect of asymmetry, which was the prerequisite of having previously constituted a substantial social base and agreed to pay the price of war for the long haul. The major asymmetry was ideological. This is what is usually known as the moral factor. What matters is less the actual content of the ideology than the total motivation that it can generate.
- Thompson, Robert G.K. (1966), Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam, Frederick A. Praeger, New York.
- Chaliand, Gérard (1968), Les Paysans du Nord Vietnam et la guerre, Éditions Maspero, Paris.
- Gravel, Mike (ed.) (1972) The Pentagon Papers, Gravel edition, 4 volumes, Beacon Press, Boston.
- Fall, Bernard B. (1961), Street without Joy: Indochina at War, 1946-54, The Stackpole Company, Harrisburg PA; (1963) The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis, Praeger Publishers, Westport; and (1968) Last Reflections on a War, Doubleday, New York.