By Jim McBride, April 28, 2005
From the San Diego Union, forwarded by Dick Blaisdell
McBride is vice president of Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 472, in San Diego. In 1969 he served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army combat medic with a 5th Infantry Division tank company.
Thirty years ago on April 30, 1975, South Vietnam fell and a landslide of misinformation was set in motion. Communication critics of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the antiwar movement, the media and those who demonized U.S. troops as “baby killers, rapists and murderers” unleashed and reinforced a barrage of half-truths, exaggerations and myths.
Today, many young people do not know why the United States was in Vietnam, how we got involved and what we accomplished while we were there. Perhaps it is time to revisit some of the basics and question the “common knowledge” that Vietnam was a defeat for America.
What may be the biggest myth of all was that the United States was defeated militarily in Southeast Asia. This myth, that “we lost the war,” is the easiest to debunk. Virtually all military experts agree that America was never militarily defeated.
From the build-up of military forces in 1965 to the final withdrawal of our troops in 1973, South Vietnam did not lose a square foot of land, Communists did not control one city or village, any hill the enemy “took” was quickly retaken, and neither the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), nor Viet Cong guerrillas ever won a major battle. In fact, the infamous 1968 “Tet” offensive, which many say turned U.S. public opinion against the war, was a crushing defeat for the NVA and Viet Cong forces.
What makes the U.S. military performance even more impressive is that the policies of President Johnson and military advisors such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy did not permit our forces to defeat North Vietnam. The policy emerging from the Johnson administration early in 1965 was that the United States was coming to the aid of a friend, but not attempting to destroy or conquer North Vietnam. Yet, these same advisors urged President Johnson to escalate the war, thinking that more U.S. troops would destroy the NVA military assets faster than the North could resupply them, wear down the enemy and show the world that that the United States would not abandon its friends.
The resulting rules of engagement for military forces in Vietnam included layers of restrictions and limitations on what U.S. forces were permitted to do. A military advance on North Vietnam was not part of the military strategy, bombing and air attacks on enemy military sites and equipment were limited, U.S. forces could not cross the Laotian and Cambodian borders to interrupt enemy supply lines, and more.
While U.S. troops were able to successfully search out and destroy enemy forces in South Vietnam, North Vietnam was allowed to replenish its forces. Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force from 1961-65, said in 1968: “The only reason American soldiers are bleeding and dying in Vietnam today is because our leaders have tied their hands behind their backs.”
With those limitations placed on the U.S. military, why was America even involved in Southeast Asia? What was the goal? President Johnson repeated often that the U.S. goal was to guarantee the people of South Vietnam the right to determine their own future, without outside interference from Communist aggressors.
This goal was consistent with previous administrations, all of which agreed that the United States must make a stand in Southeast Asia to stop the spread of communism there.
By the mid-1950s, with logistical support from China and the Soviet Union, North Vietnam launched a campaign to impose a Communist government in South Vietnam. Believing that if one country fell to communism, neighbors would fall as well, like a standing line of dominoes, President Eisenhower increased financial support for South Vietnam.
President Kennedy subscribed to a limited advisory role, but still increased America’s troops in Vietnam from several hundred to more than 16,000. President Johnson, recognizing that retreat from Vietnam would mean the battle against Communist expansion would be replayed in another country, authorized the use of American troops in 1965.
“Our objective is the independence of South Vietnam and its freedom from attack,” Johnson said in 1965. “The task is nothing less than to enrich the hopes and the existence of more than a hundred million people.” In other words, the U.S. goal in Vietnam was to stop Communist aggression in South Vietnam. The goal was never to conquer North Vietnam.
For the eight years from 1965 to 1973, when U.S. forces operated in South Vietnam, the aggressive neighbor to the north was indeed stopped. And a democratic government in South Vietnam was allowed to grow.
After discussing a peaceful end to the war, the United States, North Vietnam and South Vietnam signed a cease-fire agreement in Paris in 1973. Having accomplished the stated goal of halting the spread of communism, the United States withdrew its military forces from South Vietnam.
In his book, AMERICA WON THE VIETNAM WAR, Robert Owens defined victory in two ways: (1) Prevailing on the field of battle; and (2) achieving the goals set for the military by the political leadership. In the context of these two definitions of victory, Owens concludes that America won the Vietnam War.
Although President Nixon assured South Vietnamese leaders that the United States would continue to support South Vietnam after American military forces left, both houses of congress essentially ended financial support. Unable to defend itself, South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Communists two years later, on April 30, 1975.