Vietnam is perhaps the most misunderstood war of the 20th century. The popular perception of the conflict is that America waged an aggressive and futile war to prevent the spread of Communism in South Vietnam, even though South Vietnam’s people welcomed it anyway. The Americans are seen as war criminals that bombed the country to rubble and committed countless atrocities, while the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army were fighting to liberate their brethren in the South. The impression is left of an arrogant superpower that tried to triumph over the will of a local people and was defeated by overconfidence and shortsightedness.
The reality of the war is much different. The Americans fought a defensive war to help South Vietnam resist annexation by the Communist North. Their plans were not to roll back Communism in North Vietnam or change its regime, but rather were to aid an ally against an invasion and subversion. As for the people of South Vietnam, the vast majority had no wish to live under Communism.
North and South Vietnam during this period were very different. The North was rural and agrarian, while the South was more urban and capitalistic. This is one of the reasons that during the Viet Minh war against the French there was little sympathy for the Communists in the South. Most of the Vietminh and major fighting during the French-Indochina war was in the North, while the South was mostly dormant. This is why Vietnam was split into two countries after the conflict ended; resulting in a pro-U.S. state in the South, and a Communist state in the North.
A few statistics illuminate how much the South Vietnamese desired Communism. After the French-Indochina war, as many as 1,000,000 Vietnamese fled the North while perhaps a tenth of that number fled in the other direction. Also during the latter part of the Vietnam War, as many as 200,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army personnel deserted to the supposedly corrupt, and wicked, government in Saigon. Even more staggering is the estimated 2,000,000 who fled South Vietnam after the end of the war. It is telling that when the NVA conquered South Vietnam, its top generals estimated that at best one third of the people supported them.
The idea that it was a mistake to support the South Vietnamese government and prevent the spread of Communism is likewise false. While there is no denying that the regime in Saigon was militaristic and undemocratic, the same was true about South Korea during the Korean War, and Taiwan during the Cold War. However, unlike South Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan were allowed to stabilize, build up market economies, and eventually develop healthy democracies. Who can say without reservation that a stabilized South Vietnam free of Communism would have been worse than under the thumb of Bolshevism?
The Vietnam War was simply another part of the struggle against Communism during the Cold War. With hindsight, the Soviet Union and her allies may seem ridiculous, but at the time they were anything but. In order to understand the American decision to make a stand in Vietnam, it is necessary to look at the context of the time. During the early ‘50s, when the decision was made, the Cold War was not looking good for the West. The Soviets had gotten the bomb, China and Czechoslovakia had fallen to Communism, and there were Communist-inspired insurgencies being waged across the globe. Add to this the decline of the Western European powers, and the general hostility of the emerging third world towards the West, and it is easy to see how Washington felt it needed to fight back against the Reds.
The Americans had to fight in Vietnam to show they would support their allies against Communism. Despite what the pundits say, the domino theory was not mere rhetoric. With the exception of Cuba and Chile, all the countries that fell to Communism bordered on other Communist countries and received help from them to facilitate it. Russia had helped Mao take over China, and then Mao had helped Ho Chi Minh take North Vietnam, just as North Vietnam eventually conquered the South. It should also be remembered that after the Vietnam War ended, Laos and Cambodia, both of which border Vietnam, fell to Communism as well.
Additionally, during the 30 years of the Vietnam conflict, there were communist insurgencies in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. These were defeated by a combination of good counter-insurgency techniques, and with the exception of Thailand, the absence of bordering Communist countries to give the insurgents support.
It is also a myth that the American conduct during the Vietnam War was exceeding brutal and immoral. Most of the charges are in regard to the bombing of Vietnam, the Phoenix program, and atrocities like the My Lai massacre.
The bombing campaign against Vietnam was actually much more discriminating than the strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and against North Korea during the Korean War. While undoubtedly many innocent Vietnamese lost their lives from American bombs, during the Vietnam War there was nothing remotely similar to the systematic destruction and firebombing of German and Japanese cities, or the use of Napalm against North Korean cities that killed hundreds of thousands. The bombing was so discriminate that Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara often micromanaged it to prevent civilian casualties.
That the bombing of Vietnam provoked more outrage than that of World War 2, or Korea, is likely the result of the massive media coverage that was not around during previous conflicts.
The brutality of the Phoenix program is also an exaggeration. This was a campaign run by the C.I.A. and South Vietnamese to identify and neutralize civilian cadres supporting the Viet Cong and NVA. In popular perception it is seen as an assassination campaign that killed thousands of innocent Vietnamese. In reality it was necessary to provide at least three pieces of proof to identify a communist supporter, and the vast majority of those identified were imprisoned, not killed. While there is no question abuses were committed, there is nothing to suggest that there were systematic flaws in the process. This is not to suggest that the Phoenix program is not above moral scrutiny, only that it was far less destructive than is usually assumed.
The perception that American forces committed widespread atrocities is a myth. With the exception of the shameful My Lai massacre, there does not seem to be a pattern of significant war crimes committed by American forces. Given the integration of so many anti-war journalists in the conflict, and given that no evidence has surfaced (including among the Pentagon Papers) of similar atrocities since the end of the war, it is unlikely that the My Lai massacre was a typical event. Without sufficient evidence, it is simply not reasonable to suggest the Americans committed widespread atrocities.
However, what has been well documented and established are the brutal atrocities committed by the Communists in Vietnam. During the conflict they assassinated 35,000 and kidnapped 60,000 South Vietnamese. These were mostly civilians, including mayors, judges, teachers, social workers, and doctors. These assassinations and kidnappings were typical insurgent tactics to scare the populace into supporting them as well as to undermine the control of the government in Saigon. Another typical atrocity was when the Communists murdered 3000 – 5000 South Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the Tet offensive. Even more appalling were the massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge in neighbouring Cambodia after the war that killed perhaps 2,000,000 of their own people.
Another misconception of the war is that the Americans failed miserably at counter-insurgency. It is true that under General Westmoreland the American army focused too much on relatively ineffective search and destroy missions. However, after the Tet Offensive the Americans improved their methods to defeat the guerrillas. While ambitious projects like the strategic hamlets, and methods used to neutralize the Ho Chi Minh trail, produced ambiguous assaults, other methods, such as arming the local populace, hearts and minds missions, the Phoenix program, and the re-distribution of land, ultimately neutralized, if not outright destroyed, the Communist insurgency.
In fact, South Vietnam fell, not to insurgents, but to a massive invasion by the North Vietnamese Army after the Americans withdrew and left South Vietnam to its fate. The South Vietnamese, contrary to popular perception, did fight back stubbornly but were ultimately defeated by a better-equipped army. It should be noted that whereas the Americans gave the South Vietnamese next to nothing in weapons and supplies after they left, the Soviets gave the North billions of dollars worth.
Therefore, I humbly suggest that Vietnam was a just war. The Americans were fighting a defensive war to protect a country and people who had no wish to be conquered by Communism. The Americans had to fight in Vietnam to reassure their allies and contain Communist expansion. American conduct was generally more moral than that of the North Vietnamese, and their counter-insurgency campaign was successful. Unfortunately, the Americans failed to support South Vietnam after they left and the country was conquered by the North Vietnamese Army backed by considerable Soviet aid.
However, the final myth of the Vietnam War is that the Communists won it. While they finally conquered South Vietnam after thirty years, the conflict did much to strain relations inside the Communist world. This eventually led to armed conflict among the participants. During the Vietnam War itself, the Soviets and Chinese fought skirmishes along their shared border. Even more disastrous were the Vietnamese conquest of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and the Chinese Invasion of Vietnam in the late ‘70s. For the Communist world, Vietnam was a pyrrhic victory.