Vietnam is arguably the most misunderstood war of the 20th century. The popular perception is America waged an aggressive and futile war to prevent the spread of communism in South Vietnam, even though their people welcomed it. The Americans are seen as war criminals that bombed Vietnam to rubble and committed widespread atrocities, while the Vietcong and North Vietnam fought to liberate the South. The impression is of an arrogant superpower ignoring the will of the Vietnamese people, and defeated by overconfidence and shortsightedness.
The reality of the war is more nuanced. America fought a defensive war to help South Vietnam resist communist North Vietnam. Its plans were not to roll back communism in North Vietnam, but aid an ally against invasion and subversion. As for the people of South Vietnam, most didn’t want to live under communism.
North and South Vietnam at the time were very different. The North was rural and agrarian, while the South was more urban and cosmopolitan. This was one reason during France’s war to hold onto Vietnam (1946-54) there was little sympathy for communism in the South. Most Vietminh support and fighting during that war was in the North. 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 shows how much the South Vietnamese desired communism. After the French-Indochina War 1,000,000 Vietnamese fled the North while a tenth of that number fled from the South. During the latter part of the Vietnam War 200,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers deserted to South Vietnam as well. Even more staggering are the 2,000,000 people who fled South Vietnam after it was conquered by the North after 1975. It’s telling that when the North took South Vietnam its generals believed only one third of the population supported them.
The idea it was a mistake to support the South Vietnamese government and prevent the spread of communism is false. While there’s no denying 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 market economies, and develop healthy democracies. Who can say without reservation a stabilized South Vietnam free of communism would’ve been worse than what occurred after the North imposed communist rule?
The Vietnam War was another part of the struggle against communism during the Cold War. With hindsight the strength of the Soviet Union and its allies were overrated, but at the time that’s not how it was seen. To understand why America went into Vietnam it’s necessary to look at the context. During the early 1950s, when the decision was made, the Cold War was not looking good for the West. The Soviets had gotten nuclear weapons, China and Czechoslovakia had fallen to communism, and there were communist insurgencies being waged across the globe. Along with the decline of the Western European powers, and the general hostility of an emerging third world towards the West, it’s easy to see why America felt it needed to fight back against communism.
The Americans fought in Vietnam to show they would support their allies against communism. Despite what the pundits say the domino theory was not rhetoric. With the exception of Cuba and Chile all countries that fell to communism bordered on other communist states, and received help from them to assist that. Russia helped Mao take over China, and Mao had helped Ho Chi Minh take North Vietnam, just as North Vietnam backed the Viet Cong against South Vietnam. It should be remembered once the Vietnam War ended Laos and Cambodia, which shared borders with Vietnam, also fell to communism.
Additionally, during the 30 year long 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 states to give the insurgents support.
It’s also a myth that America’s conduct during the Vietnam War was disproportionately brutal and immoral. Most of the charges are in regards to widespread bombing, the Phoenix program, and atrocities like the My Lai massacre.
The bombing of North Vietnam was actually more limited than the strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan during World War 2, and against North Korea in the Korean War. It’s true too many Vietnamese lost their lives from American bombs during the Vietnam War. But there was nothing similar to the systematic destruction and firebombing of German and Japanese cities, or the use of napalm against North Korean cities that killed 100s of 1000s. The bombing was controlled enough that Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara often micromanaged it to prevent civilian casualties. That the bombing of Vietnam provoked more outrage than during World War 2 or Korea is likely the result of massive media coverage that was not present during previous conflicts.
The brutality of the Phoenix program has also been exaggerated. This was run by the C.I.A. and South Vietnam to identify and neutralize civilian agents supporting the Viet Cong and NVA. It has been portrayed as an assassination campaign that killed 1000s of innocent Vietnamese. In reality it was necessary to provide at least three pieces of proof to identify a communist supporter, and the majority of them were imprisoned, not killed. While there’s no question abuses were committed there’s nothing to suggest there were systematic flaws in the process. That’s doesn’t mean the Phoenix program is above moral scrutiny, but that it was less destructive than commonly assumed.
The perception that American forces committed widespread atrocities is also a myth. With the exception of the shameful My Lai massacre there doesn’t seem to have been a pattern of significant war crimes committed by American forces. Given the presence of many anti-war journalists in the combat zone, and that no evidence surfaced (including among the Pentagon Papers) of similar atrocities since the end of the war, it’s unlikely the My Lai massacre was a typical event. Without sufficient evidence it’s unfair to suggest America committed widespread warcrimes.
What has been well documented are the brutal atrocities committed by the communists. 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 tactics were typical insurgent/terrorist means to scare the populace into supporting them, and undermine the control of the regime in Saigon. Another typical atrocity occurred when they murdered 3000-5000 South Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the Tet Offensive. Even more appalling were massacres committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after the war that killed 1,500,000-2,000,000 of their own people.
Another misconception of the war is that American forces failed miserably at counter-insurgency. It’s true under General Westmoreland the Americans focused too much on relatively ineffective search and destroy missions. However, after the Tet Offensive American forces improved their methods to defeat the guerrillas. Admittedly some projects like the strategic hamlets, and methods used to neutralize the Ho Chi Minh trail, produced mixed results. However, other method such as arming the local populace, hearts and minds missions, the Phoenix program, and re-distribution of land, ultimately neutralized the communist insurgency’s effectiveness.
In fact South Vietnam fell not to insurgents, but to a massive invasion by the North Vietnamese Army after America withdrew and left South Vietnam to its fate. The South Vietnamese, contrary to popular perception, did fight back stubbornly but were defeated by a better-equipped army. It should be noted that while America gave South Vietnam next to nothing regarding weapons and supplies after they left, the Soviets gave the North billions of dollars worth.
Therefore, the Vietnam war was arguably a just war, or at least not as black and white as is commonly assumed. America was fighting a defensive war to protect a country and people that 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 far from idea but less morally dubious than the communists, and America’s counter-insurgency campaign was successful. Unfortunately, the Americans failed to support South Vietnam after they left, and it was conquered by the North Vietnamese Army backed by considerable Soviet aid.
The final myth of the Vietnam War is that the communists won. While they finally conquered South Vietnam after thirty years, the war did much to strain relations inside the communist world. This eventually led to armed conflict among many communist states. During the Vietnam War itself the Soviet Union and China fought skirmishes along their shared border. Even more disastrous was the Vietnamese conquest of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and China’s invasion of Vietnam in the late 1970s. These events helped split the communist states into two camps which allowed America to turn China into an ally against the Soviet Union soon after the conflict. For the communist world, Vietnam was a pyrrhic victory.