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Was the Vietnam War Really “Unwinnable?”

Vietnam War F-4 Phantom
Vietnam War F-4 Phantom. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

I always enjoy reading the works of my colleague Peter Suciu. But as they say, “If two people agree on everything, only one of them is doing the thinking.” With that in mind, I profoundly disagree with Suciu’s Nov. 17 article, “Vietnam War: Could America Have Won?” in which he supports the commonly accepted paradigm that the war was not winnable.

Vietnam War: Some Contrarian Perspectives

Among the salient arguments Peter makes is that “the nature of the corrupt South Vietnamese government meant that victory was never really a possibility.”

Well, with all due respect, American history is replete with military alliances binding them to nations of less than commendable virtue. Stalin’s Soviet Union during WWII stands out as such a partner. During the Cold War, South Korea and Taiwan started off as autocracies before eventually embracing democracy

Contrary to the claims of academics and media pundits, we actually came a hell of a lot closer to winning the Vietnam War than most people realize.

Two of the best books that challenge the prevailing view on Vietnam are A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam by Lewis Sorley, and Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, 1961-1973 by Mark Woodruff. 

I’m especially partial to the latter book. Woodruff served in Vietnam with Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment from December 1967 to December 1968, and later became a lieutenant commander in the Royal Australian Navy and a psychologist with the Vietnam Veterans Counseling Service in Perth, Australia. Two of the most concrete examples that Woodruff uses to back up his premise are the Tet Offensive in 1968 and Operation Linebacker II in 1972. 

Tet Offensive

Conventional wisdom cites Tet as the psychological turning point of the Vietnam War, where, due the scale, ferocity, and degree of surprise attained by Communist forces during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday of Tet, no less a Western media icon than Walter Cronkite deemed the war unwinnable.

Cronkite and his like conveniently overlooked something, however: The Tet Offensive was actually a crushing defeat for the Viet Cong. Not only were they slaughtered by American and South Vietnamese defenses and counterattacks, but they also failed in their objective of fomenting a popular uprising among the South Vietnamese, analogous to the failed assumption by America’s planners of the Bay of Pigs invasion seven years earlier. 

Consider these words from former Viet Cong senior official Trinh Duc: “First of all, casualties everywhere were very, very high, and the spirit of the soldiers dropped to a low point.” Or consider that former Viet Cong agent Duong Quynh Hoa bluntly denounced the mission as a “grievous miscalculation” by the Hanoi hierarchy. Even General Vo Nguyen Giap himself privately conceded that Tet was a stunning military defeat. 

But LBJ and Robert S. McNamara squandered this profound opportunity to finish the job. Instead, they halted bombing against the North. 

Operation Linebacker II

What a difference a bolder POTUS makes. Richard Nixon replaced LBJ, and during the so-called Christmas Bombing of Hanoi, B-52s raids utterly devastated strategic targets in North Vietnam and sent the Communists back to the peace table. American POWs at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison such as Medal of Honor recipient Admiral James Bond Stockdale noted how the raids blasted the arrogance out of their captors: “One look at any Vietnamese officer’s face told the whole story. It telegraphed hopelessness, accommodation, remorse, fear. The shock was there; our enemy’s will was broken.”

Sir Robert Thompson – architect of the British victory in the Malayan Emergency – was generally critical of American war efforts, but lavished praise upon Linebacker II: “In my view…you had won the war. It was over!…They and their whole rear base were at your mercy.”

Alas, thanks to Watergate, Nixon’s strong leadership on Vietnam didn’t last, and his successor, Gerald R. Ford, was unable to counter the Democratic-controlled Congress’s slashing of monetary support to Saigon, leaving our South Vietnamese allies stranded.

Misinterpreting Lin Piao

One segment of Peter’s article that I do agree with is where he states that, “The only practical way for the United States to have won the war would have been to invade North Vietnam, take control of its urban centers, and unify the country under the government in Saigon.” So then, why didn’t our politicians gather up the will to do so? Basically, it boiled down to fear of China, of a repeat of what happened in Korea after General MacArthur crossed the Yalu River. However, as Henry Kissinger articulated in his excellent 1994 book Diplomacy, those fears may have been largely unfounded, based as they were on a misinterpretation of a manifesto by China’s then-Defense Minister Lin Piao:

“The Johnson Administration…ignor[ed] Lin’s subtext, which stressed the need for self-reliance among revolutionaries. Reinforced by Mao’s comment that Chinese armies did not go abroad, it was meant as well to provide a strong hint that China did not intend to become involved again in communist wars of liberation.” 

I dare say that the greatest tragedy of the Vietnam War was that we squandered our troops’ sacrifices by not seizing the grand opportunities to win – opportunities that were ripe for the taking. 

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.


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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. phil stacy

    November 30, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    America wasn’t fighting Vietnam it was fighting
    a global takeover by communism so this was a win for America since the Russian empire collapsed. Traitors (Democrats and RINOs like Pence) then sold America out to the CCP empire. Traitors can be identified by their attacks on China’s biggest enemy, Donald Trump.

  2. Bender

    November 30, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    Good article. It’s always good to explore different perspectives.

  3. Magellan

    November 30, 2022 at 9:27 pm

    In fact I suspect that both parties were bloody tired of the war in the last months, and it was just a matter of who whould have folded first.
    At the end, it’s probably for the better that Ho Chi Min reunited the whole of vietnam under a single rule, otherwise today we would have another North Korea type situation.

  4. Jacksonian Libertarian

    November 30, 2022 at 9:37 pm

    No doubt a military victory was possible in Vietnam, but the American/Western objective was supporting Democracy. It was the Coup d’état in South Vietnam that ended American support for the war. Americans violently resist fighting to keep a Dictator in power, even when they would get the chance to kill Leftist Authoritarian scumbags.

    “Cultures change at Glacial speeds.” Jacksonian Libertarian

    The fact is until 246 years ago, all cultures were authoritarian supporting cultures, recognizing unelected tyrants as legitimate rulers (The King is the Land). Then American Culture became the most successful culture in history, with its separation and competition for power. The 1st of the 1st world cultures, the one all other cultures had to assimilate to become 1st world cultures.

    Given this cultural fact, we can see that American successes in Germany, Japan, and Korea, all took decades/generations of American occupation before democracy replaced authoritarianism as the only legitimate form of government for the local culture.

    On the other hand, American failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all failed because American Culture no longer supported multi-generational occupations. Nation building (Forced Cultural Assimilation) now lacks American Cultural support. Other cultures have become Democratic without American occupations, which slows the natural assimilation of the superior western culture down, so why occupy? “When they are Ripe, they will fall into Democracy’s lap, with no counterproductive effort on our part.” is the understanding of American/Western Culture. In this way America is no longer seen as a Conqueror by local cultures (which is all they have ever known), but as safe business partners and supporters of the Sovereignty of the local culture (if it is a democracy).

    Which brings us to the “good fight” in Ukraine. Ukraine is fighting for Democracy and Independence. They are “Ripe and have fallen into the west’s lap”. And therefore they are justly supported by the West in their fight against the Russian conquerors.

    Ukraine should be forewarned that should a Coup-d’état put a dictator in power there, the west will drop them like a hot potato, and feed them to Russia with extreme prejudice.

  5. Mark R Holcomb

    November 30, 2022 at 10:31 pm

    Try this: Secret meetings with Mao. In return for the U.S. recopgnizing the PRC, we get:
    A. North Vietnam partitioned between South Vietnam and China.
    B/. Taiwanese INdependence recognized as a declared fact.

  6. Andrew M Winter

    December 1, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    I will go one step further. I do not believe America “lost” that war at all.

    This is based on the answers to three questions, plus some reasoning,

    1. How did a nation loose a war when they achieved their most important objective? This was, and no one talks about this, to slow or halt the spread of Communism in the Indo-Chinese Peninsula.

    2. How did a nation loose a war and yet not one single battle was ever lost? Yeah I get the idea that who wins the MOST battles does not always win the War, but what battle did the US actually lose where the lose is indisputable?

    3. How can it be said that one side lost when that side dictated the terms for ending the war?

    At a certain point it gets silly.

    Here is a bit of reasoning. Has some flaws but it looks righteous to me.

    For 9 years America was said to be “not really fighting a war at all” in Vietnam. It wasn’t a flat out kill or be killed WAR. Not like say, Ukraine today. Nothing like that.

    It wasn’t until NIXON got re-elected in 1972 that he decided that if Vietnam wasn’t going to negotiate anymore, (they had boycotted all the peace talks), then it was time to show them real war.

    Xmas bombings of 1972 were launched. Hit Vietname so hard that in three days they ran out SAMS to shoot at the B-52s with. Haiphong was wrecked and the Soviet Union could not resupply N. Vietnam.

    Less than one month later, one MONTH, the Paris Peace accords were signed and America dictated the terms. IN 1973!!!!!!

    Most people look at the embassy evacuation of Saigon as THE symbol of American Defeat. But that was two years after the US war in Vietnam Ended.

    Did the US behave cowardly in failing to honor the commitment to defend S. Vietnam as per the Paris Peace Accords, YES. Does THAT constitute the loss of the Vietnam war? NO.

    It does constitute one of the single worst diplomatic blunders of the 20th century! The US has never been forgiven around the world for that act. The US is still considered to be the single most UNreliable ally any nation could ever have. But it was not the “loss” of the Vietnam War.

    So I will go there. Indeed that two week bombing campaign ended the war so fast that it was no surprise to me when the US did it again in 1991 – 92 to Iraq in Kuwait. No more foolin around for years when the task at hand can be done in 100 hours with a proper battle field prep. No surprise to me at … all.

    Warfare changed during the xmas bombings. And, it changed forever.

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