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Vietnam War: Did America Have A Shot at Victory?

B-52
B-52 bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Could America Have Won the Vietnam War?: On August 30, 2021, the last United States military personnel “officially” departed from Afghanistan – essentially ending America’s longest war. The Taliban quickly returned to power, and soon questions were asked about what the U.S. and its allies accomplished.

Similar questions were asked after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

The U.S. had withdrawn ground troops more than two years earlier, but after which peace talks broke down and the fighting continued. Without the U.S. forces on the ground, the Republic of Vietnam faced numerous setbacks – and in early 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam launched its “Ho Chi Minh Campaign.” 

Despite a last-ditch defense, the war was lost.

Vietnam War: Could America Have Won? 

A question routinely asked after more than four and a half decades is whether the United States could have “won” the war. Multiple books have been written on the matter, and courses taught on the subject.

To summarize the general consensus, the United States could have likely never won the war as it was fought. It was essentially defending South Vietnam from an invasion – while it fought an enemy that could retreat without fear of destruction. The core objective of Washington was always the preservation of a non-communist South Vietnam, and it sought to achieve that goal by pursuing a “limited war” with the primary aim of coercing North Vietnam into a negotiated settlement.

Of course, that didn’t work out, but it likely never could have worked.

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. Yet, such a move would have likely drawn China into the conflict – and even if that didn’t happen, as was seen in Afghanistan, the United States would have been forced to wage a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign that likely would have lasted for years.

Just as the Taliban waited out the United States, there is little reason to believe that the Viet Cong wouldn’t have done the exact same thing.

It has been said that the U.S. actually won the war – as it successfully defeated North Vietnam and Viet Cong in every significant battle – yet lost the peace. Regardless, more than 58,000 U.S. military personnel were killed in what is arguably a pointless war. To them and their families, the “victory” on the battlefield is a hollow one at best.

Noted author Dr. Fredrik Logevall has taken the view that as a “civil war,” in which the United States took a side, it was always going to present challenges, and true victory was never certain. “The war had to be won politically or not at all,”  suggested Logevall. Moreover, the nature of the corrupt South Vietnamese government meant that victory was never really a possibility.

North Vietnam never faced a popular uprising, never had difficulty collecting taxes or recruiting from the population, while South Vietnam faced a lack of support among its own populace. To win wouldn’t have just required that the United States unite the country by invasion of the north, but by completely replacing the government with something that was acceptable to all parties.

For those reasons, the simple answer is that a U.S. victory in Vietnam was an unachievable goal.

Yet, it should be remembered that the United States still “won” the Cold War just over a decade later. The unfortunate outcome in Vietnam didn’t trigger a U.S. retreat from responsibility into isolationism. 

If anything, the United States returned to the world stage more determined under President Ronald Reagan. It was the Soviet Union that collapsed – following its own “Vietnam War” in Afghanistan

A-4 Skyhawk

U.S. Navy Douglas A-4F Skyhawk of Attack Carrier Air Wing 21 (CVW-21) are parked on the flight deck of the attack aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19), armed for a mission over Vietnam on 25 May 1972. Skyhawks NP-501 (BuNo 155046), -505 (BuNo 154996), and -510 were assigned to Attack Squadron 55 (VA-55) “Warhorses”, NP-316 to VA-212 “Rampant Raiders”, NP-412 and NP-416 to VA-164 “Ghost Riders”. The aircraft are armed with Mk 82 (500 lb/227 kg) and Mk 83 (1000 lb/454 kg) bombs. CVW-21 was assigned to the Hancock for a deployment to Vietnam from 7 January to 3 October 1972.

Though the two-decade-long U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and the sudden withdrawal, will be questioned for years. The point to ask now is whether China will make its own mistake in thinking it can work with the Taliban, only to get dragged into another quagmire.

Vietnam War: A Story in Pictures

Vietnam War F-4 Phantom

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

USS New Jersey

30 Sep 1968 — The battleship USS New Jersey fires its 16-inch guns into the demilitarized zone here 9/30. These were the first shells fired by the New Jersey in the Vietnamese war. The vessel is the only battleship on active duty in the U.S. Navy.

A-4 Skyhawk

U.S. Navy Douglas A-4F Skyhawk of Attack Carrier Air Wing 21 (CVW-21) are parked on the flight deck of the attack aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19), armed for a mission over Vietnam on 25 May 1972. Skyhawks NP-501 (BuNo 155046), -505 (BuNo 154996), and -510 were assigned to Attack Squadron 55 (VA-55) “Warhorses”, NP-316 to VA-212 “Rampant Raiders”, NP-412 and NP-416 to VA-164 “Ghost Riders”. The aircraft are armed with Mk 82 (500 lb/227 kg) and Mk 83 (1000 lb/454 kg) bombs. CVW-21 was assigned to the Hancock for a deployment to Vietnam from 7 January to 3 October 1972.

Vietnam War Friendly Fire

Image: Creative Commons.

=Image: Chinese Internet.A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Jack

    November 17, 2022 at 10:18 am

    If we had been helping Ukrainians in Vietnam we would have won easily in about two years….

  2. GhostTomahawk

    November 17, 2022 at 10:18 am

    America fought Vietnam how it fought the war in Korea. From DC thru the lens of politics.

    America defeated the N Korean army. It lost the guerrilla warfare campaign that followed that was lead by politicians in DC.

    What happened after that was the greatest stain on American history. The discrimination against returning service members. Black white or brown these men were treated like trash and the US govt washed their hands in it. It took decades to get compensated for the permanent damage caused by Agent Orange and other tragedies. We owed these young men a great debt and instead we pissed on them.

  3. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    November 17, 2022 at 11:50 am

    It’s common knowledge that the NV were on the verge of surrendering after Nixon ordered the carpet bombing of NV ports and targets in an attempt to drive them to the bargaining table. He should have continued the bombing in defiance of Russia’s meddling.

  4. Doug

    December 3, 2022 at 2:27 am

    Fighting on behalf of the corrupt South Vietnam government was not worth losing one American life for.
    58,000 Americans killed was an absurd price to pay.
    The French already showed in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu that the Vietnamese are very capable fighters.

  5. Mario Mirarchi

    December 3, 2022 at 8:45 pm

    You need to read this piece by Stephen Morris, a scholar who research in the Soviet archives after the collapse of communism:

    Opinion | The War We Could Have Won – The New York Times

    https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/01/opinion/the-war-we-could-have-won.html

    A couple of brief but salient historical facts:

    After the decisive defeat of the North Vietnamese Army at the Ia Drang Valley, the North Vietnamese realized they could not defeat the US in direct conventional battles. They decided on a guerrilla strategy. That also failed miserably, which led to the decision to launch the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese were convinced that the offensive would result in a popular uprising in their favor. That obviously did not happen. In addition to suffering a massive defeat, the follow-up CORDS pacification program decimated what was left of the Viet Cong cadres.

    As Morris points out, the Soviets were on the cusp of abandoning the North Vietnamese in 1972-73. We blinked first.

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