Vietnam Lessons, Myths, Mistakes, and False Analogies
Implications for Future Foreign Policy and National Security
On January 20, 1961, newly elected President John F. Kennedy gave a brief but eloquent inaugural address from the east front of the United States Capitol in Washington. At 43, Kennedy was the second youngest to hold the office. But the ceremony included 85-year-old poet Robert Frost reading his inspirational 16-line poem on the history of American determination to succeed, The Gift Outright, written in 1941.
This is considered by some to be a poetic ideation of “American Exceptionalism.” Kennedy’s speech was remarkable for its precision, vigor, inspirational lines, and optimism on America’s future.
“Let the word go forth…to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy was not speaking eloquent theory in a foreign policy vacuum. Just one week before, Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, announced the new “Khrushchev Doctrine” of “Wars of Liberation” to further the expansion of Communist ideology and rule. He specifically listed South Vietnam as a target conquest, which had already begun with North Vietnamese infiltration and terrorism.
An essential but often neglected fact of the Vietnam War is that the Communist insurgents in South Vietnam were largely organized and led by trained North Vietnamese political organizers. As part of their campaign to “liberate” South Vietnam, the Communist Viet Cong (VC) assassinated over 30,000 South Vietnamese government and local leaders, village chiefs, and schoolteachers who opposed them. The victims of this terror campaign often included the killing and maiming family members. Moreover, nearly one million Vietnamese Catholics and other Christians fled North Vietnam in the wake of brutal persecution by Ho Chi Minh following the Communist victory over the French in 1954.
Lesson One. The Vietnam War was not a mere internal conflict or civil war between competing political factions. The Vietnam War was a Soviet proxy war against the United States. By 1959, according to Pacific Area Commander, Admiral Grant Sharp, Allied intelligence agencies had unequivocally substantiated that North Vietnamese aggressive posture toward South Vietnam was being supported, advised, and approved step by step by Moscow. The People’s Republic of China, for its own competitive reasons, was also eager to support the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese conquest. This involved not only Viet Nam but also Laos and Cambodia.
False Analogy Warning. An important distinction needs to be made for American foreign policy in 2023. It was the Soviet Union that orchestrated the proxy War against the United States in Vietnam. The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union and has rejected Communist economic and governing principles. It is a serious foreign policy mistake to attribute, without careful analysis, past Soviet policies to the Russian Federation. This is particularly important in understanding the present War in Ukraine, which actually began with an American sponsored coup and regime change in 2014.
Lesson two. Following withdrawal of French Union forces after eight years of war against Communist forces under Moscow-trained Ho Chi Minh, Geneva Accords in July 1954 divided North and South Vietnam into two provisional nations at the 17th Parallel of Latitude. In September 1954, The United States, UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand the Philippines, and Pakistan formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to prevent further Communist aggression in Southeast Asia. SEATO was inspired by the United States to be the Southeast Asia equivalent of NATO. Thus, the United States and other members of SEATO were committed to protect South Vietnam, Laos, and potentially Cambodia from Communist aggression. Treaties are moral obligations not to be broken at mere convenience.
In 1961, Kennedy was seriously concerned about the Soviet threat to South Vietnam and increased the number of American advisers from 900 to 3,200. Kennedy made two serious mistakes.
Kennedy Serious Mistake 1. In July 1961, Kennedy agreed to a Geneva Accord that prevented U.S opposition to North Vietnamese occupation of much of Laos. This allowed North Vietnam to build a major military and logistical network to supply troops, weapons, munitions, and supplies to Communist forces attacking South Vietnam.
Kennedy Cuban Missile Crisis Victory. In October 1962, however, Kennedy was able to backdown Soviet leader Khrushchev’s attempt to place short and medium range missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis, which came close to World War III, was settled by negotiated terms that included removing U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey, which the Soviet Union considered an existential threat to its national security.
Kennedy Serious Mistake 2. U.S. orchestration of a Regime Change of South Vietnamese leaders. One of the three biggest mistakes of the war according to both presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Beginning in May 1963, North Vietnamese Buddhists loyal to Ho Chi Minh created a false narrative of discrimination against Buddhists in South Vietnam by Catholic President Ngo Diem. The Communist only dominated 12 of about 4,800 Buddhist Temples, but they were able to organize a number of demonstrations including the self-immolation of a radicalized Buddhist monk on June 11, whose burning image immediately spread across the pages of major newspapers around the world.
The cry for Diem’s removal spread with special enthusiasm in the liberal American media. Kennedy was a strong anti-Communist, but the liberal media was an important and beloved constituency for him. Acting through Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, despite strong protests from Vice President Johnson, CIA Director John McCone, and General Maxwell Taylor, a coup attempt was arranged with ambitious anti-Diem South Vietnamese generals. This unfortunately resulted in the assassination of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on November 1, 1963.
This chaotic regime change threw the South Vietnamese government and army into chaos for over two years. The North Vietnamese could not believe their good fortune and sent 12,000 North Vietnamese troops into South Vietnam in 1964. This was followed by 36,000 in 1965, 92,000 in 1966, and 100,000 in 1967. The Viet Cong increased from 10,000 to 30,000 in 1964 and to 80,000 within two years.
Ironically, President John F. Kennedy was himself assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
Lyndon Johnson’s Big Mistakes. Failing to use Air Force and Navy strategic superiority and allowing enemy sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia, and Hanoi-Haiphong. President Johnson responded to this huge North Vietnamese invasion by expanding U.S. forces in South Vietnam. There were only 23,000 American military personnel there at the end of 1964, and the first combat forces arrived in March 1965. American forces totaled 184,000 by the end of 1965. U.S. military personnel in Vietnam reached a peak in April 1969 at 543,000. Johnson severely limited the use of airpower and allowed enemy sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia, and the strategically important Hanoi-Haiphong area of North Vietnam. This forced Army General William Westmoreland, overall Vietnam commander 1964-1968, into an alternative strategy of enemy attrition relying on more manpower on the ground. Johnson and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara constantly demonstrated a lack of resolve to North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Let us grant, however, that Johnson and McNamara had to balance a reasonable fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In other writing, including my book, Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, I have explored the 13 biggest mistakes of the Vietnam War. Most of them occurred under Lyndon Johnson.
However, President Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization program had reduced the level to 475,000 by the end of 1969. By the end of 1972, U.S. forces had been reduced to 24,000, and the heavy fighting was being done by the South Vietnamese Army on the ground and the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force at sea and in the air. Johnson had repeatedly refused the Joint Chief’s recommendations to use strategic air and naval power against North Vietnam. But Nixon had had enough of duplicitous North Vietnamese negotiations in April 1972 and began to use his formidable strategic air and naval power with Operation Linebacker I. He finished the job with Linebacker II in December 1972 and brought North Vietnam’s leaders to their knees, begging for a cease fire and peace treaty.
The United States had actually won the war in 1972, but Congress managed to throw the victory away in 1975 by failing to make good the financial support pledged in the 1973 Treaty. South Vietnam and Cambodia literally ran out of ammunition and everything else, while a huge North Vietnamese Army supported more lavishly than ever by the Soviet Union and Communist China ravaged the forsaken and destitute peoples of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had to pick up the pieces as best they could.
Lesson Three. Vietnam was a two-front war. The French did not lose their war against the Viet Minh forces of Ho Chi Minh because they lost an important 57-day battle in the mountain-surrounded valley of Dien Bin Phu near the border of Laos in North Vietnam. Of the 14,000 French Union and Foreign Legion troops there, close to 4,000 were killed, more than 4,000 wounded and the rest captured. They had not anticipated that 80,000 Viet Minh with heavy artillery could be brought against them in such a mountainous area. They badly underestimated their enemy. But the French people, and most importantly, the French Parliament, had been undermined by political organizers and constant propaganda on the home front.
The same thing happened on the American home front. Protests, misinformation, liberal media and academic opposition were not able to undermine a majority of the American people, but they were clearly successful in Congress, which in 1975, dashed the last hopes of freedom in Indochina by de-funding the South Vietnamese and Cambodian forces that were trying to stave off a large, well-equipped, Soviet-funded North Vietnamese Army. Close to 3.5 million South Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians were brutally murdered, starved, or drowned escaping the new Communist regimes.
Lesson four. There is a prevailing myth, especially in the media and academia that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. But we actually did win it December 1972, only to let a strong Democrat majority following Nixon’s resignation over Watergate throw the victory away in 1975. According to Admiral Grant Sharp and most knowledgeable military veterans, we could have won the war in 1965, before the Soviet backers of North Vietnam built the greatest air defense complex the world had ever seen around Hanoi and the port of Haiphong. We could have won in mid-1967, when North Vietnamese supplies and manpower were being destroyed faster than they could be replaced. We could certainly could have won it, after the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong lost more than 100,000 dead in their unsuccessful February 1968 Tet Offensive. The U.S. media, however, with its false narrative, managed to turn their devastation into a propaganda victory.
Admiral Sharp and the JCOS had six major clashes from 1965 to 1968 with Secretary of Defense McNamara urging that the war could be won with strategic bombing and mining important North Vietnamese harbors. But their seasoned and urgent advice was rejected. We could have won the war any time we had the will to use our strategic air and naval forces.
Lesson five. Four U.S. presidents guided the United States during the Vietnam War—Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. The conditions, strategies, mistakes, lessons, and successes varied with each. It is unwise to characterize the Vietnam War under a single umbrella. There are many lessons to be learned from its study, which may be applied to present and future foreign policy and national security.