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Why was the United States unsuccessful in Vietnam?

Why was the United States unsuccessful in Vietnam?

Why was the United States unsuccessful in Vietnam?

Igor Mershon

The communist beliefs began in 1848, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

wrote a book called The Communist Manifesto. This book defined the beliefs

of communism, along with portraying the natural evolution of a communist

utopia from a capitalist society. Marx and Engels defined communism to be

a concept, or system, of society in which the major resources and means of

production are owned by the community, rather than by the individuals. In

theory, such societies provide for equal sharing of all work, according to

ability, and all benefits, according to need. This, however, did not work

because people are generally selfish and lazy. Each person wants to do the

least amount possible to gain the most from it. This is where the

conflicts arise.

The Soviet Union began its communist regime under Vladimir Lenin. His

ideas and teachings led to mass popularity due to a poor economy in Russia

at the time. Lenin was not a bad leader, however he died before he was

able to see his plan take full effect. He had only one warning to the

people of Russia: never to let Joseph Stalin get into power. Lenin was

able to foresee the tyrant when many others were blind. The people did not

realize their error when Stalin succeeded. But by then, it was too late;

Stalin had turned Russia into a fascist dictatorship.

During World War II, Communism, combined with fascism, had proven to be

very dangerous. The Communists saw their way to be perfect, and they had

the idea that everyone should practice their beliefs. Communism had started

in Asia, with the likes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tsetung. In the mid to

late nineteen forties, communism was thriving in Asia. The Chinese and the

Russians had pushed the spread of Communism south into countries such as

Cambodia and Vietnam. The United Stated saw this as a very real threat,

and kept a close eye on the communist advancement.

Between 1945 and 1975, the number of countries under communist rule

increased greatly. This is partly because of the way the victorious powers

of World War II divided the world amongst themselves. This is also due to

the fact that countries such as China and The Soviet Union pushed their

beliefs tyrannically on other weak countries.

One of such countries was Vietnam. . From 1946 until 1954, the Vietnamese

had struggled for their independence from France during the First Indochina

War. At the end of this war, the country was temporarily divided into North

and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel. North Vietnam came under the

control of the Vietnamese Communists who had opposed France and who aimed

for a unified Vietnam under Communist rule. Vietnamese who had collaborated

with the French controlled the South.

The foreign policy of the United States during the Cold War was driven by a

fear of the spread of Communism. Eastern Europe had fallen under the

domination of the Communist USSR, and Communists ruled China. This policy

was known as the "domino theory." United States policymakers felt they

could not afford to lose Southeast Asia as well to the Communists. The

United States therefore offered to assist the French in recapturing


Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, from May 8 to July 21, 1954, diplomats from

France, the United Kingdom, the USSR, China, and the United States, as well

as representatives from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, drafted a set of

agreements called the Geneva Accords. These agreements provided for the

withdrawal of French troops to the south of Vietnam until they could be

safely removed from the country.

They also agreed that Elections were to be held in 1956 throughout the

north and south and to be supervised by an International Control Commission

that had been appointed at Geneva and was made

up of representatives from Canada, Poland, and India. Following these

elections, Vietnam was to be reunited under the government chosen by

popular vote. The United States refused to sign the accords, because it did

not want to allow the possibility of Communist control over Vietnam. The

U.S. government moved to establish the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization

(SEATO), a regional alliance that extended protection to South Vietnam,

Cambodia, and Laos in case of Communist "subversion." SEATO, which came

into force in 1955, became the mechanism by which Washington justified its

support for South Vietnam; this support eventually became direct

involvement of U.S. troops.

On July 30, 1964, the government of North Vietnam complained that South

Vietnamese ships, protected by an American destroyer, had attacked two of

their islands. On August 2, North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats attacked

the American destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin but were driven off.

Five days later, on August 7, Congress adopted what became known as the

Tonkin Gulf Resolution. It stated that the President could “take all

necessary measures to repel any armed attack against armed forces of the

United States and to prevent further aggression.” The Vietnam War had

become Americanized. Following the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, North Vietnam

began infiltrating regular army units into South Vietnam. In the mean time,

the President Johnson and his advisors decided that the United States

should bomb North Vietnam and send troops into South Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese fought the guerrillas war. They hid in underground

tunnels and in jungles. In an effort to destroy the jungles the United

States sprayed huge quantities of toxic chemicals on the countryside. It

caused mass starvation and birth defects in Vietnamese children, as well as

to liver damage,

muscular disorders, and other health problems for the adults who were

exposed to the chemicals. By 1966 many Americans were beginning to have

serious doubts about the nation’s growing

involvement in Vietnam. Without the support of their fellow Americans at

home, it became increasingly difficult for soldiers at war to fight

effectively. The anti-war attitude and the atrocious treatment of

returning veterans, made young men much more likely to evade the draft. In

the event that they ended up Vietnam, they would fight less effectively due

to the fact that they did not support the cause they were fighting for.

Undermining of the war by activists at home continued to increase with the

increase in American casualties. This problem is best described by Robert

McNamara, Secretary of Defense under both Kennedy and Johnson: " A nation's

deepest strength lies not in its military prowess, but rather, in the unity

of its people. We [America] failed to maintain it."[1] Without this vital

unity, it was a near impossible task for America to win the war. As

America became increasingly divided between anti-war activists and those

who supported the war, soldiers became increasingly disillusioned with

their role in the war. The soldiers realized that perhaps what they were

fighting for was not a just cause. The moral high ground held by soldiers

at the beginning of the war began to slip as more and more soldiers

realized that they did not truly believe in they were fighting for. This

coupled with low morale that resulted from the fashion that new recruits

were placed into combat secured the North Vietnamese victory.

Also there is the low morale and lack of combat effectiveness resulting

from poor command of the Army's resources. One mismanagement that resulted

in dire consequences for America was the fashion in which new recruits were

introduced into the war. Instead of sending brand-new squads that had

trained together, individual soldiers were sent to fill the space left by a

soldier who had just been killed or injured. For the

veteran soldiers, the new recruits served as reminders of fallen friends,

and thus were never truly accepted into the unit. With this being the

attitude of many soldiers, it was very difficult for a sort of esprit de

corps to develop. The lack of comradely severely hampered the fighting

ability of the

army as a whole. The detrimental effects resulting from the lack of

teamwork (around which every army needs to be based) were further

confounded by a lack of commitment to the war it had become involved.

Involvement in Vietnam was increased in very incremental fashion. "

Some...have criticized the Government's...gradual force buildup...in lieu

of striking the enemy with full force."[2] Had the Government completely

committed itself to the war, it may not have degenerated into a lengthy

defeat from a decisive victory. The amount of firepower America could have

brought to bear would have been near impossible to stand against. While it

is easy to theorize the outcome of the war had the full might of the

American Army been brought to bear at once, it is much more difficult for

one to judge the reaction of the South Vietnamese people to an American


Finally, and most important, the support given by the South Vietnamese was

a deciding factor in the outcome of the war. It is logical that the

support of those one is trying to liberate is required for liberation

to be achieved. This is something that was, in part, lacking during the

Vietnam War. A stable government was never established in South Vietnam,

and therefore the people of the south did not feel that they had something

worth fighting for. This opened a gulf between the Americans and the

Vietnamese as described in the following:

" The Vietnamese people saw the Americans as perpetrators of the suffering

Which the war had brought...the American soldiers did not want to know

The Vietnamese, but wanted only to use them for menial labor, self-

Gratification, and often as scapegoats for the frustrations and anger they


Against the enemy and the war...America gave them nothing and expected

Loyalty in return. The Vietnamese people saw only one side of the American

People and the United States and most often it was the worst side."[3]

The lack of support from those the Americans were trying to save, coupled

with increasing anti-war protest at home, created a climate unsuitable for

winning the war. This situation only worsened as the war progressed up to

American withdrawal and the eventual fall of Saigon. The final outcome of

the war was inevitable without the full support of the South Vietnamese


Eventually, the United States had no choice but to withdraw and leave the

war to the South Vietnamese. Even as the fall of Saigon was imminent,

America would not re-enter the war despite the mass amounts of money and

human life spent in an attempt to halt the spread of communism.

In conclusion, the most important factor in deciding the outcome of the

Vietnam War was the lack of support that came both from South Vietnam and

from activists at home. Billions of dollars and thousands of lives were

sacrificed for a cause that was lost from the start: the liberation of a

people who did not want the American brand of freedom being offered. The

war left behind an embarrassing legacy as well as deep wounds that have yet

to heal even today. Many veterans were left disillusioned as they returned

home to be treated as villains rather than heroic defenders of freedom.

Casualties were suffered even by those who did not fight in Vietnam, as

protestors were shot at Kent State University. The United States had

drastically altered its image throughout the world, driving away her allies

as a result of the war. In a war without support, " an entire American army

was sacrificed on the battlefield of

Vietnam"[4] and "it will be at least a generation before. Vietnam' will

mean anything but a war of agony, frustration, and humiliation."[5]


1) Colby, William. Lost victory. Markham: Beaverbooks, 1989.

2) Fulbright, J. William, The Arrogance of Power. Random House, Inc., 1966

3) McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.


Random House of Canada Limited, 1995.

4) Stanton, Shelby L. The Rise and Fall of an American Army: US Ground

Forces in Vietnam.

Novato: Presidio Press, 1985.

5) Welsh, Douglas. The History of the Vietnam War. Greenwich: Bison Books

Corp, 1981

6) William A. Link et al., American Epoch: A History of the United States

since 1900 Affluence and

Anxiety 1940-1992,

Volume II (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993)

7) Winthrop D. Jordan. The Americans. Illinois: McDougal Littell/Houghton

Miffin Inc., 1996


[1] McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.


Random House of Canada Limited, 1995 ) p.322

[2] Colby, William. Lost victory. (Markham: Beaverbooks, 1989) p.362

[3] Welsh, Douglas. The History of the Vietnam War. (Greenwich: Bison

Books Corp, 1981) p.188

[4] Stanton, Shelby L. The Rise and Fall of an American Army: US Ground

Forces in Vietnam.

(Novato: Presidio Press, 1985) p.368

[5] Welsh, Douglas. The History of the Vietnam War. (Greenwich: Bison

Books Corp., 1981) p.189




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