Statesmen versus Warlords
Perhaps no event in recent history has so profoundly affected the political, sociological, and philosophical outlook of the American people as the Vietnam War. George Bell, Undersecretary of State from 1961 through 1966, called Vietnam the “greatest single error that America has made in its national history” (Legacies). As the first war the United States had ever lost, Vietnam shattered American confidence in its military supremacy and engendered a new wave of isolationist sentiment in the country. Mistrusting their government and retreating into a state of general disillusionment, the public demanded to know what went wrong. The people needed a scapegoat. Some groups blamed the military commanders for failing to adapt to Vietnam’s unique circumstances; some condemned politicians for not fully supporting the military effort; while still others upheld that victory was never possible in the first place.
Now, years after the last Marine left Vietnamese soil, the debate continues, but evidence places the majority of the blame at the feet of America’s foreign policy makers. Because, as Paul Elliott writes in his book Vietnam: Conflict and Controversy, “Everything in Vietnam was being viewed through the distorting lens of the Cold War, and against the fear of atomic holocaust” (92), Congress and the President refused to make a total commitment to victory in Indochina. That lack of commitment led directly to American defeat.
But, considering the social and political situation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was such commitment feasible? Total victory would have required a complete mobilization of American armed forces, an invasion of North Vietnam, and the possible utilization of nuclear weaponry. Such escalation might have drawn the Soviet Union or Communist China into the war, metamorphosing the local conflict into a global holocaust. And so, the answer to the question is no; realistically, the United States could not commit itself to victory in Indochina.
Despite the claims of Vietnamese generals such as Vo Nguyen Giap that the Communist forces “outfought and outmaneuvered the Americans and their Vietnamized allies” (Schechter 13), the “North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong irregulars lost virtually every battlefield encounter against American forces” (Elliott 91). American weaponry and technology stood second to none in the world during the Vietnam era. Man for man, bullet for bullet, the Communist army could not match the prowess of the United States military. Clearly then, the problem in Vietnam was not one of an inferior American force, but rather a series of tactical mistakes in strategy.
Some argue that the military commanders: William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams, and others hold responsibility for the American tactical blunders. Admittedly, Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition “failed to wipe out Communist forces” (“Vietnam War” 12), and even after the American bombing campaign “had...