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Was the United States actually winning during the Vietnam War? : Quora

Pete Feigal
Pete Feigal, I come from a military family and have studied Military History for 50 years.

No.

Let me repeat that with more clarity: Hell, No.

Let me explain why:

The two essential ingredients to winning a war are:


  1. Having the will to win.

  2. Knowing your enemy.

Yes, the U.S. won every battle.

Yes, we slaughtered them by the hundreds of thousands.

But the last I heard, Saigon was still named Ho Chi Minh City, and the Vietnamese are still there and we aren't.

(And my friend Andy reminded me that we never official declared war on North Vietnam. It technically was a Conflict.)

“The official US Department of Defense figure was 950,765 communist forces killed in Vietnam from 1965 to 1974. According to figures released by the Vietnamese government in 1995, there were 1,100,000 North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong military personnel deaths during the Vietnam War (including the missing).”—Wikipedia

“U.S. dead: 58,220.”—Wikipedia. Basically 1,000,000 to 58,220. But it didn’t matter.

One of the main reasons why there was such a disparity in casualty numbers is because we had complete, I repeat, complete air and naval superiority and had an unbelievably huge advantage in weapons numbers and quality.

But all of that is basically irrelevant.

We had many battle plans; with each new general came a handful. None of them worked. None of them were based at all on what and who the enemy were. We had no real strategic plan for the entire war. We had tactical superiority, at least during daylight hours, but finally, after strategic plan after plan failed miserably, the only thing our generals could come up with for “victory” was one single concept: the body count.

Kill as many of “them” as we could, and in this case, like so many others, sheer, folly.

In WWII the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. At least 27 million, (27,000,000!) Soviets died. They were slaughtered by the millions. Not since the Mongol invasions has the world seen such carnage. The Germans had, at least at the beginning, superior weapons and tactics and advanced quickly to the outskirts of Moscow.

But the Soviets never gave up, never lost hope and learned from their invaders. They believed they were fighting for their home, for “Mother Russia,” and that always makes a huge difference. They had a motivation for their sacrifice. They had the sheer will to win at any cost.

There is a scene from the Peter O’Toole movie, “Lord Jim,” based on the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, where tribesmen who have been enslaved by a band of mercenaries finally fight back, using bamboo spears against bolt action rifles.

One of the most foolish of the mercenaries proclaims in excitement: “We shall slaughter them!” To which the experienced captain replied: “Yes. But will we defeat them?”

The tribesmen get slaughtered, but they win. They had a motivation for their sacrifice. They believed they were fighting for their home. They had the sheer will to win at any cost.

The #1 crucial ingredient to win any war is you must have the WILL to win at all costs, even if the cost is to lose huge numbers of your troops or to slaughter huge numbers of your foe. Or often, both. If you don’t have the will to win, it is the greatest folly to go to war in the first place as we did in Vietnam.

Besides the will to win you must

#2, know your enemy. Study them, read a history book or two, don’t just rely on who you think they are, what you think their motives are, what you surmise their will to win might be.

“Know your enemy and know yourself and in a hundred battles you will never know defeat.”—Sun Tzu

America simply never had the will to win the war, not from the start. And we never, ever even tried to understand them. If we would have tried…but I’ll get to that.

We thought we could defeat them with firepower and we tried our best:

“Over 7 million tons of bombs were dropped by the US during the Vietnam War; over 2 million tons were dropped during WW2. (NOTE: A US B-17 Flying Fortress over Germany in WW2 carried about 10 airmen and possibly 17 bombs. A US B-52 Stratofortess flying over North Vietnam carried 6 crewmen and could carry 108 750 pound bombs. ONE Vietnam War B-52 was equal to about SIX WW2 B-17s. One F-4 Phantom jet fighter bomber, manned by two crewmen, could carry as many bombs as a WW2 B-17 bomber (with a 10 man crew)).”—WikiAnswers

That kind of firepower is impressive but not when your enemy is spread out, dispersed, moving too fast or dug in too deep. The terrain makes a big difference too. Triple canopy rainforests can absorb a lot of explosive power.

All our planes, helicopters, artillery, armored vehicles, naval vessels, troops just wasn’t enough. To win this war would have required a massive invasion of the North, Cambodia and possibly Laos, cutting off supplies and reinforcements and capturing and destroying the North Vietnamese’s cities, military installations, and civilian base. What we needed for victory was the will to beat them and a knowledge of who we were fighting.

But America wasn’t willing to risk, as we believed, a war with China, the Soviet Union or both. We weren’t willing to damage our standing, already tarnished by the war. That, since the beginning, from a military point of view, hamstrung us.

America's real strength, more than its military and economic power, is its "soft power," its moral authority, and taking the steps needed to win the Vietnam War would have weakened that power immeasurably. Our longstanding commitment to international law would have been called into question. As it is the Vietnam War haunted American diplomacy and world opinion for decades at least…

What we needed back in the early days was the strategic wisdom to stay out of a fight we didn’t have a “dog” in. To have some our our “best and brightest” as they were called, actually pick up a history book.

I know a lot of you are thinking right now: “But we needed to stop the “Domino Effect”! “The North Vietnamese were bloodthirsty Commies who needed to be stopped from invading South Vietnam and putting everybody to the sword!”

There was no “Domino Effect,” and any of our Stanford geniuses on the Rand and Pentagon staff would have found that out by, again, simply reading a history book. Vietnam and China have been at each other’s throats since before the Mongol invasions. There was no love lost there.

“In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia to remove from power Pol Pot and the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, who had been attacking Vietnamese border villages and islands.”—Wikipedia

And as for China:

“In 1979 China launched an offensive against Vietnam in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 (which ended the rule of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge controlled by Pol Pot).”—Wikipedia

So much for the “domino Effect.”

And as for saving the South from the bloodthirsty commies, again they should have read a history book.

It was a civil war, and yes, there was killing involved, of course, but not a genocide like Rwanda or Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a terrible war but it was their war. When we had our civil war, (that’s a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one,) it was still our war. Vietnam was only one country although conquered at different times by the Chinese and the Mongols. A little less than 150 years ago France was looking for a colony to rape and Vietnam was its choice.

“Vietnam became a colony of France in the late 19th century, but during World War II, Japan occupied Vietnam. During this period the Viet Minh fought a guerrilla war against the Japanese and were to a degree supported by the Americans in 1945 via the Office of Strategic Services”—Wikipedia

“On August 30, 1945, Hồ Chí Minh invited several people to contribute their ideas toward his Proclamation of Independence. US Office of Strategic Services officers met repeatedly with Ho Chi Minh and other Viet Minh officers during late August…”—Wikipedia

“On September 2, 1945, Hồ Chí Minh read the Proclamation during a public meeting in front of thousands of people, at what is now Ba Đình Square, Hà Nội, announcing the birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the country's independence from France.”—Wikipedia

Read just a bit of the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence. It might sound familiar as Ho was inspired by another country that fought for it’s independence. It starts:

““All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution made in 1791 also states: All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.
Those are undeniable truths.
Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, in the name of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.”

“In the field of politics, the French have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.
They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, Center, and South of Vietnam in order to destroy our national unity and prevent our people from being united.”

“In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese fascists violated Indochina's territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them. Thus, from that date, our people were subjected to the double yoke of the French and the Japanese. Their sufferings and miseries increased. The result was that, from the end of last year to the beginning of this year, from Quảng Trị Province to northern Vietnam, more than two million of our fellow citizens died from starvation.”

“From the autumn of 1940, our country had in fact ceased to be a French colony and had become a Japanese possession. After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.”

“Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic.”

“We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.”

“A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eighty years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the fascist Japanese during these last years, such a people must be free and independent!”

“For these reasons, we, the members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that:
Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact it is so already. And thus the entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”—All of the above, Wikipedia

Kind of sobering isn’t it? Not such enemies after all. Until…

“Ho’s government was not recognized by any country. He repeatedly petitioned American President Harry S. Truman for support for Vietnamese independence, citing the Atlantic Charter, but Truman never responded.”—Wikipedia

Because the French had been part of the Allies in WWII, no western countries would recognize Vietnam, no Western leaders would see him or talk to him, or assist with the Viet Minh with their war to throw out the returning French. After 5 years of pleading to deaf ears, guess where he finally went…

“In February 1950, Ho met with Stalin and Mao Zedong in Moscow after the Soviet Union recognized his government…The road to the outside world was open for Viet Minh forces to receive additional supplies which would allow them to escalate the fight against the French regime throughout Indochina. At the outset of the conflict, Ho reportedly told a French visitor, "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."—Wikipedia

“In 1954, after the crushing defeat of French Union forces at Battle of Dien Bien Phu, France was forced to give up its fight against the Viet Minh.”—Wikipedia

But after the defeat of Western France, the other Western nations finally stepped in (unasked for, by the way,) and:

“ …at the 1954 Geneva Accords decided that Vietnam would be divided at the 17th parallel allowing Ho’s Viet Minh forces to be allowed to regroup in the North whilst anti-communist groups settled in the South. Ho's Democratic Republic of Vietnam relocated to Hanoi and became the government of North Vietnam, a communist-led one-party state.”—Wikipedia

Terrible things happened in the civil war that followed. But what if one single diplomat would have taken a meeting with Ho during that five years? What if we wouldn’t have been so stupid and arrogant? Think of the lives that could have been saved, the carnage that could have been avoided.

If someone would have opened one single history book we would have learned so much about this young country fighting for its independence as we did. What if we would have embraced them and supported them? I do not think Ho would have finally gone to Moscow where they did listen to him, did support him. We would have had a Democratic ally in Southeast Asia.

The North Vietnamese were fighting on their own soil for the unification of their own country as the US did in our own civil war. They believed they were fighting for their home. They fought like demons and beat us just as they had beaten the French. They had the will to win.

There were horrific things done on both sides, as there always are in war, but America got involved for the wrong reasons at the wrong time and without the will to actually win.

Those two failings created almost 60,000 American dead, not to mention wounded, traumatized, PTSD cases, alcohol and drug addiction, depression and other mental illnesses, failed and lost lives, failed marriages, suicides.

Many other countries lost dead and wounded like Australia who lost 521 soldiers and had 3009 wounded out of the 60000 troops they sent to Vietnam.

And 1 million Vietnamese dead and who knows how many wounded and shattered lives.


  1. Have the will to win or don’t go to war in the first place.

  2. “Know your enemy and know yourself and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.”

Tags: #1, #2, 'winning' wars, endgame, usa
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