Forty years ago, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces, making it clear that America’s decade-long war in Indochina had been lost. The significance attached to that anniversary varies dramatically by generations. Today’s college students barely know the war even happened, much less anything about it. For their grandparents, however, it was a profound and defining experience and the fall of Saigon remains a searing memory. This is particularly true for those, like this writer, who were part of the war effort on the ground in Vietnam. But millions who never went anywhere near Vietnam had their lives upended by the prospect of the draft (or avoiding it) and the entire counterculture of resistance to the war that defined the 1960s. All that conflated with the crusade that became the civil rights movement, with Watergate, and with the assassination of JFK and his brother. It was, to put it mildly, a tumultuous time. And for those who fought in Vietnam it was often ugly, bloody and traumatic. To this day many veterans simply won’t speak — even to family members — of what they did and what they saw.
For those who try to understand the forces that shape international affairs, the Vietnam War has always posed a problem of strategic logic. Even as the American military commitment was taking shape in the early 1960s, senior officials in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon wrestled with the question of why this war was necessary — or whether it was. As the war gained in intensity and the casualties mounted (along with campus protests), the debates within the upper reaches of the government became more intense. Some, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, were steadfast in their conviction that the war was justified and necessary. His own deputy, George Ball, was equally convinced it was a profound mistake. No one knows how President Kennedy’s views would have evolved had he lived. President Johnson, who remained relentlessly and publicly committed to the war effort, harbored deep and agonizing doubts in private.
It is hard to remember what the world looked like in January 1961 when John Kennedy took the oath of office. The Cold War was for real; the Soviet Union had just demonstrated its superiority in missiles and in space with the launch of Sputnik followed by the first human in earth orbit. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had addressed the United States and promised, “we will bury you.” The Berlin Wall had gone up and communist leaders in Moscow and Beijing had promised to expand the Cold War into Afro-Asia, where communist insurgents were already on the offensive in multiple “wars of national liberation.” The most immediate threat seemed to be centered in the former French colonies of Indochina comprising Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. When Eisenhower and Kennedy shared a limousine ride from the White House to the Capitol on Inauguration Day, Eisenhower reportedly spent those precious few minutes impressing upon the new President-elect the importance of events in Laos.
Kennedy memorably declared on that day that a “new generation” of Americans was prepared to “bear any burden” to defend freedom. Kennedy and his advisors were almost immediately seized with two questions: should the United States intervene militarily to try to stop communist insurgents from taking control in Indochina, and was such a mission even achievable? The ultimate answer was “yes” and “yes.” As a result, U.S. forces began to appear in growing numbers in Vietnam — led by “Green Berets” specially trained in “counterinsurgency.” Although there were doubts, the Kennedy White House ultimately felt it had no choice. How could the same President who projected youth and vigor and who pledged to “pay any price” stand aside and watch a communist flag being raised over a succession of new countries in Southeast Asia? And they thought they could win. The French had been defeated by Ho Chi Minh, but America was stronger, smarter and unburdened by a colonial history.
But despite a massive effort over 10 years that saw over half a million U.S. soldiers deployed at one time — and at the cost of 58,000 dead — Hanoi emerged triumphant. For those with a strategic bent, the enduring question is why? The answer is multi-faceted and still debated. Reasons certainly include mediocre military leadership, dissent on the home front and the failure from the outset to fully understand the mentality and capabilities of the North Vietnamese. The Johnson administration, in particular, predicated its strategy on the assumption that if it could elevate the pain and the costs to a sufficient point, Ho Chi Minh would throw in the towel. But if Hanoi had a pain threshold, Washington never found it. Perhaps most important, the United States found itself on the wrong side of history. The 1950s and ’60s were a period when new fervent nationalism was sweeping the old colonial empires away. Ho Chi Minh was a genuine, revered, national hero — and he was the enemy. Put another way, the United States never found a Vietnamese leader in the South who could command anything like the nationalist support enjoyed by Ho.
Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War is almost universally judged by knowledgeable Americans as a strategic disaster. But there is another view articulated by the founder and leader of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew. Lee argued that by fighting in Vietnam, the United States stalled what would have been a communist sweep across much of Southeast Asia. The decade of war bought time for the new countries of the region to get their collective act together. As a result, when Hanoi’s triumph came, it did not spread beyond Indochina. The history of the region was forever altered — something to think about as we commemorate those who fought and died in that awful war.