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National Observer Home > No. 40 - Autumn 1999 > Article

Lessons from the Vietnam War

More than twenty years have now elapsed since the end of the Vietnam War. That War has left many painful memories, but with the passage of time it has become possible to make clearer assessments than formerly of events that have generated emotional responses of various kinds amongst commentators.

The Vietnam War

It will be recalled that through a cease-fire agreement in Geneva in 1954 Vietnam was divided into a communist North and a non-communist South. Approximately one million Vietnamese moved to the South to avoid communist control. However, despite the Geneva agreement, approximately 10, 000 Viet Minh (communist cadres who subsequently regrouped as the Viet Cong) were instructed to remain in the South to prepare for political and military struggles to take over the South. The Viet Cong increased steadily their activities of killing villagers and police, and supporting cadres joined them from the North in growing numbers. The United States sent advisers and military support for the South who numbered approximately 11,300 by the end of 1962. However, units of the North Vietnamese Army were sent to the South on a large scale, more and more openly. The United States responded by increasing its presence to approximately 485,000 at the end of 1967.

In 1968 the communists lost a major initiative, the Tet offensive, but President Johnson announced a curtailment of American bombing of North Vietnam and stated that he would not seek re-election. President Nixon carried out withdrawals of American troops from 1969, and increasingly fighting was left to South Vietnamese forces.

In 1973 there was a further ceasefire agreement. Consequently the United States withdrew all its remaining troops. The cease-fire was broken by the North, who moved massive quantities of personnel, tanks and artillery to the South. Following on the gradual destruction of its forces the South surrendered in April 1975.

During the war those killed included approximately 60,000 Americans, approximately 5,000 South Koreans, approximately 500 Australians and New Zealanders, approximately 500,000 South Vietnamese and approximately 1,100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

The Military Experience

It soon became clear that the United States was fighting in a war of a kind that it had not experienced before, and its efforts were circumscribed by political considerations.

The following conclusions emerge:

1. The United States military effort followed rather than led. That is, instead of introducing immediately (whilst the communist forces were small) sufficiently large forces to deal decisively with the situation, the American build up took place only over many years. This build up was always too gradual and too much after the event, and was not sufficient in view of the continuing growth of communist (and especially North Vietnamese) forces. What might have been dealt with swiftly and decisively at the beginning was allowed to drift until a formidable military predicament arose.

2. Serious failures of intelligence impeded the United States and South Vietnamese efforts. It was essential for political and military purposes that sufficient information be obtained on the number and location of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units and that political cadres and operatives be identified. This required an efficient intelligence service. Certain aspects of intelligence could be dealt with by United States services, whether military or C.I.A., about the efficiency of which there is much debate. But other aspects could be covered effectively only by the South Vietnamese, for linguistic and cultural reasons.

It was clear at the time of the War that intelligence gathering was not being carried out sufficiently systematically or effectively. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troop movements, in particular, were not sufficiently monitored. Of course, difficulty in acquiring such information should not be under-stated. The communist military forces and political cadres were invariably subject to intense propaganda by which they were highly motivated, and they maintained high levels of secrecy. Nonetheless it is clear that an appropriate system for gathering necessary intelligence information was not instituted by the United States and South Vietnam. Such a system would have required large resources, but those resources were available, and the South Vietnamese intelligence apparatus should have been subsidised where necessary by the United States, which would have benefited by much greater corresponding falls in losses of men and materials.

To some extent these grave and probably decisive defects in intelligence were a product of the initial failure of those opposing the North Vietnamese invasion to appreciate the gravity of their position and the need to take timely and decisive steps.

3. The psychological war was of paramount importance in destroying the will of the Americans to resist. The propaganda of the communists had a predictable content: the communists represented the people; the communists could not be prevented from winning; the United States was interceding as an imperialist power, for its own purposes; the people of the South wished for re-unification; and so on.

Initially this propaganda had little effect. Early dispatches from correspondents, discussed below, contained an accurate assessment of political and military realities except for an underestimate of the degree of communist preparation in the South and the extent of the ambitions of the North. But gradually - for the repetition of untruths dulls the capacity to resist - communist propaganda, which had been accepted at first only by the hard left, spread to the soft left and then through various gradations of liberals, both in the press, and in the universities, and amongst a range of politicians.

Because the War was allowed to draw out, and because Americans dead or dying were shown every day in newspapers and on television, the will to resist was gradually lost in the United States. As is usual in such circumstances, excuses or rationalisations for disengagement such as the following were sought: the South Vietnamese themselves were not fighting hard enough; the War was hopeless, and the communists were bound to win; and finally, what did it all matter, in any event, since Vietnam was so far from the United States?

The psychological defeat of the Americans, through the erosion of their will to resist, is perhaps the most important military lesson of the Vietnam War. The military errors of the United States, such as the failure to act timely and decisively, and an insufficient emphasis on necessary intelligence, are matters that could be remedied if military engagements took place in other circumstances. But it has been questioned whether for any other than a very quickly resolved conflict, the will to resist of the American people, many of whom are ill-informed and unconcerned about most events outside their own country, could withstand vivid and repeated portrayals of Americans or even non-Americans dead or dying or suffering the unpleasantnesses of war.

In this context it is appropriate to consider the role of the press and other media in Vietnam.

The Press and Other Media in Vietnam

At the beginning of the Vietnam War reporting by press correspondents was generally accurate and objective. The conflict was correctly perceived as one in which terrorists planted from outside were setting out to overthrow, on behalf of an unwanted totalitarian ideology, a peaceful and independent country.

For example, on 3 September 1965 Life magazine published an article, Eight Dedicated Men Marked for Death, by Don Moser. The article described the manner in which ordinary villages were taken over by the Viet Cong through infiltration and the murder and maiming of community leaders, schoolmasters and other officials, and even ordinary villagers singled out as examples, while other villagers were abducted for political re-education. (The eight marked men referred to were those whose photographs appeared on a Viet Cong pamphlet, with a statement that they were to be executed.) Moser's article was a sensitive and penetrating analysis of the campaign of the Viet Cong against ordinary villagers. Again, on 28 January 1967 Death in the Ia Drang Valley, by J. P. Smith, was published in the Saturday Evening Post. This contained a first-hand account of a characteristic engagement by United States' forces against the invading North Vietnamese army. Many similar accounts of similar engagements appeared in the press generally.

Nonetheless, over the same period, some American journalists began to write articles that either deliberately or unwittingly assisted North Vietnamese propaganda activities. For example, on 24 November 1962 the Saturday Evening Post published an article on Ho Chi Minh by Bernard Fall. Ho Chi Minh falls in retrospect into the same category as Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, who set out to cause the deaths of many millions in the pursuit of personal power and the advancement of communist objectives. Their internal propaganda systems nonetheless taught that they were the fathers of their peoples, were kind and wise, and were opposing the evil forces of American imperialism, et cetera. It was hence significant that Bernard Fall described Ho Chi Minh favourably and uncritically, as a "slightly built, grandfatherly man", "speaking in flawless French" (he lived for some time in France), a "grandfatherly man", with a "humorous twinkle in his eye", who had a kind of "gallantry".

In the leading liberal newspapers the tone of articles changed rapidly from 1962. For example, on 25 July 1962 the New York Times published an article by Homer Bigart, Vietnam Victory Remote Despite U.S. Aid to Diem. On 2 March 1965 it published an article by Russell Baker, Befuddled in Asia, and on October 1966 an article by Neil Sheehan, Not a Dove, but No Longer a Hawk, who suggested that "we are corrupting ourselves", and wondered "whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends". One might expect that Ho Chi Minh could hardly have been more satisfied with such comments as these of Sheehan, which tended to blame the United States for opposing what was in substance resistance to an invasion of South Vietnam by the communist North. Again, a visitor to Hanoi who more than justified the North's efforts to have him disseminate their propaganda was Harrison Salisbury, again of the New York Times, whose article on 27 December 1966 was calculated to show that American bombing of the North had little military effect but killed many civilians. Of course, inevitably civilians are killed in wartime bombing, and Salisbury triumphantly repeated information provided for him by the North about civilian casualties, stating with apparent approval, "It is the conviction of the North Vietnamese that the United States is deliberately directing bombs against the civilian population although ostensibly contending that 'military objectives' are the target." Salisbury apparently set out also to minimise the military effects of bombing of roads and railways, saying that for example through human backs, bicycles and carts and in other ways the bombing was "hardly felt". Needless to say, this somewhat partial perception is what the North Vietnamese wished the Americans to believe.

As the fighting intensified, and more and more units of the North Vietnam Army came down into the South, press reports became increasingly pessimistic and increasingly destructive of American morale. Indeed, in the Washington Post, another liberal newspaper, readers were informed by Richard Harwood on 3 September 1967, "The private comments of most (although not all) of the correspondents in Vietnam are even more pessimistic and more disillusioned than their stories reflect. One correspondent for a major American publication has spoken often this summer of a personal crisis of conscience: 'If I had any guts, I'd quit and join the peace movement.'" It appears however that the correspondent referred to did not do so, but continued with like-minded correspondents to write articles apparently calculated to diminish American will.

In general American correspondents were not apparently interested in detailing communist atrocities. But if any basis arose for criticising the South Vietnamese or American forces, full advantage was taken. So in 1968 a photograph was widely circulated, showing a Viet Cong terrorist being summarily executed (in order apparently to show the South Vietnamese unfavourably). And a photograph in 1972 of a naked girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing a village that was being bombed by Americans was used extensively by elements in the United States to the detriment of anti-communist forces.

Probably the most important instance of sensationalist and damaging reporting related to the Tet offensive, which commenced on 31 January 1968. Communist forces attacked some forty-one out of South Vietnam's provincial capitals, as well as Saigon. They were repulsed or driven out of all of them, and lost approximately 40,000 dead, whereas American deaths were 1,700 and South Vietnamese 3,500. From a military viewpoint the communists suffered a significant defeat, but in the New York Times and the Washington Post and similar liberal sources the offensive was, following North Vietnamese disinformation, presented in such a way as to represent a decisive blow to the South. The consequent pessimism was responsible for an abandonment by President Johnson of his previous position, following discussions with such advisers as Acheson, Ball, Bradley, Clifford, Harriman and Rusk on 25 and 26 March 1968. On 31 March 1968 President Johnson announced an almost complete cessation of bombing of the North; and he also announced that he would not seek re-election for a further term as President.

It is not surprising that President Johnson commented retrospectively that during the War he had two adversaries: "one, the communists, and two, the reporters".

Dissent Within the United States

From the early years of the Vietnam War, opposition to United States involvement had been growing. As has been noted, initially this position had been taken by communist supporters and by the hard left. Then it was gradually adopted by the soft left and thence by liberals and student groups and also those whose isolationist tendencies had been suspended only temporarily. All of these made use of disinformation from Hanoi when convenient, sometimes believing it, sometimes apparently merely repeating it for advantage.

University "teach-ins" were developed by opponents of the War as an effective means for obtaining publicity. One such was described in the Michigan Daily, on 26 March 1965. The level of debate may be assessed from a statement by Professor Bergmann of the philosophy department who was reported to have said, "[W]e must allow the Vietnamese to be governed by the government they have chosen themselves the Viet Cong." Much of the anti-Administration argument in the teach-ins had little intellectually sustainable content. As was commented in The Reporter, on 3 June 1965, "One of the built-in problems of the new movement, however, seems to be its indiscriminate generosity in granting critics of every persuasion of the government's activities in Vietnam a home within its ample tent."

This inattention to accuracy or even to truth, and often the dissemination of arguments based upon North Vietnamese disinformation, spread to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago commencing on 26 August 1968, at which Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was nominated as Democrat candidate for President. The occasion was described by Norman Mailer in the bizarre language of the times. Grant Park across the street was, he eulogised, filled with "a revolutionary army of dissenters and demonstrators and college children and McCarthy workers and tourists ready to take a crack on the head, all night they could hear the demonstrators chanting, 'Join us, join us', and the college bellow of utter contempt, 'Dump the Hump! Dump the Hump!'." In retrospect it appears that many members of the mob were part of a sub-culture of general protest which had been instigated or worsened by the co-ordinated movement against the Vietnam War. Apparently Vietnam was not necessarily a cause, but was commonly an excuse for their attitude, which in many cases was bound up with the use of drugs. So Mailer commented on those in the convention centre which was surrounded by demonstrators including many whose main purpose was to justify their counter-culture: they "looked down now into the murderous paradigm of Vietnam there beneath them at this huge intersection of this great city". Mailer's curious writing was devoted to supporting the demonstrators, who, as was usual on such occasions, hurled rocks and bottles at the police. Although, for example, they were adults, he referred to them as "boys" and "girls", whereas the police were "in a blind rage", and the authorities were described as "the Prince of Greed".

All of this provides the flavour of much of the anti-Vietnam War agitation in the United States. A false but assiduously-spread view was relied upon, in which the Vietnamese people really supported the Viet Cong, and the Americans were ruthless and hateful oppressors. The real issue whether and how effective steps would be taken to protect the South Vietnamese from a communist North Vietnamese invasion was diligently avoided.

It has become clear that the counter-culture of the 1960's was carefully manipulated by radical groups with more sinister purposes. The high point of this manipulation was the shooting of a number of protesters by some members of the National Guard, in self-defence, at Kent State University on 4 May 1970. Radical groups had arranged what was described by them as a demonstration, but students were being openly incited to violence, and a National Guard Jeep was showered with rocks. When the mob refused to disperse and violence continued tear gas was used, but the canisters were thrown back at the National Guard, together with rocks and hunks of concrete. The Guardsmen were pursued, and eventually, when they were in fear of their lives, shots were fired by them into the mob. Four students were killed and nine were wounded. Significant numbers of activists from outside the university had been present, and from their point of view, and that of other radicals, the shooting had been a success. They made use of it in order to attempt to establish the existence of repression and to challenge the general social and political structure in the United States.

Although the action of the National Guard at the Kent State University was criticised in many quarters, it received (at the time, surprisingly) general support from many sectors of the community who had become wearied by violence by anti-Vietnam War activists. But there were many liberals who supported the use of violence by protesters. James Michener, for example, found "deplorable" the strong criticisms of students that were expressed in letters to newspapers. Conversely, when in May 1970 construction workers marched through New York streets, supporting the American presence in Vietnam and clashing physically with student demonstrators from the left, they were strongly criticised by liberal elements. So in The Nation, 15 June 1970, the actions of the construction workers were described as fascist in an article by F. J. Cook, who criticised the police for not protecting the students, but characteristically withheld criticism of the students themselves, despite illegalities on their part. Through numerous liberal elements in the press double standards were re-inforced. Protesters against the war were not criticised, but were commented upon with approval. Those who supported or spoke in favour of United States participation were not treated fairly, and it appears in retrospect that almost any method of disparagement was regarded as open.

A Review of Press Analysis

Imbalance in reporting on the Vietnam War persists even today, with a continuing liberal ascendancy in what are perceived to be respectable opinion formers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

This position is exemplified by the two-volume work, Reporting Vietnam, published in 1998 by the Library of America. This work contains a selection of contemporary newspaper reports and writings during the course of the War. The writers and correspondents reproduced include Stanley Karnow, Bernard Fall, Neil Sheehan, Harrison Salisbury, Russell Baker, Henry Graff, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Francine Gray, James Michener, Gloria Emerson, Sydney Schanberg and Michael Herr. This selection of reports and writings is presented as a selection of estimable American journalism, but only a cursory reading is needed to see that it is significantly in favour of the opponents of the Vietnam War.

In particular, there is little explanation in the selected writings of the reasons from time to time of the United States Administration in assisting South Vietnam and prosecuting the War. For example, a common theme of criticism of the Administration was its optimistic account of battles and campaigns, and this matter is quite unduly concentrated upon in Reporting Vietnam. But the fact is that the maintenance of morale is essential in all wars. A leadership that did not express itself optimistically would be guilty of weakening its own forces. Although as a general principle one may wish for dispassionate and objective truth, in the unsatisfactory affairs of war morale-maintaining propaganda is essential. It is moreover universal.

And it is certainly unfortunate but significant that in the thirteen hundred pages of extracts in Reporting Vietnam, in which there is much criticism of the United States administration and the Pentagon, there is no critical examination of the extended campaign of disinformation of North Vietnam and its utilisation by the liberal American press.

Lessons from the Vietnam War

As has been seen here, the military lessons of the Vietnam War are relatively straight-forward. First, it is necessary to be decisive. It is not enough to build up forces slowly, following superior escalations by an enemy. Rather initial assignments should be large enough to deal overwhelmingly with the danger that is posed. A position of overwhelming superiority must be continued at all times. Although this policy may appear to involve an undue profligacy of resources, it prevents drawn out conflicts and pre-empts escalations. Secondly, adequate intelligence must be obtained, and all necessary resources for this purpose must be made available. Not only must enemy numbers and troop movements be known, but there must be a full identification of para-military and civilian operatives. By this means there is a facilitation not only of direct military operations, but also of the securing of territory for the protection of civilians. Thirdly, the Vietnam War has taught many lessons as to the specific tactics to be used in guerilla and jungle warfare. It is not appropriate to discuss such matters here, despite their importance in regard to detailed military planning and strategy.

The social and political aspects of the Vietnam War are a matter for greater concern. In 1962 the North Vietnamese Premier, Pham Van Dong, said, "Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars. Thus we are sure to win in the end." At all times North Vietnam was a close observer of American public opinion. The increasing hostility of the left followed by the liberals, the demonstrations, sit-ins and riots, the prevarication of Administration spokesmen who found it easier to say nothing than to defend publicly American policies, the partiality of the press all these and related matters were noted and encouraged from North Vietnam until finally the United States lost its will to resist. This loss of will was contributed to by, amongst other things, military errors that prolonged American hostilities.

It is a simple matter for totalitarian regimes such as those in China or North Vietnam to carry their countries through long wars. The thoughts of the people are controlled, they are overwhelmed by disinformation and they may be executed if they show significant dissent. But the Athenian state provided an early example of the difficulties of carrying out campaigns when different parties presented conflicting policies and where dissent was often only a short distance from treason. Similar observations may be made of many other democracies since those times. And in the United States also, dissent often approached and even actually became treason, when uninformed younger protesters encouraged the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, and in some cases provided financial assistance to those fighting against their own country.

In the future it will be very difficult for any democratic state to provide armed forces for sustained assistance in defending another state, save in quite exceptional circumstances. Press reports and television pictures may be expected to have such an impact that it will not be normally possible for substantial casualties to be sustained except for a very short period. Doubtless this brings good news to potential totalitarian aggressors, such as North Vietnam. But the implications for democracies that need to protect themselves and others are a matter of concern.

National Observer No. 40 - Autumn 1999