The following is a recollections on the end of the Vietnam War originally published in the May, 2005 issue of Proceedings under the original title, Reflections on Vietnam.
It ended 30 years ago when a Marine handed Graham Martin a folded flag and the U.S. Ambassador took off from the roof of the U.S Embassy in Saigon. No one, warrior or protestor, walked away from the Vietnam War unscathed. The photos need no captions. The words of the two Marine infantry officers help us remember, as if we could forget.
Early in the morning on Labor Day 1959, John Wilson, our battalion executive officer, banged on the door of my BOQ room in Okinawa.
“Joe Boy, it’s time to get up, we’re going to war!”
It turned out that we weren’t going to war. We mounted out one more time, got on the trucks, drove to Kadena Air Base, drew our ammunition, sat on our field marching packs for half a day, and then returned to barracks. Our planned operation to Vientiane, Laos was canceled that day and in fact never took place.
But our involvement in Southeast Asia began long before 1959. What was going on in the 1960s in Southeast Asia was part of a vast upheaval that began before World War II—the effort of oppressed peoples around the world, but most especially in Asia and Africa, to throw off their colonial masters. Today this process is almost complete. But the second and third order consequences of colonialism remain.
Wars of national liberation, narrowly averted in India, had spread across French Indochina, along with British, Belgian, and French Africa. Unfortunately, our political masters saw in the post-1954 partition of Vietnam and the withdrawal of the French not a national liberation, but an effort on the part of the North Vietnamese government to extend “monolithic communism” throughout Southeast Asia and thereafter the rest of South Asia.
This certitude, that the North Vietnamese posed a threat to the freedom of their neighbors, ignored a rich tapestry of conflicts throughout the Third World that were helping to create independent countries where colonialism existed before. The South Vietnam government and its American supporters were in the eyes of the North merely a perpetuation of colonialism. The principal external enemy of North Vietnam, indeed of all Vietnam, had been the Chinese for the previous thousand years.
The Tonkin Gulf incident was enough to get us into the war. Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s extraordinary memoir, In Love and War , which describes in detail the events that took place, should dispel any doubts the reader may still have about whether or not any Navy ships had been attacked by North Vietnamese combatants. It was a put-up job.
In January of 1966, I stood at the bar of the French Navy Officers Club in Toulon, France, participating in a post-exercise happy hour. The commander of the French Navy Commando Group and I were talking about the war in Vietnam. I was making the case for the superiority of American arms over the earlier French effort in Vietnam. I suggested that air power, mobility, and superior numbers would carry us to victory.
My drinking buddy, a veteran of both the Indochina war and the Algerian war, was too gracious to take issue with me in his own club. However, the look he gave me—a mixture of disbelief and pity—remains with me to this day. It was a look on which I have reflected often while sitting in various foxholes and bunkers in Southeast Asia.
Six months after that conversation I was in the Republic of Vietnam as an advisor to the Vietnamese Marines. Hanson Baldwin, the distinguished military analyst for The New York Times and a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, once noted that anything that you said about the South Vietnamese armed forces was true, meaning a wide range of capability existed among these units. I soon learned that, with the possible exception of the Vietnamese Airborne Division, the Marine brigade had no peer in that country’s military. I participated in combat operations in three of the four Corps areas and in the Capital Military District. I had a chance to see first-hand the nature of the land, its people, and its government structure. I was soon to realize what others, including my French friend, in similar counterinsurgency efforts already had learned—that political action, not military action, was the way to success.
I realized that George Washington and Ho Chi Minh, aside from being the fathers of their countries, had other things in common. Mainly, they both realized that they could achieve victory only by outlasting their opponents. General Washington defeated the British in our Revolutionary War because of French help, and because of the British realization that events in Europe were more important than the colonies.
Ho won his war in Vietnam because he was not decisively defeated. He held out long enough so that American domestic pressure forced our government into protracted negotiations, the result of which both sides knew would be reunification under the control of the North.
In the late winter and early spring of 1972, I was embarked with our battalion in Amphibious Ready Group Bravo in the Tonkin Gulf. With the North Vietnamese Army invasion of the South over the Easter weekend, we were soon joined by more amphibious ships with Marines embarked, more carriers, and surface combatants.
We all spent the next four months in the region. While Navy and Marine Air supported my Vietnamese friends and their Marine advisors along the DMZ, those of us embarked aboard ship went through endless planning for operations like a two-battalion raid on the naval installations in the North Vietnamese city of Vinh to “relieve the pressure” on South Vietnamese troops defending Quang Tri province. I can’t speak for the commander of the Seventh Fleet or his staff, but all of us down on the amphibs knew that there was no chance that we would go ashore to fight the North Vietnamese in their own country.
At that point, we now know, our government knew that the war was lost. There remained only a means of getting out with dignity. Thirty years ago the war did end, but without dignity, culminating with the U.S. evacuation of Saigon.
To this day, the post-mortem continues. Who was at fault? Was it the antiwar protesters? Was it the lack of the ability of our armed forces? Was it the civilian leadership? There was certainly enough blame to go around. But those who wish to assign blame need only go to the string of presidents, who, with their advisors, misinterpreted the nature of the war from the start. Or upon seeing the improbability of a favorable ending, did not have the courage President de Gaulle displayed when he overruled his army and gave independence to Algeria. The French Army, you see, had won militarily in Algeria, but de Gaulle had the wisdom to realize that without a political victory there could be no peace.
The U.S. military forces in Vietnam fought with competence and valor. We were asked to do the unachievable—win a counterinsurgency campaign that could only be won at the end of the day through political means.
Those of us who continued our military service beyond Vietnam felt exonerated by the resounding victory of Desert Storm in 1990-1991. We had made tremendous strides since 1975. We were helped by an all-volunteer professional force bolstered by the G.I. Bill and a living wage. New technology had changed the whole nature of the battlefield and we had raised the standards of professional competence in our officer corps.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 had provided the sweeping changes to reorganize the Department of Defense. There was no doubt that General Norm Schwarzkopf was the theater commander, and had the ability to conduct the liberation of Kuwait. However, it is also fair to say that this great victory was in part due to a clear mission, the use of overwhelming force, the support of the American people, and limits to the extent of the campaign, both in time and geography.
The events of the last three years are similar to those our country faced in the 1960s. We went to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction and alleged cooperation between al-Qaida and the Saddam Hussein regime. Neither assertion has proved to be true. We missed an opportunity to achieve success in higher priority activities, namely the successful completion of the Afghan campaign, the destruction of al-Qaida, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the improvement of homeland security.
After the fall of Baghdad, the planning and execution of which had come to be known as Phase IV, the reconstitution of Iraq, was characterized by poor planning and execution. Despite the extraordinary skill and courage of our fighting men and women, we were losing the counterinsurgency campaign until a political act—elections—began to turn the situation around.
We are nowhere close to seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel,” as officials used to say regarding Vietnam. But there is now a chance that we can create a stable democracy in Iraq.
We should reflect on the viability of democracy in a country without a tradition of democracy, as we may have to settle for stability with some democracy. In the mind of the man on the Iraqi street, stability and security trumps democracy every time.
A final thought. Our leaders need a sense of history with regard to what is going on today in the Arab world. Our friends in the region remind us of this regularly. Those of us who have sipped the tea and sat around the campfires also know. We are all in favor of stability in the Middle East. But the road to stability does not lead through Baghdad. It runs through Jerusalem. Until we address ourselves as a nation to that problem, we cannot expect meaningful, long-term change in the Arab world.