The lessons of Vietnam long ago became a cliché in American political debate. It provided a shorthand for mistakes to avoid or overcome. Successfully driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, at minimal cost in lives and money, appeared to lift the United States from the shadow of Vietnam. After the disappointed hopes of more recent Middle Eastern conflicts, however, the shadow returned. Ken Burns’ recent documentary series, The Vietnam War, revives the debate over what lessons that war provides. Rather than the usual approach of drawing analogies that show what policies to adopt or avoid, learning from Vietnam involves considering the problems it raised, how those directing it responded, and what made their responses succeed or fail.
Burns and his collaborator, Lynn Novick, present the Vietnam War as a mistake undertaken with the best of intentions that ended with a publicly humiliating defeat. The refusal by American leaders to admit errors in strategy and tactics or appear to show weakness that political rivals might exploit unnecessarily prolonged a bitter, divisive struggle. Claims to impartiality—Burns told the media that “we don’t have an agenda, we’re just umpires calling balls and strikes”—ring hollow given such premises. One need not defend the war or those who waged it uncritically to note bias. The series downplays Communist repression in both North and South Vietnam, the willingness of South Vietnamese to fight, or the effectiveness of American forces in combat. Omission of these crucial facts, among others, challenges the perspective of the series as a neutral umpire.
Lee Kwan Yew, the statesman who created Singapore as a modern state, defended American involvement in Vietnam for providing Southeast Asian countries a decade to build their defenses against coercion from either outside pressure or internal subversion. Post-colonial states had fragile institutions to mobilize consent and govern citizens. Undeveloped or imbalanced economies made them all the more vulnerable. Successful counter-insurgency campaigns in Malaya and the Philippines, along with a brutal purge of Indonesian Communists in 1965 during President Sukarno’s overthrow, underline dangers that drew the United States into an increasing commitment to Vietnam. Those efforts helped build a firebreak that kept the war from spreading beyond Indochina.
Where Burns’ series paints the struggle as hopeless, others like Adam Garfinkle and Michael Lind have argued that a different strategy emphasizing politics over firepower and body counts might have brought at least a draw. General Creighton Abrams’ replacement of General William Westmoreland shifted emphasis from search and destroy operations to clear and hold while building up the South Vietnamese army. At the same time, losses in the Tet Offensive had drastically cut the Viet Cong’s effectiveness. Lewis Sorley’s A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam merits attention for showing how the situation changed even as the United States focused on disengaging from a conflict its leaders increasingly saw as a liability.
Entering a war always has been easier than exiting on acceptable terms. Lyndon Johnson feared the United States risked the same embarrassment from defeat that France had undergone at Dien Bien Phu. The full version of an oft-quoted remark by Vermont Senator George Aiken in 1966 proposed that declaring military victory with American forces victorious in the field and no potential enemy able to establish its authority in South Vietnam would remove credibility as an issue. Shifting the emphasis to political warfare rather than a military struggle would take Americans out of the firing line. Aiken later supported Richard Nixon’s efforts to realize Johnson’s hopes of South Vietnamese troops bearing the main burden with American support.
Burns casts Nixon, the most Machiavellian of American figures, as the villain who prolonged the war before abandoning South Vietnam. The portrait owes much to Burns’ outrage as a progressive whose idealism Nixon affronts. As Walter McDougall points out, the realpolitik of Nixon’s larger project of détente did not compute on any level with the progressive definition of American civil religion. Its focus in Vietnam of balancing commitments with resources worked better than the strategy pursued before then.
Weapons, munitions, and funding replaced troops on the ground as the South Vietnamese army bore the brunt of fighting by 1970. Ending the draft and withdrawing American ground forces—along with a backlash against protests against the war—strengthened Nixon’s position at home. He and Kissinger sought to contain the war in Indochina by opening talks with China and improving relations with the Soviet Union. Vietnam itself mattered less than the larger project of détente that aimed to reduce strain on the United States by lowering Cold War tensions. Both North and South Vietnam feared a deal being made over their heads, but Nixon pledged military support to upholding the latter’s independence. The war’s shift after 1968 from an insurgency to a conventional struggle that featured North Vietnamese forces using armor and infantry made U.S. airpower a more effective combat tool. Strategic bombing had failed because the North Vietnamese took the punishment it inflicted rather than compromise, but easily targeted ground forces suffered enough losses during these bombings to check any invasion.
But those guarantees collapsed along with the Nixon administration amidst the unfolding Watergate scandal. Congressional Democrats had turned against the war. South Vietnam’s economy collapsed, leaving its government unable to pay soldiers or maintain civilian confidence. Refusal by the United States to provide spare parts or military aid worsened the situation. Le Duan overcame fears of American intervention among the North Vietnamese Politburo to mount an offensive in late 1974 that threw South Vietnam into panic. Despite President Gerald Ford’s warnings of a vast humanitarian tragedy, Congress refused to provide any military aid. His insistence that past administrations of both parties had made commitments fell upon deaf ears. Having disengaged, Americans would not return to Vietnam. A consensus that President Ford himself would express now sought to put Vietnam behind the United States.
Humiliating scenes of helicopters evacuating Americans from the roof of the Saigon embassy underlined the embarrassment of defeat. South Vietnam had been lost. But the much discussed “domino effect” of Communism spreading through South East Asia did not come to pass. The war had exhausted North Vietnam which lost China’s backing as the Communist bloc split. Burns presents disillusionment on the North Vietnamese side as hunger and impoverishment followed the sacrifices of war. Imposing Communism on a recalcitrant South Vietnam strained the victors as did their costly intervention in neighboring Cambodia. Rivalry between China and the Soviet Union caused Hanoi further problems, including a brief 1979 war with the former. Despite its own sufferings, Indochina became a firebreak that contained Communism until the Soviet collapse discredited it.
So what does Vietnam teach about foreign policy and war? The most commonly drawn lesson of avoiding divisive foreign wars is too vague and downplays the pressures that drew the United States into the conflict. A few rules of thumb for decision making seem more useful. The first demands caution making commitments. Outside powers rarely understand local dynamics which put them at risk of being manipulated by weaker allies seeking the means to advance their own goals. Nixon’s 1969 insistence that nations directly threatened provide the manpower for their own defense reflected the need to minimize American exposure, but it also offers a guide for allies to take responsibility for their own security. Support leverages resources more effectively than direct protection and helps build a more sustainable environment.
Another is containing regional and local conflicts where possible so they can more easily be managed. Involvement by outside rivals tends to escalate and prolong struggles. On the other hand, a final rule of thumb suggests that disengagement can make a situation the other side’s problem. Alliances fray as their parties move closer to the objective that brought them together and new tensions over the post-war spoils soon emerge. Promoting and taking advantage of that dynamic may appear cynical, but it also provides a way to deftly balance rivals. Indeed, the value of maintaining a balance in lieu of direct intervention may be the most useful lesson from the tragedy of Vietnam.