The author, a frequent contributor of articles and commentary to this journal (see in particular his “Religion and Romance in Wartime Vietnam” in the Summer 1998 issue of American Diplomacy), holds that on the basis of his experience, the Vietnam War was winnable, at least in terms of of maintaining a stalemated situation similar to that following the Korean War. ~ Ed.
DAM GARFINKLE’S ARTICLE, “Mythed Opportunities: The Truth about Vietnam Antiwar Protesters” [published by Foreign Policy Research Institute*, Watch on the West,June 2000 ~ Ed.] debunks two widely accepted myths about the war:
- That the antiwar protests were largely responsible for bringing it to an end; and,
- That it was in any case unwinnable.
I want to offer a personal perspective on both of these points, drawn from my experience as a Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam and in Vietnam-related jobs in Washington, and as a graduate student at Harvard during the height of the antiwar protests.
From hot war to culture war
After three tours in Vietnam, 1965-68, the State Department assigned me to a year of mid-career training at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. There, for the first time, I saw the antiwar movement up close and personal. Like the majority of Americans at the time, I didn’t like what I saw.
I found the protesters to be woefully ill informed about Vietnam and, worse, unwilling even to hear views that questioned the slogans they substituted for facts and analysis. They burned books and disrupted classes of professors who did not share their views, and shouted down any opposition. They insulted veterans. (“How many babies did you kill while you were there?”) Eventually, they forcibly occupied and trashed the university administration building, stole and published faculty personnel records, hurled taunts, stones, and obscenities at the police, and claimed police brutality when they were eventually ejected.
Perhaps their motives were noble, but their actions were despicable, going well beyond the peaceful protests of the civil rights movement to mob political violence akin in spirit to Bolshevism and Hitler’s Brown Shirts. Moreover, their active support of a vicious, totalitarian communist movement in Vietnam was either willfully ignorant or simply perverse.
The contrast between the views of the anti-war protesters who dominated the Harvard student body in 1968-69 and the views of their working class neighbors in the city of Cambridge was stark. The citizens of Cambridge, for whom the students claimed to speak (presumably as the vanguard of the proletariat), were a good example of a group that came to support the war even more strongly because of their outrage at the words and actions of the protesters. Like many of them and their counterparts throughout the country, I voted Republican for the first time in my life in 1968 and again in 1972 largely because of my perception that the anti-war protesters and their political mentors had come to dominate the Democratic Party.
A winnable war, almost won
My experience also supports Garfinkle’s other point, about the now pervasive dogma that the war was always unwinnable.
In 1969, after finishing my degree at Harvard, I was assigned to work on Vietnamese affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, from which I was soon seconded to the National Security Council staff to work on an interagency project called the Vietnam Special Studies Group. This year long effort was designed to assess the status of the war and the pacification program in the Vietnamese countryside as the new Nixon Administration was beginning the process of Vietnamization and withdrawal of American combat forces. Members of the group, from State, CIA and the Pentagon, carefully reviewed all of the reporting and intelligence and made multiple visits to Vietnam for on-site assessments. I drafted the group’s final report to then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger.
To the surprise of many of us in the group, who were all veterans of several tours in Vietnam, we found that despite its political success, the1968 Tet Offensive had been a military disaster for the Communists that had reversed the tide of the war. The South Vietnamese and U.S. counter-offensives against a much-weakened enemy in subsequent months had been highly successful, and as a result the government had regained effective control of almost all of the populated countryside for the first time in the war. (It had always held the cities.) Lines of communication were generally secure, and the economy was reviving. We attributed this success not only to the massive enemy losses during Tet and its aftermath, but also to a better organized and more effective pacification program, less emphasis on search and destroy operations and more on “clear and hold,” a larger role and more assistance for the South Vietnamese armed forces and militia, and increased popular support for a democratically elected South Vietnamese Government.
While regular North Vietnamese Army units were still present in remote areas or just across the borders and posed a substantial continuing threat, we concluded that the guerrilla war, the insurgency, the war for control of the South Vietnamese countryside and its people, had largely been won by mid-1970.
This view was supported by the 1972 Easter Offensive, a massive attack in the border regions by North Vietnamese regulars that was turned back by the South Vietnamese forces together with overwhelming U.S. air support. Unlike the 1968 Tet offensive, there was little infiltration of the cities or the populated countryside by Viet Cong guerrillas.
By 1973, when I was assigned to the Department of State’s Vietnam desk, the war was essentially stalemated, not unlike the Korean War two decades earlier. The South Vietnamese Government controlled the cities and most of the populated countryside. The North Vietnamese Army, though still present in remote areas and in nearby Laotian and Cambodian sanctuaries, was held in check by a reasonably effective South Vietnamese Army, backed by massive U.S. logistic support and the threat of U.S. air power in the event of new major offensives. American combat forces were gone. There is no reason this situation could not have continued indefinitely (again, not unlike the situation in Korea following the 1953 armistice). While some people may not have viewed this as a U.S. “victory,” it would have achieved the war’s fundamental objective: an independent, non-communist South Vietnam. The Paris Agreement, while imperfect, could have worked.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of stalemate
However, by this time Congress was no longer willing to bear the cost of maintaining the stalemate and enforcing the Paris Agreement. This would have required continued high levels of military and economic support for South Vietnam, plus a credible threat to back up the South Vietnamese forces with American air strikes in the event of another North Vietnamese offensive.
Instead, funding for South Vietnam was cut drastically. By late 1974, its air force was largely grounded for lack of spare parts; ammunition and other military supplies were running low; and the economy was in a tailspin. Moreover, Watergate and the collapse of the Nixon presidency had made it clear that there was no possibility of renewed U.S. air support for South Vietnam under any conditions, and that necessary aid levels would not be restored. South Vietnamese morale was undermined, and the North Vietnamese were emboldened to strike.
It was these circumstances that made the North Vietnamese victory in 1975 inevitable. At no time previously, however, had this been the case.