Though it has not been commemorated — or even noticed by most Americans — there is a steadily diminishing number among us that might regard January 27 of fifty years ago a day of infamy. On that day in 1973, the United States formally ended its involvement in the Vietnam War with an accord signed in Paris. Many regarded that end, and some still do, as an American military defeat — we turned tail and ran, the first time in history. While it took two years for the Communist North Vietnam to consolidate its victory and unify the country under its rule, it was inevitable once the U.S. ended its involvement.
Was it a defeat for America? Like so many things, it depends on the definition. Defeat in war implies surrender, occupation by the enemy, reparations, regime change, and other humiliations. France under Napoleon was defeated; Germany and Japan certainly were defeated in World War II. America suffered none of these catastrophes. In this country the domestic fury and civil strife over its military intervention to support the South Vietnam regime was quickly abated. America focused on its domestic issues for the rest of the decade. The only serious foreign scrape was the Desert One debacle when President Carter attempted to rescue the hostages from the U. S. Embassy in Iran, totally unrelated to the Vietnam situation.
Assessment of whether ending the U. S. involvement was a defeat depends on the context. The Vietnam War occurred in the middle of the Cold War. The raison d’etre for American involvement in Vietnam was to halt the spread of Soviet Communism that was seen to be a threat to world peace and freedom in the developing countries — the Third World, as it was termed. After World War II the USSR and its Comintern actively sought world domination — Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev famously declared “we will bury you” to the United States and its allies. Khrushchev appeared to be serious. Cuba — 90 miles from Florida — became a Soviet client state under Fidel Castro in 1959 and soon threatened the U. S. with intermediate-range missiles. Soviet sponsored aggression in the Third World, thinly disguised as “liberation” movements, was on the march. Eastern European nations, China, and North Korea were client states of the Soviets. A decade before American full-scale involvement in Vietnam, the United States, sanctioned by the United Nations, took the lead in the effort to stop Communist aggression in Korea. Though it became a stalemate, to the extent that intervention prevented the North Korean takeover of the South it was successful. Successive administrations in Washington believed a similar result in Vietnam was possible.
Nineteenth Century Prussian soldier and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote a treatise On War (Vom Kriege in German) in which he theorized war is “a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” In other words, war is one means to achieve a political end. The North Vietnamese military commander Vo Nguyen Giap and his political leader Ho Chi Minh’s aim was unification of Vietnam under a Communist regime as a client of the Soviet Union. The United States and its allies’ policy was to curtail the global spread of Soviet influence.
After the American withdrawal, which was precipitated mostly by domestic politics, the South Vietnamese were not able to fend for themselves for long. Thus, Giap and Ho achieved their policy aims.
After the normalization of the United States’ diplomatic relations with Vietnam in the 1990s, the late Senator (and one-time Presidential candidate) John McCain met with General Giap. McCain, who had been a prisoner of war in the North, reportedly told Giap that the North and its Viet Cong guerilla allies never defeated the U. S. Military in battle. Giap agreed that was true, but irrelevant. In succinct words: “So what?”
Clausewitz’s theory works both ways. The overarching containment policy of the U.S. and the West in the 1980s was continued “with other means.” These means were the economic, cultural, and moral forces led by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and the courage of Polish patriot Lech Walensa and many others. November 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin wall. Two years later the hammer and sickle was hauled down from the Kremlin signaling that the USSR was no more. Vo Nguyen Giap had won his battle, but Soviet Communism ultimately lost the global war. To the extent America might have lost in Vietnam, we may also respond “So what?”
— Clausewitz’s expanded view has been translated from the German as “that war is nothing more than a continuation of the political process by applying other means. By applying other means we simultaneously assert that the political process does not end with the conclusion of the war or is being transformed into something entirely different, but that it continues to exist and proceed in its essence, regardless of the means, it might make use of.” See On War, translated and edited by M. Howard and P. Paret, Princeton University Press (1984 ed.) Clausewitz’s views have not been unchallenged.
— After the Soviet Union collapsed, Dallas’s eccentric restauranteur Harvey Gough obtained a statue of Vladimir Lenin during a visit to Russia and placed it in front of his hamburger restaurant on Lovers Lane inscribed with the words “America Won” on its base.
— Full disclosure. This writer served in the United States Army during the height of the Vietnam war. The vagaries of military personnel assignment sent me to Korea and a stateside post, not Vietnam. In that sense, I am not a “Vietnam veteran” though I could have been.