The United States entered the war in Vietnam in response to growing concerns over the expansion of communism in the world. The US involvement in Vietnam was protracted. While several previous wars had been succinct and provided both an absolute beginning and a cognizable end, the war in Vietnam dragged on and on. Because there was no real goal apparent during the war, and because the US seemed to be in the middle of an ongoing fight between two sides of the same country, it was all but impossible for American generals to declare victory. When the US finally pulled out of the country almost a decade after going there, many argued that the American involvement in Vietnam had been, on the whole, a massive failure. They argued specifically that the US involvement in Vietnam failed to achieve any of the country’s goals, degraded the American standing in the international community, and left the region worse than the US found it. Overall, the behavior of the US in Vietnam sets a standard for what not to do when trying to intervene around the world. America’s initial involvement in Vietnam had to do with the American agenda related to fighting a proxy war with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had tried to spread communism and its accompany government to various parts of the world, and Vietnam became a test case for this. The US had already been involved in a decades-long conflict in Korea, but the battle in Vietnam was somewhat different. The US got involved in what was essentially a civil war, fighting on behalf of the South Koreans because of the communism that was tried in North Vietnam. The historical question that this project will answer is “in what ways can the American intervention in Vietnam be considered a failure?” While some might argue in the alternative, the American involvement in the war in Vietnam was foolhardy, and because it failed to achieve its goals, it can be considered a failure.
One of the primary reasons why the war in Vietnam can be considered a failure is because of the uncertain nature of the conflict there. In order for one to have success, there has to be a defined goal that one is trying to achieve. For a variety of reasons, this was simply not the case in Vietnam. Few people had an idea on what it meant to “win” the war in Vietnam. Richard Nixon was accused of colluding to keep the war going because it would benefit him in his political situation back at home. When one considers this in concert with the fact that the situation there was so uncertain in the first place, one can begin to understand why the US eventually found itself in an unwinnable quagmire. The US did not have a definable goal beyond the idea that it wanted to stop the spread of communism across the East. With this in mind, one might have assumed that the goal was to annihilate North Vietnam, but the US never set out to do this. Rather, the US set out to fight against a rogue government in North Vietnam while supporting its allies in South Vietnam. The goal in some ways was to support South Vietnam so that the South Vietnamese might serve as a counter to the communist forces in North Vietnam. However, it became difficult to achieve this goal because of the reality of what civil wars can be. As the war carried on, the South Vietnamese were not happy with American involvement. Often, in individual battles, the US did not know who the enemy was. It was caught between two groups of people that both did not like the US, and American forces were trying to collaborate with South Vietnamese forces that did not necessarily support those American forces. Because the US lost significant lives in a conflict where it could not possibly achieve its goal, the effort in Vietnam can absolutely be classified as a failure.
The US had its reputation sullied by the war effort, which is another primary reason why war could be considered a failure. The reputation of the government both at home and abroad was called into question during the course of the war. First, there was suggested corruption on the part of Richard Nixon, who stood to gain significantly from an ongoing conflict. Nixon undermined American efforts to end the war in a way that might have been more peaceful because of his personal belief that the war would benefit him politically and professionally. Over time, when these revelations came about, it became clear to many in the public that the government could not be trusted to execute its most central duties. Beyond that, there were several events that called into question the integrity of the war effort and the American forces carrying out that effort. Many things that happened during the Vietnam War revealed something dark about control in the US military. The Mai Lai Massacre was one of those events, where several US soldiers were involved in raping, killing, and maiming civilians. In Mai Lai, some American soldiers raped and killed women and children. There were mass executions by an American force that did not seem capable of controlling itself. It was only through the intervention of a handful of brave Americans that the US forces stopped the killing and pillaging during this time. Worse than that, there was an effort on the part of the government to cover up this event. The US government was trying to keep morale high about the war, and because anti-war protests had begun on college campuses and in cities around the country, the government was beginning to feel a bit of a squeeze. Vietnam was one of the first wars in which journalists were taking pictures and bringing reports from the front lines. As people began to see what war entailed, they did not like what they heard. The Mai Lai Massacre would have totally undermined American confidence in the war effort, which is why military leaders colluded with government officials to keep things quiet and even cover things up. The way the US behaved itself in the context of the war provided significant fodder not only for Americans to stop believing in the war effort, but also for people in the international realm to stop believing in what the US was after. The US went into Vietnam without the support of many of its international partners, who had grown tired of war efforts in the wake of World War II, and who only supported the Cold War through various forms of diplomacy. As the US continued with its war effort and more brutality was reported, neighboring countries lost faith in the American government to do the right thing. Both with citizens at home and allies abroad, America surrendered some of the moral capital that it had worked so hard to gain in World War II. Given that a major part of the war effort was about making the moral case for democracy and capitalism over communism, losing out on this moral capital was a major loss for the US. Because of these things and how it impacted the American reputation at home and around the world, the war effort can certainly be deemed a failure in many respects.
The American war effort in Vietnam left the region worse than it was before. Whenever one looks to analyze the impact of a military conflict, one of the ways of doing so is by assessing whether or not the war left an area in a better way than it found it. Importantly, the Vietnam War was incredibly destructive not only for the North Vietnamese, but also for the South Vietnamese. While it is always difficult to know the full extent of destruction in a major war effort, the estimates suggest that as many as two million civilians died in the war on both sides. Beyond that, it is argued that close to one million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers died during the course of the war. As many as 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died during the effort. Overall, the total destruction in the war took many years to be recovered. Ultimately the US pulled out of the war effort in 1973. Two years later, after the US had left the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves, the North Vietnamese took over Saigon. This was the effective end of the war, with the North Vietnamese “winning,” to the extent that any side could claim a win in this kind of war. Importantly, this brought about the unification of Vietnam, which was far from a good thing. Not only did the North Vietnamese put into place their communist system, but the South Vietnamese had to pay a heavy price for their role in the civil war. The United States was gone by that point, and with the North Vietnamese being the big winners of the conflict. This left the South Vietnamese vulnerable to abuse. Beyond that, the North Vietnamese had power, which allowed for communism to spread more than it could have. The US was also weakened by this, having lost many men in the war and also spent significant amounts of money in the effort. These results were decidedly bad for the United States, leaving the region in a worse state than the country found it. Given the amount of effort exerted by the US, and the sheer human toll of the war, that the US did not accomplish its ultimate goals is a major factor that one must consider when assessing whether the war was a success or failure.
We know much about Vietnam and America’s failed involvement there. From the ethical issues surrounding government and the military to the sheer toll of the unwinnable war, it is clear that America’s involvement there was far from successful. However, there are some disagreements about the biggest failures in the Vietnam War. Some focus on the human rights abuses, while others focus on failed American imperialism. Others still see Vietnam as an example of government corruption and military overreach. However one looks at the Vietnam War, there are angles that one can mention to sustain an opinion that the war was a failure. The US did not have a clear goal, and because the goal was unclear, one can easily say that the US did not have a chance of winning the war in the first place. Beyond that, the US did many things to hurt its standing not only with citizens, but also in the international community. To the extent the US had goodwill in the global community prior to the war, it spent all of that with its actions in Vietnam. Allies came to understand that the US could not be trusted to lead these kinds of campaigns. Some may even say that this concern among allies started then and continues today. Beyond that, the US did not do itself any favors in terms of stability in the region. Vietnam and Southeast Asia in general got more volatile as a result of the war, and the people in South Vietnam found themselves in a more dangerous situation because of the US’s efforts in the region. When all of these things are taken into account, one can see clearly that the American effort in Vietnam was not a success, and any fair assess could even consider it to be a massive failure.
- Emerson, Gloria. Winners & Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses, and Ruins from the Vietnam War (reissue). WW Norton & Company, 2014.
- Falk, Richard A. The Vietnam War and international law. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press, 2017.
- Gibbons, William Conrad. The US Government and the Vietnam War: Executive and Legislative Roles and Relationships, Part IV: July 1965-January 1968. Vol. 4. Princeton University Press, 2014.
- Herring, George. America’s longest war: the United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2013.
- Le Espiritu, Yen. Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees. Univ of California Press, 2014.
- Short, Anthony. The origins of the Vietnam war. Routledge, 2014.