To what extent is it fair to claim that America lost the war in Vietnam and how did the war impact on subsequent foreign policy?

Essay, 2014

9 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Otto Möller (Author)


The following essay intends to illustrate, with the help of comparing revisionist and orthodox theory, the reasons for the failed war in Vietnam for the U.S. and whether it is fair to claim that the U.S. lost the war. Furthermore, I intend to show how the war had an impact on the subsequent foreign policy of the U.S.

These questions can be answered in several different ways, depending on which school of thought the field of international relation studies is used in particular are they differing in the perception whether the engagement in Indochina was necessary at all?

Taking the world political order, and the motivation of the U.S. to keep Communism from spreading in South- East Asia into account. Therefore, the revisionist and the orthodox interpretation of the factor in question concerning to what extent the war was lost and how it impacted the further U.S. history.

First of all, it is logical to state that a war can only be a successful one if something is at stake, say national safety. In the time period between 1961 and 1965, the situation in Vietnam developed from problematic to catastrophic. The motif for the U.S. was to defend “a non-communist South Vietnam, which American policy since 1954 had assumed was essential to limiting Sino-Soviet influence in Southeast Asia” (Hess: 2009 p. 50).

While answering the first question of the essay, the revisionist and the orthodox approaches are clearly differing.

The revisionists were of the opinion that taking world politics into regard, an open-ended engagement has the merit of emphasizing the nature of the Cold War at particular precarious phase and the degree to which all points of the dispute appeared to be inter-related. Nevertheless, to perceive Vietnam, which is a rather small country, as the nucleus of the world order appears to be irrational. Orthodox thinkers believe that the U.S. failure to draw a clear line between “vital and peripheral interest” had resulted in a global containment dimension as well as an unsound engagement in Indochina. However, discussing the central factor of “necessary” or “mistaken” war, the orthodox stand appears to be the more compelling one, because it takes the “Vietnamese history and the power of balance within the country” ”(Hess: 2009 p. 46) into account. Moreover, it seems to be more fundamentally based on “a sophisticated understanding of American capabilities and of the nature of credibility”(Hess: 2009 p. 46).

Now we have seen the differing stands on the origin of the war and its necessity. We can move on to the next point of importance in order to understand where the Vietnam war went wrong for the U.S.: the use of arms and troops.

Concerning that point, the orthodox interpretation accuses civilians and military leaders of having fought an immensely destructive war, which relayed on a high “application of firepower, which could not achieve the political objective of an independent South Vietnam” (Hess: 2009 p. 85). The air operation fighting North Vietnam as well as the ground war in South Vietnam footed on misinterpretations of the daunting effect of U.S. power, the loss susceptibility of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, and the size of the South Vietnamese government and army. The U.S. military officials tried to apply a military strategy which had been successful during WW2 in defeating industrial countries like Japan and Germany. This tactic was bound to fail in Vietnam due to a completely differing system in, for instance, supply chains.

Whereas the revisionist position, which has a subgroup that is called the Clausewitz school, claims that the U.S. was actually taking part in a conventional war. U.S. officials failed to realise the actual circumstances of the combat in Indochina due to that misconception the U.S. forces fought a wrong type of war: a“counter-insurgency.” Following Clausewitz the U.S. powers would have had more success had they concentrated on fighting North Vietnam. Moreover, it seems to have been a mistake that the armed forces were only increased step-by-step and not fully from the very beginning of the war, in order to “conflict a decisive defeat on the enemy”(Hess: 2009 p.92).

According to Clausewitz there are two different types of war, meaning that either the aim is to conquer the opponent -to render him politically impotent or militarily helpless, thus compelling him to agree to whatever kind of peace treaty the winner has in mind; or just to take up some of its “frontier-districts” so that they can be added to the winners territory, or “use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations.” U.S. military leaders always saw a potential war against the Communist powers as belonging to the first category. However, neither of the two world powers could afford even to attempt to defeat the other. Therefore, the Cold War developed to become a “limited war of the second type” in which the two parties, after protecting their most crucial area of influence “in the late 1940s and the early 1950s”, continued to fight for domination in “frontier districts” lacking any kind of earnest “peace negotiations, which did not come about until the collapse of Communism” (Kaiser: 2000 p. 488).

The Vietnam war was inescapably a war in which the U.S. never sought the overturn of even ”North Vietnam, much less of China or the Soviet Union.” Yet, here the U.S. had at no point in time any chance of reaching its aim of an “independent non-Communist South Vietnam” at a remotely acceptable cost” (Kaiser: 2000 p. 488).

In the years, 1968 and 1969 starting, off with the January 1968 Tet operation, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong took off an offensive on an unequalled scale. This became the two severest years of combating, and as a result of that both American and enemy casualties raised substantially. In contrast to a common perception, the Tet Offensive indicated the start, and not the end, of the most intensive part of the war. But for all that, “an interdepartmental study undertaken in the early weeks of the Nixon administration-NSSM-1-concluded that the United States had never inflicted casualties at a rate that the enemy could not replace” (Kaiser: 2000 p. 489). After having taken these positions into account it comes down to a point that had already been foreseen by Charles de Gaulle, who proved the Clausewitz claim that the step-by-step strategy was a war decisive factor wrong. This war was not one to be won:

‘You will find’, I said to him (Kennedy), ‘that intervention in this area will be an endless entanglement. Once a nation has been aroused, no foreign power, however strong, can impose its will upon it. You will discover this for yourselves. For even if you find local leaders who in their own interests are prepared to obey you, the people will not agree to it, and indeed do not want you. The ideology which you invoke will make no difference. Indeed, in the eyes of the masses it will become identified with your will to power. That is why the more you become involved out there against Communism, the more the Communists will appear as the champions of national independence, and the more support they will receive, if only from despair. We French have had experience of it. You Americans wanted to take our place in Indo-China. Now you want to take over where we left off and revive a war which we brought to an end. I predict you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money’(De Gaulle:1972 p.256).

The next part of this essay will deal with the subsequent impact on U.S. foreign policy after Vietnam: After the Vietnam war, when Saigon fell in 1975, a noticeable demobilization of the military took place and it became apparent that state and military officials were increasingly unwilling to become engaged in “Third World conflicts abroad” (Schreader/Reinner:1992 p. 43).

Moreover, from a policy perspective the Conscription was discarded which had been an effective resource, in addition to that military support and aid for weak allied governments was cut in an impressive manner, and a ban on the extended deployment of troops abroad, as expounded upon in the War Powers Act of 1973, was enforced (Schreader/Reinner:1992 p. 43).

As a matter of fact, the U.S. general public was, in the years directly after Vietnam war-weary due to the loss of nearly 60000 US soldiers who gave their lifes in Vietnam. (Hearden 1978: p. 178). This depleted public trust in the government, and in the frankness and expertise of its leaders. Undeniably, cynicism, and a high grade of conjecture and suspicion toward officials of any type, marked the perspective of a rising number of Americans in the wake of the war. The army in particular, was disgraced for years. Only over time it became again one of the most highly appreciated organs of the United States. The public dismissed the endorsement of even the least possible military interventions. Congress, being aware of the objection enclosing intervention, “often countered military missions with congressional roadblocks that obstructed the necessary authority for said intervention”(Schreader/Reinner: 1992 p.66).

Over and above the already mentioned changes and updates, the post-Vietnam strategy included a substitution of general combat troops and avoidance of “direct force”. This new strategy was later know under the name “Indirect Strategy of U.S. intervention”, which supplanted regular force with a new breed of capacity that conveyed U.S. interests and cut off “the loss of lives.” Some of these methods involved the upholstering of the defense capacities of loyal third world countries or employing democratic techniques of mediation over force (Kissinger:1994 p. 43).

Toward the end of the Johnson years, particular circumstances started to limit the nation’s capacity to show power in the common manner; that was the foundation of the ascent of the down-to-earth or “realist foreign policies of Nixon and Ford.” The components which were intertwined included the construction of “second strike nuclear capability by the Soviet Union, a growing U.S. trade deficit, an overvalued dollar, budget constraints fueled by an ever-expanding social agenda at home and the war in Vietnam”(Kissinger:1994 p.43). Moreover, civil disturbance in the streets of important U.S. cities, rising public frustration with the war after the Tet Offensive and ascent “vocal criticism of the war effort from political leaders, scholars and journalists.” Walter Lippman noticed in 1968 one more time out that the whopping shortfall “between the nation’s resources and Johnson’s unlimited war aims"(Hearden:1978 p.173). These aspects and the impact of Henry Kissinger who was a “realist historian and scholar”, and at the same time Nixon’s most important foreign policy adviser resulted in the enactment a foreign policy that was more aware of its nations limits. A continuous disengagement of the Southeast Asian predicament, “while playing the "China card" and linkage politics as new and less costly resources against the Soviet Union, allowed for the successful arms limitations and trade agreements between the two super-powers” Hearden:1978 p.175).


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To what extent is it fair to claim that America lost the war in Vietnam and how did the war impact on subsequent foreign policy?
University of Kent  (Department of International Relations)
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US Foreign Policy, Vietnam, Cold War
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Otto Möller (Author), 2014, To what extent is it fair to claim that America lost the war in Vietnam and how did the war impact on subsequent foreign policy?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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