Why did the U.S. forces fail to achieve victory in Vietnam?

Essay, 2002

7 Pages, Grade: A


Why did the U.S. forces fail to achieve victory in Vietnam?

The discussion of this question starts with the definition of “victory”. Surprisingly John Kennedy perceived the definition of the victory as difficult when he mentioned: “how can we tell if we´re winning?” (Herring,1981,p.606). The possible range of victories stretches from setting an end to guerrilla attacks to a complete non-communist Vietnam. The original aim of the U.S. government was most plausibly a situation in which North Vietnam was no threat any more to the South, and the “Communist danger” was banned.

Due to various reasons it was impossible to reach that goal. I will show that it was not only the guerrilla warfare that defeated the U.S. Army, it was this special type of insurgency war in this special region under these special circumstances that made this war unwinnable only with military means. If the American generals would have made different decisions they also would have been proven wrong. The war could not end in a victory for the U.S. because there were plenty of constraints which could not be solved in either one way or another.

In this context information and trust play an important role. The United States was used to fighting wars that took place in distant regions they were not familiar with before. The difference with this war was that knowledge about this conflict and this land was important. One plausible possibility to gain this information would have been a “combined command” between American and South Vietnam forces as general Westmoreland sought (Herring,1990,p.6). But this was not possible because “the South Vietnamese resisted such an arrangement [...] perceiving it as a form of neo-colonialism” (ibid.) and the U.S. did not trust the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) fearing that they could be infiltrated by communists. It is understandable that the JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) were afraid of spies within the army of their ally as the “cells” of the North Vietnamese were practising for subversion and sabotage (Thompson,1969,p.32-33). The American leaders on the other hand enforced Saigon to organise its divisions the same as the U.S. ones to be able to “receive [...] logistical support” (Tran Van Don,1987,p.149). Consequently the Southern troops again lost something of their own structure and self confidence. So there did not exist an alliance strategy the Americans could join in, and their strategy was not suitable for the country.

The problem was even bigger among the soldiers; even if they wanted to build a relationship with the locals there was the problem of trust. As one GI wrote: “During the day they´ll smile and take your money. At night they´ll creep in and slit your throat”(Herring,1990.p.13). This made intercultural contacts extremely difficult as they had to face constraints from both sides. U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese could become suspicious of their comrades having friendly relations. Yet without personal contact there never could develop an issue like trust.

A similar paradox can be noticed regarding the ARVN. They recognised they could not win against the North or even the VC (Vietcong), so they called for American help, but as soon as they arrived their attitude changed towards “ Why should we fight? The Americans doing the fighting for us”(Nguyen,1984,p.151). Therefore the U.S. became so dominant that the ARVN “depended so heavily on the Americans for almost everything that it was difficult to get ...[the ARVN´s] opinions taken into account”(Clarke,1988,p.121-122). The South Vietnamese were asking for support but when the assistance appeared they lost their ability to fight for themselves.

The U.S. government was confronted with the task of achieving their aims without touching the influence spheres of the two powerful communist nations. Therefore they fought a limited war: they bombed the north but they did not dare to bomb close to the Chinese border or on Russian ships. Hence the bombing did not have a strong immediate effect and the North Vietnamese got used to it; the bombs even united them in the way that “bombing clearly strengthened popular support” as the IDA (Institute of Defence Analysis) reported (DeGroot,2000,p.197). Continuing the bombardments would have been (and was in fact according to Head,1993,p.119-121) very costly and would produce poor results. However to stop the bombing was nearly impossible, because to do this would cause the NLF (National Liberation Front) to feel safe in the northern part, making it even more easy to supply the PLAF (People’s Liberation Armed Forces). Due to the geographical shape of Indochina the border to the west was very long and its mountainous jungle vegetation provided facile entry for the VC (Thompson,1969,p.43). The reinforcements should be disabled, and to do that the Air Force dropped bombs and the ground troops patrolled the border. But this did not fulfil the goal, as the Vietcong had its sanctuaries in Kampuchea and Laos. To have a chance to destroy the Ho Chi Minh path they needed to invade Kampuchea and Laos, and to cut the foreign “aid” it would have been necessary to destroy the harbours as well as Russian supply ships. If they had done that in early stage of the war they would have feared the consequences, such as a more direct conflict with China and Russia. The “moderate” warfare was often criticised afterwards, but it must be seen that, in this situation, there was not that great a choice.


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Why did the U.S. forces fail to achieve victory in Vietnam?
University of St Andrews  (Department of Modern History)
America and Vietnam
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Why did the U.S. forces fail to achieve victory in Vietnam? Amerika, Vietnam
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Peter Tilman Schuessler (Author), 2002, Why did the U.S. forces fail to achieve victory in Vietnam?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/8916


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