Twenty-five years after the ignominious American withdrawal from what was then South Vietnam, this much is clear: the United States lost the war, but won the peace. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how things could have turned out much better if we had won the war. The United States remains the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. alliances with such critical states as Japan, South Korea and Australia are robust; U.S. relations with China are extensive if not always warm. Even U.S. relations with Vietnam are now proper and improving. The region is mostly democratic, wealthy and at peace. And despite gloomy predictions to the contrary, “dominos” did not fall to Communism after we lost in Vietnam.
Also worth noting is that some 15 years after the flag came down over the American Embassy in Saigon and the helicopters flew away from its roof, the Cold War ended. In this case, though, the United States and the West won the war. This outcome resulted not just from Soviet shortcomings—exacerbated by the Soviet “Vietnam” in Afghanistan—but from American perseverance. The U.S. failure in Vietnam did not trigger the wholesale retreat from responsibility into isolationism that many feared would result.
Still, the wrong war
None of this changes the reality that the Vietnam War was the wrong war—an unnecessary war. This in no way cheapens or in any way detracts from the sacrifice by so many Americans. Rather, the judgment is a strategic one: The American commitment to Vietnam exaggerated its importance. What happened on the ground in that country could not alter the basic shape of the strategic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a distraction, one that wasted resources of every kind. The notion that the war fundamentally affected U.S. interests everywhere proved mistaken.
Moreover, the United States misread the threat. Washington was slow to see the growing divide between Moscow and Peking. Communism was not monolithic. Nationalism counted for more. This was true as well in Vietnam, where the Communists in both the North and the South were more nationalists than instruments of the Soviet Union or anyone else.
Why did we get so involved then? More than anything else, it was domestic politics, and the concern of John F. Kennedy—and to an even greater extent Lyndon Johnson—that the American people would not forgive the politicians or the party that “lost” Vietnam. Both remembered the price paid by Democrats charged by Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-WI) and others with “losing” China.
The irony, of course, is that Johnson paid an enormous price for prosecuting the war as he did. His attempt to build the Great Society went unfinished. He himself did not stand for re-election. And Richard Nixon was elected, ushering in more than two decades of Republican domination of the White House interrupted only by the fallout of Watergate.
The lessons from that war are still applicable today: not permitting domestic politics to determine foreign policy; asking hard questions about history and culture before the United States commits its prestige and its men and women in uniform; not underestimating the power of local forces in global politics.
The Vietnam War was not simply the wrong war; it was also fought in the wrong way. Military force should only be used decisively, not gradually. Civilian officials should set basic policy but allow the professional military to run wars without micromanagement. Quantitative measures—how many bombs are dropped, how many enemy troops killed—may be irrelevant to the course of the battle and should not be taken as proof of progress. Airpower alone wins few campaigns. High technology is no panacea and cannot in and of itself defeat a committed adversary. What is worrisome about this cataloguing of lessons is how many of them have been violated in such faraway places as Somalia and Kosovo.
The good news, though, is that the American people seem ahead of their leaders in not forgetting Vietnam’s lessons or repeating its mistakes. It remains possible for the United States to commit itself and to fight high-cost military interventions so long as American people believe the stakes justify them. It is also possible to sustain commitments where the stakes are low so long as the costs of intervening are kept modest. What the American people will not stand for, however, are interventions where U.S. interests are modest, but the costs in human and financial terms are high. This principle, as much as anything else, is what Vietnam has to teach us—and what we would only forget at great peril to ourselves.
At the end of the day, as we all know thorny national security issues don’t just involve the military; political-military considerations invariably bleed into them. If the senior military’s leadership views are going to be just constrained to military advice … who is thinking about issues from that broader perspective?