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Mar 18 2013

The Myth of ‘Winning’ Vietnam

Rep. Loui Gohmert, who may well be the single dumbest person in the entire Congress, gave a talk at CPAC on Thursday and delivered a line that has become virtually a mantra on the right, that we could have won Vietnam if only the politicians had allowed it to happen.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), speaking at conservative gathering CPAC, declared that “Vietnam was winnable, but people in Washington decided we would not win it!”

“If you go to war you better mean it,” Gohmert added, blaming America’s failure to go to war with Iran over the capture of its embassy in 1979 for more recent attacks on embassies and consulates.

What the hell would it even mean to “win” in Vietnam? We killed at least two million people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (some estimates are as high as three million). The two sides dropped twice as much tonnage in bombs on a country the size of Massachusetts than all sides combined in WW2 dropped in all of Europe and Asia. And all this over a country that posed no threat to the United States whatsoever. If we had killed another million people, would we have “won”? Won what, exactly?

48 comments

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  1. 1
    oranje

    It’s the pro wrestler mentality of geopolitical events. You see, each side is easy to separate into good and bad, and good will always win unless there are dirty tricks or outside interference. See also: George Lucas films.

  2. 2
    MikeMa

    Vietnam was lost before the first US soldier died there. As Ed states, millions died and huge swaths of land were poisoned. The dominoes that were supposedly ready to topple never even wobbled. The arms dealers flourished and an unforgivable number of soldiers died for no good reason. Louie should stick his head back up his ass.

  3. 3
    doublereed

    OH GOD ARE WE GOING BACK TO VIETNAM??!!!

  4. 4
    davem

    I went to Vietnam and Laos in 1995. The inhabitants of both countries were surprisingly friendly to Americans. Laos was. defeated. Not that it ever attacked the US, but it was bombed mercilessly, and the country is in a mess. Vietnam, on the other hand, was very prosperous looking, and certainly was not defeated, rather the opposite.

  5. 5
    Gregory in Seattle

    I believe that “winning” was defined as maintaining a US-controlled puppet government, much in the same way that we “won” in Iraq when we installed Saddam Hussein in the 70s, and “won” again when we replaced him.

  6. 6
    iangould

    Actually the US could have won in Vietnam – by taking up Ho Chi Minh’s offer of direct talks back in 1945, supporting the national elections of 1955 and establishing diplomatic relations with a Ho Chi Minh-led government and using American aid and the traditional Vietnamese/Chinese to detach ho from his Russian and Chinese backers.

    There’s no guarantee such a strategy would have worked but it probably had more chance than what happened instead.

  7. 7
    tommykey

    As I wrote in a post on my own blog about this several years ago, apart from Vietnam still being politically a Communist state, it otherwise meets just about all of the criteria one would have expected it to meet if we had “won” the war four decades ago. We have diplomatic relationships with Vietnam. We trade with Vietnam. Vietnamese can emigrate here and Americans can go there as tourists. We even conduct joint naval exercises with them. Vietnam also is generally at peace with her neighbors, apart from a dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea. We did win Vietnam, just not in the way we thought we would. The big question is whether the terrible losses of human life and destruction were necessary to bring that about.

  8. 8
    had3

    Two things; 1) wasn’t this what many of the post WWI German officers complained cost them the war? And 2) my father, an enlisted Vietnam vet, always said the purpose of Vietnam was to seed the country with sufficient amounts of iron to allow it to export it later. He saw that as the only reason we could be doing what we were doing over there.

  9. 9
    fifthdentist

    Silly Gomer. Not only was Vietnam winnable, it was won.* By the North Vietnamese. Yes, Vietnam should offer us a lesson, but as usual the one that conservatives take away is the opposite of the lesson a sane person would take.

    * Where the definition of winning is not being invaded despite massive loss of life.

  10. 10
    Glenn E Ross

    Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), speaking at conservative gathering CPAC, declared that “Vietnam was winnable, but people in Washington decided we would not win it!”

    Wars are not sporting events where at some point one team has a higher score and is declared the winner. Maybe that’s one reason we seem to go to war so easily, too many people just see it as another way to support their ‘team.’

  11. 11
    Larry

    Sure. Just throw another 58000 bodies (none of whom would be the children of Gohmert or any other chickenhawk) at it and it would practically win itself.

  12. 12
    raven

    “Vietnam was winnable, but people in Washington decided we would not win it!”

    I grew up during the Vietnam war and was an anti-war activist long before I even got out of high school. It started when the older brothers of my friends ended up coming back in boxes at ages like 19.

    He is just wildly wrong here.

    Vietnam was so pointless. We lost and Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh city. So what? IIRC, Nike makes athletic shoes in Vietnam.

    The domino theory was wrong too. In fact, it might have pushed Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge.

  13. 13
    raven

    What the hell would it even mean to “win” in Vietnam?

    What in the hell did it mean to win in Iraq?

    Two trillion dollars gone, 5,000 or so US dead, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

    The war to make the world safe for cheap unleaded gasoline was an expensive mistake.

    Lost two friends there too. Cthulhu, I’m so sick and tired of war mongers.

  14. 14
    democommie

    Y, know, Ed; anything after “Gohmert”–that is NOT an obituary–is bad news.

    What’s really interesting to me is that fuckheads like Gohmert who say we could have won that war–against a pretty awesomely endowed U.S. military–are the same morans who say that havin’ a closet full of gunz is the only way to keep the gummint of THIS country–with a military having a MUCH more enhanced capacity for death dealing–from putiing us all in Obamafema deathcamps.

  15. 15
    Ben P

    And all this over a country that posed no threat to the United States whatsoever. If we had killed another million people, would we have “won”? Won what, exactly?

    I can virtually guarantee that Gohmert is thinking Macarthur style.

    He probably has in his head that “Winning” in Vietnam would have been invading North Vietnam, deposing the communist government and establishing unified rule over the south. (Never mind that the post-colonial government had been utterly unable to maintain that control ten years prior).

    Then he can say that we didn’t win because we “didn’t want to win.” The political leadership of the time (rather sanely, IMO) recognized that an all out war would likely provoke China and or Russia and that our safety option was just to continue trying to support a weak and corrupt south Vietnamese government.

  16. 16
    bobcarroll

    Raven, as far as I can see, a putative “win” in Viet Nam would have been the same as our “win” in Iraq. I was too old for viet nam, and fortunately too young for Korea, but my younger brother did go. He came back alive, but died several years ago, at least partly from his time there, as far as I can see. What waste!

  17. 17
    marcus

    Read A Bright and Shining Lie by Niel Sheehan. It will disavow any reasonably intelligent person of the myth that the Vietnam war was in any sense “winnable”. It is a masterly take-down of entire premise.

  18. 18
    Ben P

    Silly Gomer. Not only was Vietnam winnable, it was won.* By the North Vietnamese. Yes, Vietnam should offer us a lesson, but as usual the one that conservatives take away is the opposite of the lesson a sane person would take.

    * Where the definition of winning is not being invaded despite massive loss of life.

    I don’t think the * is really what the war was about at all.

    We “lost” vietnam, in that we set out with the goal to support South Vietnam as a nation against the communist North Vietnamese, we eventually tired of this, withdrew, and South Vietnam was conquered.

    But I think the people who comment that vietnam was “unwinnable” are right. Our core premise going into the war was something that couldn’t be done unless the other side voluntarily accepted it.

    Without going really deep into the history, we picked the colonial puppets as a force and that horse wasn’t going to make it across the river no matter how hard it tried. The french lost Vietnam to the japanese in WWII and Ho Chi Minh took control in 1945. He wanted to negotiate with the US for an independant vietnam, but the French whined so we gave it back to them. Ho Chi Minh started fighting against the French and beat them in North Vietnam in 1954.

    The peace treaty that followed had basically four points.
    1. The French would withdraw all forces from Indochina
    2. North Vietnam would be under the control of the Viet Minh.
    3. South Vietnam would be under the control of the French backed State of Vietnam
    4. Elections to re-unify the country were to be held in 1956.

    However, in 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem, then the appointed Prime Minister, held a wildly fraudulent referendum (he got 133% of the vote in Saigon), to remove the former emperor of Vietnam and make himself president of the state of Vietnam. He refused to hold the 1956 elections.

    Quite Naturally the Viet Minh considered the whole deal off and began military operations to attack South Vietnam. The US promised to support SOuth Vietnam and backed Diem as our chosen leader despite him being a de-facto dictator. When he was deposed and assassinated, we backed his successor. From 1956 until 1972 the situation just gradually escalated.

    We spent a lot of treasure and blood supporting South Vietnam, but at the end of the day, you simply can’t support and protect a country that’s not very invested in protecting itself.

  19. 19
    robertbaden

    Wonder if Russian nationalist say they could have won in Afghanistan.

  20. 20
    wscott

    What the hell would it even mean to “win” in Vietnam?

    [cue the military history major] The US’ stated objective was to maintain South Vietnam as an independent, non-Communist state, ala South Korea. Whether that was 1) achievable and 2) worth the effort are different questions, but defining the victory condition was never the hard part. Personally, I think the answer to both questions is: probably not. But historians & military strategists will still be debating both points generations from now.

    “If you go to war you better mean it,”

    Gohmert’s an ignorant lout even by Texas GOP standards, but he’s not wrong here. There have been some good histories of the Johnson White House that have come out since they started declassifying records from that era, and honestly it’s like a textbook example of how NOT to conduct a war. LBJ, McNamara, et. al. treated the war as a sideshow, a distraction from the Great Society programs. McNamara in particular deserves a place in The Special Hell for his boneheaded policy of “gradual escalation.” If they’d been able to have an honest discussion up front about how much “victory” was worth to them and then committed those resources up front, instead of gradually turning up the heat a degree at a time and hoping the frog gets the hint…well personally I think we still would’ve lost. But at least we might have lost QUICKLY, and then gotten the hell out instead of dragging things out for a decade. The loss of life certainly would’ve been much lower.

    Honestly, the parallels with the Bush Administration’s handling of the Iraq & Afghan Wars is striking.

    Actually the US could have won in Vietnam – by taking up Ho Chi Minh’s offer of direct talks back in 1945…

    Agreed – one of the biggest missed opportunities in history.

  21. 21
    wscott

    we picked the colonial puppets as a force and that horse wasn’t going to make it across the river no matter how hard it tried.

    Exactly right. There’s a great Lawrence of Arabia quote that one of my professors (himself a Vietnam vet) used to use a lot in reference to Vietnam: “It is their war, and you cannot win it for them.” Granted, that’s easier to see in hindsight, but it should’ve been pretty obvious by 1960 at the latest. And as a general moral guideline, when the side you’re backing cancels elections, you may be on the wrong side of history.

    Another professor I had – also a Vietnam vet – had this to say about the “we could’ve won if the politicians had let us” school: Sure, we could’ve invaded the North and captured Hanoi if we’d been willing to commit the resources. But then what? The French controlled Hanoi for decades and a fat lot of good it did them.”

  22. 22
    Phillip IV

    And Gohmert is just using the “mild” version of that lie, even – didn’t we recently have some wingnut claim that the US would have won in Vietnam if they flown only a single additional bombing mission?

  23. 23
    JasonTD

    Gregory in Seattle wrote @5

    I believe that “winning” was defined as maintaining a US-controlled puppet government, much in the same way that we “won” in Iraq when we installed Saddam Hussein in the 70s, and “won” again when we replaced him.

    Do you have any sources for you statement that we “installed” Saddam in Iraq. We supported him against Iran in the ’80′s, but I’ve never heard anyone else claim that we had anything to do with his rise to power.

  24. 24
    tommykey

    And one of the ironies is that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime is usually included in the laundry list of countries where bad things happen when a country is ruled by atheists, when the fact is that it was the godless commie Vietnam that invaded Cambodia and put an end to the KR.

    There was a revisionist book about the Vietnam War that came out a few years ago. The author’s name escapes me at the moment, though I know the title is A Better War. While I didn’t read it, I understand its premise is that we just about had the war won until we pulled the plug on aiding South Vietnam.

  25. 25
    davidbrown

    Many years ago I read the memoirs of a former SS officer who joined the French Foreign Legion after WWII. (Alas, the name of the book and the author totally escape me.) He served in Vietnam before the French pulled out. His take on the war was that the French and American were far too nice. For example, when his supply columns were being ambushed by Viet Cong, his response was to tie one or two local villagers to the front of every vehicle in the column and take them along for the ride. (And those were his thoughtful, measured responses.) Voila! No ambushes. If only those wimpy French and Americans had followed his manly SS methods …

  26. 26
    dingojack

    wscott – I’d recommend Errol Morris’ “Fog of War” for McNamara’s take on LBJ and ‘escalation’.
    Dingo

  27. 27
    Olav

    David, would that book be Devil’s Guard?

  28. 28
  29. 29
    dingojack

    And in further related news: ‘Sky finally shown to be blue. Prosecution likely to succeed. Film at 11.’.
    @@
    Dingo

  30. 30
    tommykey

    @ DavidBrown, that reminds me of a scene from Breaker Morant wherein one of the defendants was accused of tying Boer prisoners of war to the front of the trains in response to the Boers blowing up the trains.

  31. 31
    tommykey

    Also, I read that some former SS served as mercenaries in putting down a secessionist movement in the Belgian Congo because it was a chance to shoot black people.

  32. 32
    laurentweppe

    There’s no guarantee such a strategy would have worked but it probably had more chance than what happened instead.

    At that time indochina was still a french colony, and therefore the US could not openly spit on its ally face. Even if said ally’s mule headed obsession to preserve Michelin’s rubber plantations was oh so ficked up.

    ***

    There’s a great Lawrence of Arabia quote that one of my professors (himself a Vietnam vet) used to use a lot in reference to Vietnam: “It is their war, and you cannot win it for them.”

    That’s also pretty much what De Gaulle told Kennedy. But who would listen to a french president, huh? It’s not like they had to learn the hard way by losing their colonial empire exactly at the same location a decade prior.

    ***

    Anyway, this “we could have won” sounds suspiciously like the “knife in the back” bullshit german nationalists spewed to discredit their political opponants and wipe their public opinion into a revanchist frenzy.

  33. 33
    davidbrown

    Olav@27: that sounds very much like it. Of course, when I read it (the late 70s, maybe), my Google/Wikipedia skills were not what they are today. :), Neither was my bullshit detector quite what it is now. Thanks for the reference!

  34. 34
    Raging Bee

    And one of the ironies is that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime is usually included in the laundry list of countries where bad things happen when a country is ruled by atheists, when the fact is that it was the godless commie Vietnam that invaded Cambodia and put an end to the KR.

    Both of those regimes were atheist. Atheist regimes invade each other to stay in shape.* That’s how evil they are.

    ______________________
    * Shamessly stolen from “Doonesbury.”

  35. 35
    Raging Bee

    I understand its premise is that we just about had the war won until we pulled the plug on aiding South Vietnam.

    I believe the same line is used to justify the War on Drugs. And the Shah of Iran…

  36. 36
    David C Brayton

    Marcus–I read a Bright and Shining Lie during college in a course on the Vietnam War. While it was a bit much for the course, along with the other mandatory reading, it is THE single best book I’ve read about the Vietnam War.

    It makes me sick to think our government acted that way. It was a war we created based on lies that we generated.

    And don’t even get me started on America’s criminal injustice system.

  37. 37
    Pierce R. Butler

    Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR): Iraq ‘was a just and noble war’.

    Dèjá vu all over again.

    JasonTD @ # 23: Do you have any sources for you statement that we “installed” Saddam in Iraq. We supported him against Iran in the ’80′s, but I’ve never heard anyone else claim that we had anything to do with his rise to power.

    Maybe you should start with this UPI report about Saddam Hussein’s early days as a CIA asset.

  38. 38
    Argle Bargle

    Harry Summers’ book On Strategy argues that one reason why the US lost the Vietnam War is neither the US politicians or generals had a clue about what the American objective was in the war. The North Vietnamese knew exactly what they were fighting for. The South Vietnamese junta was fighting to keep power as long as possible. And the US was wasting American lives and treasure in the name of anti-Communism.

  39. 39
    slc1

    Re Pierce R. Butler

    Ah yes, UPI owned by the late and unlamented Reverend Moon. A very authoritative source.

  40. 40
    corporal klinger
  41. 41
    iangould

    “Do you have any sources for you statement that we “installed” Saddam in Iraq. We supported him against Iran in the ’80′s, but I’ve never heard anyone else claim that we had anything to do with his rise to power.”

    I don’t know about the coup against his fellow Baathists that finally saw Saddam installed as President but the Baathist coup against the preceding military dictatorship that occurred about a year before that was backed by the CIA and the British.

    It was launched from Kuwait which was still a British protectorate and, for example, there was a Baathist radio station there operating openly transmitting orders to the Baathists inside Iraq’s military including lists of people to be killed.

  42. 42
    iangould

    @davidbrown, a friend’s father who served in the South Vietnamese Special Forces has a similar view.

    If they’d been allowed to fight the war “their way”, they could have won. I’ve made a point of not asking what that would have entailed.

  43. 43
    wscott

    @ Dingo 26: I haven’t seen Fog Of War yet. (It’s in the queue.) Tho based on the excerpts I’ve read of McNamara’s autobiography, the man who once claimed he knew learned everything he needed to know about warfare by running Ford does not seem to have acquired self-awareness late in life.

    @ David Brayton 36: Second the recommendation for Bright Shining Lie. I also recommend McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, which really dives into declassified White House & Pentagon records.

    @ Ulysses 38: On Strategy was good, tho IMO Summers is too enamored with conventional solutions to unconventional wars. I haven’t read it in years, so I don’t remember if he explicitly says “If we’d only invaded the North, we would’ve won by Christmas” but that’s the impression I was left with.

  44. 44
    JJ831

    To Quote Bart Simpson (Season 1 Episode 5, “Bart The General”):

    Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, contrary to what you’ve just seen, war is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners. Only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy. If you’d like to learn more about war, there’s lots of books in your local library–many of them with cool, gory pictures. Well, good night, everybody. Peace, man.

    Emphasis added.

  45. 45
    Pierce R. Butler

    slc1 @ # 39 – Similar reports abound, as I’m sure you could find out by searching for the proper names used in that article.

    Do you have any rebuttal better than that ad hominem, such as a correction to some error in my linked account?

    For bonus points, please identify Rev. Moon’s motivation in fabricating a history for the sake of embarrassing an organizational ally in the World Anti-Communist League (and, I suspect, other shared enterprises).

  46. 46
    toddsweeney

    I thought it was because the Special Forces ran out of exploding arrows (joke stolen from Doonesbury).

  47. 47
    iangould

    On the CIA’s involvement in the 1963 Iraq coup: http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/169/36379.html

  48. 48
    iangould

    “Although individual leftists had been murdered intermittently over the previous years, the scale on which the killings and arrests took place in the spring and summer of 1963 indicates a closely coordinated campaign, and it is almost certain that those who carried out the raid on suspects’ homes were working from lists supplied to them. Precisely how these lists had been compiled is a matter of conjecture, but it is certain that some of the Ba’athist leaders were in touch with American intelligence networks, and it is also undeniable that a variety of different groups in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East had a strong vested interest in breaking what was probably the strongest and most popular Communist Party in the region.”

    - Peter and Marion Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958 London, I.B. Taurus, 1990, pg86.

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