A happy ending to endless War: Vietnam
One of the least learned lessons of America's involvement in Indochina is that a happy ending does not require victory
The future of endless war seems to be indicated by its name. But the cry of “endless war” is not a prediction of war to the end of time; it is a roar of frustration. We cannot understand how a war against an inferior opponent can continue without victory. While endless “small war” is not total war, frustration pushes the boundaries of action into the weaponization of new technologies and the expansion of targets. Sending drones to Iraq does not draw as much public attention as sending draftees to Vietnam and bombing Cambodia, but there is resonance between the acknowledged futility of our most recent endless wars and our disillusionment fifty years ago with light beyond the quagmire.
Our war in Indochina shows that endless wars do end, though almost never in victory. But one of the least learned lessons of Vietnam is that a happy ending does not require victory. Now, forty-five years after the helicopters left the roof of the Embassy, Vietnam hosts port calls at Cam Ranh Bay from American warships and two visits by President Trump. We count on its support of our efforts against China in the South China Sea. Meanwhile life in Vietnam has been transformed. It is a leader in both economic growth and poverty reduction and at 94 percent its system of government had the highest popular support ratings in Asia, twice that of Japan. In coping with the current pandemic Vietnam has the best record in Asia: 1029 cases and 27 deaths among 97 million people. It is an active member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and of various UN agencies. Last year Vietnam was elected a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council by 192 of 193 votes. But we had to leave the tunnel of endless war before the lights could go on there.
In its time, the American war in Vietnam was our longest war. Our purpose was to contain world communism, as noble and as self-evidently justified a mission as the war on terrorism, and one that has returned in the rhetoric of Secretary of State Pompeo. The fallen domino of Red China was leaning on Vietnam, and who knew where the chain of consequences might lead if we did not take a stand. At first we thought that victory there would not be difficult. The grand challenge of the Cold War was the Soviet Union in Europe. We started by financing the French attempts to reassert their control in Vietnam, although we thought that their colonial greediness was a major cause of the problem. After Vietnam was split by the Geneva Convention in 1954, we became the patrons of the new government in Saigon. President Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed that with our generous support, an independent government could succeed where French re-colonialism had failed. However, by 1963, the South Vietnamese government had lost control of most of its rural territory to the National Liberation Front, a failing we blamed on Saigon’s corruption and factional infighting. South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated three weeks before Kennedy’s own assassination, but the ensuing military juntas only made matters worse.
As the threat grew of losing Vietnam we put boots on the ground and helicopters in the air. From 1965, we sidelined our “bad puppets” and took over the war. Each escalation of our military commitment led to a corresponding escalation of progress reports from the field, culminating in General Westmoreland’s assertion on the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive that “the end begins to come into view.” The ensuing attack by the National Liberation Front on all of Vietnam’s urban centers, even though unsuccessful, burst the bubble of optimism. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it, “The element of hope has been taken away by the Tet Offensive.” Vietnam was now officially an endless war, and therefore it had to end. Five years later President Richard M. Nixon claimed to have achieved ‘peace with honor,’ but not before he expanded the theater to all of Indochina and intensified our bombing. The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 began a “decent interval” of withdrawal with our military pullout and a leopard-spot fig leaf of areas of occupation. In 1975 North Vietnamese tanks crashed the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon and the South Vietnamese who had supported us were trying desperately to escape.
At this point, as far as we were concerned, the lights went out in Vietnam. “Vietnam” became our war experience rather than an ongoing geographical reality. Movies like “Rambo” and “The Deer Hunter” expressed our twisted memories. Meanwhile the communist North had won, the country’s name was changed from “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” to “Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” and the forcible reeducation began of those left behind. The country was a mess. We had bombed the cities in the North and the countryside in the south, so the northern cities were deserted and the southern ones crammed with refugees. The southern economy had become a service economy to our war presence, and it had collapsed as our troops left. Our embargo on North Vietnam was extended to all of Vietnam and remained in place for the next nineteen years. In 1975 communist Vietnam did not seem any friendlier or happier than a prospective Taliban government in Afghanistan now.
Vietnam’s recovery started slowly and our reconciliation was slower still. After ten years of trying to establish an old-style socialist economy Vietnam adopted market reforms similar to China’s, and its foreign policy shifted from an anti-China alliance with the Soviet Union to a general one of pragmatic friendship. Our resentment died hard. It took us twenty years to recognize Vietnam—slightly longer than the war itself. It took another ten years for full normalization. But as our China anxieties grew our interest in Vietnam grew apace. President Obama signed a comprehensive partnership in 2013, and discussion continues of a strategic partnership. In a 1917 Pew global popularity poll giving a choice between the U.S., China, and Russia, 84 percent of Vietnamese picked the U.S., the highest of the 36 countries polled and almost twice Canada’s percentage.
There are two lessons from our war in Vietnam that are occasionally noted but never learned. The first and most basic is that the other side in an asymmetric conflict is not likely to quit. What we imagine as a surgical strike is seen by the target as a big man coming with a large knife. Resistance is not a choice, but a necessity for survival. The smaller side suffers more, and it cannot do to the larger what the larger can do to it, but its resistance creates a protracted conflict. Ultimately, a stalemate emerges: the larger cannot enforce its will without unacceptable costs, and the smaller can resist but cannot defeat the larger. Time is on the side of neither. One suffers; the other cannot win. Or as Kissinger put it in 1969, four years before he gave up, “the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”
The second lesson, suggested by Kissinger’s delay, is that it is difficult for a president to call it quits. From 1950 to 1973, there was not a year when an earlier peace in Vietnam could not have achieved a better end result. But initially victory looks tempting and easy, and by the time difficulties emerged, the president who stops kicking the can down the road becomes the war’s loser. As LBJ said to Eugene McCarthy two years before the Tet Offensive, “Well, I know we oughtn’t to be there. But I can’t get out. I just can’t be the architect of surrender.” The domestic political costs of admitting stalemate are considerably greater than adding troops or sending more drones, and there is always a hawk who promises that one more kick of the can will do the trick. Like a bank continuing a bad loan, it is easier to put off the reckoning than to admit the loss. The president who talks to the enemy becomes the president who turned soft and lost the war.
We paid dearly for these lessons from the Vietnam war, but it is more difficult to apply them today. With a volunteer army and the emergence of remote warfare, our current small wars could in fact be endless. The public is at best indifferent to drone attacks, and is appreciative of those who serve. Our small wars and entrenched hostilities have become distant from the everyday lives of Americans. Then as now our allies disapprove of our actions, but we are used to living with their disapproval. Recently our embargo of Cuba, ongoing since 1960, was condemned 187 to 3 by the UN General Assembly with no appreciable impact on U.S. attitudes or policy. Thus, the domestic and international political storms that drove Nixon to sign the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 are now only fitful and unfocussed shouts of frustration. Frustration and the cost of war are real, and they generate an endless succession of timetables for withdrawal. But the worry of “what then?” leads to the fallback, “not now.” The possible ending of one endless war in Afghanistan seems to make more room for other endless wars in other dimensions.
If endless war becomes politically painless to us, or at least less painful than admitting failure, why should we end it? This is where the happier lesson from postwar Vietnam comes in. Yes, the communists won. But Vietnam was fighting for independence, it was not trying to become the next domino. The war required temporary solidarity with China and the Khmer Rouge. Without a common enemy, it turned out that they had little else in common. Once it was beyond war, Vietnam had to address the challenges of peace and development, and it did so successfully. When we ceased being a threat Vietnam turned to us for help. How much of our perceived threats in the Middle East are sustained by our hostile presence? Is our endless war the cure or the cause of their current misery? Do we have grounds to fear peace?