The Vietnam War

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Introduction

The Vietnam War was certainly one of the most disastrous, bloody and brutal campaigns in the world’s recent history. The reason for the involvement of the USA in the war was that the US government wanted to prevent the spread of communism to South Vietnam. The whole thing was in a way a proxy war between the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States fought in the Third World country. Although, the US took immense and intense efforts to curb the proliferation of communism in South Vietnam for the sake of saving Asia that could possibly fulfill its foreign trading interests, it failed to accomplish the mission. Hence, the question arises: Why could not the US, a first echelon country with all its capitalistic power and progress, triumph over a tiny sluggishly developing Vietnam? There are several aspects that can explain the failure of the US in the Vietnam War. For the purposes of this paper, two authors offering different explanations of the US debacle in the Vietnam War will be analyzed. One is Herbert Schandler and his book America in Vietnam: The War that could not be Won and another one is John Prados and his treatise The Hidden History of the Vietnam War. A meticulous scan of several chapters from each book shows that Schandler ultimately did a better job in explaining the causes of American fiasco in the Vietnam War.

Schandler’s Arguments

Herbert Schandler offers a variety of factors to explain why the US failed in Vietnam. First and foremost, he argues that America’s fighting arsenal, which included helicopters and other sophisticated weapons used by the troops, far outstripped that of the South Vietnamese army. This preponderance made the government jump to a conclusion that the war could be finished in a matter of days without any critical loss. Thus, this confidence had led the Americans to improvisation, which ultimately caused huge damage to them. Without a proper strategy, the US government was sending a great number of soldiers to Vietnam, so that by the end of 1967 there were about 500,000 combat troops deployed in the country. President Johnson had a goal to stop the spread of communism from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Initially, he had second thoughts about sending so many troops to Vietnam, because he thought numerical superiority would be insufficient to devastate the communists. Instead, Operation Rolling Thunder was developed to save the lives of American troops and persuade North Vietnam to proceed to the conference table. The operation was focused on bombing the major military bases, supply stations and transportation networks of North Vietnam to make its position weak and to isolate it from South Vietnam. Although the bombing campaign inflicted an estimated $600 million worth of damage to agriculture and industry of North Vietnam, it did not accomplish the goal. Most vital supplies were quickly concealed in tunnels. Furthermore, Schandler argues that American air attacks were unrestricted in nature, which caused a random destruction effect, presumably because there was a lack of geographical knowledge of the country`s land. 

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After the US officials realized that air attacks would not expedite their victory, hundreds of thousands of American troops were dispatched to Vietnam, as it was mentioned earlier in the text. The original plan was that the artillery campaign would make haggard Vietnamese guerillas come out to fight on the ground, where the US forces could defeat the enemy with familiar tactics and powerful weapons.  However, the plan failed, as the American soldiers were unprepared to face the battle with Vietcong, a secret Vietnamese guerilla movement. The superiority of this group was evident. Firstly, Schandler argues that the camouflage techniques that were used in the battles by the Vietnamese gave them a significant advantage in unpredictable attacks in all possible battlefields, battle jungles and battle meadows. Secondly, Schandler opines that it was quite hard for the Americans to distinguish the Vietcong members and their movements since the group was mixed up with peaceful farmers in the countryside. Thirdly, Schandler contends that the climate conditions in which the Vietnamese lived and felt comfortable were unbearable for the Americans. Likewise, the operations often took place in the jungles which were very hard to pass and the exhausted battalions often got bogged down in swamps and fell into the enemy’s traps, such as masked holes with spikes, hidden mines etc. The Vietnamese had control over the battle because their attacks were sudden and their presence was in many cases invisible. Besides, as Schandler maintains, the ground operations represented more of a chaotic survival than the actual fighting opposition.

One more point that contributed to American failure is that there were more countries embroiled in the conflict. The US administration was afraid of the involvement of the USSR and China in the war. However, Johnson was enthusiastic about an instant defeat of North Vietnam, but it ultimately proved problematic for him and his successors. As the USSR and China were engaged in a metaphorical battle over the recognition of North Vietnam, the North Vietnamese took comfort from military and political assistance from both Moscow and Beijing. This assistance was in the form of medical supplies, vehicles, weaponry and food, which stimulated the rehabilitation of the Vietnamese forces at a rapid pace.

Prados’s Arguments

John Prados offers somewhat different arguments to explain the US fiasco in Vietnam. According to him, one of the crucial reasons why the Americans failed to suppress the communist movement was the lack of understanding of what they were fighting for. On the contrary, the Vietnamese, both from North and South Vietnam, were united by the same goal to get rid of suppressors and unite the country. The problem was that while some wanted to install communism on both territories, others did not want to espouse it, subscribing more eagerly to the ideas of democracy. Regular drivers used their vehicles with their navigating lights off, camouflaged with huge palm fronds and banana leaves to conceal their presence, for example while the US air forces were in the sky (Herring 415).

Apart from the foreign entanglements, Prados believes  the US had to deal with the difficulties within the country. The heated debates over the Vietnam War split the nation into two groups – hawks, i.e. the ones, who supported further intervention, and “doves”, i.e. the ones, who opposed it and clamored for the withdrawal of the American troops from Vietnam. Thus, President Johnson became hostage to two polarized ideas. Furthermore, a great anti-Vietnam War movement swept across the US, which precipitated the establishment of the so-called “tech-ins”, where university lecturers refuted the rationale for Vietnam intervention. The well-known and socially powerful figures holding dovish views generated heated debates within the society. The most prominent among them were Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. The mass discontent within the American society reached its peak in 1967 when the demonstrations sprang up regularly in the vicinity of the White House and the Pentagon. The latter one repeatedly saw as many as 50,000 protestors. Less and less people in the US believed in the domino theory, which assumes that if one country accepts communism the neighboring ones are prone to do the same. Consequently, the overwhelming majority of the Americans saw the Vietnam War as an imprudent waste of human resources, money and an unethical move towards the Vietnamese nation.

Another concomitant reason for the American failure in Vietnam lies in the ruling apparatus, according to Prados. During the years of the Vietnam War there were five presidents in the US: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. Although the first four of them surely supported the policy of stopping communism in Southeast Asia, the change in leadership never contributed to the achievement of the overarching goal: the containment of communism in Vietnam. As an example, the Watergate Scandal, when Nixon was spying on the White House for the prospects of being reelected, made it difficult for the US to manage its foreign policies. There were many strategic restrictions imposed, which essentially contributed to the failure. Prados also argues that if there had not been any of those limitations, the war would have ended with a much better outcome for the United States.

Conclusion

For the purposes of this paper, two authors have been consulted. They provide somewhat different explanations for the US failure in the Vietnam War, looking at the problem from different angles. At the same time, their arguments are in a way mutually complimentary, meaning that they clarify the situation better when put together rather than when considered in isolation. Hence, deciding which author’s arguments are right and which author’s arguments are wrong poses a perplexing conundrum not only to a student but also to a senior academic researcher. Jumping to such bold conclusions as asserting that one author’s arguments are fraught with fallacies demands an uncannily thorough discussion of the subject. At first sight, Schandler’s evidence may seem stronger, because it is fresher, as his book was published in 2009, whereas Prados’s work was published 14 years earlier. However, Prados’s evidence has withstood the test of time and is corroborated by a variety of new publications. Overall, both authors adduce strong evidence to buttress their arguments. Judging which author’s arguments are right or wrong by assumptions the authors make may also be misleading, as both authors back up these assumptions with supporting facts. Hence, it might be more useful to decide which of the two authors explains the reasons for the US fiasco better than the other rather than accusing any of them of making fallacious arguments and/or assumptions.

Moreover, due to the fact that the authors’ arguments are in a way complimentary, it may be difficult to consider these arguments in isolation. It would be wise to show an example of the complementarity of the authors’ arguments in this context. Thus, with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, both North and South Vietnam untied and espoused communism as the state ideology. The US government lost an incredible amount of money and, more importantly, its leading position on the international arena. While they adduce different arguments, both Prados and Schandler agree that the core reason of America losing the war was because of the unprepared strategy. Improvisation in such a matter worsened the situation drastically, which cost the lives of 58,220 Americans who were blindly fighting for free-of-communism Asia. However, while the two authors agree that deficient strategy was the main culprit behind the US fiasco in Vietnam, they interpret the meaning of a “deficient strategy” differently. Thus, Schandler argues that the American strategy in Vietnam was inadequate because it lacked strong countermeasures to the Vietnamese guerilla movement, which ultimately spelled disaster for the US. Indeed, because fighting guerillas demands a very strategy, the US inability to develop one was, perhaps, the greatest mistake.

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