The Vietnam War is also known as the second of the Indochina Wars. It was waged between the late 1950’s and the mid 1970’s. The lush forested terrain of the Vietnamese country side was the battleground for much of the war. The force of the North Vietnam, which was basically oriented towards communism, was seen as a threat by the American government. It believed that left uncontrolled, the spread of communism would usurp the democratic South Vietnam as well. Hence, the American government decided to send troops in support of South Vietnam and retain its democratic government. This wider context of the war made it one of the tense phases of the Cold war period.
There were several reasons for the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War. Some of the important ones are discussed in the following passages. First of all, the American government underestimated the organizing capabilities of the Viet Cong and its supporters. Another important reason for America’s defeat was its inability to contain free flow of troops and supplies across the North-South divide. This enabled the Viet Cong to replenish its resources on a regular basis, helping them resist American advances. The key to this success is the ability of Viet Cong workers to successfully voyage through the perilous Ho Chi Minh Trail, which held a strategic importance through out the war period (Appy, 2003).
Another advantage the North Vietnamese had was their ability to mobilize the entire region in the military effort. As a result, the American troops confronted difficulties in distinguishing civilians from Viet Cong members. Also, this ambiguity helped the Vietnamese in employing guerilla tactics, which proved very challenging for the more advanced American military machinery to handle.
On the domestic front, the ever increasing casualties in Vietnam led to a gradual growth of dissent and opposition from the American public. Although the war officially started nearly a decade earlier, by the end of the 1960’s, a widespread skepticism about the motives of the war and the way it is run grew among the American population. This peace movement gathered momentum by the turn of 1970 and the government was no longer able to resist the popular demand for withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. For example,
“By 1971, more than 71 percent of Americans told pollsters that Vietnam was a “mistake,” while 58 percent regarded the war as “immoral.” And a clear majority believed that all U.S. troops should be removed by the year’s end. The U.S. Senate barely defeated a bill sponsored by Senators George McGovern and Mark Hatfield to bring all GIs home by December 31, 1971.2 Yet despite all the talk of peace, the war would continue for another four years. Almost as many Americans died in Vietnam during Nixon’s presidency as in the Johnson years.” (Allen, 2005)
On the military front, the troops deployed in Vietnam grew tired and incompetent in countering guerilla tactics employed by the opposition. Since many of the stationed troops were first-timers and drafted civilians, the task assigned them proved too overwhelming. The troops, hence, found themselves out of their depths. The morale of the troops was none the better. Many of them could not relate to the government’s mission in this far-eastern land, and found the whole exercise futile and wasteful, which consequently showed in their performances in the battle zone. There was widespread use of recreational drugs among the American troops, which made some of them physically indisposed to undertake combat operations (Appy, 2003).
There is one other major reason that contributed to the defeat of the United States – the lack of understanding of the Vietnamese culture. Vietnam during the 1960’s was a predominantly agrarian society, quite underdeveloped and backward. Not surprisingly, the native Vietnamese peasants had different sets of attitudes and beliefs when compared to their American counterparts. Also, the Vietnamese belief in communal cooperation made them a potent force even though they lacked technological advancement. Hence, using the synergy of teamwork and cooperation, Vietnamese soldiers were able to hold American G.I.s at bay for close to a decade. One of the battalion commanders makes the following observation,
“Soldiers expected a war between professional armies in set-piece battles like the ones they thought were fought by their fathers in the Second World War. What they found themselves doing was fighting a peasant army of young men and women—a total war against an entire population motivated by hatred of the U.S. occupation and of its puppet regime.” (Allen, 2005)
The guerilla warfare technique adopted by the Viet Cong was totally unexpected by the American military leaders. The Americans found themselves unable to tackle the hit and run approach to warfare that their rivals employed. This tactical failure on part of the American military leaders led to criticism from the public back home which also undermined the military’s confidence in its ability, leading to the subsequent decline in morale, discipline and standards of the American troops.