Viewed in conventional terms, which is how 7 billion(1) people view it, the Vietnam War was a complete debacle. But viewed as a war of detainder, Vietnam can be seen through much rosier-colored glasses. It’s not a home run, like Korea, but it’s still a positive picture, especially considering what everyone thinks. The reason for this happier outcome is simple: twenty years is a very long time, geopolitically speaking.
The US substituted itself for France in Vietnam in 1955 and we evacuated Saigon in 1975, and in those two decades the world had changed profoundly. (If you’re going to intervene in a foreign country, and make every mistake in the book, it’s good to be tenacious.)
We didn’t prevent North Vietnam from conquering South Vietnam, but we delayed the event for twenty long years, which made a hell of a difference to the rest of Indochina, and, indeed, to Asia generally. Consider the formidable team of Ho Chi Minh and his brilliant military commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap. In 1955 Ho and Giap were still vigorous, full of energy, Ho being a spry and healthy 65 while Giap was only 44. They had just defeated the French and had earlier helped defeat the Japanese, and they were eager to impose their will not just on South Vietnam but on all of French Indochina. But by 1975, Ho and Giap were worn out from years of revolutionary struggle. Ho had stepped down as president of North Vietnam back in 1965 due to ill health and by 1975 he was no more than a revered figurehead.
Giap was still technically the military head of North Vietnam in 1975, but he had also been shunted aside. Back in 1967-68 Giap had bitterly opposed the idea for the Tet Offensive, recognizing a disastrous military plan when he saw one. But Giap was ignored – indeed, most of his staff had been arrested for being insufficiently militant toward the enemy.(2)
In 1955 World Communism was on the ascendant. Mao’s Communist faction had defeated the Kuomintang, which had retreated to the small island of Taiwan, from whence they would, no doubt, soon be swept into the sea. For more than a century China had been humiliated by more powerful Western powers, but in Korea Mao had fought the vaunted Americans to a standstill.
In the USSR Nikita Khrushchev would soon announce, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” And many Americans took him at his word. We would all soon be agog over the so-called “bomber gap” and the “missile gap,”(3) and in 1958 the USSR would toss Sputnik into orbit, apparently the final nail in the American coffin.
But Communism’s day in the sun was about to cloud over. The Sino-Soviet split reared its beautiful head following Stalin’s death and the rise of Khrushchev. Soviet and Chinese versions of Marxism had begun to diverge, as did their strategies toward the US. So fractured would Communism become that, shortly after the US left Saigon, Communist Vietnam invaded Communist Cambodia (in 1978) and Communist China invaded Communist Vietnam (1979).
From 1966 to 1976 China’s Cultural Revolution kept the country in a state of continuous chaos, ensuring that China would be too busy to cause much mischief elsewhere. But in any event Nixon and Kissinger had traveled to China in 1972 to meet with Mao and Zhou, and China’s burgeoning relationship with the American hyperpower was suddenly much more important than China’s relationship with its ancestral enemy, the Vietnamese.
Meanwhile, up north the air had gone out of the Soviet Union. Russia had failed to make the transition from an industrial economy to an economy centered on services and technology, driven by consumer choice. It had to fail, of course, because giving businesses and consumers the choice to build and consume whatever they wanted directly violated Marxist ideology and directly threatened Communist control of the country. (China is now rediscovering this phenomenon.)(4)
The USSR was now headed by faceless, colorless functionaries (Podgorny, Kuznetsov, Breshnev, Chernenko, Andropov) who were so utterly corrupt one could not enter their presence without bearing bribes. These mandarins presided over a vast ecosystem of apparatchiks, each of whom was responsible for a tiny part of the Soviet planned economy. Those fellows knew exactly what data they were expected to send to Moscow, and they sent it, never mind whether it was true or not. As a result, nobody in the entire country had the foggiest idea what was going on in the economy.
Nixon believed that it was American military pressure that brought North Vietnam to the bargaining table, but a bigger factor was the prospective loss of Hanoi’s allies. China and Russia were mired in deep economic quagmires, both were pursuing new relationships with the US, and neither had any desire to keep supporting Hanoi in an apparently endless war. Hanoi got the message that it could cut a deal with the Americans or it could fight them on its own. Hanoi cut the deal.
In short, by “detaining” Hanoi from conquering the south for two long decades, the US managed to change the course of history in Indochina and South Asia, even though it “lost” the war. In fact, today, Vietnam is known mainly as a tourist destination and as an American ally – the US being the only power that can keep the Great China Bear next door at bay.
Next up: Desert Storm.
(1) Okay, 6,999,999,999 people. After this series was written, but before Part 7 was posted, Evan Dudick alerted me to Michael Lind’s book, Vietnam: The Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America’s Most Disastrous Military Conflict, published back in 2002, before I’d formulated my ideas about wars of detainder.
(2) Giap was so annoyed by the plans for Tet that before the invasion he left for Hungary for “medical treatment” and didn’t return until the invasion was already underway.
(3) Both “gaps,” estimated by the US Senate’s Gaither Committee and the US Air Force, would prove to be fictional.
(4) I’ve often made this argument, of course. In its simplest form, the Chinese economy is saying to the Chinese Communist Party (channeling Oscar Wilde), “Either you go or I go.” (Supposedly, when he was on his deathbed Wilde suddenly sat up on one elbow, stared in horror at the atrocious wallpaper in the room, and blurted, “Either that paper goes or I go.” He went.)
Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 8
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