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Louis E. Grivetti

Student Question: Could the US have won?

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Could the Vietnamese-American War have been won by South Vietnam and the United States? Why or why not? If so, how? If so, at what additional cost? If not, why?

First of all, hi Lou! Don't know if you remember me, but we both participated in the PBS forum on Vietnam a few years back.

WARNING...WARNING...WARNING: What follows is OPINION - not fact. It's based on my experience in 'Nam and is therefore what a scientist would call "anecdotal evidence" - which is not valueless, but it's not "ironclad" either.

In my opinion, there is no way the U.S. could have won the war. I was there in 1968 - 1969. By that time the war had been going on for 10 years. The NVA and VC were still coming at us and showed no signs of stopping. Here's the main reasons why I think the U.S. could never have won:

1) we had no "vital interest" in the outcome, contrary to the impression one got from our leaders. If we'd had a vital interest, then right now we'd be in a world of s**t since we did, in fact, lose.

2) The Vietnamese regarded us as invaders, not liberators. And why wouldn't they? Their previous experience with Westerners was from the French, whose sole aim in Vietnam was to exploit it as much as possible. Well, ok, some of the French believed in the "civilizing mission" - it was their duty to "civilize" all those people in their colonies. One could use the term "racist" here and be pretty much on the mark.

3) The terrain favored the Vietnamese. This could have been overcome with the right methods, but we never adopted those methods and the inclination in the US was to continue to fight a war of attrition.

As Bob Fromme noted in a post elsewhere, the Vietnamese pretty much followed the "divine wind" - a Buddhist belief that the wheel is always turning, there's nothing an individual can do about it, so just "go with the flow" - i.e. support whoever happens to be "ahead" at the moment. An excellent source for this is Francis FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake. Michael Herr, in his book Dispatches had a pretty concise way of putting this clash of cultures. It went something like this: One side had a God who would hold the coonskin to the wall while we nailed it up for him, while the other side had a God who would let rivers of blood flow for as long as it took the wheel to turn. I'll let you guess which side is which.

Now, could the South Vietnamese have won? Different question. I suppose they could have IF:

1) they'd had a genuine Vietnamese government. The few times South Vietnamese leaders tried to assert their independence from the US (for example, "Big Minh" considering negotiating with NLF), the US would step in and engineer a coup.

2) that Vietnamese government had a real stake in reforms that would affect the rural population

The most successful US units in the war (I would argue) would be those such as the USMC "CAP" [Civic Action Patrol] units or the Special Forces "A" teams. Those units lived with the Vietnamese, helping them during the day and providing security at night. Since the units were small, and depended on the Vietnamese they lived with for their survival, they had a real stake in treating the peasants well. If the South Vietnamese had followed that model (and to some extent they tried it with their "Ruff Puffs" [Regional Forces and Popular Forces - South Vietnamese soldiers who lived in or near their home villages and tried to provide security]) they might have had a shot.

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I am a 16 year old Vietnamese student. Here is what I think. I am not a credible source, but I have to speak. I learned a bit about the Vietnam War, and thought of some ways for the South Vietnamese to win the war. As Mike said, it was impossible to win because we (US and South Vietnam) did not have the support (both the Americans and the Vietnamese). In US, the anti-war movement during the Vietnam was the biggest in US history, Congress did not want to support the war. In Vietnam, the Vietnamese did not like the American soldiers; they looked at them as invaders, just like the French. Neither US nor South Vietnam seek the support of the Vietnamese, the main focus should be to win the trust of the Vietnamese. At the time, North Vietnam, the Viet Cong sneeked into villages and told amazing stories to win their support, though many of what they told were not true. Another factor the war was lost was the Vietnamese government, corruption. Thieu was unpopular. He was Christian and so he pressed the Buddhist.

One way we win that war: If we fight an offensive war. What we did was defensive, containing communism. We waited for them to attack and block. If we striked them, we could have won, we have the power. We could have obliterated their source in Hanoi. I hope my opinions are supported

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It is a common mistake to think that military power alone can win a war. The Americans actually claimed to have won the war in Iraq because they had overcome the military power of the country. We all know what happened subsequently.

Short of using nuclear weapons on Hanoi there is little the US could have done which was "more offensive" both to Vietnam and to world opinion. The "military superiority" of the US has never been in question but at the end of the day it is not enough.

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One way we win that war: If we fight an offensive war. What we did was defensive, containing communism. We waited for them to attack and block. If we striked them, we could have won, we have the power. We could have obliterated their source in Hanoi. I hope my opinions are supported

Some politicians like Barry Goldwater did advocate fighting an offensive war. This included using nuclear weapons on North Vietnam. Curtis LeMay shared these views. They were similar to the kind of views expressed by Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War. Luckily, America has elected presidents with more sense than these idiots and nuclear war did not take place in Korea and Vietnam (LeMay even wanted a nuclear war in Cuba in 1962).

MacArthur was able to persuade Harry Truman to invade North Korea. As a result, the Chinese Army got involved and the US and UN troops were forced to withdraw. The same thing would have happened if the US had invaded North Vietnam (both Korea and Vietnam share a border with China). There would only be one winner if there was a land war between China and the US. The US troops would have left fairly quickly and Vietnam would now probably be occupied by China.

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