"In Korea, you Americans finally learned a lesson. It is that Communist force must be met with American force. More recently, you seem to have forgotten that lesson. No one doubts your great power, least of all the Communists. Yet you seem unsure. Compared to your strength, your policies seem weak in purpose. This is what makes it difficult for us Asians to understand you."                                                                        Kong Le, interviewed in Fortune, May, 1964

Why Vietnam?

One of the issues we need to nail is the old "Why Vietnam?"

In Nov. 1995, I was asked to give the Veterans' Day address here at the U.Va. Rotunda (sponsored by the various ROTC detachments), and my theme was that had we simply walked away from Vietnam in 1964 we might well have lost the Cold War.

I used quotes from Giap, Che, Lin Biao, and others to make the point that the entire world recognized that VN was a test case of whether America had the will and ability to stop "people's war" or "wars of national liberation," and had we given up the message both to communists and non-communists would be clear.  It would have confirmed the wisdom of resorting to armed struggle (supporting the Chinese position in the Sino-Soviet dispute, and perhaps giving Moscow an incentive to make peace with Bejing), it would have told neutrals and third-world governments not to rely upon America and to cut the best deal they could with the communists to keep some power, and we might well soon have found ourselves facing a dozen or more "Vietnams" from Asia to Africa and Latin America.  We simply could not have won a dozen Vietnams, and that would have given us the choice of watching the communists seize one country after another or responding (as Ike and Dulles threatened) with nukes.  But we weren't going to endanger NY City or DC to save Phnom Penh or Bangkok.

In the end, after essentially winning the war on the ground by 1972, Congress legislated defeat.  But by then Thailand and Indonesia had become much stronger than was the case in '64, and more importantly China had stopped supporting insurgencies.

I can't count the number of intelligent adults I meet who, when Vietnam comes up, ask whether there was really any "reason" for us to be there -- ignoring, again, the horrible human costs paid by those we betrayed after we left.

Bob Turner


"Too many people think they are thinking when all they are doing is rearranging their prejudices." --- William James