The war in Vietnam that ended 30 years ago with a complete triumph for the Communists was the longest, most expensive and divisive American war in its history, involving over a half-million U.S. forces at one point-plus Australian, South Korean, and other troops.
If we use conventional military criteria, the Americans should have been victorious. They used 15 million tons of munitions (as much as they employed in World War Two), had a vast military superiority over their enemies by any standard one employs, and still they were defeated.
The Saigon army commanded by Nguyen van Thieu also was far stronger than their adversaries. At the beginning of 1975 they had over three times as much artillery, twice as many tanks and armored cars, 1400 aircraft and a virtual monopoly of the air. They had a two-to-one superiority of combat troops-roughly 700,000 to 320,000. The Communist leadership in early 1975 expected the war to last as much as a decade longer. I was in South Vietnam at the end of 1973 and in Hanoi all of April 1975 until the last four days of the war, when I was in Hue and Danang in the south. I am certain the Communists were almost as surprised as the Americans that victory was to be theirs so quickly and easily; I told them from late 1973 onward to expect an end to the war by the Saigon regime capsizing without a serious fight-much as the Kuomintang had in China after 1947. As a future Politburo member later confessed, they regarded my prediction as “crazy.” They were completely unprepared to run the entire nation, and their chaotic, inconsistent economic policies since 1975 have shown it.
The Americans and Communists alike shared a common myopia regarding wars. What happens in the political, social, and economic spheres are far more decisive than military equations. That was true in China in the late 1940s, in Vietnam in 1975, and it is also the case in Iraq today.
South Vietnam was an artificially urbanized society whose only economic basis was American aid. The value of that aid declined when the oil price increases that began with the war in the Middle East in 1973 caused a rampant inflation, at which point the motorized army and society the Americans had created became an onerous liability.
South Vietnam had always been corrupt since the U.S. arbitrarily created it in 1955 despite the Geneva Accords provision that there should be an election to reunify what was historically and ethnically one nation. Thieu, who was a Catholic in a dominantly Buddhist country, retained the loyalty of his generals and bureaucracy by allowing them to enrich themselves at the expense of the people. The average Vietnamese, whether they were for or against the Communists, had no loyalty whatsoever to the Thieu regime that was robbing them. After 1973, soldiers’ salaries declined with inflation and they began living off the land. The urban middle class was increasingly alienated, the Thieu regime’s popularity fell with it. It admitted there were 32,000 political prisoners in its jails, but other estimates were far higher.
By the beginning of 1975 the regime in South Vietnam was beginning to disintegrate by every relevant criterion: economically and politically, and therefore militarily. The Saigon army abandoned the battlefield well before the final Communist offensive in March 1975. Moreover, with the Watergate scandal, the Nixon Administration was on the defensive after 1973, both with the American public and Congress, and after Nixon’s forced resignation the new American President, Gerald Ford, was simply in no position to help the economically and politically bankrupt Thieu regime. The American army, at this point, was too demoralized to reenter the war. Washington correctly assumed that its diplomatic strategy had won Moscow and Peking to its side by threatening to swing its power to the enemy of whatever nation would not support its Vietnam strategy-triangular diplomacy.
But it was irrelevant what Hanoi’s former allies did–and essentially they did what the Americans wanted by cutting military aid to the Vietnamese Communists. The basic problem was in Saigon: the regime was falling apart for reasons having nothing to do with military equipment. The Communists were stunned by their fast, total victory over the nominally superior Saigon army, which refused to fight and immediately disintegrated.
Thus ended the most significant American foreign effort since 1945. There are so many obvious parallels with their futile projects in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and the lessons are so clear, that we have to conclude that successive administrations in Washington have no capacity whatsoever to learn from past errors. Total defeat in Vietnam 30 years ago should have been a warning to the U.S.: wars are too complicated for any nation, even the most powerful, to undertake without grave risk. They are not simply military exercises in which equipment and firepower is decisive, but political, ideological, and economic challenges also. The events of South Vietnam 30 years ago should have proven that. It did not.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.