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Vietnam: The War We Should Have Won Essay, Research Paper
Vietnam: The War We Should Have Won
Essay submitted by Chris Styduhar
The Vietnam War is one of the most disgraceful periods in American history. Not only
did the greatest superpower in the world get bested by an almost third-world nation,
but we lost badly. Perhaps this war could have been won, or even prevented in the
first place. The United States could have and should have won this war, with a
combination of better weapons usage, better tactics, and better support from their
Before the War
Even years before the war, Vietnam was a hotly disputed territory. Many countries had
taken Vietnam over, and after World War II, Vietnam was in the hands of France.
Obviously, the Vietnamese wanted their own country, and their long history of being a
colony prompted the oppressed people to fight for their independence in the
French-Indochina war. 7
Ho Chi Min, a leader of the Communist party, organized the Vietnamese independence
movement, Viet Minh. Asking for support from America first, Ho Chi Min did not want to
have to turn to communist support for the freedom of his people. Since the United
States viewed helping Ho gain his independence from France as a move against their
own allies, they declined. It was only after Russia and China offered to help that Ho
adopted communist ideals and wanted to make all of Vietnam communist.
The Vietnam war started simply because Ho Chi Min and his communist supporters
wanted South Vietnam to become communist after the South split off in 1954 to
become its own democratic nation. The United States saw this as a threat to
democracy, and using the Domino theory, successfully threw the U.S. into the one of
the worst wars it has ever seen.
If only the United States had looked past its petty alliances and helped another
country gain its independence like we had gained ours so many years ago, this war
would have been completely avoided. Unfortunately for the families of over 64,000
soldiers, it wasn’t.
Beginnings of a Nightmare
As early as 1954, the United States started sending financial and military aid to South
Vietnam, hoping to stop the spread of communism. The flow of ‘military advisors’ from
700 to over 14,000 1 built up steadily through John Kennedy’s presidency, and after he
was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the war to the point of no return.
Johnson used the ludicrous domino theory to justify the military buildup in Vietnam.
American people were so scared of communism by McCarthyism in the 1950’s, that they
were willing to do anything to stop communism where it started. The people of the
United States let Johnson build up a huge force in Vietnam, and he was also almost
unanimously backed by congress. By the end of the war, Johnson was so ashamed that
he didn’t even try to run for reelection.
If the American populous would have stopped and thought about what they were
getting themselves into and not jumped gung-ho into a frivolous war, their
representatives wouldn’t have felt so pressured to back Johnson.
In 1964, the event every war-hungry Commie-killer was waiting for happened. In the
Gulf of Tonkin, several VC torpedo boats reportedly fired on a U.S. vessel. 6 Even
though the American ship sustained no damages, Johnson drafted the ‘Gulf of Tonkin
Resolution’, which authorized him to use any force necessary to beat back the North
Vietnamese. Congress never declared war or even directly authorized troops, but
Johnson twisted enough words around to have his own little executive war.
Early in the War
At first, Johnson limited the conflict to an air war, hoping to pound away and
demoralize the VC into submission. He used planes such as the B-52 bomber and the
F-4 Phantom to try to win the war as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the United
States’ air power had many shortcomings.
The F-4 Phantom was the latest and greatest piece of technology out there during
Vietnam. Manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas, this plane was capable of multiple roles,
as a dogfighter, bomber, recon, and support aircraft. However, the F-4 had its share of
problems. First, the engineers who designed it neglected to mount any type of gun on
the F-4A through the F-4D, thinking that the Phantom’s frightening compliment of
missiles could take out any enemy threat. They were wrong. Not having a gun made
the dogfighting role of the Phantom extremely hard, because the AIM-9 and AIM-7
missiles were not as effective at closer ranges against the enemy MiGs. Only after
almost 2 years was the F-4E Phantom fitted with a 6-barrell gatling gun. 4 Also, many
pilots were poorly trained, only having 6 weeks of training as opposed to the customary
1-year. These excitement-hungry flyboys, these air cowboys had a voracious appetite
for combat, but were ever-cognizant of the end of their tour of duty.
The B-52 Stratofortress was the largest bomber ever produced at that time. It could
deliver its massive 60,000lb payload up to almost halfway around the world, and could
do it at an altitude that VC MiGs couldn’t even reach. 4 There were, also, shortcomings
in the use of the B-52 also. During World War II, the allies could depend on decimating
the industry of their enemy, thus destroying its fighting power. As will be explained
later, the VC didn’t rely on industry and big guns, but guerrilla tactics and small arms.
The U.S. also believed by bombing the living hell out of the population centers and by
using napalm, the enemy would be demoralized and surrender.
Both of these hypotheses proved to be direly wrong. By bombing industry, the U.S. just
wasted billions of dollars and precious time and manpower for nothing. Also, the
bombing of population centers rallied the enemy and brought the North Vietnamese
closer together, instead of its actual goal. Napalm was also another mistake. By using a
flammable jelly to literally burn up all of North Vietnam, the U.S. not only killed more
civilians than soldiers, but also raised several ethical questions. Napalm coated anything
it came within reach of, and burned continuously for up to a week. Doctors who
treated napalm victims said their wounds would still glow green with heat at night,
while the patients writhed in pain. Also, many international scientists and influential
people around the world protested the use of napalm very adamantly.
Yet another type of bomb was dropped by the B-52s, this one containing a large
amount of the defoliating gas, Agent Orange. Hundreds of millions of acres of jungle
were destroyed and even more fields and rice paddies were poisoned because of Agent
Orange. South Vietnamese farmers complained about the detrimental effect Agent
Orange had on their rice paddies, and its use flooded camps and cities with refugees
from outlying areas where entire crops were destroyed. Agent Orange was supposed to
eliminate the VC’s advantageous hiding places, but it only turned the people we were
fighting for against us even more. Even more so, Agent Orange cause countless birth
defects and deadly illnesses in returning vets. Thousands of soldiers came back with
reoccurring sicknesses, and even cancer. 6 The use of Agent Orange was perhaps one
of the largest mistakes made in Vietnam.
By simply thinking ahead, weighing the consequences of using weapons such as napalm
and Agent Orange, the U.S. quite possibly could have won the Vietnam War completely
through the use of air power. More tonnage of ordinance was dropped in any given
week during Vietnam than during all other wars in the history of the world combined.
One would think this would make the war easy to win. Unfortunately, ethical problems
and lack of planning made it impossible to settle the war in the air, thus forcing the
U.S. to invade with ground forces.
Westmoreland and the Ground War
President Johnson chose General William C. Westmoreland to command the land forces
in Vietnam. Westmoreland, a tall, rugged man from South Carolina, was know for his
enthusiasm, and for always having good news from the front lines. Westmoreland
commanded over 500,000 troops at the peak of the war, and was still unable to crush
the Viet Cong, as hoped by most of Washington. 3 But there were many factors that
contributed to our startling defeat on the ground in Vietnam.
The first and foremost was the difference in tactics between the Americans and the
North Vietnamese. The VC were ruthless soldiers, who, even though sometimes poorly
trained, fought with as much drive and enthusiasm as the best trained soldiers in the
world. The VC used something called guerrilla tactics. They would recruit children, tie
themselves to trees, use babies as bait for booby traps, and other ‘unethical’ things.
American soldiers stopped accepting the drinks offered to them by young Vietnamese
boys after a few unfortunate GIs found out the ice was really crushed up glass. These
and other fighting techniques such as strapping explosives to kids and having them run
up to soldiers, were a few of the toils U.S. soldiers had to deal with.
Also on the tactics side, the entire U.S. offensive consisted of a myriad of ’search and
destroy’ missions. S & D missions involved a patrol, (usually 10-35 soldiers), going out
of the base and finding (then killing) the enemy. Unfortunately, the booby traps placed
by the VC and the fact that they knew the land and could hide, meant the S & D
missions were like throwing soldiers away. In fact, more U.S. soldiers were killed from
booby traps than any other cause of death in Vietnam.
Weapons were another problem in Vietnam. Again going back to World War II, the
massive armored assaults that won the war for the allies were useless in the dense
jungle. U.S. armor was limited to using M113 troop carriers with machine guns on them,
instead of using the more effective M60 tanks and artillery. 3 So Westmoreland was
forced to rethink tactics, as well as use weapons and strategies untested in the history
of American warfare.
Other difficulties with weapons were rampant. The M-16, a revolutionary new infantry
rifle, was prone to frequent jams as well as water damage. And in a country when it
rains almost every day, that wasn’t good news. Also, U.S. commanders underestimated
the power of the Viet Cong’s weapons, thinking that they only had muskets and
bolt-action rifles. But since the Chinese and Russians were supplying the VC with
modern AK-47s and other similar arms, the officers were faced with one nasty surprise
Weapons, though new and advanced, can still have weaknesses, and the battlefields in
Vietnam exploited almost all the weaknesses of our weapons. However, with tactics
that could use the strengths and all but eliminate the weaknesses, the ground war
would have also been a snap. This shows that relying too heavily on technology and
not enough on battle-tested weapons can be downright deadly.
Leaders, Washington, and the Morale Issue
While Johnson and Westmoreland had loads of support at the beginning of the war, as
the American people started to see that the war was unwinnable, their support began
to decline. 1 in 5 of every soldier who fought- and died- was drafted, 1 and this caused
distress among the public. Draft cards were burned publicly, schools walked out in
protest of the war, and even large music events were held to somehow stop the
fighting. With all this public opinion against the war, one would wonder why the fighting
The reason is evident to us now, considering that hindsight is 20/20. General
Westmoreland manipulated the body counts for both side to make it look like we were
always winning. Not only did Westmoreland lie, but he failed to mention that the pool
from which VC and NVA soldiers came from was almost the entire country. With
lawmakers telling you one thing and the television telling you another, what would you
think. Obviously, it is extremely hard to fight a war where your home country doesn’t
even support you putting your life on the line. Life on the battlefield wasn’t exactly
Daily firefights, dead comrades, and officers who were fresher than you were were a
few of the troubles grunts had to deal with on the battlefield. Drug use was rampant,
soldiers would get high before battles to help them forget about what they were doing.
4 Mutiny was common, and the amount of soldiers who went AWOL was higher than
any other war. With soldiers who didn’t know what they were fighting for and people at
home who didn’t support you, what else could go wrong? Only one thing, and it
happened to go wrong.
The largest reason why we lost the war is very apparent, and fits in nicely with this
section. When one is fighting for a country’s independence, and the citizens of that
country don’t support the efforts, trouble abounds. 7 The South Vietnamese were not
happy about U.S. soldiers being in their country, and it showed. Every day, thousands
of South Vietnamese joined the Viet Cong, so the American soldiers never knew who to
trust, and who to shoot. Not having the support of the people you’re fighting for is the
worst curse that can be bestowed onto a military.
Westmoreland and Johnson should have figured out the root of the problem before
sending more troops, and the problem was that the American weapons were destroying
the peaceful farmer’s fields and burning their villages. For a people as far away from the
conflict and as apathetic towards the war as they were, it is surprising we lasted this
long without being forced to capitulate.
The saddest chapter in American history could easily have been avoided, with a
combination of good leadership, planning, preparedness, and morale. Perhaps in the
future, American soldiers will know what they are fighting for, be equipped for the
conditions, and not be thrown mercilessly into the meat grinder of an already-lost
battle. Only the future, however, will tell…
Bibliography (Note; numbers are used for identifying citations)
1. Becker, Elizabeth. America’s Vietnam War. New York: Clinton Books, 1992
2. Gregory, Barry. “River War”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York: Marshall
Cavendish corporation, 1988.
3. Gregory, Barry. “The Grunts”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York:
Marshall Cavendish corporation, 1988.
4. Gregory, Barry. “The Air War”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York:
Marshall Cavendish corporation, 1988.
5. Gregory, Barry. “The Green Berets”. The Vietnam War (series of books). New York:
Marshall Cavendish corporation, 1988.
6. Lomperis, Timothy J. The War Everyone Lost – and Won. Washington D.C.:
Congressional Quarterly, 1993
7. McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect. New York: Random House, 1995
8. Westmoreland, General William C. A Soldier Reports. New York: Doubleday &
Company Inc., 1976
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