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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

home country.

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

after another.

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

pretty, either.

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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