Vietnam: Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost

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TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell spent six years in Vietnam — 18 months in the Army, and then four and a half years covering the war as a radio journalist. He also returned to the country as TIME correspondent 20 years after the war. As Vietnam prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and such prominent veterans as Senator John McCain tour the country in search of rapprochement, Dowell shares some reminiscences and perspectives with TIME Daily.

TIME Daily: Was American involvement in Vietnam avoidable?

William Dowell: If you look back to the prevailing political attitudes of the late '50s, it's very difficult to imagine there was any way the U.S. could notbecome involved. The thinking in Washington was that the French had screwed up World War II, and now they were screwing up the battle against the communists in Indochina, and that the U.S. would once again have to show them how to do it. But that turned out to be an illusion — the French military had been far from ineffective, but had simply been overwhelmed.

So you're saying Vietnam was a no-win situation from the outset?

Yes, in many ways. The terrain was exceedingly difficult and the long borders were almost impossible to close. In terms of sheer attrition, the war was a losing proposition — for most of the war, the number of enemy personnel the U.S. and its allies were killing was smaller than the number of new recruits the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese were able to put into the field to replace them. The experience of Korea had also made the U.S. wary of invading North Vietnam. When it had gone into North Korea almost as far as the Chinese border, that had drawn China in directly and had almost resulted in the complete destruction of U.S. forces there. So the officer corps were wary of crossing into the North for fear of provoking China.

Those were all elements that contributed to the U.S. defeat, and there are many others. But the war was politically unwinnable. Victory would have meant keeping in power the Thieu regime, which was so corrupt and unpopular that it couldn't possibly function for very long.

But perhaps it was a war we had to lose in order to win, because if we'd won it militarily we'd have lost it politically. Instead, by losing we seem to have won. When I returned to Vietnam after 20 years of communist rule, I found the Vietnamese people in all parts of the country incredibly pro-American. But if we had succeeded in propping up a corrupt government, they'd probably still hate the U.S. and be against us.

How did the world's greatest superpower manage to lose a military confrontation with a tiny Third World nation?

In many ways, perhaps, because the U.S. never understood the nature of the war it was fighting. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were following a doctrine developed by Mao Zedong during the 1930s, when he was fighting the Japanese invaders in China. Guerrilla forces are rarely able to match a better-armed conventional army in a battle to hold or take territory. But the Vietnamese were following Mao's dictum that a guerrilla army can force an invader to withdraw by making the cost of occupying territory greater than any gain from it. So while the U.S. military had been trained to occupy and defend territory, it didn't understand that the Vietnamese strategy was not to hold or capture territory, but rather to raise the human cost to the Americans of occupying it. The classic example is Hamburger Hill, where more than 300 American soldiers died in the battle to capture a hill, and when the U.S. forces finally got to the top they found nothing there. They couldn't understand it — what the North Vietnamese had been doing was to create these situations of an absurd loss of life, that could be presented in front of Congress in Washington in order to question the point of the war. The North Vietnamese paid incredibly close attention to what was going on in Washington, and always fought the war in ways to maximize the domestic political pressure on their enemy.

Their strategy also took its toll on U.S. morale. Kids would arrive in Vietnam from the Midwest, never having traveled anywhere, but after they'd been there six months they generally had a lot more respect for the Viet Cong than they did for the South Vietnamese. The Army started finding it difficult to find people to lead patrols, and a lot of the officers tried to stay out of the fighting in the bush. By the early '70s, the morale problem was quite serious. GIs started telling officers that they would patrol to defend their own bases from attack but wouldn't hunt down Viet Cong and mount aggressive patrols. And that's when "fragging" started, when officers were threatened and even killed by their own men. By the end of the war there was this fear in Washington that they might not be able to control their own forces during a withdrawal and that the whole thing could fall apart. That certainly hastened the negotiations to bring the whole thing to a close.

Losing in Vietnam was obviously humiliating, but how much did it set back the U.S. strategically?

Very little, actually. Our involvement in the war was promoted on the basis of a domino theory, that if Vietnam fell to communism it would quickly spread through Cambodia, Thailand and through the rest of Asia. Well, Vietnam went communist but the domino theory turned out to be just plain wrong. During the war, it was also argued that losing Vietnam would give the Russians access to the second-largest naval base in the Pacific, at Cam Ranh bay. Well, the Russians had Cam Ranh bay for more than 20 years, and nobody even noticed.

How did the Vietnam experience change America's understanding of its global role?

It changed our approach to international involvement in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Today, the military insists on being given a definite, achievable goal before launching a mission. The Pentagon doesn't want to involve U.S. troops in situations where there's no end plan. And that's a healthy thing.

What's the unhealthy conclusion?

I think more than anything else, the reaction to Vietnam has helped foster the idea that the military should not be allowed to take casualties. You can't make effective use of your military power on the basis of that philosophy.

Is the move toward reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam simply about a deep-felt need to put conflict in the past?

No, it has a strategic rationale, too. The major concern of the Vietnamese is Chinese expansionism, particularly in the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands. Vietnam has consistently stood up to Beijing — even repelling a minor invasion by its giant neighbor in 1979 — and remains one of the only countries willing to stand up to China's influence in the region. Ironically, one of the reasons we went to war in Vietnam was to stop the spread of Chinese communism in Asia; now it's in our interests to help Vietnam remain independent, to modernize and become a forceful voice in Asia.