How Vietnam Won the War But Lost the Peace

Vietnam triumph and tragedy

by Gwydion M. Williams

January 1988 was the 20th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. It was the Tet Offensive that settled the issue, even though the war was fought for several more years. It was the Tet Offensive that destroyed America’s belief in its ability to win.

The anniversary of Tet passed with very little comment, at least in the British media. Most people wanted to forget about Vietnam. The Right because their side lost. The Left because the fruits of victory were quite different from anything that Hanoi’s supporters in Western Europe and the USA had been expecting.

But the issue cannot be evaded for ever. Not if one would make sense of the world. Washington losing the war changed America for ever. Hanoi losing the peace – in particular the whole Cambodian mess – was one of the factors that discredited Leninist socialism and brought about the world as it is now.

Had anyone in 1968 given an accurate forecast of the world as it is in 1988, they would not have been believed. Not by the Left, not by the Right, not by the Centre.

The strength of the Left lies in theory, and in sometimes being able to use theory to produce something that the “practical men” had never believed possible. Unfortunately the dominant forms of Left theory have refused to adjust to the world as it has changed since 1968. Indeed, they were not entirely realistic even then. But since the 1960s, it has been a case of “there is a fault in reality; please do not adjust your mind”.

Labour & Trade Union Review has been trying to correct this, arguing that there are alternatives both to comforting fantasies and hopeless cynicism. But I think that we are very nearly the only people who are doing this. Elsewhere on the Left, endless cleverness and ingenuity is wasted in trying to prove that nothing important has changed over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, the Right has pragmatically adjusted to what has been happening.

This article will try to sort out what the Vietnam War was all about, and why it ended the way it did.

A war of endurance

Wars tend to carry on until one side or the other decides that it isn’t worth it – or until one side collapses completely. If both sides have an equal willingness to suffer, then the result is a simple product of the initial strengths and the damage that each side manages to inflict on the other. But the key to understanding what happened in Vietnam is to realise how very unequal the “willingness to suffer” was.

US military theory was obsessed by firepower and the technical and logistical side of warfare. Up until Vietnam, this approach had served them well enough. In both world wars, they joined in only after the contending powers had already very nearly exhausted each other. The US intervention produced fairly quick and decisive results. And as a result, they got a completely unrealistic view of what wars were like.

Hollywood war films may also have played a part. They glorified war. And in so doing, they left the youth of America quite unprepared for the suffering and horror that a real war would involve. Other societies had a more general experience of wartime suffering, which was reflected and expressed much more strongly in their own war literature.

The US military had a firm belief in a system of warfare that was often highly successful. It was only a matter of time before they would get drawn into a war that would expose that system’s limitations.


Korea was an indecisive war. It was also a fairly conventional war, with a regular front-line where almost all of the fighting was done. Moreover, the Korean communists were not of the same calibre as the Vietnamese.

Korea had been a Japanese colony for many decades; after Japan’s defeat, the Russians occupied the North, the US occupied the South, and each created a regime that was to its taste. Korea was a “blank page” which was tom in half and filled with two different sorts of writing.

The North Koreans, unlike the Vietnamese, had not built up their own army from scattered guerrilla bands. The Russians had largely created it for them. Their attack on the South was a fairly conventional invasion by tanks against the badly-equipped South Korean army.

Still, Korea should have taught the US that a lot of their basic philosophy was wrong. The war could be viewed as having been fought in three “rounds”. Round One – North Korea versus South Korea – ended with the North Koreans capturing everything except a small enclave in the south. Round Two – with the Americans present in force – ended with their recapturing the south and capturing all but the northernmost part of the north.

Round Three, when the Chinese also joined in, ended with a stalemate near to the original border. Thus the portion of the war that was fought between the Americans and the Chinese ended with a limited but definite Chinese victory.

It is also notable that Americans taken prisoner didn’t cope very well. In the dominant American system of values, to be a “loser” was the ultimate sin. This left their young men badly prepared to cope with captivity.

The Americans should have learned from Korea, but did not. Rather, they learned only’ those lessons that could be easily fitted in with their world view, even though the gaps in that world view had been exposed.

Armies are run by people who have spent twenty, thirty or even forty years getting to the top, doing things in the · way their own army thinks proper. Armies seldom change their ways unless defeat and disaster make change a clear necessity.

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“Back in the World”

In the US forces, the fighting men served their year in Vietnam. After that year, they were “back in the world” – as their own slang put it. The war was something to endure, for a strictly limited period of time. Officers, in fact, served for a mere six months. As one US soldier put it:

“One of the first things you realised when you got to Nam was that you weren’t going to win this war. There was no way we could win doing what we were doing. After the first month, me and everybody else over there said, “I’m going to put in my 12 months and then I’m getting the fuck out of here””.( Mark Baker, NAM. ORBIS 1988, p21).

This was very different from the situation in the two world wars, when everyone knew that they were in it for the duration. It was also very different from the attitude of the Vietnamese. For the Vietnamese, there was no other world to go back to.

From Isolationism to anti-Fascism

Americans up until the 1940s had been predominantly isolationist – they reckoned that they need not care what happened on other continents. Roosevelt had to use a lot of ingenuity and subterfuge to get them involved in World War Two. And he might not have succeeded in getting America fully involved, had not his enemies helped him by unwise strategies.

The Japanese brought America into the war by attacking Pearl Harbour. Up until then, the US had simply given aid to Japan’s enemies. And the damage that the Japanese were able to do in their surprise attack did not make up for the cost of having America fully committed to the war.

Fully committed to a war against Japan, that is. There was no guarantee that the Americans would also join the European war. Roosevelt wanted it, but it could easily be argued that Germany should be left alone, at least until Japan was defeated.

Roosevelt’s enemies again made it easy for him. Hitler chose to back the Japanese, and declared war on America. It would have been wiser of Hitler to have pretended that the European War and the War in the Pacific were two quite separate wars – as in a sense they were, since the Japanese never attacked the Russians.

How Hitler lost from a winning position

American isolationism was selfish, but not foolish. Given the progress that Hitler had been making during the 1930s, it would have looked wise to avoid making him an enemy. The reasonable expectation was that he would win his war in Europe.

Very fortunately, Hitler suddenly got too confident and started making serious errors of grand strategy. After about 1940, he seems to have scorned to manoeuvre or to be creatively dishonest, as he had been up till then.

All through the 1930s, he had been cautious, taking on one enemy at a time. Italy had blocked his first attempt at taking over Austria. Therefore he made an alliance with Mussolini – which involved, among other things, dropping any idea of including the Germans of the South Tyrol in the Reich.

With Austria secured, he went after Czechoslovakia He was able at length to carve it up in alliance with several other East European states – including Poland. But then Poland became his target. Ignoring ideology, he did a deal with Stalin, giving him the non-Polish territories, and implicitly agreeing that the USSR could take over the Baltic states. This achieved, he was able to take the great gamble of invading France. And again, this worked brilliantly.

He then tried to make peace with Britain, declaring that he was willing to let Britain keep its Empire provided that it kept out of continental Europe. Unlike his other promises, this one was probably genuine. His racist theory led him to see the British as potential allies; if he could have Europe, Britain could keep its Empire.

But his earlier lies and broken promises had undermined his credibility. Moreover, many in Britain were unwilling to abandon their friends and allies in continental Europe. In any case, the British under Churchill turned this down. It was the start of his downfall, but might not have proved fatal had he been cleverer in his attack on Russia.

Hitler’s long-term plans certainly involved destroying Russia as a political entity, and even the Slavs as an ethnic group. But — being a basically dishonest person — he could and should have concentrated on overthrowing the Communist government of the USSR as an immediate task.

There were plenty of anti-Communist Russians who might have supported a puppet anti-communist government. There were plenty of nationalists among the non-Russian citizens of the USSR who would have fought for the Germans in return for a promise of independence. Hitler would not have kept such promises, of course. But that hadn’t stopped him before.

Fortunately, Hitler badly underestimated the USSR’s capacity to survive and recover. Meanwhile Stalin was able to make concessions to Russian nationalism, and strengthen his position. The tide began to turn against Hitler, even before he compounded matters by declaring war on the United States.

America in the post-war world

America entered the war at a time when Hitler had blundered into a very bad position. Russia was growing ever stronger, and recovering its lost territories. The main land war was on the Eastern Front; the war in the West was fought with whatever the Eastern Front could spare.

America – the only Great Power whose home territory was perfectly safe, even from hostile aircraft – had a war which was very nearly a continuous string of victories, ending with the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

After World War Two, America could have slid back into isolationism. This was what happened after World War One. To prevent this, a Cold War ideology had to be constructed very quickly, by those who wanted America to remain an active world power.

Having been constructed quickly, this ideology was of necessity very crude. It was in fact something of a copy of the left’s anti-Fascist propaganda of earlier years. Communism was depicted as diabolical, and Communist regimes as ruling by terror with no real popular support.

Testing the ideology

Korea could be fitted into cold-war ideology. Korean communism had no very deep roots – the majority of Koreans would go along with whoever seemed to be winning. Vietnam was another matter. The Vietnamese Communists were also the oldest and most hard-line Vietnamese nationalists, who had fought against both Japanese invaders and French colonialists. Hanoi had huge numbers of loyal supporters in areas which were under Saigon’s control.

American soon learned that the people who smiled at them during the day might be trying to kill them during the night. They knew that a lot of the ordinary Vietnamese, perhaps a majority, were hostile to them. There was no easy way to tell friend from foe. And even their allies didn’t always like them very much.

This didn’t match up with what they’d been told Moreover, they regularly heard the military high command saying things that they knew to be untrue, and denying things that they themselves had done. Like most liars, the High Command won short-term benefits and paid for it in the long term.

Under this sort of pressure, the cold-war ideology came apart. Americans fighting in Vietnam began to doubt if what they were doing was just – even if it had any sense in it at all.

The world wars settled the shape of human destiny, and most of those who took part in them knew that this was so. But Vietnam was very much a limited war, and a war in which few outsiders cared much about the Vietnamese as such. The anti-war protest was mostly a protest about the values of US society as it then was. “Vietnam your latest game”, as a contemporary song put it.

[This was Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan.  You can find the song, Ballad of a Crystal Man, at  The lyrics at

[Donovan is still around.  But he lost popularity in the era of Punk Rock, which was mindlessly against everything.]

Trusting the Americans

This does not in itself explain why the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were so much more effective than the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). But the fact was that the Vietnamese communists had better credentials as Vietnamese nationalists than any of the pro-Saigon forces.

The non-communist element had nothing stronger or more definite uniting them than the simple fact that they were non-communist. They were deeply divided – between Catholic and Buddhist, between simple nationalists and former collaborators with the French and/or Japanese, between military and civilian elements and between different factions fighting for power.

One American observer found an apt metaphor – he compared Saigon politics to a bucket of worms! Corruption was massive and blatant.

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US troops had to be brought in because the Saigon regime was on the verge of collapse. But the way it was done lacked subtlety. Supporters of the Saigon government found the US presence overwhelming and demoralising. They suspected – quite correctly – that the ordinary American cared very little for them

Even in Britain, with a common language and culture, US troops during World War Two were widely condemned as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. But not even the most chauvinist American regarded the British as “gooks”. “Limey” does not have the same racist overtones.

In the end, when the US fled Vietnam, they ruthlessly abandoned most of the “friends and allies” whom they had encouraged over so many years. They even cut off air support, in the last days of the war.

It is by no means impossible that Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamisation”, returning responsibility for the war to the non-communist Vietnamese, could have succeeded. The ARVN did perform quite creditably in some of their battles. Had they been able to hang on, they might have ended up as a prosperous “little dragon”, on the pattern of South Korea and Taiwan.

Alternatively, they could have made a decent peace, with a neutralist regime. But the ebb and flow of domestic American politics prevented either of these things from happening. Very few American really cared about their “friends and allies”. The war had been a disaster for them; they wanted to get out and forget about it – and to hell with the gooks!

The fact is, the Americans got into a land war in Asia without having the least idea of how bad it would be. After their departure, Mao Tse Tung is said to have commented that they obviously had not been serious in their involvement, since they left after suffering only 46,000 casualties.

Death or victory

For the Viet-Cong and North Vietnamese, the issue was much simpler. There was a hard core of dedicated communists. But for most Vietnamese, resistance was a way of asserting that they too were human.

Hanoi’s soldiers endured far more than the US ground troops, and they withstood it much better. They knew that they were involved for the duration of the war, and would then have to live with the outcome.

It might have been possible for troops from the North, a long way from home, to have decided that the war really had nothing to do with them, that reunification just wasn’t worth the price. Except that the US made that impossible; their bombing campaign extended the war to the North. Like it or not, every Vietnamese was a part of it. The war became a long drawn out test of endurance.

Hanoi also engaged in a fair amount of intelligent duplicity. Most of the US duplicity was foolish and short-sighted. Either no one at all was fooled, or those who had believed felt terribly let down when the truth became known.

But Hanoi played it better. Even though they were fighting what was basically a civil war in a divided country, they pretended that it was basically just a conflict between South Vietnamese, with the North Vietnamese providing some “fraternal support”.

“Every top leader, virtually every member of the Politburo, went on record as flatly denying that Hanoi and PAVN were participating in the war in the South. After the war came a great reversal and floods of histories, anniversary messages, and memoirs that recount in great detail the deep involvement of PAVN and the North, and, in some instances, far earlier than anyone had realised.” (Douglas Pike, PA VN People’s Army of Vietnam, Brassey’s Defence Publishers 1986.)

The US told many small lies, and lost. Hanoi told one big lie, and won.

The terrorist option

It is also worth noting that Hanoi never allowed their side of the war to spread beyond the confines of Indochina. They could strike even at the US embassy in Saigon, as a demonstration that their reach was long. But they never attacked a US embassy in any other country. Nor did they strike at US bases outside Indochina, nor at any target, civil or military, in the USA itself. America dropped bombs on them, but they never let off any bombs in America.

Why was this? They certainly had the capacity and the military skills. They were much better fighters that the Palestinians, or the rag-bag of terrorists that the Iranians and Libyans sponsor. Nor did they lack flexibility and imagination. When the need arose, they were able to switch their tactics completely. For instance, the US “Special Forces” tried to organise counter-insurgency, training their own guerrilla fighters, particularly among ethnic-minority mountain peoples. Hanoi decided to complete the switch. They brought up tanks, which had not been expected by the Americans, and overran the “Special Forces” camps before enough air-power could be assembled to counter them.

But a terrorist campaign outside Indochina would have been very foolish, and Hanoi must have known it. The “Silent Majority” in America was probably a myth, but the sluggish and inert majority was certainly real. So long as Vietnam remained a nightmare war in a far distant country, the temptation simply to walk away from it was very hard to resist. Terrorist attacks on Americans elsewhere in the world, and above all in the American homeland, might have changed all that.

Some overspill did occur of course – marches, riots, attacks on embassies. But these all came from home-grown protestors; it was certainly not Hanoi that was organising them. The war remained something external, something alien that the politicians had foolishly gotten involved in. And in the end, during Nixon’s presidency, the US did walk away from it all. They even abandoned the possibility of a limited victory through Vietnamisation.

After victory

And yet – in the end, the US was able to learn from its defeat, and recover from it, while the Hanoi leadership contracted a bad case of hubris after its triumph, and is still paying the price.

Hanoi did not reduce the size of its army. It was estimated as 650,000 strong in 1975, and 1 million strong in 1983! (Pike, pp.187-190). Having achieved peace on their own terms, after decades of warfare, they then went on to start another round of fighting, with the Cambodians and the Chinese. To understand this, one must look far back into Vietnamese history.

The Chinese Empire originated in North China, and only gradually gained control of what is now South China. The Vietnamese, though their heartland was the Red River Valley in North Vietnam, had many connections with what later became South China. In the 2nd century BC there was the state of Nam Viet, which was a mixture of Chinese and Vietnamese elements. Its capital was close to where Canton now stands, and it ruled both the Red River Valley and much of what is now Southern China.

Later, the Chinese Empire expanded southward and took over both Southern China and the Red River Valley. The Vietnamese were ruled by the Chinese for a thousand years, from 111 BC to AD 939. But unlike the peoples of what is now Southern China, they were never quite absorbed by them.

In due course, the Vietnamese recovered their independence and began to make their own conquests. They could not expand north – the Chinese Empire was far too strong. The sea blocked them to the east, and high mountains restricted them in the west. Therefore they pushed south, conquering, absorbing or replacing the peoples who stood in their path. The Champa state was simply wiped out and the Cambodians and the various mountain peoples were pushed back. The result was a very long thin country, extending south from their heartland in the Red River Valley.

Khmers and Vietnamese

The big losers in this process were the Cambodians (also known as Khmers), who used to possess a great deal of what later became South Vietnam. The very territory where Saigon now stands was taken from them as late as the 18th century. Nor has the process ended even now. Most Vietnamese, whatever their politics, thought it natural for Vietnam to have hegemony in Indochina. And most Khmers, whatever their politics, viewed the Vietnamese as a deadly peril.

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The right-wing coup that overthrew Prince Sihanouk drew a lot of its popular support from anti-Vietnamese feeling. But Sihanouk was hardly pro-Vietnamese – he simply preferred to avoid a showdown with Hanoi. And when the US pulled out of Indochina, the Khmer Rouge government that took over was no less determined to remain independent. The Laotians were willing to accept Hanoi’s hegemony; the Cambodians were not.

The Hanoi leadership should have had the wisdom to stop and enjoy the fruits of victory, but in the event it did not. Ho Chi Minh was dead by this time. Far from running down the size of the army after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnamese actually increased it. Though the army as such does not rule, there seems to be no political leadership with separate interests from the army, that might put the case for running it down. The leadership at all levels had been involved with warfare. Since the army was kept in being, and expanded even above its wartime strength, making use of it was almost unavoidable.

It is rumoured that the idea of a direct intervention in Cambodia was opposed by General Giap, who had been Hanoi’s chief strategist over several decades. He had been organising a guerrilla army of left-wing Khmers opposed to Pol Pot, and hoped that they might achieve victory in the long run. But, so the story goes, the majority of the leadership wanted quicker results. Giap objected to this, but was overruled and removed from the ruling circles (Pike, pp.261-262).

In any case, Hanoi decided to complete the conquest of Indochina by going into Cambodia. They had defeated the mighty Americans. Surely a small enemy like Cambodia would present no problems?

The ground had been prepared by a long propaganda campaign against the Khmer Rouge government. It was suggested that their rule was something uniquely harsh and terrible. Perhaps the stories are fully accurate; it’s hard to be sure. The much-publicised piles of bones prove very little. One could assemble quite as grim a display by digging up the churchyard in any quiet English village. And Hanoi’s own rule was harsh enough to induce tens of thousands of ”boat people” to flee, and very often perish in the attempt rather than go back.

Malcolm Caldwell

The late Malcolm Caldwell used to argue that the Khmer Rouge were nothing like as bad as was claimed, and he showed that at least some of the stories were pure inventions. As a respected left-wing academic who had been prominent in the opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, his opinions carried weight. He would have been the natural leader of left-wing protest against Hanoi’s invasion.

Malcolm Caldwell was killed during a visit to Cambodia, just before the Vietnamese went in.

It has never been proved just who killed him. It could be just a coincidence that he was killed at precisely the moment when Hanoi had very good reason to wish him dead. But frankly I doubt it.

In any case, Hanoi sent its troops in, and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. But they very noticeably failed to “win hearts and minds” among the Cambodians themselves. People in other parts of the world may have seen it as an altruistic act to save the poor Khmers. The Khmers themselves have tended to see it otherwise.

Even if the conduct of the Pol Pot regime provided the pretext for the invasion, it was most certainly not the reason. The Vietnamese were out to take over. A less controversial regime might have made their task harder; it is doubtful if it would have changed the course of events.

And the war goes on

And yet the Vietnamese seem to have bitten off more than they can chew. For the first time, they face an entirely foreign nationalism on its own home ground. There is continuing resistance from an alliance of the surviving Khmer Rouge, centrists under Prince Sihanouk, and right-wingers from the regime the Khmer Rouge overthrew. Essentially, it is a broad political alliance against a foreign invader.

There is also the antagonism with China. As I mentioned earlier, the Chinese had once ruled the Vietnamese. During the years of the war against the Americans, the Vietnamese stayed neutral in the Sino-Soviet dispute. But since then they have been asserting themselves. China wants to keep Cambodia as a counter-weight against Vietnam, and Vietnam is in alliance with Russia against China. Essentially, it is a matter of rival nationalisms; “socialist internationalism” no longer counts for very much.

Vietnam seems thoroughly stuck in Cambodia, just as America was once stuck in Vietnam. It is possible that they will be able to do a deal with Sihanouk. But nothing is yet certain. Nor is it clear that a peace acceptable to the Vietnamese and to Sihanouk would be acceptable to China, to Thailand or to the Khmer Rouge. The road to peace may not be easy.

This article appeared in October 1988, in Issue 8 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.