July 21, 2003

Notes: Kaiser on the Vietnam War

One of the peak intellectual experiences of my friend Mike Levitin was a freshman seminar on the origins of World War I run by historian David Kaiser. Here Kaiser gives his one-sentence assessment of American policy in Vietnam:

In 1965 there was obviously more support for the Viet Cong in South Viet Nam than for the Saigon government, and our attempt to make the Saigon government prevail killed, literally, millions (certainly well over one million) without affecting the result....

In short:

  • Long-run benefits: zero.
  • Short-run costs: millions dead.

Even if you are fighting on the side of the good guys, it is only worth making war if the odds that you will win are very, very high indeed.

Posted by DeLong at July 21, 2003 02:54 AM | TrackBack


There were "good guys" in Vietnam????

Posted by: Tom Strong on July 21, 2003 01:33 PM


By some definition, we have won in Vietnam. It is not a communist country and we have relatively good relations today. However, the same result would have likely been achieved without the war.

What is the definition of winning in Iraq? That they don't hate us? That they give contracts to US countries? That they don't go fundy?

Iraq does not have a clearly defined outcome or an exit strategy.

Posted by: bakho on July 21, 2003 01:34 PM


The American military had basically won the war militarily by 1973. Opposition on the home front prevented the US military from continuing the struggle, invading North Vietnam and finishing off the Communist regime. You're falling prey to a seemingly pervasive confusion between withdrawal caused by domestic dissension and actual military defeat.

See Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, 1961-1973
by Mark W. Woodruff.

Posted by: JT on July 21, 2003 02:31 PM


How is known that the Viet Cong had more support
in 1965? Their policy of assasinating village leaders suggests at least some need to rely on intimidation of the local populace.

Posted by: rd on July 21, 2003 03:15 PM



By your reasoning, the US lost the American Revolution. The winner of a war is the one that achieves its political goals via its military. A united Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh was the goal of the North Vietnamese and that's what occurred. The US goal was to prevent that and keep a viable state of South Vietnam. Didn't happen.

Posted by: Double B on July 21, 2003 03:42 PM


I've seen a lot of evidence that suggests the main reason South Vietnam fell to the North was that while the North was still being supplied by China and the USSR with weapons and ammo, the US failed to live up to its obligation to supply South Vietnam with the same. When one army has bullets and the other doesn't, the conclusion is foregone.

Would South Vietnam have retained its independence if Congress had continued to supply it with arms - as promised by the Nixon administration? If Congress had and South Vietnam survived, then the Vietnam War would probably be considered a win, and not a loss for America.

One can say the defeat therefore was caused by the political triumph domestically of the peace movement, not militarily and places South Vietnam's defeat on the pro-peace movement.

Posted by: Chris Durnell on July 21, 2003 04:01 PM



The US military might have mauled the LAVN by 1973, but invading the northern half of Vietnam runs the risk of direct Chinese intervention.

From what I remember, the Johnson administration judged the chance of Chinese intervention at 40%, if the US went beyond the DMZ.

Anyway, "winning militarily" is a stupid concept. You either win, or you dont.

The other point to consider is who reorganised their army afterwards. The US went through a deep, thorough reorganisation afterwards. The Vietnamese kept basically their same army that fought China in the "Domino Theory Redux" war of 1979.

Me, I reckon thats a good sign of who thought they won, and who thought their organisation and doctrine needed a bit of work before the next big show.

Ian Whitchurch

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on July 21, 2003 05:03 PM


Yeah, we won the Vietnam War. The Unheralded Victory book is correct and the rest of humanity is wrong on that one.

Posted by: Dan on July 21, 2003 07:33 PM


How is "millions dead" a short run cost? These people are going to be dead for a very long time, after all, and their widows, widowers and orphans are going to be bereaved for a similarly long time.

Posted by: PJ on July 22, 2003 01:24 AM


"we have won in Vietnam. It is not a communist country"

This development may come as news to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam . . . Look at http://www.vietnamembassy-usa.org

Posted by: rea on July 22, 2003 07:54 AM


Ian: very interesting point. I was not aware of that.

Double B: I nowhere claimed that we actually won the Vietnam war. That would be a denial of reality. But Brad's claim that intervention was futile is just incorrect. If the war had enjoyed broad enough political appeal in the US, at the very least South Vietnam would have been able to stay out of the Communist clutches.

Posted by: JT on July 22, 2003 08:56 AM


Just how are those millions of Vietnamese who are now dead instead of Red so much better off?

(He's a merciful God, you know!)

Posted by: Tom Strong on July 22, 2003 10:19 AM


rd and Ian make excellent points. Measuring public opinion in a place like Vietnam circa 1965 is an extremely nebulous business and doing so with hindsight often entails a good deal of nonsensical determinism, which greatly weakens Kaiser's argument. How much of the North's support among the population was due to what was perceived to be American incompetence, or the Communists' more efficient ruthlessness? If the Phoenix program had been instituted by the CIA 6 years earlier, what would have the North's level of support been in 1966? If the Americans had not prosecuted the war in the most incompetent manner, would a good deal of the support that accrued to the North been non-existent? One thing that Osama Bin Laden was right about, among his otherwise deranged rantings, was that people tend to back the strong horse. A substantial part of achieving victory is convincing others that you are the nag likely to prevail.

Posted by: Will Allen on July 22, 2003 11:05 AM


"Anyway, 'winning militarily' is a stupid concept. You either win, or you dont."

Alright first off, this is not a stupid concept. It is reality. You can win different aspects of a war, and lose others. For example, say country A invades country B. Country A justifies the invasion because 1.) country B has resources country A wants, 2.) country B will not participate in trade with country A for these products 3.) country B's president believes its morally justified, by whatever reasoning, to eliminate anyone not of his own race (and for the sake of simplicity, we'll say countries A and B are of the same race) 4.) there have been multiple threats and assasination attempts on country A's regime by country B's government. 5.) Country A's government wants to gain more public support by eliminating these threats and gaining these resources.

For all of these reasons, country A decides to invade country B. Lets say that country A eliminates the threats and attacks by eliminating key aspects of the government, whether by assasination or some other means. However, country B was successful in keeping their resources. Country A had won the part of the war where they eliminated the threats, assasination attempts and racism by part of country B. However, Country A had lost the part of the war in which they hoped to attain the resources in country B. Meanwhile, the citizens of country A are even more upset with the government because of the amount of lives that were lost, etc. etc. Consequently, Some parts were lost, some parts were won. It is an excellent concept.

It was the U.S.'s main interests to eliminate the Communist "threats" from vietnam. But these were not the sole interests of going in. I believe that the U.S. had thought of the foreign policies that would have been made had they won the vietnam war. Also, The United States went in with the idea that they would win, which should be obvious; the U.S., although a very altruistic country, does not commit self-suicide. We do pick our battles. If not, we we be spread so thinly, our own country would not be able to support itself (think Roman Empire).

A substantial part of achieving victory is convincing others that you are likely to prevail. A completely broad and vague statement. I would not say it is a "substantial" part of achieving victory. Of course you have to logically think you will win, morale of the soldiers and all, but as for it being a substantial part of winning? A military's preformance will not differ all that much if you think you will win or you don't think you'll win. It's completely based on seperate ideals, such as technology, mass force, strategy, etc. Not whether or not you can CONVINCE people your going to win. But this is where it becomes broad. Do you mean convince people in more of a political standpoint, or is it implied that convincing people is from a militaristic standpoint - we're completely ting the war, therefore we're convincing people we're winning? Of course that would be completely obvious...

It all comes down to your definition of "winning" (as i think someone stated), which is compeltely relative from person to person, which is why it cannot be universally judged whether or not we "won" or "lost" a war, or WILL "win" or "lose" a war.

Posted by: Brandon on December 18, 2003 01:33 PM


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