We lost the Vietnam War. Of this, there is no doubt. But we could have won. Oh, yes, we could have won.
The war, though far from smooth, had by 1968 become manageable in the eyes of the US military. Several semi-permanent bases had been established by the DMZ between North and South Vietnam. One in particular, Khe Sanh, was established close enough to the Laotian border as to serve as a relatively effective striking point to hit the famed Ho Chi Minh trail. Just when things were looking up, the unthinkable happened:
The Tet Offensive.
Despite being, by all rights, a military failure of the North Vietnamese, and successfully repelled by the Americans and their allies, the sheer magnitude of the offensive shocked almost everyone. Millions of Americans watched on TV as Walter Cronkite turned his back on the war, convincing those Americans to do the same. General Westmoreland, until then the commander of American forces in Vietnam, was replaced by General Abrams. What followed was a change in American strategy.
After Tet was subdued, American leadership decided to shift from trying to win the war with American military forces to trying to win the war by training and supplying the South Vietnamese forces to operate independently and defend themselves.
Stop me if this sounds familiar.
The result we all know too well. By 1973, American intervention in the war was effectively over and, in 1975, South Vietnam would fall to the North. Not exactly the end we were hoping for.
While no doubt arguable, there is little doubt in this author's mind that Vietnam could have been won (or, at least, not lost) had the American home front not waned in its support for the war. But the Tet Offensive would provide most Americans with the ultimate image of the war, and that image was a bad one.
Ironically, as mentioned earlier, the Tet Offensive was a success for the American forces. Out of the hundreds of targets attacked by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong during the offensive, none were successfully occupied for more than a month. Even the American base at Khe Sanh, despite a continuous assault by the North Vietnamese, remained in American hands until General Abrams ordered it destroyed and evacuated after six months of battle. Another little known fact about the supression of the Tet Offensive was that the Viet Cong was essentially destroyed as an effective fighting force. The shift in American policy to passive intervention is what allowed the VC to rise to power once again.
Whether or not the Vietnam War was a just cause is not the issue here. For this thesis, that issue is completely irrelevant. What is relevant is that the loss of Vietnam was a direct result of the shift from a malignant American military to a benign one. The shift from fighting for and with the South Vietnamese to simply supporting the South Vietnamese.
Again, sound familiar?
Whether or not the Iraq War is a just cause is not the issue here. What is the issue is what's going to happen after we leave. If done too early, we're doomed to repeat the experience in Vietnam. Politics aside, is that really what we want?