But there is still the issue of why we went to Vietnam in the first place, and was it really necessary? And as we pause to give thanks (finally) to those who served - two-thirds of whom were volunteers - I submit that the answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!”
After the Korean War, President Eisenhower cut back military manpower and served notice on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that future communist aggression would result in massive retaliation - threatening to use our nuclear arsenal to keep the peace in the event of another Korea. It worked with Moscow - at least until the Soviets developed their own deliverable nuclear force and the question became whether America would risk nuclear attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in order to preserve Saigon.
“Comrade Mao” in China was not so easily deterred, and he argued that while in appearance the “imperialists” were indeed very fierce, in reality it was the “people” who were powerful. By using “people’s warfare” (aka “wars of national liberation”) the communists could send in trainers with money and weapons and promote internal revolutions around the Third World in which guerrillas would live, eat and work among the people. Nuclear bombs would be useless in countering this unconventional and asymmetric warfare, and “armed struggle” could continue despite American nuclear power.
Vietnam became the “test case” of whether America’s counterinsurgency tactics could defeat Mao’s strategy of people’s warfare. As Chinese Communist Party Vice Chairman Lin Biao observed in his 1965 pamphlet “Long Live the Victory of People’s Wars,” Vietnam was a “testing ground,” and once America was defeated there, “The people in other parts of the world will see still more clearly that U.S. imperialism can be defeated, and that what the Vietnamese people can do, they can do, too.”
Cuba’s Che Guevara echoed this sentiment, declaring as early as Nov. 20, 1963, that the Vietnam battlefield “is most important for the future of all America,” and “the victorious end of this battle will also spell the end of North American imperialism.”
Keep in mind that in 1965, China was providing advisers, money and weapons for guerrilla movements in South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and as far away as Mozambique in Africa. Thailand and Indonesia were vulnerable political and economic “basket cases” then and easily might have fallen to communist forces had the United States simply walked away from its solemn promise to defend the non-communist countries of former French Indochina. By staying the course, we bought time for Thailand and Indonesia (two very important countries) to become stronger - and during the war, China went through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and turned inward. By the time Congress actually threw in the towel, China was no longer actively exporting revolution.
No one can be certain what might have happened had we abandoned our promises earlier. But it is not difficult to envision a rather alarming scenario in which an American withdrawal would have been followed by communist military victories in neighboring countries and even by non-communist groups throughout the Third World turning to China, Cuba and other communist states for assistance in gaining political power. Non-communist Third World leaders might well have concluded America was an unreliable ally and sought to cut the best deal possible with their communist opponents. The Free World might soon have found itself facing a dozen or more “Vietnams” in Asia, Africa and Latin America - left with the choice of watching them fall one by one or responding with nuclear weapons. The story would not likely have had a happy ending for America or the cause of human freedom around the globe.
So if you encounter a Vietnam veteran today, at the Mall or elsewhere, take a moment to say, “Welcome home,” and, “Thanks for your service.” It is an expression of gratitude that is long overdue.
Robert F. Turner served in Vietnam as an Army lieutenant and captain and for more than two decades has taught seminars on the war at the University of Virginia.
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