- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

Current opinion affecting decisions on Afghanistan could well be, at least subconsciously, influenced by a “Vietnam syndrome” based on two persistent and widespread myths - that the war could not be won and, in any case, was not worth fighting. It is, therefore, past high time to set the record straight.

The following expose of these myths is based on more than 10 continuous years’ experience with that war from the rice paddies to the White House as well as extensive research. When the end came in 1975, I was probably the most senior U.S. official who dealt exclusively with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The conclusion that the war was “unwinnable” clearly can be traced to the 1968 Tet Offensive. Mainly Viet Cong forces penetrated or captured most of South Vietnam’s cities and towns, including Saigon, even reaching our embassy’s grounds. Resulting sensationally vivid TV and other reporting created a profound and lasting defeatist outlook in and out of government. Scarcely reported and still widely unappreciated, however, was that this offensive ended in a catastrophic defeat of the Viet Cong from which it never recovered. Not reported at all were the resulting impressive gains in countryside pacification that led to one of the most successful land reforms in history.

By 1972, the (well overdue) Vietnamization process had withdrawn all U.S. ground forces in Vietnam except advisers. However, we still provided air, naval and logistics support. In 1972, about 200 Americans were killed in action as opposed to an average of about 7,000 in previous years. With its Viet Cong forces defeated, Hanoi decided in 1972 to test Vietnamization by launching its largest conventional offensive of the war. This Easter Offensive employed the equivalent of 23 divisions equipped with hundreds of Soviet-supplied tanks, long-range artillery and rockets, surface-to-air missiles and other modern weapons. South Vietnamese ground forces, ARVN (army) and marines, with U.S. air, naval and logistics support, stopped the offensive and launched counteroffensives, inter alia recapturing the enemy’s strongest position, Quang Tri near North Vietnam.

If they couldn’t hold Quang Tri, what could they have held? This offensive cost North Vietnam nearly 100,000 killed in action, twice the number U.S. troops suffered in the entire war. After Hanoi’s 1975 victory, a former top commander in the South, Gen. Tran Van Tra, revealed in the party organ Nhan Dan that, in effect, his troops were on the ropes and close to defeat by 1972’s end. As former CIA Director William Colby wrote in his 1983 book “Lost Victory,” “On the ground in South Vietnam the war had been won” by the fall of 1972. We then proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by prematurely concluding the Paris “Peace Accords,” which left North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. As North Vietnamese Chief of Staff Gen. Van Tien Dung later wrote, “The [Paris] agreement represented a big victory for our people and a big defeat for the U.S. imperialists and their lackeys.”

After this, Congress reduced U.S. military aid to South Vietnam by nearly 70 percent and then banned all U.S. military operations in Indochina. This decisively contributed to South Vietnam’s defeat in 1975. A Gen. Dung put it, “The decrease in American aid made it impossible for Saigon troops to carry out their combat and force development plans.”

Was the Vietnam War worth it? In April 1954, President Eisenhower said a communist victory in Indochina could topple Southeast Asian countries like “dominoes.” While it was pooh-poohed by many in the United States, most Southeast Asian leaders agreed with Eisenhower’s “domino theory,” as did leaders in Hanoi, Peking and Moscow.

The war, however, bought time for strengthening the Southeast Asian regimes, the potential “dominoes,” while wearing down North Vietnam and effectively eliminating its threat to Southeast Asia.

In the 1970s, Indonesian leaders Suharto and Malik told U.S. officials that our introduction of combat troops in Vietnam in March 1965 substantially encouraged their resistance to a nearly successful October 1965 Chinese-backed communist coup that could have toppled a number of dominoes, probably including the Philippines. That would have triggered our treaty obligation to come to its aid - and in the face of a far greater communist threat than we faced in Indochina.

Our troop commitment to Vietnam also encouraged the successful British defense of Malaysia against a communist invasion launched from Indonesia.

We got into World War II primarily as a result of severe economic embargoes we imposed in reaction to the Japanese occupation of what is now Vietnam. So this area was of prime importance to our national security even then. On the whole, our fighting in Vietnam was key to implementing George Kennan’s ultimately successful “containment policy” in Southeast Asia. The final result of the Vietnam War should thus be regarded as a tactical defeat but a strategic victory.

William Lloyd Stearman, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, headed the National Security Council’s Indochina staff from 1973 to 1977 and is a former adjunct professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.

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