The Oct. 4 death of former North Vietnamese general and Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap has led many commentators to describe him as “the general who beat the United States in the Vietnam War.” It is a popular perception, but it is false — at least in a military sense.
It is true that there was initially a steep learning curve in the early days of the war. Although our military had engaged in unconventional warfare in the American Revolution, and to a lesser extent in World War II, during the Cold War our focus was primarily upon the conventional threat posed by the Soviet Union. We had military leaders, such as the legendary Gen. William P. Yarborough (the father of the modern Green Beret), but neither Gen. William Westmoreland nor most other senior commanders had much use for “counterinsurgency.”
However, we learned, and the 1968 Tet Offensive — a massive series of attacks on more than 100 cities and towns across South Vietnam at the end of January 1968 — was in part driven by the setback Giap’s forces had experienced in the South. When it was over, communist losses outweighed those of South Vietnam and the United States by more than 10 to one. Much of the Viet Cong forces in the South had been decimated, along with the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) that had been instrumental in earlier communist successes. Thereafter, Hanoi was forced to fight the war using the North Vietnamese Army.
Giap was shocked by the setback and admitted the Tet Offensive had been a major defeat for his forces, which never recovered. The 1970 Cambodian incursion crippled Viet Cong forces in the Mekong Delta (I witnessed it firsthand), and when Hanoi sent everything it had against the South Vietnamese army in the spring of 1972, it was repulsed by South Vietnamese military with only the assistance of American air power. At the end of that year, the Linebacker II bombing of North Vietnam largely broke Hanoi’s will and led to the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords.
In fairness, Giap deserved some credit for the political warfare campaign that misled countless American college students and others to march in protests to end the war. Oblivious to the realities of the war and the nature of our adversaries, the protesters persuaded Congress to enact legislation providing: “[A]fter August 15, 1973, no funds herein or heretofore appropriated may be obligated or expended to finance directly or indirectly combat activities by United States military forces in or over or from off the shores of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.” Put simply, Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Few Americans paid close attention to what happened thereafter. North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong quipped, “The Americans won’t come back now even if we offered them candy.” In 1975, Hanoi sent virtually its entire army (retaining the 325th Division to protect Hanoi) behind columns of Soviet-made tanks to conquer its neighbors in conventional aggression. Those tanks would have been sitting ducks for American air power, but Congress had made that illegal.
In so doing, Congress betrayed the solemn commitment the nation had made under the 1955 SEATO treaty to defend South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from communist aggression. It had already repealed the authorization for the use of military force, which had been enacted with the votes of 99.6 percent of Congress in August 1964.
After the war ended, Hanoi acknowledged that it had made a decision on May 19, 1959 — more than five years before Congress authorized the use of force and U.S. combat units were deployed to Vietnam — to open the Ho Chi Minh Trail and start sending troops, weapons and supplies into South Vietnam for the purpose of overthrowing its government. In a much-criticized February 1965 report titled “Aggression from the North,” the State Department had been right all along.
As we pause to reflect upon the death of Giap, we should also recall the consequences of Congress’ decision to abandon our historic commitments and give the communists a green light to conquer South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Within three years of “liberation,” more people had been killed throughout Indochina than had died in the previous 14 years of combat.
According to the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Program, in tiny Cambodia alone more than 20 percent of the population (1.7 million human beings) lost their lives under the regime of Pol Pot after Congress made it unlawful for U.S. forces to protect them. The January 2003 issue of National Geographic Today included a story on the Cambodian “killing fields” that noted — in order to save bullets — axes, knives and bamboo sticks were often used for executions. “As for children, their murderers simply battered them against trees.” It didn’t have to happen.
Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap is dead at age 102. He defeated the French in 1954, and deserves some credit for the ultimate conquest of the Republic of South Vietnam. However, throughout the entire conflict, Giap’s forces did not win a single major battle against U.S. military forces. What did us in was a misinformed U.S. Congress.
Robert F. Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia, served twice in the Vietnam War as an Army lieutenant and captain, and while a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution published the first major English-language history of Vietnamese communism in 1975.