Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Vietnam War: A Lesson in the Geopolitics of Southeast Asia
The Vietnam War: A Lesson in the Geopolitics of Southeast Asia

The Vietnam War: A Lesson in the Geopolitics of Southeast Asia

  • Jeremy Black
  • March 30, 2018
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

As nuclear confrontation gave way to nuclear parity in the 1960s and early 1970s, limited war in Vietnam proved far less successful than in the Korean War less than 20 years before.. Why? The analysis of the Vietnam War continues to be highly controversial and interacts with ongoing debates in the United States and elsewhere about how best to conduct military operations, and especially the inherent viability of guerrilla warfare and, conversely, of counterinsurgency strategies.

The War in Focus

The American image of land warfare during the Cold War as a whole is dominated by the Vietnam War for a number of reasons. This was a lengthy conflict, one in which the United States, the world’s leading military power, was involved most intensively. As the sole major televised ground-conflict during the Cold War, the war was extensively reported from on the ground, with print journalism supported by impressive photography, and was followed with great attention around the world, much of it critical. As the war was also a failure for the United States, it was both analyzed there and attracted great attention elsewhere—being seen as an augury of a new age of warfare, that of revolutionary warfare, and more particularly as a victory for Maoist ideas of revolutionary violence and strategy, ideas contrasted with those of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, American failure appeared to demonstrate that air power had not redefined warfare to the extent that its protagonists argued. The Vietnam War led to much discussion of the merits and limitations of bombing to achieve strategic objectives. Although it could bring significant tactical and operational advantages, the Americans failed to use bombing to bring victory or, indeed, to direct the responses of the North Vietnamese, except for an investment in anti-aircraft capability. American failure also showed that nuclear capability reduced the significance of warfare, whether conventional or not. All of these points had, and still have, considerable value, but none justifies the extent to which the Vietnam War, or rather this Vietnam war, dominates discussion, and notably so at the popular level.

To understand the war better, it is important to place it in the broader geopolitical context of the late 1960s. Comparing Vietnam to contemporaneous conflicts in the Middle East, for example, can help both illuminate the details of Vietnam and also challenge claims about that conflict’s singularity.

The American-supported government in South Vietnam faced a Communist rebellion by the Viet Cong, which led to more overt American intervention. In turn, in a process that had begun before American intervention, and in a process encouraged by China, forces from North Vietnam moved south to help the Viet Cong. By 1963, there were 16,000 American military advisers in South Vietnam, but the Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam, or the ARVN, was not in command of the situation. In part, this was because it was having to respond to its opponents and had a large area to defend, but there was also a command culture focused on caution and firepower that could not grasp the dynamic of events. Being on the defensive meant that its opponents were able to dictate the pace of campaigning.

America Increases its Commitment

By 1965, in the face of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong moving, as they thought, into the last phase of Mao Zedong’s theory of revolutionary war, and accordingly deploying large forces operating in concentrated units, the ARVN was on the verge of collapse. This situation led to a major increase in American commitment to preserve the credibility of American power and to force war on the Communists in an area where the Americans could intervene. Thus, to President Lyndon B. Johnson, the war was a necessary demonstration of resolve, a strategic goal that rather overwhelmed the specific problems of seeking success in South Vietnam. This was a sequel to the alleged failure to prevent Cuba going Communist, an assessment that exaggerated what the United States could have achieved once Fidel Castro was established.

The Americans faced tactical and operational difficulties in operating in South Vietnam but overcame them. Initially focused on defending coastal areas that were strongholds of South Vietnamese power and essential for American deployment, the Americans gradually built up an impressive logistical infrastructure, then moved into the interior. The Americans were able to advance into parts of South Vietnam which had been outside the control of Saigon and to inflict serious blows on the Viet Cong in the Mekong delta. In addition, direct mass Viet Cong attacks on American positions were generally repulsed with heavy casualties, for example at the siege of Plei Me in the Central Highlands in 1965.

The Americans sought to advance throughout South Vietnam, establishing “firebases” from which they could mount large-scale search-and-destroy operations, in order to defeat the large units being deployed by their opponents and erode their strength. Land warfare was becoming far more mobile as a result of the internal combustion engine. The helicopter played a major role in this extension of activity, especially with the use of the new 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). In addition, the environment, notably the forest cover and the lack of good roads, was generally not appropriate for armor. The use of the helicopter represented a successful operational and tactical engagement with the situation. Such success, however, was only possible because the North Vietnamese did not have human-portable, surface-to-air missiles until late in the war. Had they done so earlier, the usage of helicopters would have been extremely difficult, as was the case for Portugal in Africa, which would have forced the Americans to change their tactics to more conventional methods of advance, supply and retreat.

In the event, against the background of the very different experience of the Korean War, the American army gradually learned the necessary tactical skills to campaign successfully in South Vietnam, albeit, in turn, squandering this lesson by the practice of rotating units out of the combat zone too quickly. Nevertheless, the strategy underpinning American land warfare was problematic as, in parallel, was the very different strategy guiding American air warfare against North Vietnam. As with other counterinsurgency armies, American activity on the ground was somewhat apt to conceal the extent to which the initiative was, in practice, shared with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. Moreover, although heavy casualties were inflicted, in what could be presented as attritional warfare linked to American “scientific” operational research and the related “kill statistics,” opposing numbers rose, as North Vietnam responded to the American build-up by sending troops south down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and thus avoiding the strong American presence in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam.

The Tet Offensive: Tactics and Ramifications

There was also the problem of forcing conflict on opponents, a problem underlined by the politically imposed necessity of using air but not ground forces in attacking the opponents’ base area of North Vietnam. Within South Vietnam itself, there was no concentration of opposing power that could be rapidly fixed and readily destroyed as, in very different circumstances, the Israelis were to do against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967, and the Indians and Pakistanis to sought to do in successive conflicts in 1965 and 1971.

The North Vietnamese presented simply denying American success as victory, on the grounds that American willpower to sustain the struggle was less than theirs. Although easy to claim, however, it did not suffice, especially as the Americans claimed in 1967 that the war was going well. This situation helped ensure the launch of the Tet Offensive, a major offensive by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in 1968, designed to show the American public that their army was failing, and also to demonstrate to the South Vietnamese that this army could not protect them.

There were obvious fundamental contrasts between the Tet Offensive and that of the Israelis in 1967, not least in terrain and outcome, but there was a similarity in that the ability to take the offensive to disorientated opponents and provided a dramatic political message. Although the Soviet Union backed Egypt and Syria, the Israelis were not directly up against a superpower with superior technology or united command. Given the constraints within which they had to operate, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did well, helped, as in the Israeli case, by strong morale.

The attacks mounted under cover of the Lunar New Year celebrations of Tet were launched in the mistaken belief that they would engender a popular uprising. In turn, over-optimistic American assumptions about enemy casualties in the border battles of late 1967 were matched by an inability to believe that a full-scale attack on the cities would be mounted. This was a serious failure of assessment. About 85,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops attacked beginning on January 30, 1968, being eventually defeated with heavy losses over the following month. There was a recurrence of the failure of attacks on French positions in 1951. Nevertheless, North Vietnamese military and political strategies did not depend on continual success.

Having defeated these attacks, American effectiveness in counter-insurgency increased from 1968, but, in part for tactical and operational reasons, it still proved difficult to “fix” opponents and to force them to fight on American terms. Nevertheless, in 1969, the Americans inflicted serious blows on the Viet Cong who had lost many of their more experienced troops in the Tet Offensive, and achieved little in 1969.

Although the Americans were able to repulse attacks, their counter-insurgency strategy was undermined by the unpopularity of the South Vietnamese government, by Viet Cong opposition and intimidation, and by increasingly vocal domestic American criticism of what appeared an increasingly intractable conflict. The last encouraged the Americans to shift more of the burden back on the ARVN, with problematic results. The ARVN had some good commanders and units, but was not up to American expectations. Thus, prefiguring the situation in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, although the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese did not win in the field in 1968-72, they benefited greatly from shifts in the military and political contexts. At the strategic level, these shifts included growing pressure on American interests elsewhere, and notably so as a result of Soviet support for Arab rearmament and intransigence after the Six Day War of 1967. The Soviet deployment of more warships in the Mediterranean increased the pressure on the United States. There was also concern about the situation in Korea.

The issues facing the United States in South Vietnam were matched by the experience of their allies, each of whom had their own particular approaches and combat styles. Analysis of the Australian pacification activity in Phuoc Tuy province, as of the Americans in Binh Dinh province, question the thesis that the policy had succeeded and was therefore wrecked by the eventual pull out. At the same time, it is clear that the Viet Cong, which had been able to compete openly with the government in 1966, was, by the close of 1972, forced to operate clandestinely. Yet, there has also been a focus on the “inherent weaknesses in the South Vietnamese state” that in part was a matter of the webs of patronage and corruption, but that, more generally, was a consequence of “the immaturity of the South Vietnamese state.” This situation greatly affected military preparedness and morale. Training was also poor, and the army depended on the Americans for firepower and logistics.

The Easter Offensive of 1972 and the Failure to Translate Operational Strategy

As in most conflicts, the balance of failure in Vietnam by both sides continued, and was demonstrated by North Vietnam in their 1972 Easter Offensive, which that stands comparison, as a military and political move, with the Egyptian and Syrian assault on Israel in 1973. The casualties inflicted on the Viet Cong in, and after the Tet offensive, as well as the inability of American air attacks to destroy North Vietnam’s war-supporting capability and logistical system, had ensured a greater reliance on North Vietnamese forces, rather than on the Viet Cong, while also creating the possibility for the use of conventional forces in a conventional Soviet-style operation. In March 1972, the North Vietnamese launched the Nguyen Hue campaign (or Easter Offensive) across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam. The surprise nature of the attack, and the strong forces deployed, brought initial success. Quang Tri, a provincial capital, was captured and another, An Loc, besieged. In response, President Richard Nixon briefly considered using nuclear weapons.

A standard view, notably in the United States, emphasizes the role, in the eventual North Vietnamese failure, of the American Linebacker I air campaign which hit the invasion force’s supply system, particularly their fuel stocks. This account underplays the role of South Vietnamese defenders, who held off the invasion, and the problems the North Vietnamese confronted in mastering high-tempo maneuver warfare. Both were also to be issues for Egypt and Syria when attacking Israel in 1973, and for Iraq when attacking Iran in 1980, in all cases without success. The Soviet Union could provide impressive weaponry, particularly tanks, but it proved far more difficult to transfer the doctrine and techniques of effective operational warfare, and notably so if faced by determined opposition. As more generally in military history, capabilities—whether in attack or defense—were focused, accentuated, minimized, or offset, by the characteristics of the opponent. Moreover, Soviet operational art was devised for the circumstances of the North European Plain and was not easy to translate to very different environmental and military conditions.

In 1972, the North Vietnamese failed to make the best use of tanks, which reflected both an operational inability to gain mobility and achieve particular objectives, and a tactical failure to get and utilize infantry-armor coordination. Instead, as with the Iraqis in 1980, the tanks were used by the North Vietnamese as an assault force on South Vietnamese positions, indeed essentially as mobile artillery. This had the effect of squandering the initiative in operational terms, while providing targets for American air attack. On the eve of the American withdrawal in 1973, neither side had won the war on the ground, a repetition of the situation for the French there in 1954 and in Algeria in 1962, which was not a comparison the Americans would have welcomed. However, the Americans, like the French in 1954, were under serious fiscal pressure and suffering from rising domestic problems.

The End of the War Was Not the End of the Fighting

The failure of the Nguyen Hue campaign in South Vietnam in 1972 meant that the North Vietnamese would need to follow the route of negotiation in order to move forward in the Vietnam War. This course was encouraged by the 1972 American rapprochement with China, a step of great strategic significance that, like the earlier overthrow of the Left-wing nationalist government in Indonesia in 1965-66, made it less serious for the Americans to abandon South Vietnam. Indeed, as a result, there was a strategic “victory” of a sort for the United States in the Vietnam War. The Paris Peace Agreements of January 1973, during the negotiation of which in December the Americans threatened to use nuclear weapons, were followed by American withdrawal two months later.

The conflict continued, with the two Vietnams the combatants, and with heavy South Vietnamese casualties. In April 1975, conventional North Vietnamese divisions achieved what they had been unable to do in 1972, overrunning and conquering South Vietnam. They made good use of tanks and ably integrated them with infantry and artillery. Unlike the North Vietnamese, the ARVN was politicized without equivalent gains in motivation. The South Vietnamese also faced important doctrinal and operational problems, including a failure to seize the initiative and widespread reluctance to take combat to their opponents. Moreover, in March 1975, the South Vietnamese followed an unwise strategy, notably with an abandonment of the Central Highlands, where the North Vietnamese had launched their attack. Instead, South Vietnam focused on defending the south near Saigon, a strategy that gave their opponents a powerful impetus and gravely weakened their own morale and cohesion.

This account does not focus on the American failure to continue providing military support, notably airpower. The contrast between 1972 and 1975 might suggest that it was the key factor, but that analysis offers too limited a reading of the situation in each of those years, and puts too much focus on the United States. To change just one variable does not necessarily explain success.

The withdrawal of American forces and the total fall of South Vietnam did not end conflict in the region. In 1975, Communists also overthrew their opponents in Cambodia and Laos. There was, however, a major falling out among these states. In 1979, Vietnam, which looked to the Soviet Union, attacked Cambodia, which looked to China. In response, believing that Vietnam ought to be taught a lesson and fearing a fundamental Soviet threat to Chinese security, in February-March 1979, the Chinese attacked Vietnam with 500,000 troops, inflicting much devastation. Ironically, the Chinese quickly discovered that greater Vietnamese guerrilla warfare experience, combined, on the part of the Chinese, with poor logistics, inadequate equipment, and failures in command and control, led them to withdraw, without forcing the Vietnamese forces to leave Cambodia. Although far larger in scale and longer than its attack on India in 1962, this was a more limited war than the Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950-53, notably because it was not fighting a major power, but it was also the least successful of those three operations. Nevertheless, because of its limited goals, it proved far easier for China to restrict its commitment in Vietnam than in the case of the United States in Vietnam or the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Low-level conflict continued in Cambodia with China backing rebels after its protégé, the Pol Pot government, was overthrown by the Vietnamese invasion. Moreover, border conflict continued between China and Vietnam until 1991, with much of it on a large-scale and very costly in lives.

Nevertheless, there was no new major conflict in East or Southeast Asia after the 1970s. Partly as a result, conflict potential within region was underplayed until the situation dramatically changed in the mid-2010s. China achieved its economic rise in the 1970s-2000s through integration with the American-dominated global system and without conflict. The situation did not alter until the 2010s, when tensions rapidly escalated.

Another approach to understanding the long-term significance of the Vietnam War would be to ask how best to define a major war. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978-79 involved 150,000 troops. This invasion was initially resisted by conventional means, leading to the loss of about half of the Cambodian army, until the Cambodians turned to waging guerrilla operations from bases in Thailand. Subsequently, the Vietnamese retained a large force in Cambodia—180,000 of their 1.26 million army in 1984, a year of major efforts against the guerrillas. In 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew, a change which was linked to a cut in the Vietnamese army by about a half. About 15,000 Vietnamese troops had been killed during the occupation. Peace came in 1999 when the Khmer Rouge, the key resistance element, no longer enjoying Chinese support, was completely dissolved.

A conflict on this scale would have been regarded as major elsewhere in the world. Yet, in Southeast Asia, because the United States was no longer involved, it barely registered on the international consciousness. An American war had been replaced by a situation in which regional powers, and notably the regional superpower, China, were the key players, while the American role was essentially offshore. The American war in Vietnam was terrible in many ways, but was just an episode in regional conflict. The potential for further such conflicts in that region has continued to the present. If we hope to understand those conflicts, we would do well to place the American War in Vietnam in its historical and geopolitical contexts.