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Was Vietnam the most successful war ever fought by the United States?

By John R. Kingston
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

In May 1970, when I was 14 years old, my family returned to the United States from Clark Air Base in the Philippines. My father, Joseph Kingston, had just completed a 22-month tour in Vietnam. The U.S. military had recently handed a decisive defeat to the North Vietnamese after their unexpected Tet Offensive. It was nearly three years before the United States ended its military presence in Vietnam and five years before South Vietnam’s eventual defeat by the North.

Upon his return to the United States, my father, who would reach the rank of major general before he retired, had been asked by his mother to give a speech about Vietnam for her community group in Seattle. To try to put that speech in its proper perspective, one must remember that at this stage the United States was dominating the war from a military standpoint (if not a political one), defeating the North in virtually every battle. When my father and I walked into the auditorium on the day of his speech, I noticed several disabled Vietnam veterans among the large audience. My dad strode to the podium and began by stating bluntly, “The Vietnam War is the most successful war ever fought by the United States of America.”

With that obviously controversial opening, he commanded the undivided and rapt attention of everyone present. He then went on to say that he would prove his provocative assertion through three specific points. That speech, and the reaction of the audience—in particular the Vietnam vets—still resonates with me 37 years later. I witnessed grown men trying to hide their tears. By the end of the speech, they had given up any effort to contain their emotions and were crying nearly uncontrollably. Someone was finally telling them that their unimaginable sacrifices were worth it.

My father’s first point was that prior to the beginning of the Vietnam War, China and the Soviet Union had been allies, and together were considered to be a stronger military power than the United States. However, the numerous disputes that developed between them as to how much support should be given to the North Vietnamese, and who should give it, were symptomatic of their increasingly disparate views on how to deal with the United States. My father contended that these tensions only continued to worsen throughout the Vietnam years, changing their relationship to near enemies. His conclusion on this point was that Vietnam’s contribution to the breakup of their alliance was an important success.

I believe my father’s perspective on this issue was a very interesting and philosophical way to view the war. Others might argue that the dissolution of the Sino-Soviet alliance was only partially attributable to America’s early involvement in Vietnam. They might add that it wasn’t the reason initially offered by the United States to justify involvement in Vietnam. The original intent had been to halt the spread of communism and forestall the domino effect in the region. It is interesting and legitimate to look at the Vietnam War from a somewhat broader historical perspective, especially in the light of its having at least partially contributed to the Sino-Soviet breakup, which of course was an unquestionably significant change in the global balance of power.

My father’s second point was that during the Vietnam War an attempted coup occurred in Indonesia that was widely regarded as having been instigated and supported by the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and the Chinese. His assertion was that this attempted coup by the “30th of September Movement,” also known as “Gerakan 30 September” (G30S) on October 1, 1965, failed in part because of China’s inability to devote the necessary resources due to its substantial commitment in Vietnam. He noted that Indonesia was the fifth most populous country in the world, and through its geographic position exercised significant control over the shipping lanes between the East and West through the Straits of Malacca.

The coup involved an effort to kill seven of the most important generals in Indonesia. The conspirators were successful in killing six of the seven. When a convoy of military vehicles pulled up to the house of General Abdul Haris Nasution, he managed to duck below a barrage of bullets in his bedroom before his wife alertly bolted the door, being grazed several times in the process. He then narrowly escaped through a side exit to the grounds of the Iraqi Embassy next door, breaking his ankle in the process. Nasution’s 5-year-old daughter was shot and died a few days later. Other members of his family were terrorized, his sister was wounded and his adjutant, initially mistaken for Nasution himself, was taken to a waiting truck.

Over the course of the next few days, Nasution and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Suharto, acting commander of the army, pieced together much of what had happened. They wanted to take direct action against the PKI and others they believed to be responsible. Initially, President Sukarno was unwilling to allow them to retaliate. But the increasing public outrage, fueled by the tragic death of General Nasution’s 5-year-old daughter, gave Nasution and Suharto the leverage to proceed. During the next few months the PKI was almost completely destroyed, including the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Communists and suspected Communists. My father’s assertion was that China’s commitments in Vietnam sufficiently distracted them so as to contribute to the failure of the Communist coup attempt in Indonesia.

Others might argue that it was never conclusively proved that the PKI and the Chinese conspired with the G30S in the coup. Even if the PKI and the Chinese had supported the coup attempt, there is no conclusive proof that China’s preoccupation in Vietnam was the proximate cause for the coup’s failure. The conclusion of that line of argument is that additional resources most likely would not have altered the outcome. Some have also argued that the motivation of the coup conspirators was not a complete takeover of the government, but rather was limited to the elimination of some of their and President Sukarno’s most worrisome enemies. The coup, therefore, was carried out merely to enhance their position should the then ill president pass away and no longer be able to provide them the latitude they had enjoyed to that point. Under that scenario the Communists would have gained greater security and influence, but not control. My father, however, argued very strongly against the plausibility of such a scenario.

Finally, my father pointed out that the economies of many Asian countries on the periphery of the conflict had improved dramatically during the Vietnam War because of the protection of the United States from the aggression of China and the Soviet Union during the period of American involvement in Vietnam. He maintained that this had significantly contributed to the stability of the region and also to America’s economic prosperity, based on our increased trade with those nations. Though not a factor in the decision to intervene in Vietnam, this was an example of a beneficial second-order effect of the war.

To me, the most important and memorable thing about my father’s speech was the reaction of those Vietnam veterans who heard it that day. Regardless of whether one now believes that the original decision to challenge the spread of communism in Vietnam was unwise, the fact remains that those veterans did not choose the war to which they were sent. They did their duty, and they deserve our gratitude.

Since the time of that speech, my father has provided several additional observations about Vietnam. He often points out that during the Vietnam War the United States, in his opinion, fielded the best equipped and best trained army ever sent into battle to that point in history. Critical weapons were developed, and the military gained great experience during the course of the war. He also takes serious issue with those who claim that the U.S. military lost the war. As he points out, significant numbers of American soldiers fought in Vietnam during the eight-year period, from seven months after the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964, through a few months after the Paris Accord ceasefire of January 1973. The United States then left Vietnam voluntarily, having achieved all of its original objectives.

The collapse of Vietnam occurred more than two years after the last U.S. troops departed, and only happened after Congress declined to pass $722 million in funding to supply the fuel and ammunition for the South Vietnamese to continue to defend themselves. The United States had left them the tanks, helicopters and other armaments necessary to establish them as the sixth largest army in the world, and they had acquitted themselves well during the two years after the U.S. military had left.

We had spent more than $100 billion on the war to that point. The government in the South had finally stabilized. Even the North didn’t believe it could conquer the South Vietnamese for at least two more years, had the United States not abandoned them financially at that point, and especially if we had continued to provide air support. Today my father continues to believe that for Congress to have betrayed the specific promises made by both Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, thereby negating the tremendous sacrifices and successes of the preceding 10 to 15 years, was a senseless tragedy— one that directly contributed to the deaths of nearly 2 million Cambodian citizens at the hands of the Khmer Rouge after the capital of Phnom Penh also fell in April 1975. We certainly lost a great deal of respect from many for not having kept our promises, and sowed doubts about our commitment and resolve that continue to this day.

 

Editor’s note: To read about Joseph Kingston’s Korean War experiences, go to the Online Extras section at www.HistoryNet. com/magazines/vietnam.

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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