In the fall of 1963, when only a few Americans had died in South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh talked to a Polish diplomat in Hanoi. “Neither you nor I know the Americans well,” the great revolutionary leader reflected, “but what we do know of them, what we have read and heard about them, suggests that they are more practical and clearsighted than other capitalist nations. They will not pour their resources into Vietnam endlessly. One day they will take pencil in hand and begin figuring. Once they really begin to analyze our ideas seriously, they will come to the conclusion that it is possible and even worthwhile to live in peace with us.”1
Ho was correct to assume that American leaders would prosecute the war differently than had their French predecessors; he was wrong to conclude that they were wiser and would make a more realistic assessment of the dynamics of the Vietnamese revolution. Only a year and a half after he spoke the sporadic fighting in Vietnam was transformed into a big American war, and the American phase of the Vietnam conflict caused far greater destruction and loss of life than had the French phase. And many years passed before American leaders finally put pencil to paper, calculated the odds in Vietnam, and concluded that they could not prevail at a reasonable cost.
The American phase of the Vietnam War, which lasted for twentyone years—from 1954 to 1975—was a long and bloody one. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives, and another 153,000 were