Academic journal article Military Review

Lessons Learned from Vietnam

Academic journal article Military Review

Lessons Learned from Vietnam

Article excerpt


OF LATE, there has been a good deal of speculation that in coping with Afghanistan, there are lessons to learn from our Vietnam experience. An interesting example of this evincing considerable research is the article, "Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template" in the 2009 November/ December Military Review, by two scholars, Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason. The authors seem to have derived their views on Vietnam largely from reading material published long after the war. My views are somewhat in variance with theirs and are based on my having been directly involved in the Vietnam War and its aftermath continuously from late 1965 to early 1976, from the rice paddies to the White House, including 20 months "in-country." (Later, while on the faculty of Georgetown University, I also did considerable research on Vietnam.)

Popular Misconceptions about Vietnam

As do most commenting on the Vietnam War, the authors of "Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template" suggest that the war, as we and the South Vietnamese fought it, was, a priori, unwinnable and that numerous parallels

exist between it and the current war in Afghanistan. However, Johnson and Mason do note important structural differences. Where I think they soon go astray is in their assessment of the enemy in Vietnam. For example, they describe the Viet Cong as "poorly equipped guerrillas," but this was true only in their early operations. Before long, the Viet Cong were in some ways much better equipped than the South Vietnamese they were fighting. For example, for far too long, slightly built South Vietnamese troops had to carry heavy U.S. semi-automatic M-1 Garand rifles left over from World War II and Korea while Viet Cong forces soon armed themselves with reliable, highly effective, fully automatic Soviet AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifles. In this regard, the Viet Cong were even better armed for a while than U.S. troops were.

More dubious is the authors' assertion that "the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) were not fighting for communism. They were fighting for Vietnam," a sense we simply did not get at the time. This assertion is no doubt related to the widespread and persistent myth that Ho Chi Minh was really more of a "nationalist" than a Communist. In 1930, the Soviet-controlled Communist International (Comintern) sent trusted agent Ho Chi Minh to Hong Kong to found the Vietnamese Communist Party. In mid-1946, Ho's Communist forces joined the French in crushing genuine nationalist groups that were both anti-French and anti-Communist; hundreds of their leaders were executed at Ho's behest. Ho abhorred nationalism and always considered himself an internationalist Communist. In 1951, Ho declared in Selected Works that "Genuine patriotism is ... part and parcel of internationalism." Through large-scale executions, proscriptions, and brutal control, Ho established in North Vietnam a tightly controlled Communist entity devoted to extending Communism throughout Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. As did the Viet Cong, all units of Ho's "Vietnamese People's Army" had political officers to ensure the ideological purity of troops already indoctrinated in Communism throughout their school years. You may be sure that the soldiers in this North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were well aware that they were fighting to extend Communism to South Vietnam. Of course this was also coupled with the patriotic appeal to unify all Vietnam. But as North Vietnam leader Pham Van Dong declared in 1960, "The Communist is the most genuine patriot." We were absolutely justified in regarding the war as one against Communism. This was most certainly proven when Hanoi's victory in 1975 resulted in the imposition of Communism on what had been a remarkably free South Vietnam.

This Military Review article is also off the mark in comparing external assistance to our foes in Vietnam and Afghanistan. There is a vast difference between the very limited (if any) support the Taliban allegedly has been receiving from Pakistan and from "wealthy Saudis" and the massive amount of military supplies North Vietnam received from the Soviet Union and China, including, tanks, long range artillery, rockets, and sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. …

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