There is a basic concept in psychology that says motivation conditions perception. The Vietnam War proved something of the reverse: Perceptions, whether voluntarily chosen or forced on people, influence behavior. The Vietnam War was many things to many people. It was a war of national liberation, and a war against communist aggression. It was a war to end all guerrilla wars, and a war to save a country. It was alternately seen as a just war, an immoral war, a war against foreign imperialism, a war in defense of a country's freedom. These were the stereotypes, the shortcuts, that in the passion and emotion of the war were substituted for more logical analysis about what was actually happening in Vietnam and what should be done.
In his essay, Professor Nguyen M. Hung surveys the most prominent theories about the nature of the Vietnam War, and he concludes with his own views. Dr. Hung identifies four prominent “theories” about the Vietnam War: the civil war thesis; the anticolonialist theory; the cold war/domino theory; and the view of the war as an extension of the French Indochina War. At its core, however, Dr. Hung believes the Vietnam War was a struggle between Vietnamese patriots to determine the final destiny of the Vietnamese revolution. The theories Dr. Hung analyzes are important; they swept along millions of peoples' emotions and viewpoints, and they influenced their decisions. They also figured in the selection of strategies and how the war was fought by the combatants.
Clearly American confusion about the war's nature added up to a strategic failure in its own right. We violated Karl von Clausewitz's foremost principle. In On War, the early nineteenth-century strategist stated:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, or trying to turn it into, something alien to its nature.