Peter M. Dunn and Lawrence E. Grinter
Interest in the American war in Vietnam has increased dramatically in recent years. After a decade of a post-war, intellectual dark age, interest in that most difficult of conflicts has spawned considerable new research, writing, and discussion. Nowhere is this more evident than on the college campuses, where classes on the Vietnam War are often standing room only by a post-Vietnam generation of students thirsting for knowledge about the war. It is still difficult to be truly objective about the Vietnam War. On the one hand, we have the “hawks” who thought that an all-out military effort could have decisively defeated the Vietnamese communists in a shorter time. On the other hand, the “doves” saw the war as either too complex, or unwinnable, or not worth the cost.
In retrospect, the war's complexities bar the rendering of simple judgments—but some qualified judgments can be offered. It is clear that the United States misunderstood the character and history of the Vietnamese people, and under-estimated both the political fragmentation in the South and the will and the staying power of the regime in the North. Perhaps Americans were victims of their own capabilities. After all, no less than General of the Army George C. Marshall averred that Americans were not able to fight a long war.
Moreover, nations usually fight when vital interests are involved, but there was no American consensus that vital interests were at stake in Vietnam. Would the war have been fought differently if U.S. vital interests had been at stake? Further, the United States brought high-technology, conventional military forces into a low-technology, heavily political and, at least partly, unconventional environment. Could the elephant ever have cornered the cheetah? Despite near total mechanization of U.S. and allied infantry (to include “air mobile” brigades), the communists were fundamentally the more mobile force, unrestricted by the lack of good roads, or good weather, or thousands of allied fire bases. They held the initiative. They controlled the tempo of the war.