By 1973, after a decade of brutal armed contact and with nearly 60,000 Americans dead, the once proud and mighty USA had been brought to its knees. Feeling isolated the USA decided to abandon its commitment in Vietnam after rising pressure from years of mistakes. America withdrew from Vietnam due to several main reasons; some were long-term e.g. Protests of the American citizens, and others were short-term factors e.g. Morale of American soldiers. In this essay I will discuss the main factors for American withdrawal from Vietnam and try to process the most important ones. I will show how the US media combined with protests in the USA was the most important reason for American withdrawal and ultimately led to the American withdrawal from Vietnam.
America’s first mistake regarding the war was the most fundamental. Their tactics. All of America’s tactics were inappropriate, brutal and they were only looking for fast solutions and never the bigger picture. America did the worst thing possible in a war and based all of their tactics on assumptions, which by matter of coincidence were all wrong.
The first indication of American tactics being reckless and inappropriate was the infamous “Operation Rolling Thunder” ordered by LBJ and subjected the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other suspected communist bases in South Vietnam to bombing for 8 weeks. 3 ½ years later more bombs had been dropped on South Vietnam than all the bombs that were dropped in the Second World War, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was still intact and the most casualties inflicted were those on Vietnamese civilians leading America to lose the “Hearts and Minds” of the Vietnamese. After the very first battle of Vietnam, set in The Ia Drang valley, America set a pattern for their tactics which would remain for the rest of the war; tactics which would question the very competence of the American government. General Westmoreland was convinced that if the communists maintained heavy losses they could not and would not continue the war, and also that the American people would accept the American losses if it meant the communists could be defeated.
This lead to America measuring their success in the war by using kill to death ratios. In other words, if communists were losing more soldiers than America, then America was winning, and vice versa. General Westmoreland continued to believe that a use of superior firepower over the communists would lead to victory in any battle combined with the usage of search and destroy missions (for lack of a better word, wandering aimlessly into communist territory and expecting to surprise them).
In light of the above it’s not surprising that whilst American tactics were failing, the communist’s guerrilla tactics yielded success over the Americans. After the first battle in The Ia Drang Valley the Vietcong knew they could not win large battles with the US as they had backing artillery and air support. They instead opted to do ‘Hit & Run’ guerrilla raids on unsuspecting American troops during search and destroy missions. This would mean much fewer casualties and also having the element of surprise over the Americans. If they were forced into a large battle the Vietcong would try to stay close to the enemy to stop the Americans from calling artillery and air support (they wouldn’t want to hit their own troops of course).
Over 51% of Americans killed in the war were killed by small arms i.e. pistols, machine guns, basic military equipment. The communists never tried to think they could go face to face with the full might of the American army and so devised guerrilla tactics to fight a war the Americans were unfamiliar with and were reluctant to fight. Whilst America was always on the lookout for NVA troops to have a large battle they assumed that the less trained Vietcong guerrilla fighters would be of little threat and left them to the ARVN. Whilst the Americans hopelessly looked for the NVA, the Vietcong would watch on and when they least expected would raid the Americans, and before US troops could call for back-up the Vietcong would be gone with miner losses and the Americans in severe distress.
The Vietcong were not only dependent on ‘Hit & Run’ operations but also used booby traps and mines. Booby traps were simple and easy to make and would mainly consist of a trip wire and some sharpened bamboo sticks. Mines were more sophisticated but had the same idea. ‘Bouncing betty’ mines would be triggered when a soldier stepped on them, fly up a metre in front of the man walking behind and go off (they were designed to reach the height of a man’s genitals). Over 11% of men killed in the war were caused by booby traps and mines and left the survivors frustrated that no enemy was seen, no one to shoot at.
Guerrilla war success was due to Americas stubbornness over its tactics, reluctant to believe that such simple ways of fighting could defeat all the fire power in the US army, and also how the communists always learnt a lesson from their mistakes until they had a strategy for defeating Americans in combat, and seeing as America didn’t want to think it made a mistake in the first place it’s tactics stuck and a pattern was set for the rest of the war. American soldiers were left frustrated that they could never get a good full on fight with the communists like they were trained for, and with no one else to express their anger on they turned on the civilians.
This leads onto my next point that through America’s brutal tactics they inadvertently lost the support of Vietnamese civilians. The Americans knew from an early stage that winning the support of the South Vietnamese peasants was a vital key to the war ( the policy was called winning the “Hearts & Minds” of the people) but unlike the Vietcong the USA didn’t know how to do it and the South Vietnamese government didn’t want to do it. The main issue was land reform and the Vietcong made sure to take land from the rich landowners and give it to the poor peasants, a decision the South Vietnamese government were unwilling to make.
Happy with the communist’s ideas peasants would give food, weapons and intelligence to the Vietcong as well as housing them, making it almost impossible for American soldiers to distinguish between friend and foe. Soldiers were angry they were fighting an enemy that could not be seen and would mercilessly kill them in surprise attacks, and so felt they had no choice but to eliminate all threats from nearby-by villages, always suspecting anyone could be a Vietcong and believing it was better to be safe than sorry. “Zippo raids” were frequently carried out on villages (which mostly weren’t collaborating with the Vietcong) where soldiers would destroy all supplies in the village including animals and then execute suspected communists.
Defoliants would be sprayed on all the food and surrounding forest area so Vietcong wouldn’t be able to find supplies or hide (with the most used defoliant called Agent Orange, which was known to cause cancer, and would be washed into the streams by rain and drunk by soldiers on both sides). Although soldiers were directly told not to harm civilians, most peasants couldn’t be distinguished between innocent and guilty as the Vietcong wore civilian clothes. Soldiers would kill the civilians from anger and mistrust over months of low morale and failure (which would lead onto massacres like My Lai). Innocent civilians would be mutilated, raped or killed without a trial, and when the GI’s would leave only resentment and a lust for revenge would be left behind ironically turning most anti-communist civilians into communists themselves.
An account from one GI after completing a raid was “if they weren’t pro- Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left”. Frustrated with their failure to break the support of the peasants for the Vietcong, America initiated the “Strategic Hamlet” operation in 1962 where peasants were moved away from areas where the NLF was strong and into guarded hamlets, kilometres away from their homes. The operation was a complete failure. In many cases the NLF would already have supporters inside the villages and all that would have been done is moving communist supporters to a new area to spread their ideas. Those villagers who weren’t already in the NLF often would become supporters because of the way they were treated.
GI soldiers were always told to see their enemy as subhuman and before long they would treat civilians as they treated the enemy. In the jungle GI’s couldn’t trust anyone who was not an American, as they had learned from past experiences, and weren’t prepared to spare the life of a peasant who could possibly be conspiring to kill them in a moment without mercy. American soldiers started wondering why they were fighting for a group of civilians that just wanted them dead anyway, and without a just cause many of the soldiers lost belief in the war. The argument that will be put forward here is that combined with the realisation that guerrilla warfare tactics dominated over US tactics and the understanding that they were surrounded by enemies, all alone in a country whose citizens didn’t want their help, US soldiers lost sight of the point of their occupation.
The soldier questioned why he should fight and risk his life for someone who just wanted to kill him. Over time the average US soldier lost faith in his mission and morale dropped to new lows. Without the morale of the soldiers, fighting an already superior enemy was hopeless. At the beginning morale wasn’t an issue at all. All the soldiers in the army were career soldiers who believed in whatever cause the US government believed in, but after time more and more of them died, leaving only drafted soldiers who didn’t want to be there nor fight for a cause. A one year tour of duty was thought to keep morale high, but unfortunately this tactic was also a horrible failure. A constant supply of replacements was needed for men who had either died or finished their tour of duty and those who were close to the end of their tour of duty (being ‘short’) were desperate to avoid combat or risks, making them less effective.
Replacements or ‘cherries’ as they were nicknamed, were inexperienced and would be put into squads with more seasoned veterans of war, whom would not except the cherries until they had proven themselves in combat. Platoons would be divided in two causing a breakdown in communication between the soldiers, making the unit less effective. ‘Fragging’ also became a major problem in platoons. Relationships between conscripted soldiers and officers would usually be strained. Many officers were career soldiers looking for promotion and so needed a high body count of enemy kills, whereas most GI’s who were conscripted just wanted to stay alive until their DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Overseas). Hostility towards the officers sometimes led to their men killing them and 3% of all officers who were killed in Vietnam were killed by their own men.
During 1970-1971 there were over 700 cases of Fragging alone. Another case of low morale among the GI’s was drug-taking, which further diminished the effectiveness of the US forces in Vietnam. Marijuana was the most popular drug among GI’s in ‘R & R’ (rest and recreation), but cocaine, heroin and amphetamines were also used to get ‘High’. In 1971, 5000 men were treated in hospital for combat wounds and 20,000 were treated for drug abuse. The fact that more troops were treated for drug abuse than combat wounds as well as sometimes Fragging their officers is definitive proof of low morale. More important reasons for low morale occurred during the war also. All soldiers need to know that the cause they are fighting for is a good one as well as knowing that the people back home support them and the cause.
If they think that the war isn’t a good one or that the people back home are opposing them then they quickly lose faith in their duty. Between 1966 and 1973 there were 503,000 cases of desertion in the US army in Vietnam (Note – The figures include ‘Draft Dodgers’ and people who deserted multiple times). The truth is drafted soldiers no longer wanted to fight when they were despised by everyone, even their own people at home, and they couldn’t find any good reason left to stay in Vietnam unlike the North Vietnamese who were fighting for their homeland. All the soldiers were broken men and how could the US imagine winning a war if their own troops weren’t willing to fight anymore.
All of this helps to explain that the war was not just lost for military reasons alone, and that politics played a large part too. At the start of the war the media and people believed the war was the right course of action but as time passed people started questioning the purpose of it all. People began to realize that America wasn’t really at threat from communism and the war wasn’t worth the lives of thousands of young soldiers. In 1966 the North Vietnamese finally let a reporter from the New York Times visit north Vietnam. He reported on the destruction of civilian areas and casualties caused by American bombing raids.
The US army always denied bombing civilian areas or if there were civilian casualties, they claimed, there weren’t many of them. The reporters’ views widened still the ‘Credibility Gap’ and US citizens began distrusting what the American military was telling them. After the Tet offensive in 1968 the American people were outraged that the North Vietnamese so easily infiltrated South Vietnam with such numbers. For years they had been told that they were on the verge of winning the war but now they seemed further away than ever. Media coverage also helped to portray horrors committed by the American troops towards civilians such as My Lai. The American people were appalled with what they saw and began wondering who the bad guy really was, asking how they could support their own men when they were killing innocent women and children.
The war was costing US citizens $20 billion dollars a year which meant that taxes would rise dramatically and LBJ would have to cancel his ‘Great Society’ programme of reform. This was obviously not a popular decision with the Public. President Johnson decided not to stand for re-election in 1968 knowing the war would cost him any chance he had of winning. What finally sparked off the entire nation was when the new president, Nixon ordered the initiation of ‘Operation Menu’. The order included the invasion & bombing of communist bases in neutral Cambodia and Laos. This only appeared as another act of war and a chance of another ‘Vietnam’, which greatly angered the American public.
Protests sprang up in universities across the country at the escalation in their country’s role. In one of these protests 4 students were shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent University in Ohio. This Sparked off a further 400 protests in other universities. Other huge protest marches took place in 1969, 1970 and 1971 under the Anti-war movement, and in April 1971 as many as 500,000 people protested in Washington. Two weeks later another demonstration in favour of the war was launched. Only 15,000 took part. It was clear now that the people had spoken and with no other options Nixon began his process of vietnamisation.
So after 10 years of hard gruelling war America finally left Vietnam in 1973, accomplishing nothing and leaving behind a corrupt government which would inevitably fall into communist hands. Because of the media it was the first television war and clearly had an effect on their success, lowering the confidence of GI’s and American people in the war.
With taxes rising from costs of the war and not knowing if they could trust their own government anymore, the anti-war movement raged in America sparking riots and protests all across the country. The Vietnam War was a huge blow for American foreign policies, showing that communism was a force to be reckoned with if it could beat America. The policy of containment had failed and America’s domino theory was a flop, as the world hadn’t succumbed to communism as America had feared (apart from Laos). A complex chain of cause and effect lead to the dramatic events of 1973, events which still cast a shadow over American policy today.