Small Wars Journal

How Did We Really Lose the Vietnam War?

Thu, 02/07/2019 - 12:54am

How Did We Really Lose the Vietnam War?


Stephen B. Young


The substance of this comment is taken from a draft manuscript written with Ellsworth Bunker, former American Ambassador in Saigon, 1967 – 1973.


In his State of the Union Address, President Trump sought to legitimate his negotiations with the Taliban over the future of Afghanistan with the argument that the Taliban were happy to negotiate with him.  Of course, they are happy to do so. Through negotiations they will finally be in a position to take over Afghanistan - just as the North Vietnamese finally won the Vietnam War thanks to their private negotiations with Henry Kissinger – when there were no South Vietnamese present to prevent him from selling them out.


North Vietnamese Army Colonel Bui Tin, whom I befriended in the 1990s after he went into exile in Paris, told me that the Communist Party Politburo was very happy to negotiate with Kissinger alone without any Vietnamese nationalists next to him at the table.


Bui Tin added that, after American forces entered combat in South Vietnam in 1965, Le Duan and his colleagues realized they could never win a battlefield victory as long as those forces opposed them. They put all their hopes on the US anti-war movement successfully sapping our will to stand by the South Vietnamese.  When the Americans finally would need to give up and get out, Hanoi would let them do so on terms most detrimental to the Vietnamese nationalists.  Negotiations would be necessary to finalize that American abandonment of their allies on terms giving Hanoi victory in the end so such negotiations were most welcome from Hanoi’s standpoint.


The American abandonment of Saigon in the secret Paris negotiations came on May 31, 1971, sooner than Hanoi expected.


There is a precedent here for the Afghans to heed as the United States negotiates with their enemies without them and with the American negotiators under political pressure from President Trump to get out of a failed war effort.


The concession by Henry Kissinger which gave the ultimate victory to Hanoi was to let the Communists keep their divisions inside Laos and South Vietnam after the Americans withdrew their ground troops and airpower.


So, let’s take a fresh look at why the Vietnam War was lost?

  • Because the Viet Cong captured Saigon?
  • Because the South Vietnamese people refused to fight and took to the streets to demand a Communist government be installed to rule over them?
  • Because South Vietnam had no army worth its salt?

No to all of these possibilities. When Hanoi agreed in the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement to respect the independence of South Vietnam and not reinforce its troops in the South, the Viet Cong had only 25,000 soldiers under their flag while the South Vietnamese had 700,000 under arms with an additional 150,000 in the police and some 1 million armed citizens in local self-defense units.


As Hanoi General Van Tien Dung wrote in his book, Hanoi won the Vietnam War because the correlation of forces on the front line in 1975 was lopsided in favor of the Communist regular units supported by tanks and artillery.  The South Vietnamese could not defend in depth everywhere, allowing Hanoi to choose the optimal locations for massive conventional offensives against thin lines of Nationalist soldiers.


Right after signing the Paris Peace Agreement, Hanoi stepped up planning and preparation for a new offensive holding the high cards of massive raw military power in its hands.


General Dung wrote: “The war has moved into its final stage. The balance of forces had changed. We had grown stronger, while the enemy had weakened.”  He continued: “Massive amounts of tanks, armored cars, rockets, long-range artillery and antiaircraft guns were now sent to the front one after another.”  The South Vietnamese, on the other hand, had to “fight a poor man’s war.”


When Hanoi’s divisions attacked and captured the isolated province town of Phuoc Long in early 1975, the United States did nothing. The time for victory had arrived. Le Duan gave the order for the general offensive to begin.


The United States Congress had cut aid to South Vietnam by $300 million dollars in 1974 responding to demands from the Anti-war Movement and, when the illegal attacks came in March of 1975, President Ford ordered no air strikes to support South Vietnamese combat units.


Back in April 1971, Kissinger sent a cable to the American Ambassador in Saigon, Ellsworth Bunker, saying: “We plan to approach other side soon to reopen special Paris forum. … If they agree to resume talks our thinking is to table a concrete package, say that we want to know promptly if genuine negotiations are possible, and indicate that time for negotiated settlement is in fact running out.”[i]


Kissinger asked for Bunker’s “personal views” on what should be “in the package” including “possible new elements” and on “how do we handle Thieu, including his likely reaction to the proposals”.


Bunker thought the complicated matter over for three days and then on April 17 sent back to Kissinger a strategy for negotiations with Hanoi.[ii]  This was the first American plan for ending the Vietnam War. It would form the principal architecture of the final peace agreement reached in January 1973.


Bunker wrote: “It seems to me that the aim of this first meeting should be exclusively to establish whether Hanoi is interested in negotiations or not. Depending on the outcome we can then determine whether to table a package at the next meeting.”


In the first meeting with Hanoi, for the first phase of discussions over general principles, Bunker advised Kissinger to make an argument as to why Hanoi should negotiate terms of peace. Bunker’s proposed argument was little more than a description of situational realities where facts would carry persuasive weight with Communist leaders. Bunker noted American forces were on their way home. All American forces would be out of ground combat by the end of 1971. South Vietnam has 1.1 million men in its regular military forces and another 1.5 million in the People’s Self-Defense Forces. This force could not be defeated in the field even after American troops left. The United States would supply those South Vietnamese forces will all essential military equipment indefinitely. Furthermore, South Vietnam’s economy was solidly based and its growth would continue. With continued American financial support, there will be no economic collapse of South Vietnam.


If Hanoi wants to negotiate, the United States will agree to withdraw all its forces but, if not, the United States will maintain a minimum force in South Vietnam indefinitely. If there is no negotiated settlement, the people of South Vietnam will continue to fight and a war that neither side will win will go on and on. The longer such a war continues, the more difficult it will become to arrange any peace settlement. It is in everyone’s interest to open negotiations now. South Vietnam will not give up its constitution or its elections in favor of Hanoi’s proposals for a provisional government. That is a reality that Hanoi must face. For its part, South Vietnam must face the reality that Hanoi will not accept its constitution and elected government. But, after a cease fire is in place, a serious attempt to find a middle way in which the interests of all sides are protected could produce a negotiated settlement.


If the North Vietnamese accepted negotiations within the framework of this understanding, Bunker wrote, then the United States could move to phase two – presentation of terms for ending the fighting. But if Hanoi stuck to its old positions, then Bunker saw no point to continued meetings and discussions with its senior representatives. Faced with North Vietnamese intransigence, the negotiations should be closed as a waste of time. The United States would exit the Vietnam War under the terms of Vietnamization leaving the burden of future fighting to the South Vietnamese.


Bunker then proposed for Kissinger a “package” of proposals for phase two of negotiations, assuming that Hanoi had agreed in phase one to move forward towards substantive discussions of peace. His recommended “package” had the following components.

  • A date for the withdrawal of all US forces
  • US forces would not leave entirely until US prisoners of war were released
  • A cease fire in all of Southeast Asia effective September 1, 1971
  • Infiltration limited to amount needed to provide for rotation and supply of troops and to make up losses.
  • International supervision of the cease fire
  • On completion of withdrawal of US forces and exchange of prisoners all foreign troops would begin withdrawal from countries of Indo-China – (NVA from Laos, Cambodia, SVN; Thais from Laos), such withdrawal to be completed within six months, i.e., by March 1, 1973.

With Bunker’s proposal in hand, Kissinger approached Hanoi on April 24 to set up a secret meeting. After three weeks, the Communists agreed.


On May 25, Kissinger wrote Bunker that at his next meeting with Hanoi, which would occur in six days on May 31, the Americans would omit any discussion of Bunker’s suggested phase one and immediately put Bunker’s substantive proposals for a peace settlement on the table with the Communists.


Kissinger made three changes to Bunker’s proposal. Two were inconsequential. One was betrayal.


President Nixon’s National Security Advisor deleted mention of any specific dates in connection with the complete withdrawal of US forces and the coming into force of a cease-fire. These dates were dependent on the completion of negotiations and thus had no importance in and of themselves.


Then Kissinger rejected Bunker’s requirement that North Vietnamese forces leave Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam.  He told Bunker that the United States position on that point would only be that the peoples of Indochina should discuss this question among themselves.


Bunker was unaware of Kissinger’s fundamental change of heart in asking concessions from Hanoi and of his new thinking on how best to end the war consistent with his understanding of American objectives. He responded to Kissinger’s notice of the three changes made to his recommended negotiating “package” with the comment that the changes seemed “advisable”.


But when informing Thieu of the new American initiative in the secret negotiations, Bunker told the South Vietnamese President that all foreign troops would still be required to leave South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia only that no date had been set for such withdrawal.[iii] South Vietnam’s leader did not know that suddenly Kissinger was no longer honoring Thieu’s position that all Communist forces sent into South Vietnam from the North would have to return home when the war was over.  Ignorant of Kissinger’s intentions, Thieu did not object to the proposed terms.


On May 28, 1971 Kissinger sent to President Nixon a memorandum outlining the elements in the new proposal he would present to Hanoi in Paris. He did not disclose to his President 1) that Ambassador Bunker had proposed that Hanoi withdraw all its forces from South Vietnam as a condition for ending the war; 2) that Kissinger himself had overruled Bunker and would tell Hanoi that it could keep its army in South Vietnam after the withdrawal of American combat forces; and 3) President Thieu was ignorant of this proposed abandonment of South Vietnam’s long-term prospects for freedom and independence.  President Nixon was not told that, if Hanoi would use its forces in the future to conquer South Vietnam, the sacrifice of so many Americans in the war would have been in vain.


Kissinger’s May 28, 1971 memo to his President said, in relevant part:

“As you know, I am scheduled to meet with Xuan Thuy again Monday morning, May 31, in Paris.

Second, I will lay out our package proposal which includes our readiness to set a terminal date for the withdrawal of all our forces from South Vietnam as part of an overall settlement; an Indochina ceasefire-in-place; no infiltration of outside forces into the countries of Indochina; international supervision of the ceasefire and its provisions; respect for the 1954 and 1962 Geneva Accords; and the release of all prisoners of war.

If we could negotiate something along these lines I think we and the South Vietnamese would be in a good position.”

When he met with the North Vietnamese on May 31, 1971, Kissinger’s proposal read in relevant part as follows: “Second, the Vietnamese and the other peoples of Indochina should discuss among themselves the manner in which all other outside forces would withdraw from the countries of Indochina.”[iv]


With this reference to the “Vietnamese” as a single people, Kissinger conceptually abandoned South Vietnam. His new negotiating proposal made no reference to South and North Vietnam as two, independent, equal nation-states owing each other respect and mutual tolerance under international law. Kissinger put no American demand for North Vietnamese withdrawal on the table in the secret negotiations. South Vietnam had been abandoned by its ally.


End Notes

[i] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume VII, Vietnam, July 1970-January 1972, Document 180

[ii] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume VII, Vietnam, July 1970-January 1972, Document 184, April 17, 1971

[iii] Bunker’s correspondence with Kissinger as recorded in Author’s notes.

[iv] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume VII, Vietnam, July 1970-January 1972, Document 206


About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.