All my life I’ve heard we lost the Vietnam War.
For example, when I was in college, I heard it from a young, sneering professor who had recently got his Ph.D. in history and seemed to delight in our “loss.”
But a fresh look at the Paris Peace Accords, which the North signed, tells a different story.
What went wrong after the signing can be laid at the feet of the American left in Congress.
Thus the word victory in the title may come as a surprise – and a contrast to the spell that the American left has been casting on you for forty to fifty years, in the news media and in pop culture shows and in the very air you breathe.
To explain the jarring word, let’s start with the bigger context and work our way to key articles in the Paris Peace Accords, signed on January 27, 1973.
1. The bigger context
The Soviet Union was on the march. It had gobbled up Eastern and Central Europe after our mutual victory over the Nazis. It was responsible for the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. The Soviet communists embodied the worst levels of oppression.
The Stalin round-ups, the knock on the door in the middle of the night, Siberia, gulags, political prisoners, its expansion around the globe, unstopped…
The Chinese communists killed tens of millions of their own citizens; the numbers range from 50 to 75 million. But as Stalin was alleged to have said: “one death is a tragedy; a millions deaths are a statistic.” Even if he didn’t say it, the quotation reflects the cold callousness of the communist leadership.
America was watching all of this in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.
2. The Korean War (1950-1953)
When I first started teaching, I heard an old, wise history professor, a friend and colleague, now deceased, claim, “A hundred years from now, historians will look back on the twentieth century and see it was one long American struggle against various totalitarianisms.”
I had never heard that before, so my first instinct was skepticism. But as I thought about it, I concluded he was obviously right. I discussed it with colleagues of my generation, and they had never heard it before, either. But they also saw the wisdom in his assessment.
In any case, the political leaders in America in the late 1940s and early 1950s decided to resist the onslaught, and the place they picked was the Korean Peninsula.
The Chinese (and Soviet) overrun of the Peninsula was fierce, but we were able to push them back and establish the Demilitarized Zone above the 38th parallel (MacArthur wanted to go farther north, but Truman stopped him).
Please look at a nighttime satellite photo of Korea. The South, thanks to us, glows with prosperity, while the North sits in darkness. Our troops are still there, holding back the darkness. You can even see a little of Japan, also glowing with prosperity, thanks to us, after WWII and still today.
It was a partial victory in Korea – partial because we were unable to push the communists all the way back into China or off the Peninsula completely.
American dead due directly to China’s and Soviet aggression (and our decision to stop them): 34,000. Korean dead: 2 million (inflicted because the communists ignited the war).
A high price, indeed, but the nighttime photo can help determine if we were morally justified to get involved.
3. The essence of communism
I hear students and others say that socialism / communism on paper is wonderful; it just hasn’t been implemented properly in practice.
However, the essence of socialism is control by the Few (state bureaucrats) over the Many (the rest of us). (It has other inherent problems as the link shows, but there’s no time here to discuss them.)
Two competing ideologies — democratic capitalism and and free markets and liberty v. communism / socialism– would they clash, or would America stand aside and watch China and the Soviet Union gradually take over the entire world? And why wouldn’t they try? And if we stood back, who could stop them?
That’s the so-called domino theory – but how theoretical could it be when it was actually happening? It should be renamed the “domino reality.”
In any case, what would America’s policy be? Isolationism? Containment? A robust defense? Liberation in Europe? And what is containment or defense or liberation without the military?
What would you do, if you were in political leadership in America back then?
4. Would we stop communist aggression in Vietnam?
The struggle in Vietnam is of the same cloth as our struggle in Korea.
Kennedy said in his inaugural address: America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
Apparently, then, we were willing to stop communist aggression in Vietnam (and in Cuba, but that’s another issue).
It would take too long to go into the very first beginnings of the war and our execution of it as the years went on (no long-term war was ever waged with moral perfection, so no need to bring up imperfections here).
Instead, I propose to look at the results.
So we turn now to the Paris Peace Accords. Key articles from it go a long way in showing our victory.
5. The conflict shall cease between the parties
… The regular forces of all services and arms and the irregular forces of the parties in South Viet-Nam [Saigon and Vietcong] shall stop all offensive activities against each other and shall strictly abide by the following stipulations:
– All acts of force on the ground, in the air, and on the sea shall be prohibited;
– All hostile acts, terrorism and reprisals by both sides will be banned. … (Article 3)
6. South Vietnam’s right to free and fair elections
Part of Article 9 reads:
(b) The South Vietnamese people shall decide themselves the political future of South Viet-Nam through genuinely free and democratic general elections under international supervision.
7. Peaceful negotiations
The two South Vietnamese parties [Saigon and the Vietcong] undertake to respect the cease-fire and maintain peace in South Viet-Nam, settle all matters of contention through negotiations, and avoid all armed conflict. (Article 10)
8. Fundamental liberty for the Vietnamese
The second part of Article 11 says that the two parties shall:
… ensure the democratic liberties of the people: personal freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of meeting, freedom of organization, freedom of political activities, freedom of belief, freedom of movement, freedom of residence, freedom of work, right to property ownership, and right to free enterprise.
Freedom is the opposite of socialism. How can this article and the freedom behind it be a victory for the North or Vietcong? It was a victory for us.
9. Peaceful reunification of North and South, but the North must stay above the 17th Parallel during the negotiations.
Part of Article 15 reads, pending reunification:
(a) The military demarcation line between the two zones at the 17th parallel is only provisional and not a political or territorial boundary, as provided for in paragraph 6 of the Final Declaration of the 1954 Geneva Conference.
(b) North and South Viet-Nam shall respect the Demilitarized Zone on either side of the Provisional Military Demarcation Line.
This arrangement looks a lot like the aftermath of the Korean War, when the North had to remain above the 38th parallel and are still there.
10. So what went wrong with our partial victory?
I use the word partial in the same way I use it for the Korean War. We fought to a stalemate. We were not able to stamp out socialism / communism completely in those two regions, so our victory was only incomplete, not total, as contrasted with our complete victory over Nazism and Japanese fascism.
But don’t let the qualifying word deceive you. It was still a positive victory in Vietnam and Korea.
So how did things go bad? Here it is in a nutshell:
- Paris Peace Accord was signed in January 1973
- Nixon resigned in August 1974 (rather, he was forced out by leftists who broke the law while prosecuting him).
- In November 1974, the left swept into Congress and defunded the peace in Vietnam.
- The communists broke the Paris Peace Accords; they swamped the zone in the absence of our military (see Articles 2 and 5 of the Accords).
- In April 1975, Saigon fell.
- Result: Countless people in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia and Laos, were slaughtered.
So it was the American left who caused our withdrawal and the fall of Saigon. And some of them are politicians today (e.g. John Kerry, who’s in charge of the Iran negotiations).
So after that bulleted timeline, it was a defeat.
To wrap up, one may wonder whether America should have gotten involved in Southeast Asia at all. In answering, you must not separate the Vietnam War from the Korean War (and the wise old history professor and I both say WWII). They are of a piece.
No, I’m not saying history is inevitable, but America back then had some tough decisions to take, and the Korean War guided them. One last time, this is a picture of the Korean Peninsula, here, to help you decide.
In my view, the Vietnam War was a good and honorable war, much like WWII and the Korean War were good and honorable. These wars showed America fighting various fascisms that oppressed or slaughtered hundreds of millions of innocent people.
The only political and cultural difference: the two earlier wars were fought before the mid-1960s, the later one during and after that decade.
Vietnam veterans, when you fought what was fascist and therefore evil, you stood on the side of good. Thank you for the victory you achieved over there. I hope you hold your head up high.
I honor you!
This post appeared at American Thinker, on September 27, 2015 and has been updated here.
Please read this offsite post by a Vietnam vet and archivist and historian. Excellent!