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The Vietnam War from All Sides: Americans and Vietnamese Reflect on Their Mistakes and on Each Other

Posted by Daniel Sauerwein on August 12, 2007

This paper was originally written for one of my history classes and I hope you enjoy it.
Author’s update: After consideration, I have chosen to remove the citations from this paper for this post to prevent the misuse of the paper. I am more than happy to provide interested scholars with a copy.

The war in Vietnam fosters much debate in the United States. One of the debates is on how the belligerents prosecuted the war. Participants on all sides of the conflict present conflicting views on the waging of the Vietnam War, with some arguing that the war was altogether handled correctly, some arguing that parts of the conflict were handled well, while other parts were mismanaged, and others who argue that the war was completely mishandled. When sources from American and Vietnamese (including VC, NVA, and ARVN soldiers*) participants, as well as non-combatants are examined, the prosecution of the war is seen as possessing both mistakes as well as portions that were prosecuted well on all sides. In order to understand how this “middle-ground” prosecution of the war occurred, a brief examination of the war is necessary. This brief look at the history of the war will lead to examining the Vietnamese participants first with the Americans to follow. The result will illustrate both how the war was uniquely prosecuted, as well as how the United States, especially politicians, broke the rule of avoiding a land war in Asia for the sake of not allowing a country to become communist on its watch.

The origins of the Vietnam War trace back to many years before the first U.S. military advisors set foot in country. However, the war itself began with the end of World War II in the Pacific. With the defeat of the Japanese, the United States, through treaty, allowed France to return to control its colonial possessions in Indochina, which included Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Starting in 1946, the government of France (headed by Charles de Gaulle), which also included support from the French Communist Party, attempted to take control of Vietnam. The French believed that their troops, who possessed superior training and equipment, could recapture Vietnam within a few weeks. Unfortunately, for the United States, Harry Truman supported the French in this effort. This American support for France was due to the efforts of the American government to contain the spread of communism. This is in contrary to Franklin Roosevelt, whom Ho Chi Minh hoped would support Vietnamese independence, as Roosevelt believed in decolonization, since the Vietnamese had aided in the fight against the Japanese. Ho envisioned an independent Vietnam within a French Union, where France controlled national defense, diplomacy, and finances were and Vietnam administered all other governmental functions. The Indochina War lasted from 1946 to 1954, with American aid to France comprising seventy percent of the French defense budget by 1954. President Eisenhower sympathized little with France, but feared Vietnam falling to communism and felt it better to send money and supplies rather than sending in troops or air strikes.

That same year, the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu by Ho’s forces. After the defeat of the French, the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, which did not satisfy Ho Chi Minh, who wanted the partition line further south at the thirteenth parallel. Another event that occurred at this time was the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1955. The charter nations of SEATO included Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. SEATO was a “collective defense arrangement calling for mutual help and consultation to resist overt Communist aggression or other acts threatening international security.” SEATO would later include South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia among its members. SEATO created problems, especially when South Vietnam was included, as the Geneva Conference stipulated that neither North nor South Vietnam could join into alliances with foreign powers.

Between the end of French occupation and the introduction of American combat forces in 1965, Vietnam experienced many turbulent events in its history. The promised elections stipulated in the Geneva Conference for 1956 that would bring reunification never occurred and many Vietnamese knew they would not occur. This is due to the Eisenhower’s realization that if Vietnam held elections, Ho would receive almost eighty percent of the vote. Thus, Vietnam remained partitioned, with the North becoming communist under Ho Chi Minh, and the South becoming a dictatorship under Ngo Dinh Diem, who the United States placed in power in the South due to his anticommunist views. It is interesting to note that the United States never signed the Geneva accords, which banned the introduction of new military forces to the area. This may be due to Eisenhower fearing charges of appeasement by more conservative members of his party. The result of the American support of Diem’s violation of the Geneva accords as well as America giving the South military and technological aid led to the creation of the Viet Cong. As Diem became more unpopular, the VC were able to increase in strength. Ultimately, the brutality of the Diem regime, which forced one Buddhist monk to set himself on fire in protest, led to its overthrow by the military and the assassination of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in late 1963. The fall of the Diem regime in the South paved the way for the eventual introduction of ground combat troops to Vietnam in 1965.

I. The North Vietnamese/Viet Cong view on the prosecution of the war by all sides.

The overall North Vietnamese perspective, which includes the Viet Cong, presents a view of the war that critically examines the prosecution of it, both on the American and South Vietnamese side as well as their own. Bui Tin, a former colonel in the NVA examines the war in his two works: From Enemy to Friend and Following Ho Chi Minh. Tin and others who fought on the same side not only criticize the American and South Vietnamese prosecution of the war, but their own as well.

In examining their own side, NVA and VC veterans note a few mistakes made in their prosecution of the war. For example, Tin notes that the North miscalculated the role of China in the war. Tin notes how the North had entered into secret agreements with the Chinese and Soviets for increased support. The Chinese even promised to intervene, much like in Korea if America invaded the North by air, land, or sea. However, no such aid came as China had learned harsh lessons from Korea and stayed out of the war, while North Vietnam insisted to the world that it had their aid. While the Vietnamese miscalculated in this area by underestimating Chinese assistance, Tin notes that the U.S., remembering its experience in Korea, overestimated the involvement of the Chinese in the war. In addition, Tin notes how during the Tet Offensive, the communist forces did not complete their objectives in Saigon, which included seizing the U.S. embassy, presidential palace, and Saigon. In addition, they also suffered heavy losses in fighting in Hue. Unfortunately, Tin states that his comrades did not learn from these mistakes and launched additional operations later in 1968 that led to more losses. The willingness for one side to admit their own mistakes is truly humbling, especially when that side is ultimately victorious.

The view of the American prosecution of the war put forth by their former enemies is quite valuable when examining the war. Bui Tin notes that the arrival of Americans in the early 1960s created worry amongst the Vietnamese, both North and South. Former Viet Cong Truong Nhu Tang notes that the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) viewed the prospect of American forces as a nightmare that would lead to a more brutal war. Prior to actually engaging the Americans in combat, the North Vietnamese were fearful of the Americans as propaganda presented Americans to be large and muscular, especially African Americans, who possessed such strength and technology that they would overwhelm the Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese military command viewed the arrival of Americans as a shift in the nature of the war, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Once the NVA and VC engaged the Americans, their view of them changed. Tin notes that while the Americans had strong points, they also possessed significant weaknesses. One of the weaknesses he notes is that many of the Americans were poorly motivated draftees instead of a professional army. In addition, the Americans also lacked the experience of the terrain and culture of Vietnam. One counter to this was present among officers, especially pilots. Tin interviewed many captured pilots and found them to possess a great quantity of technical education, including college degrees, and overall highly trained. However, the knowledge of the country by these pilots was lacking. Overall, while the military possessed great training and firepower, they lacked in the arena of the human element.

The overall prosecution of the war by the Americans, when observed by the North Vietnamese, is full of mistakes. In addition to those mentioned above, the American military was hampered in other ways. For instance, Bui Tin notes that the generals did not possess full power; instead, the power for waging the war was managed by the political forces in America. The generals seemed to be controlled and held on a tight leash by the president, Congress, and other political entities. According to Tin, this prevented the American military commanders from adhering to Sun-Tzu’s advice of bold, decisive campaigns, as politicians forced the military to escalate instead of bringing all their power to bear on the North Vietnamese. In addition, the North Vietnamese forces observed that the Americans underestimated the resolve of their opponents, especially the willingness of the NVA forces to fight to the end.

Near the height of American commitment to the war in Vietnam, the prosecution of the war by the Americans as observed by the NVA and VC continues to possess the same mistakes as well as others that would further affect the American war effort in a negative fashion. One area that the Vietnamese noticed was the Tet Offensive in 1968. Bui Tin notes that from 1965 to 1967, the ARVN and U.S. military were on the offensive and had forced the Vietnamese into remote areas. He further notes how the North planned to use the offensive to influence politics not only in the South, but also in the U.S., with the hope of bolstering anti-war forces in American and bring them to power as it was an election year. An attack on the American base at Khe Sanh, which occurred a few weeks before Tet, was used as a diversionary to lull the cities into a false sense of security. The result of the Tet Offensive was a reevaluation of the situation in Vietnam by the world, especially American political circles. The mistake of Tet for the American prosecution of the war was in the claims that high-ranking officials in the American military made about the situation of the war, which claimed having the enemy on the run and that victory was around the corner. Tet shattered these claims and led to the development of a lack of confidence in America. Overall, the American prosecution of the war as viewed by their North Vietnamese counterparts was fraught with mistakes. Their overconfidence and lack of knowledge about both their enemy and Vietnam would lead them to political defeat in Vietnam.

The view of the ARVN by the NVA and VC and their prosecution of the war was one of both respect and slight contempt. Tin notes how the ARVN suffered from a “birth defect” resulting from its formation under the French colonial system. He also notes how the colonial upbringing of the ARVN caused it to have difficulty claiming patriotism and righteousness in the eyes of the Vietnamese and the rest of the world. Furthermore, while the ARVN produced some talented generals, Tin notes that many of their high-ranking officers engaged in business dealings on a greater level in contrast to NVA or VC officers. In terms of ability, the ARVN is viewed as having better training in most cases and matching their counterparts in the NVA and VC in terms of fighting ability. Tin adds that like his fellow NVA soldiers, many ARVN troops were from the peasant class, middle-class, and were products of a draft as part of a general mobilization. Tin does note some issues that hindered the ARVN in their prosecution of the war. He describes how both ARVN and U.S. forces each possessed their own command and that while these commands worked together closely, having one overall command would have allowed the ARVN and American forces to react quickly and effectively. Overall, the view of the ARVN by their opponents is fair, reflecting the brotherhood of war. Tin expresses his desire for veterans from all sides of the conflict to come together, reconcile their differences, and build friendships. He adds that this is necessary between ARVN and American veterans of the war, as he mentions some American veterans who spoke about the ARVN negatively. He feels that this is unfair as the ARVN fought bravely alongside Americans and lost more than the Americans in the war. Likewise, Tin states how some ARVN veterans describe the American forces as selfish and that they (Americans) used Vietnam as a testing ground for technology with no desire to win. Ultimately, Tin hopes that both groups can see the good in one another and put aside old differences. The overall assessment of the American and ARVN forces by their Vietnamese opponents is accurate and offers much information into what went wrong in Vietnam.

II. The South Vietnamese view of the prosecution of the war by all sides.

The ARVN’s prosecution of the war as well as their view of their American allies and NVA/VC enemies adds to the knowledge of the war, as the view of the defeated side becomes known in a unique way. While the Americans lost the war politically as noted above when discussing the NVA view of the ARVN, the ARVN lost much more, their country. With regard to their view of themselves, ARVN veterans tie some of their problems that they note to the involvement of America in the war. For instance, Nguyen Cao Ky, former South Vietnamese Air Force general and Prime Minister of South Vietnam notes how morale among the ARVN was low because of the American involvement, with one person observing, “Why should we fight? The Americans are doing the fighting for us. Let’s relax.” Ky also notes how the Vietnamese were resistant to change and clung to their old ways of life, which hindered the ability of American aid to help the people. ARVN veteran Luyen Nguyen, who led a group of select “commandos” who were South Vietnamese selected to participate in an American program that failed miserably involving placing the commandos behind enemy lines, noted that good benefits attracted many who were dissatisfied with their lives. He also notes that many deserted before a mission after they had received a few months of benefits. In addition to these issues, the ARVN faced a problem with corruption. For instance, Ky notes one division commander that used his troops to harvest cinnamon instead of for combat operations.

Their veterans note the positive portions of the war undertaken by the ARVN as well. Ky notes that as the Americans pulled out their troops in the early 1970s, the ARVN fought bravely in a few places like the heroic stand recalled by Ky during the Easter offensive in 1972. Furthermore, Ky recalls Ngo Quang Truong, supreme commander of ARVN forces, who author Robert Thompson described as, “one of the finest generals in the world.” In addition, Ky notes how Truong brought new life into the ARVN and held bravely on the DMZ until overwhelmed, refusing to retreat. The view of the prosecution of the war by the ARVN by its own veterans not only notes its own shortcomings as well as its successes, but also casts a unique look on the prosecution of the war by the NVA/VC and the United States.

The ARVN view of their former enemy’s prosecution of the war notes the brutality in how they waged the war. The ARVN notes the brutality of the VC during the Tet Offensive, who killed many innocent people, especially those who they viewed as enemies. One example, which Ky compares to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, occurred in Hue, where the VC killed many merchants and schoolteachers as well as those affiliated with the government or military. Outside of this, the ARVN veterans mainly examine their own prosecution of the war and that of the Americans, which may be due to attempting to understand how they lost the war.

The view of the American prosecution of the war by the ARVN is both respectful, but also highly critical. The ARVN viewed the Americans as generous, but also with an air of annoyance. They note that the biggest issue hindering the U.S. and their handling of the war was a lack of cultural awareness as well as arrogance. The South Vietnamese see this as a product of American ethnocentrism. One general notes how incidents relating to this cultural misunderstanding caused frustration and played into Communist hands. In addition to this arrogance, the South Vietnamese noted how many Americans lacked motivation. In addition to arrogance and lack of motivation, the South was uncomfortable with the level of waste exhibited by the Americans as they viewed the materials given by the Americans, particularly mechanical materials as very precious, as such waste was only possible with continued American presence. Another area of concern that the South Vietnamese had with the Americans was their perceived dependence on the U.S. For example, American forces often adopted a “take charge” attitude, doing all the work in a province themselves and often not informing ARVN commanders about operations, with the result being most ARVN generals being unaware of what the Americans were doing.

The South Vietnamese do mention some good things that the Americans did in their prosecution of the war. For instance, Lam Quang Thi credits the American officers serving as advisors with attempting to bridge the cultural gap and credits the American advisors with helping the ARVN to achieve many early victories. In addition, Ky notes that unlike in the cities, the Americans did not attempt to impose their ways on the villages and countryside. Overall, the ARVN assessment of the American role in the Vietnam War is fair, especially given the loss of their country after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

III. The American view of the prosecution of the war by all sides.

The American view of the war is critical as well as respectful of all sides, including their own. With regard to their own waging of the war, Americans discuss their mistakes quite well. For instance, one area that hampered the Americans was the political control of the military. The late Col. David Hackworth notes how many high-ranking generals and politicians did not understand the war, which needlessly cost lives. This political running of the war is evident even very early in the war. One general noted after the Ia Drang battle that he wanted to chase the enemy into Cambodia and destroy them, and that he was encouraged in this by Saigon, but that Washington did not allow it. This reluctance on the part of the politicians to allow the soldiers to run the war prevented the Americans from waging the war more effectively, which Tin notes above when he described the inability for the U.S. to follow Sun-Tzu’s rule.

Another area that hurt the Americans in their waging of the war was in incompetent leadership from young officers. This led to an increase in the number of “fraggings” of officers by enlistees. Hackworth notes how many inexperienced lieutenants who were not properly equipped to lead a rifle platoon commanded. Lack of experience was also enhanced by the rotation system and draft. President Johnson refused to call up the Reserves for Vietnam, choosing instead to use the draft to create the manpower needed for Vietnam. The problem arose as competition between the combat theater and training facilities back home drew experienced leaders away from South Vietnam, replacing them with inexperienced persons. The result was a decrease in morale as well as an impression sent to the enemy that America lacked the resolve to fight the war.

Some American units were able to do well in Vietnam despite the issues listed above. The Special Forces, in some cases, felt at home in Vietnam and some personnel even had Vietnamese girlfriends. Other units, like Hackworth’s were able to develop tactics that worked against the enemy. Hackworth argued that had more units adopted such tactics, the U.S. would have inflicted great pain on the enemy.

As for the ARVN, Americans did not regard it well. Hackworth noted how his unit hated them, as they often avoided enemy contact. This may be in part due to the ARVN feuding with other South Vietnamese units, which Hackworth describes one that he witnessed in which an ARVN machine-gunner was shooting at Vietnamese mercenaries near the American base. Another reason for the disrespect may lie in racism as America had fought three wars in Asia and soldiers found it hard to distinguish between friendly population and the enemy, whom they derogatorily referred to as “gooks.”

In contrast, while the NVA and VC were demonized as stated above, the Americans also viewed them with more respect than their ARVN allies. This is mainly due to the skill and commitment of the enemy observed by the Americans. Hackworth describes the VC as “one of the most formidable the U.S. Army ever encountered” and compared them to Spartan warriors. In the book, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, the story is described as not only a tribute to the Americans who died, but also to the NVA soldiers who died there, who are considered as having fought and died bravely and as being a “worthy enemy.” Clearly, the U.S. forces deep down respected their adversary.

The war in Vietnam and its prosecution on all sides is a worthwhile historical study. Not only are mistakes visible on all sides, but a respect for all sides is also seen. Participants on each side add their own unique experiences to the understanding of the war. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong accounts offer a glimpse into what our former enemy thought of the war and of the United States. South Vietnamese accounts illustrate not only American mistakes, but also their own as well in an effort to explain why they lost the war and their country. Finally, American accounts reflect on the war and attempt to reconcile with their old enemies as well as their old friends to bring closure to a troubled time in America’s past. For a fuller understanding of the war, one must examine accounts from all sides to know what your old enemy is thinking, as well as to correct mistakes made in the past.


* In order to prevent wordiness, the following abbreviations will be used for the Vietnamese forces on both sides: VC (Viet Cong), NVA (North Vietnamese Army, sometimes referred to as either the Vietnamese People’s Army [VPA] or the People’s Army of Vietnam [PAVN]), and ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam [former South Vietnam]). Most other organizations that have abbreviations will be listed with full name and abbreviation in parenthesis after, with the abbreviation to be used every time after.

Works Cited

Appy, Christian G. Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Demma, Vincent H. American Military History. Volume 2: 1902-1996. Ed. Maurice Matlofff. Da Capo Press, 1996.

Diem, Bui. In the Jaws of History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Diggins, John Patrick. The Proud Decades: America in War and Peace, 1941-1960. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.

Hackworth, David H. Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam. New York: Touchstone, 2002.

Hermies, Walter G. American Military History. Volume 2: 1902-1996. Ed. Maurice Matloff. Da Capo Press, 1996.

Isserman, Maurice and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ky, Nguyen Cao. Buddha’s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Ky, Nguyen Cao. How We Lost the Vietnam War. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002.

Moore, Harold G. and Joseph L. Galloway. We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang-the Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Tang, Truong Nhu. A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Thi, Lam Quang. The Twenty-five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2001.

Tin, Bui. Following Ho Chi Minh: Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Tin, Bui. From Enemy to Friend: A North Vietnamese Perspective on the War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.

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6 Responses to “The Vietnam War from All Sides: Americans and Vietnamese Reflect on Their Mistakes and on Each Other”

  1. [...] The Vietnam War from All Sides: Americans and Vietnamese Reflect … Tin notes how the ARVN suffered from a ?birth defect? resulting from its formation under the French colonial system.29 He also notes how the colonial upbringing of the ARVN caused it to have difficulty claiming patriotism and … [...]

  2. Irv said

    At a news conference in 1964 Secretary of
    Defense Robert McNamara said that
    the United States had no plans to send
    combat troops into Vietnam. When
    asked whether the United States
    intended to increase its activities in
    Vietnam, he replied, “Wait and see.”
    By 1969, more than 500,000 American
    troops were in South Vietnam.
    It was a good thing that the U.S. did
    not plan to send these troops, just
    think of how many millions of troops
    would have been there if it was
    planned.

  3. Ganesh said

    I saw your article “The Vietnam War from All Sides: Americans and Vietnamese Reflect on Their Mistakes and on Each Other”,and am doing a historical investigation on examining the causes of the Vietnam War through the United States, North and South Vietnamese perspectives. Could you please recommend some primary sources for this topic. Also are you scholar? And is it okay if I analyze your work and quote your ideas with citations. I am a student and not a scholar. Thank you

  4. My group members and I are doing a highschool project in our vietnam class. The question that we are trying to answer in our project is ” Why was there a war in vietnam?”. We are taking the vietnamese perspective on the war and it seems as if you have a wide range of knowledge on the subject. One of the parts of the projects includes a global perspective. Do you have any ideas on how we can contact a vietnamese war veteran and how did you gather your information?
    Thank your for your time and please let us know,
    students from seaholm high school

  5. Soldier Student said

    Very good article totally unbiased and fact based

  6. until that time, conventional war as they knew it was limited to their understanding of ww2 and Korea, which had radically differed from the great war, there were no longer any defined “lines”, their concept of air-mobility using choppers, particularly by inserting small squads in a conga-line on cleared zones at the feet of enemy occupied hills, in groups of 6 to 8 huey’s left their first soldiers vulnerable to enemy fire, it did not help that they would bomb the landing zones with heavy artillery, stopping just minutes before touching down, announcing their arrival, instead of using a quick airborne landing five hundred yards away, which they already knew had bloodied the noses of the French at Dien Bien Phu some ten years prior, the brass chose this new approach of helicopter delivery, that war was not a complete “loss”, as the modern army has learned many things since then, unfortunately, they used this same tactic of landing air-mobility choppers during the “black hawk down” incident, and it has become a futile notion ever since. their vulnerability lies in the hands of the marginally skilled operator of a rocket propelled grenade.

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