Commentary: What if we had won in Vietnam?

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMay 4, 2010 

April 30, 2010

Thirty-five years ago today, North Vietnamese soldiers riding atop Russian-made tanks clanked through the streets of Saigon unopposed and brought an end to a long and bitter war. A week before, my mother, my three sisters, and I fled Vietnam. Our country was falling apart; our hopes for freedom in our own nation were dashed.

Long-ingrained images of barefoot rice farmers toting AK-47s had morphed into professional soldiers in green pith helmets and armed to the teeth. Pictures of desperate refugees scaling the U.S. Embassy fence and jamming leaky fishing boats have been seared into our consciousness. Some Americans celebrated our loss, while a handful gave their all to evacuate as many South Vietnamese as they could.

For many years afterward, as an American military officer, I wondered how the final outcome could have been prevented. If Congress hadn't cut off aid to South Vietnam, would the final battle be bloodier and more lives wasted? The Americans had amassed a naval armada in the South China Sea for the evacuation but B-52s were readily available to blunt North Vietnam's invasion. Re-entering the war during the post Watergate years would have triggered unprecedented anti-war protests and civil unrest. Plus it would have been unlikely since American lives were no longer at stake because prisoners of war like John McCain had been released as part of the ceasefire agreement.

If a victory was ever possible, then cooperation between Washington and Saigon would have had to be perfect from the very beginning. That trust quickly ended with the 1963 coup backed by President John F. Kennedy that led to the death of South Vietnam’s president and his brother. A year earlier, President Ngo Dinh Diem had been in communication with Ho Chi Minh in hopes of settling for a negotiated peace. (Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai recently boasted of joining sides with the Taliban.) Had Kennedy and Diem survived, would half-a-million American soldiers still arrived five years later and over 58,000 lives lost?

In combat, the American military never lost on the battlefield. Yet its generals were impatient and quickly abandoned the early counterinsurgency effort in favor of massive troop buildup and overwhelming firepower. In contrast, the Chinese and the Russians never dispatched military advisers or combat troops in the field to accompany the Viet Cong. Unlike the North, the South Vietnamese never had a national cause to fight and evict foreign occupiers. And that was never a part of its victory plans.

When it had to finally fight on its own, the South Vietnamese had become plagued with poor leadership and encumbered with American know-how that were no longer available—massive firepower and air support. No one predicted the final collapse would only take 55 days. War-wearied troops, who were burdened with "family syndrome" (abandonment of units to return home to evacuate loved ones), turned a tactical withdrawal into a chaotic retreat resulting in a rout.

Two weeks after Saigon fell, Henry Kissinger, in his 1975 memo addressed to President Gerald Ford (declassified in 2000) wrote, "When the United States entered the war during the 1960s, it did so with excesses that not only ended a career and life of an allied leader but that may have done serious damage to the American economy. When we made it 'our war' we would not let the South Vietnamese fight it; when it became 'their war,' we would not help them fight it."

Experts say victory would have resulted in two Vietnams like the two Koreas. And Saigon would have thrived like Seoul with Americans standing guard at the seventeenth parallel in case of a ceasefire violation. At best, the North would have waited two more years (their original plan for victory was 1977) then attacked again. Like the young Vietnamese boys who had gone before me and as the son of a career military officer, I would have most likely joined in the war and continued in the fight. And we would have kept on fighting and fighting and dying.

After my father was released from twelve years of incarceration in post-war prison camps, an American journalist interviewed him about his experiences. "When you think back, were all the fighting and the bloodshed worth the price?" He asked my father.

My father paused, then answered, "The way I saw the war, it needed to end some way or another. When I was fighting the war in Vietnam, I still had many relatives in the north. My wife had relatives in the north. And my friends had relatives in the north. Both sides had families on the other side. I don’t know how the Communist felt."

"But we [in South Vietnam], we knew that we were not going to win the war. We just kept it that way forever until we [would] die. I could not figure out the war, so let's just end it that way. Yeah, we're the losers. But the war must end somehow. The killing had been going on for quite a long time."

This morning, I woke up early and thought of my father and all of those Americans and Vietnamese who had perished in the war and in the years following the fall of Saigon. I stared at my wife and daughter who were still sound asleep.

Thirty-five years later it is even harder to imagine life today if we had won the war.


Former Congressional Candidate Quang Pham is the author of "A Sense of Duty: Our Journey from Vietnam to America”"which was just released in paperback. He can be reached at

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