In 1975 the Vietnam War drew to an end, in a shocking turn of events the mighty United States of America had been defeated by the Communist North, and were forced to withdraw. We spoke to Dr Andrew Wiest, author of The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam and Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land: The Vietnam War Revisited, about how events might have unfolded, had the US proven successful in their efforts…
What would have happened if the United States had won the Vietnam War?
There are a lot of academics and historians who look at Vietnam as a part of something much bigger – namely the Cold War. So if the US had won, the Cold War would probably have ended a little sooner and the dawn of that unilateral superpower controlling things would have come quicker. In Southeast Asia, everything would be radically different – including a faster and more thorough confrontation between the USA and China. I doubt China would have sat by and let an American victory happen without repercussion – even though they were not exactly fans of the Vietnamese either.
I don’t think Beijing would have invaded Vietnam to repel the Americans, as they did in Korea, but it certainly would have been the USA against China and Russia. And it would have been a war that was not just cold but glacial. American politics would certainly have been more tumultuous as well. If you look at the US presidential elections since the 1960s – every one of them has been fought over Vietnam to one extent or another. It is still the most controversial aspect of a controversial time period.
Had they come out of that smiling, with another greatest generation on their hands, US politics would have looked quite different. For instance, it is hard to see the Republican revolution taking place. Republicans typically have an aggressive foreign policy, it is one of their tropes, but if Democratic policy had won in Vietnam – because it was the Democrats who started the war in Southeast Asia – that would have taken a lot of heat away from their rivals.
Would the USA have become militarily involved in more conflicts?
Yes, I think the USA would have been much less gun shy during the 1970s and 1980s. Reagan tinkered with it but that use of force to solve conflicts didn’t really come back until the first Bush and then with Bill Clinton. The reason the US did not rely on its military, on any great scale at least, to solve problems during the 1970s and the 1980s was all down to the country’s failure in Vietnam.
How would things have changed in Cambodia? When the Vietnam War began to cross into Cambodia it created the environment in which Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power. What resulted was a four-year holocaust. Could this have been avoided?
If the US was ever going to win the Vietnam War it would have been during the Tet Offensive of 1968. That was the turning point and that was when the public, back in the United States, saw the North Vietnamese were not just going to retreat and surrender – it was literally a fight until the death. Of course, there was no big, magical American victory during Tet, but let’s imagine there was.
Let’s imagine the US had repelled that attack quickly and conclusively and the war was essentially over as a result. At that point in time, the Khmer Rouge was not a big player in the conflict. It is only after the US began its military incursions into Cambodia and the government in that country began to fall that everything became out of hand. A victorious USA in Vietnam would not have required any entrance into Cambodia and, as a result, you almost certainly would not have seen the rise of the Khmer Rouge. They are intrinsically tied to how the Vietnam War progressed, no doubt about that.
Would we ever have seen a situation like in Korea where the communist North and the democratic South are split down the middle, even to this day?
No, that was never going to happen. One side was going to reunify the country, no matter what. So if there was a big American victory, one situation you have is reunification under non-communist rule. As a result of that, perhaps the turn toward Asia that the USA is presently taking would have happened then as opposed to now – as I said, we would have had an immediate conflict with China. Unlike the North Koreans, the North Vietnamese were much less likely to accept the scenario where the country remained split. If you look at their leadership, and their pronouncements and their goals, they were not going to go for a ‘tie’.
In addition, the tactical situation in Vietnam was much trickier. This is because the border between North and South Vietnam is so long and porous that it would be very difficult to police – and that is why you had the Ho Chi Minh trail, the excursions into Cambodia and Laos and all of that other stuff. So it might be convenient to think we could replay the Korean War and end Vietnam with a stalemate, but that was never going to happen. People also forget the South Vietnamese wanted reunification too – just under different circumstances.
If John F Kennedy had not been assassinated, would the Vietnam War have been avoided?
That is a controversial question. There have been so many arguments about this – and, of course, Kennedy’s legacy is such a sacred thing in the United States that it is political kryptonite to touch it. The pro-Kennedy forces argue he wanted to withdraw most of the 16,000 military advisors that were over there. However, what is not mentioned is that before Kennedy there were only 600 military advisors over there. He had begun a war over there and I think there are two things that still would have hamstrung him – even if he wanted out.
The first is that he still wanted his political party to win another term, and if the Democrats had wiped their hands of Vietnam there is a good chance they would not have achieved that. The second is that Kennedy wanted his brother to be the next man in the White House. To mess that up, by handing Vietnam to the communists, would have sunk this. I would also argue that Robert McNamara, who was Kennedy’s confidant in the first place, and the architect of the Vietnam War, was going to give him the same advice he gave Lyndon B Johnson – which was to go in with all guns blazing.
You have to remember that both Kennedy and Johnson faced the post-World War II consensus: to fight a difficult, problematic and long war against what they perceived as a communist threat or to embark on social changes back home – in particular the civil-rights movement. I believe Kennedy was also going to veer toward the civil-rights movement – just as Johnson did. But I don’t think you get both – civil rights and the end of Vietnam. That mixture would have brought the Democrats down at the voting booth.
To read the full article purchase issue 21 of All About History at all good newsagents and supermarkets, online through the Imagine Shop and Great Digital Mags, or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.