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US troops left Vietnam 50 years ago: Here are 3 key questions defense leaders must ask today

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U.S. military personnel left Vietnam 50 years ago this week.

America’s two decades of involvement wouldn’t officially end until 20 months later, when the last civilian advisors from the most powerful country on earth were airlifted from the roof of their embassy in Saigon, literally chased out of the country by communists.

Numbers alone fail to capture the war’s true cost to the United States. Still, we must look: 1 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars; 150,000 wounded; more than 58,000 Americans killed.

Fast forward now to the present era, and the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is dramatically different. Vietnam was America’s 10th largest goods trading partner in 2020. According to the Department of Commerce, that same year, U.S. goods exports to Vietnam were nearly $10 billion, up 270 percent from the a decade prior. Today, Vietnam is a top ten market for U.S. food and agricultural products.

On the security front, in stark contrast to the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam now seeks to bring America into southeast Asia — to counterbalance China. One salient example among many: In 2018, Vietnam issued an unprecedented invitation to U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to make a port visit to Cam Ranh Bay — the first since the war ended in 1975.

And while the partnership between Hanoi and Washington has endured several recent missteps, that any partnership exists at all would have been unimaginable to the men fighting in the cities, jungles, and rice paddies 50 years ago.

Viewing the sacrifices of those men through the lens of today’s near-complete reversal of the strategic situation, perhaps it is only natural to ask now, five decades later, a hard question: “Was the war worth it?”

The answer depends on how we read history.

Two general camps can be described.

For the first camp, the answer is a clear “no.” While honoring the service of those who fought and died in Vietnam, the key lesson, they argue, is to remember how the dominos didn’t fall after U.S. military forces left in 1973. All of Southeast Asia didn’t turn communist. Decision-makers in the U.S. national security firmament should have given more than short shrift to inconvenient reports that contradicted calls for American involvement, like, for example, the 1964 National Board of Estimates report commissioned by the CIA, which concluded Domino Theory was flawed; “a continuation of the spread of Communism in the area would not be inexorable” should Vietnam fall.

For the first camp, the primary rationale for engagement was proved false. For them, the war was terrible mistake.

The second camp holds that while deeply painful and divisive, the war nevertheless bought strategic time for countries across Asia, newly emergent from colonialism, to develop the institutions and civil society they lacked and so avoid falling to communism.

For this camp, the dominoes stayed standing precisely because America sacrificed so many of her sons in Vietnam. America drew the fire, demanding resources and attention from regional communists and their Soviet backers. Those other nations were able to develop free economies which eventually became markets for American farmers and manufacturers. They also developed more or less open democratic societies with whom the United States could work on the international scene to ensure more favorable conditions for American interests. The primary rationale for fighting in Vietnam was to signal western resolve, both to friends and foes alike.

This camp answers that the war was indeed worth it — and believes that millions of free people across Asia would agree.

Which camp is right?

In philosophy, counter-factual hypotheticals hold no truth value — they are neither right nor wrong. If this holds for both politics and war, then, because the dominoes didn’t fall, we must ask different questions.

Here are three questions that national security deciders, from the E-Ring of the Pentagon to the West Wing of the White House, should consider as they assess the complicated international security landscape 50 years after American soldiers departed Vietnam:

First, are we as a people — all 330 million or so of us, with all our divergent opinions, economic needs and aspirations, and beliefs about America’s role in the world — willing to resource the military arm of a fight commensurate with our political objectives?

If we are not, then the political objectives must be scaled back. This requires something more than just appetite-control; it requires statesmanship — both in dealings in foreign capitals and in committee hearing rooms at home. Americans are still capable of this. They must remember it — and act accordingly.

Second, what consequences will foreign action have at home?

The war may have bought time for Asian countries to develop institutions and grow societal connective tissue, but it cost a rising generation of Americans their trust in their nation’s institutions and tore painfully at their social fabric. Amid the cultural chaos of the 1960s — including racial strife, assassinations, and bitterly contentious elections — the war deepened a divide, opening fault-lines within families, something I explore in my novel of the Vietnam War era “Last Summer Boys.”

On the economic front, it has been argued the billions spent on the war drove the inflation of the 1970s — which carried tectonic consequences all its own.

Walking by history’s lamp-light, today’s decision-makers must assess the impact of foreign intervention on the home-front. One area especially worth considering amid the current recruitment crisis is the impact on attitudes towards America’s military itself.

A the third and final question: How can we be worthy of the sacrifice?

Over nearly 20 years, what began with a few hundred “military advisors” under presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy swelled into a bitter contest that would see more than 2.5 million American service members deployed in-country over the course of America’s involvement in the conflict.

Honoring the courage and sacrifice of America’s Vietnam War veterans means being better leaders for the young men and women serving today. And this means being exceptionally careful about committing America’s warriors to a fight.

The world is a far, far better place when Americans hold the preponderance of hard power. It is better still if their leaders use it only in gravest need, after sober analysis of their people’s true national interest. Because, when lawfully ordered, America’s men and women in uniform will unleash devastating power against the country’s enemies. And they will do so at enormous personal sacrifice.   

This is the most important question of all, and the true test of whether America gets Vietnam right. It may be 50 years late.

Better late than never.

Bill Rivers served as speechwriter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis from 2017-19. He is a fellow at the Yorktown Institute and the author of “Last Summer Boys,” an Amazon Kindle #1 bestseller in historical fiction.

Tags Aftermath of the Vietnam War Communism Domino theory Inflation Military recruitment Military strategy Politics of Vietnam US military Vietnam Vietnam War

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