The Vietnam War which lasted from 1955 to 1975 was fought between North Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea) and South Vietnam (supported by the United States, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.) While the Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front, or NLF), a South Vietnamese communist force helped by the North fought a guerrilla war against the anti-communist forces in the South, the North Vietnamese Army engaged in a more conventional war, at times putting large forces to battle.

Causes of Defeat of USA

There were multiple causes for the defeat of one of the two superpowers of the day

1. Ambiguous Aims & Objectives of the War

Although at the strategic level, the USA was quite clear about why it was fighting the war namely stopping communism in getting firm footholds in Asia to obviate the possibility of the Domino Effect, it failed to articulate clear-cut aims and objectives at the tactical level. Consequently, there was a lot of confusion about the desired results of the military intervention. It just jumped in without properly defining any tangible and verifiable goals and objectives in terms of military achievements. Lack of clarity about the overall objective of the military intervention, therefore, resulted in inconsistent policy and strategy formulation by the Pentagon.

The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, knew exactly what they were doing and why namely an independent sovereign Vietnam. Consequently, all the North Vietnamese had to do was drive out the Americans to isolate South Vietnam from its sources of economic and military support. They finally succeeded in accomplishing this by avoiding a decisive engagement in the South and resorting to hit-and-run tactics until American forces pulled out of Vietnam after the Paris Peace Accords were signed.

2. Lack of Consistency in Policy Formulation

The above-mentioned lack of clarity about the overall aims and objectives of the war at the outset led to confusing policy formulation throughout the war. Every change of guards resulted in a different set of strategies. The “hearts and minds” strategy was completely undermined by the use of search and destroy tactics, which frequently got civilians killed or otherwise negatively affected by US presence. Americans paid lip service to the Vietnamese while treating them horribly. Eisenhower’s presidency was the best time to engage which was wasted in using an advisory role. Johnson’s administration made the Vietnam War an ego issue. And when it was time to give a final push during the Nixon period and have the war reach a suitable conclusion, his ouster from office resulted in the USA withdrawing troops and abandoning the South. This inconsistency in policy formulation and implementation adversely affected American troops’ morale and it showed in their lack of performance.

3. Terrain

Terrain plays an extremely crucial role in any war. Vietnam is a land of swamps and jungles, ideal for Vietcong fighters to attack and hide. The USA did make many bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, which only alienated the population but could not degrade the fighting force of the Vietcong. It was just like the Japanese invasion by the USA; it bombed the entire Japan to ashes, but Japan still had 5 million Kwantung troops on the mainland and 10 million more in reserve in the homeland. Japan only surrendered when its Kwantung army was defeated by the Soviet Union’s Red Army.

4. Public Support for Vietcong

Henry Kissinger has rightly pointed out that “The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerilla wins if he does not lose.”. Viet Cong guerillas had all the time at their disposal. They solicited public support through extremely effective use of propaganda inside Vietnam; they just painted the USA as an invading force. Americans tried to use bombing campaigns and advanced weaponry and coupled them with brutal tactics to show how strong it was, and how futile it was for the Vietnamese to continue resisting. It wanted them to submit by scaring them which worked the opposite way. The images of American atrocities horrified the world, especially America’s population. It did not achieve any objective for America. If anything, it made the local population hate America even more and join Viet Cong.

The widening schism between the public and the regime due to their religious differences further aggravated the situation. Although an overwhelming majority of the South Vietnamese was following Buddhism, the country was ruled by a clique of Catholic Christians, led by President Ngô Đình Diệm.

His pro-Catholic policies such as civil and military promotions, as well as the allocation of land, business favours, tax concessions, etc antagonized the majority of Buddhists. Not only the Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, exempt from the land reforms, but Catholics were also exempt from compulsory corvée labour. Similarly, public spending was disproportionately distributed to Catholic-majority villages. Under Diệm, the draconian Order 46 which permitted the state to detain and send anyone to the concentration camps to preserve law and order was invariably used against dissenting Buddhists.

5. Support of China

One of the most crucial reasons for the defeat of the USA was the wholehearted support of China to North Vietnam. The Chinese support for the Vietcong was not only for strategic security concerns of China but also motivated by the sense of an international responsibility to help brotherly comrades and promote the anti-imperialist revolution. China considered itself to be “a natural ally of the oppressed peoples of the world in their struggle for national liberation,” justifying efforts to help North Vietnam. Lastly, the personal friendship between the Chinese leadership and the Vietcong leader Ho Chi Minh was an added factor to this unflinching support. He became familiar with them when he worked for the French Communist Party in Paris and later served as a Comintern agent in Canton assisting the labour and peasant movements there.

Consequently, despite the best efforts of the USA, there was no interruption of supplies of food and war materials for the Vietcong from China which escalated its assistance to the Vietcong after the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964. In response to the U.S. overwhelming airstrikes, Ho Che Minh personally requested Mao Ze Dong for Chinese assistance. Accordingly, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces began flowing into North Vietnam in July 1965 to help defend Hanoi and its major transportation systems. The total number of Chinese troops in North Vietnam between June 1965 and March 1968 amounted to over 320,000

6. Lack of understanding of Political Dynamics

The USA failed to comprehend the political dynamics of the local and regional landscape, and, more importantly, what Vietnam wanted to become. They thought it was about communism vs capitalism, and that as a result, the Vietnamese would support the Americans if they understood what America was promising. Instead of understanding the complex inter-regional and intra-regional conflicts and using them for divide and rule policy, Americans antagonised everyone by reducing all the complex issues into one big “capitalism vs communism” issue. They did not comprehend the wave of nationalism sweeping the world in an age of decolonization.

Similarly, they did not utilise the Chinese-Vietnamese tension, instead, their terrible policies brought these two closer. China had forcefully ruled this region for years before France showed up. The landlord community in Vietnam was mostly Chinese and the Vietnamese did not like them for their exploitation. Americans could have used it in their favour to draw a wedge between peasants and landlords, instead, they brought them into cooperation. That’s how terrible American strategy had been.

7. Intelligence failure of the CIA

CIA is an overrated institution that failed at both levels-strategic and tactical, a classic example of an intelligence agency not only lacking foresight and a clear direction but also neglecting the fundamentals of intelligence gathering. It failed to gauge the scope of the war and underestimated the strength of the Vietcong. his losses. It was compounded by confusion about definitions, faulty accounting techniques, and figure fudging. Focussing too much on technology instead of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) resulted in a disconnect that prevented the integration and fusing of information to achieve efficient, accurate intelligence assessments. These failures, in turn, led the USA to adopt conventional military solutions for an unconventional problem

8. Dwindling Domestic Public Support

Vietnam War was the first fully televised war creating its supporters as well as opponents in every house in the USA. News about the atrocities and horror stories like the Mai Lai massacre soon made the war very unpopular. The use of the draft made it even more detestable

9. Change of Guards

Richard Nixon who managed to keep North Vietnam out of the South by bombing the North into the stone age and mining all the seaports was hounded from office by the Watergate scandal in 1974. It had an immediate effect on the North — forcing them to resume negotiations leading to a truce and the Paris Peace Accords. Had the U.S. Government continued the policies of Richard Nixon. North Vietnam would have agreed to an amicable settlement like the one USSR got from the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. But the U.S. Congress cut off financial support to South Vietnam — and, without the military aid they had become reliant upon — the South Vietnamese were finished.

10. Difference between Political Leadership

Being a visionary leader like Mao ze Dong of China, Ho Chi Minh brought long-term fundamental structural changes to North Vietnam. During his tenure, he transformed the North Vietnamese economy by introducing land reforms, bringing equality, and helping the lower classes to enhance their living standards. These reforms were good politics too creating a huge popular support base for the Vietcong in both -North and South Vietnam. On the other hand, Americans supported the government in the South that not only killed its population but also reversed land reforms. This made the South Vietnamese look up to Ho Chi Minh and help the Viet Cong, which played a crucial part in the defeat of the Americans.


Thank you very much for reading the article

If you liked it, kindly express your appreciation by clicking my Ko-fi icon below

And the clap icon below as many times as you like

Why not share it with your friends on social media? Knowledge is a common heritage of us all

And, kindly, do follow me as well as subscribe to my newsletter

You may like to read also

1. International Relations: Definition, History,& Scope

2. Modern Nation-state: Origins, Features, & Prospects

3. National Interest: Definition, Components, Determination

4. Islamophobia: Genesis, Challenges & Response

5. Globalisation: Challenges & Response

6. Eight Drivers of Globalisation

7. Global Terrorism: Challenges & Response

8. Arab Spring: Causes, Consequences, & Lessons Learnt

9. Why did the USSR enter Afghanistan in 1979?

10. Vietnam War: Causes of American Defeat

11. Afghanistan War: 8 Causes of American Defeat