Readers of Tom Wells’s The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam would understandably conclude that the war was an unjust enterprise on the part of the United States that proved very costly in blood and treasure, the emotional wounds from which would linger through generations.
Whether or not one agrees that the war was unjust, one cannot disagree that the emotional wounds left by America’s involvement in Southeast Asia remain a part of the national psyche. That is not the same, however, as the debate over whether the United States should have been in Vietnam and fought for years to prevent a communist takeover of the southern half of the country. As Wells’s lengthy study shows, the political divisions ran deep, and neither side seemed capable of fully understanding the motivations and tactics of the other.
Wells’s main thesis in his scholarly work is that domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam was influential in the war’s conduct and that the antiwar movement had failed to appreciate the extent of its actual influence over the manner in which the US government waged that war. That influence, Wells attempts to demonstrate, was substantial, with two presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, similarly constrained in their freedom to prosecute the war and ultimately forced from office due to those constraints. In the case of Nixon, the struggle to undermine the antiwar movement impacted his freedom of movement. Again, though, the fundamental question of whether the Vietnam War had to be fought remained for future historians and political scientists to debate.
What makes discussions about America’s involvement in Vietnam so frustrating are the imponderables, the decisions not made, and the possible outcomes had different policies been pursued. As students of the war know, the brutal Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia fostered a collaborative wartime effort between Vietnamese militants fighting the Japanese and the American and British armies. The ideological predilections of the main leaders of the Vietnamese, most prominently Ho Chi Minh, were of little concern, given the common goals: defeat of Japanese occupation forces.
So, the first question that arises pertains to the opportunity for the United States to work with Ho Chi Minh in the post–World War II environment. This is where things get messy. Ho Chi Minh was a Communist as well as a Nationalist; had the American government remained allied with him, would a harsh totalitarian dictatorship such as occurred everywhere else Communist regimes took root have been inevitable in Vietnam? Would the Vietnamese, themselves prone to expansionist tendencies relative to surrounding territories, have forced their hypothetical American ally to choose between them and the territorial integrity of those surrounding countries? Should the United States have simply withdrawn with Japan’s defeat and ignored Southeast Asia? These are the question that can be debated an infinitum with no real resolution in sight.
At the root of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia was what was known as “the domino effect”: in other words, would the fall of one Southeast Asian country to communism lead to the fall to communism of surrounding countries, like Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia? Another element was France’s determination to reclaim its resource-rich former colonies in Southeast Asia and the leverage France held over American efforts at establishing an alliance of democratic countries in Western Europe able to deter Joseph Stalin’s enormous Red Army occupying Eastern Europe.
The convergence of these two factors contributed to the decisions by American presidents to prevent the fall of the entirety of Vietnam to communist domination. Anywhere along the way, decisions could have been made regarding American involvement that would have led to a vastly different outcome in the decades that followed. Additionally, the question of whether America should have fought in Vietnam is accompanied by one of US military strategy and tactics, and, here again, the debate continues unresolved.
The American military and its civilian leaders struggled for many years to understand the nature of its adversary in Vietnam. The guerrilla insurgency in the South that characterized the first half of the American war in Vietnam represented a constant struggle among US leaders unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Viet Cong infrastructure and uncertain about how to conduct counterinsurgency operations. After the Tet Offensive of early 1968, that insurgency had been largely defeated, but a well organized and armed and highly motivated North Vietnamese Army supported by the Soviet Union became increasingly active in the South. A conflict centered on an insurgency supplied by the North transitioned into a more conventional conflict that continued to defy previous American military experiences from World War II and Korea. Would a great understanding of counterinsurgency warfare have made the US effort more justified by virtue of its greater military and political effectiveness?
Tom Wells’s study posits that the antiwar movement in the United States fundamentally influenced the conduct and outcome of the war in Vietnam. That is easily and logically acceptable. Within the context of The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, the main question is one central to Wells’s thesis: in the absence of the antiwar movement, could the United States have prevailed in that protracted conflict?
The only thing we can safely conclude is that the absence of domestic political opposition to the war would have freed American presidents to prosecute the war more destructively, especially regarding politically driven constraints on the American military’s ability to bomb targets in North Vietnam—constraints that definitely frustrated American military leaders and pilots.
Whether such freedom of movement would have facilitated victory we will, again, never know. Would domestic opposition to American military activities in Cambodia have enabled a more constructive effort at defeating North Vietnam? We will never know. Was fear of the “domino effect” exaggerated? Maybe, maybe not. Cambodia and Laos both fell to communism, with Cambodia’s fall facilitating one of history’s most destructive genocidal campaigns on the part of the Communist Khmer Rouge. How responsible was the United States was Cambodia’s descent into hell? This is a topic for continued debate.
Whether the United States should have been involved in Vietnam will be debated forever. The war’s conduct, with or without the influence of domestic opposition, was clearly flawed from the outset. Containment of Vietnamese expansionism was a possibility, but at what cost in lives? This is an interesting question, given events in Indonesia. A communist insurgency was defeated by the British after World War II, but that was more limited in scope than that waged in South Vietnam. In short, who knows?