In 1956, when the Geneva Accords went into place and the French withdrew from Vietnam a little-noticed event occurred; more than a million people fled the new government in North Vietnam. Of those that stayed millions more died or were sent to concentration camps by a regime more brutal than the hated French Colonialists had ever been.
There were people, even then, who counseled against any kind of US involvement in the region but at the time Malaya was a primitive backwater that had an active revolution of its own going on. Thailand was another impoverished agricultural society with hill tribes and old Kuomintang Army units ruling tiny local fiefdoms with a very weak government. Ditto Burma. Indonesia was already sinking into communism under Sukharno. The Domino theory, fifteen years later universally derided, was absolutely valid in this instance. Russia and China were still working in tandem. The myth of the Red Revolution was at its high tide. Mao Tse Tung was looked on in the region as the savior of the common man. This was an entire region that was about to fall into the hands of the communists. Doing nothing would have been a piece of rank madness. If there was a Cold War we were obliged to fight it wherever it was, not just in Europe. We had already stood aside and let the innocent people of the North be enslaved by a communist government and had seen the human cost. Average people didn't know anything about it, of course, but the geopolitical 'experts' in the CIA and the State Department were looking at an entire, very strategic region on the brink of falling into hostile hands.
Over the next few years it became clear that the leaders in the North were as committed to using violence to conquer the South as they were to using violence to rule the North. They armed, trained and directed groups of local recruits who became known as the Viet Cong.
The Kennedy brothers, alarmed at the deteriorating situation decided that the solution to the problem was the removal of the corrupt and ineffective leader of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem. Despite warnings from Vice President Johnson the Kennedys backed a coup against Diem that ensured that the US would have to either write off Vietnam and see if the Domino Theory was valid by trying it out or increasingly have to use its own military resources to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists.
From the first the war, micromanaged by Johnson and the civilian bureaucrats at DOD, suffered from a lack of being able to define what the objective was. American troops developed innovative mobile tactics that integrated air, artillery and infantry as never before. The communists were militarily completely inferior but were able to use the fictions of Cambodian and Laotian sovereignty and the timidity and confusion of the leadership in Washington to protect their forces and supply lines from total annihilation. The American troop strength was built up piecemeal over a year and a half. The objectives were always local and limited. When the commander, General Westmoreland, asked for a larger force and permission to cross the fictitious Laotian border to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail Johnson recoiled in horror. In 1968 LBJ had a nervous breakdown in office. He resigned when he didn't want to resign. He bombed. He called bombing halts. He was seen weeping and pounding his fists on the walls. The Eastern Elite who Johnson envied and hated but who he secretly wanted to admire him more than the lightweight and incompetent Kennedy had turned against the war and were cursing Johnson for not 'ending' it; whatever that meant. Were they really so blind to what the consequences would have been to a US bug-out in 67 or 68?
It would have been a strategic disaster that would have brought great joy and encouragement to our enemies all over the world and terrified our allies into accommodation and eventual absorption by The Evil Empire.
The advent of Nixon and Kissinger changed the situation but not at once. After a year or so of irresolution similar to Johnson's Nixon determined that the Vietnam War had to be dealt with by changing the strategic reality in the entire world. Russia and China had been adversaries since 1964 and China was in the paralyzing throes of the Cultural Revolution. US foreign policy started aiming to balance and pit the two rival communist superstates against each other. Nixon also began to concentrate on training the South Vietnamese Army to take on the bulk of the fighting with US air and logistical support and by 1971 the US Force was much smaller than it had been two years earlier. Much else had changed. The NVA and the Vietcong had lost most of their former territory. The RVNs, with US air support were winning the war. It took one last flurry of violence in Christmas of 1972 to achieve a peace accord and a final US withdrawl of almost all military units. For the next two years there was an uneasy peace of sorts but as soon as Nixon fell and it was clear to everyone that sending millions of people into slavery and death was OK with the Democrats the NVA, in open and direct violation of the Paris Peace Accords, attacked using tanks and moving as a traditional conquering army. Without US support the South collapsed.
So why do I say we won? We won because during the critical twenty years that we were involved there all the countries in Asia which were in danger of falling to the communists became much more wealthy and well-developed while it became clear that life in Mao's China was almost unlivable. Russia and China became mortal enemies. We had developed the only military with operational experience and the military world noted our innovations in weapons and tactics. We had developed an officer corps filled with combat veterans who were used to working together, something that no other army in the world had. When the massacre in Cambodia and the thousands of boats filled with desperate people fleeing their 'liberators' in Vietnam filled the headlines it became certain that there would be no more gains for communism in the region. The Dominos had grown roots in those twenty years and now could stand on their own.
Communism expanded after the perceived US defeat in Vietnam. South Yemen, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Benin, Guinea...all on the tanker route between the West and The Gulf fell to Russian/Cuban rule. The worst President in US history invited the Soviets into Nicaragua from whence they began insurgencies in Guatemala and El Salvador. Finally the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and outran their resources.
But that expansion is nothing compared to what it would have been if Robert Kennedy had won the election in 1968 and acted on his rash promise to cut and run as quickly as possible.
The people who did the heavy lifting in this business, the guys who had to do the dirty work, a large number of them draftees plucked reluctantly from America's giant 1960s sex and drug party, had no idea why they were in this dangerous jungle or scrubland instead of cruising Van Nuys Boulevard in their car after work trying to pick up chicks. It never made sense but history tells us now that what these dudes were doing was saving the world. They held the dike against the Great Flood. They did their tours and went back to their lives unless they were among the unfortunates who were killed or maimed. But no noise was made in any event. The only TV shows about Vietnam Vets show them to be losers who suffer frequent psychotic episodes or movies like 'Platoon' or 'Apocalypse Now' which portray them as murderous thugs. They were robbed of a 'thank you' from their country and ignored or ridiculed by a world that somehow had come to believe that the communists had decided to be peaceful and that opposing them militarily was a form of aggression. But in the last few years; as our forces in Iraq have been treated to the same sneering contempt and obstruction by the people who hate our country, foreign and domestic, I look at the amazing Victory that these Americans have achieved over a merciless and bloodthirsty enemy and I think of those other Americans, now completely vindicated by history, who did their duty and made more of a difference in the course of human history than almost any other group of people on earth; a difference that helped save an entire planet from slavery.