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The Irony Of The Vietnam War History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Vietnam War was the longest war in American history and the first one America lost. Fearing a communist takeover of the country which would lead to the ‘domino effect of communism in Asia’, America committed Special Forces military advisers in the late 1950s to train South Vietnamese soldiers in counter-insurgency operations against the Viet Cong. In 1964, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was accused of conducting unprovoked attacks on two American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin which led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and retaliatory air strikes on NVA targets. Further acts of aggression by the Viet Cong in Saigon and Pleiku provided America with the jus bellum to escalate her involvement in Vietnam. On Mar 1965, American ground forces set foot on Vietnam.

Throughout the eight years of war, American forces achieved overwhelming battlefield success. Within six months of the commencement of ground operations, American forces had already won two major battles against the NVA around the regions of Chu Lai (Operation Starlight) and Ia Drang Valley. More successful battles and operations were carried out throughout the war and the American forces never lost a single battle. Even the Tet Offensive, which was initiated by the NVA, was beaten back by the US forces and their South Vietnamese allies (ARVN). It was estimated that US casualties amounted to around 60,000 while the NVA suffered no less than 1.5 million losses in the eight years of combat. By any yardstick American forces and her ARVN allies had achieved battlefield dominance over the NVA.

Despite the battlefield brilliance, America could not achieve her political objective to show that she was willing and able to stand up to and contain communism anywhere in the world regardless of geography. The Paris Peace Accords was signed in 1973 but it saw the departure of American forces, rather than NVA forces, from South Vietnam. Left alone to face the NVA, Saigon capitulated in 1975.

Logically, the belligerent who had been soundly defeated in the battlefield would realise that the cost of continued conflict would exceed the value of the object in which the conflict was fought for and would initiate the negotiation for peace. However the contrary was shown in the Vietnam War where the Americans had much difficulty in war termination despite achieving military success in the field.

This paper endeavours to explain this phenomenon along two key arguments. One, the American military success in the battlefield could not be translated into the desired political end state, or strategic victory, which is the open admission of defeat by North Vietnam. Hence, the military success is inconsequential to the war termination process. This would be achieved through the explanation of (1) the relationship between the levels of war, and (2) the importance of breaking the opponent’s will to fight. Two, premised on Paul Pillar’s theory, war termination is essentially a bargaining process with inherent problems. Leaveraging the three key characteristics of the bargaining problem, this section will show the difficulties which America had to overcome in the war termination process by addressing two areas: (1) the purpose of bargaining and how the purpose had changed over the war; and (2) the weighing of the pros and cons of the bargain.


“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means” – Carl Von Clausewitz

War termination, or the cessation of physical war-fighting, would occur based on three conditions. Either the political objective of which the war was fought for has been attained, or through the realisation that the cost of continuing the war outweighs the benefits of pursuing the political objective, or when the will to continue the war has been lost.

This segment seeks to explain why America’s military success had no influence on war termination based on two key ideas. First, military success does not correlate to strategic success. Second, military success does not bring about war termination as it does not cause the opponent to lose his will to continue the war.

Loo, in “Decisive Battle, Victory and Revolution in Military Affairs”, argued that “there is no causal relationship between what happens on the battlefield and the eventual outcome of wars”. As war is political in nature, the measure of success therefore should be in the same denomination. Hence “tactical and operational victory without favourable political outcome is sterile”.

The Levels of War: Why Military Success Does Not Ensure Strategic Success. In the theoretical framework on the levels of war, war occurs on three levels: the strategic, the operational and the tactical. The strategic level would be the “ends” of war where the political objective of the nation is synonymous with the strategic objective of the war. Success, or victory, at this level is crucial to the outcome of the war as it would have meant that the nation had successfully imposed its will on its opponent. This is measured by the achievement of political objectives as well as perception by all parties and can be pursued using a myriad of means comprising diplomacy, information, military and economy.

The operational and tactical levels refer to the military “means” of war to achieve the political ends. Success at these levels is military in nature and is measured by quantifiable criteria such as terrain captured and casualty ratio. Hence success at these levels does not correlate to success at the strategic level unless the operational and tactical objectives are mapped directly onto the political objectives. An example would be warfare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where the capture of the opponent’s fortification would bring about both military and political success as the fortification contained the equipment required to support the troops and at the same time, the fortification was often the symbol of political authority.

During the initial years of the Vietnam War, America did not have any overarching military strategy to bridge the tactical actions to the strategic goal. Forgetting the lessons learned in the Korean War, the Americans were overconfident and believed that just the presence of American forces in Vietnam would be sufficient to defeat the Viet Cong and end the war. While successful operations were carried out one after another, the Viet Cong did not capitulate as expected. This led to America escalating the intensity of its operations in hope that the huge amount of casualties would force the Viet Cong to negotiate the end of the war. The strategy was in the form of more bombing through Operation Rolling Thunder and to adopt more aggressive “search and destroy” operations. The Viet Cong suffered many casualties with some units experiencing as much as 90 per cent losses from the never-ending downpour of bombs and artillery but again, they did not attempt to negotiate war termination with the Americans. Even after the Tet Offensive where the Viet Cong sustained close to 50,000 casualties did they not bow to American pressure. Clearly, the adopted strategy of “body count” for the Americans, while successful on the tactical level, was not effective in achieving the political objective. It was only towards the end of the war was America able to really threaten the Viet Cong through the strategy of disrupting their resources. Diplomatic relations were established with the Viet Cong’s main backers, China and the Soviet Union, and sanctuaries in Cambodia were bombed. But by then it was too late to reverse the tide of the war.

Why is Breaking the Will of the Enemy Important? It is argued by Stephen King-Hall that political aims of war should be synonymous with peace and that the objective of war should be to “make the enemy change his mind”. This logic is congruent to those put forth by Clausewitz and Bartholomees.

Clausewitz stated that the result in war is never final. This is attributed to the defeated state not being able to accept defeat and that the outcome of the war was “merely a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at a later date”. Hence, there is a need to break the will of the enemy in order for him acknowledge defeat and to give up his original intentions. Clausewitz proposed that this could be achieved by overcoming his resistance which can be expressed as the product of his physical and moral resistance.

Bartholomees used a mathematical formula, R = M x W to illustrate the relationship between resistance (R), means to fight (M) and the strength of will (W). In his concept of victory, Bartholomees stated that victory could only be achieved when the resistance (R) is reduced to zero. This could be achieved by reducing his means to fight (M) or the strength of his will (W). He added that traditional wars of annihilation would be focus on reducing the enemy’s means of resistance by physically destroying their military or at least attriting it to the point of ineffectiveness. This is however not desired as it could lead to a “Pyrrhic victory” where the cost of victory would be tremendous. Furthermore, even if the means to fight could somehow be reduced to zero, there would still be enemy soldiers who would continue to fight even if they had only a knife.

Hence the bottom line in achieving victory in war is to break the will of the enemy as destroying his means to fight would result in a less capable but still hostile enemy. Conversely, breaking the will would end the war regardless of his capability to fight.

Why does Battlefield Success not Break the Enemy’s Will to Fight? From the paragraphs above, the need to break the enemy’s will is paramount in determining war victory and this cannot be provided by battlefield success alone. Mentioned earlier, battlefield success would account for only one of the three elements necessary for victory, which is the greater loss of material strength. While it can be argued that defeat in a battle could lead to a reduction in the morale of an army, this reduction would be ‘gradually restored and show no trace of its disruptions.

Leveraging Clausewitz’s trinity of war comprising the government, military and people, the will of all three elements must be broken before victory could be achieved. This is supported by Bartholomees whose theory of victory stated that a precondition for victory would be for the enemy to share the same perception as us through “the admission of loss” and that “it is an important caveat for all levels”. Battlefield success might have been achieved victory in the past as the military was the only means of waging war and thus, was seen as the centre of gravity. However in the modern concept of total warfare shifted the centre of gravity towards other areas, such as the economic capacity as it was this capacity which supported the army. Clearly battlefield success alone would not be able to break the will of all the elements or levels.

This is further supported by Stephen King-Hill who argued that the enemy’s mind could only be “changed” through propaganda and not by military means. He further added that propaganda was as important as military operations and it was necessary to form a “Ministry of Political Warfare” during war to be responsible for all activities pertaining to the “battlefield of the brains”.

At the height of the war between1965 to 1968, America deployed up to 525,000 soldiers supported by state-of-the-art weaponry and platforms in Vietnam. The total cost of war, at 1974 prices, was estimated to be $145 billion. North Vietnam, in comparison, had a “rag tag army” which ran on a defence budget of less than $6 billion and that included aid from the Soviet Union and China amounting to $1.66 billion and $0.67 billion respectively. The Vietnam War proved to be a classic example of how the Viet Cong was able to maintain the resistance to combat the American forces by overcoming its asymmetric disadvantage in means through its fierce will to fight.

To the Vietnamese, the war for independence had been waged as early as AD 40 when they rose against their Chinese occupiers. Since then, Vietnam had been attacked by Mongolia, and occupied by the Chinese, French and Japanese. Spurred by the nationalistic desire to unify the country, the Viet Cong and NVA were prepared and experienced to wage a war of attrition with the American and this was declared by Ho Chi Minh, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds you will lose and I will win”. To the Vietnamese, the war for independence was a matter of national survival and their will to fight was summed up by Ton That Tung, “there was extraordinary fervour then. The Americans thought that the more bombs they dropped, the quicker we would fall to our knees and surrender. But the bombs heightened rather than dampened our spirit”.


What is War Termination? War termination is a sub-category of peace studies and comprises a series of processes beginning from the commencement of war to its termination which is agreed to by all belligerents. Compared to the study of war and its causes, war termination is a relatively new discipline as most studies on war do not look beyond the initial stage of war. War termination essentially refers to the cessation of hostilities and marks the transition from war to non-war. It is a condition necessary for peace although by it does not guarantee peace by itself.

Definitions of War Termination. Two definitions can be used to categorise war termination, the broad and the narrow. The broad, or general definition focuses on the end of war and the return to peace. It looks into areas such as the type of settlement, causes of the conflict, motivation and culture of the belligerents.

In the narrow definition, the focus of war termination is on more specific areas such as when and why the war was terminated at that particular point in time. It concentrates on the end of fighting and does not address conflict resolution nor bring about the return to normal peace. This definition will be used in the following articulation of the bargaining process.

Bargaining Process. Bargaining is defined by the Mariam-Webster’s Online Dictionary as, “an agreement between parties settling what each gives or receives in a transaction between them or what course of action or policy each pursues in respect to the other”. Other than Pillar, other academics have leveraged the metaphor of bargaining to explain war termination and they include Dan Reiter who likened war termination as a process where two actors bargained to divide a scarce and disputed good.

In a similar vein, this paper will utilise the metaphor of bargaining to explain why America had such great difficulty in terminating the Vietnam War. This will be done by building on the three key characteristics of bargaining stated by Pillar where (1) both parties realise that they could benefit from the agreement; (2) mutual agreement is fundamental to bargaining; and (3) there exists more than one possible permutation of agreement.

Juxtaposing the context of the Vietnam War and the bargaining process mentioned above, the two areas to be addressed are: (1) the purpose of bargaining and how the purpose had changed over the war; and (2) the weighing of the pros and cons of the bargain.

Purpose of Bargaining and How the Purpose had Changed over the War

In approaching the process of bargaining, the fundamental questions would be “what would I want out of the bargain” and “what would I settle for should my desired terms not be achievable”? Taken in context of the Vietnam War, the questions would correspond to the political objective, desired end-state and actual end-state of the war.

Political Objective and Desired End State. The end of World War II heralded a new era of the Cold War which saw a bipolar world power between America and the Soviet Union. Wary that the spread of communism would undermine her role leadership role in the new world order, America adopted a foreign policy, under Truman, which demanded American intervention wherever there was a communist threat. This policy of containment led to American intervention in the Chinese civil war, assisting anti-communist forces in Greece, putting down the Huk insurgency in the Philippines and the involvement in the Korean War. Vietnam was no different.

Heavily influenced by the “Domino Theory”, which was strengthened by the fall of China to communism in 1949 and the communist invasion of South Korea in 1950, the political objective of America was to contain the spread of communism in Vietnam least “the United States, inevitably must surrender the Pacific and take up defences on our own shores”.

Linked to the political objective of stemming the spread of communism in Asia, the desired end-state was the establishment of South Vietnam as an independent, non-communist state through compelling North Vietnam to abandon their efforts in the South. The significance of this desired end-state was espoused by Kennedy, in a conference in 1956, when he referred Vietnam as the “cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia” and that Vietnam was the “keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike against the red tide in Asia”.

Actual End-State. In the development of the war, America’s envisaged biggest bargaining chip – military success, turned out to be ineffective against the Viet Cong. On the other hand, the growing dis-satisfaction and economic ramifications of the war was causing great domestic political strain on America. Given the developments, there was, however, great reluctance for America to terminate the war as the outcome would favour North Vietnam, thus demonstrating the inability of America to prosecute her political objective. It was only after several attempts at negotiation did America find an agreeable alternate end-state to the Vietnam War.

America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was put in effect by the Paris Peace Accords in 1972. Under the agreement, all American troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam in exchange for the release of all American prisoners of war. In addition, neither America nor North Vietnam could introduce any more troops into South Vietnam, although North Vietnam could retain its existing troops in the South. The end-state saw America achieve “peace with honour” but South Vietnam, left alone to face North Vietnam, capitulated in 1975.

Difficulty of War Termination. Apart from the growing domestic dis-satisfaction and cost of the war which would be elaborated in the next section, the realisation that the war was militarily unwinnable came as early as May 1967 when the Systems Analysis Office of the Department of Defence furnished a report on the figures on the war. In the report, it was clear that that the Viet Cong were dictating the engagements in terms of “frequency, number, size, length and intensity” . The Viet Cong were also shown to be able to continue the war indefinitely as they were successful in limiting their casualty rate to just below their birth rate.

Despite knowing that the Vietnam War was going to end as a stalemate, the difficulty faced by America in war termination, in relation to the political objectives, can be attributed to the potential loss of international credibility by not being able to attain the political objective against a “rag tag” army.

Having failed to prevent the communist takeover of China and not being able to purge Korea of communism, Kennedy declared that “now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place” while Johnson stated that “America would not lose Vietnam”. Aware that the Soviet Union, China and other third world countries would be keenly observing how America fared, the Vietnam War was something America could ill afford to lose. Prestige aside, losing the Vietnam War would be akin to losing yet another battle to communism and this would encourage the rise of communist activities in third world countries as it had been shown that America could be defeated despite its material strength. The failure to contain the communist threat in Vietnam would seriously put a dent in America’s credibility as the leader of the new world order.

Pros and Cons of the Bargain

Prior to any bargain, one would weigh the pros and cons to ensure that bargain would bring about benefits or cost-avoidance. Similarly, American and North Vietnam would have adopted a rational mode to war termination and considered their options based on a cost-benefit approach.

The Cost-Benefit Approach. The cost-benefit approach is best explained using Gilplin’s rational-choice theory. This theory is premised on the assumption that the belligerents were rational and would seek peace should the marginal costs of continuing the war exceed the worth of the objective in which the war was fought over.

Despite the heavy cost of the war, America continued to prosecute it as the political objective was deemed to be of higher value. It was only when the very fabric of the nation was threatened by the widening segregation of society between the war and anti-war supporters did the politicians deem the war to be too costly and sought war termination. North Vietnam similarly was initially unwilling to seek war termination as the political objective of unifying the country was worth the cost. The willingness to bear the cost in human lives was augmented as they felt that the domestic unrest in America would soon hand them victory. It was only after the improving American ties with her communist backers, Russia and China, coupled with the possibility of renewed attacks on sanctuaries in Cambodia should Nixon be re-elected, did North Vietnam seize the opportunity to negotiate a war termination. The cost-benefit analysis of war termination for America is elaborated below.

American Cost-Benefit Analysis. The political, economic and social cost of the war for America had been tremendous. Politically, Johnson had to forgo his desire to build the “Great Society” which would exude social justice, economic equity and racial equality, as funding for the programme would be transferred to the war chest for Vietnam. Despite this cost, Johnson made the decision to leave “the woman he really loved” and prosecute the “bitch of a war” as he opined that the ramifications of ignoring Vietnam would entail a greater cost. The communist take-over of the country would lead to his political rivals hounding him for allowing the spread of communism which would “shatter his presidency, kill his administration and damage their democracy”. Given the possible ramifications, Johnson could not initiate the process of war termination unless the political objective of containing the communist threat was achieved.

Although the monetary cost of the war was estimated to be in the region of $145 billion, at 1947 prices, the true cost of the war was calculated to be $300 billion. This bill was derived from the inclusion of other hidden costs such as inflation brought about by the war, loss in economic productivity due to the conscription of soldiers, interest of loans taken and cost of funding benefits for Vietnam veterans. At the height of the war between 1965 and 1968, America was spending $2 billion per month on the war. With its technological superiority and vast material advantage, America had anticipated the Vietnam War to be easily won and did not develop a coherent strategy nor war termination plan. They had assumed that war termination would occur naturally when battles were won. Hence when the Viet Cong refused to buckle under the application of military action, the only course for America was to escalate the troop deployment and bombings in an effort to compel North Vietnam to negotiate war termination due to extensive casualties sustained. With the escalation of forces committed, the cost of the war became greater and it also became more difficult for America to disengage. George Ball’s prophecy in 1964, “once on the tiger’s back we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount”, came true.

As the Vietnam War continued, the escalation of American involvement translated an increase in casualties as well as the raising of taxes to fund the war effort. Coupled with the feeling that there was no end in view, more Americans joined the anti-war movement and demanded for the cessation of America’s involvement in the war. Within four years in office, the approval rating of Johnson’s policies dropped from 80 per cent to 40 per cent in 1967. After the Tet Offensive in 1968, Johnson’s approval rating dropped further to 36 per cent while the approval of his Vietnam policies plummeted to 26 per cent. This signified the country’s lack of trust in Johnson’s ability and credibility – something which is fatal to a politician in a democratic society where political leaders are elected based on public trust and support. Although Johnson did not run for an extension of his presidency, public sentiments had sent a clear signal to his successor, Nixon, that the cost of the war was exceeding the value of the political objective of which it was fought for.

Of greater concern was how the continuing of the war had affected American society. At the beginning of the ground operations in 1965, a protest comprising 25,000 students was organised in Washington DC. By 1967, American society had become more polarised as the anti-war camp movement picked up more members and was supported by celebrities and the media. On Oct 21 1967, over 100,000 protesters had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial which resulted in the mobilisation of over 2,000 policemen. An additional 20,000 troops were placed on standby as contingency should there be uprisings at the ghetto areas. As the media portrayed more incidents from Vietnam, such as the My Lai massacre, more Americans got disillusioned with the war and wanted it to end. The war had threatened the fabric of the nation and was starting to lose its value as a political objective. This put Johnson in a dilemma as on one hand, America had to initiate war termination as the cost of the war was exceeding its political benefits, but on the other hand, America could not terminate the war as there would be negative ramifications to America’s international standings and besides, too much has been invested in Vietnam to just pull out.


In discussing why America had so much difficulty in war termination despite its military success in the battlefield, this paper has explained the phenomenon in two broad tranches. First, it had shown that the American battlefield success could not be used as a bargaining chip in war termination to bring about the desired end-state in support of the political objective of the war. Hence, this contributed to the difficulty in war termination. This was done through the discussion on the levels of war which proved that there was no causal relationship between the tactical and strategic levels of success. In addition, it was also shown that the military success did not cause the will of the Viet Cong to be diminished as well.

Using the analogy of bargaining, the second tranche sought to provide more insights as to why the war termination process for America was difficult. Building on the lack of a bargaining chip which was established in the first tranche, the key difficulty was due to the perceived value of the political objective which outweighed the costs incurred to continue the war. This was shown using the concepts of desired end-states vis-a-vis actual end-states as well as the use of the rational cost-benefit approach to war termination.


1. Nigel Cawthorne, Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, Arcturus Publishing Limited

2. G. A. Donaldson, America at War Since 1945: Politics, Diplomacy in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War, Westport, Connecticut London, 1996

3. Massoud, Tansa, George, The Termination of Wars, University Microfilms International, 1992

4. Paul R. Pillar, Negotiating Peace: War as a Bargaining Process, Princeton University Press, 1983

5. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by M. Howard and P. Paret, Everyman’s Library, 1993

6. Engelbrecht, Joseph A., Jr, War Termination: Why does a State Decide to Stop Fighting?, University Microfilms International, 1992

7. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, Penguin Books, 1984

8. Richard Hobbs, The Myth of Victory: What is Victory in War?, Westview Press 1979

9. George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, Third Edition, McGraw-Hill


1. Bernard Fook Weng Loo, ‘Decisive Battle, Victory and Revolution in Military Affairs’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol 32, No. 2, April 2009

2. J. B. Bartholomees, ‘Theory of Victory’, Parameters, Summer 2008

3. Bruce C. Bade, War Termination: Why Don’t We Plan For It?, National Defence University, National War College, 1994


1. http://www.vietnam-war.info/casualties/

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