Sunday, March 15, 2015


There are two major lies about Vietnam.
The first is that we could have won.  The short answer is that if we could have won we would have won.
The second is that it was unpopular.  If it were unpopular, it would have been over.
To say that we could have won in Vietnam is to say that we didn’t do enough. We weren’t there long enough, we didn’t kill enough people, we didn’t lose enough people, or we didn’t spend enough money. None of those things is true.  It was a tremendous effort.
Perhaps we didn’t do exactly what someone wanted when they wanted it, but we were there a long time and we did many different things.
We didn’t go nuclear but we dropped millions of tons of ordinance on an area the size of New Mexico.  We cratered the place then sprayed it with defoliant, not a bad approximation.   We used magnesium bombs, which people thought were tactical nukes. The Vietnamese culture Koi in the craters we made.
We didn’t directly attack Russian shipping but we did mine Haiphong harbor.
Why did we lose?  Attrition.  Attrition is using a million dollar missile to knock over a ten thousand dollar building.  It is rations packed in New Jersey. It’s a soldier with two years training stepping on a sharpened stick.
To put it simply:  if we could have come around to the opposite hemisphere and rightly or wrongly imposed our will on those brave disciplined determined people who most obviously didn’t want us then there is no hope for freedom in the world and the Russian empire still stands. We are now embroiled in the very conflict that defeated Russia.
Sadly, our military academies still teach that we could have won.
We have had one unpopular war; that was Korea.  The Korean War was the only war voted down by the American people.  We lost many people in a short period and there were stories about our troop supply problems.  The Chinese wore heavy quilted coats and our troops were cold.  Eisenhower went to Korea and ended the conflict within the month of his inauguration just as he promised.  That’s what happens when a war is unpopular.  The military was traumatized by this and they have avoided severe casualties ever since and are very sensitive to the image of supply or equipment problems.
You can argue about the relative popularity of various wars.  There was resistance to World War I, the Philippines, the Civil War, 1812, and the Revolution.  I can make the case that Vietnam was an order of magnitude, by state count, more popular than World War II.
Opinion polls are least useful when they ask for opinions.  People tend to talk in code.  If they really were upset about the economy under Obama then why give it back to the people who broke it.  Questioning Kerry’s war record (vs. Bush) or McGovern’s character (vs. Nixon), are other examples.  It’s obvious that they do not clearly articulate the reasons for their decisions.  Yet they do make those decisions.  Opinion polls about the war itself would have been illegal during World War II.  Perhaps the nations voter’s do not accurately reflect the views of its citizens, but so what, if you don’t vote you don’t count. We decide by this collective voice. The poll that counts is the count at the polls.
The election between Wendell Willkie and Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 effectively decided our participation in World War II.   That’s not to say that we would not have gone to war, but it’s likely we would have been less enthusiastic.  Neither candidate actually used the war word; they both said they would assist Britain.  However, Willkie accused Roosevelt of planning to join the war and Roosevelt made no such accusation against Willkie.  In fairness, Willkie was the least anti war candidate of the Republican Party.  We don’t know what would have happened but a large victory for Willkie would have been a very strong statement by the American people against participation.
It didn’t happen, Roosevelt won, he got 55% of the popular vote and Willkie carried ten states and received 82 electoral votes.  In his third election in 1944, Roosevelt ran against Dewey.  Dewey had been opposed to entering the war.  Of course, he didn’t say anything that treasonous during the election.  It was clear by then that we were going to win World War II, yet Dewey did even better than Willkie did.  He took 12 states and 99 electoral votes.  Roosevelt got 53.4% of the vote.  A victory for Dewey would have been a renunciation of our participation in the war and might have led to a larger Soviet world presence.
Contrast that with McGovern against Nixon at the end of the Vietnam War when it was certain that we had lost.  McGovern, a World War II hero without blemish, stood flat-footed against the Vietnam War running against swamp slime. He was soundly beaten. He carried one state with 17 electoral votes and 31% of the vote.  The American people voted for the Vietnam War, far more enthusiastically than they voted for World War II.
Why was Vietnam so popular?  It was a ruinous war but our military had learned the lesson of Korea and our casualties per year stayed well below the Korean numbers.  The other big change was television. Every night at dinner, we saw our brave boys in combat.  Occasionally we saw those damn kids demonstrating against the war.  People voted in that context.

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