The lost lessons of the Vietnam War


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik) - A red flag was raised over the Palace of Independence in Saigon at 11.30 a.m. on April 30, 1975, signaling the official end of the second Indochinese war, which broke out in the late 1950s.

That war is all the more interesting now because its course and consequences evoke associations with the current conflict in Iraq.

A major conflict in the second half of the 20th century, the Indochinese war was waged in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Split into southern and northern parts by the 1954 Geneva accords, Vietnam became the main theater of military operations. It was supposed to re-unite after free elections in 1956, but the pro-American regime of Ngo Dinh Diem wrecked the accords, and unilaterally proclaimed the formation of the sovereign republic of Vietnam.

It launched agrarian reforms that cancelled rural self-government, and cracked down on the communist opposition. As a result, a smoldering guerrilla war started in1957.

In 1959, the Ho Chi Minh-led government of North Vietnam decided to support the guerillas by supplying them with weapons and sending military advisers to the south. Initially, supplies were carried out through the demilitarized zone along the 17th parallel, which divided the two Vietnams. But before long, they started bypassing this zone by following the Ho Chi Minh trail - a system of paths passing parallel to the border with Vietnam on the territory of Laos and Cambodia. The guerrillas in South Vietnam united into the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFLSV), which later became known as Viet Cong.

Practically at the same time, the war spread into Laos, where government forces were fighting against the Pathet Lao pro-communist movement (Patriotic Front of Laos).

The escalating war compelled the United States to help its puppet Diem. In 1961, Washington sent the first two helicopter squadrons to South Vietnam to increase the mobility of the South Vietnamese special forces. U.S. military advisers started arriving in Vietnam in large numbers.

The unstable, corrupt, and unpopular South Vietnamese government guaranteed the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese considerable military successes. Only direct U.S. intervention could prevent Viet Cong from scoring inevitable victory.

The excuse for intervention came on August 2, 1964. In the official U.S. version, North Vietnamese motor boats attacked an American destroyer, which was conducting radio-electronic surveillance in the neutral Gulf of Tonkin. This incident was repeated on the night of August 4. The following day, deck-based aircraft of the U.S. Navy dealt the first blows against North Vietnamese targets. On the same day, August 5, U.S. Congress adopted the Tonkin resolution, which allowed the president to use armed force in South-East Asia.

Lyndon B. Johnson did not rush to intervene - escalation of the war could harm his image as a dove of peace in the 1964 elections. Barry Goldwater, his opponent, was a hawk. In the meantime, the Viet Cong continued its offensive, capturing more and more land. By this time, North Vietnam was already supporting the guerrillas with regular troops.

As a result, in March 1965, Johnson decided to send a military contingent to Vietnam. Initially consisting of two Marine battalions, which protected the Danang Airport, the American contingent grew to185,000 by the end of the year. Major U.S. naval forces were permanently patrolling Vietnamese shores; aircraft-carriers were deployed in two key positions - two or three at Yankee Station off the coast of North Vietnam, and one was based at Dixie Station in South Vietnam. American aircraft launched operation Rolling Thunder, their first lengthy offensive against North Vietnam.

Direct U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War provoked an immediate response from the Eastern bloc countries; it even improved bad relations between the Soviet Union and China. Since the spring of 1965, Eastern bloc countries commenced massive arms supplies to Vietnam. Soviet and East European weapons and hardware arrived on Soviet and Polish ships at Haifon, while Chinese supplies crossed the Sino-Vietnamese border.

The U.S. Air Force repeatedly mounted fierce attacks on Haifon, avoiding the port and ships off the harbor - destruction of a Soviet or other allied ship might have led to unpredictable consequences.

The Soviet Union sent Vietnam primarily air defense equipment - anti-aircraft systems, artillery, and radars. Fighters were also supplied, but on a much lesser scale than during the Korean War. The Vietnam War became the benefit performance of air defense systems, teaching one side to use them, and the other side, to repel. In effect, this gave rise to modern air defense methods of combining small-caliber anti-aircraft artillery and air defense missiles of different range. After the Vietnam War, the United States gave priority to stealth attack aircraft with high-precision weapons.

The active phase of the war continued until the spring of 1973. On the one hand, the United States did not lose a single battle, on the other it did not score any successes; 58,000 U.S. officers and men were killed in action, and more than 300,000 wounded. The guerrilla war was reaching out to new territories. The United States had to intervene in Laos, where it supported and armed the Hmong tribes, which became the Pathet Lao's main opponent, and later on in Cambodia, where it brought to power its stooge Lon Nol in order to prevent Viet Cong from using its territory. Lon Nol's rise to power provoked a civil war in Cambodia - he was opposed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.

The war was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. Johnson's successor, President Richard Nixon, made the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. This decision was fatal for the Saigon regime - the war was lost despite the continued support with arms supplies and military advisers. The last U.S. allies escaped Saigon on U.S. Navy helicopters several hours before North Vietnamese tanks arrived at the U.S. Embassy's compound. A couple of weeks before, on April 17, 1975, Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital.

The end of the second Indochinese war did not calm the region. Four years later, Vietnam had to fight against Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge's name for Cambodia) in order to topple the Pol Pot regime, which had terrorized the entire country. Practically at the same time, Vietnam was attacked by China, but this assault was rebuffed with Soviet help.

A parallel with the Iraq War suggests that escalation of a conflict and higher intensity of combat operations do not necessarily produce a victory - even a half-a-million-strong contingent failed to succeed in Vietnam. Transfer of initiative to the local allies does not help, either - usually they quickly get bogged down in internal strife and corruption, and lose to any more or less organized force. A victory in such a war can only be achieved by a simultaneous skilful combination of political, economic, and military measures; a model of development understandable to the local population is a necessary, albeit insufficient guarantee of success. The United States did not have such a model in Vietnam thirty years ago. Nor does it have one in Iraq. The results of these wars will only differ in the number of human losses.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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