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Debate: Vietnam War

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Was the Vietnam War justifiable?

Background and context

Whilst probably of little use for competitive debating (with the possible exception of US-style time-place setting), this debate happens all the time. It happens between historians, between observers, between veterans – and everywhere from classrooms and university halls to pubs and cafes. This is a debate that people have all the time in real life, and therefore, though it may not come up in formal university debating, we should consider it. Vietnam's history is largely one of foreign rule, primarily by the Chinese. France began exerting a significant influence in Southeast Asia in 1860 and by the late 1800s was colonial master of ‘French Indochina’ (made up of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam).
During World War II the Japanese took control of Indochina and set up a puppet regime that was opposed by the Vietnamese resistance led by Ho Chi Minh, and fell in 1945 when Japan surrendered to the Allies. After WWII Ho declared Vietnamese independence, but France disputed this and independence was not recognized by the victorious Allied powers. From then until 1955 France fought to regain their former territories, but with a poorly organized and demoralised army their efforts soon collapsed. The French were decisively defeated by the Vietnamese at Dien Bien Phu on the 8th of May 1954 and withdrew, leaving a buffer zone separating the North and South and promising elections to form a government in the South. Ho’s communist regime set up its headquarters in Hanoi. Many North Vietnamese left the new country and fled south where the USA-supported self-proclaimed president, Ngo Dinh Diem, had formed the Republic of Vietnam (ROV). Between 1955 and 1960, the North Vietnamese and southern communist forces – the ‘Vietcong’ (VC) – tried to bring down the South Vietnamese government, and in November 1963 President Diem was overthrown and killed in murky circumstances (perhaps with the consent of the USA). The following year, the North Vietnamese began a massive drive to conquer the whole country, aided by China and Russia. Fearing communist takeover of the entire region, the United States grew wary of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong. Communism had become the prime opponent in the US thinking and with expansion of Soviet rule into Eastern Europe, and influence in Korea and Cuba, the Americans wanted to stop communism from spreading any further. With the cold war at its height, the US worried that direct attack on North Vietnam by the US would create tensions with the Chinese and Russians that would lead to larger conflict and possibly a third world war. This situation led to internal conflicts that ultimately prevented the US from forming a firm policy for the region. Corruption was widespread among South Vietnamese officials and the armed forces. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was disorganized, with low morale and leaders motivated by personal gain: the US had difficulty in holding the ARVN together and direct involvement inevitably followed. The US began sending troops, firstly in an advisory role, escalating into a full-blown military commitment in 1965. As the conflict expanded and the focus moved from small specialist forces to larger infantry groups, the USA deployed an army of young men placed in an environment alien to them, with no clear ‘front’, and an enemy which could be anywhere. Drugs filtered their way into the routine of many servicemen and morale quickly fell. Young Americans increasingly resisted the ‘draft’, an act which gained some social acceptance (though not amongst the majority of citizens). Riots and demonstrations against the war occurred frequently in the US, with veterans taking part in the efforts to stop the war, including John Kerry, recent Democratic nominee for the presidency. Finally, the US made plans to withdraw, and after the establishment of a cease-fire on 27th January 1973 American soldiers began leaving Vietnam for good. The North Vietnamese conquered South Vietnam in early 1975 (in breach of the cease-fire), and on 2nd July 1976 North and South Vietnam were officially united as a single communist state.
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Argument #1

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Yes

The Domino Theory, initially propounded by President Eisenhower, suggested that one nation becoming Communist makes it more likely that others will too. Without American involvement, the South would quickly have fallen to the North and the nation, united under Communism, would have joined the Communist bloc. The nation adds its strength and materiel to the forces opposed to the West and to democracy, and becomes a threat to its neighbours – in this case, the unstable regimes of Indochina and Southeast Asia more generally. Communism would spread through these countries, to Indonesia, from whence it would threaten Australia. The USA had to oppose this, not least because their opponents also believed in this theory and the North Vietnamese were being greatly aided by their (often rival) Communist sponsors, China and the USSR. Success in Vietnam would encourage both great Eastern powers to offer such overt support for Communist revolution elsewhere. In the long term, this expansion would threaten the USA itself, by which time it might be too late to act: this therefore was self-defence. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but at the time the USA’s fears were well founded: the forces of Communism in the world were extremely strong, with conventional forces much stronger than those of the West. Allowing those forces to gain strength by dominating further countries would have been criminally irresponsible. Furthermore, the ability to oppose the Communists in ‘proxy wars’ was a valuable one: it ensured that battles took place away from areas more important for the USA’s national interest (most importantly, like US soil). It ensured that men and materiel that might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere were not. It is true that Communist Vietnam posed no significant threat to its region post-unification: but would this have been true, if the North had not had to engage its forces and strength in years of bloody conflict, merely to achieve unification in the first place? Delay allowed Vietnam’s non-Communist nations time to strengthen their defences? The war gave Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines a breathing space so that they could not be overrun, as Cambodia was. At least in part, they owe their existence as vibrant, free, capitalist nations to the USA’s stand in Vietnam.

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No

The interference in another nation’s sovereign affairs was a violation of international law – hence the absurd refusal to call the conflict in Vietnam a ‘war’. It is only legitimate to attack another nation if they attack you, or possibly if you genuinely think they are about to: nobody would ever suggest that the North Vietnamese threatened the American people in any way whatsoever. Once involved, the USA bombed Cambodia and Laos, too – breaking more laws, with even less justification. These violations of the law undermined the western bloc’s claim to moral superiority, as the USA killed thousands of civilians and bombed Cambodia. Furthermore, history shows the domino theory to have been wrong, since the only nation Vietnam threatened after its eventual unification was Cambodia – which was already Communist. This was predominantly a civil war, one that would have been over far more quickly and with much less bloodshed had the USA not interfered. (There isn’t a single example of an occasion in which it’s been a good idea to get involved in someone else’s civil war.)

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Argument #2

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Yes

It may be true that many who opposed the South’s government were not Communist, but rather nationalist or anti-Diem etcetera. But the effect is the same as if they had been: they served to undermine anti-Communist forces and helped the Communists. It is true that Diem et al were far from perfect – but in the fight against Communism, necessity forced the West to have dealings with many people whom one might not have chosen to have dinner with. Vietnam was no different. On the other hand, many nationalists were opposed to Ho Chi Minh and the Communists – because they didn’t want their country and its citizens to be drawn in to the communist collective. So this argument stands for both sides, not just for the opposition.

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No

It is false to present the USA’s actions as the restraint of Communism. Many non-communists in Vietnam opposed the Southern government, because it was so corrupt and so oppressive. Diem wasn’t elected, he was appointed by the Emperor – he cancelled elections, made himself President and refused to initiate post-colonial land reforms, ensuring that more than 80% of South Vietnam’s land was owned by less than 5% of its people. Many people wished fervently for national independence, especially following the fight against the Japanese during which they were promised it by the Allies, and they saw Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh movement (which had valiantly led opposition to the Japanese) as truly delivering that, as opposed to the South Vietnamese government, which was a tool of the West. Bundling all those that opposed this as Communist was one of the worst ideas the West had during the whole Cold War, ensuring that many people who were not necessarily inclined towards Communism at all were radicalised, as the Communists became the focal point of resistance against the corrupt government of South Vietnam and of the Americans that supported it. Even Ho Chi Minh was more nationalist than Communist, but he was forced to rely on Communist allies because the leader of the capitalist world turned against him and supported the French in their colonial ambitions, and then directly opposed him itself. If the Allies had honoured their promises for independence, Vietnam would perhaps have become a valuable ally in the Cold War, rather than such a problem.

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Argument #3

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Yes

If the US hadn’t participated, the non-Communist peoples of South Vietnam would have been persecuted even more than they were. As it was, after the South was invaded by the North in 1978 over a million fled and millions more were killed, tortured and persecuted in the aftermath of the war, and in the years since. In an absurd example of this, anyone with any element of professional success – doctors, lawyers, civil servants, professors, teachers – had their lives ruined, at the very least being forbidden to practice their vocation, even to this day. The fate of those millions who suffered so greatly under the Communists after the fall of the South shows that it was right to assist the non-Communists in opposing them.

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No

Claiming that US involvement reduced suffering is little short of bizarre. It is so obvious that it seems trite to point it out, but it seems that we must: millions of people died in this conflict, and much of that suffering could have been entirely avoided. It is true that some suffering and some death would inevitably have occurred in the war that was going to take place anyway between the North and South Vietnamese after the unsatisfactory post-French war ‘solution’ of Geneva. But the incredible trauma involved in a civilised nation setting out to ‘bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age’ would never have occurred. The estimated 3.2 million Vietnamese people that perished in the conflict would not have died.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The North Vietnamese authorities violated the Geneva agreement first by failing to allow those of its citizens not wishing to live under its rule to peaceably depart and begin new lives in the South. Therefore, the US-sanctioned failure to observe direct elections for South Vietnam agreed at Geneva is legitimate – the accord had already broken down. Many of those that would have made up the electorate were being killed, tortured or at least prevented from leaving the North – so what kind of election would it have been, anyway?

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No

One prime opposition to the administration in South Vietnam was not Communist but nationalist sentiment, driven by the broken promise of Geneva for free elections in the South – which the USA and Britain reneged upon because Ho Chi Minh would certainly have won them. It was profoundly wrong to break this agreement and this dishonesty sits at the heart of the USA’s actions in Indochina, totally undermining the claim that it fought for democracy.

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Yes

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No

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Argument #5

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Yes

As Britain did in the Falklands, the USA acted in Vietnam not only to protect those directly involved but also to send a message to those opposed to the West and to democracy that the guardians of liberal values were not weak. This gave pause to the expansionist desires of Soviet and other forces and thus helped to avoid more direct and bloody conflict such as invasion of Western Europe.

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No

Even from the hawk’s point of view, the willingness of the USA to indulge in a colonial fight that was really a French affair, should hardly be thought of as a successful part of the Cold War strategy. The economic cost of this lost fight was huge: capital and energy that could have been better spent on enlarging the arsenal of nuclear weaponry to pressure Soviet collapse, if not on the lives and societies of America’s citizens who gave up all that money to so little effect.

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Argument #6

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Yes

South Vietnam possessed considerable strategic value: control of the Straits of Malacca, regional key for transport in both peace and war, was in the balance. That this control wasn’t abused by united Communist Vietnam after 1975 is a result of two things – exhaustion from the fight (and from the subsequent incursions into Cambodia and Laos), and secondly the fact that as global relations swung to and fro, China and Russia exerted pressure on all their client states not to ‘play up’. This responsible and disciplined approach on the part of the Communists could never have been predicted or budgeted for by the USA in planning its treatment of Vietnam (or any other regional conflict).

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No

If this is the case, why didn’t the balance of power in Southeast Asia shift in favour of the Communist bloc after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975? If it’s because the new Vietnamese government was restrained and responsible, was it really worth wasting millions of lives in the vain attempt to stop it coming to power?

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Argument #7

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Yes

The war was fatally undermined by those at home – by anti-war journalists and protestors; this has little to do with the successes of US forces in the field, which were actually much more impressive than the modern-day impression would have it. Viet Cong veterans now admit the effectiveness of the Operation Phoenix teams, who carried out large numbers of targeted assassinations on VC cell leaders (and of Project Cherry, which did the same in Cambodia). This was effective because there were only so many people who were truly motivated to fight for Communism and the North – the idea that millions were anti-USA and anti-ROV is a myth, as demonstrated by the millions of refugees that fled from the VC, and fled from the South when it fell to the VC. Had this strong attack on the infrastructure of the VC been stepped up, and coupled with a hearts and minds campaign that really did yield some concrete results, and with a stronger approach earlier in the campaign (such as the mining of Haiphong harbour and the destruction of the Ho Chi Minh trail in the 1960s rather than the 1970s), the war could have been won. The fact that the USA didn’t do these things when it should have doesn’t mean it couldn’t have So the USA didn’t pull out because it was losing – it pulled out because of political pressure on the home front. Even after that, South Vietnam could have won on its own had the USA honoured Nixon’s promises to Saigon to bomb North Vietnam if it violated its treaty obligations, as it did in invading in 1973 – promises broken, again, for political reasons (Watergate, this time). The war wasn’t lost militarily – it was only lost politically. [Mutually exclusive 2nd line of rebuttal: people accept this cliche that America ‘lost’ the Vietnam War. But in regional conflicts like this, it is impossible to say that events produce a definitive winner and loser. Did Russia lose the Afghanistan War? Is she ‘losing’ in Chechnya? Who ‘won’ in Crimea, or in the Boer War? In most examples, there are positive and negative outcomes for both sides. Here, the USA got a lot longer to help the rest of East Asia shore up against Communism, producing such vibrant capitalist economies as South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia etc. Vietnam became independent. To ask who ‘won’ is to compare apples and oranges.] And in any case, the logic deployed by the opposition – that it is wrong to fight a war if you lose – is deplorable. If the Nazis had won World War Two, would it have been wrong for the Allies to have fought them?

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No

There’s also a pragmatic reason against the US involvement in Vietnam – the war was unwinnable. A guerrilla war would last forever, in terrain the Americans could never understand. The enemy cared about the conflict much more than the USA’s troops. America’s enemies were everywhere, and for the most part could not be told from friends. The Vietnamese would never, ever give up this fight. Unless willing to kill on an even more vast scale than that actually used, wiping the Vietnamese race from the face of the earth, then eventually the Americans would have to give up. So why start?

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Argument #8

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Yes

All the suffering US personnel underwent is only an opposition to the war if one believes that the war (or US involvement in it) was unjust, and we don’t accept that. The war was worth fighting – and wars always involve suffering; we’ve just got better at identifying it. War involves death. Not everything in war is clean and fair. Often things that should not happen, do happen. But ‘we sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.’

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No

The suffering endured by millions of US citizens could have been avoided if the USA had kept out of this conflict. The 58,000 soldiers that died, the soldiers that suffered terrible injuries, the soldiers were captured and ill-treated, the soldiers that suffered Post-Traumatic Stress, flashbacks, hallucinations, breakdowns and psychoses for years afterwards even to this day, and the relatives and loved ones of all of these men: all their suffering could have been avoided. The USA chose to inflict that terrible suffering on its own people by interfering in a conflict it shouldn’t have been involved with in the first place.

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Argument #9

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Yes

This is all true. It is truly a great shame and we should do all we can now to put the situation right (mine clearance, water purification etc) but it was nevertheless worth incurring even this, for the reasons outlined above.

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No

The war did tremendous, lasting damage to the fabric and environment of the Vietnamese country. 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, along with large amounts of other defoliants, was dumped on the landscape in colossal proportions (in order to deny the enemy cover), laying waste to vast areas of land (15% of Vietnamese farming land will remain unusable for the next 200 years), poisoning water and food supplies, putting massive amounts of hugely dangerous chemicals in the food chain to such a degree that a wide variety of diseases are inflicted on the inhabitants of the land, and thousands more are crippled or horribly deformed, including – as genetic damage is passed from mother to child – babies born today and babies yet to be born. Landmines by the thousand and vast quantities of unexploded ordnance still cause death and injury today. None of this would have happened if the USA had not been involved, even if prolonged conflict had nevertheless occurred – because the participants would not have wielded the technology the USA misused to such tragic effect.

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