David Cortright is Associate Director for Programs and Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. As an enlisted soldier during the Vietnam War, he spoke out against that conflict.
There are many lessons of Vietnam, but three stand out in explaining why the United States lost the war—ignorance, arrogance, and the absence of a viable local ally. All three continue to characterize American policy today and help to explain why wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also have failed to achieve success.
The United States entered Vietnam without an understanding of the country’s history and culture. We did not speak the language or know the people. We viewed Vietnam through the lens of a Cold War struggle against communism rather than as a national independence struggle against colonialism and foreign domination. We did not realize the extent of the social revolution in Vietnam led by the National Liberation Front (NLF), which gave land to the tillers and solidified support for the liberation struggle. We did not understand that the war was lost politically before it ever began militarily.
U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were equally ill-informed. We entered without the ability to speak Arabic, Pashto or other local languages and had little or no understanding of tribal and ethnic dynamics. We were unprepared for the armed resistance and terrorist insurgencies that arose against us and the regimes we created. We did not realize in Iraq that removing Saddam Hussein would benefit Iran and Shia militias, or that a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan would intensify violence and instability in Pakistan.
Closely allied with ignorance is arrogance, the tendency to exaggerate our own power and underestimate that of our foes. In Vietnam we believed that American military superiority would guarantee success, that military firepower and technology could overpower our adversaries and force them to capitulate. We did not realize that an overreliance on military means can create new enemies and strengthen the very forces we seek to overcome. We watched helplessly as Saigon’s repression and our own military attacks drove people into the arms of the NLF. We miscalculated the strength of the resistance forces and their tenacity and determination to fight despite heavy losses.
Today we continue to believe in the myth of American exceptionalism, assuming that military superiority gives us the right to act as the world’s policeman. We do not understand the limits of military power or realize the negative consequences of our interventions. We believe as before that our advanced technology, now including drones, can defeat our enemies. During the Cold War we viewed local conflicts as part of a global struggle against communism. Today we misjudge diverse crises from Libya to Yemen through the singular lens of countering global terrorism. We are engaged militarily in a growing number of countries, yet insurgent forces remain strong, and we face a new and even greater threat now with the emergence of ISIS.
LOCAL GOVERNANCE MISSING
The third factor that has undermined American policy from Vietnam to the present is the absence of credible political partners. Without a local governance system that can win the trust and loyalty of local populations, external military intervention cannot succeed. Accountable governments capable of delivering public goods are essential for generating political stability, economic opportunity and peace. These have been missing in American interventions from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
The Saigon regime was largely a foreign creation and depended almost entirely on external assistance for its political, economic and military survival. The Diem regime that emerged with American support after the Geneva accords lacked political legitimacy and had little support outside the Catholic community, which was less than 10 percent of the population. Diem’s repression and corruption led to his assassination in the CIA-backed coup of 1963, followed by years of revolving door military dictatorships and then the autocratic Thieu regime. Despite massive levels of American economic and military sustenance, Thieu’s government never attracted substantial political support. The American-created Saigon army looked impressive on paper when U.S. American troops left, but it collapsed rapidly in the face of the final assault from Hanoi’s forces in 1975.
Similar problems have plagued American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Kabul regime is rated among the world’s most corrupt and has been unable to command much popular support or gain control over the country’s restive regions. It could not function without massive external financial and political support. In Baghdad sectarian violence has been rampant, and Shia militias have suppressed Sunni communities, prompting some to turn to ISIS for protection. The American-created Iraqi army has proved largely powerless against ISIS. It has been relatively easy for the United States to overthrow dictatorships but exceedingly difficult to replace them with legitimate governments.
The lessons of Vietnam remain as relevant now as they were decades ago. Military intervention is more often the problem than the solution in American foreign policy.