How we won the war

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

From the May, 2004 edition of The Valley Scene

Allow me to begin with two propositions we can all agree on. First, just because the majority of people believe something to be true doesn’t make it true. Second, if the majority of people cling to a false belief the results for society can be disastrous.

On April 28 I participated in a debate at UW Oshkosh on the topic of "Who Really Won the Vietnam War?" I argued and firmly believe the United States won that war. I realize my view is not the view of the majority, and I understand that corporate media repeat the "we lost the war" line as gospel truth. Let me tell you why the majority view and the media view are wrong.

Nations that lose wars generally experience one or a combination of four hardships: regime change friendly to the war opponent, infrastructure destruction, excessive civilian casualties, and economic devastation. Applying these hardships to Germany and Japan, we can see that each clearly lost World War II. Hitler and Tojo were replaced by democratic regimes, the industrial infrastructure of each country was pulverized, civilian casualties (especially in Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki) were massive, and it took Marshall Plan aid to rebuild the economies of each nation.

England did not suffer tremendous civilian casualties during the American Revolution, but the loss of the colonies meant the loss of a substantial portion of its imperial economy. And since the colonies were part of England and governed directly by the Crown, the American revolutionists succeeded in accomplishing regime change.

Now let’s look at the United States and Vietnam. Not only did we not suffer regime change as a result of the war, but from 1973-1993 each U.S. administration enforced brutal sanctions on Vietnam. Given that international law considers economic embargoes a form of war, the Vietnam War did not end meaningfully until 1993 when Bill Clinton normalized relations with Hanoi.

The fact that the embargo was removed and relations normalized only on the condition that Vietnam accept market reforms of its economy means that in a very real sense the United States finally did accomplish regime change in that war-ravaged nation. The Vietnamese government calls itself "communist" but as a practical matter it has incorporated all of the market principles that Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were calling for in the 1960s.

We suffered no destruction to our infrastructure as a result of Vietnam, but Vietnam’s suffering continues to this day. The lingering effects of the defoliant Agent Orange, along with the problem of unexploded mines, has kept significant portions of the population in misery. Approximately 40,000 Vietnamese (mostly children) have been killed since the end of the war and thousands more injured as a result of accidental explosions. And THEY won the war?

What about casualties? We tragically lost more than 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam. But as many as 4 million Vietnamese civilians may have been killed in the war. Some scholars estimate that from 1954-1975 Vietnam may have lost as much as 13 percent of its population. And WE lost the war?

Finally, the United States suffered no major economic damage as a result of the actions of the Vietnamese, but the Vietnamese economy was effectively wrecked for 20 years. Due to the harsh embargo, Vietnam after the United States left in 1973 did not "win" the right to plan its own economy. All they really won was an end to many years of bombing.

So in terms of regime change, infrastructure damage, civilian causalities, and economic devastation it is difficult to make the case that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam. But more significantly, our military and economic choking of Vietnam allowed us to attain what our leaders said was the major goal of the effort all along: to halt the spread of communism in southeast Asia; i.e. to prevent the "domino effect."

Even though Vietnam eventually became communist, none of the so-called ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries followed suit. These countries include the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Our Vietnam policy succeeded in showing Third World nations that if they dared to follow the Soviet model there would be hell to pay. The ASEAN countries got the message. We won the war.

Was Vietnam a horrible experience for America? Of course. But to say we "lost" the war is a little bit like Bill Gates calling himself a "loser" if he controls less than 100 percent of the computer software market. That the Vietnamese refused to surrender in the face of mass slaughter and chemical warfare does not mean they defeated the United States any more than the survival of an independent software distributor means the defeat of Microsoft.

The media’s failure to facilitate the expression of alternative views about the Vietnam War has had disastrous impacts on our society. In an effort to never again "lose" a war, our government has squandered trillions of dollars of the nation’s wealth on unnecessary weapons systems, deployed more than 6,000 nuclear weapons around the world (while warning others not to develop WMDs), and developed a "shock and awe" strategy of warfare.

I would love to hear your views on this and other topics. Please visit my new Web site (www.tonypalmeri.com) and let me know what you think.

Tony Palmeri (Palmeri@uwosh.edu) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.