Winning by Losing in Vietnam

November 21, 2006 Topic: Great Powers Region: Southeast AsiaAsia Tags: Superpower

Winning by Losing in Vietnam

Despite Bush’s assessment, the real lesson of Vietnam was that a tactical defeat can become a strategic victory.

President Bush's toast of friendship to the Vietnamese people in Hanoi Friday, set against the image of helicopters lifting people off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975, conveys what the real lesson of Vietnam is for America-and it holds special relevance for the military campaign in Iraq.

The Vietnam War demonstrated that a U.S. tactical military defeat can result in strategic political victories over the longer-term. The current political situation in Southeast Asia conforms closely to what Washington had hoped to achieve back in the 1960s. Indeed, throughout "Communist" China, Vietnam, and Laos, the United States has been transformed from an enemy to be opposed to a model to be emulated.

The primary assumption leading to the Vietnam War was that if South Vietnam was lost to the Communists, the remaining non-communist states of Southeast Asia would be incapable of resisting the aggressive thrust of what was understood to be a hostile hegemonic movement.[1] But by contrast, the Vietnamese Communists were fighting to achieve the unification of their own country and its recognition as a sovereign-state. The withdrawal of U.S. military forces allowed them to make their own ideologically driven economic policy mistakes, the failure of which eventually led to policies more consistent with Washington's agenda, culminating in Bush's Hanoi toast-offered during the U.S. president's visit to Vietnam for an annual summit of Asian and Pacific leaders. The Vietnam War demonstrated that political warfare is not necessarily a zero sum game.

Good Morning, New Vietnam

Today, Vietnam has the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia. Although it continues to have an authoritarian regime, it ranks above many representative democracies in key areas: according to a 2006 index by the Fund for Peace, the human rights record in Vietnam is better than that of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Paraguay and Venezuela, and similar or no worse than that of Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria and Peru. In terms of the quality of public services, it was considered to be better than Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Nigeria and Tanzania, and similar or no worse than Brazil, Ghana, India, Israel, Jamaica, Russia, Senegal, Venezuela. (See appendix.)  It is unlikely that the people of Vietnam would be better off today if the United States had continued its military engagement until human rights in that country met our preferred standard.

Notwithstanding the recent failure of the lame duck Congress to pass Permanent Normal Trade Relations, Vietnam and the United States are increasingly linked through bilateral and multilateral cooperation arrangements: from avian flu and HIV/AIDS prevention and other health and development programs; to nuclear fuel replacement at the Dalat Research Reactor; to international trade, cultural and educational exchanges; to cooperation between counter-narcotics officials; to more comprehensive "military-to-military cooperation" between their respective defense agencies.

Tactical Defeat in the Middle East

America's Vietnam War demonstrated that a single-minded focus on a specific "global" threat can distort more local realities. The role of superpower leads U.S. analysts and decision-makers to view international threats in global rather than local terms. Thus, the United States focuses on Al-Qaeda and its vision of an Islamic caliphate because it has the character of a "global threat", however low-risk that threat might be. But as much of the recent debate within The National Interest suggests, Islamic sectarian differences linked to nationalist loyalties are likely to increase the level of conflict among Muslims, regardless of the decisions made by Washington.

Is there a reasonable possibility, therefore, that a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will lead to the emergence within fifteen to thirty years of a stable Middle East cooperating with the United States, similar to the current situation with Southeast Asia? No one can guarantee such an outcome, but it is clearly possible.

The 31-year transition from the military conflict in Vietnam to the welcome situation in Southeast Asia today was for a substantial period of time violent, messy, bloody, and fraught with revenge and violations of human rights. American withdrawal changed the perpetrators, magnitude, and victims of violence but it did not end violence in that region. Indeed, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam was followed within just a few years by localized wars. But ironically, two of those conflicts occurred between Communist China and Communist Vietnam, while the third more significant and prolonged military conflict led to the occupation of Communist Cambodia by Vietnam.

The formulation of any withdrawal strategy in Iraq-however labeled-should take into account the likelihood that even as nationalism trumped communism between the Cambodians, Chinese, and Vietnamese during the cold war, it will also be an obstacle to the establishment of any transnational caliphate. Reactionary Muslim jihadists obviously present a threat to U.S. national interests. But the sectarian interests that divide competing Muslim nationalists are almost certainly stronger than any abstract religious, philosophical, or ideological principles that theoretically unite them. A potential Hizballah-Shi'a government in Lebanon, a Hamas-Sunni government in Palestine, a secular government in Syria, a nuclear Shi'a government in Iran, and a civil war engulfing Iraq would all make for an uneasy neighborhood.

And the nature of conflicts among Muslims is as different and bewildering for different groups of so-called Islamic fundamentalists as they are for non-Muslim policy analysts and decision-makers. Many Muslim nationalists will eventually find that they need the United States more than the United States needs them, whatever the circumstances might have been under which American military forces had earlier withdrawn or been redeployed.

The reformulation of America's longer-term foreign policy in the Middle East should focus on the non-military means to shorten the transition to regional stability and reduce its human and economic costs. Despite Bush's assessment of the lesson of Vietnam, America's military withdrawal from that country better served U.S. interests than would have a continued pursuit of military "victory."

Jerry Mark Silverman was involved in attempts to "win hearts and minds" in both Vietnam and Iraq.  He is currently Visiting Professor of Political Science at Savannah State University and can be reached at [email protected].

[1]  See Jerry Mark Silverman, "The Domino Theory: Alternatives to a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy", Asian Survey XV (November 1975), p. 915-939.


Table 1:






1.     Chronic & Sustained Human Flight

(Fund for Peace)

Bolivia, Ecuador, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Russia, Ukraine, Venezuela

Bangladesh, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Kenya

2.    Criminalization or De-Legitimization of the State

(Fund for Peace)

Bolivia, El Salvador, Indonesia, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Nicaragua, Peru, Thailand, Ukraine

Cambodia, Ecuador, Paraguay, The Philippines, Russia, Venezuela, Zambia

3. Economic Development along Group Lines

(Fund for Peace)

Costa Rica, Germany, Hungary, Jamaica, Lithuania, Malaysia, Slovakia, USA

Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Ecuador, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines, Russia, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey

4. Extent of Factionalized Elites  (Fund for Peace)

Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Peru, The Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela

Bangladesh, Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Nigeria, Paraguay, Russia

5. Extent of Human Rights Violations

(Fund for Peace)

Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Peru

Bangladesh, Indonesia, Paraguay, Venezuela

6. Extent That Security Apparatus is "State within a State"

(Fund for Peace)

Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Philippines, Russia, Venezuela

Bangladesh, Nigeria, Peru

7. Extent of Vengeance-Seeking Group Grievance

(Fund for Peace)

Brazil, Ghana, Honduras, Malaysia, Senegal, Spain, UK, Zambia

Cambodia, France, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela 

8. Government Effectiveness

(Kaufmann, Kraay, Mastruzzi))

Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Panama, Turkey

Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela

9. Graft

(Kaufmann, Kraay, Mastruzzi)

Argentina, India, Mexico, Turkey

Honduras, Indonesia, Nigeria, Panama, Russia, Tanzania, Ukraine, Venezuela, Zambia

10. Level of Political Instability & Violence

(Kaufmann, Kraay, Mastruzzi)

Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Malaysia, Slovakia, Spain

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Greece, India, Indonesia, Korea (South), Latvia, Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines, Russia, Turkey

11. Movement of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
(Fund for Peace)

Cambodia, Tanzania, Turkey

Ethiopia,  Indonesia, Israel, Russia

12. Personal Autonomy & Individual Rights

(Freedom House)

Guatemala, Tanzania, Venezuela

Cambodia, Lebanon, Zambia

13. Quality of Public Services

(Fund for Peace)

Brazil, Ghana, India, Israel, Jamaica, Russia, Senegal, Venezuela

Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Nigeria, Tanzania

14. Rule of Law

(Kaufmann, Kraay, Mastruzzi)

Mexico, Panama, Peru

Indonesia, Nicaragua, Russia

Sources:   i.      Daniel Kaufmann, Aart Kraay, and Massimo Mastruzzi, Governance Indicators IV: 1996-2004 (Washington, DC: World Bank, May 2005); available at pubs/govmatters4.html.

 ii. Freedom House, Freedom in the World Subcategory and Aggregate Scores; available at

iii       The Fund for Peace, Failed States Index 2006; available at