Mark Moyar explains why he came to believe the Vietnam War was winnable

Historians in the News
tags: Vietnam War, Mark Moyar

Mark Moyar, the director of the Center for Military and Diplomatic History, is the author of “Oppose Any Foe: The Rise of America’s Special Operations Forces” and “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965.”

My interest in the Vietnam War began in the early 1990s, when I took a college course on the history of the conflict. Part of what drew me to the subject was the visceral contempt that my peers, professors and intellectuals generally had not just for the war, but for its veterans. It seemed to me a profound wrong that the young men who had risked their lives in Southeast Asia were deemed less worthy than those who had stayed safe at home.

The history of the war, as taught in my college classes, rested on two assumptions. First, that the war was unnecessary; the “domino theory,” the idea that a Communist takeover in Vietnam would cascade through the rest of Southeast Asia, was wrong. Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist than a Communist — and therefore, America needn’t have worried about “losing Vietnam.” The fact that most of the dominoes did not fall after South Vietnam’s defeat in 1975 was Exhibit A.

The second assumption was that the war was unwinnable. According to the orthodox historical narrative, the United States never could have won the war because of the dedication of the Vietnamese Communists, which was said to be far superior to that of America’s South Vietnamese allies. No alternative strategies could have achieved success, and hence America was fated to abandon South Vietnam after sustaining prolonged casualties.

As I pursued the study of Vietnam into graduate school, I began to question both these assumptions. By delving into the conflict’s deep crevices, I came upon a wealth of untapped information pointing me in a different direction. (I owed many of those discoveries to Merle Pribbenow, a retired linguist who found and translated a wealth of documents and histories from the opposing side.) These North Vietnamese sources shed extraordinary light on longstanding debates. They showed that North Vietnam controlled the South Vietnamese “resistance” from the beginning, even while Hanoi’s propagandists convinced gullible Westerners that it was a purely local movement. They also refuted the widely held view that the South Vietnamese government was reeling militarily at the time of Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination in November 1963.

Other discoveries resulted from investigation into hitherto neglected aspects of the war. No previous historian had looked in detail at what was taking place in the neighboring “dominoes” when Lyndon Johnson made his fateful decision in 1965 to insert American ground troops into the war. In fact, in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, anti-Communist leaders were warning that South Vietnam’s fall would cause all the Southeast Asian dominoes to fall, and were offering to commit troops to the anti-Communist cause. Suddenly, the domino theory looked far more plausible. ...

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