Why did the us fail to win the Vietnam War? What background knowledge should I use?

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Why did the US fail to win the Vietnam War?

What background knowledge should I use?

  • Why America are involved?
        • The Domino Theory
        • Containment
        • French withdrawal from indo-china
        • Gulf of Tonkin
        • Ho Chi Minh and the Communist North

Essay style questions

  • Most essays on the Vietnam War will have a factor to discuss and judge on its importance
      • Military Failings
      • Anti-War Movement
  • You must discuss each of these factors and make a conclusion to how important these factors are individually.

What are the factors?

  • US & ARVN military failings
  • Vietcong & NVA success
  • Anti-War Movement
  • Influence of the Media
  • Economic Impact on US
  • US Moral

ARVN Strategy

  • Keep control of South Vietnam
  • Remove the Viet Cong from Villages
  • Defend South from Invasion
  • Rely on Massive amounts of money from US.

ARVN weaknesses

  • Even though they outnumbered the Vietcong they failed to counter the threat of the Vietcong
  • Diem’s Regime was deeply unpopular in Vietnam
  • Poorly Trained & Equipped
  • US sent Special Forces to teach basic training and tactics to ARVN
  • Represented the Middle Class and not the people
  • Sympathy for Vietcong in the countryside
  • Poor chain of command
  • Corruption amongst the Army and Government
  • Political interference
  • All crippled the ARVN from being an effective fighting force against Communism
  • High casualty rate during the Vietnam War

Importance of this Factor

  • The Vietnam War would have been over far quicker without the introduction and escalation of US military forces however it is not a major factor in the US failing to win the Vietnam War.
  • The corruption and chain of command was a key issue in the failings of the ARVN

US military Failings

  • Operation ‘Rolling Thunder’
  • ‘Search and Destroy’
  • Chemical Warfare
  • Strategic Hamlets

Operation Rolling Thunder

  • Aim to was two fold:
    • To make the North Vietnamese give up the War
    • Halt the flow of equipment down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
  • 8 million tons of bombs dropped between ’65 and ’73
  • 300 tons for every man, woman and child in Vietnam
  • the cost to the US of these raids was estimated at $900 million.
  • Life Magazine calculated it cost the USA $400,000 to kill on Vietcong fighter
  • North Vietnam had few factories to bomb
  • It failed to stop the supply
  • The USA did not anticipate the determination and resilience of the North Vietnamese people.
  • Despite killing between 50,000 and 200,000 civilians, morale remained high
  • The people volunteered to repair the damage showing they would not give up.
  • Operation Rolling Thunder was a costly operation. It cost the USA vast sums of money and had little impact on both the economy of North Vietnam and the morale of the people.

‘Search & Destroy’

  • Aim:
    • To Locate the enemy and engage
    • Missions using US and ARVN troops transported via helicopters
    • High Body Count approach (grind the enemy into submission)

Failure of Search and Destroy

  • Killing more NVA and VC soldiers did not have the desired effect. More and more people from the North would join to fight the foreign invaders.
  • As soon as US troops arrived at an area the Vietcong would often disappear only to return later.
  • Innocent villages were often destroyed
  • Made US & ARVN troops unpopular
  • Failed to win the support of the Vietnamese peasants.
  • Inexperienced troops often walked into traps
  • Rapes and Killings occurred
  • Search and Destroy did not have the desired effect either as they failed to grind the North into submission through body counts.
  • US public used to their soldiers being hero’s, not beating up children and women
  • Did not reduce the enemies ability to attack or reduce level of support among the south Vietnamese.

Agent Orange and Blue

  • Aim:
    • To destroy the jungle and crops supporting the NVA & VC
    • Make it easier to fight the war for US
  • It was estimated that approximately 77 million litres was sprayed over Vietnam.
  • Drifted for miles and destroyed crops of local people.
  • Up to 4 million people were exposed to these acids
  • Settled on animals and got into water supplies

Strategic Hamlets

  • Very unpopular with locals
  • Relocated peasant farmers from their land and placing them in fortified camps
  • Supposed to protect them from VC attacks however drove the peasants closer to the VC.
  • Like living in prison


  • US military failings were crucial in the Vietnam War’s outcome. The US failed to win the Hearts and Minds of the people and used tactics that were ineffective and largely unpopular amongst the locals.
  • Support for the War at home was wavering as a result of the dead bodies coming home and the tactics used by the US.

NVA & VC strengths

  • Aim:
    • To win the hearts and minds of the people
    • Wear down the US forces
    • Use Guerrilla tactics
  • Vietcong treated the South Vietnamese with respect and helped them out in their fields
  • In return they gained food, hiding places and support
  • Supporters of the US/ARVN would be treated with ruthless and brutal behaviour
  • 30,000 teachers, police and tax collectors were killed as they worked for the South’s government
  • Tactics used
    • Booby Traps and mines (60% of US casualties result of these)
    • Used the Jungle and countryside to their advantage
    • Tunnel system for cover
    • Vietcong did not use uniforms so hard to identify
    • Very skilled due to previous wars against the Japanese and French
    • Prepared to accept a heavy body count
  • Vietnamese were fighting for a cause so much more determined than the USA
  • Affected US morale both in Vietnam and at home
  • Guerrilla tactics ideal for jungle warfare
  • American High Tech warfare nullified
  • Importance
    • The success of the Vietcong and NVA in winning the Hearts and Minds of the local peasants in Vietnam was important in the outcome of the War. They fought a determined effort to reunify Vietnam and drive out foreign invaders. The Guerrilla tactics were able to wear down the US/ARVN superior numbers and prevent them from using their superior technological power.

Anti-War Movement

  • Huge demonstrations carried out during the war calling for the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam
    • VVAW
    • Civil Rights Movement
    • Students
    • Hippies
  • Undermined the war effort as the US failed to achieve a quick victory
  • 58,000 total deaths
  • Televised pictures showing the horrors of the war
  • Student opposition
    • October 1969 2 million people took part in the Vietnam Moratorium protests
    • November 1969 1 million people demonstrated in Washington DC and San Francisco
    • Kent State 1970 massacre
  • VVAW
    • Powerful voice against the war
    • Stories of brutality and pointless suffering
    • Hard to dismiss their opposition
    • VVAW took over the Statue of Liberty in Dec 26th 1971 for 2 days
  • Civil Rights
    • Protesting against the draft
    • Martin Luther king against the War as most recruits were young blacks
    • Seen as ‘poor and black mans’ war
    • Ali refused to go
      • ‘They never called me nigger’
  • Anti-war demonstrators labelled as ‘Communists, traitors or cowards’
  • Impact?
    • LBJ did not seek re-election due to the unpopularity of the War and his policies
    • Cant win a war when you lose the support of the people
    • Some would argue that the movement had little impact and not as powerful as first imagined
    • However it split US public opinion and heavily contributed to the eventual withdrawal from Vietnam.


  • Heavily reported
  • First Televised War
  • US civilians saw war in a way they had never seen before
  • Saw wounded and killed
  • US soldiers committing acts of brutality against prisoners and civilians
    • My Lai Massacre
    • Napalm Bombings
  • Gave the Anti-War movement the momentum
  • People were turned off by the images
  • Challenged the idea that ‘We were the good guys in this war’
  • However critics believe that people became desensitised by the imagery and immune. Still eat their dinner watching the news.

Economic Impact of the War

  • Economic cost of the war: US deficit of $1.6 billion in 1965 increased to $25.3 billion in 1968. Tax increases unpopular.
  • Sacrificed the Great Society which would have improved the lives of many in the USA especially the poor and blacks.
  • Seen as a waste of resources, $2000 million a month in 1968
  • The US economy could not sustain the Vietnam War spending
  • Important Factor but not a crucial factor as the war should not have dragged on as long as it did. Expected to be a quick victory for the US, did not materialise

US moral

  • Inexperience of US soldiers (not prepared to fight the war)
  • No experience of jungle warfare
  • 19 was the average age of the soldier in Vietnam
  • 43% of those killed in Vietnam were killed in their first three months of service
  • Drug Use (20,000 treated in 1971)
  • Most soldiers main aim was reaching DEROS (Date Eligible for Return Overseas)
  • Conflict between officers and men, ‘Fragging’ was common. (killing of officers by their own men)
  • Troops more interested in surviving their tour of duty than winning the war as 2 million serving in the War were drafted.
  • Important factor but not as important as other factors

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