Ken Burns' self-styled documentary, "The Viet Nam War ," has set off a large number of writers' commentaries, on the film itself and the accompanying book, on the War, on the U.S. role, on the aftermath, and so and so forth. One question about the horror (primarily for the people of Indo-China, most especially Viet Nam) that does not get asked too often has been "who won?" The conventional wisdom on the Right, the Center, and at least some of the Left, is that the U.S. lost. Well, if one goes back into the history of the War and reviews what the United States' original goals were, it becomes very clear that in fact the U.S. won. And here's the case for making that statement.
Ho Chi Minh (a nom de plume[how appropriately French, non/]), the once and future leader of a united Viet Nam, made his first appearance on the world stage at the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference, in 1919. Among other things, he attempted to approach one of the primary Conference leaders, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. He wanted to request support for getting the then French colonial power to establish some basic civil rights for the Vietnamese population. (France had conquered what became "French Indo-China, " beginning in the 1850s.) But the racist Wilson's famous "Fourteen Points " of "self-determination" apparently only applied to nations occupied by white folks. (Wilson, racist, you say? Well yes . Among other things it was Wilson who re-segregated the U.S. armed forces, as well as the bulk of the U.S. civil service.) Ho Chi Minh was simply fobbed off by Wilson. Viet Nam reverted to the French, with no changes made for the status of the local population. Ho Chi Minh (now a nom de guerre) and his allies began an armed liberation movement during the 1920s.
During the Second World War, French Indo-China was actually administered jointly by the Nazi-collaborationist regime of Vichy France and the Japanese, who had captured the whole of South-East Asia in 1940-42). After the war, Ho Chi Minh and his liberationist forces asked the (non-French) Allies to prevent the re-establishment of the French colonial regime. They were rebuffed, as they had been at Paris in 1919. Then began the French-Vietnamese War, which ended with the surrender of the French at Dien Bien Phu, in 1954. There followed the Geneva Peace Conference, and Agreement, between the French and the victorious Vietnamese forces, of 1954. It was guaranteed by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. Pointedly, the United States refused to guarantee, endorse, or even accept the Agreement.
Although the Ho Chi Minh-led forces had won the War, there was a pro-French puppet government in the South, headed by the "emperor" Bai Dai. And so, the Agreement divided the country into something that had never previously existed, a "North" and a "South." This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, until national elections --- elections that everyone knew would have been won overwhelmingly by Ho Chi Minh and his Communist Party --- were to be held, in 1956. The U.S. interest, not at all in synch with the Paris Agreement) was led by the fiercely anti-Communist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his equally fiercely anti-Communist brother, Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
One of the primary goals of the Dulles brothers , and indeed their ideological successors who have dominated U.S. foreign policy down to this very day, was to prevent the peaceful establishment of any form of socialism or anything that looked anything like it, in any country around the world. With the exception of Cuba, they have been largely successful. As noted, the US refused to sign or recognize the 1954 treaty. The Dullleses knew that if the plan in it were allowed to proceed the chances were very good that Vietnam would peacefully progress to socialism and be an economic success at it. If that happened, the same thing might well peacefully occur in many other Southeast Asian countries, were democracy to be given a chance. At that time, it appeared as if there might be a democratic, peaceful road to socialism, the might be emulated around the world. Not good for U.S.-led Western Imperialism. When looked at from that perspective, yes, the "domino theory" about the potential spread of socialism was quite correct.
And so, in the view of the US leadership of the time, everything that could be done to prevent the democratic process from introducing socialism to a country and then possibly succeeding in a peaceful setting had to be done. And so, with the puppet Bao Dai in place, the promised elections were put off again and again. Eventually, a national resistance movement, labeled the "Viet Cong" by the U.S. and its puppet, arose, and then U.S. forces, first as "advisors," were sent in. Then what became the "North Vietnamese" army (again, remember that "North Vietnam" was an entirely artificial construct) was drawn into it, and what became the "Viet Nam War" occurred.
And yes, in the end, militarily the United States seemed to have lost. Under enormous pressure at home, and an inability to actually win on the battlefield in Viet Nam (all of course complicated by "Watergate"), President Richard M. Nixon began the military disengagement. The final pullout, with those haunting photographs of people leaving by helicopter from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon as the legitimate government of Vietnam led by its armed forces entered the city, occurred under President Ford. But, and this is the important BUT, if one examines what happened in terms of the original goals for the US Vietnam intervention, set by Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers in the 1950's, the US won: those goals were achieved. The Vietnam War was actually a U.S. victory.
The peaceful establishment of socialism, as the result of a popular vote, no less, was prevented. Its spread by example and peaceful means to neighboring countries was prevented. The country is still trying to cope with the wide-spread use of Agent Orange by U.S. forces, massive "carpet-bombing" of non-strategic areas, and unexploded ordinance. Vietnam today has a sort of market socialist economy, but the country was ravaged by the almost 20 years of war, and two to four million of the best and the brightest of its people were killed. It is hardly the economic or social engine of the development of democratically-installed socialism that it might have become had it been it left alone. And so yes, in terms of the original American goals for the intervention, a win, a palpable win.
As for Ken Burns' film, in the Prologue he says that the war "was begun in good faith, by decent people." Well, no, Ken, it wasn't. From the time before the ink was dry on the signing page of the 1954 Geneva Agreement, the United States, led by indecent people, was working to undermine it, the undermining of which led directly, eventually to the War. And no, Mr. David Greenberg, while you may say that " 'The Vietnam War: An Intimate History' tells once again the painful tale of America's protracted, divisive and (most would now agree) futile involvement in the fight to keep South Vietnam unconquered by the Communist North [emphasis added]," the division into North and South was something brand-new to Viet Nam and was supposed to be only an administrative one, until those elections could have been held by 1956.
The U.S. role in Viet Nam has to be seen in the context of the (eventually successful) "75 Years War Against the Soviet Union" (1917-92), and the serial prevention of the peaceful establishment of socialist or even moderately left-wing, anti-colonialist, governments, around the world (see, e.g., Korea, 1945, Iran, 1953, Congo, 1960, Brazil, 1964, Chile, 1973, Afghanistan, 1978-86, Nicaragua, 1980s, and etc.).
Yes, indeed, once again, in terms of the original goals of U.S. Imperialism, led in the 1950's by the infamous Dulles Brothers, for the U.S. the Viet Nam War was a win, a palpable win.
PS: Why the "Last Viet Nam War" of the title? Well, in addition to the U.S. war of aggression, there was the original conquest by the French in the 1850s-60s, the anti-French liberation movement of the 1920s-30s, the Japanese conquest in 1940, and the Vietnamese-French War of 1946-53.