January marks the anniversary of the largest US ground operation in Vietnam, called Cedar Falls, in 1967. The Viet Cong evaded the American forces, large as they were, and though they were ejected from the Iron Triangle briefly, many historians point to Cedar Falls as a symbol of American misunderstanding of the Southeast Asia conflict.
It can also be used to point to scholarly “misunderstanding” of the American presence in Vietnam, and to the critics who loudly say that United States “lost” the conflict there. Interestingly enough, most critics cannot point to what direct failure of American forces led to this purported “defeat.” While the oft-stated but never documented purpose of the American military there was to prop up the Saigon regime (which was too corrupt for its own good), the fact is that this was never an officially stated mission: indeed, no Letter of Instruction was ever written for MACV. Thus, there was no “war” there to “win.” Nor, since the last American combat units left the region in 1972 and Saigon fell in 1975, can any battlefield loss be attributed to US arms.
The Southeast Asia war also points up some uncomfortable truths about military action, as has been shown through history but became plain in the 1970s. Not all conflict ends in “victory,” but most end in a simple winding down of combat operations. Not all of a nation’s enemies are “officially defeated” and forced to sign treaties in rail cars or on battleship decks. And, most important, comparatively few even begin with a declaration of war.
While many who read this will become let’s say incensed at the idea because conventional wisdom says that the US “lost” Vietnam, it must be asked: by what measure? Might we also consider that, in Tet 1968, while the body count was rising and attention was fixed at both Vietnam and North Korea’s seizure of USS Pueblo on 23 January of the same year, the Soviet Union was unable to take advantage of the paper army that USAEUR had become and launch an offensive to reunite Germany. One could argue that January-February 1968 would have been the best, last chance the Soviets would have had to do this. Yet they failed. They didn’t even try.
So, what does this say? Perhaps it says that ultimately Southeast Asia was a sacrificed pawn in the global power game between the US and the Soviet Union, that American military action was, deliberately or not, intended to bait the Soviets into doing something…anything…stupid. They didn’t, yet in 1992, after seeing yet another pawn–Iraq–sacrificed in its gambit over Kuwait, the Soviet experiment came to an end.
Not all military action leads to victory, or even success. And often, we cannot know for generations what it was all for. We can only guess.