Many people have asked me over the years for my opinion of what happened in Vietnam, whether our involvement there was a mistake, and whether the war could have been won. My reading of the history of the war and the politics behind it has led me to the conclusion that our involvement there was not a mistake, but the war was; and that the war was far more accurately a series of mutually compounded, fatal political mistakes. The real tragedy of Vietnam for me is the fact that these mistakes do not bear scrutiny as inevitable or necessary considering the times, but were policy decisions that could have been made differently without requiring any kind of complete reversal of American ideology or strategy. The mistakes of Vietnam were made by the administrations of the seven consecutive presidents who set our foreign policies with regard to Vietnam, from our first involvement there in 1944 to the defeat of South Vietnam in 1975 by the communist forces.
The first president to initiate America's involvement in Vietnam in the 20th Century was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Our first involvement began in 1944, as FDR ordered a small OSS team into Vietnam to make contact with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the pro-communist Viet Minh resistance forces. Before World War II, Ho Chi Minh had been a thorn in the side of colonial French authority by struggling against the French occupation of Vietnam, but after the Japanese took control of Vietnam in 1941 Ho Chi Minh turned his forces against the Japanese instead. FDR chose to establish contact with Ho and his forces, and to help them in their fight against America's enemies in the Pacific. The United States sent in a special forces team (the so-called "Deer Team") that provided arms, supplies, and training support to Ho's forces. The head of the Deer Team became personally acquainted with Ho and sent many reports back to the US government praising him as a patriot and a nationalist, and specifically informed his superiors that, while Ho was essentially a communist, he was not religious about it. Ho was also very concerned about the possibilities of Soviet or Chinese domination over his group. Ho wanted to maintain contact with the American government as a counter to that possibility, to keep Vietnam from falling too much under the spell of either Stalin or Mao, neither of whom Ho liked or trusted. Ho very much wanted Vietnam to become an independent power, not a Soviet satellite. Ho was also greatly assured by FDR's policy statements to the effect that he had no intention of sacrificing American lives and material simply to restore the European powers' prewar colonial empires, and that the United States would support national self determination after the war.
When Japanese power in Vietnam collapsed (from predominantly external causes, as Japanese occupation forces got sucked into other theaters where they were suffering enormous casualties), the Viet Minh was the principal force available to fill the resulting power vacuum. Supported by the Deer Team, the Viet Minh marched into the capitol and declared Vietnamese nationhood and independence. Ho read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, the first paragraph of which was simply copied verbatim from the first paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence. This was no coincidence; it was a deliberate policy statement informing the American observers that Vietnam felt itself to be positively influenced by American ideals, and intended to retain and develop ties with its new friend across the ocean. The leader of the Deer Team also noted that Ho's words contained little in the way of communist ideology or propaganda, unusual for an ostensibly communist leader with few real political rivals. If Ho were really a hardcore, committed communist, he had at the time nothing to stop him from simply giving himself over to the doctrinaire ideals of his philosophy, and with powerful Chinese communist forces nearby, and a Soviet Union further away but still closer than the United States, he could easily have chosen to follow Moscow or Mao more closely, as most other national communist leaders had chosen to do. But Ho's policy was to keep the major communist powers at arm's length while he built up a countering friendship with the United States. In later years in postwar Europe, this form of communist policy would be called Titoism, and was denounced severely by Soviet leaders.
In April 1944, Roosevelt died, and his vice-president, Harry Truman, became president. Truman was a very different man, with very different ideals and a very different agenda from that of his predecessor. He quickly set America on a radically different political course, which was based on Truman's incredible distrust and dislike for communists and their ideology. Truman was largely responsible for the American side of the beginning of the Cold War, deliberately putting the United States quite firmly in the way of the foreign policy of Stalin and the Soviet Union (which for its part was also essentially and deliberately confrontational and not interested in the West's hopes for the European lands liberated by Soviet forces).
As part of Truman's new policy, he made it clear that FDR's commitment to national self-determination would be sacrificed to the needs of building a postwar international coalition of Western powers against communism. Britain and France would now be assisted in achieving their postwar colonial goals after all, at least where there was a possibility of communist involvement. Truman ordered the Deer Team out of Vietnam, and refused to listen to the reports and protests of its commander. Truman gave political support to the British, who decided to step in and take over Vietnam in the interim until newly created French forces could arrive, and to take the surrender of the remaining Japanese forces in French Indochina. The British forces that arrived came under fire from the Viet Minh, and having few personnel or arms, they released their Japanese POWs, re-armed them, and sent the Japanese soldiers into the fight. The Western allies were now officially employing their wartime enemies in the fight against their wartime allies.
While the United States was sitting quietly in the background of these events, Truman's stab in Vietnam's back was finalized when the French arrived. Truman wanted to build a large-scale West European alliance against the Soviet Union, and the French were leery of an alliance in which they could be effectively reduced to a satellite power. They made it clear to Truman that their support of his alliance would hinge upon his support of their colonial policies, and Truman all too quickly agreed to provide them with all the support they needed. Truman rather short-shortsightedly dismissed the abilities of the communist forces that his own men had helped to train, arm, and equip, and assumed that French forces sent to Indochina, and American military support for those forces, would be a drop in the bucket to what France could give to the western alliance in the defense of Europe. It is the first great tragedy and irony of Vietnam, and of Truman's failed policies, that the French fight for Indochina sucked up more men and materiel, both French and American, then France was able to provide for continental defense in Europe. Had World War Three broken out during or shortly after the French Indochina War, NATO would have had fewer forces to fight the Soviet Union with than if France had refused to join the fight and America's efforts had been concentrated in Europe instead of being divided between Europe and Indochina.
Another ironic element of the tragedy of this failed policy is the simple fact that French foreign policy is always self-serving and survivalist. Even had France refused to join NATO in peacetime, it is unrealistic to suppose that they would have stood aside and done nothing with a large-scale Soviet armored force working its way through Germany towards the French border. In the event of a continental war, whatever the French policy before that war would have been, they would have seen the need to get involved. To suppose otherwise is to completely ignore at least a century of French history and policy. The price America paid for French involvement in forming the alliance was far too high, and was higher than the value of its return.
Eisenhower's administration committed the next tragic mistakes, which are all too ironic considering other international events occurring at the time. Eisenhower chose to reverse some of Truman's policies, but also continued the precedent of others. It is greatly and sadly ironic that one of Eisenhower's reversals of Truman's policy was to take a second look at communist leaders and forces that did not wish to stand in the shadow of Moscow or Peking. Under Eisenhower, the United States established friendly relations with Tito of Yugoslavia, and developed trade and cultural ties with his country. Yet in Vietnam, Eisenhower ignored the opportunity to do this with a leader and organization that had already been involved personally with America and had proven itself to have an interest in building ties. This was before American military forces had become officially involved, before it was publicly known that Americans had both shed and spilled blood in Vietnam. Under Eisenhower, America threw away its last real chance for establishing friendly ties in Southeast Asia, and countering Soviet and Chinese plans for the region, and just at the same time as the administration was proving itself willing to talk to and establish friendly ties with other parties previously perceived as enemies.
Under Eisenhower's watch, the French Indochina War came to its bloody climax in the battle of Dien Bien Phu (from March to May, 1954). For many historians this battle signifies the end of the French war for Vietnam, and the beginning of the American war. After this battle, the French signed a treaty with Ho's communists which temporarily split Vietnam into two sections, north and south; the communists were to move north, and those not wishing to remain in communist held domains were to withdraw south. The intention of the treaty was to establish a schedule and procedures for elections, which would then elect a single, united Vietnamese government to run the whole country. While the communists in the north announced their readiness to hold elections, the United States government expressed fears that the elections would not be fair, and chose instead to build a separate, independent South Vietnamese government in violation of the Geneva treaty, and to ignore calls for general elections.
It was at this time, in 1954, that Eisenhower had the best opportunity since FDR's administration to establish friendly ties with Ho and the communists, and to wean them away from the Soviets and Chinese whom the Vietnamese communists distrusted. The French for their part were already rapidly repairing their estranged relations with their recent enemies; America had the perfect opportunity to join them and establish ties with Ho's forces. Eisenhower threw away this opportunity, and chose instead to pursue a confrontational policy and strategy. This strategy was often sold to the public under two related theories: the Monolith theory, and the Domino theory.
The Monolith theory asserted that all communist forces throughout the world were centrally controlled by the Soviet government. This theory remained a publicly accepted one, despite much intelligence that the US government collected that the communists distrusted each other, and despite the fact that almost from the moment that the Chinese communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1948, large and growing cracks were spreading across the communist facade. The US government all too quickly became aware of the Moscow-Peking rivalry, and the fact that communist states were being forced to either take sides, or to declare neutrality and cut relations with both powers, as Yugoslavia did. By 1968, at the height of the American war in Vietnam, the Sino-Soviet hostility had escalated to a border war, fought predominantly by each country's border guards units, but with tank support, artillery fire, and air strikes as well. Brezhnev's government alerted the Soviet nuclear forces while the Politburo openly debated launching nuclear strikes on China, a step they never even came close to even in the worst moments of their Cold War relations with the United States. The Monolith theory falls apart at the idea that the only time the Soviets really considered launching their nuclear weapons, they were targeting their own ideological "partners", not their capitalist rivals. This escalation in 1968 was the climax of a process that was underway from the moment Peking fell to Mao's communists, and the record of American intelligence reports demonstrates that the American strategists were well aware of it, from very early on.
In a few isolated circumstances, American strategists used this intelligence to develop relations with communists who had clearly broken from the mold, such as Tito, and certain communist leaders in the Dominican Republic. While this clearly was not the main focus of American strategy, it is also all too clear that the US government was aware of the potential and opportunities to develop friendly relations with various parties and leaders within the communist movement; this is the irony and tragedy of the missed opportunities to do so on a larger scale.
Related to the Monolith Theory was the Domino Theory, which asserted that with each national victory enjoyed by the communists, the next would be easier, and that the fall of a single country to the communists in a region could lead to the other countries in that region falling like a bunch of dominoes. This in turn would lead to further communist victories in other regions, and so forth, until communism came knocking at America's front door. While for strategic reasons the Domino Theory stands scrutiny more easily then does the Monolith Theory, it fails in the face of events in Indochina after 1975. Although Cambodia and Laos soon fell to communist forces as well after the defeat of South Vietnam, seemingly validating the theory, these various communist states rapidly developed hostile relations with each other. The Domino theory would suggest that after the fall of Indochina to the communists, the communists would then begin to threaten the states around them, in nearby regions. Rather than do this, they proceeded to fight amongst themselves, and have been doing so ever since. Communist Vietnam eventually launched a full-scale invasion of Communist Cambodia; and then Communist China, in support of the Cambodians against the Soviet-supported Vietnamese, invaded Vietnam. The Vietnamese were able to employ many of the lessons they learned while fighting the French and the Americans against the Chinese, and eventually the Chinese withdrew in defeat.
Eisenhower's confrontational policies were sold to the public under the pretext of these two failed theories, one of which was already known at the time by intelligence analysts and political strategists to be wrong (to such an extent that the government based certain policies around it, in respect to Yugoslavia, Albania, and Dominica), and the other which would only be proven wrong by subsequent events. Eisenhower missed a great opportunity to open further an already large crack in the communist Monolith, and to develop American influence in a region which to this day houses three of the world's very few communist states which survived the fall of Soviet power.
The next administration to develop the American involvement in Vietnam was that of Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a true Cold Warrior, and was committed to engaging the communists on a global scale. In Indochina, Kennedy openly supported the neophyte South Vietnamese government in their growing fight with communist forces moving back down from the north. One of the tragedies of Kennedy's administration, and a grave mistake, was to limit the interests of American Indochina policy to South Vietnam. Kennedy was informed that there were struggles between communists and theoretically pro-western forces throughout all of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), but he provided only hesitant and minimal support to Laos and Cambodia, while he built up a large-scale infrastructure for the support of South Vietnam. This meant that the US effectively forfeited to the communists in all but the South. This was a fatal start to the American military and political involvement, as throughout the war North Vietnam was able to use heavily jungled trails in Laos and Cambodia for the movement of forces and supplies, and for the resting of forces on long-distance transits to the front lines of South Vietnam. While the Americans dubbed these trails and sanctuaries the "Ho Chi Minh Trail", they could just as well be called the Kennedy Trail, for Kennedy made the policies that helped to make these trails a safe haven for the communists.
In later years, after the frustrations of having to fight communist forces with these safe havens as protected bases and supply routes, Johnson and Nixon hesitantly pursued the communists into Cambodia, but by then popular support for the war had vanished, and the popular vision of the US government escalating the war into other countries resulted in an explosion of anti-war civil unrest. During Kennedy's administration, however, there was still a vocal and popular support for the war (which admittedly hadn't really become a "war" yet; American soldiers were still "advisors", and American deployments there as well as casualties were both still fairly minimal). Under Kennedy, if America were going to have to fight a war that previous presidents should have prevented but didn't, there was still the possibility of conducting the war where it would have hurt the North Vietnamese, in Cambodia and Laos. Just as Truman and Eisenhower passed by the political opportunities to avoid a war, Kennedy passed by the political opportunity to start the war off where it would have mattered.
The war truly developed under the next administration, that of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson deliberately opened a new chapter in the war by fomenting and then exploiting the Gulf of Tonkin incident. He was looking for a politically acceptable pretext for launching a large-scale invasion of South Vietnam, and just made one up. One could say that Johnson was simply pursuing the policies of his assassinated predecessor, but Johnson was his own man and made his own policies. His later daily mismanagement of the war was both legendary and tragic, and casts a dark shade of irony upon his better policies, such as his half-hearted and reluctant support for the civil rights movement, and his Great Society reforms.
The first great tragic mistake of Johnson's administration in Vietnam (if one chooses to look past the Gulf of Tonkin and its aftermath as the first such) was his choice as the commander, General William Westmoreland. Westmoreland was one of four generals being considered at the time for the post. Another was Creighton Abrams, who replaced Westmoreland in 1968. Westmoreland proposed an amazing type of war under the circumstances, in opposition to Abrams and the other two generals (Bruce Palmer, Jr.; and Harold K. Johnson). Westmoreland actually proposed to fight a modern war of attrition, probably the only time in modern history that a western power actually deliberately considered such a strategy in Asia. While on the face of things Westmoreland seems insane to have deliberately proposed such a strategy, there was some reason behind it. America has in fact won many of its wars through attrition, including the war in the Pacific against an Asian enemy with far superior technology than what the Vietnamese could employ. Vietnam has less people and far less resources than the US, although it could also draw on support from the Chinese and Soviets. And American military technology was vastly greater than that of the Vietnamese; with a much greater capacity for killing and destroying, American forces in theory could out-kill and out-destroy communist forces past the communists' ability to operate. Westmoreland really believed that a war of attrition could work in America's favor in the long term.
In the end, of course, we know that the Vietnamese were able to withstand their casualties, and deploy more men and material, past the ability of America to do so. The Vietnamese were fighting for their survival against a foreign invader, whereas the Americans were fighting an overseas war against an enemy that ever fewer Americans were really interested in fighting. The ultimate decision in a long war of attrition is often determined not by the mere numbers, but by each side's will to fight, and to convert their resources into fighting capabilities and combat results. The North Vietnamese ultimately proved to be far more interested in gambling all that they had for victory in the war than did the US government, which had many other things on its mind and agenda. Under these circumstances, an American war of attrition for Vietnam never stood a chance.
Yet again we are faced with a policy decision marked by irony and tragedy, because Abrams and the other generals were all opposed to Westmoreland's proposal. They proposed instead to fight a more political war for popular support, and to work harder on building a South Vietnam capable of standing on its own feet. They wanted to spend more time, money, and effort on building South Vietnam's infrastructure, and on fighting for the support of the peasants who were the Viet Cong's principal recruiting base. They thought that American military confrontation with North Vietnam's main force units in the field was a subsidiary operation rather than being the main emphasis, as it was in Westmoreland's more combat-based war of attrition.
These three other generals also took a different view of the communist logistical situation than did Westmoreland. Unlike Westmoreland's traditional military view, of a tail-based supply system (with combat forces in the front, and supplies coming to the forces from the rear), these generals saw that the Vietnamese communists built up their local supplies in the field where they were going to launch an operation, before the main forces got there. The communists in Vietnam utilized an unusual nose-based supply system. This made communist forces vulnerable to preemptive operations, an opportunity almost never utilized by Westmoreland.
In 1968, once the smoke of the bloody Tet Offensive had cleared, Westmoreland was relieved of his command and replaced by Abrams (Westmoreland was promoted to US Army Chief of Staff, a post in which Abrams also replaced him, in 1972). Very quickly, events in Vietnam started to turn in the Allies' favor. Abrams achieved great political and military successes in Vietnam with his own strategies. Unfortunately, Abrams was fighting a progressively scaled down war, as Nixon was gradually but steadily drawing down the American deployments and bringing more and more troops home. At home, all political interest in continuing the war had vanished; internal White House and Defense Department memos of the time indicate that the disgruntlement with the war and the desire to just get out had reached high governmental levels. The US Congress had gone from being one of the primary forces behind the war to the main advocate of withdrawal. Abrams still managed to accomplish great deeds, with fewer and fewer forces, and with a government behind him that viewed him as simply a rearguard to protect the last troops until they could be pulled out.
It strains the imagination to try to visualize Abrams acting in Westmoreland's place in 1964, with the full backing of the American government, and with popular support still not yet decided against the war. A different strategy, with fewer American casualties (from fewer full-scale field battles), and with greater captures of communist arms and supplies before they could be employed by the enemy, and with much more attention given to the political struggle that was completely ignored for so long, may have resulted in a very different outcome. This then was one of Johnson's greatest missed opportunities. By picking the wrong commander with the wrong strategy, Johnson doomed his own military forces to defeat.
Johnson is also responsible for several other serious strategic failures at the critical time of his administration. Johnson chose to maintain personal, daily control over many of the aspects of the war, in particular such aspects as planning air-strikes and selecting bombing targets. He therefore bears much of the responsibility for the failure of his forces not merely because he was the chief executive at the time but because he actually had a hand in the day-to-day decision making of their employment. As he took an immediate interest especially in directing the air war, the miserable results of the air war under his leadership have to be blamed especially on him. After Nixon took office in 1969, the air war, as with the ground war, took a rather different turn. Nixon did not focus on micromanaging the air war as Johnson did, but let his air generals do their job of leading their forces. Nixon, as president, did however help to select the general strategy, and both on the strategic level and the tactical level the air forces were far more successful in accomplishing their objectives than they had been under Johnson. Again, one is left to wonder what might have happened had the same tactics and strategies been employed four years earlier, before the American popular mood turned against the war.
Johnson's strategy can be faulted for the American failure in Vietnam on a greater strategic level as well. As our country's leader, he was responsible for leading all of the country in its prosecution of the war. In time of war, presidents lead industry, the media, the Congress, and popular movements in their support of the military forces. They deliberately put the war out in front as the nation's greatest priority, and call for sacrifices to be made elsewhere until the war is won. They also obviously direct the military forces themselves to focus on the war as their most immediate priority. Johnson did neither of these two significant things. Rather than urge everyone to make the war our greatest priority (and execute directives to make this so), Johnson chose to bury the war in the background as something that would take away the focus and resources from his social and domestic political agenda. Those that choose to blame the peace movement for calling for the war's end forget the president's failure to push the country into making the war a priority. It was Johnson's job to motivate and lead the country, and this he failed to do, when most other wartime presidents did do this. The peace movement was reacting to the administration's obvious embarrassment from the war, and the attempts to keep much of the war secret and behind the scenes, when in fact it was very much on people's minds every time the coffins came home.
There was a more direct military correlation to Johnson's failure to prioritize the war on the political level. During the Vietnam War, the American military priorities remained focused on the Cold War, and on deterring the Soviet Union from attacking the West. The Vietnam War was kept in the background of the military mind just as it was kept in the political background. The maximum effort of American military forces came in early 1969, when American force levels hit their peak, just after the last reinforcements reached Vietnam and before Nixon's administration came into the White House and began withdrawing troops. Their peak level of deployment was reached only after a tortuous period of five years of rather gradual reinforcements and increases, and American forces were at their peak strength for only a few months. In early 1969, the Army had just a hair under one half of its active-duty forces deployed in or near Vietnam; the Air Force had a little over a third of its active-duty units in Vietnam or based within operational range and conducting operations there; and the Navy had something over a quarter of its regular units involved in some capacity. The US never even deployed so much as a half of its active-duty military personnel to Vietnam, and never mobilized or deployed reserve or National Guard forces to operational theaters. Westmoreland and other generals did call for mobilizations and increased deployments, but Johnson refused. Clearly, while the military was willing to commit itself to the war, Johnson refused to let them get more than marginally involved in it. This is especially significant in view of the lack of reserve and guard-unit mobilizations. The American strategic plans for large-scale war view the reserve and guard units as key elements of any global war strategy; the active-duty components are too small in number to be more than an emergency force to protect the nation's interests for just long enough to get the reserves and guard units mobilized, ready to fight, and deployed to their theaters. That a major war was fought without any mobilizations, only through active-duty units, and less than half of these at the brief moment of the greatest level of deployments, demonstrates very clearly that the war was not only a not a major political priority, it wasn't a major military priority at the time either. It is virtually impossible to fathom the idea of a president actually failing to make the war that he started a priority for the forces responsible for fighting it, but that was Johnson's policy.
As the real American involvement began under Johnson's watch, he deserves the king's share of the blame for the military and political failure of Vietnam. His decision to get the United States involved in large-scale combat; his refusal to acknowledge the war as America's strategic priority; his desire to manage the war personally, tied to his inability to manage the war successfully; and his selection of the wrong commander with the wrong strategy, all doomed the American effort to fail, and wasted the lives of tens of thousands of American men and women, and perhaps a million Vietnamese.
When Nixon came to the Oval Office, the war had already been on for years, and Nixon won the election in part through a promise to get the troops out. Nixon therefore began his administration with an unpopular war already effectively lost, and a promise to keep to end that war. Nonetheless, Nixon did make an effort to defeat the communist forces with the time and forces remaining to him. He was fortunate in that several months before leaving office Johnson had replaced Westmoreland with Abrams; the ground war under Nixon soon became a very different type of conflict, which the United States actually came close to winning. Nixon also let his air force commanders run their own war, and supported their change of strategy in the Linebacker bombing offensive, which many political commentators have asserted drove the North Vietnamese to the peace table. Nixon also authorized extending the air war into Cambodia (as well as minor ground operations, and several larger ground campaigns). The extension of the war, however, led to an explosion of popular unrest and protest; it was too late to extend the war to other areas now that the promise to end it had been made.
The main mistakes which can be attributed to Nixon's administration were made in the aftermath of the massive North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam in 1972 (the first "Spring Offensive"). Nixon sent Kissinger to the peace talks with North Vietnam, and the negotiators signed a cease-fire agreement that Nixon called "peace with honor." The agreement was an understanding between North Vietnam and the United States, by which America's continuing withdrawal from Vietnam would be completed, and the war would be put on hold until the American ground forces could be pulled out. The treaty left the North Vietnamese army in possession of almost a third of South Vietnam's territory, including strategic enclaves that directly threatened the capitol in Saigon, and several regional capitols such as Hue, Pleiku, Kontum, and An Loc. The South Vietnamese army conducted a number of counter-offensives to clear these enclaves after the "cease-fire", and did in fact re-take much lost ground, but these operations still left the enemy in possession of vital territories that made the job of defending the south virtually impossible.
The communists had of course won this territory through hard fighting, and kept much of it by continued hard fighting, so it is difficult to ascertain how much more territory could have been chipped away from them at the peace table, but the fact remains that Nixon and Kissinger did show more interest in a quick and successful end to the negotiations than they showed in helping South Vietnam to save itself. Nixon and Kissinger did not try to improve the strategic position of their ally, but only negotiated the establishment of a "quiet time" with which to speed the American withdrawal.
In the meantime, American forces in Vietnam rapidly accelerated the hand-over of large quantities of sophisticated military equipment to their allies, who had not yet received the training or combat experience with which to properly utilize this equipment. America was trying to create a miniature version of the US armed forces, but was unable to provide this "little brother" with the necessary material and logistical support upon which the US armed forces depend for their very survival. South Vietnam was given naval vessels, combat and supporting aircraft, and armored forces, with neither the technical, maintenance, or supply support necessary to maintain them. Especially lacking was access to fuel reserves, a problem that was magnified several times over in 1973 with the global oil crisis. South Vietnam had to reduce training to a minimum, and even cannibalized whole units in order to keep others operating, because of the lack of spare parts, ammunition, and fuel with which to maintain them. Under these conditions, the South Vietnamese forces could not function properly no matter how sophisticated their equipment was.
Nixon's intentions with the cease-fire were that it would not only give American forces the time to get out with minimal casualties, but it would also give the South Vietnamese forces time to get acquainted with their new equipment, and with their strategic position of finally having to call the shots by themselves. He expected North Vietnam to return to the offensive, but also expected that the next time around the US Air Force would provide heavy support, while the US Congress would authorize the necessary financial support for South Vietnam to get the fuel, ammunition, and spare parts that it needed. However, Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, who had replaced Nixon in the aftermath of Watergate, faced a Congress uninterested in going out of its way to provide this support, and Congress also opposed the commitment of America's strategic air-power. This disinterest in supporting America's disintegrating ally was partly a result of the frustration with previous efforts over what had by then been almost a quarter of a century; it was also strongly affected by the oil crisis, which had vastly changed the global price of fuel, and of products with prices related to fuel prices.
The greatest mistakes on Nixon's part therefore include failing to take a greater interest in helping South Vietnam, and insisting more on the speed of the American withdrawal than on improving South Vietnam's position at the peace negotiations. Another mistake was simply anticipating greater support being available to South Vietnam from America than proved to be the case, although at least part of this lack of foresight was related to the changed global economic situation after 1973. Nixon also, however, vastly overestimated the interest of the American people and the US Congress in continuing a financial commitment to a war that his administration had been voted into power with the mandate to end.
The final tragedy for the American involvement in Vietnam occurred under Ford's watch. By the time Ford took over from Nixon after Watergate, the US ground forces had almost completely evacuated, with the exception of a small number of "advisors," training specialists, and security guards. In the spring of 1975, North Vietnam launched what proved to be South Vietnam's death stroke (although the North Vietnamese leaders had expected South Vietnam to last a year longer than it did). The expected American support did not materialize, and the South Vietnamese forces disintegrated. After a few initial large-scale battles, the communists opened up the routes into the major cities, and their final drive into Saigon went virtually unopposed. It must be noted that Ford faced a different political situation than had his predecessors; he had few options on the table, as Congress had re-written the rules under which the US president could commit American forces to the fight, and Congress adamantly opposed a direct commitment of forces or material support beyond the protection of the US embassy and an evacuation airlift. The failure of Ford's administration to save South Vietnam must really fall much more heavily upon the shoulders of his predecessors than upon his; it is difficult to imagine what Ford could realistically have done but didn't. Ford simply had the misfortune to be condemned to watch the final act of the American tragedy from the Oval Office TVs. Ford did, however, authorize some minor operations that had no impact upon events and caused unnecessary casualties, in particular the Mayaguez operation. With these harassment operations, it almost seemed as if he, too, wanted to get in on the game of costly, futile operations, albeit on a smaller scale.
Ford, and the presidents after him, have mostly shunned Vietnam since the Vietnam War, for several reasons. The main reasons for this are the POW issue and the emotional residue of the war, the global competition with the Soviet Union, and the continuing struggles in southeast Asia. Americans retain a lot of bad feelings about the war and involvement in that region, and it would have presented a politically difficult proposition for the American government to open its arms toward its previous enemy the way that France did after its involvement there. Furthermore, Vietnam remained allied with the Soviet Union, and needed this alliance in order to balance against the growing animosity of China in the struggle between the communist blocs. When under Nixon the US began to develop its relations with both China and the Soviet Union, the US clearly favored China against the Soviets, and so Vietnam essentially fell on the "wrong" side of the inter-communist struggle. Finally, the US criticized Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia (later called Kampuchea), and took little official notice of the retaliatory Chinese invasion of Vietnam. These factors all demonstrate that there is much emotional damage that needs to be cleaned up for the US and Vietnam to develop close and friendly relations. While recent American administrations and the Vietnamese have initiated this process, it should be understood that the process will take some time.
The ultimate irony and tragedy of all of this is that America and Vietnam got off to such a good start under Roosevelt. Truman destroyed what Roosevelt had built, and while Truman's policy was a complete reversal of American policy there, his successors mostly chose a course that developed from Truman's. Under Eisenhower, when France ended its war there, America had a golden opportunity to make peace and missed it. Kennedy saw the war as a fait accompli, but then made not only the bad choice to fight it but also the bad choice of where to fight it. Johnson made more bad choices than can be counted, making them seemingly on a daily basis with his direct mismanagement of the air war and of the general strategy of attrition, while at the same time completely failing to support that very strategy. Nixon promised to get America out and mostly did so, but with the veneer of "honor" and the promise to continue to support South Vietnam's struggle; then signed a treaty leaving the North Vietnamese army in occupation of almost a third of South Vietnam's territory. The economic damage of the 1973 Middle East war and the resulting oil crisis, together with domestic American opposition to large-scale spending in support of Vietnam, also made Nixon's promises essentially worthless. Ford was hampered by these realities and had few options but to provide the troops needed to protect the American withdrawal and evacuation; but then authorized a few minor retaliatory operations which cost lives and achieved nothing. And succeeding presidents have essentially ignored the region with its problems and opportunities, although this seems to be finally changing on a small scale at least.
So after Roosevelt's moves to develop American power and influence in the region, his successors reversed American policies in ways that resulted in over 50,000 American fatalities, something in the rough neighborhood of a million Vietnamese fatalities, billions of dollars in military expenditures that did nothing to improve America's strategic position, and a region that over half a century after Roosevelt's death is still outside of American influence and houses three states that still call themselves communist. Had America instead continued to pursue Roosevelt's course, we could have built up a friendship with a power interested in staying out of the central orbit of the two primary communist powers, and have had sixty years of lucrative trade with a region blessed with ample resources, and without ever having had to fight a war. America's fight with the Vietnamese was unnecessary; a reversal of America's previously established policy; harmful to American interests strategically, politically, militarily, and economically; and resulted in enormous numbers of fatalities and other casualties for no purpose and with nothing to show for it. This is what resulted from a seemingly easy decision to confront "enemies" rather than consider our other options, and should be a powerful lesson to current and future American leaders.