VIETNAM: The Unwinnable War” Professor Antony Taylor 7th September 2020

Our speaker this week, Antony Taylor, is Professor of Modern History at Sheffield Hallam University.  He had pre­vi­ously vis­ited us in January 2019, when he gave a most even-handed view of Brexit and its rami­fic­a­tions.  He was to repeat this approach in tack­ling todays talk, the sub­ject of which in its day was, for nearly twenty years — along with Nuclear dis­arm­a­ment — per­haps the most con­tro­ver­sial and divis­ive topic of our younger years .

Tony began his talk by sketch­ing out the back­ground to this long and cruel con­flict (1955–1975) which was to cost 58,000 American lives. The War sprung from its routes in WW2, as the US aban­doned isol­a­tion and became a Pacific ori­ent­ated power in the after­math of Pearl Harbour. European colo­nial weak­ness, both in battle and supply logist­ics, was demon­strated by the ini­tial suc­cess of Japan before and during the early stages of the War.  Korea, large swathes of China, Indo–China and later, Hong Kong and Singapore were over run. In the vacuum fol­low­ing the fall of Japan in 1945, Communism became ascend­ant in the now restored colon­ies of Great Britain, Holland and France.  All were to exper­i­ence ‘guer­rilla’ activ­ity in sup­port of inde­pend­ence. The US, already heav­ily com­mit­ted to ‘roll back’ com­mun­ism in the shorter Korean con­flict (1950–53), attemp­ted to ‘prop up’ the colo­nial powers, espe­cially France, via ‘Marshall Aid’ funds.  This served only to stoke up the nation­al­ists of the region, espe­cially the Vietminh, who also oper­ated through­out the rest of French Indo-China. Their weapons included light armoury sup­plied from both Russia and China, light­en­ing terror attacks and indoc­trin­a­tion of the pop­u­la­tion.  No mercy was shown to any cap­tured enemy.  The reg­u­lar dis­play of mutil­ated French sol­diers had a grim mes­sage both in the jungle and in Paris.


There fol­lowed a nine year war of attri­tion between the Vietminh and the restored French Empire, cul­min­at­ing in the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  This was to give inde­pend­ence to the former colon­ies of Laos and Cambodia.  Vietnam was par­ti­tioned along the 17th par­al­lel between a Communist north under Ho Chi Minh and a US backed south under Ngo Diem.  The border was to prove unstable with con­stant incur­sions and in 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin incid­ent -another Pearl Harbour moment- in which US ships were attacked, pro­voked full American involve­ment.  Despite a vast build-up of US forces and hard­ware, America was unable to pre­vent the Vietcong enter­ing the south with impun­ity.  There was a major refugee ‘boat people’ crisis in 1978, as people tried to flee the coun­try.  Secretary State for Defence Robert McNamara acknow­ledged before his death that “the USA could never have won this war”.

South East Asia was to become the ’cock­pit’ of the Cold War with no ‘Yalta’ mech­an­ism for keep­ing the peace. The Vietnam war was to be end­lessly fought on other fronts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, blight­ing the records of Presidents Kennedy, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. With TV cov­er­age, the War attrac­ted a great deal of mainly left wing sym­pathy in the West with the Viet Cong flag (a yellow star on red back­ground) a reg­u­lar sight on uni­ver­sity cam­puses and demon­stra­tions in Trafalgar Square or out­side the White House.  It was to enter deep into pop­u­lar con­science, becom­ing the sub­ject of sev­eral films such as “Platoon”, “Hamburger Hill”, as well as plays includ­ing “ Miss Saigon” and numer­ous books eg,  Michel Herr’s ‘Despatches’.  The com­mun­ist side made much use of pro­pa­ganda pit­ting the under­dog against the bully.


 Tony moved on to dis­cuss a range of factors, which he con­sidered made the War unwinnable for America.  These included:

  • An over-dependence on static defens­ive pos­i­tions, like the French before them, losing con­trol of the coun­tryside which aerial bom­bard­ment, use of chem­ical weapons etc failed to flush out the oppos­i­tion
  • Trying to fight a con­ven­tional war against an uncon­ven­tional enemy that would go to ground min­im­ising open con­flict and tar­gets. The US army used many reluct­ant con­scripts; the Vietminh were battle hardened and had fought both the Japanese and the French before the US
  • Few ‘indi­gen­ous col­lab­or­at­ors’ and lack of sub­stan­tial inter­na­tional allies
  • Anti-war protests at home, bring­ing together young people, the counter cul­ture, black civil rights act­iv­ists and some Hollywood stars.


 Our speaker con­cluded his talk by con­sid­er­ing the con­sequences of the Vietnam War.   While the British had won their war against the com­mun­ists by 1950, with the help of the indi­gen­ous pop­u­la­tion, and then grant­ing (what became) Malaysia full inde­pend­ence in 1957, Tony thought the whole epis­ode had humi­li­ated the USA encour­aging a return to an isol­a­tion­ist stance.  A more con­struct­ive approach might have been to have offered an aid pack­age to encour­age better US sen­ti­ment through greater prosper­ity.  By destabil­ising the region war, broke out between Vietnam and Cambodia, res­ult­ing in the rise of the Khmer rouge under Pol Pot. The US thus caused what it had tried to pre­vent -the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Communism in the region and an example for anti-colonial move­ments else­where.

Before our ‘Zoom Time’ was up Tony took a number of ques­tions which ranged from the role of Harold Wilson (who kept GB out) the War’s impact on France and Algeria, the use of Napalm, to the Soviet exper­i­ence in Afghanistan.   This level of interest was stim­u­lated by another com­pel­ling talk for which our speaker was warmly thanked.