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March 04, 2005

The Vietnam War: Troop Levels, Victory, and Poll Opposition

The Vietnam vs. Iraq comparison came up yesterday in our law-and-econ lunch. My recollection was that U.S. political support for the Vietnam War was extremely high up till around 1967 and that by the 1972 North Vietnamese offensive the U.S. troops had pretty much withdrawn, except for the air force, and the South Vietnamese beat North Vietnam on their own. (Their eventual defeat in 1975 occurred long after U.S. troops had left, and when the U.S. would no longer even supply weapons to South Vietnam.) I'd call the 1972 situation victory, as far as the U.S. objective was concerned. Others were skeptical (these are all contrary to the general impression the media gives us of the war), so I decided to pin them down.

(1) When did public opinion in the U.S. turn against the Vietnam War?

IU doesn't have the Gallup Brain database, which is what I'd need to check this out.

There was, by the way, substantial support for a stronger war effort, especially early in the war. For instance, in a poll conducted in February 1968, 25 per cent wanted to "gradually broaden and intensify our military operations", and 28 per cent wanted to "start an all-out crash effort in the hope of winning the war quickly even at the risk of China or Russia entering the war". Just 24 per cent wanted to "discontinue the struggle and begin to pull out of Vietnam gradually in the near future", and 10 per cent wanted to "continue the war at the present level of military effort".

That webpage has other interesting data:

There is just one question that was asked, with the same wording, throughout the war. Gallup asked the following question frequently: "In view of the developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the U. S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?" If some one answers no, then we can assume that they supported the war. ...

Almost every time the question was asked, people under 30 were more likely to say no than people 30-49, who in turn were more likely to say no than people 50 and older. ...

Educated people were more likely to support the war, not less. There is not as much data on the subject, but draft status did not seem to affect opinions on the war.

Some common beliefs about the war are correct. Women were more dovish than men, and blacks more dovish than whites. All the patterns that I have mentioned were also found in public opinion during the Korean War and World War II.

The page has a good table (except that it would be nice to know how many said "yes", since apparently quite a few (though 20% or less) had no opinion. Peak support was in November 1965, when 75% of people under 30 and 57% over 49 thought the war was not a mistake. By March 1968 50% of the young and 35% of the old thought the war was not a mistake. At the end of the data, in May 1971, 34% of the young and 23% of the old thought the war was not a mistake.

By the way, if you come across the paper, "Interpreting White House Public Opinion Mail and Polling: Vietnam Hawks and Lyndon Johnson", be wary about its conclusion that polls expressing dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war in the early years meant people were opposed to the war. Recall from the Gallup data that more people were dissatisfied because Johnson was too timid than because he was too vigorous in his war plan.

(2) Were U.S. troops gone by 1972?

As this table of troop levels shows, the peak year for American troops was 1968, when there were 536,000 of them in Vietnam. In 1971 there were only 156,000, and in 1972 only 24,000. Thus, the South Vietnamese were indeed able to defeat an all-out North Vietnamese offensive without U.S. ground troops (though the U.S. air force did play a big role in that victory).

(3) Did the U.S. lose the Vietnam War?

I haven't been able to find a web source, but I think that during the entire Vietnam War, the Communists failed to conquer and keep (for more than three months, let us say) even one of the 44 provincial capitals until 1974, when Phuoc Binh fell. They had attacked many (all?) of them, and seized some of them temporarily (Quang Tri in the 1972 offensive, for example), but in terms of territorial control, the Communists were never anywhere near winning the war until its very last year.

I'd say that when the U.S. pulled out its troops in 1972 it had achieved victory-- in the sense of achieving its objective. It had stopped the Communists from taking over South Vietnam. It had not, to be sure, driven the Communists from North Vietnam, or even driven their troops from all of South Vietnamese territory. But those were not the war's objectives.

The Korean War worked out much the same way. The U.S. went into the war merely intending to restore the status quo of restricting the Communists to North Korea. At the end of the war, they had succeeded in that-- though the Communists still retained a little South Korean territory, and the Allies had conquered a little North Korean territory.

Of course, the Communists did win in Vietnam. But that was in a separate war, that started two years after our ground troops had left, a war in which the United States refused to take part. The same thing would have happened in Korea if we'd decided to withdraw not 90% but 100% of our troops and to stop helping South Korea in any way.

Phuoc Binh, the capital of Phuoc Long Province, about 60 miles north of Saigon, falls to the North Vietnamese. Phuoc Binh was the first provincial capital taken by the communists since the fall of Quang Tri on May 1, 1972.

Posted by erasmuse at March 4, 2005 08:43 AM

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Lew Sorley's A Better War makes the case for the proposition that the war was won at the time when the U.S. withdrew. The subsequent communist victory resulted from America's refusal to offer even minimal support to South Vietnam. My review is here.

Posted by: Tom Veal at March 5, 2005 05:52 PM

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