(W)Archives: Vietnam and the Meaning of Defeat
Forty years ago yesterday, the North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon and the Vietnam War was over. This week we look at the memoirs of a key North Vietnamese participant in those events, Lieutenant General Trần Văn Trà, the aggressive deputy commander of the forces that launched that final offensive. These memoirs, originally published in 1982, were translated from Vietnamese by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and are available to us now in four parts thanks to the remarkable Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University.
In his memoirs, General Trà described the final offensive into Saigon. (See page 194 onward.) He set forth the strategic goals of the operation in heroic or even bombastic terms. 0000 hours on April 29, 1975:
Was…the designated hour for the party cadres and political cadres to lead the patriotic masses in uprisings to kill the tyrants, disintegrate the puppet [South Vietnamese] administration, encourage the puppet troops to throw down their weapons and surrender, win political power for the people, bring about an earthshaking upheaval, and eliminate oppression, injustice and slavery.
As Trà recounted it, the North Vietnamese offensive was an overwhelming success, held up only briefly in a very few places. He told how a T-54 tank crashed through the gates of the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace at 1110 on the morning of the 30th. Twenty minutes later a tank crew and a sapper team ran a communist flag up the main flagpole at the palace. Soon thereafter the sappers found the entire South Vietnamese cabinet sitting around a conference table in the palace. The cabinet surrendered and soon South Vietnamese President Duong Van Minh was announcing the country’s surrender over the radio. The war was over.
In war, one side is defeated when it acknowledges its own defeat. In other words, defeat is not just a question of objective military factors but also of political perception. There are many examples of this. For instance, in 1945, with the Allies in Berlin, the German government felt itself defeated, the German people accepted defeat, and World War II was over. On the other hand, in 2003, with the American military in Baghdad, despite the fall of the Iraqi regime, the Iraqi people did not feel themselves defeated and the war continued, albeit in a new guise. In 1975, both military calculations and political sentiment dictated defeat for the South. Not only did President Minh acknowledge defeat but the mass exodus of the Vietnamese boat people that started later that year showed that South Vietnamese society as a whole accepted defeat as well.
The unambiguous events of 1975 stand in stark contrast with the 1968 Tet Offensive, which also features in General Trà’s book. (See page 35 onward.) From the American perspective, the Tet Offensive, launched by the Viet Cong guerrillas was a disaster and a sign that the United States was not, in fact, making progress toward victory. For the United States, Tet was an inflection point. From that date forward the momentum was all toward a reduction of effort and disengagement. For his part, General Trà saw Tet as a serious military blunder for his side.
We did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy, did not fully realize that the enemy still had considerable capabilities and that our capabilities were limited, and set requirements that were beyond our actual strength. In other words, we did not base ourselves on scientific calculation or a careful weighing of all factors, but in part on an illusion based on our subjective desires.
Of course, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong issued no public pronouncements to this effect even while the American public and leadership made no secret of their dismay over what had happened. Physical reality mattered but perception mattered more. The United States conceded a strategic defeat and the communists claimed a great victory.
In 1976 General Trà became a member of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party and in 1978 he became Vice Minister of Defense. However, this all ended in 1982 with the publication of his memoirs. General Trà spent three years under house arrest. His sin? Describing the Tet Offensive as a defeat that “weakened” the communist cause and set it back a matter of years. In short, the general forgot the primacy of politics in war.
Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.