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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

What the Vietnam War Can Tell Us About Ukraine

There is no one more dangerous than a political leader who is losing a war and possesses weapons of mass destruction.

It is not easy to occupy a country with a hostile population that despises the occupying power. Even if the occupier has a friendly puppet government in place, when local support is lacking, the occupier has to impose their will through extreme violence, which only further alienates the population and cements their hatred of the occupation. This is one reason why invading another country is a very risky proposition and why it often goes badly for the invader. 

During the Vietnam War, the United States government insisted that it had to invade Vietnam to save the democratic South Vietnamese from North Vietnamese communist aggression. In reality, the U.S. was propping up an unpopular dictatorial government and trying to crush a nationalist insurgency. Over time, it became more and more difficult to sustain the myth that the U.S. was defending Vietnam when it was in fact destroying it, dropping more tons of bombs on Southeast Asia than were dropped by all parties during all of World War II. It became clear that the war could not be won, because “winning” would require permanently occupying the country, continuing to use force to keep an unpopular authoritarian government in power.

It should have been realized early on that the Vietnam War was destined to be a catastrophe. One reason it continued, however, was that U.S. leaders felt the pride of the country was at stake, that America could not be seen to fail. It was impossible to cut their losses and withdraw from Vietnam, no matter how much the war was costing in lives and money, because the U.S. would look weak. Thus even though the Vietnam War was pointless homicidal insanity, with no clear path to anything resembling “victory,” both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon resisted accepting the obvious conclusion that it was an unjust war and the correct course of action was to leave. Johnson surged troops into the country, tens of thousands of whom were slaughtered, and Nixon, while promising to end the war, unleashed horrific bombing campaigns, and even contemplated the use of nuclear weapons

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has a number of important parallels to the Vietnam War. For one thing, it is a war based on lies—in the Vietnam case, the idea that the U.S. was saving the Vietnamese from Communism; in the Ukraine case, the idea that Putin was “de-Nazifying” the country. Both could be called wars of aggression in which the invader performs more poorly than expected, in part because of a belief in the myth that the occupied country would welcome them. Both were cases of hubris against a perceived weaker adversary, and in both cases the adversary had a major morale advantage. Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. was made fierce by the desire to expel an invading army, while the morale of U.S. troops collapsed, as many became bitter at the prospect of dying in a war that nobody could justify. A 1971 New York Times article described the chaos that consumed the armed forces:

“The men themselves are fed up with the war and the draft, questioning orders, deserting, subverting, smoking marijuana, shooting heroin, stealing from their buddies, hurling racial epithets and rocks at their brothers. Their leaders, trained to handle a different sort of crisis, often seem as bewildered as the rawest recruits, compromising, innovating, ordering strategic retreats from tradition, tossing out the training manual—all with uncharacteristic pliability. The desertion rate soars, so they do away with bed checks and permit psychedelic posters on barracks walls. The troops are bored, so they take them skiing and put beer machines in the day room. The troops refuse to advance, so they talk it over with them and try to find another way.”

For someone to go to war for their country, they have to see their country as worth dying for. Soldiers in Vietnam began to desert and refuse orders because it became clear that they might die excruciating, violent deaths serving no obvious purpose.

Vladimir Putin would have done well to read up on the history of the Vietnam War before launching his invasion of Ukraine. Apparently, he doesn’t realize that it’s difficult to convince a population you are occupying them “for their own good” when you are dropping bombs on their cities. Furthermore, the more bombs are dropped, the more resistance to the occupation there will be. As Putin has destroyed villages, cities, and towns in Ukraine, even people who were formerly pro-Russia have come to hate Russia, which is precisely what we’d expect. And Russian troops are suffering a crisis of morale and discipline, which is what happens when you ask soldiers to wage a war that can’t be justified, and is based on myths that are exposed immediately as false to anyone on the ground. It’s very hard for troops to sustain their fighting spirit if it’s not clear what they’re fighting for. That situation is only going to get worse now. Faced with enormous losses, Putin is starting to draft people who didn’t expect to be sent into battle. If it’s hard to get volunteer soldiers to fight, those who are essentially forced labor can hardly be expected to fight with a deep love of Russia in their hearts. Putin has introduced new penalties for trying to evade service and extended soldiers’ tours of duty unexpectedly. How likely are soldiers to be grateful to him for that? Will they bring enthusiasm to fighting his war?

But as we saw with Vietnam, political leaders who pursue disastrous wars have a hard time backing down. Sometimes they escalate, even when there is no clear path to success, because, unwilling to be humiliated, they perceive no viable alternative. Once everything is staked on the war, they become like a gambler who, having lost nearly everything, puts more and more on the line in a desperate, entirely irrational hope that something will work. 

What this means is that Putin is incredibly dangerous right now. Having staked everything on this disaster of a war, he feels compelled to escalate it. He is now publicly threatening the use of nuclear weapons, and insisting that he is not bluffing. Putin has spent a lifetime building an image as a macho man who doesn’t back down. Would he rather risk a third world war than be seen as weak and a failure? I don’t know, but World War I showed us that plenty of political leaders will sacrifice millions of their people’s lives rather than confess error. There are some kinds of men who really would rather destroy the world than admit they made a catastrophic mistake. 

Lyndon Johnson did not ultimately use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Instead, because we live in a country with semi-functional democratic processes, when it became clear that he would be ousted from office over his disastrous war, he didn’t run for reelection, and slunk away off to his ranch. When Nixon inherited the war, he too found it impossible to accept a humiliating defeat, and decided to give the impression that he was willing to risk any amount of hideous violent destruction to get his way. (He called this the “madman theory,” although it wasn’t really a “theory,” since he was an actual madman and did in fact rain down endless bombs on the Vietnamese.) Putin does not have the risk of being pushed out by the electorate, and there is no reason to expect him to be more sane than a U.S. president. It is perfectly plausible that he will push forward with the war even if it destroys the Russian economy, kills tens of thousands more Russian troops, wrecks Ukraine (and the chances for ever having a positive relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, which is what the war was supposedly about in the first place), and risks a giant world-ending nuclear confrontation between NATO and Russia. 

This means a few things. Number one, we should not be prematurely celebrating Ukraine’s recent victories. They are backing Putin into a corner, and making him dangerous and unpredictable. As one former senior NATO official warned, there is a possibility that Putin “will strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction.” Number two, there has to be a negotiated end to this war as soon as possible, and the U.S. needs to be trying to facilitate a diplomatic peace rather than just sending more and more weapons. As Samuel Charap and Jeremy Shapiro said in the New York Times in July:

We are witnessing a classic spiral in which both sides feel compelled to do more as soon as the other side begins to make some progress. The best way to prevent that dynamic from getting out of control is to start talking before it’s too late.” 

One more lesson from Vietnam: the importance of anti-war protesters. In the United States, it was the protesters who confronted their fellow citizens with the ugly reality of the war their country was waging, although it’s not clear how much impact that movement had on government policy. In Russia today, heroic protesters risk 15-year prison sentences in order to expose the truth. It falls on the public to try to keep political leaders from further escalating their murderous policies. War is the greatest evil humankind has yet developed, and “madmen” around the world are happy to send their citizens to die in wars. Thus, pacifists need to be militant in their demand that war be ended immediately. 

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