At the end of January, the Wall St. Journal ran an editorial written by author and former National Security Council staff-member, William Lloyd Stearman. The subject of his article was how America’s active participation in the Vietnam War, while not saving South Vietnam as a nation, likely saved the region from communism. The article is titled, America Lost Vietnam but Saved Southeast Asia, and is likely behind a paywall for you.
He makes a number of interesting points which, despite my immersion in books from the period, hadn’t quite occurred to me in just this way.
First off, he suggests that it was Vietnam that brought the United States into World War II. More than a year before Pearl Harbor (the article actually has a mistaken date for the events in question), Japan had demanded military transit rights in French Indochina. The French acquiesced to their demands after rapidly surrendering under the threat of Japanese military invasion. Ultimately Vichy France, under Axis diplomatic pressure, turned over the whole of Indochina, making it a Japanese protectorate. President Roosevelt quickly announced sanctions which froze Japanese financial assets in America. The British and the Dutch followed, within days, with similar policies. Says Stearman, it was this act by the United States which convinced Japan that the U.S. would, in the end, use its fleet to block Japanese expansion in the region. In an effort to preempt an American attack, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
The author then continues on to talk about the effects that America’s active involvement had in South East Asia, possibly saving Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia from communist takeovers. The U.S. ramp-up, he says, inspired British intervention in Malaysia and Indonesia. Similarly, Suharto may not have fought the Chinese-backed coup, which took place in Indonesia on September 30th, 1965, had he not witnessed the actions of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Had that coup in Indonesia succeeded, it is likely that the Philippines would have been destabilized by their own communist insurgents. Given that the U.S. had a long standing defense agreement with the Philippines, and that a civil war there would have likely triggered that agreement, this would have begun a U.S. involvement on an even larger scale than the one in Vietnam. At least, so opines Stearman.
He also draws one more controversial conclusion about the Vietnam War. He says that contrary to popular opinion, which generally declares that the Vietnam War was unwinnable no matter the U.S. strategy, North Vietnamese sources acknowledge a path to American and South Vietnamese victory. This line of thinking says that, had the U.S. and ARVN blocked the Ho Chi Minh Trail, particularly through Laos, the communists in South Vietnam would have been denied critical supplies and reinforcements. In fact, the North Vietnamese did not understand why Washington did not authorize such an action, particularly as everyone knew that the “neutrality” of Laos had already been violated by the communists.
This jives with one of Moore’s points at the end of We Were Soldiers…, although in his case he is talking more about the pursuit of combatants into Cambodia and Laos as opposed to preemptive disruption of the inbound troops and supplies. Of course, Stearman doesn’t address the counter-argument that extending the war into Laos would have either turned domestic opinion against the war or, perhaps worse, caused the conflict to spill well outside of Vietnam’s borders and across the Cold War -embroiled globe.
This discussion of Britain, Malaysia, and Indonesia prompted me to pop open a Steel Panthers scenario, called Operation Claret, that deals with British Fighting in Malaysia and Indonesia. It models an encounter between British special forces and Indonesian Marines which took place in October, 1965 as part of England’s secret operation across the border into Indonesia during the Indonesia/Malaysian hostilities of the mid-1960s.
This is a different kind of scenario altogether. The British, the preferred side for a player versus the AI, are on the defensive. They start in possession of all the victory locations but with insufficient forces to hold them. In the fight that is modeled, the British must cover their withdrawal across the international border back into Malaysia.
My game ended up in a draw, perhaps due to some confusion about how the scenario should be played. The British forces are insufficient to hold all of the the victory locations. Further, the victory point tallying overemphasizes losses on the British side, meaning it is even more important to give ground so as to reduce your own casualties. At the same time, the British teams are unusually effective, often neutralizing multiple Indonesian units in a single turn. This might be the most effective I’ve ever seen units in Steel Panthers and, I can only assume because I didn’t try to look it up, must be due to a mismatch between unit quality in this scenario.
Point being, what looked like initially a very strange scenario due to its very low unit count actually did turn out to be an interesting exercise for this game engine.