The United States was fighting in Vietnam two battles:

  1. The "conventional" NVA (North Vietnamese Army)
  2. An insurgency "guerrilla" organization.

The US tried desperately to stop both, and spend huge amount of effort bombing North Vietnam trying to stop weapon manufacture and logistics to both.

Vietnam is a thin country, and the US had the advantage in terms of Air power and men.

Why didn't America just land around Hanoi, capture it, remove the NVA from the picture, and focus on the counterinsurgancy?

  • 7
    Off the top of my head: Korea. The result would have been just like that. Beijing would have intervened in case of an all out invasion and US most certainly did not want to repeat Korean war.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 5:42
  • 15
    Were they? Vietnam is now a US Ally against China, and North Korea is a basket case hermit kingdom run by a man-child
    – Anaryl
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 9:13
  • 4
    "Guerrilla" would be a better word than "terrorist."
    – user2848
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 13:29
  • 2
    @gerrit North Vietnamese Army
    – NSNoob
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 13:48
  • 2
    @NSNoob People's Army of Vietnam then?
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 13:52

3 Answers 3


The sole reason was fear of Chinese intervention just like in Korea.

Chinese were fully committed to the war. Mao allegedly said:

Best turn it into a bigger war. I’m afraid you really ought to send more troops to the South. Don’t be afraid of U.S. intervention, at most it’s no worse than having another Korean War. The Chinese army is prepared, and if America takes the risk of attacking North Vietnam, the Chinese army will march in at once. Our troops want a war now.

What is happening to America? The hidden truth to global Destruction - Simona Pipko 1

What was worse, Chinese and Soviets allied against US (Of course later they split up) as Richard Halbrooke said:

2,000 years of Chinese-Vietnamese enmity and hundreds of years of Chinese and Russian mutual suspicions were suspended when they united against us in Vietnam.

China had already sent military and financial aid to North Vietnam in billions. Chinese servicemen sent to North Vietnam for rebuilding and aerial defense numbered to almost 170,000. As Mao said to premier Dong:

Why have the Americans not made a fuss about the fact that more than 100,000 Chinese troops help you building the railways, roads and airports although they knew about it?

Vietnam: The necessary war - Michael Lind 2

The answer to why the Americans did not make a fuss about it was that they were afraid of further escalating the tensions with the Chinese to an all-out war. Wikipedia article on President Johnson also confirms it as:

Johnson was afraid that if he tried to defeat the North Vietnamese regime with an invasion of North Vietnam, rather than simply try to protect South Vietnam, he might provoke the Chinese to stage a full-scale military intervention similar to their intervention in 1950 during the Korean War, as well as provoke the Soviets into launching a full-scale military invasion of western Europe.

In any case, China was not ready to allow Vietnam become the third bastion of the Western Capitalism, like South Korea and Taiwan, to threaten/encircle her and therefore was willing to go through with any action to halt that course.

From Semaphore's excellent answer to Why China did not assist in Vietnam like they did in Korea:

[I]f the Americans went beyond the bombing of the North and used ground forces to invade North Vietnam, China would have to send military fores. Second, China would give clear warning to the Americans.

- Harper, John Lamberton. The Cold War. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Americans feared the outcome if they crossed the border into North Vietnam.

The near-certainty of a second war with China deterred the Americans from taking the ground war beyond the 17th parallel.

- Harper, John Lamberton. The Cold War. Oxford University Press, 2011.

And also

General Dave Richard Palmer writes: The Johnson administration had already barricaded the one sure route to victory - to take the strategic offensive against the source of the war. Memories of Mao Tse-tun's reaction when North Korea was overrun by United Nation troops in 1950 haunted the White House ... Summers contends that the US was "bluffed" by China.

Hess, Gary R.Vietnam: Explaining America's Lost War

So Americans decided not to take the war to North Vietnam on ground because of fears of Chinese intervention.

Whether Peking's threats were genuine or not, American presidents prudently refused to risk such high odds. North Vietnam remained inviolable to ground attack.

McNeill, Ian, and Ashley Ekins. On the Offensive: The Australian Army in the Vietnam War, January 1967-June 1968. Allen & Unwin, 2003.

1.Treat Simona Pipko as an unreliable source because of her biased views against Left Wing politics. But she is the only source I could find for this quote. Those who might have an issue viewing Google books for this entry can see it here.

2. Those who can't view Google Books entry for Michael Lind's book, please refer to this screenshot.

  • 1
    Can you source the Mao quotations?
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 8:54
  • @fdb found references for both the quotes.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 9:26
  • The first quotation (Pipko) is not sourced in the book. The second does not show up on my screen (copyright restriction).
    – fdb
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 10:06
  • @fdb Did you follow the correct link? It is sourced from a book (Named below the quote) and the book is available on Google Books and on Author's on Webpage. The second one is also quoted on Google books. It is working for me, Idk why it is not working for you. For those who might be having similar difficulties, I'd add a screenshot from google books
    – NSNoob
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 10:11
  • 1
    @fdb Follow this screenshot for pipko and this for Michael Lind.
    – NSNoob
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 10:13

I agree with those who have referred to the precedent of Chinese intervention in Korea once the USA and its allies advanced into the North and the hard war that followed.

Also, the precedent of the failure of the French colonial power in the 1950s and their disastrous failure to bring the war to the enemy at Dien Bien Phu, when they landed a large force by air in a Comumnist controlled zone in the North, only to see it surrounded, supplies cut off, and destroyed.


If the US troops had problems fighting in the jungles of South Vietnam, they would also have problems fighting in north Vietnam.

So the use of ground combat troops to take over Hanoi was not likely. The United States main tactic against the North's territory was aerial bombing. The aerial bombing campaign was not effective enough to induce a ceasefire nor to result in the North asking for negotiations of a peaceful settlement. So when the war became too expensive, the Americans gave up and left.

Had the US ground combat troops been effective, they would have achieved a stalemate in the ground war. Vietnam would still be divided because north Vietnamese troops would not have been able to penetrate into the south. Remember that before the war the US already had control of half of vietnam.

So failure to force North Vietnam into a surrender through bombings and not very effective ground combat troops, is the reason why the US lost its control of Vietnam.


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