Ending with a Whimper

I suspect that what’s really going on with President Bush’s invocation of the Vietnam war, which most hawks have resisted until recently, is not necessarily a late endorsement of that quagmire of a war or even an argument that the United States should have stayed longer (although it could be read that way). I suspect that, instead, at some subterranean level in what passes for his consciousness, he knows that the Iraq war will end badly, and he is positioning himself and his dwindling band of supporters to place the blame not on those who foolishly started the war and then mismanaged it so badly, but on Congress and other opponents of the war.

To do this he is invoking what to most historians and those who lived through that sad episode in American history is an eccentric interpretation of how and why the war ended in the way that it did, but one that still holds some resonance among some conservatives whose memories are a little fuzzy (perhaps purposely?) and other hardliners. The short version was summed up by Sylvester Stallone’s "Rambo" character in (if memory serves) the second of the Rambo movies. Stallone’s Rambo asks Richard Crenna’s Col. Trautman something like "Are we going to be allowed to win this time?"

There’s the comfortable myth. Our military people were brave and capable and effective, but they were forced by civilians back home to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. Just when we were on the verge of winning the war. Congress pulled the rug out from under the troops by defunding the war. It wasn’t the troops on the ground who lost the war but the pantywaist civilians and politicians back home who lost their nerve and wouldn’t let the war be fought properly, so the troops were doomed.

There’s just a shred of plausibility there. A number of historians have argued that the 1968 Tet Offensive, for example, which was generally perceived as a defeat that convinced the American public at large (led by Uncle Walter Cronkite) that the war was not winnable. As president, Lyndon Johnson did micromanage many aspects of the war, down to selecting individual bombing targets, sometimes countermanding his generals’ advice on troop deployments and the like. One can certainly question the policy of gradual escalation, which was largely a civilian-driven policy. And there are those indelible images of the last helicopters lifting off from the U.S. embassy in Saigon, leaving thousands of South Vietnamese who had cooperated and worked with the U.S. to a sad and often lethal fate – an image of sad defeat that many Americans wouldn’t mind trying to erase.

There are serious problems with this simple scenario, however. As Clausewitz explained so long ago, war is politics by other means, and in politics perceptions are often more important than reality. So while the Tet offensive may have been a military success in strictly tactical terms, insofar as it was perceived as a failure, and insofar as that perception undermined what was already flagging support for the war on the home front, it was a strategic failure.

Then there’s the question of just what a foreign army fighting a counterinsurgency against largely indigenous forces in a country halfway around the world could have done that would have led to an outcome that could legitimately have been called victory. In 1968, when Richard Nixon ran on a platform of "peace with honor," that was already a tacit acknowledgment that victory in a conventional sense – think WWII – was unlikely. He quickly adopted the policy of "Vietnamization," which meant building up and training the South Vietnamese forces (ARVN) so they would be able to take over the bulk of the fighting.

At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger were pursuing negotiations with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with China, which reduced the perception of Vietnam as the last stand against aggressive communism, since on the larger world stage the administration was cozying up to the communists. Under Nixon the U.S. was reducing the number of troops in Vietnam. The policy of gradual withdrawal was already well underway by 1971, when the U.S. troop count was reduced to about 196,000, with another 45,000 scheduled to be withdrawn in February 1972.

All this reflected increasing antiwar sentiment in the country at large as well as the growing perception that it was time for the United States to leave. Vietnamization was tested in 1971 and 1972, with a couple of ARVN offensives that failed badly. Instead of spurring the U.S. to beef up its forces, this reinforced the decision to withdraw. By August 1972 the last of the U.S. ground troops were withdrawn, although several thousand military and civilian advisers remained, and the U.S. continued to support South Vietnam with air power. The negotiations to end the war continued through the fall of 1972 and the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973.

Although this period of winding down the war, Congress, controlled by the Democrats, did not cut off funding to the military. Indeed, Nixon promised and Congress delivered, hundreds of millions of dollars in new equipment and other military support for the South Vietnamese army, making it (on paper at least) the fourth largest army in the world.

It wasn’t until December of 1974 that Congress passed an act to cut off military funding for South Vietnam, fixing the number of U.S. military personnel remaining in the country (as advisers, of course) at 4,000 within six months and 3,000 within a year. Coming in the midst of Watergate, this was a politically popular move, although it was hardly viewed as a triumph, but seen more as a bittersweet acknowledgment of reality.

I believe most Americans suspected the communist North would win now that the South didn’t have direct U.S. military support and an economy that had become dangerously dependent on the U.S. military presence started to disintegrate. But most Americans also believed the U.S. had done all it could do, had suffered enough death and maiming in a war whose objectives had never been solidly defined, and while we would be sad when the South fell, there simply wasn’t much more the U.S. was prepared to or could do to stave off the ultimate outcome.

Now there’s little question that much of what President Bush spoke of as belonging to the aftermath of the Vietnam happened, and that much of it was chaotic and tragic and bloody. South Vietnamese who had been loyal to the Americans were sent to reeducation camps, and tens of thousands died or were killed. Up to 2 million people fled the country as refugees, and perhaps half of these "boat people" died. The Khmer Rouge took Cambodia in 1975 and murdered many people, perhaps as many as 2 million. Then in 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge. Thousands more were killed.

However, the "domino effect" that had been one of the justifications for the war – if Vietnam goes communist, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries will fall like dominoes – didn’t come to pass.

The point of all this admittedly abbreviated history is to emphasize that it wasn’t Congress pulling the rug from under the military by cutting funding that led to the end of the Vietnam war but a variety of factors, including the unsuitability of U.S. forces for guerrilla war, a widespread realization that South Vietnam’s government couldn’t match the North in determination and persistence, and larger geopolitical factors, including the desire of the Nixon administration to pursue détente with the Soviet Union and create an opening to China.

What Bush and various neocons are up to in their invocation of Vietnam is starting to plow the soil for laying the blame for defeat in Iraq. If they get their way, it won’t be laid at the feet of those who started the war and had to improvise the occupation because they had no plan and were profoundly and even proudly ignorant of the history and political and ethnic dynamics of the country they thought they were liberating – we were the indispensable nation that could transcend history and shape reality to our desires, after all. Instead it will be laid at the feet of those in Congress who rather belatedly began to have second thoughts as reality became increasingly unpleasant, and especially at the feet of those who were wise enough to advise against starting the war in the first place.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).