Issue #7, Winter 2008

Viet Not

The history of the Vietnam War teaches that to preserve American strength and prestige, we must begin withdrawing from Iraq now.

This past August, President George W. Bush stood at a lectern in a VFW hall in Kansas City, Missouri, and launched an attack on critics calling for an early withdrawal from Iraq. Invoking “the legacy of Vietnam,” he rued the prospect that Congress would “pull the rug out from under” American soldiers “just as they are gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq.” And even though many expert commentators, including Boston University professor and Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich, have roundly discredited it, the Vietnam analogy is not likely to fade away. Voicing the Bush Administration’s stance last month in the Washington Post, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman asserted as the “widely accepted narrative of the endgame in Vietnam” that “there was a much-improved balance of forces in Vietnam, reflected in the 1973 Paris agreement, and that Congress subsequently pulled the props out from under that balance of forces–dooming Indochina to a bloodbath.” Rudolph Giuliani, the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, draws the same comparison in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. “The consequences” of withdrawal, he writes, “were dire, and not only in Vietnam: numerous deaths in places such as the killing fields of Cambodia, a newly energized and expansionist Soviet Union, and a weaker America. The consequences of abandoning Iraq would be worse.”

Recalling the jingoistic post-Vietnam T-shirt blurb, “Good Soldiers Betrayed By Gutless Politicians,” this view holds that the Vietnam War was lost at home and could have been won on the ground, and that such a victory would have ineluctably rendered the United States better able to meet the broader challenges of the Cold War. The ensuing lesson for the present day is that proceeding to military victory in the Iraq War will enable the United States to flatten the transnational Islamist terrorist threat, and that now is no time to cut and run. But the truth is that the bitter stab-in-the-back Vietnam narrative that fuels the Bush Administration’s argument is grossly and demonstrably inaccurate. The decline of American prestige and leverage, and the destabilization of Southeast Asia occasioned by Vietnam, resulted not from withdrawing too soon but, rather, from withdrawing too late. If we are serious about salvaging our strategic position in the Middle East, then we need to be clear-eyed about what history teaches us about interventions gone wrong–especially the war in Vietnam.

The Analogy Game

The Vietnam comparison represents the culmination of a series of tendentious analogies waged by senior American officials to justify the continuing military presence in Iraq. General David Petraeus, commander of American forces in Iraq, repeatedly bruits about the British counterinsurgency effort in Northern Ireland as a successful model for the American enterprise in Iraq. But that model is easily invalidated: British troops in Northern Ireland peaked at 30,000, against active Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers numbering perhaps 500 (which yields a soldier-to-insurgent ratio of 60 to one); coalition forces in Iraq now stand at roughly 170,000, facing over 30,000 Sunni insurgents alone, for a ratio of less than five to one. And whereas Protestant “loyalist” terrorism in Northern Ireland was almost exclusively pro-British, broadly pro-state Iraqi Shia militias have targeted American troops as well as their Sunni enemies. Because the Northern Irish conflict was small and containable, claiming on average fewer than 40 British troops a year–P.J. O’Rourke once dubbed Northern Ireland “heck’s half-acre”–it was relatively easy to manage politically over the course of 25 years. Obviously, Iraq is not.

Undaunted by subtlety, the U.S. command in Iraq has glommed onto other models, like the 1950s British suppression of the Chinese communist insurgency in Malaya and the defeat of the bloody Salvadoran insurgency in the 1980s. These too are readily distinguishable. In Malaya, the British did an artful job of managing political and economic incentives, but they faced only an ideological minority of an ethnic minority, most of whom did not actively oppose the British and the ethnic Malay majority; the British likewise enjoyed an overwhelmingly superior force ratio. In El Salvador, there was a viable central government steeped in Western political traditions to defend, a relatively small number of insurgents, no sectarian dimension, and an operational requirement of less than 100 American military advisers. This made a “market solution” involving heavy economic aid and incentives singularly appropriate. Furthermore, in Northern Ireland, Malaya, and El Salvador, those whom we generally regard as the good guys won. The British government and the pro-British Northern Irish majority tamed the IRA sufficiently to open it to a political deal; UK-backed Malays prevailed over Chinese communist insurgents; and a pro-Western government remained in place in El Salvador at the expense of Soviet-supported rebels. The fact that these stories ended so well may explain the appeal of these purported Iraq precedents.

The Vietnam War has a different and more insidious relationship to the American psyche, one all the more seductive and resonant today because it does in fact bear objective similarities to the Iraq War. Both were major, large-scale American engagements against unexpectedly tough adversaries. Over time, both were met by dwindling public support. But there are also obvious differences. The Vietnam War evolved from a guerrilla insurgency into a major conventional conflict, while the Iraq War has taken just the opposite course. And Vietnam’s crowning characteristic is that the good guys lost. Indeed, the Vietnam War is often cast as the first American defeat. As such, it cries out for redemption of a cause betrayed. It is this last, highly emotive and nationalistic impulse, rather than the war’s pedagogical utility, that the Bush Administration seeks most acutely to exploit in implicitly vowing “never again.”

A fortuitous cakewalk in the first Gulf War and an unexpectedly precipitous victory in the Cold War shortly thereafter gave us the luxury of shaking off a national leeriness of military intervention–the “Vietnam syndrome”–without coming to terms with how the war was lost or understanding its strategic consequences. Contrary to the stab-in-the-back narrative, the diminution in American prestige and leverage occasioned by the loss of the Vietnam War were temporary and more than offset by its unburdening effects, and the wider regional violence that followed that loss–in particular, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia–primarily resulted not from not the U.S. military’s withdrawal but from its pre-withdrawal escalation. But the Bush Administration has willfully ignored these realities and used Vietnam to amp up fears of American disempowerment. This misreading (or non-reading) of history not only re-opens old divides between hawks and doves, but portends disastrous policy choices.

The Real Vietnam

Before considering the actual defeat in Southeast Asia, it is important to consider what would have constituted a victory. Outright success would have seen the United States withdrawing from a durable, democratic South Vietnam governed by a friendly elite respected by its people, overseeing institutions capable of defending the country against both external attacks and internal insurgents. As Lyndon Johnson stated unambiguously in 1965, “Our objective is the independence of South Vietnam and its freedom from attack.” In late 1966, however, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara felt compelled to take grim stock of American efforts up to that point: “This important war must be fought and won by the Vietnamese themselves. But the discouraging truth is that, as was the case in 1961 and 1963 and 1965, we have not found the catalyst for training and inspiring them into effective action.”

As the war proceeded, it became even clearer that there were no plausible circumstances under which the United States might have won the Vietnam War on Johnson’s original terms. In taking up a stiff counterinsurgency challenge in Vietnam, the United States made itself hostage to the effectiveness and commitment of the South Vietnamese government. Furthermore, it became obvious that in Vietnam–as in virtually all counterinsurgency situations–an agreement changing the political conditions that spawned the insurgency was indispensable to a sustainable peace on terms acceptable to Washington and Saigon. Unless that happened, military gains, no matter how audacious, could not be sustained. Yet throughout the U.S. involvement, the South Vietnamese government remained decadent, stagnant, and incorrigible. As historian George Herring has noted, “The United States found to its chagrin that as its commitment increased, its leverage diminished.” While there were undeniable counterinsurgency successes in the early 1970s, Saigon was not up to consolidating them by winning the confidence of its citizenry.

Meanwhile, the United States lost public support for the war–not because the American people were pampered, spineless, and lacked tolerance for casualties, but because they were convinced that the American leaders had conducted the war so incompetently and dishonestly for so long that victory could no longer be retrieved. If this sounds familiar, it should: Americans today have essentially the same attitude toward the Iraq War.

The unwinnability of the Vietnam War is not an assessment gleaned from hindsight; it was readily apparent by late 1967. Although Johnson’s informal council of “wise men” were whipsawed by the need to cut America’s losses and the impulse to decisively impose its will, McNamara was resolutely pessimistic about American prospects. In a November 1 memorandum to Johnson, he wrote prophetically: “As the months go by, there will be both increasing pressure for widening the war and continued loss of support for American participation in the struggle. There will be increasing calls for American withdrawal…There is, in my opinion, a very real question whether under these circumstances it will be possible to maintain our efforts in South Vietnam for the time necessary to complete our objectives there.”

The United States government, however, morbidly delayed its exit from Vietnam on the pretext of a fruitless “Vietnamization” process begun under the first Nixon Administration. The period was marked by a fatally incoherent combination of factors: the slow and indecisive withdrawal of American troops, an unmotivated South Vietnamese military (despite an accelerated U.S.-sponsored buildup), and the aggravation of local and regional populations by the increasingly brutal application of U.S. military power. Rather than seriously attempting to induce the South Vietnamese to develop institutions sufficient to sustain the state, the United States kept pressing for a military solution, expanding the war to Cambodia and stepping up the air campaign against the North. Despite effective rural development programs that diminished the insurgency, in 1972 the United States was basically left with what it had at the start: a decadent government in Saigon. In fact, things were worse. Ten years on, the problem was compounded by instability fomented by the war. In particular, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia had hardened the communist Khmer Rouge’s resistance against pro-U.S. Cambodian leader Lon Nol and lent momentum to Pol Pot’s genocidal designs.

Having spent its domestic political capital on Cambodia, the Nixon Administration had little choice in 1972 but to eke out the Paris Peace Accords, under which North Vietnam would observe a cease-fire following a U.S. military withdrawal. But by then Nixon, devoid of popular American support for further engagement in Vietnam, had to negotiate with Hanoi from weakness. The Paris accords required a wholesale American pullout, but they did not require the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to withdraw from South Vietnam. Its patience exhausted, Congress would not authorize funds to equip the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) with the hardware it would have needed to repel a major NVA offensive. The U.S. military guarantee to South Vietnam came to little more than Nixon’s secret 1972 pledge to President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would retaliate militarily if North Vietnam violated the cease-fire–a pledge rendered empty by the 1973 congressional ban on all U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia and its meager 1974 appropriation ($700 million) for South Vietnam. By the end of 1973, Watergate had so damaged Nixon’s standing with Congress that he was powerless to revive any congressional support for U.S. activities in Vietnam. When the decisive offensive came in 1975, the Ford Administration could muster only toothless diplomatic protests. North Vietnamese troops soon overran Saigon, and the South surrendered unconditionally to the North in April 1975 as American helicopters staged an unforgettably shambolic and tragic evacuation.

Even leaving aside historical differences between the conflicts, the Iraq-Vietnam analogy is largely a straw man. Most of those who oppose a continued major U.S. military presence in Iraq have not, thus far, proposed a 1975 vintage withdrawal that would leave the Iraqi government without recourse to U.S. diplomatic or military support to secure its position in the regional political environment or military assistance to prevent state implosion. Indeed, all serious proposals call for robust diplomacy to temper destabilizing external influences and a U.S. quick-reaction force deployed in the region to deter and contain any security crisis in Iraq. That could change, of course. As long as large numbers of U.S. troops remain deployed in Iraq, it is not at all difficult to foresee circumstances on the ground–say, a suicide attack on the order of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut–that would push opposition to U.S. involvement past the tipping point for measured and prudent compromise. In that event, only wholesale withdrawal, with little consideration for residual help to Baghdad, might satisfy a majority of Americans and their elected representatives. If that happened, American power and influence in the region would dwindle precipitously.

When to Withdraw?

In other words, the question is not whether to withdraw or not, but rather when and how. And in that regard, Vietnam does in fact offer some important lessons for today. Leaving aside the question of whether the domino theory ever held water, it is arguable that the United States had little choice but to commit its troops and prestige to the South Vietnamese regime, lest it risk undermining the trust of collective security partners. At the same time, countering a nationalist communist movement like Ho Chi Minh’s in North Vietnam was always going to be difficult, as Hanoi enjoyed the support of a dedicated population, an army to match, and the substantial resources of the Soviet Union and China. This triad of assets gave North Vietnam staying power that the United States could never muster. Given that these factors were increasingly understood by the last years of the Johnson Administration, when was the best time to withdraw?

Issue #7, Winter 2008

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