Leaving Vietnam

Veith

This important book is the first volume of a two-part examination of one of the most dishonorable chapters in the history of the United States. For approximately two years, the United States Congress, comfortably ensconced thousands of miles from the battlefield, abetted the North Vietnamese violation of the 1973 Paris Peace accords and the subsequent destruction of the Republic of South Vietnam. Remarkably, a majority of members of Congress did not care about the fate of South Vietnam, and in some cases yearned for a North Vietnamese victory.

George J. Veith is a retired U.S. Army Captain whose mastery of the final years of the Vietnam War is on display on every page of this volume. Students of military history will likely find this book more interesting than will the general reader, but it deserves to be read by all thoughtful Americans. Veith is not a “professional” historian, but his adherence to the old-fashioned standards of the profession, i.e., that one actually has to engage in archival research before declaiming on a subject, sets him apart from many prominent “historians.”

Veith is hardly the first author to note that the South Vietnamese army (ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam), performed at times with courage and ingenuity in facing a foe with superior resources and the de facto support of the international community, but he is the first to rely on formerly top secret North Vietnamese documents. Contrary to what the American media and many members of Congress reported at the time, ARVN forces were not altogether corrupt and cowardly, and could well have defeated the North Vietnamese had they been given a chance by Congress. And while South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu was no George Washington and corruption was rampant throughout his government, as it is in many parts of the United States, the South Vietnamese did not deserve to be abandoned to a future of Marxist-Leninist reeducation camps, religious oppression, and rule by communist dictatorship.

The odds of preventing this from happening became impossible when the United States Congress slashed military assistance to South Vietnam and prohibited the re-introduction of American airpower that could have easily destroyed the columns of communist tanks that invaded the republic in late 1974 and early 1975. Veith’s book is a powerful retort to those who cling to the myth that pajama clad members of the Viet Cong equipped with AK-47s and bowls of rice toppled South Vietnam – this was a massive, complex logistical operation involving a supply pipeline that would have been vulnerable to American airstrikes. As Veith observes, “the peasant soldiers of North Vietnam no longer had to walk down the Ho Chi Minh trail” but were carried by convoys of trucks, armored personnel carriers, and even by transports at sea. The North Vietnamese Navy, which could have been destroyed in a matter of hours by the United States Navy, engaged for “the first time in the war . . . carryi[ng] a complete armored unit to the South.”

In the Spring of 1975, Le Duan, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of North Vietnam, noted that the ongoing invasion “was their last chance to win” the war. President Gerald Ford’s national security team understood this as well, and grasped that “without U.S. aid, South Vietnam could not survive.” The final North Vietnamese offensive was an onslaught of conventional forces equipped with the best Soviet hardware, remarkably unlike what American ground forces had faced prior to their departure in 1972. One engagement saw one thousand ARVN defenders “against more than ten thousand PAVN [People’s Army of Vietnam] troops backed by tanks and heavy artillery and covered by an effective anti-aircraft umbrella.” Another assault involved 40 armored vehicles and two artillery regiments, all if which, it should be noted, could have been decimated by American B-52s. With its roadways and cities choked with thousands of refugees fleeing in absolute terror from their North Vietnamese “liberators,” the situation in South Vietnam quickly spiraled out of control.

One of the few American officials who emerged with his honor intact from this sorry episode is President Gerald Ford, who demonstrated extraordinary political courage by urging Congress to live up to its responsibilities to provide aid to an ally under attack. Unfortunately, Ford’s predecessor, Richard Nixon, was seen as a war criminal by some and a felon by most Americans (rightly so in regards to the latter accusation) and Ford had pardoned Nixon, diminishing his standing in the eyes of many Americans. Ford was a creature of Congress, and his courage was coupled with a remarkable, if somewhat unfortunate, forbearance of members of Congress who did everything they could to ensure the triumph of the North Vietnamese.

Take for instance Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), an admirer of the North Vietnamese freedom fighters who strongly protested when press reports indicated that Ford might divert the USS Enterprise toward Vietnam at a critical point during the North Vietnamese invasion. While Abzug and her allies handled the American home front, the North Vietnamese propagandized in the international arena in an attempt to halt the diversion. A besieged President Ford never issued the diversion order. This was one of many instances that led South Vietnamese President Thieu to proclaim, “how can the free world abandon us?” All of this transpired while Le Duc Tho, fresh off of winning his Nobel “Peace” Prize for negotiating the Paris accords, was sent into South Vietnam by the Politburo to assist in directing the “forthcoming attack on Saigon.”

Congress and a sclerotic Pentagon bureaucracy contributed to the “slow strangulation” of South Vietnam, as Veith dryly observes. Veith adds that Congress, “relentlessly pressured by anti-war crusaders, cut aid and eliminated American military action at precisely the moment the [North Vietnamese] Politburo viewed as its last, best chance to win the long war.” In the final months of South Vietnam’s existence, U.S. aid was barely covering the cost of fuel and ammunition, which led to “the immediate curtailment of flying hours and vehicle movement. A military that depended on firepower and mobility to offset the Communist propensity to mass forces suddenly had its two most important advantages sharply curtailed.”

The fact that this story remains largely unknown some 40 years after the fact is a testament to the resilience of the anti-war narrative propagated by academics and journalists. This interpretation goes as follows: the United States became embroiled in a civil war and backed a corrupt regime that found itself on the wrong side of history. This regime and its people refused to fight when the genocidal American forces left the country, and quickly folded once it was attacked by nationalists from the North who simply wanted to unify their country. These nationalists were led by the Southeast Asian equivalents of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

There is little doubt that many assumptions made by American presidents during the Vietnam era were deeply flawed: the domino theory turned out to be a canard, as did the accompanying presidential rhetoric which warned that if we did not stop the communists in Southeast Asia we would be fighting them on Malibu Beach. The American conduct of the war was far from pristine; as is frequently the case in war, the tactics employed were not for the fainthearted. But in comparison to the enemy they fought in Vietnam and Cambodia, the United States military was the personification of decency. (Despite what the American left would have you believe, My Lai was an aberration.)

The various American presidents who fought the war made mistakes: Eisenhower’s initial decision to send U.S. military advisors was perhaps one; Kennedy’s overthrow of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 was certainly one. Complicating matters was President Nixon’s secret promise to President Thieu to intervene if North Vietnam violated the Paris Accords, a promise which became moot as a result of Nixon’s exile to San Clemente in August, 1974. That promise would have been made by any responsible U.S. president, but Nixon never expected to resign, nor did he anticipate the radical class of 1974 that gained control of Congress after his resignation.

By 1973, the United States had sacrificed over 58,000 men and had spent over $686 billion to defend the Republic of Vietnam. This should have inspired some sense of obligation on the part of Congress to insure that the deaths of those Americans, not to mention the thousands of South Vietnamese who died, had not been in vain. Yet the animus toward the “imperial presidency” that “started” both the war in Vietnam and the Cold War itself was so intense in media, academic, and congressional circles that the idea of betraying a former ally was seen as an act of moral courage.

In 1972, Senator George McGovern (D-SD) urged his countrymen to abandon South Vietnam and “come home.” In our time, the clarion call to “come home” has been echoed by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and members of the House Republican caucus. Their belief that American intervention abroad distorts the constitutional order at home would warm the cockles of George McGovern’s and Bella Abzug’s heart. These new American isolationists never calculate the cost of ceding control of the global commons (protection of sea lanes, leadership of international organizations, etc.) to various authoritarian regimes. One of the many lessons from George J. Veith’s book is that there are forces in the world that would be thrilled to see the United States “come home” and abandon its leading role in the world.

Stephen F. Knott

Stephen F. Knott is professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth; Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency; At Reagan’s Side: Insiders’ Recollections from Sacramento to the White House; and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Comments

  1. gabe says

    ” One of the many lessons from George J. Veith’s book is that there are forces in the world who would be thrilled to see the United States “come home” and abandon its leading role in the world” – as is evident by recent activities in the South China Sea.
    so I guess it is “come home and make certain that your tail is between your legs.

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