Lesson of Vietnam

The Washington Post

The Iraq war has reawakened memories of Vietnam – the most significant political experience of an entire American generation. But this has not produced clarity about its lessons.

Of course, history never repeats itself exactly. Vietnam was an episode in the Cold War, a combination of geopolitical and ideological conflict that did not challenge the structure of the international system based on the nation-state. Iraq is part of an ideological struggle – between Islamic sects and between radical Islam and the rest of the world – in which the jihadists reject the established order, its borders and its national states.

Defeat in Vietnam had long-term psychological significance for countries that relied on America for their defense. A collapse in Iraq would immediately weaken societies with significant Muslim populations, as radical Islam gained momentum from Indonesia, through India, to North Africa and Western Europe.

There is one important similarity, however. A point was reached during the Vietnam War when the domestic debate became so bitter as to preclude rational discussion of hard choices.

For a decade and a half, successive administrations of both political parties perceived the survival of South Vietnam as a significant national interest. Starting with the Johnson administration, they were opposed by a protest movement that coalesced behind the conviction that Vietnam reflected a rampant amorality that needed to be purged by confrontational methods. This impasse doomed the American effort in Vietnam; it must not be repeated over Iraq.

A look back at the Indochina tragedy must begin with a prevalent myth: that the Nixon administration settled in 1972 for terms that had been available in 1969 and thus prolonged the war needlessly. When serious historians return to studying the documentary record – rather than fragments of tapes out of context – they will conclude that the Nixon administration operated on the basis of a strategic design that produced terms that had not been conceivable in 1969 – and that it pursued this design for geopolitical, not electoral, reasons.

Whether that agreement, officially signed in January 1973, could have preserved an independent South Vietnam and avoided the carnage following the fall of Indochina will never be known. We do know that America's disunity prevented such an outcome when Congress prohibited the use of military force to maintain the agreement and then cut off aid to a friendly country after all U.S. military forces (except a few hundred advisers) had left South Vietnam. American dissociation triggered a massive North Vietnamese invasion, in blatant violation of existing agreements, while nations that had endorsed these agreements at an international conference simply turned their backs.

Two questions relevant to Iraq are raised by the Vietnam War: Was unilateral withdrawal an option when Nixon took office? Did the time needed to implement Nixon's design exhaust the capacity of the American people to sustain the outcome, whatever the merit?

When Nixon came into office, there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, and the number was still increasing. The official position of the Johnson administration had been that American withdrawal would only start six months after a North Vietnamese withdrawal. The "dove" platform of Sens. Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, which was rejected by the Democratic National Convention of 1968, advocated mutual withdrawal. No significant group at that time advocated unilateral withdrawal.

Nor was unilateral withdrawal feasible. Redeploying more than a half-million troops is a logistical nightmare, even under peacetime conditions. But in Vietnam, more than 600,000 armed Communist troops were on the ground – largely regular North Vietnamese units, buttressed by guerrilla forces. They might well have been joined by large numbers of a 700,000-strong South Vietnamese army feeling betrayed by its allies and working its way back into the good graces of the Communists. The U.S. forces would have become hostages and the Vietnamese people victims.

A diplomatic alternative did not exist. Hanoi insisted that to obtain a cease-fire the United States had to meet two preconditions: First, it had to overthrow the South Vietnamese government, disband its police and army, and replace it with a Communist-dominated government. Second, the United States had to establish an unconditional timetable for withdrawal of its forces, to be carried out regardless of what happened in subsequent negotiations or how long these might last. The presence of North Vietnamese troops in Laos and Cambodia was declared not an appropriate subject for negotiations.

Given the horrors that occurred when the Communists took over Indochina in 1975, it must be said that Nixon correctly summed up the choices before him when he rejected the 1969 terms: "Shall we leave Vietnam in a way that – by our own actions – consciously turns the country over to the Communists? Or shall we leave in a way that gives the South Vietnamese a reasonable choice to survive as a free people?" A comparable issue is posed by the pressure for unilateral withdrawal from Iraq.

From its beginning, the Nixon administration was working for a political, and not a purely military, solution: It recognized that the demand for total unconditional North Vietnamese withdrawal, put forward by the Johnson administration, was unachievable. But neither would it accept Hanoi's one-sided demands to leave the people of South Vietnam to their fate.

When negotiations stalemated, the Nixon administration moved to implement what could be done unilaterally without undermining the political structure of South Vietnam. Between 1969 and 1972, it withdrew 515,000 American troops, ended American ground combat in 1971 and reduced American casualties by nearly 90 percent. A graduated withdrawal compatible with preventing a takeover by radical Islam in Iraq is also a serious challenge in Iraq.

In Vietnam, a breakthrough occurred in 1972 because the administration's strategic design finally came together in its retaliation for the all-out North Vietnamese spring offensive. When the United States mined North Vietnam's harbors, Hanoi found itself isolated because, as a result of the opening to China in 1971 and the summit in 1972, Beijing and the Soviet Union stood aside. Hanoi's offensive was defeated on the ground entirely by South Vietnamese forces assisted by U.S. air power.

Faced with a military setback and diplomatic isolation, Le Duc Tho, Hanoi's principal negotiator, abandoned Hanoi's 1969 terms in October 1972. He accepted conditions publicly put forward by President Nixon in January 1972 – and decried as unachievable in the American domestic debate. He said that "this new proposal is exactly what President Nixon has himself proposed: cease-fire, end of the war, release of the prisoners and troop withdrawal . and we propose a number of principles on political problems. You have also proposed this. And we shall leave to the South Vietnamese parties the settlement of these questions."

The terms of the resulting Paris peace agreement were: an unconditional cease-fire and release of prisoners; continuation of the existing South Vietnamese government; continued American economic and military help for it; no further infiltration of North Vietnamese forces; withdrawal of the remaining American forces; and withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from Laos and Cambodia. None of these terms was available in 1969; the separation of military and political issues reflected the essence of the Nixon administration's position in the secret negotiations since 1969.

No one could guarantee that the Saigon government would be able to sustain itself forever. But the Nixon administration was convinced that it had achieved a decent opportunity for the people of South Vietnam to determine their own fate; that the Saigon government would be able to overcome ordinary violations of the agreement with its own forces; that the United States would assist with air and naval power against an all-out attack; and that over time the South Vietnamese government would be able, with American economic assistance, to build a functioning society.

American disunity was a major element in dashing these hopes. Watergate fatally weakened the Nixon administration through its own mistakes, and the 1974 midterm congressional elections brought the most unforgiving of Nixon's opponents to power. Aid to two friendly governments was cut off, while not a single American soldier had been in combat for two years. The imperatives of domestic debate took precedence over geopolitical necessities.

Two lessons emerge from this account. A strategic design cannot be achieved on a fixed, arbitrary deadline; it must reflect conditions on the ground. But it must also not test the endurance of the American public to a point where the outcome can no longer be sustained by our political process. In Iraq, rapid unilateral withdrawal would be disastrous. At the same time, a political solution remains imperative.

In Iraq, the military forces of the adversary are less powerful than they were in Vietnam, but the international political framework is more complex. A political settlement has to be distilled from the views of the Iraqi parties, Iraq's neighbors and other affected states, and based on a shared conviction that the cauldron of Iraq will otherwise overflow and engulf everybody.

The essential prerequisite for such a political solution is staying power in the near term. The president owes it to his successor to make as much progress toward this goal as possible, not, as some say, to hand the problem over but to reduce it to more manageable proportions. What we need most is a rebuilding of bipartisanship on all sides, in both this presidency and in the next.

© 2007 Tribune Media Services Inc.