Vietnam lesson endures, 40 years later

Forty years after Saigon's fall, Vietnam War continues to influence U.S. security policy

Another Vietnam.

Those two words have become a cautionary mantra over the 40 years since the fall of Saigon indelibly etched images of U.S. foreign policy failure in memories and history books.

The post-Sept. 11 invasion of Afghanistan and the trillions of dollars spent in vain to rid that country of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants was another Vietnam, many argued then and now.

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The occupation of Iraq in pursuit of its purported weapons of mass destruction was another Vietnam, having wrecked much of the Middle East country and sown resentment that still fuels Islamic extremism three years after the U.S. withdrawal.

"All-in" U.S. intervention has been averted in conflicts racking Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Ukraine, at least partly in recognition that wars fought on behalf of people who don't share American values are destined to be lost.

Historians continue to disagree about reasons for the defeat of democratic aspirations in South Vietnam at the hands of the communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Some argue that a moral obligation was inherited by the Western victors of World War II to press the struggle for freedom for "captive nations," including those of Eastern Europe, that were dominated by the Soviet Union. Others contend that American forces had no strategic interests in Southeast Asia, or that the war was lost because the Vietnamese were sidelined as the superpowers fought a proxy war on their territory.

Lewis Sorley, a preeminent chronicler of the war that has become synonymous in the minds of many with misguided U.S. military ventures, laid the blame for the defeat in Vietnam on a failure of political conviction at a key moment when a changed command strategy was turning the war's tide.

A West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, former Army War College instructor and CIA planning and policy chief, and also the author of six historical accounts of the war, Sorley spoke with The Times this week about Vietnam's enduring influence on U.S. security policy before Thursday's 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

What was the initial rationale for U.S. intervention in Vietnam?

Most people agree that the decision made during the Eisenhower administration and reaffirmed by successive presidents had to be viewed in the context of the Cold War. Containment [of the spread of communism] was the strategy decided on.

Why did it fall to the United States to act as 'defenders of freedom' in Southeast Asia?

The French were the colonial masters in Indochina and we really needed them in Europe as part of NATO. The French wanted our help in Vietnam. It would be accurate to say we aspired to be leading defenders of the free world but we very definitely didn't want to be the sole defenders.

We had good reasons for our involvement in Vietnam, but it's important to remember that our involvement was incrementally increased. Our initial involvement was monetary and logistical. In the spring of 1965, it opened up big time. [Commanding Gen. William] Westmoreland's response to any crisis was to ask for more troops. At the high-water mark, on 30 April 1969, we had 543,400 troops in the country.

Was it mounting public opposition to the war in the late 1960s that prompted the decision to draw down forces?

Congress was out ahead of the American people in losing enthusiasm for the war. Westmoreland squandered four years of support by the public. His only focus was on a war of attrition that assumed if you killed enough of the enemy they would lose heart and cease their aggression.

[President] Nixon and [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger didn't want to just abandon the Vietnamese. What was decided was a phased withdrawal. When Westmoreland finally was replaced by [Gen. Creighton] Abrams, it was not only a new war but a better war. Abrams understood the importance of building up the South Vietnamese armed forces and the need for population security. The Vietnamese expanded their forces from 600,000 to 1.1 million, almost all territorial forces who were on home ground, where their families lived, where their ancestral grave sites were. They really turned out to be excellent soldiers and until Congress decided to cut support for them they fought very effectively.

How is the fall of Saigon and the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy remembered 40 years later?

We will never live down the shame of having abandoned the Vietnamese. It's not just that the evacuation left many behind, but when we cut off support for their armed forces, we caused the war to end the way it did.

How did the Vietnam experience influence U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq?

By the time we began to pull the plug on South Vietnam, they had a relatively effective government and armed forces and a politically homogeneous population. That couldn't be said of Afghanistan or Iraq. The preconditions in those countries made our involvement doomed before it began. The young men and women in our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — all volunteers — served bravely and selflessly and deserve our thanks and admiration. But what we asked them to do was something not in the realm of possibility.

What should be the standard for sending U.S. troops into foreign conflicts?

I hope policymakers conclude that it must be shown that we have important interests, even if the main interest is freedom writ large, and that there is a reasonable expectation of success. If not, let's not spend lives and treasure in a vain cause in which we have nothing at stake.


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