THE IRAQ WAR has reawakened memories of the Vietnam War, 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 and Iraq are different conflicts in different times, but there is an important similarity: A point was reached during the Vietnam War when the domestic debate became so bitter as to preclude rational discussion of hard choices. Administrations of both political parties perceived the survival of South Vietnam as a significant national interest. They were opposed by a protest movement that coalesced behind the conviction that the war reflected an amorality that had to be purged by confrontational methods. This impasse doomed the U.S. effort in Vietnam; it must not be repeated over Iraq.
This is why a brief recapitulation of the Indochina tragedy is necessary.
It must begin with dispelling the myth that the Nixon administration settled in 1972 for terms that had been available in 1969 and therefore prolonged the war needlessly. Whether the 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 American disunity prevented such an outcome when Congress prohibited the use of military force to maintain the agreement and cut off aid after all U.S. military forces (except a few hundred advisors) had left South Vietnam. American dissociation triggered a massive North Vietnamese invasion, in blatant violation of existing agreements, to which the nations that had endorsed these agreements turned their backs.
Two questions relevant to Iraq are raised by the Vietnam War: Was unilateral withdrawal an option when Richard 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 their number was increasing. The official position of the Johnson administration had been that U.S. withdrawal would start six months after a North Vietnamese withdrawal. The “dove” platform of Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern, which was rejected by the Democratic Convention of 1968, advocated mutual withdrawal. No significant group then advocated unilateral withdrawal.
Nor was unilateral withdrawal feasible. To redeploy more than half a million troops is a logistical nightmare, even in peacetime conditions. But in Vietnam, more than 600,000 armed communist forces were on the ground. They might well have been joined by large numbers of the South Vietnamese army, feeling betrayed by its allies and working its way 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 U.S. had to meet two preconditions: First, the U.S. had to overthrow the South Vietnamese government, disband its police and army and replace it with a communist-dominated government. Second, it had to establish an unconditional timetable for the withdrawal of its forces, to be carried out regardless of subsequent negotiations or how long they might last. The presence of North Vietnamese troops in Laos and Cambodia was declared not an appropriate subject for negotiations.
Nixon correctly summed up the choices 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.
When negotiations stalemated, the Nixon administration did what it could 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%. 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 North Vietnamese spring offensive. When the U.S. 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 Nixon in January 1972 — and decried as unachievable in the U.S. domestic debate. 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 U.S. economic and military help for it; no further infiltration of North Vietnamese forces; withdrawal of the remaining U.S. forces; and withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from Laos and Cambodia. None of these terms were available in 1969.
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 U.S. would assist against an all-out attack; and that, over time, the South Vietnamese government would be able 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 to power the most unforgiving of Nixon’s opponents, who cut off aid so the agreement couldn’t work as planned. 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 also must 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.
A political settlement has to be distilled from the partly conflicting, partly overlapping views of the Iraqi parties, Iraq’s neighbors and other affected states, based on a conviction that the caldron of Iraq would otherwise overflow and engulf everybody. The essential prerequisite is staying power in the near term. President Bush owes it to his successor to make as much progress toward this goal as possible; not to hand the problem over but to reduce it to more manageable proportions. What we need most is a rebuilding of bipartisanship in both this presidency and in the next.