Real lessons of Vietnam

Henry Kissenger:

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.


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.


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....

There is much more.

It is important to remember this history, because too many on the left have amnesia about what really happened in this war.

One of the ironies of the "break through" is that Nixon did what the joint chiefs recommended to LBJ in 1965. He hit the North Vietnamese in what the chiefs had called a hard knock with a heavy bombing campaign at the same time he mined Haiphong harbor making it impossible to get resupplies. While Nixon also had some diplomatic leverage with China, historian now know that China would not have reacted differently in 1965 and did not start giving greater aid shipments to North Vietnam until Johnson signaled his weakness with his puny bombing program.


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