Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Drinking Deep At McSorley's

The imperative of making the right decision in Afghanistan is contributing to a surprising new look by experts at the endgame in Vietnam from 1973-75 -- that, plus the attention that Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other Pentagon officials are giving Lewis Sorley's book A Better War. Sorley argues that, thanks to the gains we made under President Nixon, South Vietnam might have survived if only Congress hadn't slashed non-personnel aid while it pursued Nixon over Vietnam. Sorley's book gets a respectful hearing this week from Evan Thomas in "Newsweek":
Not until Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as U.S. commander in 1968 did the Americans smarten up and begin to fight a true counterinsurgency, focusing on protecting the population by a strategy of "clear and hold." Instead of shoving aside the South Vietnamese Army, Abrams built up the local forces until they could stand and fight largely on their own-as they did in 1972, repulsing North Vietnam's Easter Offensive with the aid of American airstrikes.

But by then, as Sorley laments...it was too late. American public opinion had turned. In 1973, President Nixon and the North Vietnamese signed a peace treaty that allowed Hanoi to keep 150,000 troops in South Vietnam, just waiting on orders to march. In 1974, breaking Nixon's promises of continued support to Saigon, the U.S. Congress cut off all aid to South Vietnam. Without logistical support or air cover, the South Vietnamese Army collapsed in 1975 and the communists swept into Saigon. Sorley quotes one of General Abrams's closest colleagues, Gen. Bruce Palmer, as saying that Abrams "died [of cancer in 1974] feeling that we could have won the war. He felt we were on top of it in 1971, then lost our way." Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. ambassador to Saigon who worked with Abrams to turn the war around, felt the same: "We eventually defeated ourselves," Bunker said.
Of course those May 1972 air strikes didn't materialize out of the thin air over Hanoi. They were ordered at considerable political risk by Richard Nixon. He did it again as peace talks faltered in December, generating heat among congressional opponents that made the Watergate firestorm the following year burn hotter than it would have otherwise. As Thomas notes, some historians dispute whether Nixon and Abrams could really have saved South Vietnam if Watergate hadn't occurred or Congress hadn't interfered. But does anyone really think the U.S. and South Vietnam couldn't have defeated Hanoi under any circumstances? Evans writes:
[T]he revisionists' view of Vietnam does shed some light on the issues facing Obama about war leadership. The most surprising guidance Vietnam may have to offer is not that wars of this kind are unwinnable-which is clearly the common wisdom in America-but that they can produce victories if presidents resist the temptation to fight wars halfway or on the cheap. As President Eisenhower liked to say, if you fight, "you must fight to win."
In an accompanying "Newsweek" article, Sen. John Kerry, former head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, firmly rebukes the revisionists, though even he adds, with a nod in Sorley's direction:
Yes, we adopted smarter tactics near the end, but by then the die was cast.
From grudging concessions such as these may well come a new appreciation of Richard Nixon as commander-in-chief.


MK said...

Interesting! I agree that a more nuanced assessment of RN as Commander in Chief is possible now, partly due to the passage of time. More and more, I just find politics to be childish and unnecessarily corrosive. That makes it so hard to assess anything reasonably and the way adults do in most of our workplaces. As emotions recede and reason takes over, it becomes more possible to discuss some things than when events are ongoing.

One big problem with wars such as Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan lies in the divided loyalties of some of the people in the regions where the fighting takes place. Unlike, say Britain, which saw its troops fight valiantly alongside the U.S. after we entered the war against the Germans during World War II, there was no strongly united populace in South Vietnam determined to fight for the Ky-Thieu government and to repel attackers. Some ARVN units fought pretty well in some situations but they were not the same sort of allies to us that the Brits were In WII. Those sorts of conditions just make it harder to justify U.S. sacrifices, as who is with you and who is against you is so hard to ascertain.

Unfortunately, murkiness also led to situations where some of our soldiers developed contempt (beyond the general dehumanization of war) for the people on whose behalf they were fighting, although not all did, of course. A My Lai, where some of our troops deliberately killed some civilians, was more likely there than during the Allied advance into France in 1944.

Still, interesting to see people rethinking some of the Vietnam stuff. As with Iraq, there are a number of people who question our fighting there in the first place. But fair minded people should recognize that the U.S. did make adjustments, just as it did with the surge during Bush's last years. Who knows what might have happened, had Watergate not occurred.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. Your post reminds me of the warning about about applying the lessons of the prior war in new situations, hence U.S. discouragement when South Vietnamese allies didn't act like European ones (and, now, our looking back to Vietnam for lessons about Afghanistan).

As for RN, I've always felt that the pillars of true, worthy revisionism were an understanding of his seriousness of mind and purpose and an appreciation of his work as commander in chief. So one little step forward!