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.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:
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.
[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.