By Ron Griffin
The year 2015 has a unique relationship with the Vietnam War. It is both the 50th anniversary of the official start of America’s involvement of the war, and at the same time, it is the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. As we approach the end of the year, it is appropriate that we take a look back at that latter anniversary.
It is safe to say that Vietnam was America’s most unpopular war. It is also safe to say its legacy has and continues to have a profound effect on public policymaking in our country. It is also safe to say that the extreme levels of emotions on the part of veterans of that warlike myself and civilians of that period make any objective analysis of the history war challenge. As a historian, I will strive to be accurate in this article. As a participant, a combat veteran, of that war, I will apologize in advance for any shortcomings in meeting that goal.
One of the beliefs of many people, including most scholars, is that Vietnam is the first time in our nation’s history, where we didn’t defeat in a war. Considering that South Vietnam was overrun and surrendered, this view seems to be the only logical one to reach. But I think you will get a strong reaction from most Vietnam veterans. We believe that we did not lose the war; we lost the peace.
Why would I say that? Well, let’s look at it from two angles. First, we need to clearly understand what is meant by the definition of military victory and conversely defeat. Traditionally, the goal of any military action is to destroy the enemy’s ability to wage war. For example, that was the objective of the massive bombing campaigns against both Germany and Japan during WWII.
In Vietnam, there was no way that the North could ever destroy our ability to wage war, although they were to destroy our national will to fight. Although we could have killed their strength by taking out Haiphong Harbor and deprive the re-supply of the North from the Soviet Union, it was never the stated goal of the US to defeat North Vietnam. Our stated military goal was always to prop up the South until it could defend itself. The first half of that objective may have been a military one. The second half was purely a political one. As long as we committed our air, sea, and land forces to the fight, we were not going to beat on the battlefield, but the goal of the South being able to fend off the North on its own was simply impossible. By the time we did leave, the South’s resources were exhausted.
The other part of the equation to my earlier statement is how we (the US) lost the peace. That defeat started with the election of President Nixon. Part of his campaign platform was to seek “peace with honor.” Once he was elected, his first step in the process began to withdrawal our forces and turned the war back to the South Vietnamese through a process called “Vietnamization.” At the same time, he sought to get the North to the negotiating table.
Nobody has ever accused the North Vietnamese of being stupid. When the other guy has already expressed the fact he was quitting and going home, they knew all they had to do is keep up enough pressure to shoo the Americans out and keep the Southern government forces off balance and in a weakened state. Despite the Cambodian incursions and the South Vietnamese efforts in Laos (both designed to delay the ability of the North to launch any offensive action), Nixon could never get the North to sit down and seriously negotiate. It was when he unleashed the B52’s on Hanoi and Haiphong.
Despite tremendous losses by the Americans, Hanoi first flinched and finally agreed to sit down and talk. That’s when things started going bad. Political pressure in the US for a quick end resulted in a horrendous treaty. Under terms agreed to, nearly 120,000 NVA troops left in control of large sections of the South. The Saigon government felt betrayed by its US ally. Also, at first refused to sign the treaty until Nixon personally assured them that if the North were to attack the Saigon government, the US would come to their aid and would replace all losses of equipment and supplies lost on a one to one basis.
With that promise, Saigon signed on the dotted line, and Hanoi, despite reinforcing their troops in the South. Consolidating its control of the northernmost province of Quang Tri did not dare to test Nixon’s promise.
But as soon as Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate scandal, Hanoi had the green light to launch its final assault. The rejection of even minimal aid to Saigon by a Democrat-controlled Congress sealed Saigon’s fate. This ultimate betrayal remains a black mark on the soul of America to this day.