The U.S. defeat in the Vietnam war did not happen when the American troops pulled out. The South Vietnamese army held for two years, but congress refused to fund them any more, contrary to promises that had been made to South Vietnam. I once said as much in a forum, and a person who was probably a former soldier replied that when we left, we made sure the South Vietnamese army was well supplied, and the defeat was really due to a badly executed retreat by the South, which was complicated by large number of fleeing refugees.
Recently, I found out, from reading part of former President Gerald Ford’s memoirs, that we were both right. This is what Ford says:
Meanwhile, other foreign policy crises were demanding more and more of my time. Foremost among them was the stepped-up war in South Vietnam and Cambodia. From the beginning of our involvement in the area, I had always thought that we were doing the right thing. Our policy was a natural outgrowth of decisions we had made at the end of World War II. In the immediate postwar period, the U.S. mounted a foreign aid program to help rebuild the shattered economies of countries all over the world. We helped scores of nations—allies, potential allies and even potential adversaries—and those aid programs formed an integral part of America’s foreign policy and national defense strategy. The basic thrust behind them was the desire to eliminate, or at least contain, Communist aggression around the globe.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, our aid programs in Vietnam were not too different from the programs we maintained elsewhere, with the exception of the fact that the French were still a major factor there. Then Dienbienphu fell to the Communists; the French withdrew and the U.S. role began to change. Slowly we became the military backup for one of the two contending factions in the country. Even by the late 1950s, we were only providing the Saigon regime with military and economic aid plus the services of several hundred advisers. We were not committed fully to the nation’s defense. Yet. A decisive change in our level of commitment came, of course, in April 1962, when JFK sent 15,000 military advisers to help the South Vietnamese in their struggle against the Viet Minh, later called the Viet Cong. From that point on, escalation followed escalation, and at one point in the mid 1960s we discovered that we had committed 550,000 Americans to save our beleaguered ally.
In retrospect, legitimate questions can be raised about our involvement in the war. Had our civilian and military leaders made a sufficient analysis of the conditions there? Had they stopped to consider that our world commitments might already be too great, and did they have a clear idea of what their military objectives were? The answer to these questions is probably no. The question can also be asked: Could we have won the war? There, I think, the answer is yes, although I’m not as sure of that today as I was in the late 1960s when, as House Minority Leader, I called upon LBJ to stop pulling our best punches in Vietnam. At that time, I felt certain—given four basic assumptions—that we would prevail:
The first assumption was that we would use our military power fully and appropriately.
The second was that the South Vietnamese forces would build to a level sufficient for them to defend themselves.
The third was that the people of South Vietnam would support the war effort, and the final assumption was the continuing support of the U.S. Congress.
To varying degrees, none of these assumptions proved out.
The war dragged on and on, and the damage it caused this country both domestically and internationally was truly staggering. Our greatest loss, of course, was the 57,000 American dead and the more than 100,000 who suffered serious injuries. Next came the loss of U.S. prestige around the world. The conflict created deep divisions among the American people and discredited our military. Lastly, LBJ’s decision to provide both guns (the war cost us $150 billion) and butter without a tax increase had resulted in a terrible disruption of our economy. It would take America a long time to recover from these wounds.
In January 1973, the U.S. finally negotiated a settlement that made it possible for us to remove our combat forces and bring home our prisoners of war. If necessary, we agreed at the time, the U.S. would back up the terms of the Paris peace accords, and we would continue to provide adequate military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese, however, never considered the Paris peace accords as the end of the conflict. They had an estimated 160,000 troops in South Vietnam at the time, and they violated the agreement flagrantly by sending an additional 300,000 men into the south. They also sent in massive amounts of modern equipment and launched offensive military operations.
In the face of this situation, the U.S. failed to respond. Watergate had so weakened the President that he was not about to take a major military action, such as renewed bombings. Moreover, by November, Congress had succeeded in passing the War Powers Act of 1973,which severely limited his ability to enforce the peace agreement. North Vietnam could violate the accords with impunity. Next, Congress reduced our economic and military assistance to the Saigon regime. Finally, Congress signaled an increasing desire to cut off all support. Unsure of any more help, President Nguyen Van Thieu ordered a quick withdrawal to more defensible positions. This maneuver, decided upon without consulting us, was executed poorly and hampered by floods of refugees. Predictably, panic ensued, making the situation worse.
In January 1975, the North Vietnamese gained control of the first province they had won in fifteen years of war. Toward the end of March, they captured thirteen additional provinces, encountering little resistance. The South Vietnamese were running short of ammunition and supplies. They thought they were being abandoned, not only by the U.S. but also by the leadership in Saigon. Trapped, they tried to get out any way they could.
Rather than give comprehensive quotes on the failure to supply aid, I’ll select one of Ford’s remarks here:
Ford asked for aid and gave this speech to congress:
The situation in South Vietnam and Cambodia has reached a critical phase requiring immediate and positive decisions by this government. The options before us are few, and the time is very short.
Members of the Congress, my fellow Americans, this moment of tragedy for Indochina is a time of trial for us. It is a time for national resolve.
It has been said that the United States is overextended, that we have too many commitments too far from home, that we must examine what our truly vital interests are and shape our strategy to conform to them, I find no fault with this as a theory, but . . . we cannot, in the meantime, abandon our friends while our adversaries support and encourage theirs, We cannot dismantle our defenses, our diplomacy or our intelligence capability while others increase and strengthen theirs. Let us put an end to self-inflicted wounds. Let us remember that our national unity is a most priceless asset. Let us deny our adversaries the satisfaction of using Vietnam to pit Americans against Americans. At this moment the United States must present to the world a united front.
Unfortunately, Ford’s pleas did not work.
A Time To Heal – Gerald Ford (1979)