The Myth That Congress Cut Off Funding for South VietnamRoundup: Talking About History
Since partisans have turned the April 30, 1975, Communist takeover of South Vietnam into a political weapon, I’m going to spend the anniversary doing a little myth-busting.
Mel Laird, Richard Nixon’s defense secretary, started the modern myth that “Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975” in a 2005 article in Foreign Affairs, the journal of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.
Laird repeated it two years later in a Washington Post op-ed column in which he wrote “of 1975, when Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War three years after our combat troops had left."
It was the perfect political meme. It was simple and sound bite size. It built on a an existing template, the staple of Republican rhetoric charging that Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt have “snatched defeated from the jaws of victory.” And it was a seeming-fact that appeared relevant to a hot an ongoing debate—in this case, proposals to force President Bush to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by setting a deadline in an appropriations bill.
It wasn't true, but that never stopped a meme.
A quick, easy check of an old newspaper database shows Laird's cutoff claim to be false. In the fiscal year running from July 1, 1974, to June 30, 1975, the congressional appropriation for military aid to South Vietnam was $700 million.
Nixon had requested $1.45 billion. Congress cut his aid request, but never cut off aid.
Nixon's successor, President Gerald R. Ford, requested an additional $300 million for Saigon. Democrats saw it as an exercise in political blame-shifting. "The administration knows that the $300 million won't really do anything to prevent ultimate collapse in Vietnam," said Senator and future Vice President Walter F. Mondale, D-Mn., "and it is just trying to shift responsibility of its policy to Congress and the Democrats." Congress didn't approve the supplemental appropriation.
The Times reported that with National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry "Kissinger's personal prestige tied to peace in Vietnam, his aides have said that he will try to pin the blame for failure there on Congress." He tried to do just that at a March 26, 1975 news conference in which he framed the question facing Congress as "whether it will deliberately destroy an ally by withholding aid from it in its moment of extremity." Three years earlier, in October 1972, the month in which Kissinger publicly proclaimed that "peace is at hand," he privately told the President that their own settlement terms would destroy South Vietnam.
Congressional aid cuts didn't determine the war's final outcome. Saigon's fate was sealed long before, when Nixon forced it accept his settlement terms in January 1973.
As for Laird's "cut off" of funds for Saigon, it just never happened. Even Nixon acknowledged the 1975 military appropriation for Saigon of $700 million (on page 193 of No More Vietnams).
Neverthless, Laird wrote in Foreign Affairs of "the day in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. funding." If only his editors had asked him what day that was exactly.
The Legend Gets Printed The imaginary cutoff has made a real impact. In recent years, as the nation has debated withdrawing U.S. soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Cutoff That Never Happened was treated as fact by politician, pundit and press alike. Newt Gingrich: "In 1975, when there were no Americans left in Vietnam, the left wing of the Democratic Party killed the government of South Vietnam, cut off all of its funding, cut off all of its ammunition, and sent a signal to the world that the United States had abandoned its allies." Columnist Robert Novak: "Congress ended the Vietnam War with a Communist victory by cutting off funds to South Vietnam." U.S. News & World Report: "Historians say congressional Democrats dug themselves into a deep hole when they forced the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and cut off money to the Saigon government in its struggle against the Communists." (Which historians?)
Laird's cutoff myth just embellishes a bigger, more powerful myth begun by his old boss. Nixon claimed that as of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, he had won the Vietnam War. But in the years to come, Nixon contended, Congress "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory."
I'm a journalist-turned-historian who has spent the past decade researching the White House tapes full-time for the Presidential Recordings Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. My focus has been the Nixon tapes. These tapes, along with declassified government documents, reveal how Nixon pursued a "decent interval" exit strategy designed to postpone, not prevent, Communist military victory.
Political Spin Nixon crafted this secret strategy to foster the illusion that his public strategy of "Vietnamization and negotiation" worked. Vietnamization was supposed to train the South Vietnamese army to defend itself so the American army could come home; negotiations were supposed to produce a settlement guaranteeing the South's right to choose its own government by election. Nixon privately realized that Vietnamization and negotiation would not work as he said they would.
"South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway," he said in private, but never in public. To conceal Vietnamization's failure, Nixon timed the withdrawal of U.S. forces to the 1972 election. This way, California Governor Ronald Reagan could welcome delegates to the Republican National Convention in 1972 with the perfect words to launch the President's reelection campaign: "The last American combat team is on its way home from Vietnam."
To get the North Vietnamese to accept a settlement that, on paper, guaranteed the South's right to free elections, Nixon assured them, through the Soviet Union and China, that if they waited a "decent interval" of a year or two before taking over South Vietnam, he would not intervene. The Communists accepted Nixon's settlement terms because they knew that they didn't have to abide by them and the would get a clear shot at overthrowing the South Vietnamese government if they waited approximately 18 months after Nixon withdrew the last U.S. ground forces. Nixon wanted this "decent interval" to make it look like Saigon's fall wasn't his fault.
He started the myth that Congress lost the Vietnam War to conceal the fact that he lost it himself. (I've assembled much of the evidence of Nixon's "decent interval" exit strategy into a series of educational videos you can watch here. Links to articles I've written are here.)
Myth-Busting Time I haven't written much about Nixon's stabbed-in-the-back myth blaming Congress for the Communist victory that was built into his own exit strategy, so I'll post more of my research over the next few days. I'm calling these posts "Legends of the Fall of Saigon." (Fans of Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aiden Quinn understand.) There will be three, built around the "cutoff" theme.
1. Congress Never Cut Off Aid to South Vietnam (that's this post)