What Happened When Democrats in Congress Cut Off Funding for the Vietnam War?
Originally published 4-13-07
Ms. Zanolli was an HNN intern.
The prospect of Democrats controlling the 110th Congress has raised speculation over a possible suspension of funds for the war in Iraq. Given control of the purse strings, a Democratic Congress would be in the position to force the government to begin the withdrawal of troops. Although they have been hesitant to define their plan for Iraq, some Democrats have hinted at a drastic reduction in funds. When asked in a recent interview how a Democratic Congress could stop the war, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), who is set to chair the Ways and Means Committee should the Democrats win the majority, precociously answered, “You’ve got to be able to pay for the war, don’t you?” Fellow member of the Out of Iraq caucus, Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) has stated that “Personally I wouldn’t spend another dime on the war,” and notes that Congress helped force an end to the Vietnam War by refusing to pay for it. (1)
What happened when Democrats in Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War?
Historians have directly attributed the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the cessation of American aid. Without the necessary funds, South Vietnam found it logistically and financially impossible to defeat the North Vietnamese army. Moreover, the withdrawal of aid encouraged North Vietnam to begin an effective military offensive against South Vietnam. Given the monetary and military investment in Vietnam, former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage compared the American withdrawal to “a pregnant lady, abandoned by her lover to face her fate." (2) Historian Lewis Fanning went so far as to say that “it was not the Hanoi communists who won the war, but rather the American Congress that lost it." (3)
In January of 1973, President Richard Nixon approved the Paris Peace Accords negotiated by Henry Kissinger, which implemented an immediate cease-fire in Vietnam and called for the complete withdrawal of American troops within sixty days. Two months later, Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Thieu and secretly promised him a “severe retaliation” against North Vietnam should they break the cease-fire. Around the same time, Congress began to express outrage at the secret illegal bombings of Cambodia carried out at Nixon’s behest. Accordingly, on June 19, 1973 Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment, which called for a halt to all military activities in Southeast Asia by August 15, thereby ending twelve years of direct U.S. military involvement in the region.
In the fall of 1974, Nixon resigned under the pressure of the Watergate scandal and was succeeded by Gerald Ford. Congress cut funding to South Vietnam for the upcoming fiscal year from a proposed 1.26 billion to 700 million dollars. These two events prompted Hanoi to make an all-out effort to conquer the South. As the North Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary Le Duan observed in December 1974: “The Americans have withdrawn…this is what marks the opportune moment." (4)
The NVA drew up a two-year plan for the “liberation” of South Vietnam. Owing to South Vietnam’s weakened state, this would only take fifty-five days. The drastic reduction of American aid to South Vietnam caused a sharp decline in morale, as well as an increase in governmental corruption and a crackdown on domestic political dissent. The South Vietnamese army was severely under-funded, greatly outnumbered, and lacked the support of the American allies with whom they were accustomed to fighting.
The NVA began its final assault in March of 1975 in the Central Highlands. Ban Me Thout, a strategically important hamlet, quickly fell to North Vietnam. On March 13, a panicked Thieu called for the retreat of his troops, surrendering Pleiku and Kontum to the NVA. Thieu angrily blamed the US for his decision, saying, “If [the U.S.] grant full aid we will hold the whole country, but if they only give half of it, we will only hold half of the country.”5 His decision to retreat increased internal opposition toward him and spurred a chaotic mass exodus of civilians and soldiers that clogged the dilapidated roads to the coast. So many refugees died along the way that the migration along Highway 7B was alternatively described by journalists as the “convoy of tears” and the “convoy of death.” 6 On April 21, President Thieu resigned in a bitter televised speech in which he strongly denounced the United States. Sensing that South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, the NVA accelerated its attack and reached Saigon on April 23. On the same day, President Ford announced to cheerful students at Tulane University that as far as America was concerned, “the war was over.” The war officially concluded on April 30, as Saigon fell to North Vietnam and the last American personnel were evacuated.
2 Edward J. Lee, Nixon, Ford, and the Abandonement of South Vietnam (McFarland & Co., 2002), p. 105.
3 Fanning, Betrayal in Vietnam.
4 Lee, 82.
5 Ibid, 91.
6 Ibid, 98.
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DeWayne Edward Benson - 2/28/2007
One other point I've never seen brought up regarding who was instrumental in stopping the Vietnam slaughter, was thanks to a large number of Vietnam Veterans thenselves, who actively worked to bring an end to the war.
The reason few people are aware of this fact, is because of a propagand campaign (and again silenced Media) used by the US-gov and Pentagon, it literally kept Americans ignorant.
A presentation of these Vietnam Veterans and US Servicemen who actively worked mostly underground to bring truth to Americans about the war, can be viewed at:
mark a delucas - 1/8/2007
"Historians have directly attributed the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the cessation of American aid."
Literally, this is correct. Historians have made the attribution discussed above directly. No intermediary party made the attribution for them.
But I don't think that this is what Ms. Zanolli was driving at. More likely, she meant to say that "The cessation of American aid directly attributed to the fall of Saigon in 1975".
So she's asking us to believe this: immediately on the cessation of American aid, the Saigon govt. collapsed. Perhaps by magic. Or perhaps the funding cut left the Saigon govt. instantly demoralized and so they collapsed.
But then why does Ms. Zanolli later say this:
"The NVA began its final assault in March of 1975 in the Central Highlands...Sensing that South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, the NVA accelerated its attack and reached Saigon on April 23...The war officially concluded on April 30, as Saigon fell to North Vietnam..."
But I thought that it was the cessation of aid that led directly to the collapse of the Saigon regime? Now Ms. Zanolli is saying that the NVA's 1975 offensive was the culprit. What to think? Ms. Zanolli, could you resolve the contradiction for us, in correct English?
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/18/2006
Ms. Zanolli's essay is not complete without mention of the two million Cambodians clubbed to death by Pol Pot's regime, and the estimated 1.5 millon Vietnamese "boat people" who took to the high seas to face death rather than facing death at the hands of the Vietcong... Young John Kerry's assurances to the Fulbright committee notwithstanding, you see, there WAS a bloodbath following the retreat by Congress. Liberals always seem to "forget" the consequences of this Kennedy-Johnson war, no matter how much they want to remember other aspects of it.
DeWayne Edward Benson - 11/10/2006
The statement regarding Congress cutting Vietnam War Funding as the cause of "South Vietnam found it logistically and financially impossible to defeat the North Vietnamese army..." completely ignores truth to this day.
As is evident in the Iraq police-action of today, you cannot win a war against citizen-civilians, especially as in Iraq and Vietnam where the greatest number of the nations citizen-civilians were against the occupation and true intent of both France and the US government.
In S.Vietnam, so many ordinary citizens sympathized with Ho Chi Minh (N.Vietnam), that the US-government finally began the "Pheonix Plan" to erradicate this part of the population in S.Vietnam.
Also as in Iraq today, we are quickly as in Vietnam moving into the period where the ends justifies (any) means. I have a collection of secret patches swen onto Nam US combat uniforms that depict degradation in images of skulls or blood dripping axe and sword. The CIA had a similar skull emblem-patch who were involved and established the S.Vietnam assassination/torture operation.
No, Congress did not lose the Vietnam police-action, government leaders acting in denial and having other purposes lost the unwinnable police-action.
Andrew D. Todd - 11/8/2006
To quote some figures from Dupuy, cited in a previous post:
North Vietnamese forces, circa 1980:
65 T-34 (the original Stalin Tank, WW2 vintage)
110 T-54 (postwar upgrade)
c. 900 M-47, M48 (early Patton types, Korean War vintage)
160 M-60 (later Patton model, circa 1960)
Light Tanks and tracked carriers:
300 PT-76 (a light tank only by courtesy, 13 tons, armor only 11-14 mm, actually more of an armed personel carrier, comparable to an American ONTOS)
An undetermined number of BTR-40's (5-ton, four wheel armored car)
260 assorted light tanks, WW2 vintage (M26, M-41, French AMX-13)
1700 M-113 track carriers
Even allowing for canibalization, this is still a fairly impressive balance. Parenthetically, the American tank sergeant Ralph Zumbro reports having driven an M-60 tank something like ten thousand miles (using it as heavy infantry, in sweeps) before it developed faults he could not fix himself.
10- IL-28 light bombers
~100 assorted transports, ~50 in the DC-3 class
Only a handful of stuff more recent than 1950
A total of about 1000 aircraft, including:
87 F-5 fighters (conservative 1960's design, intended for export)
26 A-1 Skyraider
45 C-119 (many of these two types fitted as gunships)
400 UH-1 (could be field expedient-adapted as gunships for use against tanks)
In the nature of things, the defender has a considerable advantage. His ground forces can usually dig in. His aircraft are operating at comparatively short ranges from their bases, and have correspondingly greater fuel reserves.
RJ Vecchio - 11/8/2006
One can play games with the numbers that supposedly characterize aid levels, but the proof of that pudding is that 20 fully equipped divisions of the NVA, supplied by literally thousands of trucks coming down the HCM Trail in a continuous stream (by the account of an NVA general), with hundreds of new Soviet tanks, hundreds Russian 122mm and 130mm cannon, and plenty of antiaircraft missiles to take out the ARVN air force, came across the borders in three places like Rommel's panzers went into France, only better.
The fuel, ammo, food, and medical supplies to support all that add up to a mass well past what Congress was getting to RVN those last two years.
Again, there were people there at the time, both Americans and South Vietnamese, who have testified in detail about how it really was. All else is guesswork, subject to bias and interpretation, but the reality of what the NVA obviously had received cannot be dismissed.
Edwin Moise - 11/7/2006
What is laughable is the idea that US intelligence analysts would have based their estimates on the nominal Soviet prices of the weapons and ammunition delivered. I doubt that the Soviet Union even released figures on the dollar value of the aid it was giving Hanoi, and if it had released such figures, the American intelligence analysts would not have had much interest in them.
What the US government did was to look at the physical equipment the Soviet Union and China were supplying to Hanoi, and estimate what it would have cost at US prices. Multiply the number of tons of artillery shells supplied to North Vietnam by the amount the United States government was paying for a ton of artillery shells, to get a dollar value for the Chinese and Soviet artillery shells.
I won't say these were all simple computations. Looking at a Soviet truck model and figuring out what it would have cost if made in the United States, when the United States didn't make a truck that looked exactly like that, would necessarily have involved estimating. Figuring out how many tons of artillery shells were arriving in Haiphong harbor would not have been easy. Intelligence analysts would have had to do the best they could. But I very much doubt that the institutional bias of the military and civilian intelligence agencies, under the Nixon and Ford administrations, would have been toward low-end estimates of Chinese and Soviet aid to Hanoi.
When the US government figures showed a higher value for US military aid to Saigon than for Chinese and Soviet aid to Hanoi, what this meant was that as best US intelligence agencies could tell, the United States was giving more actual aid.
RJ Vecchio - 11/7/2006
Ms. Zanolli has done a good job summarizing the situation as regards the Fall of South Vietnam. I note some inputs that the aid to RVN was comparable to what Hanoi got from Russia. This is laughable, and hinges on accepting the supposed dollar value of what was delivered. Since the Russian prices on tanks and trucks was a fraction of US prices, their level of aid looks comparable by that criterion. However, the many thousands of SAMs, the thousands of tanks and trucks, the hundreds of artillery pieces (better than US), the millions of gallons of fuel, etc, all added up in the 1972-75 period to a multiple of delivered value to Hanoi compared to what came to Saigon.
Other details include the policy of having repairs to tanks, etc, done in Taiwan after the US presence was dropped, which took too much time & money to implement. I know an ARVN colonel who was in charge of tank repairs and hearing his accounts of desperately cannibalizing three tanks to get one back in service, and the fuel and ammo shortages for them, tell me a lot more about the reality of those days than is to be found in the comments so far. From '72 on, the US aid went down, the Soviet aid went up, and there was no balance worth discussing by '75.
Add to the source books "Peace With Honor" by Herrington, if you want a detailed picture of the undercutting of the RVN ability to fight the large and very well equipped draftee army of the North, and the desperate but hopeless fight of the South.
Andrew D. Todd - 11/7/2006
Ah, yes, my error.. the danger of confusion with "ibids"
Lauren Zanolli - 11/7/2006
For the record, Mr. Todd, I only quoted Fanning once, in the paragraph on the historiography of the war. His book was not "the source of most of my footnotes" as you claim in the comment above.
Andrew D. Todd - 11/6/2006
According to Col. Trevor N. Dupuy (The Almanac of World Military Power, 4th ed., 1980) the combined Vietnamese army in 1980 had about three times as many American tanks, APC's, aircraft, etc. as it had Russian ones, and the American equipment was mostly of newer types. A lot of the Russian equipment was World War 2 surplus. All the American equipment had been either captured, or, as Col. Dupuy delicately remarks, "inherited." What he means of course is that the North Vietnamese rolled up to a depot and found rows of tanks neatly parked, and the South Vietnamese troops had fled without stopping to effectually sabotage the abandoned equipment. Aircraft, in particular are notoriously flammable, and easy to destroy on the ground. One South Vietnamese soldier with an ounce of grit and a bag full of grenades could have denied the communists a whole air wing at very little risk to himself.
The North Vietnamese actually captured American-supplied A-37's, turned them around, and used them to bomb Saigon while the battle was still in progress. Their flight in both directions was witnessed by an American observer, who noted the difficulty a Viet Cong officer had in keeping his troops from firing at the apparently American aircraft. (Earl S. Martin, Reaching the Other Side, 1978, p. 242). Martin, a Mennonite missionary, was in a small town in northern South Vietnam when the communists arrived (p. 89-93). The ARVN's streamed out, panicky and looting as they went, and a few hours later, the town was occupied by a purely token force, amounting to a corporal's guard. It was almost as if the Viet Cong were being careful not to inadvertently corner the ARVN's and force them to fight. What comes through in Martin's narrative is the sheer extent to which the ARVN's were completely demoralized.
It is simply not credible that the South Vietnamese could not have scrounged or cannibalized something together out of the mass of material at their disposal. Bearing in mind things like the time required to ship items half way around the world, it is problematic whether American funding allocations in the fall of 1974 would have resulted in shortages in the spring of 1975. Anyone who argues that the South Vietnamese collapse was due to an American funding cut-off would have to present a very detailed case, analyzing the logistics of particular units, and showing why the ARVN's could not have used the techniques of guerrilla warfare, etc.
President Thieu's comments after the fact do not mean much. Judging by his interview with Oriana Fallaci, in January, 1973 (Fallaci, Interview With History, 1976), Thieu was in a state of complete demoralization a couple of years before the collapse. If he was willing to convey this demoralization to a journalist, whose business was to publish it, Thieu could hardly have been surprised if his army would not fight. He was talking about how the United States should invade North Vietnam in order to bail him out, which can only be described as delusional.
One of the few descriptions I could find of Fanning's _Betrayal in Vietnam_ (the source of most of your footnotes)
was in a booksellers' catalog.
"1421. FANNING, Louis A. BETRAYAL IN VIETNAM. New Rochelle: Arlington House (1976). Usual right-wing take from this right-wing publisher: crippled liberals made us turn tail & run."
That does not sound like something to rely on uncritically. Given the date, it was probably election propaganda for the 1976 elections. As I recall, Ronald Reagan made a fairly serious primary challenge against President Ford in that year. As you are in possession of a copy, it would not be amiss if you were to write up a proper review, discussing, inter alia, what kinds of sources Fanning uses, what kinds of relevant personal experiences he had.
More useful, perhaps is:
Thomas M.Bibby (Major USAF), Vietnam: The End, 1975, 1 April 1985 (CSC 1985)
I gather this is a staff college thesis, and it cites Fanning in references 2-15, and 2-36, using him as a source for matters of public knowledge (the terms of the cease-fire agreement, Thieu's public allegations of betrayal). Further, in the annotated bibliography, the author states that Fanning's strengths lie primarily in reportage of Washington politics.
Edwin Moise - 11/6/2006
Ms. Zanolli starts with a sort of exaggeration I have seen many times before, stating that Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) "notes that Congress helped force an end to the Vietnam War by refusing to pay for it" and asking "What happened when Democrats in Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War?"
When she gets down to details, no such cutoff appears, but simply a reduction in funding the war that brought the level of US military aid for the Saigon government down to a level comparable to the level of Chinese and Soviet military aid for Hanoi. The Saigon government was incapable of surviving on a level of military aid that Hanoi found perfectly adequate, and Saigon fell within a matter of months.
Ms. Zanolli says that the reduction in military aid levels by the Congress in the fall of 1974, and Nixon's resignation from the presidency, were the two events that prompted Hanoi to make an all-out effort to conquer the South. She quotes Le Duan in support of this: "The Americans have withdrawn…this is what marks the opportune moment." But that quote does not look like a comment on either of the late 1974 events. It looks like a comment on the withdrawal of US military forces in 1972 and early 1973, ordered by President Nixon. I would be grateful if Ms. Zanolli would look at Edward Lee (her source for this quote) and tell us what Lee's source for it is; I would like to get a look at Le Duan's statement in its original context.
James W Loewen - 11/6/2006
C'mon, now. The purpose of the accord was not really to maintain a stable "government" in South Vietnam, but to let the U.S. save face by having a decent interval between our military departure and the Communist takeover. Today Kissinger claims he thought South Vietnam would remain an independent state (although the word "become" would be more accurate, since it never WAS an independent state), but there is evidence that he never thought that at the time.