Stabs in the Back?
Last November HNN published a blog by an intern, Lauren Zannoli, arguing that aid cuts doomed South Vietnam in 1975 and implying that the same thing might happen in Iraq now that the Democrats had won control of Congress. In so doing she echoed many neoconservatives such as David Horowitz and William Kristol who have been making similar claims for years; but she ignored much of the actual history of the subject. In addition, her use of language, as in so many screeds on this topic, was extremely deceptive."What happened when Democrats in Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War?," she asked." Historians have directly attributed the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the cessation of American aid." Sounds good: Democrats control Congress, aid to South Vietnam stops, the war is lost. The problem is that that's not true--it isn't what happened. There was no" cessation" of aid and no" cut-off" of funds. Instead, as Ms. Zannoli has to admit a few paragraphs later, Congress simply reduced aid. Here is what she said:"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 As the North Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary Le Duan observed in December 1974: 'The Americans have withdrawn…this is what marks the opportune moment.'" That is an accurate statement of the facts, but even this paragraph has a major problem: the quote from Le Duan is a complete non sequitur. The moment wasn't opportune because Nixon had resigned or because aid had been reduced about 40%, it was opportunte because the Americans had withdrawn. American advisers in 1972 had reported (this is well documented in an official history) that without their presence, the South Vietnamese would have collapsed. In 1974 the American advisers were gone and the North Vietnamese were confident that the South Vietnamese would not pass the next big test. We should try to be more realistic about the effects of the cut, too. A reduction voted in late 1974 would not have had any actual effect by early 1975. And in fact, Stanley Karnow quoted a Defense Department study to the effect that only two-fifths of the $700 million that was allocated got to South Vietnam before the country fell--"the rest was committed to equipment that had not been spent." The Congress, in fact, was cutting back aid because it was being wasted. Karnow writes (Vietnam, a History, pp. 660-1),"A survey conducted during the summer of the 1974 by the U.S. mission in Saigon found tha tmore than 90 percent of the soldiers were not receiving enough in wages and allowances to sustain their families. Inflation was only one cause, however. Corruption was now exceeding all bounds as commanders robbed payrolls and embezzled other funds. Quartermaster units often insisted on bribes in exchange for delivering rice and other supplies to troops, and even demanded cash to furnish the fighting men with ammunition, gasoline, and spare parts. Officers frequently raised the money by squeezing local villagers, whose support they alienated in the process, and many traded with the Communists privately. The American report cautioned that the 'deterioration' had to be halted 'if the South Vietnamese military is to be considered a viable force.'" The deterioration was not halted, and the events of 1975 proved that the South Vietnamese military was not a viable force. I have just been rereading an excellent oral history of the Vietnam era, The Bad War, which includes many interviews with South Vietnamese on the collapse in 1975. Not one of them primarily blames a fall-off of American aid for it. All this is very relevant to the current debate in Iraq. We lost the Vietnam War because the South Vietnamese never developed a government that could successfully compete with the VC or a military that could handle the NVA. (And comments on Ms. Zannoli's post showed that the South Vietnamese received just as much or more equipment from us as the North did from the Chinese and Russians.) Americans were not to blame; they made gigantic sacrifices. Our policy in Iraq has failed because there is no political group outside Kurdistan that shares our goals, and there is nothing we can do about that. Meanwhile, the terrible consequences of the fall of South Vietnam--hundreds of thousands of refugees, re-education camps, and suffering--have already taken place in Iraq. Nearly two million Iraqis, many of them middle class, have left the country, and tens or hundreds of thousands have already been killed. Bad history will not help us deal with this situation.
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Andrew D. Todd - 4/14/2007
At the time of the 1972 Easter Offensive, there were still something like a hundred thousand American troops in Vietnam-- advisers, logistics units, close air support (army aviation), etc. There were also significant numbers of South Korean combat troops, who had not yet completed their own departure. At certain key points, the North Vietnamese Army was stopped by South Koreans. Given that the crisis of the South Vietnamese state started at the top, people like John Paul Vann (killed in the battle) were valuable out of all proportion to their numbers. When the American advisers were removed, as at Quang Tri, the result was a rout which was a dress rehearsal for the events of 1975. Nearly all of the Americans were withdrawn by the end of 1972. The air attack on North Vietnam was only effective in conjunction with a reasonably effective defense of South Vietnam on the ground. It took approximately a month for bombing in North Vietnam to translate into logistic shortages among the North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam. That much materiel had been in the pipeline, moving slowly down the Ho Chi Minh trail. The defending ground forces had to stop the attackers for a reasonable period of time, until their supplies had been depleted. However, when the South Vietnamese succumbed to contagious panic, they fled faster than the North Vietnamese could chase them, leaving behind indefinite quantities of materiel which the North Vietnamese could scavenge. The North Vietnamese seem to have reached the decision to stage a full-scale attack in January or February, 1975, and the offensive began in early March. The first major South Vietnamese base in the Central Highlands fell on March 11, and the collapse began. Particularly in the "mad dash" period of March 23-April 3, 1975, major logistics centers such as Da Nang and Nha Trang fell, as the North Vietnamese advanced at an incredible forty or fifty miles a day. Even with the best will in the world, it is highly problematic whether, from a logistic standpoint, sufficient American forces could have arrived in time. Vietnam is approximately 6000 nautical miles from Pearl Harbor, 8000 from San Diego, and perhaps 12,000 from Norfolk. Assuming cargo ships with a speed of fifteen knots, even if the ships had been preloaded and on alert when the North Vietnamese offensive started, they could not have arrived in less than 17-30 days. Making allowance for various other factors, a more realistic figure would be at least two months, and that would have been much too late. The 1972 bombing had involved dropping about 100,000 tons of bombs in June, 1972 alone. Allowing for incidentals such as fuel and spare parts, this would have required something like 200,000 tons of logistic support, the logistic equivalent of landing ten armored divisions. Such quantities were beyond what was feasible to move across the Pacific by air. They had to travel by ship. In 1975, South Vietnam probably had more materiel within a week or two's travel from the battlefield, materiel which could arrive in time, than the United States had. If the South Vietnamese could not even hold onto their own munitions, there was nothing much that anyone else could do to help them on short notice. To contain the designs of North Vietnam, it would have been necessary to station about 100,000 American troops in South Vietnam permanently, just in case, and to accept a good 5000 casualties annually. President Nixon decided otherwise in 1972, well before Watergate.
Here are three sources I have found useful, all of whose authors were in Vietnam:
Gen. Bruce Palmer, The Twenty-Five Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam, 1984.
Mg. Gen. [then-Col.] Dave Richard Palmer, Summons of the Trumpet: A History of the Vietnam War from a Military Man's Viewpoint, 1978.
Douglas Welch [enlisted man, Military Intelligence], The History of the Vietnam War, 1981.
Ralph M. Hitchens - 4/11/2007
Yes, airpower's benefits have been overstated, often wildly, but I submit that this is one case where it eventually delivered. There were virtually no US ground forces active in the Republic of Vietnam during the Easter Offensive, and after a long enduring a long bombing campaign against its troops in the south and its infrastructure in the north, the Hanoi regime became convinced that they had to suspend the war and convince the US to disengage -- even at the cost of leaving the South Vietnamese government in place. If you don't want to credit airpower for this outcome -- which must have set Ho Chi Minh to spinning in his grave -- you would have to credit the South Vietnamese Army, which is quite a stretch.
A response from David Horowitz! Made my day. Anyone who thinks Nixon doesn't deserve the lion's share of credit for bringing down his administration, well, they must have slept through the early 70s.
Ralph E. Luker - 4/11/2007
Thanks for the morning chuckle, David. Not even you could believe that nonsense. Did Goldwater serve Teddy Kennedy's purposes when he told Nixon that he must resign? Did putting Gerald Ford in Richard Nixon's place as President "reverse the results of the 1972 election"? For a propagandist, you make a very poor historian.
david horowitz - 4/11/2007
Nixon did not remove himself from office. This was the result of a campaign spear-headed by Ted Kennedy and the Washington Post -- and the anti-Vietnam left -- to reverse the results of the 1972 election, which they succeeded in doing.
David Lion Salmanson - 4/10/2007
Didn't the ARVN have the 4th largest air force in the world by 1975? And as Michael Sherry's Rise of American Air Power indicates, air power's benefits tend to be overestimated.
Ralph M. Hitchens - 4/10/2007
Ms. Zannoli may be, at most, half-right. Yes, as you document, South Vietnam was militarily a basket case in 1974-75, but the "ace in the hole" for Saigon was, as it had been during the 1972 Easter Offensive, US airpower. The defeat of that offensive had, according to historian Ronald Spector, convinced Hanoi that it "had to get the US out of the war at any cost." So they suspended the war to await a better opportunity to complete their conquest of the south. But wielding US airpower was dependent on one man -- President Nixon, landslide victor over an explicitly antiwar candidate and the "mad bomber" who put B-52s over Hanoi, later making a widely-publicized "secret promise" to South Vietnam's President Thieu that the US would reengage with airpower if North Vietnam violated the Paris Accords. Then Nixon self-destructed during the Watergate affair, and was gone by August 1974. It doesn't seem to me that anyone else was in a position to assure South Vietnam that the US would remain a strong partner, as we had done for two decades in support of an equally-corrupt South Korea.
Many antiwar activists like to think that they brought the Vietnam War to an end, but I think a case can be made that Nixon himself effectively ended it by his own disgrace, removing himself from the political scene. Just a theory, of course; as Zhou Enlai allegedly said when asked about the French Revolution, it's "too soon to tell."
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