The Myth That Congress Cut Off Funding for South Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: Vietnam

Mr. Hughes is the Nixon tapes editor for the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

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. 

$700 Million

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)

2. Nixon Threatened U.S. Aid Cut-Off to Make South Vietnam Take 'Decent Interval' Deal

3. Nixon Didn't Have to Accept Congressional Cut-Off of U.S. Combat in Indochina

Read entire article at Ken Hughes at Fatal Politics Blog

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 5/6/2010

Yours is a deliberate distortion of history under the same ol' and obsolete ruse of bringing peace, freedom, and democracy to any country, the US government (not even that country itself) alone consider needed or merely wanted. This is not just a spit to the face of wide international community (tell me about democracy, i.e. the will of majority) that opposes such violent actions and violation of elementary norms of relations between countries, but a clear usurpation of power and control.
In case of Vietnam, in particular and South-Eastern Asia, in general, neither France, nor the US, nor the Soviet Union had no more rights to launch a military campaign than the countries of that region to attack territory of the USA, or France.
The US solemnly promised in Paris to strive for democratic elections that would unite then divided Vietnam, though traditionally refused to sign the declaration, obviously having intention already then to interfere by force in the internal affairs of the country, located thousands of miles away from the US territory, and exhibiting no threat to the US national security (the only constitutional excuse for the US to go to war.) However, the US governments were determined to make sure that it would be pro-American regime that controlled the united country.
The recognition of the fact communists and their sympathizers would most likely get the majority of the Vietnamese votes, in case of internationally observed elections, made American government not only to abandon the idea of democratic elections ("We cannot just sit here and watch the country go communist"), but prevent the latter by all means, force included. When installed by the US brutal and corrupted South Vietnamese military regime (in difference with the North Vietnamese one that fought for its independence many years against French
imperialists, later supported by Americans) under tremendous pressure
coming from peasants and Vietkong finally decided in favor of the elections, its leader was killed and replaced by another even worse pro-American marionette (this by the way the kind of democracy and freedoms which had been actually brought by the US and their proxies to Vietnamese people.)
North Vietnamese government easily decoding vile and fake policies, of then US, made therefore a completely morally and legally justified (since it was Vietnamese internal affair) decision to help South Vietnamese peasants and its fighting body Vietkong to overthrow pro-colonial military junta that basically sold national sovereignty for US dollars to enrich themselves, while allowing landowners and central authorities brutally exploit Vietnamese peasantry.
Since the events were taken place in the second half of the 20th century, the US could not simply launch a conspicuous agression against the country that did not offend the world superpower in any way, so it used by itself openly illegal and highly-provoking "intelligence-gathering" missions by US warships in Tonkin Gulf (I wonder
how come that the greatest aggressor in the world that time - the Soviet Union - would not do the similar inspecting visits into the waters of South Vietnam.) to not only ignite tensions but hopefully provoke some action on the part of North Korean ships guarding their internal waters.
Americans were able, despite a display of truly
iron nerves by the North Vietnam, to
initiate two incidents that were immediately characterized as North Vietnamese aggression against peaceful and innocent US Navy.
In the first alleged attack, the US "Maddox" opened fire first, under the later made excuse that the Vietnamese ship were "preparing" to attack it, the second was later went uconfirmed, which in political correct jargon means was trumped up.
The rest is history.
So if you, sir like to debate this issue with me be my guest, but first
we have to establish a mutually accepted premise: no country in the world has the right to invade another, especially carpet bombing its territory and use chemical weapons (as the US did in South-Eastern Asia) without the attacked country constituting real and imminent threat to the security of the former one.
Then we have something to talk about.
Otherwise, you are just one more apologist of the crimes of US imperialism (that continue unabated as we speak.)
Note: the fact that other countries might committed the similar crimes cannot obviously serve as an absolution.

Robert F. TURNER - 5/4/2010

I don't doubt Mr. Hughes sincerity, and as a technical matter he is correct that Congress did not totally cut off assistance to South Vietnam in 1975; but as a scholar who has been studying and writing about Vietnam for more than forty-five years (who was the last congressional staff member to leave Vietnam during the April 1975 final evacuation), I can assure you that the U.S. Congress was the most decisive factor in the Communist conquest of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in 1975.

To keep things in context, it is important to note that in the post-war era, Hanoi has repeatedly admitted that its leaders made a decision on May 19, 1959, to open the Ho Chi Minh trail and send tens of thousands of soldiers and countless tons of equipment and supplies south to "liberate" South Vietnam by armed force. That was more than 5 years before the U.S. decided to send combat units to Vietnam, and our purpose was precisely the purpose for which we sent troops into South Korea in 1950 -- to uphold the non-aggression principles of the UN Charter and oppose the expansion of Communism by force.

Viet Cong defectors used to laugh and express shock at how successful their campaign to portray the "National Liberation Front" to the west as something other than a classic Leninist "front" organization had been. (Hanoi actually published an English-language translation of the proceedings of the Third Party Congress in 1960, including the resolution it approved calling for "our people" in south Vietnam to set up a front under Party leadership three months before the NLF was allegedly formed by non-Communist resistance leaders in Ben Tre.) American "scholars" who fell for this ruse should be ashamed of themselves.

We also need to keep in mind that the tremendous increase in POL costs resulting from the Arab oil embargo (OPEC raised oil prices 70% in late 1973) meant that to sustain South Vietnam at 1973 levels aid for subsequent years would have to be substantially greater. In reality, in 1975 Saigon got about 20% of the aid we provided in 1973.

I traveled extensively through South Vietnam in 1968, 1970, 1971, and 1974, and I witnessed the effects of the aid cuts in '74 and when I returned in '75. Westmoreland claims that South Vietnamese soldiers were authorized one hand grenade per man per month, 85 rounds of ammo per month (about 7 seconds on full-auto in an M-16 -- although in reality one would have to change magazines 3-5 times to fire that much ammo). Put another way, that provided about 3 rounds of ammo per day -- ironically, the same amount defectors told me they had for the AK-47s following the highly successful 1970 Cambodian incursion, when they were instructed to put away their AK's and dig up their old M-1 rifles and carbines, FALs, and the other relatively primitive weapons.) Each ARVN 105 mm howitzer was allocated 4 rounds of ammo per day, with only 2 rounds per 155 mm. Many of their tanks, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft were totally useless because of a lack of spare parts and/or fuel. And while Congress was cutting aid to Saigon, Moscow and Beijing were pouring aid into North Vietnam to fuel the war.

The United States made a solemn commitment by treaty in 1955 (when the SEATO Treaty drafted the previous year was ratified by Ike with almost unanimous advice and consent of the Senate--1 senator voted 'nay') to come to the aid of any of the "Protocol States" of that treaty requesting assistance in defense of their freedom from Communist aggression. Those "Protocol States" were the States of Vietnam [later the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam], Laos, and Cambodia. In August 1964, Congress enacted the Southeast Asian Resolution by a combined vote of 504-2 (a 99.6% majority). John F. Kennedy pledged to the world: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Ironically, the leaders of the "save South Vietnam" drive in the mid-'50s were liberal, internationalist Democrats like Kennedy, Mansfield, and Fulbright.

The congressional action that truly sounded the death knell for South Vietnam and "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory" was not simply cutting aid, but passing a law (the FY 1973 Dep’t of State Auth. Act, Pub. L. 93-126, 87 Stat. 451) that provided:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, on or after August 15, 1973, no funds heretofore or hereafter appropriated may be obligated or expended to finance the involvement of United States military forces in hostilities in or over or from off the shores of North Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, unless specifically authorized hereafter by Congress.”

As a constitutional scholar who wrote my doctoral dissertation of the separation of national security powers, I believe this provision was flagrantly unconstitutional. But it guaranteed Hanoi and its allies that the United States was not going to fulfill its solemn pledge to defend these victims of aggression, and Pham Van Dong (Hanoi's Premier) announced that the Americans would not come back "even if we offered them candy." So Moscow and Beijing greatly increased their aid, Hanoi left only the 325th Division to defend the Hanoi area and sent the rest of its Army behind columns of Soviet-made tanks to conquer South Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia, the other Protocol States we had repeatedly pledged to protect) in a conventional military invasion.

I worked in the Senate (as national security adviser to Sen. Robert P. Griffin, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee) during the final period and sat through the public and closed hearings. I listened as Sen. Mike Mansfield assured some of his colleagues that he had just spoken with Sihanouk (who was in Beijing) by phone and had been assured that when the Khmer Rouge ("Red Cambodians") seized power in Phnom Penh only a small number of leaders would be killed.
The reason I was back in Vietnam in 1975 was to assist with the orphan lift. The governor of Michigan had declared an "open door" policy, saying Michigan would find homes for any orphans we could rescue. While others in the group worked with South Vietnamese orphanages (ultimately abandoning them and fleeing to Hong Kong in fear), I worked on trying to arrange to rescue orphans in Cambodia on the empty C130 aircraft that each day flew rice into Cambodia. (http://www.virginia.edu/cnsl/images/Turner-CambodiaCable.jpg.) I was too late.
The consequences of the congressional decision to betray John Kennedy's noble promise and the treaty and statutory pledges we had made to protect South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are clear. An estimated 100,000 South Vietnamese were executed, as many as 250,000 more died in "reeducation camps," and another 45-50,000 died in the "New Economic Zones. Using figures provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 420,000 "boat people" died at sea fleeing the Communist tyranny in search of freedom. The best figures I've seen on Cambodia come from the Yale University Cambodian Genocide Project: 1.7 million Cambodians (more than 20% of the entire population) were killed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. A January 2004 article on the "killing fields" in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TODAY noted that "bullets were too precious to use for executions. Axes, knives and bamboo sticks were far more common. As for children, their murderers simply battered them against trees.”

What Congress did in 1973-75 was shameful -- among the darkest and most immoral years in the history of U.S. foreign policy. It led directly to Soviet intervention in Angola (and yes, Mr. Hughes will be correct if he notes that began about 1962 -- but after we betrayed the non-Communist peoples of Indochina the Soviets started sending in what eventually became more than 400,000 Cuban "volunteers," promoting a "civil war" that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The Soviets authorized "armed struggle" in Central America that cost countless more lives, and an estimated million people died when Moscow invaded Afghanistan.

In the end, as the PENTAGON PAPERS confirmed to anyone who bothered to actually read them (http://www.virginia.edu/cnsl/pdf/Turner-Myths.pdf), the "peace movement" and congressional critics of the war were mistaken almost across the board in their arguments. And the human consequences of their betrayal of America's honor were catastrophic.

Again, I'm not unhappy with Mr. Hughes. But from my perspective as someone who has followed this issue for nearly half-a-century, efforts to claim that Congress was not responsible for allowing the Communists to conquer South Vietnam and its neighbors are as off the mark as efforts to deny the Holocaust.

The American people were horribly misled by the media about what was actually transpiring in Indochina. The 1968 Tet Offensive was a tremendous military defeat for the Communists, and after the May Offensive of that same year the southern "Viet Cong" had ceased to exist as a serious fighting force. Regular North Vietnamese PAVN soldiers took over the fighting, and with only U.S. air support the South Vietnamese successfully blocked their 1972 Spring Offensive. As Prof. John Lewis Gaddis noted in Foreign Affairs in early 2005: “Historians now acknowledge that American counter-insurgency operations in Vietnam were succeeding during the final years of that conflict . . . .” Many of us who were there at the time saw that first hand. We broke Hanoi's will in the Linebacker II operation, and there was a good chance that had we retained the option of returning with our B-52s on Guam we could have enforced the Paris Peace Accords. Hanoi had run out of SAM-2 missiles, and neither Moscow nor Beijing were willing to resupply them militarily -- UNTIL they saw Congress throw in the towel.

If Mr. Hughes or anyone else would like to publicly debate this issue, I can be reached at (434) 924-4083 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (434) 924-4083      end_of_the_skype_highlighting


(Prof.) Robert F. Turner, SJD
Center for National Security Law
University of Virginia School of Law
bobturner [at] virginia.edu