Nixon’s work mischaracterized
Andrew J. Bacevich made some good points in his June 18 column (“Can Obama pull a Nixon with the crisis in Iraq?”), but his criticism of Richard Nixon was off the mark and lets many worthy of criticism off the hook. Bacevich referred to Nixon’s “cynicism” in ending the Vietnam War. Nixon wasn’t president when the war ended, and this has something to do with the way the war ended. As Nixon’s authority faded during the Watergate crisis, the U.S. Congress asserted itself, about which more later.
The Soviet Union paid the bill for North Vietnam’s war effort. The Soviet purpose was to involve the United States in a big war on China’s border in order to influence a “to the death” power struggle in China in favor of a faction Mao Zedong called the “pro Soviet group.” The Soviet goal was to prevent a Sino/American rapprochement. The American “Best and Brightest” did not understand that there existed a possibility of a Sino/Soviet rift, or, to them seemingly more far-fetched, a Sino/American rapprochement. Richard Nixon did understand the possibilities.
Nixon came into office with more than a half-million soldiers bogged down in Vietnam with no strategy, purpose or goal other than to try not to die, and a set of political circumstances bequeathed to him by Lyndon Johnson that made escalation to achieve battlefield victory an impossible option. He was determined to turn over the conduct of the war to an increasingly effective South Vietnamese military and ensure American longer term interests in Asia through rapprochement with China. Part of the deal would include Chinese interference with Soviet land access to Vietnam across China. This, coupled with American ability to cut off sea resupply through Cambodia or through Hanoi, would give the U.S. the ability to disrupt enemy strategic lines of communication.
Immediately, even as president-elect, Nixon instructed Walter Stoessel, U.S. ambassador in Poland, to contact the Chinese to press for early negotiations and the Chinese responded positively and publicly. As the Chinese and Americans began what Nixon termed a “delicate diplomatic minuet,” Soviet strategy failed.
In consequence, the Soviets changed their goal in Vietnam from stimulating an expanded conflict to victory for North Vietnam. This was a Soviet form of “containment of China” to build a powerful pro-Soviet client state on China’s southern border. As the United States withdrew combat forces from Vietnam, the Soviets altered the nature of their military support to include tanks, heavy artillery and other equipment needed for large conventional battles.
Nixon had planned a massive bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese armored buildup, but postponed it when John Dean went to the federal prosecutor in the Watergate affair. As he became increasingly enfeebled by Watergate, Congress asserted its ugly little head. Military appropriations in support of the South Vietnamese were cut by more than half in 1973-74 and by another 30 percent the following year.
The result was a South Vietnamese army that ran low on ammunition, fuel and spare parts. At the end the North Vietnamese had 900 tanks with all the ammunition, fuel and spare parts they could ever need. South Vietnam had 550 tanks, many of which were not operational due to lack of parts, and they were low on fuel and ammunition.
That North Vietnam won under these circumstances should not be surprising. But the victory had nothing to do with peoples’ war or guerrilla warfare at all.
The United States, not Richard Nixon, abandoned Vietnam.
Col. F. Charles Parker IV (retired)