Ed Driscoll

A Better War—Ending with the Same 1975 Scenario?

Back in January of 2009, Bill McGurn, former speechwriter for President Bush wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the “Real Sin” of his then-departing former boss “Was Winning in Iraq:”

In a few hours, George W. Bush will walk out of the Oval Office for the last time as president. As he leaves, he carries with him the near-universal opprobrium of the permanent class that inhabits our nation’s capital. Yet perhaps the most important reason for this unpopularity is the one least commented on.

Here’s a hint: It’s not because of his failures. To the contrary, Mr. Bush’s disfavor in Washington owes more to his greatest success. Simply put, there are those who will never forgive Mr. Bush for not losing a war they had all declared unwinnable.

But of course, it’s still not too late for the left to destroy that legacy, as Rich Lowry writes in his latest column, asking if Iraq is “Obama’s South Vietnam?”

[T]he Bush surge of 2007 snatched an opportunity for victory from the jaws of defeat. Now, the question is whether we’ll lurch back into the maw of failure out of ideological willfulness, inattention, and foolish penny-pinching. The Obama administration wants $2 billion in funding next year for the Iraqi army. The Senate Armed Services Committee cut the request in half on the grounds that, to paraphrase roughly, “them Iraqis can pay fer their own damn army.”The administration has vacillated between wanting to take credit for the windfall generated by the surge, and wanting to wash its hands of “Bush’s war.” At the same time that Joe Biden has averred that the emergence of a stable, democratic Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration,” the administration’s ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, has falsified both elements of “smart power” with his clueless passivity.

For all of Biden’s premature self-congratulation, Iraq could still become Obama’s South Vietnam, an ally we casually toss aside after Herculean efforts to get it to a tentatively sustainable state. Consolidating Iraq’s gains will require a deep strategic relationship and — inevitably — a continued U.S troop presence beyond 2011.

When Lowry wrote the above, I immediately flashed back to the material in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Vietnam, a 2010 book written by  Phillip Jennings (whom I interviewed recently on PJM Political), and Lewis Sorley’s 1999 book, A Better War. As Orrin Judd wrote back in 1999 regarding the latter book:

The basic premise of the book is that late in 1970 or early in 1971 the United States had essentially won the Vietnam War.  That is to say, we had defeated the Viet Cong in the field, returned effective control of most of the population to the South Vietnamese and created a situation where the South Vietnamese armed forces could continue the war on their own, so long as we provided them with adequate supplies and intelligence, and carried through on our promise to bomb the North if they violated peace agreements.  This situation had been brought about by the changes in strategy and tactics which were implemented by Army General Creighton Abrams when he replaced William Westmoreland in 1968, after the military triumph but public relations disaster of the Tet Offensive.  Where Westmoreland had treated the War as simply a military exercise, Abrams understood its political dimensions.  Abrams, who had worked on developing a new war plan at the Pentagon, ended Westmoreland’s emphasis on body counts and destroying the enemy and switched the focus to regaining control of villages.  He understood that eventual victory required civilian support for the South Vietnamese government and this support required the government to provide villagers with physical security from the Viet Cong.

Abrams was accompanied in implementing this new approach by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and by William Colby, the new CIA chief in Saigon, who provided greatly improved intelligence reports and oversaw the pacification program.  Together they managed to salvage the wreckage that Westmoreland had left behind and they retrieved the situation even as Washington was drawing down troop levels.  In 1972, with the Viet Cong essentially eliminated as an effective fighting force, the North Vietnamese mounted a massive Easter offensive, but this too was decisively defeated.

Having failed to achieve their aims militarily, the North Vietnamese turned their attention to the Paris Peace Talks.  They were extraordinarily fortunate to be dealing with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, two opportunists of the worst sort, who were willing to negotiate a deal which left the North with troops in South Vietnam.  When President Thieu balked at this and threatened to scuttle the talks, the North backed off of the whole deal and Nixon ordered the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi.  For eleven days, waves of B-52’s, each carrying 108 500-pound and 750-pound bombs, pummeled the North.  For perhaps the only time during the entire War, the North was subjected to total war, and they were forced to return to the negotiating table.  Sorley cites Sir Robert Thompson’s assessment that :

In my view, on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area,
you had won the war.  It was over.

At that point, the Viet Cong had been destroyed, we had definitely won the insurgency phase of the War.  Additionally, the North had been defeated in the initial phase of conventional warfare, and had finally had the War brought home to them in a significant way.  Though the overall War was certainly not over, it was sitting there, just waiting to be won.

So what happened ?  Sorley has identified several problem areas that led to the eventual demise of the South.  First was the really disgraceful way in which the U. S. bugged out.  Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal–the January 27, 1973 Paris Peace Accord–which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam.  At the time they were some 160,000 in number (as compared to the 27,000 that we were down to by then).  Then, despite innumerable assurances, Nixon refused to resume bombing in order to enforce the accords.  This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South.  Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South.  At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed.  It was South Vietnam’s bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally.  Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life’s blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm.  Sorley, properly, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.

A second problem, one for which the military itself must bear more blame than Sorley acknowledges, is that the American press, and through them the public, had lost faith in the War.  It had dragged on much longer than American attention spans could tolerate.  Political and military leaders had repeatedly misled the public about the prospects of winning the War.  The Peace Movement had shaken domestic support for continuance of the effort.  Events like the My Lai massacre and systemic problems like drug use, many of them exacerbated by the politically mandated transition to an all volunteer armed service, had undermined the morale of the troops and of the broader public.  Like the boy who cried wolf, when the news they carried was finally true, that victory in the War was finally within our grasp, the military could not find anyone to believe them.

Will Iraq yet be Obama’s Vietnam? As Lowry wrote, “In Iraq, Bush snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with the surge. Obama is in danger of reversing the process.”