As war rages in Ukraine, what has the United States learned from Vietnam?


The outcome of the Vietnam War holds lessons that resonate in conflicts involving American policymakers and military forces around the world. And it’s not just about winning hearts and minds and the right way to fight a limited war.

The realities of negotiating acceptable outcomes emerged from a recent two-day Vietnam conference I attended, where pundits sharply criticized Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for essentially caving in to the dictates of Hanoi. falling for a peace deal with North Vietnam that was doomed to failure.

Stephen Young, a lawyer who worked for three years on US aid programs in South Vietnam at the height of the war, described Nguyen Van Thieu, the last president of the old regime in Saigon, as having become “ballistic when he learned that Kissinger had brokered a deal with Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam. Thieu’s response, Young said, “borders on hatred” for Kissinger.

“Why was Thieu so apoplectic?” Young asked at the conference, hosted by the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University and Chapman University in Anaheim, California. “He and his team realized in October 1972 that the Nationalists had defeated the Communists”, i.e. the National Liberation Front (NLF) Cong.

In fact, from what I saw in Vietnam, the NLF, the southern arm of the government in Hanoi, had ceased to be an important factor by then. You can get in a taxi from Saigon to Route 1 to Danang and Hue, or west to the Cambodian border, or to Route 4 to Mytho and Cantho in the River Delta. Mekong, without too much risk of being ambushed or caught in a firefight.

Young, who heads the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism in St. Paul, Minnesota, portrayed Nixon as having been “trapped by Henry Kissinger,” a former Harvard professor with no diplomatic background and no direct knowledge of Asia. Between them they agreed to the Paris Peace Accords, in which Kissinger and Le Duc Tho agreed that North Vietnamese troops could remain where they were in the south as long as his government released nearly 600 American prisoners of war.

Memories of those days came flooding back to me as I remembered the release at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon in February 1973, after the signing of the Paris Peace Accord, of 27 prisoners held at Loc Ninh, a town in the district captured by the North Vietnamese at the start of their 1972 Easter Offensive, then the release in Hanoi in March 1973 of the last 67 prisoners, including pilots who had jumped north as their planes were shot down during the “Christmas attack” which brought Hanoi back to negotiations after dropping its demand for the ousting of Thieu. (The Duke Tho could save that for later.)

In Hanoi on the last day, I saw soldiers in clean, new uniforms at the windows of trains crossing the Red River on the Long Bien Bridge. Kissinger, in talks with Le Duc Tho, had asked why 200 tanks were still on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Years later, he moaned that Tho had “broken his promises”.

No kidding; why didn’t Kissinger say so at the time? Now the question is how much the United States learned from Vietnam. The obvious lesson is not to get involved in unwinnable wars. In Afghanistan, the decision was to let the Taliban take over, although they had equipped and maintained a government and an army. In Ukraine, fearing going to war with Russia, the United States and NATO refused to declare a “no-fly zone” against Russian planes. Better give help to the heroic Ukrainian troops while the Russian troops are destroying cities and slaughtering civilians.

In Vietnam, the two American presidents who had to oversee this debacle set clear limits to the scope of the conflict. With the exception of the 60 days during which Nixon ordered American troops into Cambodia in May and June 1970, the Americans confined ground operations to South Vietnam. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president again and opened talks with the North after the Viet Cong attacked Saigon, including the United States Embassy and 36 of the 44 provincial capitals, during the Tet Offensive.

John Negroponte, director for Vietnam on the National Security Council under Kissinger, noted at the Vietnam conference that the United States lacked the “political will” to take the war to a real compromise in which a residual force, backed by air power, could have been left behind. The Christmas bombing, he said, “was unique”. To no avail, he says he advised Kissinger to talk to the South Vietnamese before making a deal with Le Duc Tho. When the Watergate scandal exploded in 1973, there was no chance of reversing the tide. Nixon wanted out of Vietnam, then walked out of the White House in August 1974, leaving Gerald Ford to watch North Vietnam storm to victory less than a year later.

Nixon, said Richard Filipink, a history professor at Western Illinois University, “didn’t believe the war was winnable” while pressuring Saigon to accept the Paris peace accord and giving “l ‘impression’ of maintaining the South Vietnamese government. As Hanoi violated the peace accord with impunity, “Nixon was unconvinced of the need for immediate action,” Capt. Jack Taylor said. “He made the decision not to bomb,” while Kissinger was “tasteless,” Taylor said.

Overlooking this story, no one dares to predict how kind American President Joe Biden will want to fight potential enemies – not just Russia, but also China. Like Donald Trump before him, Biden, as a young man, received several draft deferments. Now we can go back to the Paris peace accords and ask ourselves whether it was better to “walk away”, as the GIs said, or to fight for “peace with honor”, as Nixon claimed. have reached.

Neither term offers any real hope of a “light at the end of the tunnel,” as US officials have persisted in saying they saw Vietnam before the lights went out.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for over 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflicts in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books on Asian affairs.


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