Rick Perlstein: The biggest lie ever told about liberals (Vietnam)





[Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, which will be published next year.]

... The fact that Hillary Clinton has to sprinkle any Iraq speech with irrelevancies about how she won't leave American troops without armor is testament to the most perversely successful propaganda campaign in American history. And who's the figure most responsible for the absurdity? Our new, late, secular saint: the thirty-eighth president of the United States, Gerald Ford.

n 1970, during the Vietnam war, an amendment to the military procurement authorization act introduced by Republican Mark Hatfield and Democrat George McGovern proposed that, unless President Nixon sought and won a declaration of war from Congress, no money could be spent after the end of the year "for any purposes other than to pay costs relating to the withdrawal of all United States forces." Of course, withdrawing forces is not cutting funding for them (in fact, it might have turned out to be more expensive in the short term), and Hatfield-McGovern never got more than 42 votes in the Senate--even though, in its second go-round in 1971, 73 percent of the public supported it.

The first time the Senate actually voted to suspend funding for American military activities in Vietnam was in the summer of 1973, two months after the last American combat brigades left, by the terms of a peace treaty Nixon negotiated. That amendment passed by a veto-proof majority--encompassing Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals--of 64 to 26.

Peace was not quite at hand in Vietnam. The corrupt, incompetent, and hardly legitimate South Vietnamese government in Saigon was fighting for its life against the advancing Communist forces from the North. Early in 1974, Nixon requested a support package for the South Vietnamese that included $474 million in emergency military aid. The Senate Armed Services Committee balked and approved about half. A liberal coup? Hardly. One of the critics was Senator Barry Goldwater. "We can scratch South Vietnam," he said. "It is imminent that South Vietnam is going to fall into the hands of North Vietnam." The House turned down the president's emergency aid request 177 to 154; the majority included 50 Republicans. They were only, as I wrote in The New Republic ("The Unrealist," November 6, 2006), honoring what Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger privately believed. They had gladly negotiated their peace deal under the assumption that South Vietnam would fall when the United States left. What would it have cost to keep South Vietnam in existence without an American military presence? The Pentagon, in 1973, estimated $1.4 billion even for an "austere program." Nixon and Kissinger were glad for the $700 million South Vietnam eventually got (including a couple hundred million for military aid), because their intention was merely to prop up Saigon for a "decent interval" until the American public forgot about the problem. By 1974, Kissinger pointed out, "no one will give a damn."

Apparently, they didn't tell Gerald Ford. He addressed the nation in April of 1975, eight months after becoming president, and implored Congress for $722 million in military aid. The speech was overwhelmingly and universally unpopular--the kind of thing that made Ford seem such a joke to the nation at the time. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak called it "blundering." Seventy-eight percent of the public was against any further military aid; Republicans like James McClure of Idaho and Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma opposed the appropriation. Republican dove Mark Hatfield said, "I am appalled that a man would continue in such a bankrupt policy"--and Democratic hawk Scoop Jackson said, "I oppose it. I don't know of any on the Democratic side who will support it." The Senate vote against it was 61 to 32.

Leading up to the vote, however, Saint Gerald made extraordinary claims--saying that "just a relatively small additional commitment" to Vietnam (compared with the $150 billion already spent there) could "have met any military challenges." With it, "this whole tragedy"--the imminent fall of Saigon--"could have been eliminated."

So much for the Pentagon's claim that $1.4 billion would be an "austere program." So much for Nixon and Kissinger's belief that "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway." Ford's miraculous $722 million somehow became enshrined in public memory as the margin that assured American dishonor. As Laird put it in that Foreign Affairs essay, "[W]e grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. ... We saved a mere $297 million a year and in the process doomed South Vietnam, which had been ably fighting the war without our troops since 1973."...



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