Seth Gitell: New Thesis on Vietnam Aimed at 2008 Election





[Mr. Gitell (gitell.com) is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.]

A new thesis about the end of the Vietnam war is making the rounds in the context of the debate over Iraq. It holds that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger — not the Democratic Congress and public opinion — were chiefly culpable in America's betrayal of South Vietnam.

The managing editor of Foreign Affairs, Gideon Rose, is the most vocal proponent of this revision of history. According to Mr. Rose's writing in Slate, "the settlement the Nixon administration negotiated left the South vulnerable to future attacks." More recently, writing for the New Republic online, Rick Perlstein stated, "there is a popular fantasy that liberals in Congress, somehow, at least metaphorically, abandoned American troops in Vietnam."

The importance of this argument has to do with the debate that is taking place for the 2008 presidential election. There is a growing sense that the Democratic leadership in the Congress will try to force a retreat in Iraq by defunding the war, which is what happened in Vietnam.

In the spring of 1975, Congress denied to President Ford's administration the funds to provide military aid to Vietnam, whose army was forced to retreat from the Central Highlands. The communist conquest quickly followed. Democratic Party intellectuals are working to deflect an argument that the party is trying to do again what it did in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Perlstein, writing in the New Republic, suggests that the votes of Congress did not directly imperil American soldiers, who had already been withdrawn. But that is pettifogging. Both he and Mr. Rose fall off-target in suggesting that Capitol Hill did not abandon the cause for which the GIs fought — our allies in South Vietnam.

A contrast of two military offensives conducted by the People's Army of North Vietnam highlights their error. In the first offensive, in March 1972, North Vietnam hurled 14 conventional divisions, including 1,200 tanks, into South Vietnam. Nixon authorized American B-52 Stratofortresses into action to help the South Vietnamese army, the primary ground force in Vietnam at the time, fend off the invasion. The enemy sustained more than 100,000 casualties. The offensive failed. In the second offensive, three years later, North Vietnam launched the Ho Chi Minh campaign. Columns of enemy armor, unimpeded by American airpower, sped south, ultimately taking Saigon. At the end of the war, enemy missiles were pulled by tractor-trailer trucks out of the jungle, just miles from Saigon. Messrs. Rose and Perlstein fail to account for how these two similar campaigns ended with tragically different results.

Between 1972 and 1975, America's Congress passed a series of pieces of legislation that strangled the Republic of South Vietnam of resources and blocked any hope of an American air campaign. While Mr. Rose himself acknowledges that "in June 1973, Congress ordered all American military operations in Indochina to cease by the end of the summer, and in November it passed the War Powers Act," he soft-peddles the ramifications of these moves — as well as neglecting other legislative restrictions on helping South Vietnam.

These included the Second Supplemental Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1973, which blocked funding to "support directly or indirectly combat activities in or over Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam or South Vietnam"; the Continuing Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1974, and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973, which went so far as to prevent third-party countries from assisting the South Vietnamese so long as they received American aid.

The secretary of state at the time, Henry Kissinger, in his memoir, "Years of Upheaval," cites those legislative measures as imperiling not only South Vietnam but also Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge, backed by Communist China, implemented a genocide....


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