Melvin Laird: Iraq ... Learning the Lessons of Vietnam

Roundup: Talking About History

Summary: During Richard Nixon's first term, when I served as secretary of defense, we withdrew most U.S. forces from Vietnam while building up the South's ability to defend itself. The result was a success -- until Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975. Washington should follow a similar strategy now, but this time finish the job properly.

Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 on the assumption that he had a plan to end the Vietnam War. He didn't have any such plan, and my job as his first secretary of defense was to remedy that -- quickly. The only stated plan was wording I had suggested for the 1968 Republican platform, saying it was time to de-Americanize the war. Today, nearly 37 years after Nixon took office as president and I left Congress to join his cabinet, getting out of a war is still dicier than getting into one, as President George W. Bush can attest.

There were two things in my office that first day that gave my mission clarity. The first was a multivolume set of binders in my closet safe that contained a top-secret history of the creeping U.S. entry into the war that had occurred on the watch of my predecessor, Robert McNamara. The report didn't remain a secret for long: it was soon leaked to The New York Times, which nicknamed it"the Pentagon Papers." I always referred to the study as"the McNamara Papers," to give credit where credit belonged. I didn't read the full report when I moved into the office. I had already spent seven years on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee listening to McNamara justify the escalation of the war. How we got into Vietnam was no longer my concern. (Although, in retrospect, those papers offered a textbook example of how not to commit American military might.)

The second item was another secret document, this one shorter and infinitely more troubling. It was a one-year-old request from General William Westmoreland to raise the U.S. troop commitment in Vietnam from 500,000 to 700,000. At the time he had made the request, Westmoreland was the commander of U.S. forces there. As soon as the idea had reached the ears of President Lyndon Johnson, Westmoreland's days in Saigon were numbered. Johnson bumped him upstairs to be army chief of staff, so that the Pentagon bureaucracy could dilute his more-is-better philosophy during the coming presidential campaign.

The memo had remained in limbo in the defense secretary's desk, neither approved nor rejected. As my symbolic first act in office, it gave me great satisfaction to turn down that request formally. It was the beginning of a four-year withdrawal from Vietnam that, in retrospect, became the textbook description of how the U.S. military should decamp....

The truth about Vietnam that revisionist historians conveniently forget is that the United States had not lost when we withdrew in 1973. In fact, we grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory two years later when Congress cut off the funding for South Vietnam that had allowed it to continue to fight on its own. Over the four years of Nixon's first term, I had cautiously engineered the withdrawal of the majority of our forces while building up South Vietnam's ability to defend itself. My colleague and friend Henry Kissinger, meanwhile, had negotiated a viable agreement between North and South Vietnam, which was signed in January 1973. It allowed for the United States to withdraw completely its few remaining troops and for the United States and the Soviet Union to continue funding their respective allies in the war at a specified level. Each superpower was permitted to pay for replacement arms and equipment. Documents released from North Vietnamese historical files in recent years have proved that the Soviets violated the treaty from the moment the ink was dry, continuing to send more than $1 billion a year to Hanoi. The United States barely stuck to the allowed amount of military aid for two years, and that was a mere fraction of the Soviet contribution.

Yet during those two years, South Vietnam held its own courageously and respectably against a better-bankrolled enemy. Peace talks continued between the North and the South until the day in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. funding. The Communists walked out of the talks and never returned. Without U.S. funding, South Vietnam was quickly overrun. 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.

I believed then and still believe today that given enough outside resources, South Vietnam was capable of defending itself, just as I believe Iraq can do the same now. From the Tet offensive in 1968 up to the fall of Saigon in 1975, South Vietnam never lost a major battle. The Tet offensive itself was a victory for South Vietnam and devastated the North Vietnamese army, which lost 289,000 men in 1968 alone. Yet the overriding media portrayal of the Tet offensive and the war thereafter was that of defeat for the United States and the Saigon government. Just so, the overriding media portrayal of the Iraq war is one of failure and futility....

Bush is losing the public relations war by making the same strategic mistakes we made in Vietnam. General Abrams frequently spoke to me about his frustration with the war that the U.S. media portrayed at home and how it contrasted with the war he was seeing up close. His sense of defeat in his own public relations war, with its 500-plus reporters based in Saigon, comes through in the hundreds of meetings held in his office in Saigon -- meetings that were taped for the record. (Transcripts of those tapes are ably assembled and analyzed by Lewis Sorley in his recent book, Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972.)

In Vietnam, correspondents roamed the country almost at will, and their work brought home to the United States the first televised war. Until that war, families back home worried about the welfare of their soldiers but could not see the danger. Had the mothers and fathers of U.S. soldiers serving in World War II seen a real-time CNN report of D-day in the style of Saving Private Ryan, they might not have thought Europe was worth saving. Operation Desert Storm married 24-hour cable news and war for the first time. ...

The president must articulate a simple message and mission. Just as the spread of communism was very real in the 1960s, so the spread of radical fundamentalist Islam is very real today. It was a creeping fear until September 11, 2001, when it showed itself capable of threatening us. Iraq was a logical place to fight back, with its secular government and modern infrastructure and a populace that was ready to overthrow its dictator. Our troops are not fighting there only to preserve the right of Iraqis to vote. They are fighting to preserve modern culture, Western democracy, the global economy, and all else that is threatened by the spread of barbarism in the name of religion. That is the message and the mission. It is not politically correct, nor is it comforting. But it is the truth, and sometimes the truth needs good marketing....

As was the case in Vietnam, the task in Iraq involves building a new society from the ground up. Two Vietnam experts, Jeffrey Record and W. Andrew Terrill, recently produced an exhaustive comparison of the Vietnam and Iraq wars for the Army War College. They note that in both wars, the United States sought to establish a legitimate indigenous government. In Iraq, the goal is a democratic government, whereas in Vietnam the United States would have settled for any regime that advanced our Cold War agenda.

Those who call the new Iraqi government Washington's"puppet" don't know what a real puppet government is. The Iraqis are as eager to be on their own as we are to have them succeed. In Vietnam, an American, Ambassador Philip Habib, wrote the constitution in 1967. Elections were choreographed by the United States to empower corrupt, selfish men who were no more than dictators in the garb of statesmen.

Little wonder that the passionate nationalists in the North came off as the group with something to offer. I do not personally believe the Saigon government was fated to fall apart someday through lack of integrity, and apparently the Soviet Union didn't think so either or it would not have pursued the war. But it is true that the U.S. administrations at the time severely underestimated the need for a legitimate government in South Vietnam and instead assumed that a shadow government and military force could win the day. In Iraq, a legitimate government, not window-dressing, must be the primary goal. The factious process of writing the Iraqi constitution has been painful to watch, and the varying factions must be kept on track. But the process is healthy and, more important, homegrown.

In hindsight, we can look at the Vietnam War as a success story -- albeit a costly one -- in nation building, even though the democracy we sought halfheartedly to build failed. ...

For me, the alleged prison scandals reported to have occurred in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo Bay have been a disturbing reminder of the mistreatment of our own pows by North Vietnam. The conditions in our current prison camps are nowhere near as horrific as they were at the"Hanoi Hilton," but that is no reason to pat ourselves on the back. The minute we begin to deport prisoners to other nations where they can legally be tortured, when we hold people without charges or trial, when we move prisoners around to avoid the prying inspections of the Red Cross, when prisoners die inexplicably on our watch, we are on a slippery slope toward the inhumanity that we deplore. In Vietnam, I made sure we always took the high ground with regard to the treatment of enemy prisoners. I opened our prison camps wide to international inspectors, so that we could demand the same from Hanoi. In Iraq, there are no American pows being held in camps by the insurgents. There are only murder victims whose decapitated bodies are left for us to find. But that does not give us license to be brutal in return....

The greatest cost of war is human suffering. But every war has its monetary price tag, too, even if it is rarely felt in real time. As with Vietnam, the Iraq war is revealing chinks in our fiscal armor. Only after the Vietnam War ended did its drain on the U.S. economy become apparent. During the war, our military readiness to fight other conflicts was precarious. Billions of dollars were drained away from other missions to support the war. It became a juggling act to support our forces around the world. I reduced our contingent in Korea by 29,000 men, and I persuaded Japan to begin paying the bills for its post-World War II defense by our troops. In retrospect, those two steps were positive results from the financial drain that the Vietnam War caused. But there were plenty of other places where the belt-tightening suffocated good programs. The Army Reserve and National Guard units fell into disrepair. President Johnson chose to draft the unwilling, rather than use trained reservists and National Guard soldiers and air personnel. As unpopular as the draft was, it was still an easier sell for Johnson than deploying whole National Guard and Reserve units out of the communities in middle America. So the second-string troops stayed home and saw their budgets cannibalized. Their training was third-rate and their equipment secondhand. Now, in our post-Vietnam wisdom, we have embraced the"total force" concept. After two decades of retooling, most National Guard units and reservists were better prepared to respond when called up for Operation Desert Storm.

Yet, because of pandering to the butter-not-guns crowd, we still do not spend enough of our total budget on national defense. The annual U.S. GDP is in excess of $11.5 trillion. The percentage of GDP going to the Defense Department amounts to 3.74 percent. In 1953, during the Korean War, it was 14 percent. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, it was nearly 10 percent -- an amount that sapped domestic programs and ended up demoralizing President Johnson because he could not maintain his Great Society social programs. Now our spending priorities have shifted to social programs, with 6.8 percent of GDP, for example, going to Social Security and Medicare. That is more than twice what it was during the Vietnam War....

Our pattern of fighting our battles alone or with a marginal" coalition of the willing" contributes to the downward spiral in resources and money. Ironically, Nixon had the answer back in 1969. At the heart of the Nixon Doctrine, announced that first year of his presidency, was the belief that the United States could not go it alone. As he said in his foreign policy report to Congress on February 18, 1970, the United States will participate in the defense and development of allies and friends, but"America cannot -- and will not -- conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world. We will help where it makes a real difference and is considered in our interest" (emphasis in the original).

Three decades later, we have fallen into a pattern of neglecting our treaty alliances, such as NATO, and endangering the aid we can give our allies by throwing our resources into fights that our allies refuse to join. Vietnam was just such a fight, and Iraq is, too. If our treaty alliances were adequately tended to and shored up -- and here I include the UN -- we would not have so much trouble persuading others to join us when our cause is just. Still, as the only superpower, there will be times when we must go it alone....

Read entire article at Foreign Affairs

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Clark David Richards - 10/22/2005

It is sad to read Laird's account of how the United States gave up victory and dishonored the sacrifices of the 55,000 servicemen that had given their all to secure some form of democratic government in South Vietnam. Hopefully, the lesson of that war will not be lost on our present government and we will not hastily pull out of Iraq and leave the Iraqi military without the financial or logistical resources to combat those that would suffocate this attempt at establishing a democratic government.

J. R. Bullington's commentary on his Vietnam experiences supports Laird's contention that indeed "defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory" by a congress that cut funding for the South Vietnamese. He states, "Instead, funding for South Vietnam was cut drastically. By late 1974, its air force was largely grounded for lack of spare parts; ammunition and other military supplies were running low; and the economy was in a tailspin. Moreover, Watergate and the collapse of the Nixon presidency had made it clear that there was no possibility of renewed U.S. air support for South Vietnam under any conditions, and that necessary aid levels would not be restored. South Vietnamese morale was undermined, and the North Vietnamese were emboldened to strike." My review of legislation adopted at that time also confirms Laird's statements. It appears that in fact history may repeat itself. President Johnson and congress had a major funding conflict of support for the war and carrying on programs for the "Great Society" social programs. Today that same conflict seems to arising as we confront funding problems for social programs and natural disaster recovery.
It is interesting to note that a clearer picture of the actual events that led to the fall of South Vietnam is slowly emerging to challenge the historical accounts written by those that in many cases were the war protestors seeking to justify their actions.

Edwin Moise - 10/20/2005

If one is to make useful comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, one must start by getting the facts on Vietnam correct. Melvin Laird does not do so here. A partial list of the problems:
--It is not true that the Soviet Union violated limits set by the Paris Agreement of 1973 on the level of Soviet military aid that could be given to Hanoi. The Paris Agreement did not set any limit of any sort on the level of Soviet aid for Hanoi.
--It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that South Vietnam held its own for two years after the signing of the Paris Agreement. South Vietnamese forces were clearly in serious trouble (highlighted by the loss of the entire province of Phuoc Long) by the end of that two-year period.
--It is not true that the U.S. Congress cut off funding in 1975, leaving South Vietnam to fight "Without U.S. funding." There was no congressional decision at any date in 1975 to cut off funding for South Vietnam, or even to reduce it below the level specified in the budget for fiscal year 1975 (July 1974 to June 1975) that had been voted upon in 1974. I believe Laird is misrepresenting as a decision to cut off funding a vote that actually was just a refusal to increase the level of funding above that specified in the budget voted upon in 1974.
--The statement that "From the Tet offensive in 1968 up to the fall of Saigon in 1975, South Vietnam never lost a major battle" is really strange. I suppose Laird might argue that the loss of Phuoc Long province in early January 1975 was not a major battle, and that the disaster in the Central Highlands in March 1975, about six weeks before the fall of Saigon, does not count because it was really part of the fall of Saigon. But even if I accept such an interpretation of his words, I would note what happened in Quang Tri province from March 30 to April 2, 1972. The South Vietnamese forces lost all their positions north of the Cua Viet River. None of these were ever regained. Considerable artillery was captured by the North Vietnamese as the South Vietnamese defense disintegrated. This is not supposed to represent the loss of a major battle by the South Vietnamese?