The End of American Power
Trump’s Reelection Would Usher in Permanent Decline
A Question recently posed by a distinguished colleague is central for anyone who earnestly seeks to understand how an entire generation of American political leaders, with the best will in the world, pushed the country onto the slippery slope that led ever downward into the engulfing morass of Indochina. The question is this: "Why did so many intelligent, experienced and humane men in government fail to grasp the immorality of our intervention in Vietnam and the cancerous division it was producing at home, long after this was instinctively evident to their wives and children?"
As a nation we are still only beginning to address this prickly and uncomfortable question. The New Left has of course long since rendered its own verdict: namely, that the entire leadership was venal, and was moreover acting within the compulsions of an imperialist system. For those, however, who still value reason and believe in factual, proportioned discourse as the most reliable road to approximate truth, the question is serious and compelling; ultimately it is inescapable. While we remain at some distance from a complete answer, it seems certain that an important part of the answer lies in what has been called the cold-war syndrome and in its ramified legacy. Every American over 40 (especially those between 40 and 60) shares involuntarily in this legacy, to a greater or lesser degree, because the cold war was the pervasive reality of the years in which that generation came to its political maturity. By cold war I mean, of course, the highly charged and dangerous power struggle that billowed up out of World War II between a monolithic communist structure directed by Stalin and a rather more loose, hastily reassembled coalition of nations led by the United States.
There is a tendency today, especially among younger people, to denigrate the Stalinist threat, to discount the challenge and the perils it presented, and by various efforts at historical revisionism to conclude that the cold war was an unnecessary happening provoked by American imperialists and militarists. The evidence of those who helped to formulate the democratic response, or who merely lived through the period, is of course quite different. The cold war was a real and bitter struggle touched off by Stalin's utterly serious efforts to subvert and capture Western Europe, to penetrate the Mediterranean basin, and to gain a major influence in the strategic Asian anchor, Japan. No doubt, U.S. insistence on free elections in Eastern Europe confirmed the worst suspicions of Soviet leaders that a universalist American capitalism intended to deny Russian paramountcy in the belt of states through which Hitler's terrible invading force had marched, a buffer zone regarded by Stalin as the minimal requirement of Russian security. But it was not merely the case of a Kremlin leadership understandably paranoid in the aftermath of unprecedented human loss and physical devastation inside its homeland; it was also the case of a leadership impelled by the iron logic of a messianic ideology, a fact that made the Soviet Union compulsively expansionist and thus something quite different from the classic nation-state. Through his far-flung operatives Stalin discerned, in the war-bred chaos beyond his borders, new opportunities to extend Soviet power.
Disciplined, activist communist parties all over the world were almost instantly responsive to central direction from the Kremlin; and they were bent upon widespread disruption and seizure, stimulated by the brute fact that much of the civilized world lay physically and economically prostrate in the immediate wake of World War II. To meet and turn back a fundamental challenge to the power balance which we had fought that war to restore, we were thrust by irresistible logic into a series of dramatic salvage operations-to aid the Greeks and Turks, rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan, establish the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, stand in Berlin, fight in Korea. As the one free nation with the necessary strength and coherence to lead the resistance, we were forced by the steady pressure of postwar crises to exertions of a scale and character that seemed to make our universal involvement a permanent necessity. While, in fact, the restoration of Western Europe and Japan, and the effective blunting of Moscow's ideological-military thrust, required only about eight years, the effort was totally absorbing. Combined with the harsh lesson in power realities taught by World War II, its effect was to shape the thinking of an entire American generation with respect to the way power is organized in the world and with respect to the requirements of U.S. security.
The Korean war in particular shaped our national attitudes about the developing situation in Vietnam and thus made probable, as early as 1954, our ultimate military intervention 11 years later. For the attack on South Korea was a Russian decision-a command by Stalin to send a Russian-trained puppet army across an established international boundary line. Washington saw the attack as a naked, centrally directed aggression, a bold attempt to upset the precarious postwar balance, a dagger aimed straight at our vital interest in Japan. This grave view was confirmed by the United Nations, not only in resolutions, but in sending to battle combat forces from 14 member nations. Such a vigorous response, mingling free-world idealism with a practical determination to defend the global power balance, was a singular triumph for the collective security idea. As it redeemed the dismal failures of the League, so also it confirmed the suspicion that the communist menace excluded no means in pursuing its expansionist aims.
Washington had thought it discerned the Russian hand in Southeast Asia even before this event. A month before the attack on Korea, the United States extended military and economic aid to those three petty states to which France had in 1948 granted a nominal independence within the French Union. Announcing the new policy from Paris, May 8, 1950, Secretary Acheson said in part: "The United States, convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution exists in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism, considers the situation to be such as to warrant its according economic aid and military equipment to the Associated States of Indochina and to France in order to assist them in restoring stability. . . ." While the policy reflected, in part, a price demanded by France for her coöperation with NATO, it seems fair to assume that the language was of American choosing. As the Korean war deepened, so did our assistance to the French forces in Indochina. A joint statement in September 1951 by high diplomatic and military officials of the two governments expressed "complete agreement that the successful defense of Indochina is of great importance to the defense of all Southeast Asia," and emphasized that American and French policies in Indochina "are not at variance." The United States promised faster deliveries of military equipment. A similar communiqué of June 30, 1952, expressed "unanimous satisfaction over the vigorous and successful course of military operations;" it added that the "excellent performance of the Associated States' forces in battle was found to be a source of particular encouragement." Already underwriting one-third of the total cost of the Indochinese war, we proceeded further to expand our military aid to "the French Union."
In 1954, we were just a year beyond a painfully achieved Korean truce, after three years of bloody fighting. The communists had won the civil war in China, a result which brought severe psychological shock to Americans, who had nurtured sentimental notions of the Chinese people and of U.S.- Chinese relations. Mao was consolidating his control over that vast land mass and its population then numbering 600 million people. Chinese communist intervention in the Korean war, brought on by a serious misreading of diplomatic signals on both sides and by the Truman-MacArthur decision to march to the Yalu, had highly charged America's fears of the Yellow Peril; more broadly, it had reinforced our perception of a precarious coalition of free states under assault across the entire globe by a seamless international conspiracy. In the circumstances, it was almost inevitable that the United States would view the impending French departure from Indochina as merely the opening of another avenue for communist expansion in Asia.
The possibility of local, independent communist action lay outside the range of our cold-war vision. As Secretary Dulles said in June 1954: "At the moment, Indochina is the area where international Communism most vigorously seeks expansion. . . . The problem is one of restoring tranquility in an area where disturbances are fomented from Communist China, but where there is no invasion by Communist China." From the penetrating analyses of George Kennan, the leading Russian expert of his time, the somewhat undiscriminating inference was drawn that every form of communism flowed without limit into power vacuums and open crevices wherever they presented themselves. And Indochina without the French seemed to fit that interpretation almost precisely, with Ho Chi Minh dominant in North Vietnam and the Chinese land mass controlled by Mao.
America's policy, engineered by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles, thus set about building an anti-communist counterforce in the South-first by helping to establish the de facto reality of a new sovereign nation, next by finding and installing a new national leader (Diem), and then by endowing him with abundant economic and military assistance. The United States was not a signatory to the Geneva Agreements (nor to the Final Declaration of the conference which spelled out the agreement to all- Vietnam elections in 1956); as President Eisenhower explained it on July 21, 1954, the agreement "contains features which we do not like." In a separate statement at Geneva, the United States declared that, while it would refrain from the threat or the use of force to upset the terms of the settlement, it would take a grave view of any renewal of communist aggression in the area. It then moved urgently to conclude the SEATO alliance and to bring under its protection Cambodia, Laos and one-half of Vietnam, i.e. "the free territory under the jurisdiction of the State of Vietnam."
In July 1955, the new government in Saigon took, with U.S. encouragement, the next logical step; it rejected the North Vietnamese invitation to discuss elections, on grounds that were above suspicion in the West, given the context of total struggle against "International Communism." Saigon argued that the people in the North would be unable to express their will freely, and that falsified votes in the North could outweigh genuine votes in the South. Underlying every specific move was the firmest American determination to prevent any further communist advance.
It is significant that these policies and actions were strongly supported by the American people; there was no dissent from within government, very little from Congress or the press, and nothing significant from scholars or other close observers of foreign affairs. As a nation we had little perception that we might be frustrating a widely supported national independence movement by lending our aid and our prestige to what were at best colonial puppets, who suffered an innate incapacity to win over any sizable segment of the Vietnamese people to their side, and who, as it turned out, could not govern at all without the direct presence and support of a very large U.S. expeditionary force. What we saw predominantly was another disagreeable, but utterly necessary, effort to plug the dike against further communist expansion in Asia.
It is very difficult to argue today that that judgment did not reflect the historical and political truth for America at the time, for it was based on direct, chilling and bloody encounters with Stalinism at many strategic points on the globe. The trouble and the tragedy have been that the American response to the cold war generated its own momentum and, in doing so, led us progressively to actions beyond the rational requirements of our national security. Looking back, one can see why men of good conscience- even men with a sense of history-were vulnerable to the developing hubris, for the major elements of our national response had roots in some of the noblest American traditions. From Woodrow Wilson down through Franklin Roosevelt we were bequeathed the legacy of America's democratizing mission in the world. And whatever retrospective cynicism Americans might have felt at having fought in 1918 "to make the world safe for democracy," it did not make the "Four Freedoms" or the "Atlantic Charter" any less compelling as political aims in 1945. From Woodrow Wilson and Henry Stimson came the strong belief in the need for collective security against aggression, a conviction reinforced by the disastrous failures of the League of Nations in the 1930s which had led us to the holocaust of World War II. From the tense confrontation with Stalinism came a semi-official, increasingly dogmatic anti-communism.
Each of these strands of policy was legitimate and useful, if applied with a sense of proportion. But what began happening after, and as a result of, the Korean war can be seen with the benefit of hindsight as extension pressed to the point of distortion. Stimson's doctrine held that collective action was required to prevent rather clear-cut aggressions by great powers against the vital interests of other great powers, in order to maintain or restore a working balance of power among those leading states. But John Foster Dulles, who practiced a devil theory of communism, began to apply the collective security idea to cases where great power involvement was merely speculative or tenuous, or where the U.S. interest, seen in proportion, was only marginal. The Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), viewed by Dulles as a barrier to a Soviet military attack southward into the Middle East, merely generated improvements in the road network and other communications linking Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan; it also provided Pakistan with arms in order to balance off India.
CENTO did not, however, prevent Soviet penetration into the Middle East; that feat was accomplished bloodlessly by the proven Western stratagem of offering military equipment-in this case to Egypt, Syria and Yemen. The South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), created in response to what was seen as the danger of communist Chinese hordes pouring down through Southeast Asia and on into Malaya, Burma and Indonesia, brought together a strange collection of physically weak or politically disabled partners. Indeed the unlikelihood that they could or would ever act effectively in concert was so apparent that the alliance provided only the thinnest cloak for what was privately understood to be its underlying purpose: namely, the protective exercise of U.S. power. Six months before the treaty was signed, Secretary Dulles had warned of a possible communist Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia. "If such overt military aggression occurred," he said on June 11, 1954, "that would be a deliberate threat to the United States itself. The United States would of course invoke the processes of the United Nations and consult with its allies. But we could not escape ultimate responsibility for decisions closely touching our own security and self-defense."
By these and similar pronouncements the Chinese communist menace was inflated, and the American defense line drawn through the heart of Southeast Asia. Thus were distortions of threat and interest progressively embedded in the unspoken suppositions of policy formulation, accepted by both political parties and sustained by American public opinion. From 1950 onward, we underwrote, for example, a large Nationalist Chinese Army on Taiwan, a policy based partly on the rationale that it was necessary to guard against a large-scale invasion from the communist mainland; more objective analysis showed in 1965 (when Mao's armed forces were better organized and equipped) that his chances of sending a sizable amphibious force across 120 miles of open water in the face of Nationalist aerial surveillance, the Seventh Fleet, and quickly available U.S. combat airpower was approximately zero.
By a similar process of inflation, the proportioned impulse that produced the Marshall Plan led later to the delusion of "nation-building" in Vietnam, and to Lyndon Johnson's expressed hope of bringing the full fruits of the Great Society to the Mekong. Prudent and rational anti-communism, which recognized Moscow and Peking as major adversaries in the international arena, but understood that ideology is transient while national interests endure, degenerated for a time into a sort of religious obsession which saw the threat as a changeless, all-encompassing evil; the result was to becloud clear thought. The pressures thus arising from a combination of real and spurious threats, and from our assumption of vast responsibility in a world seething with change and discontent, moved U.S. policy-and American opinion-toward a Pavlovian tendency to see every local uprising as a mortal test of wills between a communist octopus and the free world coalition. The trouble was, of course, that this view of our various adversaries as a monolith persisted long after the facts on which it was based had begun to shift.
The sea changes in the communist situation that occurred in the late 1950s and the 1960s are now well known; one needs therefore to cite only the major developments as reference points: (1) the Sino-Soviet breach, which split the vaunted unity of communist doctrine and thus progressively undermined the Soviet position as Mother Church; (2) developments within the U.S.S.R. itself-caused by years of effective NATO containment, the aging process, and the effects of affluence-which moved Russia toward the posture of a status quo power and noticeably reduced Soviet revolutionary fervor in relation to the underdeveloped world; (3) Moscow's progressive loss of appeal to and control over communist parties throughout the world that lie beyond the physical reach of Russian military power; and (4) the growing uneasiness of the Soviet position in Eastern Europe, brought about by broader economic and cultural relations with the West and the radiated effects of de-Stalinization in Russia. The latter process led, of course, over a period of years, not only to signs of public criticism of the official system in Russia, but also to varying kinds of self-assertion in Eastern Europe, where latent nationalism needed only opportunity to be rekindled. The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 seemed to mark the end of officially tolerated post-Stalin liberalism, but it did not end Russian uncertainties in Eastern Europe; moreover, it once again showed the world a siege mentality that could hardly enhance the attraction of communism in other places.
Notwithstanding these developments-which between 1954 and 1964 were of course unevenly paced, partially disguised, and incomplete-every American policy action in Vietnam during that period, under three Presidents and ranging from economic aid to military training to military supply to the sending of advisers, continued to be based on what seemed a self-evident proposition: namely, that the expansion of "International Communism" presented everywhere, and in nearly every form, a direct menace to U.S. security that had to be stopped-in the last resort by whatever means were necessary.
We thus embarked upon large-scale military intervention in 1965 because the President's advisers, and the President who accepted their advice, remained the prisoners of their cold war experience at a time when communist power had in fact ceased to be monolithic and was breaking up into ideological and political fragments. Intellectually aware of this fragmentation, American leaders were nevertheless unable to acknowledge and apply the implications of that process for either "International Communism" or the U.S. interest in Southeast Asia. Still impelled by the long shock wave produced by the communist victory in China and the French collapse in Vietnam, they saw instability in that area as primarily the consequence of alien subversion; they also saw it as intolerable-and remediable.
The cold-war syndrome prevailing in Washington in 1965 thus represented no break with the Eisenhower and Kennedy periods. None of those responsible perceived the necessity-or the possibility-of redefining our interests or our role in the world in ways that would permit the drawing of more careful distinctions between those commitments and involvements that are in fact vital to our national security, and those that spring more or less from our deeply held view of what the world "ought" to be and of how it "ought" to be organized. A few viewed the prospect of a protracted testing of wills in insurgent-counterinsurgent combat with missionary zeal, accepting as an article of faith the dubious notion that an insurgency blocked in Vietnam would deter an insurgency planned in Jordan or Trinidad. Convinced absolutely of America's altruism, they were persuaded that only through the application of American-guided "nation-building," American counter- guerrilla doctrine, and, if need be, American military forces could backward nations be saved from the scourge of instability and brought to their rightful place in the modern world.
Our efforts on behalf of South Vietnam through 1964 are not, I believe, fairly construed as immoral, if one thus understands the origins of the governing U.S. attitudes and the formidable new strength and dimension they were given by the relentless pressures of the cold war. Though flawed by progressive misconceptions, U.S. policies toward Southeast Asia were well intentioned and pursued in the earnest belief that we were defending freedom. Yet at each of several critical junctures-in 1962 when President Kennedy (at the prompting of General Maxwell Taylor and Walt Rostow) introduced artillery and fighter-bomber aircraft into South Vietnam and raised U.S. advisory strengths from 700 to 16,000; after the overthrow of Diem in November 1963; in the autumn of 1964 when the collapse of the cardboard régime in Saigon seemed imminent-American leadership failed to grasp the central truth: namely, that the U.S. interest in Southeast Asia is limited, not vital; that while a limited effort to shore up South Vietnam was warranted, a total effort to save a government founded at low tide upon the receding sands of the French colonial empire was both alien to our interest and destructive of our reputation. The sudden discontinuity in the American presidency may well have been the decisive factor after 1963.
In any event, the chances for restraint, for acknowledging mistakes with reasonable grace, and for an intelligent cutting of losses were missed. The nation went over the brink and down the slippery slope. We failed to see that the realization of our ostensibly limited objectives in Vietnam required in fact the total frustration of the other side's aims, and thus might well involve a wholly open-ended commitment. North Vietnam's unexpected tenacity, deriving from the fact that the war was for Hanoi a vital struggle, led us in the event to the application of progressively unlimited means. This loss of proportion led to wanton destruction, to a gross disparity between ends and means, and therein lies the immorality.
It would be, of course, incorrect and unfair to place all of the blame on President Johnson and his advisers, for, as is evident, we are dealing with what has been a national state of mind. It is well to remember that the advisers were widely regarded when they entered government as among the ablest, the best-informed, the most humane and liberal men who could be found for public trust. And that was a true assessment. President Johnson himself reflected a fateful duality, with overtones of personal tragedy. In late 1964, before the decision to insert American combat forces was taken, there is evidence that he clung to very real doubts concerning the wisdom of further U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, and that he resisted the contrary advice of major cabinet officers. But once he was overborne by the felt pressure of events or the collective weight of his advisers' experience, once he was committed, then his visceral preference for victory came into the open. From that point onward, his domineering personality and his strong allergy to dissent within the bosom of his official family made it almost certain that advice to him would continue to be homogeneous.
Three years later-with a half-million Americans waging no better than a military stalemate, with physical and human destruction in Vietnam on a rising scale, with our domestic scene punctuated by protests, draft resistance and the fateful merging of anti-war and racial dissension-it still required a near cataclysmic event to arrest a policy of open-ended escalation. To put the matter more precisely, it required the dramatic, undisguisable shock of the Tet offensive to knock the props out from under the contrived structure of official optimism, to create heavy public pressures for change, and thus to enable a few well-placed and determined men within the government to restore a measure of proportion to our policy in Vietnam.
What are the outlines of the situation today, a little more than two years after the Johnson decisions that put a ceiling on the war? They suggest the tenacity of the legacy. Shopworn, altered by circumstance, lacking the full confidence of old, the cold war syndrome appears nevertheless to be alive and well and living in Washington.
One perceives that President Nixon had the opportunity (like President Eisenhower with respect to Korea in 1953) to take definitive steps toward liquidating the war during his first months in office, without political risks for himself, indeed with political benefit for both his own party and the cause of national unity. In fact, his opportunity was broader. It was no less than the chance to lead the nation firmly away from a decade of self-deception in Indochina, to admit a national mistake and by that cleansing act begin to uncoil the contradictions and restore the national balance. He could have set himself the task of demonstrating that, after five years of major fighting, we had done as much as we could do to assist South Vietnam, and that our proper course should now be an orderly but unswerving withdrawal, recognizing two central realities: that the tangled political issues which torture and divide Vietnam, growing as they do out of long colonial repression and the consequent struggle to define a national identity, can be settled only among the Vietnamese themselves; and that contrary to the erroneous assumption on which U.S. military intervention was based, the particular constitutional form and ideological orientation of Vietnamese politics do not affect the vital interests of the United States.
It is significant that the new President did not take that road, but meditated upon the problem until the honeymoon period was over and the war had become unmistakably his responsibility and that of the Republican Party. Why did he do this? One is drawn by his actions and utterances to the conclusion that he personifies the ambivalence of his generation, which is now in uneasy transition from the ingrained certitudes of the cold-war syndrome toward somewhat unpalatable new truths. He is somewhere between believing in the essential rightness of this war and understanding that the American interest requires its liquidation. He has evolved a policy that seems aimed at substantially reducing and possibly ending the American role, but so conditionally and gradually as to make the process almost imperceptible. At the same time, he has been unwilling to abandon either the rhetoric that supported our intervention in the first place or the implicit insistence that our proxy must prevail even if we depart. Like his immediate predecessor, he appears to lack the scale of mind and the inner security required to risk even a transient loss of national prestige for the sake of a healthy national adjustment to reality in Southeast Asia.
On November 3, 1969, Mr. Nixon said he was proceeding on two fronts: "a peace settlement through negotiations or, if that fails, ending the war through Vietnamization." Negotiations have thus far failed-chiefly because the U.S. negotiating position does not reflect current realities. With minor embellishments, this position still rests on the President's proposals of May 14, 1969, calling for mutual withdrawal of United States and North Vietnamese forces followed by internationally supervised elections, which would be arranged by a special commission in which the National Liberation Front would participate. But Hanoi has never been prepared to accept arrangements for elections worked out under the auspices of the Thieu government and in which the winner would take all; and the U.S.-South Vietnam military position (now affected by the withdrawal of 110,000 American troops and the announced intention to remove another 150,000) is not sufficient to compel the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces. The resulting deadlock at Paris ought not to be surprising; it reflects the fact that our present political aims exceed our bargaining power.
To put it bluntly, the one thing we can negotiate at this stage of the war is the manner of our going. Averell Harriman, who speaks with a special authority on the subject of negotiations with the North Vietnamese, appears to believe that if we would declare our intention to leave South Vietnam, we could negotiate not only the return of our prisoners, but also the formation of a neutral government in the South, including but not dominated by the National Liberation Front, and committed to settlement and cordial relations but not merger with North Vietnam. According to Mr. Harriman, an unambiguous American declaration of departure could bring the Russians into a coöperating position, and could thus establish the preconditions for international guarantees of the negotiated arrangements, including, after a reasonable period, international supervision of all-Vietnam elections.
It does not seem impossible that a clear-minded President could lead American opinion to an understanding that firm action along this line need not be cause for a national nervous breakdown; in fact, the military and economic, as well as the psychological, advantages of removing our leg from the quicksand are fully demonstrable. Our power and influence would not evaporate. We would not be rendered incapable of defining and defending our vital and legitimate interests. On the contrary, our ability to reassure our NATO and Japanese treaty partners, and our capacity to exert a firm and steadying influence on the dangers in the Middle East, could only be enhanced by the restoration of our global poise. Our industrial, technical and cultural achievements would continue to astound and attract the world.
President Nixon remains convinced, however, that American prestige in Asia rides on the survival of an anti-communist régime in Saigon. He thus sees an approach such as the Harriman proposal as leading to "humiliation and defeat for the United States." He employs the scare tactic of a "bloodbath" if we should depart under conditions that would leave the survival of the Thieu régime in doubt. In this he misrepresents the known facts concerning Hanoi's treatment of Catholics in the North since 1954, and ignores: (a) the clear reality that an announced U.S. intention to depart would create a strong incentive for compromise settlement among virtually all South Vietnamese, except the inner circles of the Thieu régime; (b) the marked Vietnamese capacity and penchant for accommodation; and (c) the fact that a bloodbath exists in Vietnam here and now-in the form of indiscriminate killing and destruction produced by B-52 saturation raids, search-and- destroy operations, "free fire" zones, and atrocities such as those perpetuated at Song My. From such a perspective, the President was not moved to modify his negotiating position at Paris, but to invade Cambodia in what most experienced observers regard as an illusory attempt to force Hanoi to negotiate on his terms.
Thus strapped to a negotiating position that cannot succeed, he is thrown back upon the policy of Vietnamization. This is a policy of a certain virtue, but it is important to understand what it can and cannot accomplish. If linked to a definite deadline for total withdrawal, it can be a vehicle for the relatively rapid extrication of American forces; if not so linked, it can become the deliberate or inadvertent centerpiece of an argument designed to show that the permanent retention of sizable American forces in South Vietnam is an inescapable necessity if we are to avoid "humiliation and defeat." In neither case, however, is Vietnamization likely to lead to an ending of the war through political settlement. For by enlarging and strengthening South Vietnamese armed forces, it buttresses Saigon's natural resistance to compromise negotiation; on the other hand, it cannot change the military balance sufficiently to modify Hanoi's refusal to negotiate on Saigon's terms. Unfortunately, President Nixon is trying to leave the impression that Vietnamization is somehow equivalent to negotiations, in the sense that it leads to "a just peace;" in fact, it moves in the opposite direction-toward making the war interminable.
The Nixon policy thus comes down to a continuation of the strategy of attrition, hopefully at lower and therefore politically acceptable levels of violence, and ending hopefully at some distant date in a sort of triumph by survival for the Thieu régime. It is a policy built on the gossamer dream that the Thieu forces can in fact be enabled to stand alone against North Vietnam within the time-frame defined by American domestic pressures for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. It is a policy which seeks to control events in Southeast Asia, while at the same time reducing U.S. forces and thus U.S. bargaining power and influence in the area. It is a policy which declines to come to grips with the hard choices that must be made if U.S. forces are to be protected as their numbers decline and the war continues.
In particular, the insistence on a very gradual, very conditional departure creates vulnerabilities that are potentially grave. The lingering nature of the process makes it vulnerable to unanticipated intervening events-like the Lon Nol coup in Cambodia-which knock it off balance, create new pressures for compensatory military action, and thus further confound an already complicated set of equations. At the same time, the conditional nature of the process-the uncertainty over whether we intend to leave totally or only partially-precludes a negotiated settlement and works against the development of even a tacit understanding with the other side with regard to lowering the level of violence. It thus increases the jeopardy of U.S. forces. It also keeps alive the hopes of those who, erroneously believing the 38th and I7th parallels present analogous issues, want to "do a Korea;" that is, apply indefinitely whatever American muscle is required to transform South Vietnam into an anti-communist bastion.
It is reasonable to suppose that the perception of some or all of these weaknesses in present U.S. policy, and a desire to escape their consequences, was what led President Nixon to his watershed invasion of Cambodia. That decision, taken virtually without consulting any person or institution that shares his Constitutional responsibility, brought to a climax an already growing crisis of confidence in the national leadership. It showed how seriously the President had underestimated the risks of his policy for the continued cohesion of our own society. It showed that the Indochina issue is more than ever a virulent poison in the national bloodstream, reaching now to all segments of the population, but permeating those citizens under 25 years of age who are called upon to do the actual fighting and who by 1975 will comprise nearly half the population. It made blindingly clear the grave peril of extending our national preoccupation with the Indochina war for an indefinite period.
These are somber indicators of the prospect before us; yet the shocked and impassioned general reaction to the Cambodian adventure may in fact point the way to more hopeful developments. For that reaction seems to show that, while the President and a small, influential segment of the foreign- military bureaucracy remain residually hooked on the cold-war syndrome, there is rapidly widening agreement in the Congress, the press, the intelligentsia, and even in the putative silent majority on these propositions: (1) the United States does not and cannot control events in Southeast Asia, either at the present level of effort or with a much larger commitment, and neither can the Russians or the Chinese; (2) the United States has no vital interest at stake in Indochina; we can accept and adjust to whatever outcome is arrived at by the people who live there; (3) the United States must wholly terminate its military role in Indochina within a short time (by the end of 1971 at the very latest) or else accept grave risks of our own national disintegration; and (4) if our elected leaders will cease their appeals to the emotionalism that unavoidably surrounds the concepts of "national commitment" and "national prestige," and will deal in true proportion with the real choices facing us in Southeast Asia, there is no reason why our rich and powerful country cannot extricate itself with reasonable poise and dignity, without a traumatic loss of self-confidence, and without a lapse into mindless isolation.
The highest test of character is to learn from the past, to admit one's mistakes, and to act on that admission. This remains the course of honor and reason and sanity for United States policy in Indochina. Any other course can only compound the present contradictions and lead us to the kind of trauma that could quite literally dissolve the bonds of our political union.