The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
The uneasy public quiet on Vietnam which the President achieved with his speech last November 3 was shattered by the large-scale U.S. military intervention in eastern Cambodia. Once more U.S. policy in Southeast Asia became the subject of major controversy. In this situation there is some danger that we shall become so caught up in the immediate issues that we neglect more fundamental questions with respect to current American strategy. The new actions are a product of a basic fault in the structure of U.S. policy but do not, by themselves, define that fault.
In his November 3 speech the President offered a strategy based upon the twin approach of negotiations and Vietnamization of the war, accompanied by withdrawals of American forces. He was pessimistic about the outlook for negotiations but told us that Vietnamization would permit the United States to disengage from the war even if negotiations failed. In the period since, the United States has further downgraded negotiations as an essential part of any solution. The only subsequent hint that the government might not consider the Vietnamization strategy sufficient by itself was provided by the President's speech on April 20 announcing future troop withdrawals, in which both the volume and tone of his discussion of negotiations implied a recognition that they were important. He stated explicitly that negotiations at least provide "a better, shorter path to peace." But there was no evidence following that speech of a change in the U.S. position in the Paris negotiations, and the President's action in Cambodia 10 days later clearly gave priority to Vietnamization. This priority was reflected in the renewed emphasis upon the use of military means to end the war and in the justification of the Cambodian intervention on the grounds that it was needed to protect American lives and to "guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization program."
The basic question therefore remains: Has the President been right in de- coupling Vietnamization and American troop withdrawals from negotiations or are the two strategies essential complements to each other?
The search for an answer to this question must begin with an effort to project into the future the probable results of the Vietnamization and withdrawal policy. Three principal factors will determine the outcome of that policy: North Vietnamese and Vietcong reaction to its implementation; the stability and general viability of the government of South Vietnam; and the closely related question of the ability of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces to cope with the problems of the South at various levels of American withdrawal. As we turn to an examination of these factors, we should realize that now, as in the past, there are almost no agreed "facts" with respect to Vietnam and that any estimate of the future is certain to be disputed.
No one in Vietnam or elsewhere has any clear idea as to likely military reactions by the communists as the United States withdraws from Vietnam. However, we do have the warning last December of General Giap, North Vietnam's Defense Minister, that Vietnamization will be a "tragedy" for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and that these forces "which have taken severe beatings will get yet harder ones."
It is very clear that the communists wish to see the United States withdraw as quickly as possible. It seems likely that their reactions will depend upon their estimates of U.S. intentions. If the United States were clearly going to remove all American forces quickly, the communists would probably lie low and let us get out with minimum casualties. However, if, as has become increasingly evident, the United States plans to maintain a substantial residual force in South Vietnam for some time, the temptation to undertake some kind of military action against American or South Vietnamese forces will be quite high. The communists would hope to induce pessimism, political change in the South and a more nearly total withdrawal. In April Hanoi did, in fact, call upon communist forces to kill American soldiers at a rate "far beyond the 100-a-week level, which the United States ruling clique has considered bearable." After this, American battle-deaths began to rise significantly above that level.
Political stability in South Vietnam will also be very difficult to estimate in a changing situation. President Thieu is coming increasingly to resemble the late President Diem in critical respects: he is becoming, in the words of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff Report, "increasingly autocratic, secretive and isolated." Like Diem, he seems much more concerned with assuring the absolute security of his present narrow political base than with broadening it. The deep distrust which permeates Vietnamese political relationships is likely to be accentuated by the strains imposed upon the government as it assumes increased responsibility for the war.
The ability of the Thieu régime to cope with the problems of the South will be even more affected by its administrative and military capabilities. While there is considerable optimism in the U.S. government at present about the progress of the rural pacification program, the Senate committee staff report notes that many American officials in the field consider the gains to be fragile and heavily dependent upon the ability of the army of Vietnam (ARVN) to continue to hold the countryside as the Americans leave. Of six factors that are reported as accounting for improved ARVN performance in the past year, four are based upon U.S. matériel, planning, operational and advisory support.[i] Even though most of these elements of support may be continued during an intermediate period after withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, the American ability to influence Vietnamese military planning and action is likely to decline with the elimination of the most important direct U.S. contribution to combat. Moreover, the complex military operations which the United States has mounted in order to exploit the full capabilities of its sophisticated military equipment may be beyond the capacity of the Vietnamese to manage on their own.
The situation in the one area from which all U.S. ground combat troops have been withdrawn, the Mekong Delta, has generally been viewed with considerable euphoria as evidence that Vietnamization is succeeding. But the quiet in this area does not simply reflect a weakening of the communist position but also a clear communist policy of lying low while they rebuild their military forces and political structure for the continuing future struggle.
The predominant, but not unanimous, opinion of senior U.S. and Vietnamese officers in Vietnam is that the North Vietnamese are no longer capable of defeating the ARVN with a massive attack. The issue, however, may be incorrectly posed. The U.S. military ever since 1954 has tended to believe that massive communist attacks represent the main danger of military catastrophe in South Vietnam. Yet when, in late 1964, the ARVN was on the ropes and about to cave in, its weakness was created more by a combination of political malaise and smaller-scale punishing attacks than by massive military actions. The continuing high rate of desertion from the ARVN is certainly not reassuring as to its ability to sustain high losses without grave effects upon morale and effectiveness.
It is evident from President Thieu's cautious views as to the appropriate timing of U.S. withdrawals, as well as from the continuing flow of news reports on the views of American officers in South Vietnam, that many in Vietnam-aware of the persistent, long-standing weaknesses of the ARVN's military efforts-are rather less sanguine than U.S. policy-makers about the prospects for a reasonably early U.S. pullout.
The U.S.-South Vietnamese military action in Cambodia warrants separate treatment since, potentially, it affects all of the factors just discussed. In the short run it is likely to reduce somewhat the capacity of the communists for military action in the Delta and the Saigon area. Longer-run effects are much less certain.
By placing renewed emphasis upon a military solution to the war and raising new questions in the minds of the communists as to the pace of future U.S. troop withdrawals, the action will reduce the incentives the communists have had to lie low in order to encourage such withdrawals. In any event, past communist behavior suggests that they will seek to make some kind of significant military or politico-military riposte to the Cambodian operations. The idea of "cleaning out" the communist sanctuary in Cambodia may seem attractive, but prior experience with "cleaning out" communist base areas should remind us that this is not a once-for-all operation. Communist forces will return after U.S. and South Vietnamese forces withdraw and the United States is now, in effect, committed to an indefinite continuation of such cleaning-out action. The rationale that argued for the original action will argue for its continuance.
Moreover, if the operation seems initially successful, there may be increased pressure for a similar "cleaning-out" operation in southern Laos (the so-called "Panhandle"). This is a very old idea; proposals for doing it were being made at least as long ago as the beginning of the Kennedy administration. While U.S. and South Vietnamese covert military actions in the Laos Panhandle have reduced the pressures for such an operation, "success" in Cambodia is likely to produce renewed demands by the military for more massive and open intervention. The Laos corridor is, after all, a great deal more important than the Cambodian sanctuary to the war in Vietnam. The political arguments against taking such action will seem weaker now that fuller publicity has been given to our involvement in Laos.
Thus, in undertaking to clear out the Cambodian sanctuaries we have increased our long-term responsibilities. The capability of the South Vietnamese to continue such complex, large-scale military actions by themselves is open to question. Moreover, to transfer such responsibilities to the South Vietnamese will, in the longer run, risk serious political difficulties in view of traditional animosities between the Vietnamese and Cambodians (or Lao). But the more basic long-term dangers relate to the responsibility the United States may now have assumed for the survival of a non-communist government in Cambodia, a question that can best be discussed as part of a broader consideration of the options open to the communists as the United States withdraws from Vietnam.
For purposes of a more specific analysis of the probable outcome of a Vietnamization and withdrawal policy, we can project three stages or levels of U.S. force withdrawals. In making these projections it is assumed that the administration will not significantly alter its present negotiating position. This will permit us to focus, in this initial analysis, upon the possible consequences of a policy which is based wholly upon a Vietnamization strategy.
Withdrawal of most U.S. ground combat forces. The first projected level would involve the removal of all U.S. ground combat troops except for those forces needed to protect base areas containing other U.S. military elements. It would leave about 225,000 military personnel in Vietnam consisting mainly of a full-scale logistic support element, air and artillery elements, and a large-scale military advisory group. Such a withdrawal probably represents the maximum for which specific planning has been undertaken. In late March, a withdrawal down to this level was contemplated by mid-1971, but events since may have set back this target date somewhat.[ii] In this situation it seems highly likely that the United States would also retain more or less its present large nonmilitary establishment in Vietnam. Aid, intelligence, information and other such personnel would be needed for their contribution of advice and support to quasi-military and nonmilitary counterinsurgency operations.
The principal danger which the U.S. government appears to foresee under these circumstances is the possibility of major communist attacks upon U.S. forces during withdrawal, or after its completion. Such communist attacks seem a genuine danger, especially if there is no evidence of definite U.S. plans for the early withdrawal of remaining forces. Communist attacks would be designed to demonstrate the dangers of retaining such a residual force in Vietnam and to shake the confidence of the South Vietnamese. The residual forces would have some capability for self-defense of their immediate base areas, but would be dependent for broader area defense upon South Vietnamese ground forces.
If the communists attacked, they would risk U.S. reëscalation of the war, perhaps in the form of resumed or expanded air attacks upon the North. They would probably not consider it likely that the United States would reintroduce any substantial number of the withdrawn ground forces. While North Vietnam would certainly prefer to avoid a resumption of air attacks upon itself, past experience has demonstrated to Hanoi and to us that such attacks are unlikely to have a significant effect upon the outcome of the war. Other escalatory steps such as the mining of Haiphong Harbor, a ground invasion of North Vietnam or nuclear action would carry such high political and military costs or have such limited military value as to seem implausible as a threat and very unattractive to America as a form of action.[iii] Any such reëscalation of the war would certainly produce a very substantial political reaction in the United States and would recreate the difficult problem of how to deëscalate.
But the communists would have other options. One alternative would be to leave U.S. forces alone but to undertake greatly expanded attacks upon the armed forces and civilian personnel of the government of South Vietnam designed to shake its confidence in its ability to go it alone. American withdrawals to date have apparently not yet seriously disturbed the confidence of the South Vietnamese in their capacity to cope, because those withdrawals have not yet reached the critical point, and perhaps because the government of South Vietnam remains to be convinced that we shall, in fact, withdraw all combat forces in the foreseeable future.
To the communists, major attacks upon South Vietnamese elements could be more attractive than attacks upon U.S. forces. Such attacks would be more likely to raise serious questions about the validity of U.S. assumptions underlying its Vietnamization policy; would be somewhat less likely to provoke U.S. reëscalation; and, most important, could very favorably affect the political situation in the South, which must, in all circumstances, be the central communist objective.
A third option, and one which the communists could exercise under all of the scenarios discussed here, is a major military move in Laos. Such a move could have two immediate objectives-to remind the United States of the dangers of continuing to remain on the ground in mainland Southeast Asia and to point to the fact that the Laos problem cannot be settled by Vietnamization of the war in South Vietnam, but must be settled as part of a larger negotiation. Whether moves in Laos earlier this year had some such motivation or were part of the continuing jockeying for military and political position in that country is difficult to say.
Depending upon how far the communists carried their military action, such a move could present the United States with an excruciating dilemma. Continued non-communist control of that part of Laos that borders the Mekong River is viewed as crucial by the Thais and they would certainly place very heavy pressures on the United States to respond to communist action which threatened their Mekong frontier. But open, direct U.S. military involvement in Laos is a very unattractive proposition as President Kennedy perceived in 1961 when he opted instead for a negotiated settlement. It is also obvious that the Laos nerve of the Congressional opposition is exceedingly sensitive.
While we have no explicit commitment to the defense of Laos, we do have rather strong explicit and implicit commitments to the defense of Thailand. Under the Rusk-Thanat agreement, which was a by-product of the 1961-62 Laos crisis, the United States undertook to fulfill what it considered to be its obligations under the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in the event of a threat to Thailand, whether other SEATO members agreed to act or not. Moreover, by participating directly and indirectly in the combat in South Vietnam, the Thais have committed themselves to "our side" in a manner that is quite unprecedented in past Thai foreign policy. To the Thai, the principle of reciprocity in social and political relationships is of key importance. They are very likely to view their commitment to us as entailing a reciprocal obligation on our side in the event that they are seriously threatened through Laos.
Even though the Thais have begun to hedge their foreign-policy bets somewhat and may be looking toward a future accommodation with North Vietnam and communist China, we cannot assume that they will not ask for major U.S. support in the event of a serious threat to their Laos frontier. Moreover, the question of Thailand aside, it would be very difficult for the United States to sit still during a military conquest of Laos, both because of the broader international political consequences and because of the potential effects upon Vietnam.
Finally, recent developments have provided the communists with new opportunities for action in Cambodia. They are able to back a leader, Sihanouk, who still possesses considerable popularity and an aura of legitimacy among Cambodians. Utilizing this political base and a combination of Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces with existing Cambodian communist and tribal resistance movements, the communists could make life quite difficult for a weak Lon Nol government. While the establishment of a major full-fledged guerrilla movement will take some time, the communists are likely to be capable of major military forays or the establishment of liberated zones without meeting much effective resistance from the Phnom Penh régime unless that régime receives direct U.S. or South Vietnamese military support.
The United States has now implicitly, but clearly, accepted responsibility for the security of a non-communist government in Cambodia. In his April 30 speech, the President argued that the communists posed a threat to the independence of Cambodia and he represented the military action against the Cambodian sanctuaries as response to the Cambodian government's plea for outside aid. The United States, "with the chips down," had come to the support of a small nation under attack. While the President has since denied that we have undertaken a new commitment, the administration has apparently given its blessing to a developing de facto alliance between Thieu and Lon Nol. Thus, the commitment has not been eliminated, but only made somewhat indirect.
In any of these situations, the United States would face some very difficult and unattractive policy choices. So long as there continues to be a substantial U.S. presence in South Vietnam, America is inextricably caught up in the defense of South Vietnam. Moreover, our actions have increasingly committed us to the continued survival of the Thieu government. Yet, as our experience since 1965 demonstrates, we cannot even begin to redeem our commitments without employing U.S. ground combat forces. Thus, in a situation where the communists attack U.S. or South Vietnamese forces and the South Vietnamese demonstrate an inability to cope with the attacks, the United States will very likely face the options of letting the attacks succeed or of reintroducing ground forces. The potential problems presented by Laos and Cambodia illustrate the now obvious fact that we are caught up in an Indochinese struggle and that a solution confined to Vietnam is no complete solution.
Withdrawal of logistic support forces. At the second projected level, with both ground combat and logistic support forces withdrawn, the U.S. military presence would be reduced to an advisory effort and, perhaps, continued air and artillery support. An advisory group of 25,000 to 50,000 has been mentioned in the press. If nonmilitary as well as military personnel are included, 50,000 would seem a fairly conservative estimate in view of the fact that 23,000 civil and military advisers remain in the Mekong Delta after withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from that corps area. (There are four corps areas in South Vietnam.)
The immediate military arguments for retaining U.S. air and artillery support under these circumstances are likely to seem quite compelling. Such support would strengthen South Vietnamese capabilities, help protect American advisers and give those advisers more leverage in their attempts to influence Vietnamese military and nonmilitary actions. But arguments based upon longer-term political, military and ethical considerations would be much more negative. To mention the ethical argument only at this point- we draw back in horror from the Mylai massacre, yet, so long as we continue to bomb South Vietnam, we unavoidably perpetrate many such indiscriminate killings, differing from those at Mylai only in their more impersonal character and in the presumed intent of those involved in the killing.
If the United States reduced its involvement to an advisory effort, would we be well out of the woods in Vietnam? The answer, quite clearly, is no. We would simply have begun to get out of Vietnam the way we came in and, along the way, would very probably confront the old dilemmas that caused us to deepen our involvement so drastically in 1965.
If the communists had permitted us to withdraw U.S. forces to this level without reacting in one of the ways earlier discussed, their failure to react would perhaps reflect an assumption that the faster the United States withdrew, the less effective the U.S. program of Vietnamization and the better the prospects for early communist success. They would have taken us at our word that U.S. withdrawals would be related, in part, to the level of communist activity. Only if withdrawals were occurring at a quite steady and rapid pace would such a strategy be likely to seem attractive to the communists.
Once we were down to a residual advisory force (with, perhaps, air and artillery support) and it appeared that we were likely to maintain that force in South Vietnam for the indefinite future, the incentive situation would change. The communists would then very likely see it in their interests to undertake a program of political and military pressures directed against South Vietnamese forces and officials designed to produce major political changes in the South and to make the United States confront the untenability of its policy. They would seek, in this effort, to exploit war weariness and the adverse morale effects of the withdrawals in the South. They would probably consider it quite unlikely that the United States would respond by re-introduction of ground forces.
Would the government of South Vietnam be able to cope with renewed pressures? Clearly, estimating becomes extremely hazardous because this point is quite far down the road and much could happen on both the communist and non-communist sides between now and then. If the pessimists with respect to prospects for successful Vietnamization are correct, the South Vietnamese government could be in serious trouble. Moreover, many observers in South Vietnam who are optimistic about the ability of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves militarily are skeptical of the Thieu government's ability to survive in a political struggle with the National Liberation Front. Furthermore, and rather paradoxically, if Vietnamization should succeed in providing relative military security, that very security might encourage the reëmergence of the atomistic, dog-eat-dog politics so characteristic of Vietnam, which would provide increased political opportunities for the communists.
Confronted by these uncertainties, one proposition of which we can be quite certain is that the communists would not stop trying to cause serious trouble in the South. Another proposition of an almost equal degree of certainty is that the South Vietnamese government and its forces would not be free of serious vulnerabilities. From these propositions we can draw the rather obvious conclusion that there would be some clear risks that the communists would produce significant political and military deterioration in the South.
If such deterioration should occur, the presence of U.S. advisory elements could present the United States with serious dilemmas. The possibility that our large advisory group might be caught up in a politically or militarily collapsing situation would be likely to seem as horrendous a contingency to policymakers in, say, 1974 as it evidently seemed to President Johnson and his advisers in 1965. If we were faced by political deterioration, the strong temptation would be to shore up the government of the day in the South or to back whatever leadership promised to continue the struggle against the communists. Even a gradual, relatively peaceful, takeover by the communists would be embarrassing, to say the least, if it occurred with 25,000 or more U.S. advisers and billions of dollars of U.S. military equipment still in Vietnam.
Thus we return to the rock-bottom fact that so long as the United States is committed physically and politically to any degree in South Vietnam, there is always a risk that we shall pay, and pay dearly, for that commitment. As in the past, our first inclination in a weakening situation will be to throw more economic and military matériel into the breach. But if that fails, we would confront the question of military reinvolvement. If we retained U.S. air and artillery forces in the South, we would have more to work with from a military point of view, but it would, by the same token, be easier for us to slip into a deeper military involvement.
Withdrawal of all special U.S. advisory elements and all combat forces. For purposes of analysis, it is assumed that, at this level, the United States would withdraw all special civil and military advisory missions and, if they had been retained earlier, all air and artillery units. Such a withdrawal would be based upon the assumption that the South Vietnamese no longer needed such support. In effect, we would consider that we had "won" the war, temporarily at least. Our relationship to South Vietnam would revert to the situation that existed prior to 1961 before the Kennedy administration build-up of advisory and air units. While no one seems to be thinking of this as a serious possibility for the foreseeable future, it is a case worth examining because it presumably represents the final goal of a policy based wholly upon Vietnamization of the war.
We must assume that in such a situation we would continue to be involved in a substantial aid program to South Vietnam. Unless the communists had faded almost completely away-a most unlikely contingency-the South Vietnamese would need to maintain a substantial military establishment for some time. The large quantities of military supplies and equipment which we have supplied in the past, and are presently augmenting under the Vietnamization program, would need to be maintained and replaced. Even in the very unlikely event that there was little sense of immediate threat, the United States would be likely to pour substantial amounts of matériel into Vietnam for the indefinite future, if for no other reason than as insurance to reduce the risk of future combat reinvolvement.
A large South Vietnamese military establishment would place demands on the South Vietnamese economy which would force the continuance of substantial U.S. economic aid. Reconstruction needs would require additional assistance. These military and economic aid programs would, in turn, mean a continued large aid establishment in South Vietnam. Hundreds-very likely thousands-of U.S. military and civilian personnel would remain in the South.
In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the United States would very probably confront the question of security guarantees for South Vietnam. The government of South Vietnam would be likely to press strongly for some kind of bilateral or multilateral guarantee before the last American combat elements departed. The Geneva Accords machinery, established in 1954, has broken down quite completely and could hardly be glued back together again without a new international agreement. While current U.S. public opinion, Congressional attitudes and stated administration policy would all suggest that we would be unlikely to commit ourselves in any way that might seriously risk future combat reinvolvement, what would an administration which is formally committed to the continued independence of South Vietnam do in such a situation? It would be unlikely to feel that it could cast South Vietnam adrift after having "won" the war; it would fear that such action would simply encourage the communists to resume the struggle after our departure.
To assume that we shall arrive at this point within the context of a policy based upon seriously intended Vietnamization is to assume that the military capacity and the political threat of the communists have been temporarily, at least, severely blunted. It is not to assume, however, that the communists have no significant military or political capabilities and it is decidedly not to assume that they have given up the struggle. Hanoi has an interest in South Vietnam that is, ultimately, deeper than our own. We may leave, but the communists will not quit. The communists would, following a U.S. departure of this scale, very likely initiate a gradually mounting program of pressures. How severe these pressures would be would depend in part upon the extent to which our withdrawal was made possible by our genuine success versus the extent to which it was made possible by a deliberate communist policy of lying low in order to encourage the final departure of U.S. combat and advisory units and to preserve communist assets for the future struggle.
The ability of the United States to stay out of that future struggle would be inhibited by our continuing substantial presence in South Vietnam and by our probable commitments to its continued survival as an independent entity.
The preceding discussion suggests some of the problems ahead and directs our attention to action that might minimize the risks involved in our policies. That discussion and what follows are based upon the assumption that, as indicated by the President's statement last November, the United States sees Vietnamization as a viable substitute for negotiations leading to a political settlement in the South. One must, however, bear in mind the possibility that the administration has not, for tactical reasons, revealed its full strategy and that its planning has, in fact, linked the strategies of Vietnamization and negotiated settlement along lines discussed below. Alternatively, the President may have hoped that a Vietnamization and withdrawal policy would induce the communists to lie low and thus permit us to get out of Vietnam with minimum casualties even without a negotiated settlement. The administration may have been willing to accept a fairly high probability of a communist takeover thereafter. Both of these speculations run counter to past public explanations of policy, and in the wake of the Cambodian action and the justifications that have been offered for it, both now seem quite unlikely interpretations of administration intentions.
Increasingly it has become evident that, as Chalmers Roberts noted some months ago in The Washington Post, President Nixon, like President Johnson before him, wants to "win" the war in Vietnam in the sense that he wants to leave behind a non-communist government in Saigon able to withstand any communist threat. This objective has been reflected in our continued support of the Thieu government in its opposition to any agreement in Paris which would clearly provide for substantial participation by the communists in political power in South Vietnam. Seen in this perspective, the Vietnamization strategy is clearly a strategy for winning the war. A serious U.S. negotiating position would involve acceptance of the fact that, while we have not lost the war in a military sense, neither are we capable of winning it. Being incapable of winning it and confronted by a foe who is certain to outlast us because of the higher relative value he places on success in the effort, we have in effect, even though not in fact, lost the war.
One of our recurrent hopes, which was revived in connection with the Cambodian operation, is that a show of great determination will cause the communists to see negotiations our way. But neither border operations nor resumed bombing of the North is any more likely to achieve this objective than past efforts to bomb North Vietnam into reasonableness.
Four specific defects of a policy based wholly upon Vietnamization have been suggested:
1. Vietnamization makes no provision for a political accommodation between the communist and non-communist forces in South Vietnam. It therefore leaves the central issue of the Viet Nam struggle unresolved. With this issue unresolved we can anticipate continued political instability and continued political and military strife in the South.
2. Vietnamization by itself provides no assured basis for the total withdrawal of U.S. military personnel, including military advisers, within a reasonable time period. If the struggle continues, therefore, it is quite likely that we shall remain involved in it, with all the risks attendant thereto as sketched above.
3. Without new international machinery, obtained through negotiations, the United States will lack any body or arrangement to which it can shift the burden of responsibility for Vietnam. (I am not sanguine that, under the best of circumstances, we shall obtain very strong machinery. But some kind of machinery, weak though it may be, is essential if we are to lay our burden down in a reasonable period of time.)
4. Vietnamization fails to deal with the problems of Laos and Cambodia. Laos is a serious vulnerability for America; a convenient pressure point for the communists. For both it is a secondary theater of the Vietnam war. So long as the United States maintains a significant presence in South Vietnam-or even if it is largely out of South Vietnam, but remains committed to its defense-it can hardly agree to a settlement in Laos which would give North Vietnam free access to the corridor through eastern Laos into South Vietnam. To accept a Laos settlement which precluded the harassment of communist movement through the Laos corridor would be to leave South Vietnam with a serious vulnerability which would certainly be exploited by the communists in the absence of a political settlement in South Vietnam. On the other hand, without a political accommodation in the South, the communists are most unlikely to agree to a Laos settlement which effectively inhibits their use of the Laos corridor. Thus, a settlement of the central issue of the Vietnam war is necessary to a meaningful agreement with respect to Laos.
In Cambodia we have assumed a double responsibility: first, for preventing the border areas from being used by the communists to threaten U.S. and South Vietnamese forces; and second, for maintaining a non-communist government in Phnom Penh. We are unlikely to be able to divest ourselves of either responsibility so long as the political struggle continues in South Vietnam.
Because each of these defects could give the United States most serious trouble and because none of them could be resolved without serious negotiations, it is clear that Vietnamization without such negotiations is most unlikely to succeed in extricating the United States from Vietnam within a reasonable time.
Given limitations of space, it is hardly possible to do more than sketch out below the manner in which the policy of Vietnamization might be re- coupled to a negotiating strategy. Vietnamization represents a useful and necessary part of any plan for extricating ourselves from Vietnam. It involves a return to the principle upon which President Kennedy insisted and which we abandoned with the escalation of 1965-the principle that this is a Vietnamese war which ultimately can only be won, if it can be won at all, by the Vietnamese themselves. It is useful to return to this principle not only because it is correct but also because it provides the United States with a reasonable and understandable policy posture, both in the United States and in Asia. Reliance upon this principle will help reduce the political costs of U.S. withdrawal. The main danger in the Vietnamization policy is that it will be taken too seriously in the sense that we come to believe that it offers a real prospect for a "successful" outcome of the war.
A genuine effort to reach a truly viable settlement must begin with the recognition that the political role of the communists in the South is the heart of the matter. However, as Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, recognized in an article published in Foreign Affairs in January 1969, any agreement on this issue must be achieved among the parties in South Vietnam itself. This places the United States in the difficult position of being dependent upon the government of South Vietnam for achievement of a settlement through negotiations, just as it is dependent upon that government in any effort to achieve success in the South through Vietnamization. If the United States is willing to abandon the concept of Vietnamization as a kind of "win" strategy and view it instead as an essential part of a political settlement strategy involving negotiations, it can be a useful tool in creating the conditions for a political accommodation in the South.
Under these circumstances, the policy of Vietnamization and U.S. force withdrawals would be utilized to make clear to the political élite of South Vietnam that it must decide, in a relatively limited period of time, what kind of political arrangements in the South are supportable on a long-term basis without continuing substantial U.S. assistance. In order to force such a decision, the United States would need to set a quite early deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, including logistic support, advisory and air and artillery elements.
It could be argued that such a deadline should be given to the South Vietnamese privately in order to maintain the theoretical bargaining leverage provided by communist uncertainty as to how long the United States will stay in Vietnam. But as a practical matter any deadline given to the South Vietnamese will soon be known by the North. Moreover, a public declaration of intent has the advantage of making the decision more irreversible and thus forcing the South Vietnamese élite to confront its situation more quickly and frankly. It also has the virtue of reducing the likelihood of dilemma-creating attacks by the communists on U.S. or South Vietnamese forces.
A public American commitment to total withdrawal by a specified deadline, rather than reducing communist incentives to negotiating an agreement, could under proper circumstances actually enhance them. It is already evident from communist behavior that they feel little, if any, incentive to negotiate under present circumstances in which the United States refuses to confront the central political issue in the South and in which it seems bent upon withdrawing at least its ground combat forces at no price to the communists. A commitment to withdrawal which is part of a strategy clearly directed toward achievement of an accommodation between communists and non- communists in South Vietnam would encourage, and could necessitate, a serious negotiating effort by the communists.
Even though the communists may believe that the political odds clearly favor them, they too confront uncertainties about the future which could be reduced, though not eliminated, by a negotiated settlement. The most obvious uncertainties are those relating to the effects of the Vietnamization program upon the military capacity of South Vietnam, especially if the United States continued "normal" military and economic aid programs after its force withdrawals.
Although the United States cannot itself negotiate political arrangements in the South, it can utilize an active secret diplomacy for exploration of the issues involved and, in this manner, could put additional pressure on Saigon. It is likely that the Thieu government's initial response will be to stiffen its already tough negotiating stance. A policy of continued active, unqualified support for Thieu is inconsistent with a successful American negotiating strategy. We need to draw back from our embrace of Thieu. He is providing us ample excuse for doing so in his increasingly repressive political actions. As we did in 1963 in the case of Diem, we need to make evident to the Vietnamese élite, including the military, that we are not committed irrevocably to the present government.
If, as rumored, Ambassador Bunker will soon leave Saigon, we shall be provided with an opportunity like that which occurred in 1963 with the shift from Ambassador Nolting to Ambassador Lodge to disengage from the existing régime. Our objective should not be the overthrow of the Thieu government, but rather the creation of a set of political pressures which would make political accommodation with the communists more likely. These pressures might lead to the replacement of Thieu, but Thieu might, if he comes to accept the necessities of the situation, be the leader of the effort to reach an accommodation.
If we can resolve the central political issue of the role of the communists in South Vietnam, it should then be possible to negotiate a new international framework-or to revive the Geneva framework-so that we can rid ourselves of our unilateral responsibility for the future of South Vietnam. It is hardly realistic to deal with the problem of Laos in a sentence, but the most obvious solution would be to negotiate a de jure partition along the lines of the present de facto partition. Such an arrangement would offer the Thais protection of their Mekong frontier while permitting the communists to continue to hold the areas that they have so long occupied and from which we are, in any event, incapable of dislodging them. However, with a settlement in South Vietnam, a less linear solution to the Laos problem may be more likely and more feasible. The Cambodian situation is too fluid for prescription, but an agreement to put back in power a Sihanouk, who at the moment is communist-leaning, might provide a solution that we could swallow and that would be acceptable to the communists.
The strategy proposed here rejects a simple U.S. pullout, such as is espoused by many critics of the war. Such a pullout would be likely to be seen by some Asians who are still important to us as a simple abandonment by the United States of its assumed responsibilities and would be likely to carry international political costs that it would be better, if possible, to avoid. On the other hand, the strategy is based upon the assumption that we cannot win the war through Vietnamization or any other means. It would require us to accept what would be, at best, a communist-leaning government in the South and a strong likelihood of the future reunification of all of Vietnam under communist auspices. Such a unified Vietnam is quite likely, however, to be able to maintain its independence from communist China.
It is obvious that it is precisely because this is the likely outcome of any serious negotiation that both President Johnson and President Nixon have resisted taking the actions necessary to produce an agreement. While such an outcome is regrettable in terms of the objectives we have sought in the postwar era, it is also inescapable. It is even more regrettable that we did not recognize this outcome for the necessity it was in 1965 and that we have had to pay such a tremendous price in lives lost and domestic problems unsolved in order to learn some lessons about revolutionary warfare in Vietnam and about the limitations of our power. To continue to refuse to recognize this necessity is to perpetuate the error and the costs.
[i] As noted in the Staff Report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee already mentioned ("Vietnam: December 1969," Washington, United States Government Printing Office 1970). The other two factors are improved ARVN leadership and increased South Vietnamese confidence. This latter factor is certainly also related in some degree to U.S. support.
[ii] The New York Times, March 25, 1970, p. 1. To reach this level, a withdrawal of 225,000 men would have been required by mid-year, as compared with the withdrawal of 150,000 by the spring of 1971 announced on April 20. More recently, however, Secretary Laird has said that U.S. involvement in ground combat will end by July 1971.
[iii] In the view of many experts an invasion of North Vietnam is the one action that would very probably trigger direct communist Chinese involvement in the war. While it seems most unlikely that the United States will ever employ nuclear weapons except in a situation involving an attack upon the United States, there is a marginal possibility that the threat of nuclear action might be seen as useful in inducing a political settlement. It is possible that the President's thinking on this subject may be influenced by the view that it was a veiled threat of nuclear attack on North Korea by Eisenhower that produced the Korean settlement in 1953. This is, at best, a debatable proposition and the analogy with Vietnam is open to most serious question.