The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
The war in Vietnam has lasted longer than any armed conflict outside our borders in which we have been engaged in the nearly two centuries of our independent existence, and disengagement and complete withdrawal are still a question mark. The conflict has engendered divided opinions, manifested in bitter and potentially dangerous confrontations among our people, and we still are uncertain what it was we sought and why, where we should now proceed, and what courses of action would best serve our national interests.
Out of the ever-changing verbal explanations of purpose, boasts of successes attained, and justification for our actions which for more than a decade now have emanated from authoritative governmental sources, we are currently assured that we are "winding down the war," that our involvement is nearing its end, that there is a plan to accomplish this, and that that plan will be carried out. We are even assured that no further explanation of the word "end" is needed.
Concurrently come other quite different statements from equally authoritative sources that American forces will remain in South Vietnam until all U.S. prisoners are released, and until the present government of South Vietnam has "at least a reasonable chance to survive" on its own.
It is difficult to see how a war can be ended unless all participants agree to terminate it. And in the light of our announced intention that residual forces, including but not limited to American airpower, will remain until such agreement is reached and captives are released, it is still more difficult to reconcile these statements with the promise that the war is nearing its end.
For my part I must conclude that so long as U.S. armed forces remain on the mainland of South Vietnam, that so long as we retain a residual force there, if only to provide logistical support for the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), our men will be mortared, shelled or otherwise attacked; and that so long as they are attacked they will counterattack with fire and movement, and the war will drag on, not end.
If this be true-and I perceive nothing in the record of North Vietnam and Vietcong announced intentions and proven determination to refute it-then we should, I think, review again the whole record of our involvement.
With no thought of faultfinding or of seeking scapegoats, and uninfluenced by partisan political motives or special interests, we should seek answers to such questions as : What were the basic purposes behind our major policy decisions? What did we seek to accomplish? Were these purposes and objectives clearly in our vital interests? What have we actually accomplished to date? What can we expect to accomplish? What courses of action will best serve our interests?
In the course of this reëxamination we may perhaps conclude that the decisions were justified, that our vital interests were at stake and were best served under the debatable thesis of the "domino theory," which continues to be of doubtful worth and which many persons have never accepted as a validating justification for our policy decisions. Some day history may throw light on these issues, but it is unlikely that it will ever be able to demonstrate conclusively that our decisions were either right or wrong.
So it serves no useful purpose to label all those decisions as mistakes, however loud the voices of those who do so. Right or wrong, the decisions were made in good faith in accordance with our constitutional procedures by civilian authority. They were long supported by a clear majority of our people, and the responsibility for them is national. Now the cold inescapable fact is that the decisions having been made, we must live with the results and choose such courses of action as will best serve our interests in the years ahead.
Emerson, once criticized for inconsistency, is said to have asked: "Must I always drag the dead body of consistency after me?" Must we? Can we not manfully bury this dead body of Vietnam and decide now that we will not permit it to continue any longer to poison the air, as it is doing; to delay rectification of acknowledged domestic conditions which cry for action, as it is doing; and to adjust to major changes in the world situation, when much graver potential dangers elsewhere loom ominously on the horizons of the free world?
To review the steps leading to our involvement, let us start at the beginning, sometime prior to V-E Day and with World War II still in progress.
President Roosevelt had made known his position with respect to the future of Indochina: France must not be permitted to reëstablish her former colonial power there. In his view China would eventually extend some degree of control over the area, as it had done for prolonged periods in the past.
Then, following Roosevelt's death, policy-makers in Washington either lost sight of that decision, or regarded it as no longer valid. France's support was deemed necessary in other regions of major concern to us, and gradually, beginning with financial assistance, we moved to a role of supporting French efforts to restore their prior position in the Indochina peninsula. It is here necessary only to adumbrate the successive steps taken along the torturous path we chose. All are matters of historical record, amply publicized.
These successive steps were, in general : the forging of a network of mutual security treaties, including the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), aimed primarily at containing communism, including communist Chinese territorial expansion; President Eisenhower's refusal to yield to the powerful urging of others to intervene with U.S. armed force, accompanied by his offer to President Diem after the Geneva Conference of 1954 "to assist the Government of Vietnam in developing and maintaining a strong, viable state;" Eisenhower's refusal to agree to general elections in Vietnam in 1956 as promised by the signatories to the Geneva Convention; our gradual takeover from the French of the military assistance program in training South Vietnamese forces until the number of our military advisers in President Kennedy's Administration exceeded 16,000; the 1964 incident of the two U.S. destroyers Turner Joy and Maddox, followed by the Congressional blank check, drawn in favor of the Executive, to take whatever measures it saw fit; and, finally, the introduction of U.S. combat ground forces and their subsequent reinforcement, until by 1968-69 their total exceeded half a million.
Parenthetically, it should be here noted by those who fault our military leaders for getting us into Vietnam and for their inability either to achieve a military solution or to extricate us, that each and every one of these policy decisions was made, not by the military, but by duly elected or lawfully appointed civilian authorities. In the single case ten years earlier where we might have become embroiled with airpower (including the use of the A-bomb to raise the seige of Dien Bien Phu) and ground combat units, had the personal urging of the influential views of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at that time been approved, it was civilian authority in the person of President Eisenhower which, to his everlasting credit, aborted that proposed intervention.
Those were the major policy decisions. Their authors and the dates when they were made are well known and need no repetition ; but we do need, I think, to review the reasoning announced at or shortly after each decision was taken.
Numerous definitions of our objectives issuing from authoritative sources and from individuals both in and out of government included: to contain communism; to halt aggression; to prove to communist leaders that aggression cannot be made to pay; to support "the right of a people to choose their own government;" to help the South Vietnamese realize their desire "to live in the way they prefer;" to assist a helpless people "to advance toward economic prosperity and social advancement." I used these phrases as long ago as 1966 in an article in Look.
When these wore thin, as they did, we turned to broader generalities: our vital interests were at stake-just what interests and how was not spelled out. We were a Pacific power, which no one in his right senses would deny. We were a world power, an obvious truth even to children. And our national security was threatened, which strained the credulity of the most naïve believer.
These stated objectives were theoretically noble, realistically disingenuous and pragmatically fallacious. Had we really believed in the principles which this rhetoric proclaimed, would we not have taken up arms for the Hungarian people in 1956? And for the Czechoslovaks in 1968? And if our national security was indeed threatened and a vital interest was at stake, would not our people have wholeheartedly supported this war as they did when the designs of Imperial Germany became clear in 1917, and as they did even more resoundingly when Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists made their bid for world conquest?
Now, a decade later, these objectives have been condensed. Our government states that we have but two objectives : to secure the release of our prisoners in hostile hands, and to provide the government of South Vietnam "a reasonable chance to survive" without our continued armed support.
Still we cling, apparently, to the concept that our will can be imposed on our opponents by force, or the threat of the use of force. But we have concluded, it would seem, that Western, and particularly American inborn impatience is no match for Oriental patience ; we do not intend "to stay the course," as we so often bragged we would ; we are not going "to bring home the coon-skin and nail it on the wall;" and we will not continue combat operations in Indochina "however long that may take."
When President Johnson faced up to his crisis of conscience in March 1968, he decided to assemble a group of men, only one of whom was then active in government and whose collective experience covered the whole spectrum of our foreign entanglements of recent years. With the Secretary of State presiding, the group was extensively briefed on the existing situation, based on the best available evaluated intelligence on enemy capabilities and intentions and on the forecasts of our intended operations and their anticipated results. Each individual was invited to express his views. Each did so with utmost frankness.
The substance of most of those views is a matter of record, though I think my own, presented first in writing and then read aloud before the entire group, have not been published. At the final session, with the President present, one of the group, acting as rapporteur, briefed the President orally on the substance of the view of each of the others.
I now present my views, precisely as then stated, not to claim any slightest personal credit or to shrink from criticism. Perhaps, as the history of this unfortunate involvement is finally unfolded, these views will prove to have been faulty, as have the views of so many others. But whether faulty or not, the present course we have followed for the past two years coincides very closely with those views. For that reason the statement of them here may make some little incremental contribution to a better understanding of the present situation as it is slowly evolving.
The following was the memorandum prepared in my hotel room following the briefings we received on the evening of March 25, 1968. I read it aloud toward the conclusion of the rather lengthy meeting of the entire group the forenoon of the following day, March 26 :
RANDOM THOUGHTS ON VIETNAM
March 26, 1968
1) The prime objective we seek, is, I assume, the development of a viable, friendly government in South Vietnam capable of maintaining its political independence on its own.
2) The sine qua non for that is a defense establishment capable of defending that political independence.
3 ) The essentials for creating such a defense establishment are leadership, weapons, and training, and in that order of importance, for without leadership from the top down the other two factors will be nullified.
4) It seems to be the view of our political and military leaders on the ground in Vietnam, and to some extent here in Washington, that Vietnamese leadership can be developed. If so, the supply of weapons and attainment of adequate training levels within a reasonably short time would present no insuperable problems for us.
5) Given the leadership and determination at top South Vietnamese Government levels, then within a maximum of two years we could supply the weapons and insure the training.
6) The foregoing might require some modest augmentation of U.S. ground forces to man the training establishment which we would have to organize and supervise.
7) Beyond that, I would be opposed to further U.S. troop increases.
8) Perhaps the serving of notice on the South Vietnamese Government that we will give it a maximum of two years to accomplish this, at the end of which time we begin a phasedown of our forces, would serve as an adequate stimulus.
M. B. Ridgway
I wish now to comment on the foregoing, in the light of subsequent developments.
First, until some time subsequent to President Johnson's historic announcement of March 31, 1968-and just when the change occurred I do not know-U.S. forces continued to bear an overwhelming share of the burden of combat, and no major effort was undertaken to equip and train ARVN units for eventual takeover of responsibility.
In Korea such an effort was undertaken at the earliest date that the level of combat permitted us to withdraw Korean Army (ROK) divisions from the forward zone and put them through a rigorous training cycle under expert U.S. instructors, from the squad to the division level. The training program then set up under General Van Fleet's direct supervision was of the same high caliber as we had long employed with our own troops at home, and the benefits were quickly and strikingly demonstrated in battle. From then on the ROK Army steadily improved and today it is of high professional competence-an army of which its people should be and are proud, as we who trained it are.
A further reason for the success in Korea, when I had both the U.S. Eighth Army and the ROK Army under my command authority, was that I was fortunate in having a strong-willed, courageous and determined foe of communism in the President, Syngman Rhee. Working always with our splendid, forceful and courageous Ambassador, John Muccio, I obtained Rhee's full support in every measure affecting his army leaders and the civilian populace which I found it necessary to request during those dark days of December 1950 and the succeeding three months when the changeover from a dispirited shaken force to a superb, confident, offensive-minded, well-trained combined force of Eighth Army and ROK Army was being made.
Second, the leadership I had in mind when I wrote the above memorandum had to begin with the South Vietnamese President. Only if there was a sufficiently strong and determined man in that office, could there be any hope, in my view, of indoctrinating his top army and air force commanders and holding their support behind the government, and of securing the political support of the various sects and groupings whose activities and ambitions had long militated against strong centralized authority.
Third, what then-March 1968-constituted "a reasonably short time" (the phrase used in paragraph 4 above) within which the ARVN could attain adequate training levels, could be no more than an estimate. In fact, in amplifying my comments before the group at that time, I remarked that there was nothing precise or sacrosanct about the "two years" which I had suggested as probably being sufficient. If three or four years proved necessary, I said, that could be accepted, provided progress appeared adequate and determination remained unshaken, as judged primarily by our thoroughly competent professional military leaders on the ground.
Fourth and finally, whether the wise course at that time was to inform the government of South Vietnam of our plan, if such a plan were adopted, and if adopted to convey this information to the South Vietnam government publicly, or to the Head of State privately, were decisions for our civilian authorities, not for our military leaders.
Now, in May 1971, only three years later, we appear to be far along toward the attainment of just such an objective as that plan contemplated, with one disquieting exception. The disquieting factor to me is the openly expressed threat of the use of force in an attempt to compel release of captive U.S. personnel. The recovery of these men demands and deserves, of course, unceasing effort on the part of our government. We owe them and their families and kin no less, and no less can serve the nation's honor. But whether stepped-up bombing of North Vietnam targets, including population centers, will accomplish that result is open to serious question.
There is further uncertainty in our present course which gravely concerns many of our people. How can we reconcile retention of a "residual force," of which the Secretary of Defense speaks, with "complete withdrawal" to which the President is publicly committed? And does "complete withdrawal" mean exactly that-the removal of all ground, naval and air forces? There are solid reasons, I believe, for not announcing a date by which withdrawal will be complete, if indeed a date has been fixed. There is an immense amount of equipment and supplies in South Vietnam, and we should draw down as much as we can to restore our inventories at home with consequent substantial dollar savings. There is also the possibility that secret diplomatic moves may now as I write, early in May, be in an advanced stage. If so, any publicity at this time might wreck any hopes there may be of a successful outcome.
The prisoner question is a torturing one, which should be examined from every angle, as I have no doubt is being done constantly. It is at least conceivable that an offer to Hanoi, made under the tightest possible cloak of secrecy, that we would agree to the complete withdrawal from the mainland of all U.S. armed forces personnel by a stated date, in return for the release unharmed of every captive American now held, would be accepted. This need not cause any change in the current level and character of our operations while awaiting a response. Even if accepted, it could well be that communist duplicity would seek to blackmail us into other concessions by withholding some or all captives until their demands were met; but we know enough of communist negotiating practices and should be able to enlist sufficient support from other governments to circumvent such tactics.
If this obstacle can be surmounted, then the complete withdrawal promised, the removal of every U.S. uniform from the mainland of Vietnam, except Embassy guards, will indeed be in sight, and our government will have extricated us on acceptable terms, as it is certainly aiming to do.
Let me conclude by trying to point out some lessons which to me stand out in the series of faulty judgments by our federal authorities for which they, as well as we who put them in office, are responsible.
In the field of foreign relations, each and every one of our major political objectives should be seen to lie clearly within the zone of our vital national interests.
In each case the military objectives should be in conformity with and subordinate to the political objective.
Vietnam was, in my opinion, a case which violated both these prescriptions. The stated political objectives were numerous, tenuous and by no means clearly within the zone of our vital interests, while the military objectives were not subordinate to the political but at one stage, at least, rather tended to dictate the political objectives.
It should not have taken great vision to perceive that a mountainous, jungled area such as Vietnam, devoid of the territorial and electrical communications essential for the operations of a modern army, and with a population bitterly divided and in large part existing under near-primitive conditions, would be a morass into which we could endlessly and futilely pour our human and material resources ; that you cannot kill an idea with bullet and bomb ; that no truly vital U.S. interest was present to threaten our national security; and that commitment to a major effort there was a monumental blunder (now hopefully in process of correction), when in other areas of the world challenges to our unquestioned vital interests could quickly develop.
As far as hindsight can reveal, I doubt that those in authority in our government who took us into Vietnam perceived where we would end up once we decided to commit armed forces. It should be clear now that neither partisan political influences nor chauvinistic clamor, to which segments of our society not infrequently give voice, should be allowed to sway those responsible for major decisions in the field of foreign policy, above all for those decisions which involve resort to the use of armed force.
For the present, I believe we should accept the judgment of those civilian authorities possessed of the fullest information, as reflected in the President's current decisions. The two prime elements in those decisions are the timing to complete our withdrawal, and insistence on continued efforts to recover our prisoners. Both are questions of judgment.
I use the phrase "for the present." I intend it to mean for a very limited time, say no more than another six to nine months, By that time the ARVN will have had ample time to attain adequate training levels, if it is ever going to do so, and we will have had time to supply all necessary equipment.
At the end of that time, regardless of developments, but sooner if visible progress has been made toward meeting both of the conditions stated by the President, I believe we should proceed with our phasedown forthwith and carry it through expeditiously to completion-that is, until all U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force personnel, except Embassy guards, are out of Vietnam, continuing by every reasonable means to bring about the release of captive personnel in hostile hands until that goal has been attained.