The Essential Domino: American Politics and Vietnam

Courtesy Reuters

A Henry Kissinger has written, public support is "the acid test of a foreign policy." For a President to be successful in maintaining his nation's security he needs to believe, and others need to believe, that he has solid support at home. It was President Johnson's judgment that if the United States permitted the fall of Vietnam to communism, American politics would turn ugly and inward and the world would be a less safe place in which to live. Later, President Nixon would declare: "The right way out of Vietnam is crucial to our changing role in the world, and the peace in the world." In order to gain support for these judgments and the objectives in Vietnam which flowed from them, our Presidents have had to weave together the steel-of-war strategy with the strands of domestic politics.

Neither the Americans nor the Vietnamese communists had good odds for a traditional military victory in Vietnam. Given the mutual will to continue the war and self-imposed American restraint in the use of force, stalemate was the most likely outcome.

This common perception had a critical impact on the strategies of both sides. It meant that the "winner" would be the one whose will to persist gave out first. Hanoi's will, because of the nature of its government, society and economy, and because the North Vietnamese were fighting in and for their country, was firmer by far than Washington's. Washington's will, because of the vagaries of American politics and the widespread dislike of interminable and indeterminate Asian land wars, presented an inviting target. For both sides, then, U.S. domestic politics-public support and opposition to the war-was to be the key stress point.

American public opinion was the essential domino. Our leaders knew it. Hanoi's leaders knew it. Each geared its strategy-both the rhetoric and the conduct of the war-to this fact.

Hanoi adopted what seems to have been a two-pronged strategy to cause U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam by playing on American

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