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A Decent Interval / Who Lost Vietnam??

The goal of an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam, first promulgated in March 1964 through NSAM 288, remained formal US policy. But General Wheeler and then Admiral Moorer came to doubt whether this still reflected reality. During a JCS meeting in April 1968, the Commandant of the Marine Corps remarked that Washington's and Hanoi's objectives "run headlong into each other. Our objective is to provide a non-communist Republic of Vietnam." General Wheeler replied, "I wish I could believe our national objective is what you just stated . . . . Unfortunately, you don't even have an accepted objective within the Executive Branch of the government."

The debate over whether Nixon's "plan" sought only a "decent interval" or whether "Vietnamization" envisioned long-term survival of an independent South Vietnam, remains unresolved. Former policymakers and historians continue to argue the evidence. Some argued that at best the war was stalemated. Finessing Vietnam to deal directly with Russia and China was not going to be easy, but some suggested that victory was still possible. Above all, Nixon feared he could not control the political situation if he admitted the war had been a mistake or a tragedy of missed signals. Little wonder he played his cards very close to his vest. In July 1969, Nixon spoke at an air base on the Island of Guam, announcing a new "doctrine" that muffled the sound of clacking dominos. "As far as our role is concerned," he said of the future, "we must avoid the kind of policy that will make countries in Asia so dependent upon us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one we have in Vietnam."

Along with the emerging dtente policies Nixon hoped to pursue, balancing the Soviet Union and China, the Guam Doctrine could certainly be interpreted as removing Vietnam from the Cold War battlefront. A lessening of Soviet and Chinese anxieties about American intentions, on the other hand, might also produce a situation where Hanoi felt stranded from its sources of supply. By early 1970 that Hanoi was indeed worried about the success of Vietnamization, i.e., shifting the ground war to the South Vietnamese. There is considerable evidence that Nixon had renewed hope early in 1970 that the measured pace of American withdrawal and reports of successes in regaining and pacifying areas previously under enemy control led him to think in bold terms about operations to clear out those sanctuaries and give Saigon a real chance beyond a decent interval. Vietnamization had added to Hanoi's fears that Nixon had outflanked antiwar sentiments, giving the President a great deal more flexibility with his timetable. The Nixon advantages kept mounting up. There was the Sino-Soviet split to factor into the equation. Indeed, the mood in 1970 was close to self-congratulatory, if not giddy, about future prospects.

Although it wasn't clear at the time whether the withdrawal of United States troops would cause the ARVN to crumble instantly, as predicted by the communists, the decisive defeat of an ARVN operation mounted against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos in March 1971 was an early indication. At the time of the ARVN defeat, however, the communists were coping with deteriorating morale and with dwindling numbers of troops; a rising desertion rate and falling recruitment levels had reduced PLAF strength from 250,000 in 1968 to less than 200,000 in 1971.

In 1971 and 1972, the communists faced some serious problems unrelated to United States offensive operations. The Saigon government began to gain some support in the Mekong Delta because of the implementation of a "land-to-the-tiller" reform program pressed on the Thieu government by Washington in 1970. Almost 400,000 farmers received a total of 600,000 hectares, and by 1972 tenancy reportedly had declined from about 60 percent to 34 percent in some rural areas. In addition, a People's Self-Defense Force Program begun about this time had some success in freeing ARVN troops for combat duty, as United States forces were gradually withdrawn.

It has been argued that a new US strategy, initiated during 1968-1969, reached a successful culmination in 1972 by showing that the South Vietnamese could stand on their own. The weight of evidence in JCS records does not support that argument. For President Richard Nixon, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and Admiral Thomas H. Moorer [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during 1970-1974], the outcome of the 1971 Laotian incursion raised grave doubts about whether American efforts to "Vietnamize" the war would succeed. Both on the battlefield and at the conference table, a stalemate of sorts was reached by mid-1971. In negotiations there was some flexibility, as Washington offered a unilateral withdrawal of United States forces provided Hanoi stopped its infiltration of the South; and Hanoi countered by agreeing to a coalition government in Saigon along with a United States troop withdrawal and to a cease-fire following the formation of a new government. The main point of debate was the retention of President Thieu as head of the South Vietnamese government, which Washington demanded and Hanoi rejected. To break the deadlock, the party leadership in Hanoi turned again to the strategy of a general offensive and uprising. Accordingly, the so-called Easter offensive was launched beginning on March 30, 1972, with a three pronged attack across the DMZ through the A Shau Valley. The following day the communists attacked the city of Kontum and the provinces of Binh Dinh and Phuoc Tuy, threatening to cut South Vietnam in two. A few days later, three PAVN divisions attacked Binh Long Province along the Cambodian border, placing the capital, An Loc, under siege. In May 1972 the communists captured Quang Tri Province, including the capital, which was not recaptured by the ARVN until September. By that time, Quang Tri city had been virtually leveled by United States air strikes.

In May 1972, the collapse at Quang Tri convinced Washingto that the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces could not cope with the North Vietnamese attack and that American air power had become indispensable to the Saigon government's survival. Only in May 1972, when General Vogt impressed upon him that many ARVN soldiers would not stand and fight, did Moorer accept that American air power provided South Vietnam's sole chance of survival. Nixon, Kissinger, and Haig evidently had reached that conclusion in March 1971, when LAM SON 719 ended.

Thereafter, the administration's actions can be characterized as attempts to insure that there would be at least a "decent interval" between the signing of peace accords and the dissolution of South Vietnam.

Although the Easter offensive did not result in the fall of the Saigon government, as the communists had hoped, it did further destabilize the government and reveal the ARVN's weaknesses. The costs were great on both sides, however, and by October both Hanoi and Washington were more inclined to negotiate. By then Hanoi had agreed to accept Thieu as president of a future Saigon government in exchange for the removal of United States forces without a corresponding removal of PAVN troops. Thieu's objections to the failure to require the removal of North Vietnamese forces was in the end ignored, and the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam was signed in Paris on January 27, 1973.

In Vietnam, South Vietnamese military capability did not toughen up as fast as the Nixon administration had hoped, but the picture was not entirely dark. With only partial U.S. support (mostly from the air), the 1972 Easter Offensive had been blunted. Once American troops had left Vietnam completely, American arms and supplies bolstered ARVN capabilities. Vast quantities of military hardware arrived at South Vietnamese ports. So many trucks and jeeps sat on the wharves at Cam Ranh and Vung Tau that one congressman wondered whether the objective of Vietnamization was to "put every South Vietnamese soldier behind the wheel." The ARVN became, by the end of 1974, one of the largest and best equipped armies in the world, and its air force was the world's fourth largest.

Hanoi accepted Nixon's settlement offer in October of 1972 for the same reason that Saigon rejected it that same month. Both sides realized that it would lead to a Communist military victory. Thieu was certain the settlement -- which, among other things, would leave 145,000 North Vietnamese troops (Thieu said 300,000) in the South -- meant defeat. It would, he told Haig, "culminate in the ultimate collapse of the government of South Vietnam."

In January of 1973, a peace deal brought an end to nearly a decade of United States involvement in Vietnam. As part of this deal the United States would withdraw all troops from Vietnam, but would continue to provide aid to the government of South Vietnam. In March of 1973, the last American troops left Vietnam. However, this did not stop the fighting between North and South Vietnam. March 1973, Moorer concluded that the President only needed South Vietnam "to remain viable for perhaps a year, then he could say we gave them everything and they could not handle it."

President Nixon and other Administration officials hinted publicly in March 1973 that the United States would intervene militarily if North Vietnam violated thecease-fire agreement. On May 3, 1973, President Nixon submitted a report to Congress entitled "U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970s: Shaping a Durable Peace". In it, he asserted that the United States would not tolerate communist violations of theagreement and that North Vietnam would risk renewed confrontation with the UnitedStates if it broke the agreement.

On June 27, 1973 Nixon vetoed a bill that would have stopped the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese supply lines through Laos and Cambodia. The House had sustained the President's veto. Nixon had denounced the "Cambodia rider,"saying it would "cripple or destroy the chances for an effective negotiated settlement in Cambodia and the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops,"

On June 29, 1973, Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford, R-Mich., rose on the floor of the House of Representatives and made an announcement that left his colleagues stunned. President Richard M. Nixon, Ford said, would sign a bill barring U.S. combat activities in all of Indochina -- North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnamese battlefields. Passage of this bill rendered worthless the promises Nixon had made in person to Thieu that the USwould punish Hanoi for breaches of the cease-fire. The level of violence had greatly intensified in South Vietnam, and this measure was tantamount to giving Hanoi a green light to conquer the country. Nixon later claimed that he had no choice but to accept the all-Indochina ban on U.S. bombing, writing that "it was becoming clear that the antiwar majority in Congress would soon be able to impose its will." The Democratic Congress prohibition on U.S. bombing in all of Indochina could be blamed for Communist victory in Vietnam.

It was soon apparent that even if President Nixon might wish to take military action against North Vietnam, the US Congress would not support him. Increasingly concerned over continuing US air strikes in Cambodia, Congress enacted legislation on 30 June cutting off funds, effective 15 August 1973, for all "combat activities by United States military forces in or over or from off the shores of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia." The President's options for retaliation against North Vietnamese violations of the peace agreement were even further restricted when Congress passed the "War Powers Resolution" on 7 November 1973. This measure required the President to consult with Congress before introducing any US armed forces into hostile situations abroad.

MACV had prepared the South Vietnamese to take up the burden of the territorial security and light infantry war while assuming that American air power would be available to counter a more severe threat, as it had done in 1972. The Paris Agreement and the actions of the Congress took away American support, including air power. It was too late for the drastic changes in forces and strategy that South Vietnam would have needed to survive without the Americans, and it is doubtful whether Saigon's leaders could have conceived and executed such changes even given more time.

During FY 1973, the United States had contributed $2.27 billion for support of the RVNAF. For FY 1974, the Nixon administration sought another $1.6 billion, but Congress authorized only $1.1 billion. This reduction brought predictions of dire consequences. The US Defense Attach in Saigon reported in March 1974 that the RVNAF faced "a fuel and supply famine" while CINCPAC foresaw an "ominous situation in South Vietnam in the immediate future." Gerald Ford had the opportunity to change the nation's course in Vietnam when he assumed the presidency in August 1974. He did not do so, leaving the burden of ending the war to the US Congress. Saigon's combat abilities had peaked in the first year or so following the ceasefire and were subsequently in a gradual decline. Without an immediate increase in US military assistance, the GVN's military situation would be parlous, and Saigon might explore the possibility of new negotiations with the Communists.

In September 1974 the U.S. Congress appropriated only $700 million for South Vietnam for FY 1975, instead of the requested $1.0 billion. This left the South Vietnamese Army under-funded and resulted in a decline of military readiness and morale. To accommodate this reduction, stringent measures were implemented to reduce RVNAF operations and tighten its force structure. Numerous VNAF aircraft were deactivated and flying-hours cut by half.

In October 1974 North Vietnam decided to launch an invasion of South Vietnam in 1975. Aware of their improving military position in the south, the North Vietnamese Politburo and Central Committee met in October 1974 to consider future plans. At this meeting, it was decided to launch a "large-scale, widespread" offensive in the Central Highlands (MR 2) of South Vietnam during 1975. In the course of the meeting, the question of US reaction was discussed. The Chief of Staff of the North Vietnamese Army, General Van Tien Dung, summed up the consensus as follows:

"The Watergate scandal had seriously affected the entire United States and precipitated the resignation of an extremely reactionary president-Nixon. The United States faced economic recession, mounting inflation, serious unemployment and an oil crisis. . . . U.S. aid to the Saigon puppet administration was decreasing. Having already withdrawn from the south, the United States could hardly jump back in. . . . "

On 18 December 1974, based on President Ford's ineffective response and his hamstringing by Congress, North Vietnam's leaders meet in Hanoi to form a plan for final victory. The NVA launched the first attack shortly after the first of the year against Phuoc Long Province in MR 3. After a seven-day siege, Phuoc Binh fell on 7 January 1975. After the seizure of the province, Hanoi sat back to judge the American reaction. There was none. On 8 January 1975 the North Vietnamese Politburo ordered a major offensive to "liberate" South Vietnam by NVA cross-border invasion.

Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger testified to Congress on 14 January 1975 that the U.S. was not living up to its earlier promise to South Vietnam's President Thieu of "severe retaliatory action" in the event North Vietnam violated the Paris peace treaty. But on 21 January 1975 President Ford told a press conference that the United States was unwilling to re-enter the war. Aid to Indochina during fiscal year 1975 consisted of $700 million appropriated under the Defense Assistance, Vietnam, Program; $30 million for Laos under the Military Assistance Program (MAP); and $275 million in MAP funds for Cambodia. In late January, President Gerald Ford had asked Congress for a $300 million supplemental FY 1975 appropriation for South Vietnam. This amount represented the difference between the original $1.0 billion request and the actual appropriation of $700 million. But, despite the worsening military situation, Congress was still unwilling to provide further assistance for South Vietnam. The presidential request for an additional $300 million for Vietnam and $222 million for Cambodia was before Congress when those countries fell.

There is no question but that the action o the United States Congress to appropriate only $700 million of the $1 billion authorized for the Defense Assistance Vietnam (DAV) program had an erosive effect an the morale of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) and probably upon certain other elements of the national administration such as the Ministry of National Defense (MOND). The erosive, although gradual, was enough to set the stage for such further erosion in connection with the later proposed supplemental. In nearly every case when a high ranking American visited Saigon, the message was the same; to wit, every attempt would be made to secure a supplemental appropriation, but no definite promises could be made. Hearing this, the Joint General Staff (JGS) and other higher officers of the RVNAF believed that the chances were very good that a supplemental would be forthcoming.

The efforts of the US administration to push through the supplemental at first buoyed the hopes of the RVNAF and, indeed, the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). However, the visits of the various Congressional Delegations (CODELS) and the subsequent actions by the Congress pointed to the fact that no supplemental was forthcoming. This, following the loss of Phuoc Long Province (and the failure of the United States to provide the military clout promised in the event of overt and obvious North Vietnamese (NVA) incursions), caused RVN and RVNAF to face up to the obvious - the fact that, despite promises in the past and hopes expressed in the more recent past, they were going to have to face an ever mounting Communist threat alone.

In March 1975 a number of bills were introduced in the US Congress providing that no supplemental military appropriations be made in this fiscal year to South Vietnam or Cambodia. They directed that a schedule be set for ending financial assistance to those nations, and expressed the sense of Congress that the United States adhere to all terms of the Agreement On Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam signed January 27, 1973, and make all efforts to resolve the current conflict, achieve an accounting of United States personnel, and create a lasting agreement. On 12 March, the day after Ban Me Thuot surrendered, the House of Representatives rejected the supplemental request.

The NVA renewed the offensive in MR 1 and 2 in March 1975. The final Special National Intelligence Estimate, Assessment of the Situation in South Vietnam, published on March 27, 1975, predicted that even if the ongoing North Vietnamese attack, which had come sooner than expecte, according to previous assessments, were blunted, Thieu's government would find itself in control of little more than the delta and Saigon. The continuing debate in America on further aid to South Vietnam was an unsettling factor fueling defeatism. It foresaw final defeat by early 1976, a prediction still too generous as it turned out. Outright defeat could be avoided only if there were changes in Saigon that opened the way "to a new settlement on near-surrender terms."

On April 10, 1975, President Ford asked Congress for $722 million for emergency military assistance and an initial sum of $250 million for economic and humanitarian aid for South Vietnam. Speaking to the Congress, Ford said "The chances for an enduring peace after the last American fighting man left Vietnam in 1973 rested on two publicly stated premises: first, that if necessary, the United States would help sustain the terms of the Paris accords it signed 2 years ago, and second, that the United States would provide adequate economic and military assistance to South Vietnam. ... The North Vietnamese, from the moment they signed the Paris accords, systematically violated the cease-fire and other provisions of that agreement. Flagrantly disregarding the ban on the infiltration of troops, the North Vietnamese illegally introduced over 350,000 men into the South. In direct violation of the agreement, they sent in the most modern equipment in massive amounts. Meanwhile, they continued to receive large quantities of supplies and arms from their friends. In the face of this situation, the United States - torn as it was by the emotions of a decade of war - was unable to respond. We deprived ourselves by law of the ability to enforce the agreement, thus giving North Vietnam assurance. that it could violate that agreement with impunity. Next, we reduced our economic and arms aid to South Vietnam. Finally, we signaled our increasing reluctance to give any support to that nation struggling for its survival.... We cannot, in the meantime, abandon our friends while our adversaries support and encourage theirs. We cannot dismantle our defenses, our diplomacy, or our intelligence capability while others increase and strengthen theirs. Let us put an end to self-inflicted wounds."

On 21 April 1975, President Thieu resigned, blaming the collapse of his government on the failure of the United States to come to his aid, and citing pledges of support from former President Nixon. North Vietnamese tanks entered Saigon on 30 April 1975. Congress only appropriated $300 million. This money was mostly used to evacuate South Vietnamese from Communist-occupied Saigon.

When the United States withdrew its armed forces from South Vietnam in early 1973, the Republic of Vietnam controlled the majority of its territory and population and had adequately trained and equipped armed forces. With US support, it should have been able to withstand the continuing North Vietnamese aggression. But the United States had grown weary of the long and expensive involvement in Vietnam, and this weariness culminated in the Congressional decisions to reduce significantly assistance for South Vietnam. The cutback of US aid not only demoralized the South Vietnamese but also came at just the time when North Vietnam had decided to press all-out military action. Whether adequate US assistance would have prevented the ultimate North Vietnamese victory or only have delayed it is open to question. But certainly, the failure of the United States to supply additional help in late 1974 and early 1975 was the final coup de grace for the Republic of Vietnam.

Contrary to what some have subsequently argued, Congress did not sell out a healthy, viable South Vietnamese government to the communists in 1974-1975. Instead, the senators and representatives who voted to reduce, not cut off, military and economic assistance to the government of Nguyen Van Thieu made the decision in the face of that regime's obviously untenable nature and the overwhelming desire of the American people to curtail support for it. Rather than working out a plan to end the war and remove those South Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans over the years, the Ford administration, led by the President himself, his Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and Graham Martin, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, chose to pursue a deliberate policy of denial, one designed to place the blame for the loss of South Vietnam on the shoulders of Congress. The resulting tragedy left thousands of Vietnamese to face life as the clear losers in a civil war.

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Page last modified: 14-08-2014 18:38:58 ZULU