Why did we stay in Vietnam?
Why do we stay in Iraq?
Author: Samuel Metz
Vietnam taught us obvious
lessons and subtler ones. The obvious ones taught us how
to avoid future debacles. The subtler ones teach us how to
get out of them. If President George W. Bush appreciates
these subtler lessons, he can take the hard road out of
Iraq. There are no easy roads.
What should our President
learn from Vietnam?
In his history text "Our
Vietnam," AJ Langguth quotes President John F. Kennedy,
"If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam we
would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands,
but I can do it after I'm reelected. So we had better make
damn sure I am reelected." "We don't have a prayer of
staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. But I can't give
up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and
then get the people to reelect me."
Interestingly, these quotes
were taken from "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye," written by
Ken O'Donnell in 1972; i.e., this important aspect of JFK
and the Vietnam War may have lain neglected yet publicly
accessible for 30 years.
Here is a sobering take on
our involvement in Vietnam. Kennedy inherits the situation
and draws two conclusions: 1) the war is an unwinnable
morass, and 2) the President who pulls out will not be
reelected. He postpones withdrawal from Vietnam until
after 1964. However, he is assassinated before the
Lyndon Johnson, we learn from
Michael Beschloess, also appreciated both points:
unwinnable war if we stay, but public crucifixion if he
withdraws. He postpones consideration of withdrawal until,
we can guess, after his reelection. However, he withdraws
from a second election for reasons that await Robert
Caro's final volume to understand.
Richard Nixon then accepts
both concepts. We remember that in 1968 he alludes to a
secret plan to end the Vietnam War, but he waits to send
Henry Kissinger into secret negotiations until after his
reelection. And fortunately for America and Vietnam, Nixon
is reelected. Now he can afford to do what the two
previous presidents were unable to do: pull out of Vietnam
and not worry about reelection.
A declassified and now public
document substantiates the premise that these Presidents
understood the futility of Vietnam. This document, an
interagency study entitled, "United States and Allied
Capabilities for Limited Military Operations to 1 July
1962", summarizes a joint study conducted by the
Secretaries of State and Defense, the Director of the CIA,
and Special Assistant to the President for National
Security Affairs as of 1959. The Joint Chiefs of Staff
were consultants. This document examines five hypothetical
conflicts based on international crises of the time. Each
situation presumed limited American military intervention
with the intent to avoid general war. The areas examined
were Korea, Taiwan, Iran, Berlin, and
Laos/Cambodia/Vietnam. The study examined each geographic
conflict in detail, as might be conducted in standard war
The hypothetical Indochina
conflict, with remarkable prescience, predicted the
1. Insurgent forces
supported by the North Vietnamese, the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam (DRV), would destabilize
surrounding governments, provoking a response by South
East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) forces,
principally the US.
2. The allied military
response would be constrained by inhospitable terrain:
a. US troop movement would be restricted to air
transport or foot. b. Weapon size would be limited to
105 mm Howitzers towed by ¾ ton carriers. c. Aircraft
operations would be severely limited by weather and
3. Overcoming the
above constraints would require large numbers of
4. South Vietnamese
governmental troops would be ineffective against
intervention by the US would be met by increasing DRV
support for South Vietnamese insurgents, progressing
from covert to overt military support.
6. The subsequent
stalemate would leave SEATO troops controlling
selected cities with rural areas controlled by
7. Other than the
United Kingdom, no other SEATO nation would provide
significant support to the US.
8. Support from the
People's Republic of China (PRC) to the DRV would
perpetuate the stalemate indefinitely.
9. An attempt to break
the stalemate with amphibious and air attacks on the
DRV and a naval blockade would provoke the PRC to
mobilize troops on the DRV border. The US would limit
intervention to landings south of Hanoi and Haiphong
to prevent another land war with the PRC.
10. Whether the PRC
moved its troops into the DRV or not, small guerilla
unit warfare against invading US troops would continue
This curious document was
available to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and
probably the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well. If civilian
and military leaders of the 1960 Presidential transition
period were indeed aware of the conclusions of this study,
this corroborates the premise that a succession of
Presidents understood the futility of further combat in
Vietnam and perpetuated the conflict only until a
reelection was won.
Parenthetically, Leslie Gelb,
with far less information to work with, also proposed this
cynical, and now probably true, vision of the quagmire in
In the constitution of the
Confederate States of America, its president would be
elected for a single six year term and ineligible for
reelection. Mexico has the same provision today. Because
we had three successive American Presidents worrying about
reelection, an end to American involvement in Vietnam was
delayed 12 years until we had a president serving a second
This conclusion falls solidly
in the paranoid conspiracy theorist camp, but still has
value for our current President.
President George W. Bush
dismissed facing the morass in Iraq by assigning it to the
agenda of future Presidents. President Bush could save the
US from years of agony if he were to take the following
1. Announce his
resignation from the Republican Party.
2. Declare a timetable
for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq to be complete
before the elections of 2008.
What would he achieve?
The next elected President
will, if the above hypothesis about Vietnam is correct,
delay any definitive withdrawal until after his
reelection. Therefore, if no action is taken now, we can
expect at least six more years of US troops floundering in
Iraq. If the next President is not reelected, then we must
wait at least 10 more years until this second President is
President Bush has no more
political credibility to lose. The mid-term elections are
over. In two years he will retire from politics forever.
He is the only American President for the next six, and
possibly ten, years who cannot be hurt by this wrenching
but essential project.
By disassociating himself
from the Republican Party, he then allows all other
Republicans to distance themselves from this unpopular
deed. He leaves his party intact. Our soon to be retired
President is the only one in the entire government who
need take responsibility. And he can rest easy, knowing he
has done what is best for his country without harming his
We made many tragic mistakes
in Vietnam. Let's ensure we don't repeat the greatest
mistake that kept us there 12 years longer than we had to.
AJ Langguth. Our
Vietnam. Simon and Schuster, 2000
Leslie Gelb. "Vietnam:
The System Worked." Foreign Affairs,
Summer 1971, p 140-67).
Interagency Study. "United
States and Allied Capabilities for Limited Military
Operations to 1 July 1962." Published July 7, 1960. Found
in United States Government Declassified Documents, Volume
23, 1997. Superintendent of Documents # GP 3.2:C41/1.
document #0071, microfiche 7-9.