Why did we stay in Vietnam? Why do we stay in Iraq?

Author: Samuel Metz

Date: 11/25/2006

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 election.

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 games.

The hypothetical Indochina conflict, with remarkable prescience, predicted the following:

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 ton carriers. c. Aircraft operations would be severely limited by weather and terrain.

3. Overcoming the above constraints would require large numbers of ground troops.

4. South Vietnamese governmental troops would be ineffective against insurgents.

5. Increasing 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 insurgents.

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 indefinitely.

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 1971.

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 elected term.

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 actions:

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 reelected.

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 party.

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.

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