On the eve of the new international conference on Vietnam, it is useful to sum up just where we stand with the cease-fire and to try to find some keys to what the future holds for us in Southeast Asia. The first of these keys lies in a paradox: Nixon and our military had to get out in order to stay in.
To understand this paradox one must begin by asking oneself why there had to be a cease-fire agreement. The answer is that the cease-fire agreement was necessary in order to cope with the unforeseen weaknesses of the Vietnamization policy. Under Vietnamization, Thieu’s troops were gradually to take over all combat activity as a worn-down enemy slowly faded away. This scenario furnished the Pentagon with pleasant dreams for many months but turned out to have two drawbacks: one for the US, the other for Thieu and the US.
For the US, it left unsolved the problem of the POWs. If the war—as in Malaysia—were left to “fade away” over an indefinite period of years, so would our POWs.1 Prisoners are not exchanged until hostilities have ended. In the absence of surrender by the other side, some kind of formal end to the fighting had to be negotiated to get the prisoners back. The last illusions to the contrary disappeared with the failure of that giddy Wild West movie attempt at rescue in the Sontay raid.
The other drawback, for both Thieu and the US, was that Vietnamization failed its first big test in battle. When the crunch came in last year’s offensive, US air power and sea power on a vast scale had to come to Thieu’s rescue. It became clear that Thieu’s survival depended on a continued US protectorate, on US air and sea power near at hand for another rescue in the event of another major offensive.
But here Nixon and the US military came up against the unpopularity of the Vietnam war at home. What our military—like the French before them—saw as a collapse of will on the domestic front, public opinion at home—as in France earlier—saw as a failure of the military to win a decision after years of costly combat and glowing promises. Even the idea of a small residual force had become untenable; it was seen as an open invitation to renewed escalations. Only by removing all combat troops from South Vietnam, recovering the POWs in exchange, and making it look as if we were really getting out at last could Nixon obtain popular acquiescence in maintaining offshore and on nearby bases a huge air and sea armada ready for renewed intervention.
A public which was suspicious of a residual force as small as 25,000 on the ground in Vietnam accepted a residual force “next door” of at least four times that number—and with firepower many orders of magnitude greater—on the Thai and Guam bases and in the Seventh Fleet. History will record this as an extraordinary example of gagging…
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