For Reasons of State
Critical Essays and an Index to Vols. 1-4 of the Senator Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers
The more sophisticated among Mr. Nixon’s Vietnam supporters have often tried to draw flattering parallels with de Gaulle’s skillful withdrawal from Algeria. They argue that the kinds of calculations and judgments which have governed Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam during the past four years are precisely those which lay behind de Gaulle’s Algeria policy after 1958. Both realized from the start that their respective wars could not be “won” because in neither case would public opinion tolerate the sacrifices that victory entailed; both concluded that withdrawal was the only remaining choice, even if it meant abandoning causes for which both nations had made enormous sacrifices.
In both cases, so the argument goes, there were political and strategic reasons why the actual withdrawal had to be prolonged or postponed even after the decision to withdraw had been taken. But eventually all military and political intervention in the affairs of the former protectorate would come to an end, and the wisdom and good sense of the imperial power could no longer be doubted. In Vietnam there would be no more Americans fighting either on the ground or in the air, no more clumsy attempts to manipulate the various Saigon factions in the interests of stability and order, and no more irrational fears that the loss of South Vietnam would lead, as Ralph Stavins has put it,1 to the retirement of the US from the arena of world politics. The US would continue to provide ammunition and spare parts for the South Vietnamese forces. But it would do no more than that.
Nixon and Kissinger, characteristically, have avoided any such detailed description of what the post-with-drawal relationship with the South Vietnamese would be, but the notion that they would, like some irritating virus, sooner or later be cast off has been implicit in most of what Nixon and Kissinger have said. Every one of Nixon’s speeches announcing a new troop withdrawal invariably stressed that the withdrawal had been made possible by the remarkable progress of the South Vietnamese, the clear implication being that this improvement would eventually reach the point where complete withdrawal was possible. And Henry Kissinger’s much vaunted “two track” strategy for ending the war, first outlined in his Foreign Affairs article of January, 1969, and supposedly the blueprint for the negotiations he later handled, envisaged a mutual disengagement by the United States and North Vietnam, which would leave the task of negotiating a political settlement to the South Vietnamese factions, free from outside interference. Admittedly both these predictions were contradicted by the stipulation of the Nixon doctrine that US air power would always be available to rescue regimes in distress, but at least until recently Administration spokesmen have always been evasive on whether the doctrine applies to South Vietnam, citing instead Cambodia as its “purest” application.
The number of voters, senators, congressmen, and journalists who have been fully convinced that Nixon’s Vietnam policy would indeed end in such a clear-cut disengagement was probably never very large. But the number…
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