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Toward a Third Indochina War

I

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 on a gnat and swallowing a camel.

In the relief over the withdrawal of the last combat troops and the return of the POWs, the public was also willing to overlook the fresh series of commitments made in Agnew’s recent tour of “reassurance” not only to South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand but to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It may be months before we know the full bill for these widened commitments.

The US, far from withdrawing and disengaging, is now the paramount power in Southeast Asia. That region is now as much an American sphere of influence as the Caribbean, and this expansion of empire will play its part in shaping the future, as it continues to shape the budget.

The new budget for fiscal 1974 allocates $1 billion for support of US forces remaining in Southeast Asia, and almost $2 billion more for military assistance for South Vietnam and Laos. But these are only the tips of the fiscal iceberg. Economic assistance to prop up the Thieu, Lon Nol, and Souvanna Phouma regimes in Southeast Asia, with associated pourboires for Thailand and the new Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, may add another $2 billion and bring the total up to $5 billion. This does not include the cost of promised reconstruction in the areas we have devastated on both sides of the 17th Parallel.

Nor does this cover all the costs of the US protectorate in East Asia. In the new military budget, $85 billion is asked for obligational authority in fiscal 1974. Of this amount, the strategic deterrent on which the actual defense of the US rests takes only $7.4 billion. The general-purpose forces we maintain at home and all around the world as part of the Pax Americana will consume $26.4 billion, by far the largest slice of the new military spending authority.

How much of that will be spent on the Seventh Fleet, the B-52s in Thailand and Guam, and their backup forces the Pentagon will not say. There the attitude is that “once the cease-fire comes and we stop dropping bombs, it won’t cost any more to maintain this force in Indochina than elsewhere.”2 But the huge size of our military force derives from the cold war doctrine that we have to stand by for “the defense of the free world” not only against communist aggression but against insurrection and rebellion, as in the Philippines, where Agnew completed his tour with a pat on the head for the latest Asian dictatorship under our wing.

The air and sea power deployed on and off the Asian mainland will take up a substantial portion of that $26.4 billion in obligational authority for the Pax Americana in the next fiscal year. While we cut back at home on every domestic need from poverty to pollution, the real cost of our Southeast Asian protectorate may easily run to $10 billion next fiscal year. But this too is overlooked in the general relief that the Vietnam war at last seems to be ending.

This is the meaning of the paradox that Nixon and the military had to “get out” in order to stay in.

II

A second key to coming events lies in the lopsided character of the cease-fire agreement. It effectively obligates Thieu to nothing at all. A lawyer would risk disbarment who advised a client to buy a house or a horse on such a sales contract; it neither sets a firm date for delivery nor imposes any penalty for failure to transfer the property. But the other side risks heavy penalties should it resort to arms in frustration. The terms and the setting are designed to make Hanoi acquiesce as Thieu strives to maintain his dictatorship in spite of the agreement’s promise of free elections.

Should fighting break out again, Hanoi stands to lose the carrot of US aid in reconstructing what our bombers have destroyed. It also risks the club of renewed bombing and more destruction. Indeed one major reason for the bombing over Christmas was to bring home to Hanoi Nixon’s readiness to bomb again. As Evans and Novak reported on January 18, apparently on the basis of a private White House briefing, “The fact that Mr. Nixon decided to bomb military targets in the most heavily populated cities of the North despite universal world condemnation [italics in original] is likely to have major impact on whether Hanoi lives up to the new agreement.” This is a clear sign that Nixon is ready to bomb again.

A similar view of Administration intention and strategy was given in a New York Times dispatch January 23. This came from the Times‘s Pentagon correspondent William Beecher after Secretary Laird’s farewell press conference. Laird had evaded an answer when he was asked, “Do we have a further commitment to reinvoke American air or sea power in Vietnam should things go badly in the next year or two?” Beecher obtained an answer from “other Administration officials in the Pentagon and other departments.” He was informed that Kissinger in the Paris negotiations had constantly made it clear that Nixon would not hesitate to bomb again “if Hanoi should violate any cease-fire agreement in a blatant way.”

Beecher’s “not for attribution” informants lifted the curtain on Kissinger’s talks with Le Duc Tho and said Kissinger’s last warning of this kind came before the renewed December raids. Le Duc Tho is reported to have said that any agreement depended more on good will than on its specific terms and that if there were no good will then Hanoi and the Viet Cong would resort to arms again. At that point Dr. Kissinger reminded him that Nixon had invaded Cambodia in 1970 and Laos in 1971 and begun the heavy bombing and mining of the North last spring even though he knew these actions would “stir an uproar on the home front” and “might upset delicate and important negotiations with both the Soviet Union and China.”

Thieu’s survival is Nixon’s No. 1 priority. Dr. Kissinger in his lengthy interview February 1 with Marvin Kalb of CBS was asked how Nixon had persuaded Moscow and Peking to help bring about a cease-fire in Vietnam. Dr. Kissinger’s reply was skillfully convoluted and diplomatically opaque, but what it boiled down to was that Vietnam took on “a different perspective” when recognized as only “an appendage to the land mass of Asia.” One wishes this were as true in Washington as in Moscow and Peking. For Nixon—emotionally—all Russian and Chinese Eurasia is only an appendage to Vietnam.

For all the talk that Nixon inherited the war from the Democrats, Vietnam has been an overriding concern with him ever since he flew there in the fall of 1953, in an effort to rally the French against negotiating with the Viet Minh. Later, every time Kennedy and Johnson escalated, Nixon asked for more. Vietnam has been more than a priority. It has been an obsession. All his fears about being made to appear “a pitiful, helpless giant,” all his emphasis on “a peace with honor” focus on maintaining Saigon as the last symbol of a containment policy he has breached everywhere else except Cuba. To forget this is to overlook a prime factor in the equation of coming events.

The cease-fire agreement is tailored to this objective. Normally if one side does not show good will in carrying out the terms of an agreement, the other side withdraws from it. But the normal situation was upset when Hanoi agreed to separate the military cease-fire from the political negotiations, and to negotiate politically with Thieu still in power. The result is that Hanoi is obligated to maintain the cease-fire agreement with the US no matter how much Thieu stalls on negotiations. And Thieu must frustrate these if he is to retain power. The setup now gives Thieu a blank check for resumed American bombing if the other side balks. This means that Thieu is encouraged to sabotage the agreement. The Beecher dispatch, read carefully, shows how little Washington expects Thieu to demonstrate good will and carry out the spirit of the agreement.

  1. 1

    Britain, fortunately, was unable to stand the expense—or see the wisdom—of pursuing fleas with sledgehammers. It used little air power and had no skilled pilots in captivity. By this simile we mean no affront to the brave men who fought against such odds in Malaysia and Indochina.

  2. 2

    Unnamed Pentagon official quoted in William Beecher’s dispatch, “Aircraft Pullout To Be Slow, US Says,” New York Times, January 23.

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