Can the War End?

There is no end to it. Of course, we should have known that four years ago, for there is a dramatic coherence to the Vietnam conflict. Failure of the war; failure of the peace movement. And the United States will get out of Vietnam the same way it went into it. The process will be slow, painful, full of risks and reversals, or seeming reversals. It will be done, if it is done, by Presidential fiat, accompanied by governmental secrecy, governmental deception, further confusion for the American public and suffering for the Vietnamese. There will be no real end to it, any more than there was a real beginning.

The US government will never finish with Vietnam absolutely. Like the tortoise in the children’s puzzle, it goes half way to the end each time it moves forward, reducing its involvement relatively until progress becomes infinitesimal and the calculation no longer worth making. That is, if the US is to disengage. For the worst part of it is that the American and the Vietnamese people will always live with uncertainty. In spite of the temper of Congress, Nixon has, and will no doubt maintain, the same freedom of action that Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had in all the years of increasing engagement since 1950—or was it 1947 or 1940?

As a result, Americans will lose interest in the war in the measure that they gained it over a decade, returning to the point where they (or most of them) fondly imagine that they are not participants but merely spectators. The war will be like a film running backward that we are condemned to watch because of our inattention to it the first time around. And those who watch until the end will be too weary or too wary to applaud the turning points. For none of them really marks the end.

The signing of what is called “The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam” puts the United States somewhere in the middle of the process that began with the removal of American ground troops from Vietnam. It is a step forward—or backward—that matches the passage of the Tonkin Gulf resolution in the summer of 1964. The accord, like the resolution, is a piece of paper that commits the US to nothing while establishing certain principles. The first sentence reads: “The United States and all other countries respect the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Vietnam….” Subsequent articles state that the “South Vietnamese people shall decide themselves the political future of South Vietnam through genuinely free and democratic general elections,” that the United States “will not continue its military involvement or intervene in the internal affairs of South Vietnam,” and that North and South Vietnam shall achieve reunification step by step through peaceful agreement.

Upon signing this agreement the US, in principle at least, accepted the major provisions of the Geneva Agreement that it refused to sign in 1954, removing the legal basis for the…

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