Commentary Magazine


A Note on Vietnamization

Nathan Glazer (p. 33) tells us that he is embarrassed to add to the millions upon millions of words which have already been written on Vietnam. I too find myself embarrassed, if for slightly different reasons from the ones he gives, to be writing about Vietnam. Like him, I have always refrained out of a certain diffidence toward the experts from writing about Vietnam, although (like him too, I imagine) I have made two or three speeches on the war. The most recent of these speeches, delivered in the fall of 1969, on the day of the great Moratorium, urged, on the basis of arguments very similar to those Mr. Glazer elaborates here, an immediate American withdrawal from what was then still being called the war in Vietnam.

Of course by the time the Moratorium was held, the President had already informed the world that he had decided against an immediate withdrawal and in favor of a gradual disengagement, to be completed presumably by 1972. An immediate withdrawal—so he obviously thought—would guarantee the loss of South Vietnam to the Communists; he was therefore determined to move out in stages and in such a way as to give the South Vietnamese a fighting chance to defend themselves against a Communist takeover after the last American was gone.

This, in rough outline, was the President’s stated policy. It was not the policy I would have wanted him to follow, but to me it seemed a plausible enough path for the United States to take in getting itself out of the war. Having opposed the American military intervention in Vietnam from the beginning but never having seen any reason to rejoice over the prospect of a Communist victory, I saw no reason now to oppose a policy of American disengagement which might still prevent a Communist victory from occurring, provided that policy did not entail continued American military participation in the war, whether on the ground or in the air.

Many opponents of the war, I suspect, felt much the same as I did about Vietnamization—until the invasion of Cambodia. At that point large numbers of people became convinced that all the talk about disengagement had either been a lie or else that the policy had changed and that the Nixon administration no longer had any intention of getting us out of the war by 1972.

I did not agree with this interpretation of the Cambodian invasion. Cambodia certainly represented a territorial expansion of the war, but it did not in my opinion signify a reversal of the policy of American withdrawal. On the contrary: to me it looked precisely like a tactic in an overall strategy of withdrawal, one of the steps that was being taken to buy the South Vietnamese the additional time the experts thought they would need to develop the capacity to fight the war on their own. The Nixon policy remained what it had always been: a strategy designed not to end the war itself but to bring American participation in the war to an end while hoping that the South Vietnamese would be able to hold out unaided (except, of course, for equipment and advice) after the Americans left.

It was difficult to tell whether anyone in Washington really believed that the South Vietnamese could do this successfully or for very long: that is to say, whether they believed that Vietnamization would work. But it was not at all difficult to tell that everyone in power in Washington considered Vietnamization a better risk than a negotiated settlement to end the war. For the only thing there was to negotiate was the degree of Communist participation in the postwar government of the South. Whether or not this would inevitably lead to a Communist take-over of the South—and there were reasons for thinking it would not—both sides always seemed to assume that it would. And since from the American point of view victory always meant the prevention of a Communist takeover of the South, just as the unification of Vietnam under Communism was always the war aim of the Vietcong and the North, the very idea of a negotiated settlement could well be taken as a euphemism for a disguised Communist victory or a covert American defeat. It was this alternative that the policy of Vietnamization had been designed to avoid.

Vietnamization also meant that the American prisoners would be left to the mercy of their North Vietnamese captors, which may explain why that otherwise incomprehensible raid was staged last year on the prisoner-of-war camp at Son Tay. Probably it was a gesture aimed at persuading the American people that we were making every effort to save the prisoners when in fact one inexorable consequence of the policy we were following was to abandon them to their fate. With all due reluctance of course.

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But if Cambodia was invaded for the purpose of making an American withdrawal possible by 1972 without at the same time making a Communist victory inevitable, what of the “incursion” into Laos? No doubt it was conceived as another step in the same direction. Laos, however, also carried with it the additional purpose of testing the capacity of the South Vietnamese to conduct a difficult military operation on the ground. We will perhaps never know how badly they failed the test; maybe they did better than most of us think; maybe they did not in fact suffer an entirely humiliating rout. But what we do know for sure is that they did not perform brilliantly, not even with massive American air support of several different kinds. Thus, whatever the President may say, the Laotian operation must have undermined the confidence he apparently felt before—else why take the risk of putting it to so dangerous a test?—in the ability of the South Vietnamese army to make Vietnamization work.

If that is the case, what can he be expected to do now? It is quite clear that he will continue to withdraw American forces from Vietnam in large enough numbers to face the electorate in 1972 with an American military presence in the area of only fifty to a hundred thousand troops: he thinks—and rightly—that the country would not stand for anything else. It is also clear that he will not abandon Vietnamization altogether in favor of a negotiated settlement of the war which would set up a coalition government with Communist participation in Saigon: he thinks—and wrongly in my opinion—that the country would not stand for this either.

He is likely therefore to proceed with a policy he will persist in calling Vietnamization but which will in fact amount not to an American withdrawal from the war and a transfer of the responsibility for the defense of their own country to the South Vietnamese themselves, but only an American withdrawal from combat operations on the ground. The President has explicitly ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in Indochina. But he has never promised to desist from or even to limit the use of American airpower, of gun-ships and B-52’s. Indeed, he has explicitly promised just the opposite. If Vietnamization originally seemed to mean turning the war over to the South Vietnamese to fight as best they could by themselves, it has now apparently come to mean turning only the war on the ground over to the South Vietnamese while we go on bombing South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia at a rate which continues to defy comprehension, so great is it and so disproportionate in its destructiveness to any conceivable objective.

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As one who has never believed that anything good would ever come for us or for the world from an unambiguous American defeat, I now find myself—and here is the main source of my own embarrassment in writing about Vietnam—unhappily moving to the side of those who would prefer just such an American defeat to a “Vietnamization” of the war which calls for the indefinite and unlimited bombardment by American pilots in American planes of every country in that already devastated region. Vietnamization once appeared to be a plausible alternative to a complete and immediate American withdrawal. Today a complete American withdrawal—from the air as well as the ground—may be the only way of bringing a policy of Vietnamization, as the President himself once seemed to define it, truly and seriously into play.

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