Commentary Magazine

Vietnam: The Case for Immediate Withdrawal

One is embarrassed to add new words on Vietnam. Already there have been millions, and despite the good sense so many of them have shown, they have as yet, after all these years, been unable to sway the American government, through three successive administrations, to desist from a disastrous policy which can only be carried out, whatever the intentions of those at the top, by cruel and inhuman methods. Yet some of us try to convince ourselves that words can still—must still—play a role in persuading those who continue to prosecute the war that, for the United States, there is only one solution: immediate withdrawal.

Even if we overcome the sense of futility as to the possible effect of adding new words to the millions which have been spoken and written on Vietnam, many of us who value originality of thought, and who pride ourselves on writing only on the basis of what we ourselves especially know, remain embarrassed by our inability to contribute anything new to a discussion on which, it seems, everything there is to be said has already been said, and many times over at that. Yet when the government continues to defend its course with nonsense—a nonsense which men in power insist is wisdom, but immediately denounce as nonsense themselves the moment they step out of office—then even those of us who believe in the importance of a special knowledge and expertise we do not possess, may have a duty to speak out.

At the present moment, the main piece of nonsense to which we are being subjected is that Vietnamization can work, which is to say in effect that the Vietnamese war can be “Koreanized.” There have been 50,000 Americans, more or less, in service on the Korean armistice borders for eighteen years. They have helped to preserve peace in Korea. They have prevented the totalitarian and bellicose regime of North Korea from invading and annexing a South Korea which now lives under a substantial degree of political and cultural freedom, and which makes considerable economic progress. Vietnamization proposes that with an investment of as few as 50,000 American troops, on guard but largely at peace, South Vietnam can be brought into a similar condition. It is perhaps for this reason that the magic figure of 50,000 is mentioned: under the Nixon policy at least that many Americans will have to be maintained in South Vietnam forever.

But how can presumably sensible men believe that the Korean model could be duplicated in South Vietnam? There has never been a front line in Vietnam behind which a state might be established and an economy built up. When there were 550,000 American troops in South Vietnam, it was impossible to make any substantial part of the country secure. Why should it be possible with 350,000 men, or with 50,000? If there is now a surcease from attacks on the cities, a respect for common sense compels one to accept the report in the New York Times that the guerrillas are lying low to encourage a speedy American withdrawal and not—as the American political and military authorities would have us think—that their inactivity is a proof of the effectiveness of Vietnamization.

In Kennedy’s day thousands of South Vietnamese government officials in the countryside were being killed by the Vietcong. In those days, there were no North Vietnamese troops in the South. Why should these officials be any safer when there are thousands of North Vietnamese in the South? Until 1963, South Vietnam had a relatively stable government, under a civilian leader who enjoyed, or had once enjoyed, some respect from the population as a nationalist. Why should a government run by generals elected by a minority of the population—after these generals had jailed their leading opponents or removed them from the ballot—be able to create even as stable a government as existed under Diem? And if Diem could not prevent the assassination of his government’s officials, and the subjection of large parts of his country to Vietcong control, what is to prevent the same thing from happening to his successors? Are they better than Diem?

Perhaps the official American hope is that all this will be prevented by the continued bombing of the South, which would keep most of the population in the cities and the refugee camps into which our bombs have already succeeded in driving them. For incredibly, we are still raining bombs on South Vietnam at a rate far exceeding the rate at which all targets in Europe and the Pacific were bombed during World War II.

On the front page of the “News of the Week in Review” section of the New York Times for Sunday, March 14, there appeared a table of the comparative tonnages—admirable country that publishes the volume of bombs it rains down on its enemies, who include whatever civilians happen to be found below! For the whole of World War 11-2,057,244 tons; for the Indochina War-5,693,382. The rate, double that for World War II, is a million tons a year, much of it dropped on South Vietnam. Is this the way Vietnamization is supposed to work? But if so huge a volume of bombs does not prevent the North Vietnamese from occupying half of Cambodia and Laos, and from defeating the best-trained and the best-supported South Vietnamese forces, what can such a hope be based on?



My point is that we needed no experience to teach us that Vietnamization was senseless. Logic alone was enough: the logic that says that 550,000 men are stronger than 350,000 or 50,000; that a civilian government with some legitimacy has more chance of stabilizing a nation than a shifting group of military men; that the administration of Lyndon Johnson drew on as much intelligence and ability as that of Richard Nixon; that North Vietnam would not grow weaker when we stopped bombing it than it was when we were bombing it day and night. Surely all this should have convinced sensible men that Koreanization—or Vietnamization—was senseless, and impossible.

Indeed, so obvious did all this seem that one assumed the Nixon administration was using the slogan of Vietnamization not because the President and his people believed in it, but simply because they were trying to find a politically palatable way out of the war. One assumed that such able politicians, whatever they might say, had a secret intention, and that was to create some breathing space between an apparently stable Korean-type American force of 50,000, and the inevitable Communist takeover, a space sufficient to permit them to declare, “We didn’t lose South Vietnam; they, the South Vietnamese, did.” In thus trying to evade a politically crippling liability, they would be following the one law according to which, as Daniel Ellsberg has argued, our policy in Vietnam was based from the very beginning: “Don’t lose Vietnam before the next election.”

Yet once again, simple reason could have demonstrated the senselessness of even this minimal objective. For if the Democrats could be blamed for the loss of China, even without any American military involvement there, the Republicans could certainly be blamed for the loss of South Vietnam after committing a permanent force of 50,000 men with massive bombing to boot. And so far as the breathing space is concerned, no one can guarantee the stability of a non-Communist South Vietnam for any period of time, whether six months, or a year, or eighteen months. If, indeed, anyone, no matter how knowledgeable, were to promise that under such-and-such conditions even six months of stability could be guaranteed, no one should believe him. After the endless assurances that have littered the papers from every quarter—political, military, diplomatic, technical, scholarly—for the past ten years, no further assurances of this type, whatever the source, should be given any credence.

And so the war continues to be waged for immediate objectives—either Vietnamization-Koreanization, or a breathing space between a minimal American military commitment and an eventual takeover by the Communists—that reason tells us are unattainable. How can this be explained? Is it a case of men stubbornly maintaining a belief in unattainable objectives because the alternatives are too awful to face? Perhaps. And yet when one surveys those awful alternatives, one remains mystified by the power they seem to have exerted on so many knowledgeable minds.



The main concern of these knowledgeable minds has apparently been that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall to Communism or come under Chinese Communist influence. One is hard put to understand the weight of this fear. Burma remains independent despite the fact that it is entirely cut off from American aid and connections. Thailand now sees its hopes for independence, one reads in the newspaper, in a posture of greater neutrality; the Thais, after all, managed to maintain their independence against both England and France in the 19th century and they may hope to do as well as Burma today. India was militarily defeated by China in 1962, but China seems uninterested in doing anything more than asserting its border claims against India. Why indeed would the Chinese want to extend their control over India? India’s arms, in any case, come from Russia, not the United States, while Pakistan, despite the fact that it gets its arms from us, is already friendly to China. Would this situation change if we left Vietnam? Indonesia carried out a slaughter of its own Communists, for its own reasons, and without any reference to us. Even Malaysia is menaced more by its internal ethnic conflicts than by Chinese Communist influence.

In what sense then would the menace of Communism in Southeast Asia be increased by an American withdrawal from Vietnam? We did not go into South Vietnam in any real force until 1965. By that time China had had a dozen years since the end of the Korean war to extend its influence in the absence of a significant American military presence on the mainland of Southeast Asia, and its record, to put the case mildly, was by no means impressive. But to argue this way is to assume that the expansion of Chinese influence, or of independent Communist governments, in Southeast Asia would necessarily constitute a threat to us. Yet the extension of Russian influence over Eastern Europe, and the maintenance of Communist governments there, however unhappy for the peoples of those countries, never posed any threat to American prosperity and security. Why should a similar development in Southeast Asia be seen as such? In any event, why should we carry the burden of maintaining a “security system” in Southeast Asia when Japan, the third greatest industrial power in the world, is there—leaving aside the fact that the Indians and the Pakistanis and the Burmese seem indifferent or totally opposed to this security system, that the Indonesians have no need of it, and that even Thailand and Malaysia could probably dispense with it and still maintain a degree of independence?

Another awful alternative which has preyed on many knowledgeable minds is that Europe will no longer credit our assurances of support if we should leave Vietnam. The weight of this fear is equally puzzling. One can indeed well imagine most Europeans hoping that we would not come to their aid if American support means the frightful devastation we have visited on Vietnam. Everything has a cost, and some costs may be too high, especially when they are being imposed on people who have not chosen them, and must suffer the death and destruction attendant upon them. Nor is it at all clear why our military commitments to Europe should play such a large role today. Western Europe as a whole is richer and more populous than Russia. If the Western European nations cannot, a quarter of a century after World War II, find the resources to defend themselves from the threat of Russia, or if they feel that the threat is too unlikely to justify taxing and otherwise inconveniencing themselves, why should we have to do it for them?

There is only one argument that makes any sense at all with regard to the damage a loss of American credibility might do to the world security system, and that is the argument that other nations can only be dissuaded from developing their own atomic weapons if they trust the United States to look after their defense. But surely the disaster of Vietnam has itself undermined the faith of other nations—Israel, for example—in the American willingness to intervene militarily on their behalf in any future conflict. For the experience of Vietnam has turned the American people into haters of war. Who else might be encouraged to develop a nuclear deterrent if we were to leave South Vietnam: India? Japan? Possibly. Even so, it should be possible to divorce the question of our ineffectiveness in the kind of war we have tried to fight in Vietnam from the question of the credibility of our nuclear deterrent. Anyone who wished to believe before Vietnam that we would really unleash our nuclear weapons to defend our allies and friends is still free to believe it now.

One hears less these days about still another unthinkable alternative to our departure from Vietnam—the slaughter of those who oppose Communism in South Vietnam, and of those who have worked with us in fighting it. One hears less about this not because the danger has diminished but, I am sure, because speaking of it would inevitably sound hypocritical when hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians have already died largely as a consequence of American military action. Wesley Fishel, no friend of North Vietnam, estimates that 50,000 landlords were slaughtered when the North Vietnamese state was set up. Double that figure or triple it—it still comes nowhere near the number of civilians killed in the war. And if we are really troubled by the chances of a massacre of anti-Communist Vietnamese in the South, we can offer them refuge here in America. After all we have absorbed 400,000 Cubans since Castro came into power. We could do as well for the Vietnamese.



But what of the domestic consequences? Here what we must avoid, we are told, is the rise of a resurgent Right, the growth of a “stab-in-the-back” myth. This was perhaps a reasonable fear during an earlier stage of the war. But even then such a fear should have been outweighed by other considerations. How many foreigners must one kill after all to preserve American domestic stability? In any case, where is the pro-war sentiment? No one has ever been able to organize more than a dispirited handful to demonstrate in favor of the war. Even the hard-hats rose not in support of the war itself but in opposition to the unpatriotic and unconventional behavior of the students. By now the extreme Right itself seems ready to abandon the adventure, to see an end to the killing of Americans in a war that its own leaders find almost impossible to justify. It has been a long time since these leaders—Governor Wallace, Governor Reagan—have appealed with any conviction to the fear of an expanding Communism. It is the rise of the Negro, welfare costs, crime, and pornography that have become the bases of right-wing appeal, not the spread of Communism.

There are indeed serious domestic consequences to Vietnam, but they are already here, and they will neither be averted by the achievement of a stable non-Communist state in South Vietnam, even if that were possible, nor exacerbated by an immediate American withdrawal. The truth is that we are already living with the consequences of an American defeat even if our political leaders refuse to accept the fact. And in the eyes of much of the college youth and most of the intellectuals, it is a defeat the country deserves. For them America had already lost its innocence and its virtue and become a morally despicable and even criminal force. The response to Lieutenant Calley’s conviction exposes another domestic consequence of the war that we can no longer avert, whatever now happens in Vietnam: that is, the anger of those who actually fight in wars and who will now blame the “Establishment”—different branches, but often the same persons—for first setting the policies and giving the orders and then saddling the “little man” with the responsibility for having carried them out.

Why then, in view of all this, are we still in Vietnam? However meaningless the government’s arguments, is there not a meaning to our presence, and must we not understand that meaning before we can understand how our government can be persuaded, influenced, or forced to withdraw? For myself, I have an answer, but it does not fully satisfy me. As we began moving into Vietnam in the early 60′s and as our involvement grew, I could think of only one reason. Certainly there were the elaborate calculations of experts on foreign policy as to why one thing was necessary to prevent another; the domino theory, etc. Certainly there was the fear among political leaders of the charge of being soft on Communism. Both played a role in getting us in, and in keeping us in. But neither of these factors nor the two of them in combination could by themselves have led us into so massive a military adventure. There was also an institutional feature of the situation that made our entry into the war possible and permitted its continual enlargement.

When an administration does anything in domestic affairs, it affects its own people directly. Someone is helped, someone is hurt, and in a democratic polity, those who are helped and those who are hurt have ways of letting the government know quickly and clearly. Of course, this does not by itself insure good domestic policies. There is the problem that those who are helped may be few and have a powerful incentive to maintain a bad policy or that those who are hurt may be more broadly diffused, each bearing only a moderate hurt, and therefore not strongly motivated to overturn a bad policy; and the reverse is also possible. Nevertheless, domestic policies tend to get responses, and governments and legislators are sensitive to them. Ideology and elaborate reasoning play a relatively minor role in domestic affairs. The people affected know from experience, at least to some extent, how a given policy works, and can act on the basis of that experience.

Much the same is true of a large-scale war. Everyone finds himself involved, people know when and how they are hurt or helped, and they must give positive acquiescence if the war is to be fought at all. None of this happens when a big country fights what for it is a small-scale war. There the destruction and killing are concentrated in a distant country. Those hurt by the war at home are hurt in diffuse ways—by inflation, for example—and those killed and wounded, even together with their families, make up only a tiny proportion of the population as a whole. In the case of Vietnam, our draft policies even insured that these few would be concentrated among the least politically effective and influential parts of the population, and among the ones which had always seen in the armed forces some kind of decent career. Of the people who had strong opinions on the war, most were probably against it. But of all who had some opinion, most, at any particular time, were ready to back the government. The war was far away, it was not a big war, it did not affect them directly, not even in the form of rationing or wage-price controls; if the President thought it necessary, they were willing to go along. Thus the government could always count on the support of a moderate if doubtful majority, in the country and in Congress, and this majority, moderate and doubtful though it might be, was sufficient to outweigh the anti-war minority, passionate though it might be and despite its growth into a near majority over the years. In every election campaign there was the hope that more anti-war Senators and Congressmen would be swept into office, but most people voted on the basis of domestic considerations about which they felt more sharply than they felt about the war. In the event, the fact that we were destroying another country seemed to carry insufficient weight.



One cannot fault the mass media in this—they told all, and from the beginning. In this war the anti-war books have far exceeded the pro-war books in number and intensity, the anti-war television programs and movies have far outnumbered the pro-war ones. For anyone who had ears to listen and eyes to see, there was nothing left hidden or unclear. It was no secret that the Tonkin Gulf incident was being used as an excuse for excessive response. Nor was it any secret that the steady increase in military power was designed to overwhelm the Vietcong rather than, as was claimed, to defend the forces we already had in Vietnam. The use of defoliants and tear gas was exposed almost as fast as it occurred. On the evening news one could see Americans putting villages to the torch (with cigarette lighters!); one knew in the most vividly concrete terms exactly what the tactics of search and destroy meant and entailed. If the details of My Lai were not made public the minute the atrocity took place, the fact that such things could happen, and were happening, was obvious to any person of ordinary common sense. Indeed, atrocities that differed only in scale were exposed in mass-circulation magazines long before My Lai.

Thus if it is true that the government tried to mislead the people, it is also true that the government failed in this attempt. For who could believe the promises of victory or of an early end to the war after the first dozen or so had been falsified by events and had been unambiguously revealed by television and the press to have been falsified? Of course the reaction to these official evasions varied. Some were outraged. Some understood the reasons of state that seemed to dictate them. Some were indifferent, maintaining their faith in the good sense of the government, thinking that it knew best, even when it had to lie to the people. But it cannot be said that many people actually believed what the government was telling them about the war—the mass media saw to that.

Why then were the anti-war forces unable to bring the war to an end? This is a most troubling question, and I can think of no better answer than that the war—terrible as it has been for Vietnam and for every American directly engaged—has left the United States itself relatively unharmed in a physical sense. Our territory has never been touched by the war, our economy has not been seriously damaged, and even our casualties from six years of large-scale ground combat have amounted to no more than the number of Americans killed in automobile accidents in the course of an ordinary year. Morally the effect of Vietnam has been enormous, greater in some ways than the impact of any war in the history of the nation. But the moral damage was not enough in itself to get us out of the war.

How then does a passionate minority get a big country out of a small war? Again and again the same answer has been given by those of us who have opposed the use of extreme or violent tactics both on the ground that they were often wrong in themselves and on the ground that they would probably do more to discourage than to encourage the growth of anti-war sentiment in the country at large. That answer has been to pursue political work in all its various forms, to argue and persuade and pressure until a majority of the Congress could be brought to end the war by refusing if necessary to finance it any longer—as indeed the Democratic party now proposes to do if an American withdrawal is not completed by the end of 1971.



Tragically inadequate though this answer may be, there simply is no other, and it is better at least than the idea that nothing can change until the “system”—whatever that is—undergoes some unspecified radical change. As one ponders the reasons that brought us into the war and maintained our involvement in it, one does not easily envisage any systemic alternatives that might have prevented a disaster of this kind. Radicals seize eagerly on the recent discovery that there is oil in the area to explain why we are there. Now—seventeen years after Eisenhower’s promise, ten years after Kennedy’s renewal of his commitment, six years after Johnson turned it into a massive land war—they have finally found an explanation, the only explanation that will satisfy them: capitalism is to blame. But capitalism clearly had little to do with the matter. As to politics, many of us are convinced that the President has become too powerful in foreign affairs—but he became so powerful in the first place for what seemed good and sufficient reasons, and the elected representatives of the people have continued to give him a relatively free hand. Was it then democracy itself that was at fault, because elected representatives refused to limit the President, and because our leaders kept us in Vietnam for fear of what would happen to them at the polls if they could be accused of losing a war? If that were so, we would expect non-democratic countries to have a better record in staying out of senseless and destructive wars. But, as we know, they do not. Nor should we underestimate the effect of the political opposition to date. It has toppled one President, steadily increased the number of anti-war Senators and Congressmen, and may already have cost a second President his chance for reelection.

The war in Vietnam was not made by systems. It was made by the decisions of men who might have decided otherwise. It will come to an end when men decide that, whatever the costs of ending it, they are exceeded by those of continuing it. Now, in the aftermath of the Laotian episode, we may hope that a continued and determined opposition to the war will hasten the day when that decision is made.



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