Commentary Magazine

Vietnam: The Final Reckoning

At last, the final reckoning in Vietnam is at hand. Barring some unforeseen and unexpected reversal, the last act in what has seemed a never-ending drama has begun. How should we behave in the concluding phase of a conflict whose outcome we have for so long sought to influence? How should we act toward those we chose to support and whose destiny we presumed to guide? However one answers these questions, their importance is apparent. For what we ultimately learn, if anything, from this our first defeat in war will depend in large measure upon our collective memory of Vietnam. In turn, this memory will surely be affected by how we behave in the moment of defeat.

It may be argued that these are questions which should have been asked long ago, that at the very least they should have been asked in January 1973 when American military forces withdrew from Vietnam in accordance with the cease-fire agreements. In fact, they were only seldom raised. To be sure, many have asked how the war, and continued American support of South Vietnam, might be ended. But few have permitted themselves the assumption that these questions would one day have to be raised and answered in the circumstances we now face. The unwelcome truth is that most of us have been loath to confront the issues we have now been forced to confront. The sudden and dramatic turn in the course of the war has brought us to the full accounting we have so long sought to avoid making and one we have been encouraged to avoid making by those bearing official responsibility for American policy. If there is a pervasive air of unease over Vietnam today, it must be largely attributed to the realization that this dreaded accounting can no longer be put off.

At the same time, it is necessary to stress that this accounting is of a special sort and, as such, not to be equated simply, or perhaps even primarily, with conventional diplomatic-strategic calculations. It is not President Ford's falling dominoes and the presumably vital American security interests thereby jeopardized that have given rise to the unease. Nor is it Secretary Kissinger's strictures on the indivisibility of peace and the effects on American global interests in abandoning an ally (South Vietnam) in its moment of extremity. These arguments, invoked from the outset of the American involvement in Vietnam, are still not without some effect. But the effect appears rather minimal, and this quite apart from whatever intrinsic merit the arguments might have. Indeed, it may well be that the world of the middle 1970's gives a considerably greater plausibility to such arguments than did the world of the early-to-middle 1960's. Certainly, the American position in the world today is not one that will bear favorable comparison with the American position of a decade ago. These considerations apart, the point remains that the altogether familiar arguments of the administration in response to the recent events in Vietnam are markedly less persuasive than they were in earlier years, and even in the earlier years of American involvement in the war their persuasiveness was limited. The currents of public opinion, and of a substantial portion of elite opinion as well, are running in directions other than those set out by the President and his Secretary of State in defining American security interests both in, and affected by, Indochina.

Nor does it seem plausible that the unease over the impending dénouement in Vietnam is a response to expected recriminations—already surfaced by leading administration figures—over “who lost Vietnam.” If anything, these recriminations are likely to still much of the unease that does clearly exist by submerging it in domestic political considerations. There is little the Ford administration can reasonably expect to gain by assigning the loss of Vietnam to the Democratically-controlled Congress accused of having been niggardly in the amount of support it was prepared to give South Vietnam, though there is a good deal the administration could quite possibly lose. This is so if only for the reason that the administration must contend with something approaching the status of a law of politics: responsibility for what happens at a given time falls upon those who currently hold power. To escape the operation of this law, however cruel and unjust it may in practice occasionally prove, the present power holders must make a persuasive demonstration that Vietnam might—even would—have been saved had it not been for a recalcitrant and penurious Congress. Given the difficulties of such demonstration, the prospects that it might succeed cannot be rated very bright. Clearly, it will take a good deal more in the way of “proof” than merely to argue that Vietnam would have been saved had Congress only complied with whatsoever requests for aid were made by the executive.

More generally, the circumstances of 1975 simply do not favor in the case of Vietnam even a mini-repetition of the earlier Republican “loss-of-China” gambit. It is not only that in the present case a Republican administration will have presided over the “loss,” but that it will have done so in a period when détente with the Soviet Union (and, in lesser degree, with China) has been the great desideratum of policy. How is one to explain simply and persuasively to the great public that those who have been so instrumental in bringing about the loss by presumably being more generous with their ally than we have been with ours, are nevertheless the states with which we must continue to seek closer and more understanding relationships? The initiated may find little trouble in grasping these subtleties of statecraft, though in the case of the Soviet Union even many of the initiated are evidently beginning to experience some difficulty. It seems doubtful, though, that the public will be able to follow this logic.

Yet the charge against Congress of “losing Vietnam” may still elicit a strong public response simply by virtue of the blood and treasure the American people have sacrificed in Vietnam. To invoke this particular logic, to tell the people that its sacrifice has been in vain because in the end this sacrifice was willfully betrayed by those who refused to comply with the administration's requests, would be reckless and irresponsible in the extreme. It would recall a dark and shameful chapter in our history and, in doing so, it would put an even more miserable end to an involvement that has been marked throughout by little else than misery. Despite the occasional intimation that charges reminiscent of McCarthyism may yet be raised, it is difficult to believe we have in recent recriminations more than misguided, though understandable, efforts to prod a Congress no longer willing passively to accept either the judgments or the requests of the executive branch on Indochina—and, for that matter, on foreign policy generally.



The question persists: Why the unease in watching the dénouement in Vietnam?1 Why do I feel uneasy in observing a tragedy the last act of which can come as no surprise? Clearly, it is not because of any regret over a position of opposition taken and held for more than a decade. In retrospect, there is no apparent reason for altering that position today. I remain persuaded that the American involvement in Vietnam represented, more than anything else, the triumph of an expansionist and imperial interest which, by the 1960's, had submerged the narrower and more conventional security interest the policy of containment initially expressed. Without question, the involvement in Vietnam was also a legacy of the classic cold war, of the momentum generated by the cold war, and of the habits of thought and action the years of intense conflict had encouraged. Yet the greatest legacy of the classic cold war was the gradual submission of the narrower interest that containment initially expressed in the larger interest of maintaining under American leadership a stable and congenial global order. Vietnam was perceived as a threat to this larger interest, and it was the preservation of this larger interest—an imperial interest—that must ultimately explain Vietnam. In the purpose of maintaining a particular vision of world order, in the equation of this order with American security, in the hubris of those who led the nation into war, and in the reluctance to withdraw from a conflict that could not be “won” without resort to odious measures, Vietnam affords a classic case of an imperial war.

Thus the United States involvement in Vietnam was not primarily due to intellectual error, as the prevailing liberal orthodoxy on the war would have it. Nor can it be adequately explained either in terms of an ideological obsession pursued for its own sake or, with more plausibility, in terms of the domestic constraints of anti-Communism. These and similar explanations of the policy that led to Vietnam give to this policy a quality of disinterestedness it did not possess and a quality of innocence it did not have. That policy was not the work of incompetent ideologues who were blind to political realities and oblivious to age-old considerations of interest. It was the work of men who, though they obviously made mistakes, wished to preserve America's global preponderance, and who not unreasonably saw in Vietnam a threat to the nation's preeminent position. In the manner of all imperial visions, the vision of a preponderant America was solidly rooted in the will to exercise dominion over others, however benign the intent of those who entertained the vision. That this will was commonly cloaked in such disarming terms as “liberal internationalism” does not alter the reality. The policy of intervention—of liberal intervention—that culminated in Vietnam was the expected response of an imperial power with a vital interest in maintaining an order that, quite apart from the material benefits it conferred, had become synonymous with the nation's vision of its role in history.

Yet even for one who opposed this vision and the results to which it finally led in Vietnam, there is something awesome and disquieting in the swiftness with which so many have apparently abandoned it in the conviction that we have entered a new period of world history. It may of course be argued that the vision has not in fact been abandoned, only the methods by which it was formerly sustained. But given the world in which foreign policy must still be conducted, the abandonment of these methods is very likely to leave the vision little more than an empty shell. Indeed, the abandonment of these methods may well result in jeopardizing narrower and more traditional security interests. In any event, it is in the excess of Vietnam that we may find a root cause—perhaps the root cause—of an outlook today that promises to be as indiscriminate in its anti-interventionism as was the interventionism of only yesterday. If some of the now visible consequences of this sudden change are to be deplored, this consideration cannot alter the judgment rendered on our involvement in Vietnam. On the contrary, it can only strengthen the judgment made on the intrinsic folly of that involvement.



We come closer to answering the question of why the sense of unease over Vietnam once it is acknowledged that we never honestly faced the issue of how we were to disengage entirely from an enterprise—and this regardless of the consequences—which, even though we should never have undertaken it, we nevertheless did undertake. To have faced up to this issue necessarily meant facing up to its probable consequences—indeed, to its almost certain consequences—and this we could not bring ourselves to do. At least, this is true for almost all of those who, however opposed to American involvement in Vietnam, have not been sympathetic to the cause of the other side in the conflict. A very small minority apart, then, the rest of us have sought, whether consciously or unconsciously, varying ways to escape from confronting the issue we now find we can no longer avoid.

Although few were ever seriously persuaded that Vietnamization would really work, many nevertheless managed to find comfort in the promise that it might do so. Even so, the seductive promise of Vietnamization itself necessarily implied the indefinite continuance of American aid to South Vietnam, both economic and military, or at least so long as the war continued and the North continued to receive help from its allies. To agree to the one—Vietnamization—while denying the other—aid for an indefinite period—was either obtuse or insincere, provided that the South Vietnamese government and army made reasonably effective use of such aid. Moreover, experience had amply demonstrated that “reasonably effective use” in the South Vietnamese context could only be realistically interpreted with some looseness, unless it too was to prove no more than a deceptive—or self-deceptive—formula.

The premise underlying Vietnamization, and thus the implicit obligation to continue aid support, was not the representative character of the South Vietnamese government. On this all-important point, there has been, and remains even today, much confusion. It is true that, during the years Vietnamization was pushed as a way to disengage from direct participation in the conflict, many argued that such assistance as we might later provide would never be effectively used in the absence of a more representative government. Whether subsequent events have confirmed this long-held view must at least remain unclear in one respect, since we have no way of knowing whether a more representative government would in fact have made better use of the aid South Vietnam was given in the period following the American withdrawal. The contrary position is not self-evident, despite the tendency of its proponents to assume that it is. There have been governments before which, while broadly representative, have nevertheless shown themselves incompetent to conduct a war effectively. Moreover, in the case of South Vietnam a government more representative than the Thieu government—though a government that excluded the Vietcong—would still be one that represented disparate political factions which have always been largely devoid of any real popular support. After so many years of discussion and debate, we still do not have a plausible, let alone a persuasive, picture of the kind of government that would have elicited such support in South Vietnam. It is, after all, quite possible that none would have done so.

At any rate, this much at least is clear: if the strategy of disengaging from direct involvement in the war did not mean the abandonment of the South, it implied the commitment in principle to continued economic and military aid after disengagement was completed. It is disingenuous to argue today, though many do, that this strategy implied no commitment of aid, certainly no commitment of military aid, and that if such commitment was undertaken it was done in secret. The argument is disingenuous because the strategy of disengagement was largely based upon just such a commitment, and this was generally understood and accepted at the time. Nor is it relevant, in contending the contrary, to point to the instrument that completed and formalized American disengagement, the January 1973 Vietnam ceasefire agreement.2 For that instrument did not have as its purpose the specification of commitments undertaken by the United States toward its ally, and it is captious to pretend otherwise.

It is for these reasons that it is difficult to gainsay the position of the Secretary of State in urging a review of the “public debate during the period that these [1973] agreements were negotiated to see what the imperatives were of the administration in negotiating these settlements” (although it is rather startling to find the Secretary making so ardent an appeal to a process he discouraged at the time). “There was never any proposition,” Mr. Kissinger went on to insist at his March 26 news conference, “that the United States would withdraw and cut off aid, and these agreements were negotiated on the assumption that the United States would continue economic and military aid to South Vietnam.”

The record broadly supports these assertions. Although in the press conferences and other public statements made at the time by Nixon administration officials in explaining the agreements the military aid question was played down, it was nevertheless answered in a manner that was clear enough given the circumstances. Thus Kissinger himself declared in a news conference immediately following the conclusion of the Paris accords that the United States would continue to provide South Vietnam with “that military aid which is permitted by the agreement” (that is, to replace used-up equipment on a one-for-one basis with identical equipment) and went on to state: “The United States is prepared to gear that military aid to the action of other countries and not to treat it as an end in itself. . . .” Similar statements were made, in subsequent official explanations of the cease-fire agreement. When Thieu visited President Nixon in early April 1973, the joint communiqué issued at the end of the talks reaffirmed, though in guarded terms, what was by then a well-understood position. And in considering the administration's aid requests for Vietnam in the spring of 1973, Congress not only proved quite uncritical in its examination of the requests but appeared to take for granted a continuing commitment to military aid.

It is necessary to review these events, since memories are often quite short, even over issues that once aroused deep passions. The view that the American government, with the knowledge of Congress and the public, undertook no commitment to the government of South Vietnam in the course of disengaging from active participation in the war, may be true in the narrow legalistic sense, but it is only in this sense that it is true. The commitment the American government did evidently undertake was not unconditional. Few, if any, such commitments between states are. It was conditioned on the performance of the South Vietnamese and, of course, on the behavior of the North. But a commitment there was, and it is not only misleading but somehow demeaning to attempt to deny this today.



In some measure, the argument that has gone on over whether we have had a commitment to aid South Vietnam may be seen as one manifestation of the temptation to believe that we were deceived throughout the course of the war by whichever administration was in power—though above all by the Nixon administration. And where we were not deceived, it is tempting to believe that our will, however inarticulately it might have been expressed, was simply ignored by those who bore official responsibility for conducting Vietnam policy. It is tempting to believe this—indeed, the temptation verges on a compulsion—since it relieves us of a responsibility that, for good reason, we do not wish to bear. In fact, the deception of the public and the ignoring of its will do not contrast so markedly with a number of other chapters in post-World War II foreign policy. Moreover, it is often forgotten how frequently in the course of the war deceptions were exposed and secret undertakings uncovered. This is true even of the Nixon years when secrecy and deception, particularly with respect to Vietnam, were carried to yet new extremes. Prior to Watergate, however, they did not represent a political liability for Mr. Nixon. Quite the contrary: if anything, the Nixon Vietnam policy, despite its manner of execution, ultimately turned out to be a factor contributing to his 1972 victory.

Nor is this all. The public will—one uses that shadowy concept with diffidence, though use it we must—was not subverted in the case of Vietnam, not even by Richard Nixon. It may fairly be charged that Nixon exploited this will for his own purposes. But if he did so successfully, it was because this will remained profoundly ambivalent toward the war. Though clearly desiring to get out of the conflict from 1968 on, the public never accepted the stark prospect of defeat. Nor, for that matter, did a majority of the foreign-policy elites, and this despite their opposition to the war. Nixon instinctively recognized this ambivalence, and it dictated his Vietnamese strategy throughout. By changing the costs of the war to the nation,3 while effectively exploiting public unwillingness to accept undisguised defeat, the President was able to marshal broad domestic support in 1972 for measures that carried the war as never before to North Vietnam. The relative absence of opposition to the war in the last six months of direct American involvement indicated that public—and also, in substantial measure, elite—disaffection with the war had been largely a function of costs (and, of course, the absence of definitive results). This may be a depressing conclusion to reach, but it is one that is difficult to avoid.

The 1973 cease-fire agreement preserved virtually intact the belief that if we had not won the war, we also had not lost it, that we had not been defeated. This being achieved, the public could readily endorse, and was only too willing to endorse, Nixon's “peace with honor.” The President and his principal national-security assistant, for their part, were almost as eager as the public to achieve American disengagement. In addition to its role as the most troublesome of domestic issues, continued American involvement in the war was seen as a constant threat to further progress in détente with the great Communist powers. The Paris accords, particularly coming in the aftermath of the last and greatest display of American air power, satisfied Nixon's and Kissinger's dual requirement that American withdrawal not be seen by the public as a defeat, thereby not jeopardizing the domestic support needed for “larger policies,” and by allies and adversaries as an erosion of the nation's prestige and credibility.


It may be no more than poetic justice that the man who negotiated the Paris cease-fire accords has recently suffered so much criticism for efforts that were almost universally acclaimed at the time. But if Henry Kissinger merits condemnation for what is rapidly becoming in the eyes of growing legions of critics a veritable catalogue of sins, it is difficult to see why the Paris accords should be counted among these sins. Admittedly, the Nobel Peace Prize appeared at the time, and appears even more so today, a rather excessive appraisal of the Kissinger handiwork. But the present condemnation of that handiwork seems only slightly less excessive. For even if it is true, and it is true, that the Paris accords amounted to a delayed and ultimately miserable death sentence for South Vietnam, this condemns the Kissinger efforts only if it is plausible to argue that the results could have been otherwise and better.

No doubt, the results could have been otherwise and better had more favorable terms for the South been extracted from Hanoi. But more favorable terms could only have meant, in the main, the complete withdrawal from the South of the North's forces (together with some mechanism for enforcing the withdrawal), and on this critical issue Hanoi had remained intractable for years. There is no evidence we have that Hanoi might have been induced to alter its position on this issue, short of an American threat literally to destroy the North. Save for a handful of unreconstructed hawks on the war, nearly everyone else drew back in horror at the very suggestion. Indeed, the terms that Kissinger did finally get, though legitimizing the North's presence in the South, might (no more is claimed) still have given the South an indefinite lease on life had they been accompanied by the meaningful prospect that the American bombers would return should the North again initiate large-scale military action. Kissinger evidently wanted to retain that option—he strongly hinted so publicly at the time—but he was effectively deprived of it only months later by a President in decline and a Congress that forbade American military forces from engaging in hostile acts in or over Indochina. Once it was made clear that the bombers would not return, there remained no effective means of protecting the South, whether from its own misdeeds or from its endemic vulnerability to large-scale attacks by Hanoi's forces, and it is difficult to fault Kissinger's plaintive comment to this effect in his March 26 news conference.

It has been argued that better terms for South Vietnam might have been gained had the United States agreed to Hanoi's longstanding demand for an unconditional American withdrawal and Thieu's removal. But these terms would have been tantamount to American acknowledgment of an undisguised defeat and, for this reason alone, were out of the question. Even so, it obviously does not follow that if these demands had been accepted, Hanoi would then have been willing to withdraw its forces from South Vietnam. At least, this does not follow in the absence of a government in Saigon that at the least included, if it was not dominated by, the Vietcong. With or without Thieu, Hanoi gave every indication that its forces were in the South to stay.

There remains the view that even given the terms of the Paris accords the results for South Vietnam could have been otherwise and better had Saigon and the United States made a sincere attempt to abide by the terms of the cease-fire. Moreover, this argument runs, had the provisions of the cease-fire agreement been carried out by Saigon and this government, there would have been no need to send additional military aid—or, alternatively, even if the need still had arisen, it might well have been kept to very modest proportions.

Clearly, what is implied here is an overall judgment on the nature of the Paris accords, and it is a judgment to the effect that the accords provided a reasonable chance for achieving a tolerable peace between the South and North. Those who take this view do not deny that, in the best of circumstances, difficulties would have remained in implementing the accords, given the suspicion and hatred that persisted and the many imprecisions and deliberate ambiguities that characterized many provisions of the accords. Even so, it is contended that whatever hope there was for a tolerable peace was dashed by our behavior and the behavior of our ally.

The detailing of this behavior has been made on innumerable occasions and requires only the barest summary. Saigon, with our encouragement, hardly waited until the ink of the agreement was dry before initiating what amounted to offensive actions. Thieu almost immediately reneged on his pledge to release political prisoners, as he did with respect to the obligations entailed in setting up a National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord. The mechanism for broadening political activity in the South was thus subverted while the provisions for organizing free elections under international supervision were simply ignored. On the American side, a series of commitments, some public though others secret, presumably went unfulfilled. Among the latter are included the promise to withdraw all American civilians in the South who were engaged in the support of Saigon's armed forces and the undertaking to cease American air reconnaissance over North Vietnam.4

One might counter this indictment with the numerous violations of the Paris accords charged to the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, violations also alleged to have begun in the months immediately following conclusion of the accords. Would any useful purpose be served by doing so, and by entering into a detailed examination of the order and magnitude of the violations undertaken by the two sides in order to assess relative responsibility for the breakdown of the cease-fire agreement? It would not seem so. Even a casual rereading of the Paris accords only serves to reinforce the conclusion, apparent at the time they were negotiated, that their almost incredible ambiguities meant either that their successful implementation required maximum efforts toward mutual understanding and good will, or that their purpose was simply to provide the means for America's military disengagement while leaving the situation otherwise essentially unchanged. Since the former interpretation is either merely tendentious or absurd, or perhaps both, we are left with the latter interpretation. This being so, it is a largely useless exercise to ask who undermined the agreement. The agreement was made to be undermined; its provisions seemed almost designed to invite evasion and subversion.

The American negotiators may still be judged adversely for having concluded the cease-fire agreement. But fairness requires recognition that the alternatives were either roughly the kind of agreement that was concluded or no agreement at all. Whereas the former alternative permitted military disengagement and the return of American war prisoners, the latter alternative promised—at best—military disengagement. There was of course a third alternative that would have obtained military disengagement and the return of the prisoners of war. This was the acknowledgment of defeat and, as a consequence of such admission, the abandonment of an ally. It was not only the Nixon administration that was completely unwilling to contemplate this third alternative. So was the nation, though in lesser degree. In light of what we now know, it is easy and fashionable to say that the third alternative would have represented the course of wisdom. For it is only by the barest of subterfuges that we may now continue to pretend that we were not defeated in Vietnam. Pride often counts for more than wisdom, however, and particularly in the case of powerful nations. And even were it not for pride, there was always the question of what to do with those whose destiny we sought to determine, however misguidedly, and whom, though their destiny is no longer within our reach (if, indeed, it ever really was), we cannot with honor simply cast aside.



There is an almost instinctively negative reaction to once again raising the matter of honor in relation to Vietnam. The reaction is surely understandable, even if misplaced. Abused and perverted on so many occasions during the past decade in relation to the war, the American involvement in Vietnam has almost succeeded in giving honor a bad name. Are we to conclude from this experience, however, that there is no such thing as honor or that honor can have no relevance to the manner in which as a nation we behave toward others? Apparently not, for it is the most extreme opponents of the war who have themselves been most insistent on seeing Vietnam as raising above all a moral issue and therefore, by implication, a matter of honor. Whether morality, and honor, occupy so exalted a position in the affairs of nations is a question that need not be entered into here. It is sufficient to insist that honor does enter into such affairs and that nations may dishonor, and have dishonored, themselves.

There can be no objection, then, to raising the matter of honor at this late date and to ask what remaining obligations, if any, we have that have grown out of our role in the Vietnamese conflict. It is no criticism of the Secretary of State that he has seen fit to ask this question and to answer it. Mr. Kissinger believes that in the “moment of extremity” of an ally the test of our character as a people is whether we are willing to stand by a commitment earlier made and to continue aid to that ally. This is, to him, “an elementary question of what kind of a people we are . . . a fundamental question of how we are viewed by all other people, and it has nothing to do with the question of whether we should ever have gotten involved there [Indochina] in the first place.” To desert one's ally even when the latter's cause has become extreme is to dishonor oneself. And so it is, provided the commitment itself was an honorable one and the recipient has fulfilled the conditions implied by the commitment. To argue that even a dishonorable commitment, once made, can only be abandoned at the cost of honor itself is simply perverse. To insist that the recipient of a commitment deserves one's continued loyalty even if he has failed to fulfill the conditions of the commitment is unreasonable.

Whether the commitment made to South Vietnam is judged more than a mistake is a question that need not be argued here. What is of relevance is whether the South Vietnamese government made reasonably effective use of such aid as was given it. For if it did not do so, the further question whether it was given “adequate” aid need not even be considered. Did our ally fulfill the elementary condition implied by the commitment? There is very little evidence to support the view that it did, and a great deal of evidence to support the view that it did not. By almost any reasonable standard of effectiveness of performance, and even assuming for the sake of argument the existence of certain shortages due to the alleged penury of the aid-giver, the indispensable condition of continued moral obligation simply was not met. What follows from this is not that one may view with indifference the plight of those remnants of an armed force which do remain willing and able to fight. There is, in fact, no generally satisfactory answer that can be given in such extreme and agonizing situations, save to say—and it is concededly not much—that such answer must be determined by practical as well as humanitarian criteria. On the major issue, however, the response seems quite clear: there remains no obligation to be violated.

These considerations have taken administration arguments, particularly those of Mr. Kissinger, at face value. But this surely cannot be the end of the matter. We are entitled to ask, why the extraordinary sensitivity shown, not merely over keeping commitments—this is altogether expected—but over the moral necessity of doing so? While the Secretary may not be altogether insensitive to moral issues in statecraft, as his critics so regularly depict him as being, no one can accuse him of ever having been obsessed with such issues. Clearly, he is obsessed with issues of credibility and prestige, and while the importance of these issues may be granted, they are not synonymous with moral issues. The suspicion accordingly must arise that the Secretary has sought to use the moral on behalf of the strategic, that he has been looking at strategic interests and presenting them in moral terms.


If there is nothing heinous in this, it is also not particularly admirable, above all in the present agony of South Vietnam. Moral sensitivity, one would have thought, might well have been directed in other and rather obvious directions, while strategic interests were being displayed for what they are. One such direction moral sensitivity can take is toward those South Vietnamese whose lives may be placed in jeopardy under a Communist, or Communist-dominated, regime if only because of past associations with the Americans. No one knows how many such persons may fall into this, and still other, categories, but it would be rash to assume the number is small.

Those who have for so long pressed the specter of a “blood bath” cannot in good conscience remain silent today toward the one measure that could remove their fear. The responsibility for granting asylum must be seen as a kind of litmus-paper test of the sense of obligation we feel, if not toward all those who will be placed in danger for whatever reason in a new regime, then at least toward those who have compromised themselves through past association with us. If the question of numbers is raised, it is well to recall that we took in 600,000 refugees from Cuba during the years following Castro's accession to power. Yet in the majority of cases, there was no physical danger posed to the Cuban emigrés and little obligation on our part by virtue of our own actions, as there is in Vietnam.

Nor is it only a matter of simple moral obligation that is involved in the case of Vietnam; it is also a test of the racism with which we have been taxed by others, and particularly in our attitudes and actions toward Asians. A refusal to make every effort to take in those Vietnamese who wish to leave and whose position has been compromised by us will confirm, as perhaps nothing else could, the charge we have so indignantly denied throughout the war.

Beyond this, if we are so concerned with our image of ourselves in defeat, as well we should be, we cannot avoid facing the issue of American economic aid to a South Vietnam we no longer influence. It is now known that in March 1973, the United States and North Vietnam came close to an agreement on American aid to the North for reconstruction. The agreement proved abortive because of the Nixon administration's ire over Communist truce violations and public indignation, reflected in Congress, over Hanoi's treatment of American prisoners of war, then being released. It aid for reconstruction was nevertheless justified in principle in the case of the North in 1973, then there is surely as strong a case to be made today for aiding the South, or, for that matter, the whole of Vietnam. To be militarily frustrated, and eventually defeated, by so small a state is humiliating, and nothing we say can deny this. Even so, generosity in defeat is not demeaning and certainly not for a great power. There is no reason why we cannot be as generous in defeat today as we have been in victory in the past.



These observations are not intended to convey the impression that the final reckoning in Vietnam must be seen only in moral terms. Although the moral dimension of any accounting we are to make is important, the strategic dimension obviously cannot be neglected. What I have objected to is a view that misreads, if it does not pervert, the nature of the moral obligation that emerged from our commitment to South Vietnam, and that does so out of concern for strategic interests. Moreover, considering the immediate area to which this view has been applied, one must amend the preceding sentence to read that a mistaken strategic interest is equated with a spurious moral obligation. Applied elsewhere, to areas of real interest and to conditions altogether different from those that prevailed in Vietnam, the effects of this argument could prove to be devastating.

It is the tone as much as the substance of administration reactions to what has happened in Vietnam that are disturbing. While many have in retrospect unfairly criticized the 1973 Paris accords, the principal architect of those accords also insists upon finding a meaning in them they did not have. The apparent intent is to relieve himself of any responsibility for recent events in Vietnam. Yet there is the more ominous suggestion in the Kissinger reaction that what might now happen elsewhere (the Middle East?) must be seen as a result of the nation's failure to have appreciated its interests in and to have stood by its commitments to South Vietnam. One can only trust that this is little more than a passing mood, a short-lived reaction to a failure that can no longer be obscured. If it is more than that, if it is indicative of a more persistent attitude that finds increasing expression in American policy, then the prospect beckons of a determination by our policy-makers to create their own dominoes.



1 It is perhaps well to emphasize that “unease” is used here in a sense to be distinguished from the unease that arises simply from witnessing death and destruction (and, in this instance, the sense of shame among many South Vietnamese that an ordeal many bore with so much courage and dignity has been mocked by the behavior of an army in defeat). We all feel uneasy in the face of the suffering of others, quite apart from whether or not we have had any role in, or relationship to, that suffering. In the case of Vietnam, however, the particular unease experienced today stems in large part from the role we have played in the war and the nagging doubts almost all must feel about that role. Then, too, unease might in part stem from the self-deceptions that have been entertained almost to the very end.

2 The “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” was concluded in Paris on January 23, 1973, the parties to it being the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG). It was attended by various protocols, thus giving rise to such varying descriptions as the cease-fire agreement (s), the Paris accords, etc., and subsequently transmitted to Congress in the form of an executive agreement.

3 To this nation, and not to the Vietnamese, South or North. The key was the reduction of American casualties and the build-up of American firepower. In 1972, the virtual disappearance of what had once been a strong anti-war movement testified to the effectiveness of the Nixon strategy. Elite groups were almost as vulnerable to the strategy as the general public, though they indignantly denied being so. Yet the record is clear that it was American casualties—and, of course, the draft—which above all supported the anti-war movement.

4 These and other secret commitments are discussed by Tad Szulc, “Beyond the Vietnam Cease-Fire Agreement,” Foreign Policy (Summer 1974), pp. 21-69.


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