Politics & Policy

Vietnam and the Legacy of Limited War

North Vietnamese tanks roll into Saigon, April 30, 1975. (Getty Images)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the culminating act of the Vietnam War and the result of the decision to limit and restrain American military power.

It’s too easy and too convenient to blame the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, on the Democratic Congress’s decision to drastically reduce American military aid to South Vietnam — from $2.8 billion in military aid in 1973 to a mere $300 million in 1975, the year the North Vietnamese Army launched its final offensive.

It’s also too easy and convenient to blame the defeat on the Paris Peace Accords. The Paris Accords were a disaster, to be sure. Nothing about them represented “peace with honor.” When the Eisenhower administration engineered the Korean armistice in the face of stubborn North Korean insistence on forceful reunification, it was able to guarantee continued South Korean independence — even at the risk of further American casualties — by maintaining a substantial military force on the Korean peninsula. With American troops directly on the DMZ, any material violation of the armistice could be dealt with swiftly and decisively.

SLIDESHOW: The Fall of Saigon

The “Peace Accords” with Vietnam, by contrast, merely provided political cover for a military pullout. Rather than guaranteeing South Vietnamese security with a troop presence, the agreement gave American forces 60 days to withdraw. To reassure South Vietnam, the Nixon administration pledged military retaliation if North Vietnam violated the agreement, which required the reunification process to proceed through “peaceful means.” South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu viewed these security pledges as “the most important guarantees of the Paris Agreement.”

As we reflect on the scenes of panic from Saigon on April 30, 1975, we should remind ourselves of an uncomfortable moral and military truth: The wages of restraint are stalemate, defeat, and death.

It’s doubtful the Nixon administration ever truly intended to guarantee South Vietnamese security. Even while the agreement was being negotiated, Henry Kissinger told Nixon, “I also think that Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him.”

To no one’s real surprise, North Vietnam soon resumed offensive military operations, the Nixon and Ford administrations were unwilling or unable to keep the American promise of military support, and the Democratic Congress hastened South Vietnam’s fall by slashing military aid.

When examining a long war like Vietnam, it’s simplistic and wrong to parcel out blame along strictly partisan lines. No one event or political decision guaranteed defeat. Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations made dreadful mistakes, and both dealt with the military and public in bad faith. The Pentagon pursued flawed strategies early in the war before learning from its mistakes and fighting far more efficiently and effectively later on. (This pattern is by no means unique to Vietnam: It can be seen in the Union Army’s struggles early in the Civil War, America’s early failures in World War II, and the disasters that launched the Korean War.)

Instead, there were, in fact, a cascade of mutually reinforcing failures that set America on a course to defeat in Vietnam, beginning with the original sin of limited war. By dramatically restraining American military power and passing up a chance to take the fight to the enemy, the initial decision to make the war both limited and defensive turned the conflict into a war of attrition, a test of wills.

And once the test of wills began, America was ill-equipped to counter a totalitarian adversary. American resolve was soon enough under relentless and increasing internal attack, especially — as the war continued — from the more elite bastions of our culture. North Vietnam, by contrast, never faced internal dissent. An already-limited American military effort was no match for the one-way ratchet of the anti-war movement. Military actions designed to break the stalemate were viewed as dangerous “escalations.” Only retreat was acceptable.

The result was ultimately catastrophic, with hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese shipped to reeducation camps, millions of refugees fleeing for their lives and liberty, and an American nation left wounded and deeply divided — even 40 years later.

The Vietnam War is no longer our longest war. Our new “longest war” — the conflict in Afghanistan — is still ongoing, with no real end in sight. And while our endurance in “tests of will” has marginally improved, and we have shown a greater willingness to act when our allies, such as Iraq, face military defeat, our political class is still captivated by technocratic combat — limited methods that foster and perpetuate wars of attrition. Yet decades of such limits have not brought America military success. They’ve yielded stalemate at best and defeat at worst, despite magnificent displays of courage and unthinkable sacrifices from our men and women in uniform.

As we reflect on the scenes of panic from Saigon on April 30, 1975, we should remind ourselves of an uncomfortable moral and military truth: The wages of restraint are stalemate, defeat, and death.

— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of the Iraq War.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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