The last helicopter from Baghdad.

As we embark on an attempt to salvage Iraq from both the misdeeds of its post-Saddam Hussein/post-American occupation government and from the claws of ISIS, here’s a cold, hard lesson from History.

After his election as president in November 1964 Lyndon Johnson increased American troops in the war in Vietnam to a maximum of 540,000 men. In January 1968 the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) launched a massive offensive to coincide with the Tet lunar New Year celebration. The Americans and the South Vietnamese managed to defeat the Tet offensive on the ground, but not in the eyes of American voters. Up until Tet Americans had tended to believe the assurances of progress that were being made in Vietnam on the part by their leaders. Tet changed that. Now a majority began to doubt that victory was possible and that American leaders were telling them the truth about the war. In March 1968 President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam, solicited peace talks, and announced that he would not run for re-election.

Peace talks began in Paris in May 1968. When they failed to make progress, President Johnson resumed bombing until the North Vietnamese came to their senses in October 1968. However, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon encouraged the South Vietnamese to block further talks until after the November 1968 elections.

Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey in the November 1968 election. Nixon’s goal was to extricate American forces from Vietnam without the whole house of cards coming down immediately. As his foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger put it, “We’ve got to find some formula that holds things together for a year or two [i.e. until late 1970 or 1971].” That formula appeared to be “Vietnamization”: shifting the chief burden to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). While negotiations with North /Vietnam continued, Nixon began to draw down American forces. By late 1971 the total number of American troops had fallen from 540,000 under Johnson to 157,000 under Nixon. Unsurprisingly, the negotiations went nowhere since the US was obviously withdrawing and the North Vietnamese could anticipate swift victory once the Americans were gone. In March 1972 Nixon unleashed a massive air attack on North Vietnam. The North Vietnamese gave in, negotiations resumed, and a cease-fire was declared in January 1973. Most of the remaining American troops were withdrawn by March 1973.

The Republic of South Vietnam survived until early 1975. Then the North Vietnamese attacked. The ARVN collapsed, and huge numbers of refugees-in-the-making converged on Saigon in hopes of being evacuated by the Americans. Many (6,200) were, but most were not. Saigon fell on 30 April 1975.[1]

What are the parallels, if any, between South Vietnam then and Iraq now? Neither government enjoyed much legitimacy in the eyes of at least a large minority of their people. Both governments were up against ruthless and competent enemies. There are limits to what can be accomplished by airpower. The American administrations that had to clean up the mess weren’t the ones who had caused it.

Perhaps the differences are more important. Having escaped the Indochina disaster, Americans refused to recommit when a new crisis arose. The world did not end.

[1] “Leaving Vietnam,” The Week, 9 February 2007, p. 11.

 

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