Whatever your opinion of President Nixon’s politics and policies, I think most of us can agree he was a strange and duplicitous man. I was not a fan, to say the least.
I watched many of his televised speeches at the time. They were not memorable, except for a few catch-phrases–mostly ridiculed by college and grad students such as myself–for example, “the silent majority.”
But in my quest to learn more about the Vietnamization phase of the Vietnam War, the part Nixon presided (literally) over, I read this speech of Nixon’s from November of 1969, in which he introduced and elucidated the concept of Vietnamization (as well as mentioning that famous “silent majority”). And it struck me that—well, see for yourselves:
…let me begin by describing the situation I found when I was inaugurated on January 20.
-The war had been going on for 4 years.
-31,000 Americans had been killed in action.
-The training program for the South Vietnamese was behind schedule.
-540,000 Americans were in Vietnam with no plans to reduce the number.
-No progress had been made at the negotiations in Paris and the United States had not put forth a comprehensive peace proposal.
-The war was causing deep division at home and criticism from many of our friends as well as our enemies abroad.
In view of these circumstances there were some who urged that I end the war at once by ordering the immediate withdrawal of all American forces.
From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office. I could blame the defeat which would be the result of my action on him and come out as the peacemaker. Some put it to me quite bluntly: This was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson’s war to become Nixon’s war.
But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election. I had to think of the effect of my decision on the next generation and on the future of peace and freedom in America and in the world.
Well, it’s always risky quoting Nixon, a deeply flawed President. He was paranoid about his enemies, and his paranoia was part of what did him in, via his illegal actions in Watergate. He initiated the notorious “secret bombing” of Cambodia. He was a man profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, as well. And, in the phrase he used in this speech, Johnson’s war did indeed become Nixon’s war.
But whatever I might think of Nixon, I have to say that his rhetoric in this speech seems unimpeachable (to coin a phrase). Because, in fact, the abandonment of Vietnam, which finally occurred post-Watergate, in 1975, led to a worldwide sense that America had lost the will to fight. We are still feeling its effects now in terms of international perception; the jihadists certainly have taken note, as they will if we withdraw too quickly and too precipitously from Iraq. The Democratic Congress would do well to ponder Nixon’s words and his warnings:
…many others, I among them, have been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted.
But the question facing us today is: Now that we are in the war, what is the best way to end it?
In January I could only conclude that the precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would be a disaster not only for South Vietnam but for the United States and for the cause of peace.
For the South Vietnamese, our precipitate withdrawal would inevitably allow the Communists to repeat the massacres which followed their takeover in the North 15 years before…
For the United States, this first defeat in our Nation’s history would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia but through-out the world.
And try this on for size:
-A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends.
-Our defeat and humiliation in South Vietnam without question would promote recklessness in the councils of those great powers who have not yet abandoned their goals of world conquest.
-This would spark violence wherever our commitments help maintain the peace in the Middle East, in Berlin, eventually even in the Western Hemisphere.
Ultimately, this would cost more lives.
It would not bring peace; it would bring more war.
Nixon went on to outline the principle that Vietnamese forces should be fighting for Vietnamese freedom. He outlined the goal of withdrawing American troops while training the South Vietnamese to take over, but he said:
I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. And there are obvious reasons for this decision which I am sure you will understand.
And then there’s the following; if more prescient words were ever spoken about Vietnam, I’m not aware of them [emphasis mine]:
In speaking of the consequences of a precipitate withdrawal, I mentioned that our allies would lose confidence in America.
Far more dangerous, we would lose confidence in ourselves. Oh, the immediate reaction would be a sense of relief that our men were coming home. But as we saw the consequences of what we had done, inevitable remorse and divisive recrimination would scar our spirit as a people…Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.
Vietnamization was dismissed by many as a sham, and of course in the end our financial abandonment of the ARVN and the South Vietnamese meant we’ll never know what would have happened if we had kept up the economic support at a decent level. This article posits a believable case that, by the time we pulled the plug on the South, a turning point had been reached that would have allowed them to repel the North if they had been given the financial resources to do so. We will never know for sure, of course.
At any rate, we do know that Nixon’s Vietnamization policy did “work” in one respect: he withdrew US fighting forces from Vietnam. It occurred over a period of four years; here’s a chart that shows the pace of reduction of US combat forces, which were all gone by 1973:
The goal of withdrawal was accomplished. But Nixon’s greater fears–the loss of faith in the US, both abroad and at home–were realized. We stand on the brink of major decisions in Iraq which could cause an intensification of this realization, with far graver possible consequences.