In a recent Atlantic article by Robert Kaplan entitled “Rereading Vietnam,” the author discusses a number of books that have been given little press and short shrift by reviewers. These are histories and memoirs written by men who served in Vietnam and consider it to have been an honorable task, and they feature tales of heroism in the face of great odds.
In his piece, Kaplan mentions an anomaly in much other writing about that war: the relative absence of attention paid to its second half; its “Vietnamization,” Nixon-driven, half.
I’ve noticed this myself. It sometimes seems that, other than historians and war buffs, most people’s knowledge of even the most basic facts of the war gets cloudy after the year 1969.
There came a time when the war was won,” even if the “fighting wasn’t over,” writes Lewis Sorley, a West Point graduate and career Army officer, in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (1999). By the end of 1972, Sorley goes on, one could travel almost anywhere in South Vietnam in relative security, even as American ground forces were almost gone.
Sorley’s book is a rara avis in focusing on the later years of the war. It’s almost as though historians and journalists haven’t wanted to look at that part. As Kaplan says:
Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1983) devotes only 103 out of 670 pages [to the 70s], and Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bright Shining Lie (1988) devotes 65 out of 790 pages. Sorley told me he isn’t sure what would have happened had Congress not cut off aid to South Vietnam at about the time the ground situation was at its most hopeful. He felt that a respectable case might be made that it would have survived.
This relative lacuna is true not only of writing about the war, but of the memories of most people I know who are of an age to remember. One reason for the prominence of memories of the 60s is that they were—well, they were the 60s, a time of transition and turbulence in general. The 60s were also the years of large and dramatic (and disillusioning) actions in Vietnam, including what turned out to be the perception of failure of our side during the Tet offensive and the horror of what US soldiers did in My Lai. By the end of the 60s much of the public had turned against the war, many irrevocably.
All of this disillusionment and exhaustion meant that many people probably stopped following the news so closely. But yet another reason for turning away was that, when our numbers in Vietnam were large and the draft was operating fully, many more young people (and their parents) were personally involved, and when the conscription methods changed, the war was no longer so up close and personal. It was in December of 1969 that the draft lottery began, representing a slight shift in the sense of vulnerability of those of age to serve. This, coupled with the drawdown of troops that Nixon had promised as part of Vietnamization (see this; at the end of 1969 there were 480,000 active US troops there, but by the end of 1971 there were 157,000 and a year later there were only 27,000), meant that fewer and fewer young men had to worry about serving there.
Here’s another chart that graphically illustrates this fact. There were close to 300,000 men inducted every year during the late 60s, with 1966 featuring a high of about 382,000. In 1970 there’s an abrupt shift to about 162,700, followed by 94,000 in 1971, 49,000 in 1972, and a mere 646 in the year the draft ended, 1973. This cannot help but be part of the reason interest fell off in what was actually happening in that far-off place.
This, of course, does not account for why historians and journalists writing books about the war should have also given that time so little attention. My guess is that they are writing from an American perspective, and as such they would have a natural tendency to focus on the time when our footprint there was huge and opinions about the conflict were being formed, many of them to be set forevermore in stone. The drama of the 60s was immense, and that also appeals to those who would write books with an eye to selling them.
The second half of the war was a time of drama, as well. But it was of a more passive nature, involving pullback rather than engagement, and an attempt to train and arm the South Vietnamese to fight their own war. The fact that—-as Sorley indicates—this endeavor was not going so very badly was somehow lost in the shuffle.
Of course, some who wrote about those times would have had an interest—then, and now—in making it seem as though things were going very badly indeed. As I’ve written at some length here, if one abandons an ally, it’s best to think that nothing could have been done anyway to have saved the situation. This certainly lessens the feelings of guilt and responsibility.
I’ve asked a few friends the following question: immediately prior to the time of our pullout from Vietnam in early 1975—the infamous “helicopters on the roof” scene—how many active US troops were fighting there? The correct answer, of course, is “zero”—and this had been true for about two years. But even relatively knowledgeable people might say (as my interviewees did) something like “about 100,000.”
In President Bush’s recent speech he invoked the memory of the Vietnam War to defend our continuing presence in Iraq. This shocked and angered liberals and the Left, who consider it their territory and that any comparisons thus raised would always argue in favor of their cause. But if you actually read Bush’s words you’ll find he was very careful to limit his comparison to the consequences of the final chapters of that war—or the oft-ignored second act, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald. And while this second act can be variously interpreted by the different sides with their different agendas, a starting point should be knowledge of the actual facts of the matter.
One of those facts is that our fighting forces were long gone from the area. History shows that, at the very end, it was about money, not our troops.
Unfortunately, the facts of that second half of the war remain a relative blank in the knowledge and memories of many people. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own informal survey. I’d be extremely curious to hear the results.