September 5th, 2007

Vietnam: remembering the second act

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.

Kaplan writes:

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.

36 Responses to “Vietnam: remembering the second act”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    I heard little mention of Vietnam in textbooks in the last 10-15 years. In fact, Desert Storm was covered more than the Vietnam war. The dates, the Faill of Saigon, and the various other events were almost non-existent.

  2. DC Says:

    I wouldn’t expect people to remember. It was a long time ago and it’s a policy wonk sort of question.

    In the sixties, every night at the beginning of the news there was a list of several reports from various places in South Vietnam where our troops would have been.

    That must have gone away, but what’s to remember–nothing until the helicopter scenes. We had a naval base in the Philippines so our fighting forces were not far away.

    In my case, I received a Christmas present from my brother around 1973: “For Reasons of State “ by Chomsky. It contained a section on Viet Nam called “The Backroom Boys”. That seems to be the memory that fills in that space along with Ford assuming power and declaring “The long national nightmare is over”.

    That phrase may have been meant to refer to the Watergate scandal, but it may have had other effects, that whole period of riots, assassinations and war seemed to be over with that statement IIRC.

    By the time of “For Reasons of State” it observes on the first page that students were less interested in the war by 1971, though he tries to put another spin on it, something like “no longer willing to endure beatings imprisonment, vituperation and idiotic denunciations for what was in fact courageous devotion to principle.”

    About the only thing I remembered from the book over the years was its assertion that there had been a great deal of bombing of South Vietnam. To me that meant that the press had kept that quiet (because such a big deal had been made of bombing the North) and therefore it was a good thing that we gave the South Vietnamese government no support. The idea being that any further assistance would only mean more suffering from all this bombing.

    Later, Chomsky tried to minimize the significance of the Cambodian genocide.

    Likely my reactions were also affected by liberal indoctrination. I remember seeing a film strip about the Korean War in about the third grade in Church. This was about 1965. The only thing I remember was learning that the war came into peoples homes.

    At that age, you learn about war on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color with scenes of eighteenth century people fighting out battles in the countryside. (or cowboy and Indian movies) Kids in my age group hadn’t seen the messier aspects of war for the most part. I had seen scenes of concentration camp horror in 1961, but this was accidental, not part of some indoctrination program.

  3. Ray Hartwell Says:

    Robert Kaplan is always insightful when writing about the military, and he generally gets it right. His “Imperial Grunts” I highly recommend. Also, on the reality and perception of Tet, see the chapter on the battle in Victor Davis Hanson’s “Carnage and Culture.”

    This is a subject that deserves careful attention now, as those who — like John Kerry and others — dissembled about the consequences of our abandonment of Vietnam are all cranked up for a replay in Iraq.

  4. Lee Says:

    The reasons for lack of historical memory of Vietnam from this period can be summed up in four words:

    Kent
    State
    Water
    Gate

  5. Gringo Says:

    The link for Selective Service inductions is truncated.
    It should be:
    http://www.sss.gov/induct.htm

  6. Donald Wolberg Says:

    I would suggest that there is less forgetting than one may assume when compared to the general lack of interest by most people in history of any kind (history meaning any subject more than 10 years before the present).Whether it is because of the decline in educational expectations and requirements, or the loss of interest in words printed on paper and bound together, one simply has to enter the homes of our friends and neighbors and take a quick look around for books. I suspect they will be in minimal abundance.

  7. amr Says:

    Being 62 and having served during the time of the Vietnam War, thank you for writing about what actually took place in 1972 and onward. I have always viewed the Vietnam tragedy as a surrender by a Democratic congress not a defeat of the United States. I fear this will happen again in Iraq, but this enemy will follow us home.

  8. Beverly Says:

    You all might be interested in this book: “Tears Before the Rain,” eyewitness accounts of the fall of Saigon and the aftermath.

    Here’s the PW review:
    –From Publishers Weekly
    Harrowing, heartrending and bitter by turns, these recollections by 75 eyewitnesses form a tragic epic of a country in the throes of violent death. Soldiers and civilians, both American and South Vietnamese, tell what it was like in the spring of 1975 as Hanoi carried out its final, successful offensive against the Republic of Vietnam. Generals, ambassadors, CIA officials, pilots, Marines, politicians, doctors, seamen, flight attendants, journalists and ordinary citizens describe the growing chaos, demoralization and panic as the collapse gained momentum. Survivors recall the chilling helicopter airlift from the U.S. embassy roof in Saigon with raw emotions, the Americans still brooding painfully over the abandonment of their South Vietnamese allies. In an Aftermath section, several former boat people relate in hair-raising detail their encounters with Thai pirates. A moving collection of painful memories, assembled by a professor of history at San Jose (Calif.) State.’

    Published originally by Oxford University Press in 1990. REALLY an eye-opener.

  9. Jimbo - PRS Says:

    I was drafted in December 1968. Like AMR (above), I thank you for reminding readers of things often ignored.

  10. Xanthippas Says:

    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.

    Yes, that’s true. But it’s estimated variously that the war cost between $150-$200 billion. What would have been the purpose of spending billions more helping to prop up an unpopular government incapable of defending itself from north Vietnam? It’s true, no more American lives would have been lost, but certainly more Vietnamese lives would have been lost had we continued to fund the war. Perhaps we can afford to be more flippant because it’s only money at stake, but what purpose would have been served by prolonging the suffering, getting more Vietnamese killed as a result, and then seeing unleashed the tyranny of the North Vietnamese takeover?

    Various commentators here blame Democrats and liberals for our “defeat” in Vietnam. But these commentators can never tell anyone what “victory” in Vietnam was supposed to look like. Endless war? We had a decade in Vietnam and still couldn’t get it right; what else were we supposed to do? The same problem dogs those who argue we should continue the current mission in Iraq. Forget that they’ll “follow us home” or whatnot; please explain to me what condition we can bring about that will permit us to leave Iraq, or admit that you are arguing we stay in the country forever, with no goal other than to avoid the appearance of “weakness.”

  11. On Sheepdogs…. at Amused Cynic Says:

    […] I’m really glad to see that Neo-neocon has picked up on the Robert Kaplan Atlantic article.  I would add this one important piece of […]

  12. Tatterdemalian Says:

    The people in charge of our educational institutions would love for everyone to forget the entire decade of the 70s. Not because of the sideburns and faux-Indian styles, but for the same reason the neo-Nazis want the world to forget the Holocaust: so they can repeat it, and maybe complete it this time.

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    Xanthippas: thanks for so perfectly illustrating the mindset I’m talking about. It is necessary, isn’t it, to justify the pullout and abandonment of the South Vietnamese, to imagine that one knows it would never have ended. But as I said (and as Kaplan and even quite a number of historians looking at the picture today have said), the South Vietnamese were not doing all that poorly, and our continued financial support would have helped. Your entire argument is predicated on a certainty that defeat for the South was inevitable, but that is not certain at all.

    It is always interesting to me that many people will argue that the 300 million dollars denied to South Vietnam by the Congress in 1975 was too much, whereas relief efforts in other parts of the world (for natural disasters, famines, etc.) are always too little, no matter how great. And in South Vietnam, by refusing to send funds, we were making the sacrifice of lives already lost there, both of brave Americans and of South Vietnamese, meaningless.

    As for what “victory” would have looked like, try South Korea.

    And I’m sure the South Vietnamese who died in droves trying to escape the Northern takeover, and in the re-education camps, would be oh-so-grateful for your concern.

  14. Tatterdemalian Says:

    “What would have been the purpose of spending billions more helping to prop up an unpopular government incapable of defending itself from north Vietnam?”

    Because spending billions would have allowed South Vietnam to defend itself from North Vietnam, by allowing it to counter North Vietnam’s air power with its own. An army travels on its stomach, but an air force needs money, and lots of it. Russia sank billions into North Vietnam to keep their planes flying; if we had sunk our billions into South Vietnam’s air force, we could not only have prevented the genocides that followed, but we could have crashed Russia’s economy and brought down the Berlin Wall a decade earlier than we did, and Jimmy Carter would have received credit for vanquishing Communism instead of Ronald Reagan.

  15. Xanthippas Says:

    It is necessary, isn’t it, to justify the pullout and abandonment of the South Vietnamese, to imagine that one knows it would never have ended. But as I said (and as Kaplan and even quite a number of historians looking at the picture today have said), the South Vietnamese were not doing all that poorly, and our continued financial support would have helped.

    Not doing that poorly? They were unable to sustain a serious offensive against North Vietnam. They were incapable of defending themselves without our airpower and money. The government was repressive and illegitimate.

    And in South Vietnam, by refusing to send funds, we were making the sacrifice of lives already lost there, both of brave Americans and of South Vietnamese, meaningless.

    No, that’s backwards. By not sending money, we were refusing to cause more lives to be lost in a conflict we could not win. The fact that we wasted thousands of lives and billions of dollars in Vietnam, does not alone justify the waste of even more lives and money.

    As for what “victory” would have looked like, try South Korea.

    This is an inapt historical comparison. Unlike in S. Vietnam, the government of South Korea was legitimate enough to avoid prolonged guerilla warfare. In 25 years of fighting no government in South Vietnam was able to replicate the legitimacy and authority of even the most repressive S. Korean regimes. The war did not encourage such legitimacy; it only undermined it, as South Vietnam degenerated into what was essentially a corrupt, repressive proxy state.

    Consider history in reverse. What if the French had declined to fight for their colony, or we had declined to sub in for them? North Vietnam probably would have triumphed over South Vietnam sooner, the country would have been unified under communism, and would now be making the transition to capitalism, only without the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and the lacing of their country with bombs, mines and poison that kill to this day. Perhaps re-education camps and boat people-in addition to conflict in Cambodia and Laos-could have been avoided. We’ll never know.

    As for “concern”, I’m quite sure that the Vietnamese of both then and now could do without with the type of humanitarian concern that is merely a mask for incorrect assumptions regarding national security and results in millions of dead civilians.

  16. Lee Says:

    X just must justify the unjustifiable with hypotheticals. If only this, if only that…
    If the French had not tried to re-establish it’s colony, there would have been no “South Vietnam”, no “Cambodia”, no “Laos”, only “Indochina”. Communist.
    Without struggling there, communism would have turned to others: Phillipines, Malaysia, Siam, Burma, etc. Lives would still have been lost, just not “there”.

  17. Mark Says:

    So what is the choice? Soldiers killing soldiers on the battlefields, or commissars overseeing the death of millions in ‘re-education camps’ and under starvation rations in dysfunctional communes? The former is at least honorable, and offers some hope for a civilian life away from the battlefield. The latter deserves to be called by its proper name: slavery and its mouthpieces need to be recognized as a particularly cruel species of con artist.

  18. Mark Says:

    Neo, you need a preview function. I missed my last point.

    … a particularly cruel species of con artist that offers a deal more commonly associated with the devil: promises now, hell to follow. At least in the literature, the devil gives something in return; Communism gives nothing.

  19. Donald Douglas Says:

    Thanks for the link!

    Kagan’s one of my favorite scholars!

    http://burkeanreflections.blogspot.com/

  20. Tatterdemalian Says:

    “Consider history in reverse. What if the French had declined to fight for their colony, or we had declined to sub in for them? North Vietnam probably would have triumphed over South Vietnam sooner, the country would have been unified under communism, and would now be making the transition to capitalism, only without the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and the lacing of their country with bombs, mines and poison that kill to this day.”

    Except that every Communist government ever implemented, from Russia to Zimbabwe, has had to kill millions of its own people to assert and maintain its power over them. Or do you think that the genocides that mysteriously take place under Communist governments are always caused by CIA saboteurs rather than Communism’s need to exert absolute control over its adherents?

  21. Jimmy J. Says:

    I really appreciate your posts on Vietnam because I served there and suffered for many years after the war with a sense of guilt and angst because it was a war we could have, and should have, won. Our failure to keep our promises to the South Vietnamese left a bitter sense of guilt as well.

    During the 70s, 80s and even the 90s I read with despair as all the popular literature, history and reporting about the war certified that we were wrong to have ever gone in there and that our forces had committed great atrocities.

    Finally, the other side of the story is starting to out. Along with some of the recent histories that have pointed out that our failure was a failure of will, your posts on Vietnam have been a breath of fresh air.

    I was always proud of my service in Vietnam in spite of my feelings of guilt and failure. With people taking a new and different look at the war, I’m beginning to feel more justified in that pride.

  22. Ymarsakar Says:

    Various commentators here blame Democrats and liberals for our “defeat” in Vietnam.

    Why don’t you just call Vietnam a victory, since it was a victory for your side, Xan.

  23. Occam's Beard Says:

    Tatter,

    Communism’s repeated resort to totalitarianism is easy to explain: an economic/political system that runs counter to the interests of the individual (and therefore human nature) can only function through compulsion on each and every daily decision, which in turn requires an efficient secret police. It’s inevitable. Commie-sympathizers maintain that “true” communism has never been tried; sure it has, it just unavoidably ends up with secret police, gulags, the lot, to make it work (or, more accurately, fail more slowly).

  24. OmegaPaladin Says:

    South Vietnam was not defeated by an insurgency, it was defeated by a conventional invasion. The NVA, with Soviet support, crushed them with a superior combined arms force. South Vietnamese soldiers relied on our air force while they built one of their own, and we stabbed them in the back to satisfy the hippies. They love all of our enemies, but none of our friends.

    And then they wonder why I question their patriotism…

  25. Xanthippas Says:

    X just must justify the unjustifiable with hypotheticals. If only this, if only that…

    I’m not the only one Lee.

    Neo: As for what “victory” would have looked like, try South Korea.

    Please try to read more carefully.

  26. Xanthippas Says:

    And then they wonder why I question their patriotism

    Samuel Johnson said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

    He meant false patriotism of course. I’d revise the quote: “Questioning someone else’s patriotism is the last refuge of somebody who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

    You can quote me on that.

  27. sergey Says:

    A very strange and pervert moral reasoning repeatedly surfaces in attempts to justify abandoning of South Viet Nam: we did it because they could not defend themselves without our help. But if they could, this help would not have been so important. All military alliances are made exactly to defend those who can’t do it alone, including NATO. My father, who in WWII was a commander of mortar battery at German front, told me that Red Army would certainly collapsed in 1942 under Nazi frontal attack without lend-lease, specifically automobiles, because all its logistics and mobility critically depended on them.

  28. Ymarsakar Says:

    Xan, you love a fictional country. A country that does not exist, except in your head.

  29. Lee Says:

    All revolutionaries consider themselves the “true patriots”. That way, sedition can be excused in the name of “my country”.
    If you werent’ so obviously transparent, X, your argument might hold weight.

  30. Ariel Says:

    Lee,
    All X did was define the word into meaninglessness. But, hey, it works for him. Ditto on sedition

  31. Lichanos Says:

    You cite one book that appears to support your claim and that clinches the argument that South Vietnam was a viable ally? What about the years and corruption and political skullduggery by Mr. Thieu and company – You think they suddenly changed their spots and decided they really wanted to invest in leading their country? (As I recally, Mr. Thieu has an airliner loaded with bullion that he flew out of the place.)

    You also neglect to mention that although our troops were mostly gone, we supplied massive air support to ARVN through 1973. This after bombing the hell out of North Vietnam and Cambodia for many years. We could have continued to fund aid to ARVN heavily, and that would probably have propped them up a bit longer, but in case you don’t recall the live footage that I saw on TV then, it was pretty much a rout. The South Vietnamese troops did, as they say, a cut and run maneuver. The north had an army five times the size of the south’s. I don’t think any amount of money would have solved that problem – people just weren’t interested in enlisting in ARVN, for good reason – they didn’t support their government.

    Yes, it’s too bad that the South Vietnamese didn’t have their priorities straight, i.e., didn’t share yours, but so it goes.

  32. Bugs Says:

    I think Y has it right – our loss in Vietnam was the best thing that ever happened to American liberals, and they’re hoping for a replay in Iraq. If it happens, they’ll use the infusion of political capitol to institute another round of hearings and investigations that will further weaken our military and intelligence organizations. They’ll only be satisfied when they have eliminated our ability to project power. When enemies strike us again, we’ll be just as unprepared as we were on 9/11. And that will be Bush’s fault.

    But what the fuck, at least we’ll all have government health insurance.

  33. Lichanos Says:

    All you people who think we could have, should have won in Vietnam, consider this: What if we he had stayed there another four or five years; lost another 50,000 US soldiers, maimed another 200,000 or so, killed another 1,000,000 Vietnamese; what would have happened then? Suppose the North cried Uncle, said, “We’ve had it, we give up!” We would have signed a peace and…what then? A corrupt, do-nothing government in the South suddenly wins the support of the people and grows strong defending itself? We stay there with 100,000 troops to keep the “peace” for…forever, like Korea? Or we leave, and then what? The war starts all over again until the North takes over the South. In Korea, the North broke away, then invaded – Vietnam has a totally different history.

    All you hawks out there need to think not just about exit strategies, but victory strategies! As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for, you may get it!

  34. More on the sheepdogs in our society…. at Amused Cynic Says:

    […] which bothered me, because I thought it was important.  DRJ, guest-hosting at Patterico, and Neo-neocon both wrote eloquently about the Kaplan piece, […]

  35. Andrew Says:

    my god, stop belly aching. The facts are that colonialism is dead, and the Vietnamese weren’t going to let a foreign power defeat them, even if their home boys were commies. Patriotism wins out over idealogism every time, especially in these days of guerrilla warfare. The US couldn’t win. And we can’t win in Iraq either. Same problem.

  36. Ymarsakar Says:

    Patriotism wins out over idealogism every time, especially in these days of guerrilla warfare.

    Where was patriotism when the North Vietnam regime was re-educating millions of Vietnamese?

    Patriotism is your excuse for letting people destroy themselves. A better word is pride, not patriotism. For love requires that you try to save that which you love, where pride often times requires that you sacrifice everything for hubris. A person will be given a choice between pride and love, and the communists made that choice for every Vietnamese, with the help of some others, of course.

    MoveOn, CAIR, ACLU, etc would disagree with you that patriotism and nationalism are more powerful forces than their ideology. Of course, patriotism and nationalism are ideologies, or subsets of it. Do you, Andrew of the belly, think you can declare a winner in the ideological wars simply because you bet on one side over the other? That’s not how gambling works.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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