FIGHTING THE LOST WAR section – vnafmamn.com
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Lewis Sorley's essay on Vietnam war is a complete summary and accurate assessment of Vietnam war. If you pull down and see long texts...! Keep pulling down, there is a surprise photo collection near the end. The article's a little long, but so much worth reading. You will have a mixed feeling of sadness and pride after you finish this article, plus a profound knowledge of Vietnam war.
It is a privilege to speak at the National Archives on this very significant date, 30 April, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Americans know very little about that war, even though it ended just over a quarter century ago. That is in part because it has been seen by those who opposed the war, or at least opposed their own participa tion in it, as in their interests to portray every aspect of the long struggle in the worst possible light, and indeed in some cases to falsify what they have had to say about it.
This extends from wholesale defamation of the South Vietnamese and their conduct throughout a long and difficult struggle to Jane Fonda's infamous claim that repatriated American prisoners of war who reported systematic abuse and torture by their captors were "liars" and "hypocrites."
This evening I would like to speak to selected aspects of the war primarily having to do with the South Vietnamese, and to do so in the form of one recap, four chunks, a sidebar, and a very brief conclusion.
First, the recap. On other occasions I have spoken and written about the many contrasts between the earlier years of American involve ment in the Vietnam War and the later years.
In shorthand terms, the earlier years began with the introduction of American ground forces in the spring and summer of 1965 and continued through a change of command not long after Tet 1968. The later years stretched from then through withdrawal of the last American forces in March 1973.
During the earlier years, under command of General William C. Westmoreland, the American approach was to basically take over the war from the South Vietnamese and attempt to win it militarily through con duct of a war of attrition. That means a war in which the objective was to kill as many of the enemy as possible. The theory was that this would eventually cause him to lose heart and cease his aggression against the South. The measure of merit in such a war was body count.
This earlier period was also characterized by recurring requests for more American troops to be dispatched to Vietnam, resulting in a peak commitment there of some 543,400.
In prosecuting this kind of war, General Westmoreland relied on "search and destroy" tactics carried out by large-scale forces primarily in the deep jungles. These tactics succeeded in their own terms, meaning that over the course of several years the enemy did suffer large numbers of casual ties- horrifying numbers, really-but the expected result was not achieved.
Furthermore, given his single-minded devotion to a self-selected war of attrition, Westmoreland pretty much ignored two other key aspects of the war, pacification and improvement of South Vietnam's armed forces.
Following the enemy's offensive at the time of Tet 1968, the Ameri can command changed. General Creighton Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and brought to bear a much different outlook on the na ture of the war and how it should be prosecuted. Abrams stressed "one war" of combat operations, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnam's armed forces, giving those latter two long-neglected tasks equal impor tance and priority with military operations.
Those military operations also underwent dramatic change. In place of "search and destroy" there was now "clear and hold," meaning that when the enemy had been driven from populated areas those areas were then permanently garrisoned by allied forces, not abandoned to be reoccupied by the enemy at some later date.
Greatly expanded South Vietnamese Territorial Forces took on that security mission. Major Gen eral Nguyen Duy Hinh called expansion and upgrading of the Regional and Popular Forces "by far the most important and outstanding among US contributions" to the war effort. Lieutenant General Ngo Quang Truong viewed these forces as "the mainstay of the war machinery," not ing that "such achievements as hamlets pacified, the number of people living under GVN [Government of Vietnam] control, or the trafficability on key lines of communication were possible largely due to the unsung feats of the RF and PF."
The nature of operations also changed in the later years. Large-scale forays into the deep jungle were replaced by thousands of small-unit ambushes and patrols, conducted both day and night, and sited so as to screen the population from enemy forces. Pacification was empha sized, and particularly rooting out the covert enemy infrastructure that had through coercion and terror dominated the populace of South Viet nam's villages and hamlets.
Body count was no longer the measure of merit. "I don't think it makes any difference how many losses he [the enemy] takes," Abrams told his commanders in a total repudiation of the earlier approach. "I don't think that makes any difference." In fact, said Abrams, "in the whole picture of the war, the battles don't really mean much." Population secured was now the key indicator of success.
I will just observe before moving on that, con trary to what most people seem to believe, the new approach succeeded remarkably. And, since during these later years American forces were progressively being withdrawn, more and more it was the South Viet namese who were achieving that success.
RVNAF Early Years
Now I would like to turn to Chunk One, which has to do with South Vietnam's armed forces in the early years of major American in volvement in the war, the period of the buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam.
This was a period of American dominance in conduct of the war, with the South Vietnamese basically shoved aside, relegated to pacifica tion duty (which was itself a facet of the war pretty much ignored by the American command) and given little in the way of modernized equipment or combat support.
Many people, including some Americans stationed in Vietnam, were critical of South Vietnamese armed forces during this period. But such criticisms seldom took into account a number of factors affecting the performance of those forces. American materiel assistance in these early years consisted largely of providing cast-off World War II American weapons, including the heavy and unwieldy (for a Vietnamese) M-1 rifle. Meanwhile the enemy was being provided the AK-47 assault rifle by his Russian and Chinese patrons.
"In 1964 the enemy had introduced the AK47, a modern, highly effective automatic rifle," noted Brigadier General James L. Collins, Jr. in a monograph on development of South Vietnam's armed forces. "In con trast, the South Vietnam forces were still armed with a variety of World War II weapons...." Then: "After 1965 the increasing U.S. buildup slowly pushed Vietnamese armed forces materiel needs into the background." As a consequence, South Vietnamese units continued to be outgunned by the enemy and thus at a distinct combat disadvantage. General Fred Weyand, finishing up a tour as commanding general of II Field Force, Vietnam, observed in a 1968 debriefing report that "the long delay in furnishing ARVN modern weapons and equipment, at least on a par with that furnished the enemy by Russia and China, has been a major con tributing factor to ARVN ineffectiveness."
It was not until General Creighton Abrams came to Vietnam as deputy commander of U.S. forces in May 1967 that the South Vietnam ese began to get more attention. Soon after taking up his post Abrams cabled Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson. "It is quite clear to me," he reported, "that the US Army military here and at home have thought largely in terms of US operations and support of US forces." As a consequence, when it came to supporting the South Vietnamese "shortages of essential equipment or supplies in an already austere authorization have not been handled with the urgency and vigor that characterizes what we do for US needs. Yet the responsibility we bear to ARVN is clear." Abrams acknowledged that "the ground work must begin here," adding "I am working at it."
Abrams spent most of his year as the deputy helping to upgrade South Vietnamese forces, including providing them the M-16 rifle. By the time of Tet 1968 he had managed to get some of these weapons into the hands of South Vietnamese airborne and other elite units, but the rank and file were still outgunned by the enemy. Thus Lieutenant General Dong Van Khuyen, South Vietnam's senior logistician, recalled that "during the enemy Tet offensive of 1968 the crisp, rattling sounds of AK-47s echoing in Saigon and some other cities seemed to make a mockery of the weaker, single shots of Garands and carbines fired by stupefied friendly troops."
Even so, South Vietnamese armed forces performed admirably in repelling the Tet offensive. "To the surprise of many Americans and the consternation of the Communists," reported Time magazine, "ARVN bore the brunt of the early fighting with bravery and elan, performing better than almost anyone would have expected." It was especially noteworthy that the ARVN had achieved such results without modern weapons that could match those of the enemy.
In February 1968 retired Army General Bruce C. Clarke visited Vietnam. Afterward he prepared a trip report which eventually made its way to President Lyndon Johnson. Clarke observed that "the Vietnamese units are still on a very austere priority for equipment, to include weapons." That adversely affected both their morale and effectiveness, he observed. "Troops know and feel it when they are poorly equipped."
After reading the report, LBJ called Clarke to the White House to discuss his findings. Then, recalled Clarke, "within a few days of our visit to the White House a presidential aide called me to say the President had released 100,000 M-16 rifles to ARVN." President John son referred to this matter in his dramatic 31 March 1968 speech. "We shall," he vowed, "accelerate the re-equipment of South Vietnam's armed forces in order to meet the enemy's increased firepower." One can only observe that it was about time.
Clarke made another visit to Vietnam in August 1969, when he "found that the ARVN had 713,000 M-16s and other equipment and had made great progress since 1968 Tet." Now ARVN, and the Territorial Forces, were getting not only the most modern rifles, but also M-79 gre nade launchers, M-60 machine guns, and AN/PRC-25 radios, equipment the U.S. forces had had all along.
U.S. divisions were not only better armed, but larger than South Vietnam's, resulting in greater combat capability. To the further disadvantage of the South Vietnamese, during these early years the U.S. hogged most of the combat assets that increased unit effectiveness. This included such things as allocation of B-52 bombing strikes, provision of helicopter and fixed-wing gunship support, artillery, and troop transport. Abrams noted that during the period of the enemy's "Third Offensive" in August and September 1968 "the ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined." But in the process, he said, they also "suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action." This was a function, he told the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, of the fact that "the South Vietnamese get relatively less support, both quantitatively and qualitatively, than US forces, i.e., artillery, tactical air support, gunships and helilift."
Under these conditions of the earlier years, criticism of South Viet namese units was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given little to work with, outgunned by the enemy, and relegated to what were then viewed as sec ondary roles, South Vietnam's armed forces missed out for several years on the development and combat experience that would have greatly in creased their capabilities.
Later Robert McNamara, who as Defense Secretary had presided over the American war effort in those early years, wrote disparagingly of the Vietnamese, earning a searing rebuke from William Colby. "He should not be contemptuously slandering Vietnamese who gave their lives and efforts to prevent Communist rule," wrote Colby, "but who saw their great-power protector wash its hands of them because of the costs of McNamara's failed policies. The cause," affirmed Colby, "was indeed 'noble.' America fought it the wrong way under McNamara, and lost it in good part because of him."
RVNAF Later Years
Chunk Two is devoted to South Vietnam's armed forces during the latter years of American involvement. This is the period during which U.S. ground forces were progressively being withdrawn from Vietnam.
When General Abrams took command of U.S. forces in Vietnam he insisted on fighting "One War" in which combat opera tions, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnamese armed forces were of equal importance and equal priority. To succeed overall, he emphasized, it was necessary to succeed in all three aspects of the war. Thus M-16 rifles were issued across the board to the South Vietnamese, with priority now being given to the long-neglected Territorial Forces (Regional Forces and Popular Forces) who provided the "hold" in "clear and hold."
Then, as control of more and more territory was seized from the enemy, large numbers of enemy soldiers "rallied" to the allied side. This reached a peak of 47,000 in 1969, with another 32,000 crossing over in 1970. Given the authorized 8,689 strength of a North Vietnamese Army division, this amounted to enemy losses by defection equivalent to about nine full-strength divisions in those two years alone.
There came a point at which the war was won. The fighting wasn't over, but the war was won. The reason it was won was that the South Vietnamese had achieved the capacity to, with promised American sup port, maintain their independence and free dom of action. This was a South Vietnamese achievement.
An extremely important part of that achievement was success in rooting out the enemy's covert infrastructure in the hamlets and villages of rural South Vietnam. An effective campaign for neutralizing members of that infrastructure, based on better and more timely intelligence and acting on it, was developed. Critics of the war denounced the "Phoenix" program as an assassination campaign, but the reality-as with so much in this complex war-was otherwise.
For one thing, captives who had knowledge of the enemy infrastructure and its functioning were invaluable intelligence assets. The in centive was to capture them alive and exploit that knowledge. Congres sional investigators were sent out to Vietnam to assess the program (in itself a somewhat bizarre thing to undertake in the middle of a war). They found that of some 15,000 members of the Viet Cong infrastructure neutralized during 1968, 15 percent had been killed, 13 percent rallied to the government side, and 72 percent were captured. William Colby testified later that most of those killed, in fact "the vast majority," had been killed in regular combat actions, "as shown by the units reporting who had killed them."
During these years American forces were progressively being with drawn from South Vietnam and sent home. Besides taking over combat responsibilities from the departing Americans, the South Vietnamese had to deal with multiple changes in policy. General Abrams was clear on how the South Vietnamese were being asked to vault higher and higher hurdles. "We started out in 1968," he recalled. "We were going to get these people by 1974 where they could whip hell out of the VC-the VC. Then they changed the goal to lick the VC and the NVA-in South Viet nam. Then they compressed it. They've compressed it about three times, or four times-acceleration. So what we started out with to be over this kind of time"-indicating with his hands a long time-"is now going to be over this kind of time"-much shorter. "And if it's VC, NVA, interdiction, helping Cambodians and so on-that's what we're working with. And," Abrams cautioned, "you have to be careful on a thing like this, or you'll get the impression you're being screwed. You mustn't do that, 'cause it'll get you mad."
Among the most crucial of the policy changes was drop ping longstanding plans for a U.S. residual force to remain in South Vietnam indefinitely in a solution comparable to that adopted in western Europe and South Korea.
Meanwhile evidence of what the South Vietnamese were achieving was widely apparent. After a three-year absence from Vietnam, Thomas J. Barnes re turned to work in the pacification program in the autumn of 1971. "I have been struck by three principal improvements," he told General Fred Weyand, "rural prosperity, the way the Regional and Popular Forces have taken hold, and growing political and economic autonomy in the villages. One of our greatest contributions to pacification has been the re-estab lishment of the village in its historic Vietnamese role of relative inde pendence and self-sufficiency."
In January 1972 John Paul Vann, a senior official in pacification support, told friends that "we are now at the lowest level of fighting the war has ever seen. Today there is an air of prosperity throughout the ru ral areas of Vietnam, and it cannot be denied. Today the roads are open and the bridges are up, and you run much greater risk traveling any road in Vietnam today from the scurrying, bustling, hustling Hondas and Lambrettas than you do from the VC." And, added Vann, "this program of Vietnamization has gone kind of literally beyond my wildest dreams of success." Those were South Vietnamese accomplishments.
When, in late March of 1972, the enemy mounted a conventional invasion of South Vietnam by the equivalent of twenty divisions, a bloody pitched battle ensued. The enemy's "well-planned campaign" was de feated, wrote Douglas Pike, "because air power prevented massing of forces and because of stubborn, even heroic, South Vietnamese defense. Terrible punishment was visited on PAVN troops and on the PAVN trans portation and communication matrix." But, most important of all, "ARVN troops and even local forces stood and fought as never before."
Later critics said that South Vietnam had thrown back the invad ers only because of American air support. Abrams responded vigorously to that. "I doubt the fabric of this thing could have been held together without U.S. air," he told his commanders. "But the thing that had to happen before that is the Vietnamese, some numbers of them, had to stand and fight. If they didn't do that, ten times the air we've got wouldn't have stopped them."
The critics also disparaged South Vietnam's armed forces because they had needed American assistance in order to prevail. Meanwhile some 300,000 American troops were stationed in West Germany precisely because NATO could not stave off Soviet or Warsaw Pact aggression without American help, while in South Korea there were 50,000 American troops positioned spe cifically to help that country deal with any aggression from the north. And nobody suggested that, because they needed such American assistance, the armed forces of West Germany or South Korea should be ridi culed or reviled. Only South Vietnam (which was by now receiving only air support, not ground forces as in Germany and Korea) was singled out for such unfair and mean-spirited treatment.
"If anyone wants to know how the ARVN really fought," wrote James Banerian, "that person should ask the American advisors. They saw the airborne troops, the marines, rangers, infantry and armored units. The advisors are 'living and dead witnesses of the great heroic struggle' that was car ried on by the South Vietnamese with a sense of responsibility, resolute ness and durability."
South Vietnam did, with courage and blood, defeat the enemy's 1972 Easter Offensive. General Abrams had told President Thieu that it would be "the effectiveness of his field commanders that would determine the outcome," and they had proven equal to the challenge. South Viet nam's defenders inflicted such casualties on the invaders that it was three years before North Vietnam could mount another major offensive. By then, dramatic changes had taken place in the larger context. We will come to that shortly.
NGUYEN VAN THIEU
The sidebar is about the late Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's former President. Mr. Thieu led his country during years of exceptional diffi culty. While fighting against an external invasion and an internal insur gency, both supported and supplied by China and the Soviet Union, he put in place elected governments from the national level down through villages and hamlets, greatly expanded and-with American materiel and advisory support-improved the armed forces as they progressively took over the entire combat burden from withdrawing U.S. forces, personally led a pacification program which rooted out the covert infrastructure that had through coercion and terror dominated the rural population, instituted genuine land reform which gave 400,000 farmers title to 2.5 million acres of land, and organized four million citizens into a People's Self-Defense Force armed with 600,000 weapons.
Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, who headed the American embassy in Saigon for six years, got to know Thieu well and formed some settled judgments of the man and his performance. "He has han dled problems with a very considerable astuteness and skill," Bunker ob served. "He is an individual of very considerable intellectual capacity. He made the decision in the beginning to follow the constitutional road, not to rule with a clique of generals, which many of them expected he would do. He has been acting more and more like a politician [Bunker meant this as a compliment], getting out into the country, following up on paci fication, talking to people, seeing what they want." Bunker approved, and on another occasion compared the President to his principal rival for po litical leadership. "I thought that Thieu was a wiser, more solid person," Bunker stated.
Thieu was also realistic, telling Ambassador Bunker that "unfortu nately we do not have many real generals who know how to command more than a division," a category in which he modestly but accurately in cluded himself.
Given that most of the administrative ability in his country resided in the military establishment, and most of the political power as well, Thieu was constrained in replacing the corrupt and the in competent in high places, and likewise felt himself obliged to retain some who were loyal, if not all that able. Early in his presidency Thieu ex plained the situation to a senior American officer who reported the con versation this way: "Judging a wholesale purge of South Vietnamese offi cers as simply impossible, Thieu warned that each major command change would have to be carefully planned and orchestrated. The army could not be removed from politics overnight. The military establishment had been and still was his major political supporter and the only cohe sive force holding the country together."
Ambassador Bunker and General Abrams understood this, and were both patient and sympathetic, but they also made very pointed rec ommendations about senior officers who were not measuring up. Often their advice was accepted, even if some time elapsed while the political groundwork was laid. Over time, then, some major changes took place in South Vietnamese leadership, both civil and military, sometimes forced by battlefield crises. But there was never a wholesale housecleaning, nor could there have been. Not only would political chaos have resulted, but the requisite numbers of more viable replacements simply were not available. Producing them in the necessary abundance would have taken more time than there turned out to be.
On earlier occasions I have speculated that comparisons with American leadership of the time might have yielded interesting results. Nguyen Van Thieu, for example, was arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson, and-given the differences in their respective circumstances-quite likely a more effective president of his country. At the time someone pointed out that Mr. Thieu also probably had more freedom to move about in his own country than LBJ did in his.
The top Americans recognized President Thieu's importance in, particularly, the pacification campaign. Abrams observed that "he knows more about pacification than any other Vietnamese" and William Colby called him "the number one pacification officer." A history of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff identified as Thieu's most important attribute that "he recognized clearly the cardinal importance of the pacification cam paign and of the establishment of effective institutions of local govern_ment."
On a number of occasions Thieu invited Ambassador Bunker to go along on visits to the countryside, where Bunker heard him emphasize restoring local government, holding village and hamlet elections, training local government officials, and land reform. At Vung Tau 1,400 village chiefs, representing about three-quarters of all the villages in South Vietnam, went through training during the first nine months of 1969. President Thieu visited every one of those classes, giving the village chiefs the incomparable cachet of being able to go home and speak about what "President Thieu said to me-." By late 1969 the situation had improved so dramatically that John Paul Vann would tell an audience at Princeton that the "U.S. has won the military war, and is winning the po litical war via Thieu."
In document after document the enemy kept predicting and calling for a "popular uprising" amongst the South Vietnam, but in fact there was never any popular uprising in support of the enemy in South Viet nam. To any objective observer that does not seem too surprising in view of the enemy's record, year after year, of assassinations, kidnappings, terror bombings, impressments, and indiscriminate shellings of popula tion centers throughout South Vietnam, actions hardly calculated to win the hearts and minds of the victims.
In April 1968 President Thieu, against the advice of virtually all his advisors, activated what was called the People's Self-Defense Force. Thieu argued that "the government had to rest upon the support of the people, and it had little validity if it did not dare to arm them." Ultimately some four million people, those too old or too young for regular military service, were enrolled in the self-defense force and armed with 600,000 weapons. Establishing conclusively that the Thieu government did have the support of its own people, the self-defense forces used those weapons not against their own government but to fight against communist domi nation.
In October of 1971, in the midst of a bitter war, President Thieu ran unopposed for reelection. Many criticized him for that, suggesting that his victory was somehow not legitimate given the absence of opposi tion. But in that election, despite enemy calls for a boycott and warnings that voters would be targetted, an astounding 87.7 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and 91.5 percent of them cast their ballots for President Thieu. That constituted the largest voter turnout in Vietnamese history. If it didn't matter (since there was no opposition), or if the people did not approve of Thieu's leadership, why would they turn out in such numbers, often at real or potential personal risk, to express their support for his reelection? The answer is that, various critics notwithstanding, a very large majority of his countrymen valued Thieu's service and wished to see him continue in office.
"The basic fact of life," said John Paul Vann in January 1972, "and it is an inescapable one, is that the overwhelming majority of the popu lation-somewhere around 95 percent-prefer the government of Viet nam to a communist government or the government that's being offered by the other side."
By the time of the 1972 Easter Offensive, South Vietnam had un der President Thieu's leadership achieved the capacity to, with important help from U.S. airpower, successfully defend against North Vietnam's massive conventional invasion.
By the time the next offensive came, in the spring of 1975, South Vietnam's situation had changed dramatically. Not only had the Ameri can Congress enacted a statute prohibiting reintroduction of U.S. mili tary forces into Indochina, but the United States had also defaulted on its other promises of continued support.
Sadly, many South Vietnamese today are critical in their outlook on President Thieu. I have spoken about this with many Vietnamese friends now living in America. Recently one man in particular, an intelli gent and educated person, shocked me by saying that the Vietnamese think President Thieu lied to them. I asked him in what way. "He knew the Americans were going to abandon us, and he didn't tell us that," re sponded my friend.
I find that a harsh judgment, and a debatable one. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker recalled personally giving President Thieu three letters from President Nixon in which "he made a commitment" to come to the assistance of South Vietnam "in case of any major violation of the trea ties by the other side." But, observed Bunker, "the Congress...made it impossible to carry out those commitments." The result? "I think really it was a betrayal of the South Vietnamese," Bunker stated unequivocally. It is difficult for me to understand how President Thieu could be expected to have foreseen such an ignominious course of American action.
Mr. Thieu resigned the presidency a few days before the fall of Sai gon, hoping to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the war. In his vale dictory, he was understandably bitter about the outcome of the long years of struggle. That performance alone should serve to demonstrate that he was as stunned as any that the sometime American ally would, in a time of such crisis, turn its back on South Vietnam (and on all the sacrifices Americans had made there).
My view is that Nguyen Van Thieu performed heroically over long years of an extremely difficult war, in the process earning-whether he is accorded them or not-the respect and gratitude of all those who wished South Vietnam well.
AFTER THE PARIS ACCORD
Chunk Three deals with the situation after the Paris Accords were signed in January 1973. To induce the South Vietnamese to agree to the terms, viewed by them as fatally flawed in that they allowed the North Vietnamese to retain large forces in the South, President Nixon told President Thieu that if North Vietnam violated the terms of the agree ment and resumed its aggression against the South, the United States would intervene militarily to punish them for that. And, said Nixon, if re_newed fighting broke out, the United States would replace on a one-for-one basis major combat systems (tanks, artillery pieces, and so on) lost by the South Vietnamese, as was permitted by the Paris Accords. And fi nally, said Nixon, the United States would continue robust financial sup port for South Vietnam. In the event, the United States defaulted on all three of these promises.
Meanwhile North Vietnam was receiving unprecedented levels of support from its patrons. From January to September 1973, the nine months following the Paris Accords, said a 1994 history published in Hanoi, the quantity of supplies shipped from North Vietnam to its forces in the South was four times that shipped in the entire previous year. Even so that was miniscule compared to what was sent south from the beginning of 1974 until the end of the war in April 1975, a total during those sixteen months, reported the Communists, that was 2.6 times the amount delivered to the various battlefields during the preceding thirteen years.
If the South Vietnamese had shunned the Paris agreement, it was certain not only that the United States would have settled without them, but also that the U.S. Congress would then have moved swiftly to cut off further aid to South Vietnam. If, on the other hand, the South Vietnam ese went along with the agreement, hoping thereby to continue receiving American aid, they would be forced to accept an outcome in which North Vietnamese troops remained menacingly within their borders. With mortal foreboding, the South Vietnamese chose the latter course, only to find-dismayingly-that they soon had the worst of both, NVA forces en sconced in the south and American support cut off.
Many Americans would not like hearing it said that the totalitarian states of China and the Soviet Union had proven to be better and more faithful allies than the democratic United States, but that was in fact the case. William Tuohy, who covered the war for many years for the Wash ington Post, wrote that "it is almost unthinkable and surely unforgivable that a great nation should leave these helpless allies to the tender mer cies of the North Vietnamese," but that is what we did.
Colonel William LeGro served until war's end with the U.S. Defense Attache Office in Saigon. From that close-up vantage point he saw pre cisely what had happened. "The reduction to almost zero of United States support was the cause" of the final collapse, he observed. "We did a terri ble thing to the South Vietnamese."
Near the end, Tom Polgar, then serving as CIA's Chief of Station, Saigon, cabled a succinct assessment of the resulting situation: "Ulti mate outcome hardly in doubt, because South Vietnam cannot survive without U.S. military aid as long as North Vietnam's war-making capac ity is unimpaired and supported by Soviet Union and China."
Finally, Chunk Four deals with expatriate Vietnamese living in America. This is a great story, an inspiring story, and one that has re ceived far too little attention.
The aftermath of the war in Vietnam was as grim as had been feared. Seth Mydans writes perceptively and compassionately on South east Asian affairs for The New York Times. "More than a million south erners fled the country after the war ended," he has reported. "Some 400,000 were interned in camps for 're-education'-many only briefly, but some for as long as seventeen years. Another 1.5 million were forcibly resettled in 'new economic zones' in barren areas of southern Vietnam that were ravaged by hunger and extreme poverty."
Former Viet Cong Colonel Pham Xuan An later described his immense disillusionment with what a communist victory had meant to Vietnam. "All that talk about 'liberation' twenty, thirty, forty years ago," he lamented, "produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists."
Former North Vietnamese Army Colonel Bui Tin has been equally candid about the outcome of the war, even for the victors. "It is too late for my generation," he says, "the generation of war, of victory, and betrayal. We won. We also lost."
The price paid by the South Vietnamese in their long struggle to remain free proved grievous indeed. The armed forces lost 275,000 killed in action. Another 465,000 civilians lost their lives, many of them as sassinated by Viet Cong terrorists or felled by the enemy's indiscriminate shelling and rocketing of cities, and 935,000 more were wounded.
Of the million who became boat people an unknown number, feared to be many, lost their lives at sea. In Vietnam perhaps 65,000 others were executed by their self-proclaimed liberators. As many as 250,000 more perished in the brutal 'reeducation' camps. Two million, driven from their homeland, formed a new Vietnamese diaspora.
Many of these displaced Vietnamese now live in America. Recently Mydans visited the "Little Saigon" community around Westminster, California, site of some 3,000 businesses, then described the bustling, prosperous scene for The New York Times. It was, he suggested, "what Saigon might have looked like if America had won the war in 1975." And, he concluded, "There is nobody more ener getic than a Vietnamese immigrant." Campaigning in that same town of Westminster during his run for the presidency, Senator John McCain said to a large crowd of Vietnamese who had come to live in this country, "I thank you for what you have done for America."
Vietnamese expatriates in America have also not forgotten their kins men still living in Vietnam. Every year they send back an estimated two billion dollars to help sustain them. None of this has been easy for those who came to America. Nguyen Qui Duc wrote recently that, for expatriate Vietnamese, "painful memo ries of the war will always remain in our hearts." But, he added, "the cultural differences and homesickness they endure seem a fair price to be free."
Our culture and material well-being have been enriched by the Vietnamese who have come to America. We are lucky to have them.
By way of conclusion, I will just state my conviction that the war in Vietnam was a just war fought by the South Vietnamese and their allies for admirable purposes, that those who fought it did so with their mightiest hearts, and that in the process they came very close to succeeding in their purpose of enabling South Vietnam to sustain itself as a free and independent na tion.
A reporter once remarked that General Abrams was a man who deserved a better war. I quoted that observation to his eldest son, who im mediately responded: "He didn't see it that way. He thought the Vietnamese were worth it." As do I. Thank you.
TIME MAGAZINE COVERS DURING VIETNAM WAR
About the Author
Lewis Sorley is a third-generation graduate of the United States Military Academy and holds a Ph.D. degree from the Johns Hopkins University. During his two decades of military service he led tank and armored cavalry units in the United States, Germany and Vietnam, served in staff assignments in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Army Chief of Staff, and was on the faculties at West Point and the Army War College.
He is the author of two biographies, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times and Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command, and a history entitled A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. His most recent book is Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972.
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