25 June 2005

Lind on Nixon's Strategic and Tactical Failures

Nixon's dramatic opening to China marked the beginning of an informal Sino-American alliance against the Soviet Union that would last until the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, Mao's regime continued to compete with Moscow for influence in Indochina by supplying the anti-American forces until the bitter end in 1975. Nor did Nixon's divide-and-rule strategy toward the two communist giants succeed in reducing Soviet material or diplomatic support for North Vietnam. The Soviets were not willing to allow Soviet-American tensions over Vietnam to disrupt their negotiations over other issues, such as ratifying the status quo in Europe and limiting the arms race (to the advantage of the Soviet Union, which had a comparative advantage in conventional military forces in Eastern Europe). But neither did the Soviets see fit to reduce the stream of supplies to North Vietnam, or to make a serious effort to pressure Hanoi into ending tbe war. Moscow was able to have it both ways. It could engage in global detente (defined as American acceptance of the equality of the Soviet empire as a military and diplomatic superpower) even as it helped Hanoi bleed the United States in Southeast Asia.

In addition to failing to separate Hanoi from its Soviet and Chinese patrons, the Nixon-Kissinger policy gravely weakened the ability of the United States to wage the ideological war that was an essential component of the containment strategy. Even if he had received more in return, Nixon's dining and drinking and sailing with the totalitarian rulers of the Soviet empire and the Chinese dictatorship tended to undermine the claim that there was a moral difference between the two sides in the Cold War. Kissinger's allusions to nineteenth-century European Realpolitik had a similar effect.

Nixon's policy toward the Soviet Union and China, then, conceded too much in the ideological war, while producing few benefits in the Vietnam War. Nixon's tactics were as flawed as his strategy. Nixon hoped that airpower alone would be sufficient to ensure the survival of South Vietnam, once U.S. combat troops had been completely withdrawn. The Watergate scandal and the crisis that ended in Nixon's resignation and his replacement by the unelected Gerald Ford made a dead letter of Nixon's secret written assurances to South Vietnam's president Thieu that the United States would respond with air strikes to North Vietnamese violations of the Paris peace accords. Even without the congressional cutoff of U.S. military involvement in Indochina, it seems unlikely that any endgame that did not lead to an indefinite Korean-style commitment of U.S. forces to Indochina probably would have doomed South Vietnam along with Laos and Cambodia.

Nixon's Vietnam policy, then, was a resounding failure in every way. Worst of all, in pursuing an unworkable plan, Nixon added an additional twenty-four thousand to the American death toll in the Vietnam War. After all of those additional sacrifices, the United States abandoned Indochina anyway. The difference between allowing Indochina to fall in 1970 and allowing it to fall in 1975 may have been the difference between the loss of public support for one Cold War intervention and a public backlash against the Cold War as a whole....

The American public turned against the Vietnam War not because it was persuaded by the radical and liberal left that it was unjust, but out of sensitivity to its rising costs. According to polling data, there was higher public support for the Vietnam War than there had been for the Korean War when comparable numbers of casualties had been reached. In both Asian proxy wars support declined as body counts rose. In 1965, only 25 percent of the American public thought that it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam. The number rose to 31 percent in November 1966 and to 46 percent in October 1967. By June 1968, more than 50 percent agreed that dispatching troops to Indochina had been a mistake. In the next few years, opposition to the Vietnam War metastasized into opposition to Cold War intervention anywhere. According to one poll, in 1975 a majority of Americans surveyed opposed sending U.S. troops to defend any ally from invasion--with the sole exception of Canada.
SOURCE: Vietnam, the Necessary War: A Reinterpretation of America's Most Disastrous Military Conflict, by Michael Lind (Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. 135-138

No comments: