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The Wrong Question

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Peter Rodman:

Military historians seem to be converging on a consensus that by the end of 1972, the balance of forces in Vietnam had improved considerably, increasing the prospects for South Vietnam’s survival. That balance of forces was reflected in the Paris Agreement of January 1973, and the (Democratic) Congress then proceeded to pull the props out from under that balance of forces over the next 2 1/2 years — abandoning all of Indochina to a bloodbath.

I don’t think that Rodman is quite wrong, but he’s extremely misleading. I suspect that most major historians of the Vietnam War would concur that, as long as the United States continued to pour blood and treasure into the war, South Vietnam could have been propped up indefinitely. US and South Vietnamese forces had more or less contained the expansion of the Viet Cong, although they had been unable to force it out of South Vietnamese territory. South Vietnamese ground forces were consistently torn apart by their North Vietnamese counterparts when they encountered them in anything like equal terms, but heavy US air support and the deployment of relatively small numbers of US ground troops could hold off conventional North Vietnamese offensives.

None of that means much, though. US military action had utterly failed to do the two things necessary to producing even a draw in the war; destroy North Vietnamese will to unify the country, or create a South Vietnamese state that could stand against the North on its own. By 1972, the North Vietnamese had been fighting for over thirty years for a unified, independent Vietnam, and they showed no indication of giving up anytime soon. They agreed to the settlement of 1972 because they understood a full US ground withdrawal was the death knell of South Vietnam; they had offered nearly identical terms four years earlier, on the same understanding. Moreover, everyone else understood this, too. The Christmas Bombing was designed more to assure the South Vietnamese political class that they weren’t being abandoned than to bring the North to the table. There’s ample evidence that Kissinger and Nixon understood the peace in 1972 to be strictly temporary, and in fact fighting between the North and South began almost immediately after the armistice. As for the fates of Laos and Cambodia, continued US presence in South Vietnam had done little to stem Communist gains in the former, and had abetted the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the latter.

In narrow military terms, the US had the capacity in 1972 to prevent South Vietnamese collapse, and in some sense the South Vietnamese position was stronger than it had been during parts of the 1960s. But these facts are almost irrelevant to the conclusion of the war; the North Vietnamese weren’t going to give up, and knew that they could force the US to pay a higher price than it was willing to by continuing the fighting. Everyone on all sides of the conflict understood these basic points, and only someone who utterly refuses to acknowledge the political dimension of military conflict could misunderstand the situation as badly as Rodman.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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