Best Defense

Setting the record straight on the end of the Vietnam War (2): How it really ended

Here are some more facts to remember about the final chapters of the Vietnam war and the allegation that South Vietnam's defeat was solely caused by Congress and the peace movement, not faulty U.S. policies or failures by South Vietnamese leaders.

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By Arnold R. Isaacs
Best Defense guest historian

Here are some more facts to remember about the final chapters of the Vietnam war and the allegation that South Vietnam’s defeat was solely caused by Congress and the peace movement, not faulty U.S. policies or failures by South Vietnamese leaders:

— While deliberating on the 1974 aid budget, Congress was receiving stunningly inaccurate assessments of South Vietnam’s situation from Nixon administration officials. Henry Kissinger, the most prominent spokesman on Vietnam, repeatedly assured lawmakers that the previous year’s Paris ceasefire agreement had brought “peace with honor” and that major fighting had ended. Other officials were equally upbeat. “We do not put a high probability on an all-out offensive,” Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger declared in June 1974, adding that “the armed forces of South Vietnam are giving an excellent account of themselves when there are flare-ups of hostilities.” Consistent with those messages (and with their flawed representation of the facts), administration reports for many months understated South Vietnam’s post-ceasefire casualties by more than half, an error that was not corrected until well after the aid votes. In fact, the fighting in 1974 was heavier than in almost all previous years of the war, and more South Vietnamese soldiers were killed than in any year except 1972. If Congress underestimated Vietnam’s needs when it voted on the 1974 aid appropriation, the administration’s rosy and wildly inaccurate assessments surely bear some of the blame.

— South Vietnam’s strategy following the Paris agreement made the effects of the 1974 aid reductions much worse than they needed to be. President Nguyen Van Thieu’s policy after the ceasefire was exactly the same as it was at the height of the U.S. war: to maintain his government’s control over every foot of ground its army could occupy. Without U.S. troops and firepower, that goal was far less tenable. But Thieu and his generals never tried to come up with a more realistic strategy. Instead, they continued large-scale offensive operations for many months after the ceasefire (which was also ignored by the Communist side), occupying even more positions of no strategic value and that clearly could not be defended against the next major enemy attack. Many were enclaves that could only be supplied by air, a major drain on South Vietnam’s diminishing resources. In the closing months of 1974, as the tide of battle shifted against the government forces, many of those outlying positions were overrun. With them were lost thousands of men and mountains of ammunition, weapons and supplies that could have been conserved to defend more important areas. Those losses, coming while Thieu and his commanders were vociferously lamenting the shortfall in U.S. aid, were as predictable as they were unnecessary. There is no record, by the way, of any meaningful effort by U.S. officials to encourage a more realistic policy.

— To bring the aid story to its close: in April 1975, with South Vietnam’s army already in its final catastrophic retreat and defeat just a few weeks away, the Ford administration asked Congress for an additional $722 million in aid (expanding an earlier request for $300 million, the amount that had been authorized but not appropriated for the fiscal year). The $722 million request was patently symbolic, since almost no one in the administration or out really thought any of the additional arms or supplies would ever reach Vietnam. Before Congress acted, the war ended. The official who most energetically pushed that eleventh-hour aid proposal inside the administration was Henry Kissinger, author of the failed peace agreement and a man not known for indifference to his public image. It is difficult not to think that one of his motivations was to set the stage for putting the most possible blame on congressional Democrats for the impending defeat, and the least possible on his own actions. If so, judging by how widespread that impression is today, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

(To be continued) 

Arnold R. Isaacs was the Vietnam correspondent for the Baltimore Sun from 1972 to 1975, and is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Bruno Barbey/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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