By Col. Gregory A. Daddis, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt recently interviewed national security advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, covering a host of foreign policy topics: the political unrest in Venezuela, the nuclear threat from North Korea, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
That very week, the American Historical Association shared its disappointment when “a presidential adviser told a group of congressional interns that they should not worry about studying history or reading books when it comes to important issues like the Middle East.” Apparently, White House officials were not looking for history lessons but, rather, real solutions.
As McMaster and the national security staff pursue possible solutions to the president’s “competing impulses” on Afghanistan, reviewing the historical record indeed might help infuse some added wisdom into our current foreign policy there. In fact, the final years of the United States’ long war in Vietnam offer us all an opportunity to gain valuable perspective on what seems to be worrying the general most in Central Asia.
Clearly, McMaster is well-versed on the decision-making leading to American involvement in Vietnam. Yet an evaluation of the withdrawal years suggests the difficulties of exiting a war often are far trickier than entering one.
When Hewitt asked McMaster how best to communicate with Americans about the Afghan war, the general replied they needed answers to two questions: what is at stake in Afghanistan and what is “the strategy that secures an outcome consistent with the vital interests of the American people.” To McMaster the outcome in Afghanistan had to be “worthy of the sacrifices that our servicemen and women are making.”
These same words easily could have been spoken by General Creighton Abrams at any point between 1968 and 1972 while in charge of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV). Over the course of those four years, Abrams debated with the Nixon White House — often in private, sometimes in public — over a vast array of tense strategic questions concerning how the United States could achieve “peace with honor” as it withdrew from Vietnam.
Throughout Nixon’s first term in office, the president deliberated with his principal advisers on the pace of negotiations in Paris, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, the improvement of South Vietnam’s security apparatus, and the potential for breaking Hanoi’s will. Often, such questions placed Abrams in direct confrontation with the NSC staff, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and even the president himself.
The MACV commander particularly worried, as did then national security advisor Henry Kissinger, that the rapid withdrawal of American forces might undermine diplomatic efforts. Senior military officers stewed that political, rather than military, reasons were determining the pace of troop reductions. The often hot-tempered Abrams fumed that the loss of combat troops put American lives in jeopardy.
And how, Kissinger queried, could U.S. diplomats effectively bargain in Paris when each troop redeployment placed them in a weaker position compared to Hanoi. McMaster mirrored these sentiments more than forty-five years later, asking Hewitt, “How does it work when your enemy believes that they are ascendant militarily if you are trying to negotiate some kind of an agreement?”
Other paradoxes came to light back in the spring of 1970 when President Nixon decided to expand the war into neighboring Cambodia, ostensibly to shorten the one inside South Vietnam. And an incursion into Laos the following year only exacerbated domestic dissent and set into motion a downward spiral in civil-military relations that twice nearly cost Abrams his job.
In fact, the ongoing withdrawal from Vietnam — all while extending the fighting into Cambodia and Laos — exposed numerous problems between the White House and MACV headquarters: a lack of trust between civilian and military leaders, a broken dialogue over strategic planning, and sharp disagreements in assessing diplomatic progress, Saigon’s political maturation, and the strength of South Vietnam’s army. In the end, Abrams proved unable to plan and implement a withdrawal from Vietnam that gave those in uniform what they wanted most—a military victory.
Certainly, the very complexity of a war in which social, political, and diplomatic factors oftentimes contradicted military imperatives served as a central reason why Nixon and Abrams so often seemed out of synch with each other. Vietnam remained throughout a conflict of numerous, competing dimensions.
But while McMaster and other national security analysts seek options for “winning” in Afghanistan — to include weighing arguments from those who seek to privatize the war effort — they might do well do look backwards as they seek a conclusion to our decades’ long war there. Without question, literature on the Vietnam War is contested space. But the history of that conflict arguably offers the best starting point for asking hard questions about whether “winning” (however defined) indeed is possible and how the United States ultimately withdraws from a war with no real end in sight.
Gregory A. Daddis is director of the graduate program in War and Society at Chapman University and author of the forthcoming book Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam.
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