The long good-bye

The parallel to Iraq is far from exact, but still might be instructive:

 It took many years to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.


A Marine veteran of the Gulf War, Quang X. Pham is an entrepreneur and author of “A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey.”  This was adapted from a talk he gave last week at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace.

Anyone interested in bringing an end to the war in Iraq might want to revisit the waning days of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam. The lesson is that, absent annihilation by nuclear weapons or unconditional surrender, ending wars takes years, especially complicated and controversial wars.

President Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam War from the Democrats, and he brought it to a conclusion for America. It was called a “peace with honor,” but not for its ally, South Vietnam. Somebody had to lose.

Starting a war is easy; somebody fires the first shot or invades another country.

My father had enlisted in 1954 when Vietnam was divided into two countries, and I landed in Saudi Arabia in 1990. After 21 years, my father’s war ended in a rapid, public and humiliating defeat; the communists marched him into the re-education camps for more than a decade.

My war was the 100-hour sandbox skirmish called Desert Storm, after which President George H.W. Bush declared to Congress, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.”

The war in Iraq is at a major crossroads, somewhat similar to Vietnam in 1969. The Iraqi military is under the microscope, like the South Vietnamese, but on a much shorter leash and timeline. It will be on its own soon – the sooner, the better. South Vietnam’s Achilles heel was its dependence on the U.S. weaponry (later cut off by Congress) and way of waging war. Corruption and inept leadership contributed to the defeat.


After running on a platform to end the protracted conflict, Nixon won the Oval Office at the height of the war in 1968. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger began direct secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese behind the Saigon government’s back.

In 1965 the United States had taken over conduct of the war, with troop strength peaking at 560,000. Before that, the South Vietnamese had fought the brewing war themselves, with the help of American advisers who were first dispatched by President John F. Kennedy. South Vietnam also had a young but capable air force – my father’s service – along with a navy, Airborne troops, Rangers and Marines.

The South Vietnamese military hurriedly expanded its capabilities with the goal of replicating the military philosophy, tactics and structure of their great ally. Unfortunately, this meant inheriting the associated cost, complexity and continued dependence on the United States.

South Vietnam’s military was tested in the biggest battles of the war, larger than anything U.S. ground troops had faced in previous years: Lam Son 719 (the incursion into Laos), the Easter Offensive (the largest battle of the war and one where the South Vietnamese withstood a 120,000-man assault, albeit with the help of U.S. advisers and air power), and the final offensive by the North in 1975.

Diplomacy and re-election

In a taped conversation declassified by the U.S. National Archives in 2003, Nixon and Kissinger mulled over the situation in Vietnam in preparation for the presidential election of 1972. It worried Nixon that “losing” South Vietnam (thus making him the first U.S. president to lose a war) would cost him his re-election. “If we settle it, say, this October [1972], by January ’74, no one will give a damn,” Kissinger coldly said to Nixon.

Nixon needed to get the American Prisoners of War (POWs) home from Hanoi. Some had remained in captivity for years, the longest reaching nine.

There were other re-election concerns for the Nixon administration. Nuclear-arms limitation negotiations were under way with the Soviets. The situation in the Middle East involving Israel and Egypt, along with subsequent oil crisis, was threatening.

Kissinger also met secretly with the Beijing government, which led to Nixon’s landmark visit to China in February 1972, just a month before the Easter Offensive began. Detente with the Soviets and a direct channel to China meant that Vietnam remained a burr under the saddle of U.S. foreign policy.

In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed; Kissinger took home the Nobel Peace Prize while his co-recipient and North Vietnamese counterpart rightfully declined. Three key provisions (or concessions) in the accords would contribute to the fall of Saigon. First, the North Vietnamese were allowed to keep 150,000 soldiers in the south. Second, the United States would retaliate if North Vietnam violated the accords. Finally, and most important, the United States would continue to aid South Vietnam unconditionally. The latter two provisions would never happen.

Domestic disruptions

The anti-war movement was adamant about ending the war – Saigon had to fall. The high U.S. casualty rate, the Kent State National Guard shootings, Jane Fonda’s visit to Hanoi and the My Lai massacre drained the American psyche. The invasion of Cambodia added fuel to the fire. Failing to declare war, Congress intervened, and the War Powers Resolution took effect. Watergate loomed in the background, then exploded.

In August 1974, President Nixon resigned from office. The news sent a shock wave throughout South Vietnam, for he was seen as its last savior. To make matters worse, in the same year Congress reduced the amount of aid to South Vietnam, signaling its impending abandonment. The new anti-war class entered Congress, and they ensured that the United States would not re-engage in Southeast Asia, despite what had been signed in Paris.

In retrospect

America’s withdrawal from Vietnam took place over four years. Two years later Saigon fell to a modern army, armed to the teeth with the latest Soviet-bloc weaponry, not some ragtag insurgency bent on killing innocent civilians.

Ten years after Nixon resigned from office and long after the Vietnam War had ended, I stood on the tarmac wearing my dress uniform at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. A Boeing aircraft with “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” emblazoned on its side had brought the 37th president home to Orange County one last time. From a hundred yards away, a few lucky Marines and I witnessed the Nixon family and his casket deplane. A chilling 21-gun salute followed.

Nixon was a complicated man for a complicated time. In the end, despite the distractions, he did what was best for the United States, not for South Vietnam. Today, with the anti-Iraq-war movement getting some steam, with Katrina and Rita relief efforts and other hot-button issues occupying the Bush administration, it will still take years before our military comes home.

And there’s no guarantee for the people of Iraq after that.

Re-print with permission from Quang X. Pham

©Vietnamese & American Veterans of the Vietnam War, 2005 All Rights Reserved

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