40/ War criminal Colby condemns War Criminal
Robert McNamara's "In Retrospect" adds yet another account of the Vietnam War that stops in 1968, seven years before it ended, just as did Frances FitzGerald's "Fire in the lake", David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest" and the Pentagon Papers, published about that time. Even Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" and Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam", published after the war, essentially do the same, Sheehan devoting only some 70 of almost 800 pages and Karnow only about 100 of almost 700 pages to the period after 1968.
The historical record given to most Americans is therefore similar to what we would know if histories of World War Il stopped before Stalingrad, Operation Torch in North Africa and Guadalcanal in the Pacific. The comparison is not out of line, as the ensuing years of the Vietnam War saw equally major changes in the tactics and strategy of South Vietnam and the United States from the confused and inappropriate steps taken during the early and mid-1960s, about which Mr McNamara appropriately and belatedly complains and for which he blames himself.
None can contest that the war ended in a Communist victory in 1975. But its progress prior to that collapse had many of the elements McNamara complains were missing in the earlier years, and deserves equal treatment in serious historical accounts of the whole experience. They demonstrated that the Americans and their South Vietnamese ally did indeed learn how to fight the North Vietnamese, and might have prevented the agony and shame that followed the 1975 victory.
A few points of history during that period:
The United States withdrew its 500,000-plus combat troops between 1969 and 1972.
The Vietnamization program built the Vietnamese Army and territorial forces as the principal ground force for the continued battle.
The pacification program freed the rural countryside of Communist guerrillas, primarily by recruiting them and arming local self-defense forces in the villages, resettling the refugees in their original communities and offering a better life of land reform and local development than communism could provide.
By 1972, Hanoi recognized that it had lost the "people's war" and turned to the "soldiers' war" the Americans had wrongly pursued under McNamara's direction. It launched conventional military offensives at three points on South Vietnam's frontiers.
The South Vietnamese Army met those attacks, stood them and pushed them back across the frontier. No U.S. ground forces were involved,
The United States did provide massive logistic support and punishing air power, which played a major role in the success.
The fundamental U.S. objective in Vietnam was achieved, an independent and non-Communist South Vietnam able to defend itself with American support but without U.S. ground combat involvement.
But how can this assertion be reconciled with the collapse in 1975 ? Simple. In the interim, despite open evidence of the North Vietnamese violations of the 1973 "Peace Agreement", Congress drastically cut back on appropriations for U.S, logistic support, and President Gerald Ford had no possibility whatever of ordering U.S. air power into action in the face of the War Powers Resolution and the congressional mood. President Nixon's written pledge to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would react "with full force" to a North Vietnamese violation of the peace agreement was to no avail, even if it was the condition that led to Mr Thieu's acceptance of the agreement.
McNamara has revived the polarization of American society with his belated confession that his actions failed. His book does not, however, reflect that his errors were actually reversed on the ground in Vietnam in the years following his departure from the scene. It thus too pat for him to agonize that America should not have been there at all, in effect vindicating the anti-war movement. He cannot in the process justify the miserable regime that followed the Communist victory, with its several hundred thousands brutally incarcerated in "reeducation" camps, a million more fleeing in leaking boats into exile or death at sea and its rumination of the economic prospects of a land that could have been one of the Asian "tigers."
McNamara's responsibility for the final outcome is certainly immense, as it was his failed policies of the 1960s which turned the American people totally against even the minor involvement in Vietnam that occurred during the 1972 offensive. He should not be contemptuously slandering Vietnamese who gave their lives and efforts to prevent Communist rule, but who saw their great-power protector wash its hands of them because of the costs of McNamara's failed policies. The cause was indeed "noble". America fought it the wrong way under McNamara, and lost it in good part because of him.
[Source: Article published in the Washington Post, 27 April 1995. Posted by Kim Nguyen <[email protected]> on SEASIA-L <[email protected]> on 23 November 1995.]