Strategic disaster: Vietnam lessons for the current political season

Dr. Earl H. Tilford Jr.'s picture

During his recent Middle East and European tour, Senator Barack Obama stated his strategic positions on Iraq and Afghanistan, which involves a timetable for withdrawal of most, if not all, U.S. forces from Iraq, and redeploying some forces to Afghanistan, which Obama seems to think is the epicenter of the misnamed “War on Terror.” This would constitute strategic disaster.

During the 1968 presidential election, Republican candidate Richard Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War in his first term. Meanwhile, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic Party candidate, was stuck with “running for Lyndon Johnson’s second term.” At the end of October, in a vain effort to boost Humphrey’s chances, Johnson ended the already limited bombing of North Vietnam. Nixon won anyway, albeit barely.

Once in office, President Nixon found restarting the bombing of North Vietnam politically unpalatable. Nevertheless, saddled with his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. forces in four years, Nixon used air power to cover the retreat by covertly bombing enemy strongholds in the Cambodian border region and unleashing a massive “secret” bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hanoi’s 200-mile infiltration corridor through eastern portions of neutral Laos.

Despite dumping 3 million tons of bombs on the Trail, Hanoi’s infiltration of troops and supplies continued even as American force levels plummeted from a high of 569,000 troops in 1969 to little more than 60,000 by March 1972 when Hanoi launched its 14-division invasion from sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia.

Nixon’s response, Operation Linebacker, blunted the invasion and helped move peace talks forward to the point that his national security advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, claimed “peace is at hand” just before the 1972 presidential elections. When Saigon balked at the terms (which would have left the nation vulnerable to a communist takeover), Hanoi stood firm.

Nixon responded with more bombing: a 12-day campaign known as Linebacker II. The key to that operation was the destruction of Hanoi’s air defense system, leaving North Vietnam vulnerable to aerial annihilation.

While conceding nothing, Hanoi agreed to reopen negotiations. The last American forces pulled out of South Vietnam in early 1973 and Hanoi returned U.S. prisoners of war. Nixon called it “peace with honor.” To many air-power enthusiasts it “smelled like victory.” It was neither. Great nations do not make war so they can withdraw their forces (retreat by another name) and have their prisoners repatriated.

Nixon’s timetable spelled strategic disaster for South Vietnam. A premature withdrawal from Iraq risks much more since Iraq is far more strategically vital to U.S. interests than Indochina ever was.

The situation in Afghanistan begs the moniker “quagmire.” In the Vietnam War courses I taught over the last 30 years, when asked what is the essential lesson of that war, I answered it is that the United States should never again become involved in a civil war in a former European colony on the other side of the globe where the enemy has contiguous borders and sanctuaries in neighboring countries. Though meant to be facetious since every strategic challenge has its own dynamics, Afghanistan, in many ways, approximates that model.

The Taliban and its al-Qaeda cohorts evidentially possess an inviolate sanctuary in the wilds of Pakistan, just as the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies enjoyed in Laos and Cambodia—and this time it is impossible to use air power against them. Furthermore, because of drastic cuts in the size of U.S. military forces after 1991, America does not have the staying power for a long twilight war in Afghanistan.

Finally, there is this: After President John F. Kennedy backed down the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Soviets engaged in a massive strategic military buildup so that by 1969 they achieved rough nuclear parity with the West.

Currently, Russia and China are engaged in comprehensive military modernization programs while the United States slashes weapons modernization programs to fund maintenance on aging systems acquired during the Reagan years.

Great nations do not make war so they can retreat without victory. The current war, unlike any in our history, has yet to be properly identified as a global struggle, a total war pitting the Judeo-Christian West against Islamic Jihadists.

Until there is an unambiguous identification of the enemy and a clear statement of national strategic objectives, a viable military strategy cannot be devised. And tactical triumphs do not necessarily correlate with strategic victory. Any strategic vision focused on retreat augers disaster.

[Military historian and strategic analyst Dr. Earl Tilford, a retired Air Force intelligence officer and formerly a professor of history at Grove City (Penn.) College, is a fellow with the Center for Vision and Values. Dr. Tilford resides in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama during the Civil Rights struggle.]

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