Within two years, Nixon and Kissinger reduced the number of American troops in Vietnam to 156,800; the last ground combat forces left three and a half years after Nixon took office. It had taken Charles de Gaulle longer than that to end France’s involvement in Algeria. (Frustration over the failure to withdraw even quicker rests on two difficult assumptions: that the impossibility of preserving South Vietnam in any form was accepted in 1969, and that the North Vietnamese had always been negotiating in good faith. Still, the continuation of the war past 1969 will forever be Nixon’s and Kissinger’s original sin.)
That successful troop withdrawal was facilitated by a bombing incursion into Cambodia—primarily into areas replete with North Vietnamese military redoubts and small civilian populations, over which the Cambodian government had little control. The bombing, called “secret” by the media, was public knowledge during 90 percent of the time it was carried out, wrote Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard professor who served on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council. The early secrecy, he noted, was to avoid embarrassing Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk and complicating peace talks with the North Vietnamese.
The troop withdrawals were also facilitated by aerial bombardments of North Vietnam. Victor Davis Hanson, the neoconservative historian, writes that, “far from being ineffective and indiscriminate,” as many critics of the Nixon-Kissinger war effort later claimed, the Christmas bombings of December 1972 in particular “brought the communists back to the peace table through its destruction of just a few key installations.” Hanson may be a neoconservative, but his view is hardly a radical reinterpretation of history; in fact, he is simply reading the news accounts of the era. Soon after the Christmas bombings, Malcolm W. Browne of The New York Times found the damage to have been “grossly overstated by North Vietnamese propaganda.” Peter Ward, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, wrote, “Evidence on the ground disproves charges of indiscriminate bombing. Several bomb loads obviously went astray into civilian residential areas, but damage there is minor, compared to the total destruction of selected targets.”
The ritualistic vehemence with which many have condemned the bombings of North Vietnam, the incursion into Cambodia, and other events betrays, in certain cases, an ignorance of the facts and of the context that informed America’s difficult decisions during Vietnam.
The troop withdrawals that Nixon and Kissinger engineered, while faster than de Gaulle’s had been from Algeria, were gradual enough to prevent complete American humiliation. This preservation of America’s global standing enabled the president and the secretary of state to manage a historic reconciliation with China, which helped provide the requisite leverage for a landmark strategic arms pact with the Soviet Union—even as, in 1970, Nixon and Kissinger’s threats to Moscow helped stop Syrian tanks from crossing farther into Jordan and toppling King Hussein. At a time when defeatism reigned, Kissinger improvised in a way that would have impressed Palmerston.
Yes, Kissinger’s record is marked by nasty tactical miscalculations—mistakes that have spawned whole libraries of books. But the notion that the Nixon administration might have withdrawn more than 500,000 American troops from Vietnam within a few months in 1969 is problematic, especially when one considers the complexities that smaller and more gradual withdrawals in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan later imposed on military planners. (And that’s leaving aside the diplomatic and strategic fallout beyond Southeast Asia that America’s sudden and complete betrayal of a longtime ally would have generated.)
Despite the North Vietnamese invasion of eastern Cambodia in 1970, the U.S. Congress substantially cut aid between 1971 and 1974 to the Lon Nol regime, which had replaced Prince Sihanouk’s, and also barred the U.S. Air Force from helping Lon Nol fight against the Khmer Rouge. Future historians will consider those actions more instrumental in the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia than Nixon’s bombing of sparsely populated regions of Cambodia six years earlier.
When Saigon fell to the Communists, in April of 1975, it was after a heavily Democratic Congress drastically cut aid to the South Vietnamese. The regime might not have survived even if Congress had not cut aid so severely. But that cutoff, one should recall, was not merely a statement about South Vietnam’s hopelessness; it was a consequence of Watergate, in which Nixon eviscerated his own influence in the capital, and seriously undermined Gerald Ford’s incoming administration. Kissinger’s own words in Ending the Vietnam War deserve to echo through the ages:
None of us could imagine that a collapse of presidential authority would follow the expected sweeping electoral victory [of Nixon in 1972]. We were convinced that we were working on an agreement that could be sustained by our South Vietnamese allies with American help against an all-out invasion. Protesters could speak of Vietnam in terms of the excesses of an aberrant society, but when my colleagues and I thought of Vietnam, it was in terms of dedicated men and women—soldiers and Foreign Service officers—who had struggled and suffered there and of our Vietnamese associates now condemned to face an uncertain but surely painful fate. These Americans had honestly believed that they were defending the cause of freedom against a brutal enemy in treacherous jungles and distant rice paddies. Vilified by the media, assailed in Congress, and ridiculed by the protest movement, they had sustained America’s idealistic tradition, risking their lives and expending their youth on a struggle that American leadership groups had initiated, then abandoned, and finally disdained.