- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With the stroke of a pen 36 years ago this month, a Democratic-majority Congress passed the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, a law that assured American politics, rather than battlefield achievement, would determine the freedom and fate of millions of South Vietnamese citizens.

The Fulbright-Aiken Amendment cut off funding for ongoing American military operations in support of our Vietnamese ally. The amendment outlined a dramatic change in policy that said:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of the law, on or after August 15, 1973, no funds herein or heretofore appropriated may be obligated or expended to finance directly or indirectly combat activities by United States military forces in or over or from off the shores of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.”

In Iraq, democracy is balancing on a razor’s edge. The National Defense University plans to release a report warning that Iraq’s fragile democracy is susceptible to future civil war if the Iraqi army and police are not given the support needed to succeed. Fulfilling his campaign promise, President Obama, with the support of a Democratic-majority Congress, began withdrawing troops early this year. A full-scale withdrawal is scheduled for 2011. But in the quest to fulfill campaign promises and score points with constituents, politicians must not forget the tragic lessons learned from Vietnam.

President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address was perhaps the lastaggressively stated call to the nation for selfless, sacrificial action, to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” In the first minutes of that speech, America’s charismatic new leader told the world that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The future for freedom seemed bright indeed — guaranteed by this willingness to invest American blood and treasure.

However, 10 years later, well before the last ground-combat troops left Vietnam in 1971, America had decided that Mr. Kennedy’s commitment to freedom had been met, its bill paid.

What is unfortunate about America’s reduced commitment to “pay any price, bear any burden” is that by 1972, the trend was beginning to favor South Vietnam. In a battle known as the Easter Offensive of 1972, the Republic of Vietnam’s military successfully repelled a communist invasion, without American ground forces. At the time, this led most American Marine advisers to conclude that — with continued logistical support and the promise to retaliate if the enemy violated a peace treaty signed later in 1973 — the South Vietnamese stood an excellent chance of keeping the invaders on their side of the demilitarized zone.

By all accounts, 1972 had been a particularly difficult year for the communists. The North Vietnamese army was believed to have lost more than 100,000 troops, 2 1/2 times that of the Republic of Vietnam. Intelligence revealed that the allied Christmas bombing campaign that year nearly drove the communists to seek peace, but U.S. politicians failed to exploit that edge.

However, in the halls of Congress, saving democracy in Vietnam took a back seat to the Watergate scandal. Feeling little obligation to stand behind the promises of an unpopular president, in 1973 the Democratic-majority Congress quietly passed Fulbright-Aiken. This did for the communists what all the fighting had failed to accomplish.

Though hardly discussed then and rarely mentioned today, Fulbright-Aiken’s simple perfidy signaled to the politically astute leadership in Hanoi, Moscow and Beijing that they were free to press ahead for final victory without fear of reprisal.

We will never know if Vietnam could have withstood and possibly defeated its invaders. What we do know is that by removing the support for our ally and deterrent for the communists, the unfortunate, inglorious end to Vietnam became a self-fulfilling outcome.

In the unending battle against liberty’s opponents, let us as Americans not underappreciate freedom’s appeal to those who do not have it. In Iraq, with significant but far less blood invested than in Vietnam, freedom miraculously appears to be taking hold. Its salutary impact even may be spreading to its neighbors. This month 36 years ago was the beginning of the end in Vietnam; let us learn from that mistake and hold fast to our commitment to support freedom for our allies and the Iraqi citizens who dream of it.

Richard Botkin is the author of “Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Honor and Triumph.”

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