- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010

Thirty-five years ago saw one of the most disgraceful episodes in American history. South Vietnam’s capital of Saigon fell to communist North Vietnamese troops, bringing a close to the Vietnam War, a conflict that the United States lost by choice.

The Vietnam War could have turned out much differently. As veterans of the conflict often say, “We were winning when I left.” But President Johnson’s limited war sought not victory but stalemate. He wanted to preserve South Vietnam’s freedom but not destroy the principal threat to that freedom in Hanoi. In 1965, Johnson said he sought to convince the communists of “a very simple fact: We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” Yet 10 years later, the United States had done all of the above.

Had the United States fought North Vietnam as it had any other enemy in its history, the conflict would have been settled speedily. However, fear of escalation and Chinese intervention caused Johnson to severely limit the use of force against the North. He chose to fight the war on unfavorable terms in the South, which was a long-term recipe for failure; nevertheless, the United States and South Vietnamese armed forces foiled every North Vietnamese attack. The 1968 Tet Offensive, the last-ditch attempt to achieve a communist victory, was a historic military defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, which a demoralized U.S. government and skeptical press turned into an American political defeat.

After Johnson left office in disgrace, President Nixon’s war - termed the “Better War” by historian and Vietnam veteran Lewis Sorley - demonstrated a model for long-term success in South Vietnam. The United States withdrew its combat forces and “Vietnamized” the war, bolstering our allies with materiel, intelligence and air support. The proof of the success of this model was the 1972 Easter Offensive, in which Hanoi violated the terms of the truce and conducted a major conventional attack on the South. The offensive was turned back by a combination of tenacious defense by South Vietnamese forces and unrestrained U.S. bombing in the North. “The surgical operation theory is all right,” Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, “but I want that place, whenever the planes are available, bombed to smithereens during the blockade. If we draw the sword out, we’re going to bomb those bastards all over the place.” America was finally speaking a language the communists understood.

Ultimately, South Vietnam became a casualty of American domestic politics: Watergate, the oil crisis and a general crisis of national confidence. The 1973 Paris Peace Agreement was a flawed deal forced on Saigon with promises of future support that were soon broken. President Nixon was hounded from office. The emboldened Democratic Congress cut aid to South Vietnam and left the Paris Peace Agreement unenforceable. President Ford was too weak politically to force the issue, even if he had wanted to.

Hanoi seized the opportunity in the spring of 1975 and invaded the South. The South Vietnamese mounted a spirited defense but soon ran out of ammunition and supplies. Hanoi, meanwhile, was amply supplied by its communist patrons in Moscow and Beijing. By the end of April 1975, South Vietnam was in its death throes, Americans were being choppered out from Saigon rooftops and the world saw the United States as a pitiful, enfeebled giant.

America’s betrayal of South Vietnam has been an inspiration to foreign insurgents and domestic activists and politicians who have sought to replicate it whenever U.S. forces have been deployed abroad. U.S. military might is only as strong as the politicians who stand behind it. The lesson for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is that America will prevail with strong will and determined leadership. A disgrace like April 1975 must never happen again.