Thursday, December 28, 2006

Jerry Ford's legacy: The dark side (2)

President Ford with George Harrison and Billy Preston in the Oval Office.

(White House Photograph Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library/Photographer: David Hume Kennerly)

Yes, Ford occasionally hung out with hippies. At least for photo-ops.

But another important aspect of Ford's legacy as President that is very much with us today is his role in creating and perpetrating the "stab-in-the-back" mythology of the US and South Vietnamese defeat in the Vietnam War. Ford was of course President during the last months before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN).

Ford was instrumental in enabling more constructive lessons from the Vietnam War to be developed by the government and the military. Part of Ford's "healing" process was to try to get people to shut the hell up about the war and its lessons. John Schaar wrote in The American Amnesia New York Review of Books 06/24/75 issue (behind subscription):

Surely the most striking aspect of the present [1975] political scene is the absence of the recent past from it. There seems to be something like a tacit agreement among the presidential contenders, and between them and the public, that the record of recent events has no bearing on our present condition and future prospects. The closest Ford comes to touching the past is in vague allusions to some dragon called détente, which he will guard us against just as he will preserve our ethnic treasures here at home. Those fronts secured, we can move forward into the third century, which is to be the century of American Individualism. Ronald Reagan sounds like Teddy Roosevelt, all teeth and bluster, about to lead the Rough Riders in another charge, this time into the Panama Canal. Jimmy Carter overleaps the recent past by centuries, and assures us that America still stands in a covenant of nations with God. The people and their leaders agree: let's forget the recent past and get on with the business of building a brighter future. That, of course, is exactly the advice Nixon gave the nation at the height of Watergate.

This silence is all the more remarkable when one remembers that among the events unspoken are a constitutional crisis greater than any since the Civil War, absolute proof that for years national law enforcement and intelligence agencies violated law and elementary decency here and abroad, and a desolating war in Southeast Asia. The constitutional crisis has been reduced to an exciting film entertainment about the thrills and triumphs of investigative reporting, and to something like court scandal based on dubious research methods and ethics. Behind the scenes, the war continues to exist in the same basic doctrines and inflated military budgets that produced and sustained it in the first place. Out front, it exists only in occasional stories about the affairs of Lieutenant Calley and the difficulties of adjustment experienced by the Vietnamese refugees.

As the Mayagüez incident showed, not even the most obvious "lessons" of Vietnam have been accepted. In that episode, President Ford replayed Vietnam in miniature. He unleashed force against a small Asian country without consultation outside the Executive. The force was vastly greater than any sensible appraisal of the situation would have recommended. The affair was misrepresented to the public and casualty lists were falsified. The president crowed that the encounter was a victory for America, proving once again that we would stand behind our word and use our arms to back our interests.

Ford's distinguished predecessor, Tricky Dick himself, laid out his version the stab-in-the-back theory with his distinctive venom and dishonesty in No More Vietnams (1985).  Focusing specifically on the 1974-75 period, he wrote:

I was shocked by the irresponsibility of the antiwar majority in Congress. South Vietnam was a small country that depended on the United States for help in order to survive against a brutal onslaught from a totalitarian power. Senators and congressmen who demanded that our South Vietnamese allies stand alone were being totally unfair. None would expect South Korea to be able to deter an attack from North Korea without the presence of 50,000 American troops. None would expect the countries of Western Europe to hold off the Soviet Union without the help of 300,000 of our troops and a threat of American nuclear retaliation to back them up. None would expect Israel to be able to survive attacks from its enemies without massive military assistance from the United States. Yet they were unwilling to allow us to retaliate against a North Vietnamese invasion or even to provide the South Vietnamese with enough ammunition for their guns.

I could understand their desire to put the Vietnam War behind us. But I could not understand why they seemed so determined to see South Vietnam conquered by North Vietnam. Whatever their intentions, that was the effect of their actions. ...

Hanoi's leaders could not believe their good fortune as the antiwar majority in Congress did their work for them. ...

Congress turned its back on a noble cause and a brave people. South Vietnam simply wanted the chance to fight for its survival as an independent country. All that the United States had to do was give it the means to continue the battle. Our South Vietnamese friends were asking us to give them the tools so they could finish the job. Congress would not, so our allies could not. (my emphasis)

Nobody could lie quite the way Dick Nixon could. It's amazing. Rush Limbaugh will never come close, no matter how much OxyContin he takes.

I addressed the stab-in-the-back myth here back in July 2005. I'll refer you to that post for a fairly long discussion of the whole thing, focusing in particular on the 1974-75 period.

There were many problems that led to the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime.  In those last months, massive corruption problems and abuse of the local population by ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) forces were major factors undermining the Saigon government.

This article, Vietnam: After the Debacle by Jean Lacouture New York Review of Books 05/01/75 issue (behind subscription), from the time just before the end of the South Vietnamese regime noted a major problem generated by the ARVN itself. Reporting on the refugees being generated during what would prove to be the last weeks of the fighting, Lacouture wrote:

If few reports of the exodus have made clear how many of the refugees are tied to the government, some reports, especially in US papers, have at least given us some idea of another factor, showing us that the South Vietnamese army itself has caused terrible disorder, pillaging, extorting, terrorizing helpless local populations. One can imagine the hysteria of people who see turned against them the weapons of their own defenders.

Jeffrey Record of the Air War College in The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam (1998) looks carefully at the various options open to the United States.  He writes that the PAVN and the NLF (Vietcong) were unable to defeat the American military while they were in the lead combat role:

Yet such a solution could never endure against a determined Hanoi and capable PAVN absent a permanent and significant U.S. force presence in South Vietnam and to a constant U.S. willingness to reenter the war whenever it was necessary to forestall a decisive South Vietnamese defeat.  The United States could not have picked a more intractable enemy and a feebler ally than it did in Indochina, and while the United States was never prepared to accept the Vietnam War's permanent Americanization, neither was it able to build a South Vietnamese nation capable of surviving without a massive U.S. military presence.  (my emphasis)

The North Vietnamese and the NLF probably surpassed the Iraqi insurgents in tenacity and commitment to their cause.  But when it comes to feeble allies, the Thieu regime in South Vietnam was a rock-solid ally compared to the Al-Maliki government in Baghdad or the Karzai regime in Kabul.  But those are other stories.

Record expands on the history of the South Vietnamese government as he evaluates military claims that more bombing, or more this or that would have made a difference in the outcome:

[N]ot even an early grant of the broadest operational ladtude to the military could have compensated for what in the long run Vietnam War historian George C. Herring has correcdy identified as the single greatest obstacle to the preservation of a noncommunist South Vietnam: the "fundamental and apparently unsolvable problem" of "the weakness of the South Vietnamese government." Unless communist military forces, especially the PAVN, could have been permanently crushed, or unless the United States was prepared to stay in the war indefinitely, the GVN was ultimately in a an irremediable situation. John Prados has rightly recognized that "any victory had to utilize what was there, what was available in South Vietnam, and since the national identity and the aspirations of the Vietnamese favored the other side, any potential strategy had an extra obstacle to overcome." As noted, if the United States could not have picked a tougher and more obstinate adversary anywhere in the world than it did in the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam, it also could not have chosen a more feckless ally than it did in the noncommunist Republic of Vietnam. "The war not only had to be won in South Vietnam, but it had to be won by the South Vietnamese. Unfortunately, to the end the South Vietnamese performance remained the Achilles' heel of the allied effort," concludes Guenter Lewy. Even the Chinese in the Korean War proved more politically tractable than did their counterparts in North Vietnam in the 1960s, and the South Korean government and military forces had considerably more vitality and staying power than did their counterparts in South Vietnam. Clark Clifford, who in 1965 counseled President Johnson against intervention in Vietnam and later replaced McNamara as secretary of defense, observed after the war that, "From its beginning,. . . we were constrained by the fact that our South Vietnamese allies were corrupt, inefficient, and poorly motivated. This was critical: in the final analysis, American objectives in Vietnam depended more on the capabilities of our allies in Saigon than on our own efforts. And the more we did for them, the more dependent and ineffectual they became. It was on this very point that our policy would ultimately fail."  (my emphasis)

Record also has some harsh words for our infallible generals of those days:

Finally, it should be observed that the military's desire to increase U.S. forces' operational effectiveness via greater operational authority was not accompanied by a willingness to tackle its self-imposed obstacles to operational effectiveness. It was — and remains — disingenuous of the military and their conservative political supporters to whine about civilian intrusion upon potential U.S. military effectiveness in Vietnam when the U.S. military itself was hobbling that effectiveness through disunity of command, a faulty attrition strategy, rear-area bloat, and idiotic personnel rotation policies. The military's appeal to civilian authority for more operational latitude in Indochina clearly would have carried with it greater moral force had the military first put its own house in order.  (my emphasis)

Whine?  Did he say our holy generals that lead our sacred military "whine"? And that they made actual mistakes? Even maybe at least one "idiotic" one?  The warbloggers will be shocked!

It's also worth noting that before the final collapse and surrender of the ARVN at the end of April, 1975, North Vietnam made an offer to return to the framework of the Paris Agreement of 1973 if Gen. Thieu would step aside and allow Gen. Duong Van Minh to step in as head of the South Vietnamese government.  Gareth Porter provided a look at the cynicism of Jerry Ford's "healing" administration during those weeks in A Peace Denied: The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement (1975):

But the offer to return to the Paris Agreement's political formula was ignored by Washington and the US Embassy in Saigon. State Department officials had gone out of their way in late March to make it clear to the press that the Peace Agreement was, in their view, "inoperable," and that there was no possibility of a negotiated settlement. In mid-April, Ambassador Graham Martin said in an interview, "There has been no advice from Washington for Thieu to step down."  At the same time, Martin was actively discouraging a military coup against Thieu, assuring former Vice-President Ky that Thieu would soon step down.  This attitude of determined disinterest in a political solution was consistent with earlier reports from State Department sources familiar with [Secretary of State] Kissinger's thinking emphasizing that a North Vietnamese military victory was already considered inevitable and that Kissinger's only concern was to appear to be a "good ally" to the very end.

Instead of trying to end the killing as soon as possible by pressing for a change of regime in Saigon, therefore, the Ford administration went through the motions of asking for an additional $722 million in military aid on April 11. Kissinger, in a background briefing for the press, suggested that the administration understood thatthe war was already lost, and hinted that the posture of all-out support for the Thieu regime was necessary in order to have its cooperation in the evacuation of Americans from Saigon. Kissinger spoke of trying to establish a perimeter around Saigon in the hope of negotiating a cease-fire and evacuating large numbers of Vietnamese from the city. But he did not indicate any intention to work for a political solution by replacing Thieu.  (my emphasis)

And part of this pantomine, perhaps the most important part from the viewpoint of Ford, Kissinger and the Republicans, was to be able to say until the end of time that they had stuck it out with the plucky South Vietnamese government until the end but those evil Democrats in Congress refused to go along with that last infusion of aid that would have saved the day.

And we hear part of the results of that part of Ford's "healing" every time a war fan or Republican politician smears war critics as traitors or allies of The Terrorists.

With "healing" like that, what would it look like if the Republicans set out to wound us?

Oh, yeah.  It would look like the Cheney-Bush administration.

No comments: