Small Wars Journal

The Loss of South Vietnam and the Coming Loss of Afghanistan

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The Loss of South Vietnam and the Coming Loss of Afghanistan

Stephen B. Young

Unlike conventional wars, which in Vietnam we called the “War of the Big Battalions”, small wars, or what back then we called “the other war”, integrate the military with the cultural and the political. Thus, small wars are hard to win with kinetic engagements and firepower alone. The complex reality of small wars also implies that they can be lost for cultural or political reasons even if single military engagements are won handily again and again.

Such a loss happened in Vietnam. For cultural and political reasons, the United States decided to lose the war, or at least to give up any continuing attempt to win it.

Such a loss is now happening in Afghanistan as the Trump Administration focuses on withdrawal of American forces leaving the Afghans to fight on among themselves, winner take all.

As Yogi Berra said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

And given the power relationship between a great power and its weaker, more vulnerable ally, abandoning the ally comes at little immediate cost to the great power.  It is easier to cut off a weak dependent than betray a powerful friend. The United States, for example, did not come to the aid of the Hungarians in 1956, or Cubans at the Bay of Pigs, and abandoned the Iranian Kurds at one point and the Iraqi Kurds at another. We abandoned the Cambodians to Pol Pot and the Lao to the North Vietnamese.  We muddled through in tepid support of allies in El Salvador and Honduras. The French abandoned their Algerian protegees.  The British, on the other hand, held firm in Malaya, Kenya, and Northern Ireland. And the United States has yet to abandon Israel.

One difference between the retreat of the United States from Vietnam and the one today under way in Afghanistan was that the abandonment of the Vietnamese Nationalists was done in secret and that of the Afghans is taking place very publicly. Otherwise the procedure is the same in both cases.

In both cases, the United States entered into direct negotiations with the enemy of its ally seeking terms on which US forces could be withdrawn.  When the United States obtained face-saving terms, it agreed to them and then imposed them on its ally. That happened in Vietnam and is on course for happing to our Afghan allies.  

The ally was (is) left with no real chance for survival: its alternatives were (are) either die today by refusing to go along or submit to American will and then try to live a little longer as your army and government lose their will to fight on against the inevitable, your economy collapses from capital flight and lack of investment, and your enemy takes to arms again with conviction and blood lust.

I remember how in South Vietnam after the Paris Peace Agreement guaranteed the freedom and independence of South Vietnam, my wife’s family and my friends placed high value on having gold and diamonds or other very liquid, moveable assets.  I didn’t see the long-term economic advantage in that. But I was wrong. They turned out to have been wiser as to the probable course history would take.

In the Vietnam case, on May 25, 1971 a Frenchman, Jean Sainteny, informed Henry Kissinger, then National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon, that if the Vietnamese Communists were assured that the Americans would leave South Vietnam and that some of their Southern followers would be given seats in South Vietnam’s National Assembly, then they would return American POWs, agree to a cease fire, and keep the two Vietnam’s “separate for a number of years”. (The relevant memorandum of conversation has been declassified.)

The proposed deal was in retrospect called a “Decent Interval”. Superficially, it saved face for the United States, giving us the fig leaf of a promise that the Vietnamese Nationalists had a right to freedom and independence.

That same day, Kissinger informed US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker that in the forthcoming secret meeting with Hanoi the United States would only require that the “peoples of Indochina should discuss among themselves” the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  Kissinger took up Hanoi’s offer that the US could enjoy a “Decent Interval” and did his part to meet Hanoi’s terms.

Bunker had previously recommended that the final peace agreement require that upon the withdrawal of American forces, North Vietnamese forces would withdraw from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. (The relevant secret cables have been declassified.)

In his later conversations with me, Ambassador Bunker said he had not understood Kissinger’s change of wording on May 25, 1971 to be a decision to abandon the Vietnamese Nationalists because President Nixon had not indicated any compromise of his demand that North Vietnamese forces withdraw back north and leave South Vietnam in peace. Thus, Bunker did not inform South Vietnam’s President Thieu of this concession by the Americans. Bunker reported back to Kissinger on his briefing of President Thieu but Kissinger did not correct Bunker’s misunderstanding.

Once the concession was made that North Vietnamese troops could remain in South Vietnam after a peace agreement went into effect, it was never revoked. It ended up in the Paris Peace Agreement of 1973 over the furious objections of Thieu. But his objections came too late.  All he got from Nixon was a pledge to commit B-52 bombers in the event Hanoi ever broke the Agreement.  When Nixon was forced from office in 1974 over the Watergate Scandal, the efficacy of his promise to Thieu evaporated. Upon the fall of Nixon, North Vietnamese leader Le Duan call for the military conquest of South Vietnam in 1975. Under attack, bitter at having been abandoned, Thieu at first dithered and then panicked and so precipitated an immediate collapse of South Vietnamese resolve.

According to press reports, this time he Americans will be getting a promise that after they leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will not work closely with Al-Queda again. Face saved for Donald Trump.

According to the same reports, the Taliban will not have to disarm. All Afghan President Ashraf Gani is getting from the Americans is a pledge that the Germans and the Norwegian will used their good offices to promote negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government on power sharing in the future. But f those negotiations break down and the fighting resumes, the Americans will be gone and our Afghan allies will be all on their own.

In Vietnam the Paris Peace Agreement had a similar optimistic arrangement for power sharing.

The sacrifices of so many and the expenditure of so much in Afghanistan over 19 years will then just be detritus in the ash can of history, where the sacrifice of 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese nationalists already are, with bitterness festering and honor trampled under the feet of ambitious civilians.

About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.