Presidents and Promises
YORBA LINDA, Calif. – On Tuesday evening, Feb. 12, a capacity crowd filled a replica of the White House East Room for a presentation at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. After that, they stood in line to buy autographed copies of my latest New York Times best-seller, “Heroes Proved.” All of them heard: “Lyndon Johnson sent my brother and me to war in Vietnam. In his first address to our nation as president, Richard Nixon promised to bring us home. We're alive today because he kept his word.”
After the event, I listened to a rerun of our current president's addressing the nation. The contrasts between the two men's words – and their consequences – could not be more dramatic.
Instead of ordering a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Republic of Vietnam, Nixon initiated a new relationship with America's imperfect ally in Saigon. Despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and blatant hostility in the media, he sought and received backing for a gradual drawdown of U.S. combat forces – and an accelerated program of recruiting, equipping and training for South Vietnam's military and security services.
By the spring of 1972, Nixon's “Vietnamization” plan was well under way, and our remaining combat units were ordered home, leaving a cadre of U.S. advisers embedded with South Vietnamese units. The effectiveness of this program so alarmed the communist dictatorship in Hanoi that Ho Chi Minh ordered the North Vietnamese army to launch a full-scale “Easter Offensive” across the demilitarized zone. The invasion might well have succeeded but for brave American and allied advisers on the ground – and Nixon's decision to deliver massive amounts of U.S. air and naval support.
The NVA retreated to sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and less than a year later, Nixon ended military conscription and initiated our all-volunteer armed forces. That's the origin of the finest military force the world has ever known.
It's impossible to know what the outcome might have been had there been no Watergate affair. What we do know is that in December 1974, Congress voted to cut off all aid to our ally, and President Gerald Ford signed the bill. In his memoirs, Hanoi's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap claimed “that was the day” he knew Saigon would fall to the communists. Less than five months later, April 30, 1975, NVA tanks surrounded the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as helicopters extricated the last Americans from rooftops of the conquered capital.
The Vietnam War wasn't a defeat for American arms, nor was it lost on the battlefields of Southeast Asia. It was lost in Washington – the consequence of failed presidential leadership and an appalling lack of vision in our Congress.
The culpability of our executive and legislative branches in the disaster called Vietnam is inescapable. It might be expected that the consequences of such misfeasance would affect the behavior of our presidents and legislators for more than four decades. Yet in a Kabuki theater billed as the State of the Union address, members of both houses and both parties rose – repeatedly – with ovations. Though President Barack Obama all but ignored the failure of his diplomacy in Iraq and the looming catastrophe in Syria, he won plaudits for already bringing “home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women.” There was even more applause when he proclaimed that “another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue, and by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” When he claimed that “the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self,” they came to their feet again – though even half-wits know it isn't true. As the solons went wild, our enemies also cheered.
Four years of weakness has given advantage to adversaries with weapons of mass destruction. Less than 24 hours after North Korea detonated a nuclear weapon, Obama said, “America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons.” And then came the punch line: “The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations.”
A day later, our State Department condemned Pyongyang's latest nuclear test “in the strongest terms.” The Iranians had to applaud this “firm action” after hearing Obama tell Tehran that “now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon.”
By the time he promised to “invest in new capabilities, even as we reduce waste and wartime spending,” I barely was listening. His commitment to “ensure equal treatment for all service members and equal benefits for their families, gay and straight,” was, of course, cheered – as was his pledge to “draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters and moms because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat.”
If this war ends anything like the way Vietnam did, the consequences will be disastrous. Our enemies in Vietnam didn't have nuclear weapons or any means of launching a serious attack on our homeland. Our present radical Islamist adversaries have both.
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