I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.
U.S. withdraws from Vietnam
March 29, 1973: Two months after the signing of the Vietnam peace agreement, the last U.S. combat troops leave South Vietnam as Hanoi frees many of the remaining American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam. America’s direct eight-year intervention in the Vietnam War was at an end. In Saigon, some 7,000 U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees remained behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting what looked to be a fierce and ongoing war with communist North Vietnam.
In 1961, after two decades of indirect military aid, U.S. President John F. Kennedy sent the first large force of U.S. military personnel to support the ineffectual autocratic regime of South Vietnam against the communist North. Three years later, with the South Vietnamese government crumbling, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered limited bombing raids on North Vietnam, and Congress authorized the use of U.S. troops. By 1965, North Vietnamese offensives left President Johnson with two choices: escalate U.S. involvement or withdraw. Johnson ordered the former, and troop levels soon jumped to more than 300,000 as U.S. air forces commenced the largest bombing campaign in history.
During the next few years, the extended length of the war, the high number of U.S. casualties, and the exposure of U.S. involvement in war crimes, such as the massacre at My Lai, helped turn many in the United States against the Vietnam War. The communists’ Tet Offensive of 1968 crushed U.S. hopes of an imminent end to the conflict and galvanized U.S. opposition to the war. In response, Johnson announced in March 1968 that he would not seek reelection, citing what he perceived to be his responsibility in creating a perilous national division over Vietnam. He also authorized the beginning of peace talks.
In the spring of 1969, as protests against the war escalated in the United States, U.S. troop strength in the war-torn country reached its peak at nearly 550,000 men. Richard Nixon, the new U.S. president, began U.S. troop withdrawal and “Vietnamization” of the war effort that year, but he intensified bombing. Large U.S. troop withdrawals continued in the early 1970s as President Nixon expanded air and ground operations into Cambodia and Laos in attempts to block enemy supply routes along Vietnam’s borders. This expansion of the war, which accomplished few positive results, led to new waves of protests in the United States and elsewhere.
Finally, in January 1973, representatives of the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris, ending the direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. Its key provisions included a cease-fire throughout Vietnam, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the release of prisoners of war, and the reunification of North and South Vietnam through peaceful means. The South Vietnamese government was to remain in place until new elections were held, and North Vietnamese forces in the South were not to advance further nor be reinforced.
In reality, however, the agreement was little more than a face-saving gesture by the U.S. government. Even before the last American troops departed on March 29, the communists violated the cease-fire, and by early 1974 full-scale war had resumed. At the end of 1974, South Vietnamese authorities reported that 80,000 of their soldiers and civilians had been killed in fighting during the year, making it the most costly of the Vietnam War.
On April 30, 1975, the last few Americans still in South Vietnam were airlifted out of the country as Saigon fell to communist forces. North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin, accepting the surrender of South Vietnam later in the day, remarked, “You have nothing to fear; between Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been defeated.” The Vietnam War was the longest and most unpopular foreign war in U.S. history and cost 58,000 American lives. As many as two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed.
The Myth That Congress Cut Off Funding for South Vietnam
Since partisans have turned the April 30, 1975, Communist takeover of South Vietnam into a political weapon, I’m going to spend the anniversary doing a little myth-busting.
Mel Laird, Richard Nixon’s defense secretary, started the modern myth that “Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975” in a 2005 article in Foreign Affairs, the journal of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.
Laird repeated it two years later in a Washington Post op-ed column in which he wrote “of 1975, when Congress cut off funding for the Vietnam War three years after our combat troops had left.”
It was the perfect political meme. It was simple and sound bite size. It built on a an existing template, the staple of Republican rhetoric charging that Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt have “snatched defeated from the jaws of victory.” And it was a seeming-fact that appeared relevant to a hot an ongoing debate—in this case, proposals to force President Bush to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq by setting a deadline in an appropriations bill.
It wasn’t true, but that never stopped a meme.
A quick, easy check of an old newspaper database shows Laird’s cutoff claim to be false. In the fiscal year running from July 1, 1974, to June 30, 1975, the congressional appropriation for military aid to South Vietnam was $700 million.
Nixon had requested $1.45 billion. Congress cut his aid request, but never cut off aid.
Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford, requested an additional $300 million for Saigon. Democrats saw it as an exercise in political blame-shifting. “The administration knows that the $300 million won’t really do anything to prevent ultimate collapse in Vietnam,” said Senator and future Vice President Walter F. Mondale, D-Mn., “and it is just trying to shift responsibility of its policy to Congress and the Democrats.” Congress didn’t approve the supplemental appropriation.
The Times reported that with National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry “Kissinger’s personal prestige tied to peace in Vietnam, his aides have said that he will try to pin the blame for failure there on Congress.” He tried to do just that at a March 26, 1975 news conference in which he framed the question facing Congress as “whether it will deliberately destroy an ally by withholding aid from it in its moment of extremity.” Three years earlier, in October 1972, the month in which Kissinger publicly proclaimed that “peace is at hand,” he privately told the President that their own settlement terms would destroy South Vietnam.
Congressional aid cuts didn’t determine the war’s final outcome. Saigon’s fate was sealed long before, when Nixon forced it accept his settlement terms in January 1973.
As for Laird’s “cut off” of funds for Saigon, it just never happened. Even Nixon acknowledged the 1975 military appropriation for Saigon of $700 million (on page 193 of No More Vietnams).
Neverthless, Laird wrote in Foreign Affairs of “the day in 1975 when Congress cut off U.S. funding.” If only his editors had asked him what day that was exactly.
The Legend Gets Printed The imaginary cutoff has made a real impact. In recent years, as the nation has debated withdrawing U.S. soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Cutoff That Never Happened was treated as fact by politician, pundit and press alike. Newt Gingrich: “In 1975, when there were no Americans left in Vietnam, the left wing of the Democratic Party killed the government of South Vietnam, cut off all of its funding, cut off all of its ammunition, and sent a signal to the world that the United States had abandoned its allies.” Columnist Robert Novak: “Congress ended the Vietnam War with a Communist victory by cutting off funds to South Vietnam.” U.S. News & World Report: “Historians say congressional Democrats dug themselves into a deep hole when they forced the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and cut off money to the Saigon government in its struggle against the Communists.” (Which historians?)
Laird’s cutoff myth just embellishes a bigger, more powerful myth begun by his old boss. Nixon claimed that as of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, he had won the Vietnam War. But in the years to come, Nixon contended, Congress “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”
I’m a journalist-turned-historian who has spent the past decade researching the White House tapes full-time for the Presidential Recordings Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. My focus has been the Nixon tapes. These tapes, along with declassified government documents, reveal how Nixon pursued a “decent interval” exit strategy designed to postpone, not prevent, Communist military victory.
Political Spin Nixon crafted this secret strategy to foster the illusion that his public strategy of “Vietnamization and negotiation” worked. Vietnamization was supposed to train the South Vietnamese army to defend itself so the American army could come home; negotiations were supposed to produce a settlement guaranteeing the South’s right to choose its own government by election. Nixon privately realized that Vietnamization and negotiation would not work as he said they would.
“South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway,” he said in private, but never in public. To conceal Vietnamization’s failure, Nixon timed the withdrawal of U.S. forces to the 1972 election. This way, California Governor Ronald Reagan could welcome delegates to the Republican National Convention in 1972 with the perfect words to launch the President’s reelection campaign: “The last American combat team is on its way home from Vietnam.”
To get the North Vietnamese to accept a settlement that, on paper, guaranteed the South’s right to free elections, Nixon assured them, through the Soviet Union and China, that if they waited a “decent interval” of a year or two before taking over South Vietnam, he would not intervene. The Communists accepted Nixon’s settlement terms because they knew that they didn’t have to abide by them and the would get a clear shot at overthrowing the South Vietnamese government if they waited approximately 18 months after Nixon withdrew the last U.S. ground forces. Nixon wanted this “decent interval” to make it look like Saigon’s fall wasn’t his fault.
He started the myth that Congress lost the Vietnam War to conceal the fact that he lost it himself.
How Congress Got Us Out of Vietnam
Since January 10, when President Bush proposed a “troop surge” in Iraq, the administration has responded to legislative critics by stating that Congress cannot handle the responsibility of conducting an effective war. “You can’t run a war by committee,” Vice President Richard Cheney told FOX News on January 14.
But Democrats are no longer willing to trust presidential decision-making. “You don’t like to micromanage the Defense Department,” responded Congressman John Murtha, “but we have to, in this case, because they’re not paying attention to the public…”
In the debate over whether the legislature can play a constructive role in shaping national security policy, the president’s challengers have history on their side. Congress has often played a significant, albeit underappreciated, role in wartime politics.
One of the best examples for current Democratic legislators is that of their Vietnam-era counterparts. Ironically, both the left and the right have criticized the performance of Congress during the war in Vietnam. Liberals accuse the Congress of allowing Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon to push deeper into the jungles of Southeast Asia without opposition. Conservatives place responsibility for “losing” on the Democratic Congress.
The Vietnam-era Congress certainly had many failings. Lawmakers too often deferred to presidential decisions that they knew to be flawed. They hesitated to challenge presidents directly. Democrats and Republicans took action after the fact and agreed to watered-down compromises. Most importantly, Congress never forced an immediate end to the war. To the contrary, in 1964, Congress granted the president broad authority to use force, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s it continued to fund military operations after the war had turned into a quagmire.
But compared to Congress during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Vietnam-era legislature compiled an impressive record in challenging flawed presidential decisions. Between 1964 and 1975, many legislators forced discussion of difficult questions about the mission, publicly challenged the administration’s core arguments, and used budgetary mechanisms to create pressure on the Pentagon to bring the war to a halt. A number of liberal Democrats started in the mid-1960s as some of the most vocal critics of escalation in Vietnam; by the early 1970s they were wielding the power of the purse.
Many observers have glorified the role of the media and anti-war protestors in forcing an end to one of America’s most disastrous foreign policies. But numerous members of Congress deserve equal respect, and can serve as a model for legislators who are today challenging the president.
Early in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, prominent Democrats privately (and to a lesser extent, publicly) challenged the expansion of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Congress created a serious political opportunity for Johnson to avoid escalation. At the same time that Johnson was hearing from hawkish advisors such as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the State Department’s Chairman of the Policy Planning Board Walt Rostow, a number of legislators bluntly argued that his advisors were wrong. Senator Frank Church of Idaho said that sending troops into Vietnam would be a “hopeless entanglement, the end of which is difficult to see.” While most Democrats were unwilling to publicly speak against the president, many privately urged the administration to explore alternatives to escalation, including J. William Fulbright, Albert Gore, John McClellan, George McGovern, Stuart Symington, and John Sherman Cooper (a Republican). In December 1963, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield wrote Johnson that the administration should cooperate with international officials seeking to find a settlement. “What national interests in Asia would steel the American people for the massive costs of an ever-deepening involvement?” he asked. Conservative Democratic Senator George Smathers reported to the president in 1964 that he was having trouble finding legislators who thought “we ought to fight a war in that area of the world.” According to New York Times reporter Max Frankel, “It is beginning to look as if the Democrats plan to be their own most vigorous critics in this year’s election debate.”
The advice that most troubled Johnson came from the senior southern hawk, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia — Lyndon Johnson’s mentor in the Senate. In some of the most chilling telephone conversations from the Johnson presidential archives, Russell explained to Johnson why this war could not be won and how unimportant the conflict was to the outcome of the Cold War.
On May 27, 1964, President Johnson called Russell to ask him for advice on the “Vietnam thing.” Russell called the situation the “damn worse mess I ever saw” and warned it would lead to a difficult war against the North Vietnamese and Chinese in the jungles. Russell said the U.S. position was “deteriorating” and that it looked like “the more we try to do for them [the South Vietnamese government], the less they are willing to do for themselves.” Russell said Americans were not ready to send troops to do the fighting. If it came to the option of sending Americans or getting out, Russell said, “I’d get out.” When Johnson asked him what was at stake, Russell responded that the territory was not important a “damn bit” to the United States. Russell also said he was concerned that McNamara was not as “objective” as he needed to be and that he didn’t understand the “history and background” of the Vietnamese. Although Russell publicly insisted on using as much force as possible after Johnson committed the United States to the conflict, privately he continued to express his fears.
A similar dynamic could be seen in the debate surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964. The resolution granted the president sweeping authority to use military force in Vietnam and has often been characterized as the most dramatic example of Congress blindly deferring to the executive branch. The House passed the resolution 416 to 0 and the Senate 88 to 2, with Democratic Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening in opposition. Still, many legislators had to be persuaded to support the administration. Johnson understood that, which is why he chose a widely trusted figure, Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright — the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who had expressed doubts about the war — to handle the resolution in Congress.
Congress fell short in the Gulf of Tonkin debate because it did too little, not because it did too much. Some legislators were far ahead of the administration, predicting the problems with the war, as well as the problems inherent in such an expansion of executive power. Facing an election and right-wing Republicans who were questioning the willingness of Democrats to use force, however, many members of both parties buckled and failed to act on their misgivings until later. Yet it is important to remember that the scope of the U.S. intervention was extremely difficult to foresee in August 1964 (even Johnson’s advisors did not anticipate the type of ground war on which the United States would soon embark). Moreover, Fulbright personally assured the Democrats that the president would not misuse this authority to embark on an all-out war. Johnson had promised Fulbright that if the mission changed significantly, he would return to Congress for its consent.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution did not make a full-scale war inevitable. Following his landslide reelection in 1964, Johnson had even more political space to make a choice. Vice President Hubert Humphrey privately urged Johnson to call for a withdrawal, since 1965 was “the first year when we can face the Vietnam problem without being preoccupied with the political repercussions from the Republican right …”
At the time, historian Fredrik Logevall has argued in Choosing War, “in terms of his domestic flank, Johnson had considerable freedom of action on Vietnam after the election. The political context he faced with respect to the war was a much more fluid one than is often suggested, with little or no national ‘consensus’ about which way to proceed.” Through their willingness to criticize the Vietnam hawks and raise questions about expanded U.S. involvement, congressional Democrats had played a central role in creating this important opportunity.
But it was a missed opportunity. In the spring of 1965, Johnson decided to “Americanize” the war by sending ground troops. At this turning point, skeptical Democrats fell short by not acting on their misgivings.
As the war in Vietnam progressed, however, and the military situation deteriorated, a few Democrats used the power of congressional investigation to force the administration into a contentious public debate. The most significant proceedings were Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee hearings in February 1966. Eighteen months after passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Fulbright decided that he could no longer stand by the president in a war he opposed. He was worried, as were most members of his committee, that the administration’s optimistic assessments were wrong and that a huge buildup of troops would be required in the coming years. He also felt personally betrayed by the president, who had promised to act with restraint.
Fred Friendly, who headed CBS News, convinced his superiors to cover some of Fulbright’s hearings live and to preempt the normally scheduled shows (such as the popular children’s program Captain Kangaroo). In response, the administration scheduled events to distract public attention. The president held a summit with the South Vietnamese leadership in Hawaii the evening before the hearings started. Nonetheless, the Fulbright hearings provided the nation with the first glimpse of such administration officials as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, George Kennan, and former Ambassador to South Vietnam General Maxwell Taylor confronting difficult challenges about the war. When Rusk told the committee that, if the United States did not stand firm militarily, “then the prospect for peace disappears,” Fulbright challenged almost all of his assertions. The senator insisted that there was no need to escalate operations in Vietnam because the conflict did not involve the vital interests of America and could easily be a “trigger for world war.” The president personally called Stanton to pressure him to take the highly rated hearings off the air. CBS, also concerned about the financial cost of preempting popular shows, obliged.
Johnson came to hate Fulbright, whom he privately mocked as “Senator Halfbright.” But the hearings stung the president. Although public opinion remained in favor of the war, Fulbright emerged as a key figure in the growing anti-war forces, though the courtly Southern aristocrat had little if anything in common with the demonstrators increasingly taking to the streets. Indeed, precisely because of his establishment imprimatur, his investigations and statements helped give antiwar protest a certain degree of legitimacy. The hearings also ensured that the mainstream media covered criticism about the war. Fulbright biographer Randall Bennett Woods explained that “the February hearings, in short, opened a psychological door for the great American middle class … if the administration intended to wage the war in Vietnam from the political center in America, the 1966 hearings were indeed a blow to that effort.” Over the next two years, Democrats conducted further hearings, not only on the war but on such related issues as the draft.
Congress also forced the administration to deal with the budgetary consequences of the war. In this case, the pressure came from conservative Democrats. While Johnson believed he could fund both domestic and wartime spending, some members of Congress forced him to make difficult choices. In January 1967, Johnson agreed with his economic advisors to propose a tax surcharge to quell the inflationary pressures caused by the war’s overheating of the economy, and to raise enough funds so that he could continue paying for his War on Poverty initiative. But Representative Wilbur Mills, the powerful House Ways and Means Chairman, objected. Mills, a southern fiscal conservative, insisted that if the administration wanted to raise taxes, it would also have to cut domestic spending. Mills feared that the tax reductions of 1962 and 1964 would end in the “Vietnam jungle.” According to Mills, Johnson would have to decide between guns and butter.
Because Democrats had lost 47 seats in the House, the conservative coalition had increased its strength, and Mills felt emboldened. While the administration agreed to spending cuts, it did not want to go as far as Mills did. The confrontation escalated in 1968 when an international financial crisis put intense pressure on the United States to reduce its deficit. The Johnson administration finally acquiesced that year and accepted $6 billion in budget cuts in exchange for the tax surcharge. While conservatives were not happy with the tax hike, they were eager to curb the deficit and strike a blow against Johnson’s Great Society. At the same time, the tax surcharge “made many doves,” as Dean Rusk explained, by making it painfully clear that there were costs to fighting this war. Previously, many liberals had believed that America could support “guns and butter.” By 1968, they no longer thought so, and were willing to forego the war to save their ambitious domestic agenda.
By the time Richard Nixon was elected president in November 1968, the antiwar coalition had expanded in Congress to include such former hawks as Missouri Democratic Senator Stuart Symington and northeastern liberal Republicans like Senator Jacob Javits. Bipartisan alliances were common in this era, since party discipline was weak and the committee system encouraged legislators to work across party lines.
In one respect, the antiwar coalition scored its most important victory when, upon taking office, President Nixon announced his policy of Vietnamization: The United States would gradually withdraw its forces from Vietnam to let the South fight the ground war on its own. Nixon’s decision was as political as it was strategic: He had become convinced that he had to end the ground war if he hoped to undermine the liberal media and the Democratic Congress. Nixon’s goal was to somehow “break the back of the establishment and Democratic leadership … [and] then build a strong defense in [our] second term.” Initially, his strategy worked. “The president has joined us,” Church boasted, “he is now on the same perch with the doves …”
Notwithstanding this huge policy shift — and also because it took Nixon four full years to withdraw U.S. ground forces from Vietnam — Democrats continued to challenge the administration. Nixon’s aggressive claims about executive power goaded the opposition. On June 25, 1969, the Senate, by a resounding vote of 70 to 16, passed a “national commitments” resolution that stated that the Senate needed to repair the balance between the branches of government when dealing with foreign policy. That summer, Fulbright demanded that the administration admit there was a secret plan whereby the United States would help fight any insurgency in Thailand. Under pressure, Nixon announced a reduction of the U.S. military presence there. Following a two-week trip to South Asia, Mansfield began to demand that Nixon start reducing the size of U.S. military forces in the region. Some Republicans joined in. New York Representative Charles Goodell proposed a bill that would establish a deadline of December 1970 to pull troops out of Vietnam.
On December 16, 1969, Congress finally used the power of the purse. In a closed floor session, Church and Cooper offered an amendment to a defense spending bill to prevent the further use of money in Laos or Thailand. The amendment received the support of 73 senators. Church called the amendment a “reassertion of congressional prerogatives” on foreign policy. It survived the House-Senate conference committee, and Nixon signed the legislation.
But in the spring of 1970, Church and Cooper became concerned that Nixon was planning to use military force to support General Lon Nol, who had recently taken over Cambodia in a coup. Following Nixon’s televised speech on April 30, in which he revealed that he had authorized a bombing attack on Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, Church and Cooper offered a new amendment that extended the 1969 prohibition to include Cambodia.
The administration mounted an intense lobbying effort to keep legislators from supporting the amendment. The American Legion sent letters to senators warning against such action. Historian Robert David Johnson has found that White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman authorized what Haldeman in his notes called “inflammatory types [such as Senators Robert Dole and Barry Goldwater] to attack Senate doves — for knife in back disloyalty — lack of patriotism.” Nixon told his advisors to “hit ‘em in the gut.”
Following an intense seven weeks of floor debate over the constitutional balance of power, the Senate voted on June 30, 1970 to pass the Church-Cooper amendment with 58 votes. The amendment stipulated that the administration could not spend funds for soldiers, combat assistance, advisors, or bombing operations in Cambodia. To broaden support for the measure, the sponsors agreed to alter the language so that the amendment aimed to work “in concert” with the administration’s policies. They also declared the amendment did not deny any constitutional powers to the president.
Nixon warned that the amendment would “affect the president’s exercise of his lawful responsibilities as commander in chief of the armed forces.” In contrast to the seven-week debate in the Senate, it took the House less than an hour to table a motion instructing House conferees to agree to the Church-Cooper amendment. In response, Church and Cooper compromised on several key matters, including a provision to limit the amendment to ground troops and not air strikes. They then attached the amendment to a supplemental-aid bill that passed both the House and Senate. While the authors understood that Nixon was already taking troops out of Cambodia, and that the measure would have limited effect, Church still believed the amendment would “draw the purse strings tight against a deepening American involvement in Cambodia.” Congress sent the measure to the president in late December. While some antiwar critics preferred the amendment proposed by South Dakota Democrat George McGovern and Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield, which would have required a withdrawal of forces from Vietnam by the end of the next year, the passage of the Church-Cooper amendment marked the first successful use of congressional budgetary authority to limit the war.
The legislative pressure behind the amendment convinced Nixon that he would have to restrict ground operations in Cambodia and elsewhere. State Department official William Bundy recalled that “the Cooper-Church Amendment, and the sentiment it represented, continued to hang over the White House.” Nixon National Security Council staffer John Lehman later said that “the impact on executive policies actually ran much deeper. It … narrowed the parameters of future options to be considered. Everyone was aware that ground had been yielded and public tolerance eroded.”
The proposals to restrict funds and force withdrawal produced intense pressure on Nixon to bring an end to the war on his own terms before his legislative opponents gained too much ground. During Nixon’s first term, there were 80 roll call votes on the war in Congress; there had only been 14 between 1966 and 1968. In 1971, Mansfield attached an amendment to three pieces of legislation that required withdrawal of U.S. forces nine months after Congress passed the legislation. The White House warned that the president would not abide by this declaration. Congress agreed to pass the amendment but only after deleting the withdrawal date and declaring it to be a sense-of-Congress resolution, rather than a policy declaration, which was stronger. While the Senate had watered down the amendment, the expanding number of votes in support of it made the administration well aware of an increasingly active and oppositional Congress.
In 1972, Church and Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey were able to push through the Senate an amendment to foreign-aid legislation that would end funding for all U.S. military operations in Southeast Asia except for withdrawal (subject to the release of all prisoners of war). Senate passage of the legislation, with the amendment, marked the first time that either chamber had passed a provision establishing a cutoff of funds for continuing the war. Though House and Senate conferees failed to reach an agreement on the measure, the support for the amendment was seen by the administration as another sign that antiwar forces were gaining strength. The McGovern-Hatfield amendment was enormously popular with the public. A January 1971 Gallup poll showed that public support for the amendment stood at 73 percent.
During the final negotiations with the Vietnamese over ending the war, culminating with the 1972 Christmas Bombings and the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, the president knew that he only had a limited amount of time before Congress finally used the power of the purse to bring the war to an end — regardless of what the administration wanted. Indeed, to make certain that the president could not reverse course, in June 1973 Congress passed legislation that included an amendment sponsored by Church and Case to prohibit the use of more funds in Southeast Asia after August 15. Sixty-four senators voted in favor. When the House assented, its vote marked the first time that chamber had agreed to cut off funds, too.
Most importantly, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973 over Nixon’s veto. The legislation imposed a series of restrictions on the executive branch to ensure that the president would have to consult with the House and Senate before authorizing the troops for long periods of time.
For the remainder of the decade, congress continued to legislate its ideas about U.S. conduct in the Cold War and to restrict the authority of the executive branch. In 1975, Congress refused President Gerald Ford’s last-minute request to increase aid to South Vietnam by $300 million, just weeks before it fell to communist control. Few legislators had taken the request seriously; many conservative Republicans and hawkish Democrats agreed by then that Vietnam was lost and that the expenditure would have been a waste.
Nor did Congress restrict its actions to Southeast Asia. Congress passed an amendment in 1976 that banned the use of funds to fight communist forces in Angola. Frustrated with these decisions, Henry Kissinger complained that “we are living in a nihilistic nightmare. It proves that Vietnam is not an aberration but our normal attitude.” Angola fell to communists. Although Democrats were not happy with the outcome, most remained convinced that Americans did not want to enter another protracted conflict. One cartoonist at the time quipped: “If you liked Vietnam, you’ll love … Angola.”
Congress also tackled the important national security issues of covert operations and intelligence. Hearings by Church pressured Ford into issuing an executive order that imposed restrictions on the CIA, including a ban on assassinations. Ford agreed to issue the order, rather than waiting for inevitable congressional reforms, after then–Chief of Staff Dick Cheney told him such action would protect the CIA from “irresponsible attack” and protect presidential authority. In 1978, Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required court-supervised monitoring of domestic surveillance operations by the federal government. The reforms were a response to revelations that the government had rampantly abused its power throughout the Cold War.
In sum, Congress played a very important role in building opposition to an unpopular and failed Cold War intervention. Legislators emerged as major voices of skepticism, criticism, and outright opposition to Vietnam. They checked the hawks in the administration who refused to believe the facts on the ground. Congress was ultimately pivotal to placing pressure on the Nixon administration to end a conflict that cost approximately 58,000 American lives.
Today, members from both parties would benefit by looking back at the history of Congress in the Vietnam era. As Congress struggles over how to correct a failed military policy and how to deal with an administration that is refusing to change course, legislators need to draw on their resources — in the tradition of Fulbright, Church, McGovern, Cooper, Hatfield, and others — despite the political risks. The real risk would be for Congress to capitulate and fail to act on its disagreement with the administration. The costs of the war in Iraq have been enormous, as financial and military resources, and human lives, are drained away. If voters go the polls in 2008 with the same fire in their bellies they had in 2006, the electoral costs will also be high for incumbents who failed to act on their beliefs.
China and the Fall of South Vietnam: The Last Great Secret of the Vietnam War
The People’s Republic of China, a long-time ally of North Vietnam, may have sought to create a neutral South Vietnam in 1975 and deny Hanoi its long-sought victory.
This revelation was drawn out from over a decade of interviews and email exchanges that I conducted with Nguyen Xuan Phong before his death in July 2017. Phong served as the deputy for the Republic of Vietnam negotiating team in Paris from 1968 until 1975, and he claimed to have been in contact with the Chinese in order to save South Vietnam.
For over 30 years, Phong told no one of his last clandestine mission to save his country. Although no direct documentary proof has been released to substantiate Phong’s claims, considerable tertiary evidence does seem to substantiate his account. If true, this fascinating story upends the accepted history of the war’s final days.
Shortly before Henry Kissinger’s historic trip to Peking in July 1971, Phong had been invited to attend a reception at the Burmese embassy in Paris. There Phong was introduced to a Chinese official from Zhou Enlai’s office who wished to meet with Phong. The man ended their discussion by remarking, “Does President Thieu know who his real friends and foes are?”
According to Phong, various messages from the Chinese were passed to him seeking to establish a dialogue with Thieu, but the South Vietnamese president did not respond.
North Vietnam launched another offensive in March 1975 and quickly shattered South Vietnam’s defenses. By late April, Communist troops were pressing against Saigon, and Thieu had resigned in favor of his vice president, Tran Van Huong.
The French government was strongly recommending that Huong resign in favor of Duong Van Minh, the former general who had led the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. The French proposed that a coalition government with the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), the Communist front organization in South Vietnam, and headed by Minh would halt Hanoi’s attack. Phong and Huong were old friends, and Huong summoned Phong to Saigon to discuss whether this offer was genuine.
When Phong flew to Saigon, he claims to have carried with him a secret message from the Chinese. When Phong arrived, he immediately went to see Huong. Because he had known the ailing president for years, he confirmed there was no hope for negotiations while he was still in office. The next day, Huong summoned the assembly to begin the process of transferring power to Minh. Phong did not mention the message he was carrying, since he knew that the triggering event for the proposal was for Minh to assume power and accept a coalition with the PRG.
Several days later, Phong met with Minh’s close friend, former general Tran Van Don, and a representative from the PRG to discuss the possible coalition government. Tran Ngoc Lieng, a secret Communist agent, was present as Minh’s representative. Phong subtly informed the PRG official at this meeting that France and other countries would help the new government, but he was deliberately vague about what this meant. This was Phong’s only attempt to pass on his explosive missive.
What message was Phong carrying?
The Chinese, he said, desperately wanted the PRG to assume power via the French formula of a coalition with Minh to prevent a North Vietnamese takeover. After a coalition was formed, Minh would issue an appeal for help. The French would respond that an international force would enter South Vietnam to protect the new government. The initial “muscle,” as Phong termed it, would be “two Chinese Airborne divisions into Bien Hoa.” Beijing asked for four days to marshal their troops and shuttle them to the air base. Phong explains their thinking:
“Beijing could not come forward and do this work directly, but they let people know that they were … letting the French do this work! Because of international politics … Beijing could not blatantly intervene militarily in South Vietnam. France would need to appeal to a few nations to participate in an ‘international force’ (with France serving as the spearhead) in order to allow Beijing to intervene. A number of problems faced Beijing at that time: What number of Chinese military forces should be employed, and how long would they have to stay in South Vietnam to contain and suppress North Vietnam’s army? They promised that they would stay as long as the situation required, but they thought that between three and six months would be the maximum length of time they could participate … because they did not want to be accused of militarily occupying South Vietnam.”
Why would China militarily intercede to thwart a North Vietnamese victory, especially after years of supporting Hanoi?
China wanted a neutral South Vietnam to prevent being surrounded by a potential Moscow-Hanoi pact. Nayan Chanda, the highly respected correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, extensively detailed the Chinese dread of a unified Vietnam. He wrote that Beijing has “consistently followed the policy of maintaining by all the means at its disposal a fragmented Indochina free of the major powers. These means included quiet diplomacy, economic persuasion, and, of course, use of its military might.”
If Phong was the only courier bearing this message, he might be easily dismissed. He was not. Retired French Général de Division Paul Vanuxem was carrying a message similar to Phong’s. Vanuxem had known Thieu and other senior Vietnamese military officers since the First Indochina War. He had visited Thieu occasionally over the years and had returned to Vietnam in the last days of South Vietnam as a correspondent for the French weekly magazine Carrefour.
Vanuxem published a slim book in 1976 detailing the final days of the war. He notes that he went to Independence Palace on April 30 to speak with Minh. While he alluded to his meeting in his book, stating that “all the minds were paralyzed with fear and incapable of receiving the overtures which were then being made and which could have saved everything,” he left out the critical details.
There are numerous firsthand witnesses confirming that Vanuxem spoke to Minh and relayed a message similar to Phong’s. While these men relate slightly different versions of the conversation, all were in the room, and several were secret Communist agents. ARVN Brigadier General Nguyen Huu Hanh provided the first revelation in 1981 in a recorded interview for the PBS series Vietnam: A Television History. Hanh, whom Minh had called out of retirement, was a long-time Communist penetration agent. He was with Minh in Independence Palace on April 30. Hanh recounted that
“the very first thing Vanuxem said was that he had just come from Paris. Before he came, he met with many personalities, including members of the [Beijing] embassy. He suggested that Minh announce that he would leave the Americans and would come to the side of China. According to him, if we did that China would put pressure on Hanoi to have a ceasefire in the southern part of Vietnam. After having thought it over, Minh rejected the proposal. And when Vanuxem pleaded with Minh to prolong the whole thing for another twenty-four hours, the latter also rejected the idea. After Vanuxem left, we announced the transfer of power.”
Nguyen Van Diep, the South Vietnamese economic minister and who was also an underground mole and at the meeting, agrees that “Vanuxem had come to see Minh to try and encourage Minh and to persuade him that the situation was not yet hopeless. Vanuxem arrived just after General Minh finished tape-recording his surrender statement.” After Minh told him the situation was hopeless, Vanuxem replied that “It is not hopeless. I have already arranged for this in Paris. I request that you publicly ask for Nation C [China] to protect you.” Vanuxem asked Minh to hold out for three days, but Minh refused.
Ly Qui Chung, whom Minh had appointed minister of information, confirms that:
“Vanuxem said that he wanted to offer a plan to Minh to save the hopeless situation that the Saigon regime faced. Vanuxem said that Minh should speak out to appeal for a powerful country to intervene, and that if the South Vietnamese government issued an official request this powerful country would intervene immediately. Minh gave a bitter laugh and said, I thank you for your good intentions, but during my life I have already served as a lackey for the French and then as a lackey for the Americans. That is enough. I do not want to be a lackey again.”
Could Vanuxem have conjured this effort on his own? Vanuxem’s family does not believe that the French government would use him as a messenger. They contend that his involvement in the failed French army coup of April 1961 made him a pariah to the French government. Assuming that Vanuxem’s pariah status with the French government remained intact, it is doubtful he was carrying a message from the French government, especially since it had its own ambassador in Saigon.
What seems more likely is that the Chinese sought another emissary besides Phong. Phong was a civilian diplomat, while Vanuxem had close ties to the ARVN generals, and he had a long history of supporting the republic. He would be the perfect envoy to convince anti-communist ARVN generals to accept Chinese and French help, especially such a bold offer as this. Moreover, as a lone courier, he was also deniable if necessary.
Given its spies at the meeting with Minh, Hanoi learned of Vanuxem’s proposal. On the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Hanoi finally acknowledged China’s attempted intervention. An official stated that:
“the Chinese authorities nursed an extremely sinister scheme. As Duong Van Minh, the puppet regime’s last president revealed: On the morning of 30 April 1975, through the intermediary of Vanuxem … China requested that Minh carry on the fighting for at least another 24 hours so as to have enough time to announce a disassociation from the U.S. and an alliance with China. China would then bring pressure to bear, including introduction of troops into Vietnam to end the hostilities to China’s advantage.”
The Chinese also allegedly approached former South Vietnamese vice president Nguyen Cao Ky. In an interview with William Buckley on Firing Line in September 1975, Ky claimed that sometime in late 1972, Chinese agents had come to his house in Saigon. Ky said they asked him to overthrow Thieu and “declare South Vietnam neutral, not siding with the Russians or the Americans.” If he did that, “the Chinese will support you because we already have trouble on our northern border with the Russians. We do not want to see our south flank occupied by a Russian satellite.”
Ky repeated this story in a speech in December 1975 in the US, claiming that “a group of Chinese agents came to his home … and proposed a Chinese-supported coup to overthrow Thieu.” Why Ky never mentions this incident in either of his books, however, is troubling.
That Vanuxem made the statement seems indisputable. Whether his or Phong’s information was actually China’s true intent is unresolved. Could this have been another diplomatic smokescreen? Forging a coalition government to remove Thieu during the last days was certainly Hanoi’s ploy. Thieu’s close assistant, Hoang Duc Nha, believes that it was. He confirms that the French ambassador had told him, as part of a plea for Nha to become the new prime minister, that “the Chinese are going to bring in some divisions to stop the North Vietnamese.” Nha suspected this was a Chinese trick to sell them on a coalition government. Given all the diplomatic maneuvers to remove Thieu, the idea cannot be discounted.
Vanuxem died in 1979, leaving his actions unexamined, while Phong never discussed the possibility that he was being used. Moreover, while Hanoi has apparently accepted the Vanuxem story, it cannot be confirmed without documentary evidence or an official Chinese or French government admission. Whether China and France, each for its own national interests, had colluded to create a neutral South Vietnam and deny Hanoi its long-sought victory remains an intriguing possibility, but one that, for now, remains the last great secret of the Vietnam War.
An American Amnesia: How the US Congress Forced the Surrenders of South Vietnam and Cambodia Hardcover – March 10, 2010
January 27th, 1973: the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the Viet Cong sign the Paris Peace Accords, guaranteeing the right of self-determination to the South Vietnamese people.April 30th, 1975: President Duong Van Minh of South Vietnam announces the nation’s unconditional surrender to the North, ending the decade-long conflict and enabling the merger of both countries into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.What happened in two short years to cause such a dramatic reversal?In An American Amnesia, respected political commentator Bruce Herschensohn re-examines the incredible actions taken by the 94th Congress and by many American citizens which forced South Vietnam’s surrender, an event that brought about immense tragedy for Southeast Asians and haunts our political landscape to this day. Drawing on notes, speeches, and writings from his own experiences in Southeast Asia, as well as in the United States Information Agency and in the White House, Herschensohn fills in important facts in that period of history and warns against the danger of succumbing to a similar voluntary amnesia in the future.
For Congress, the Secret to Ending Iraq War Lies in Vietnam
As increasingly agitated members of Congress try to figure out how to bring American troops home from Iraq, they might consider looking back at how their predecessors ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. If they do, they’ll find that it wasn’t all that complicated. It took a necessary number of votes and a willingness to stare down the president of the United States.
The Vietnam War, at least the U.S. part of it, ended on Aug. 15, 1973. The date was set not by generals or diplomats but by Congress, which forced a resistant President Nixon to sign it into law. As is happening today, Congress and the White House faced off 34 years ago over a war that had dragged on for several years, whose raison d’être was in dispute and which had lost the support of a majority of Americans.
But there are significant differences between Iraq and Vietnam. By spring 1973, Vietnam had lost some of its emotional power and divisiveness. Earlier in the year, Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security adviser, had negotiated a peace agreement with North Vietnam. The guns went silent, American prisoners of war were released and the troops came home. After 12 long years, the Vietnam War was over. Or so Americans thought.
Although they had reached agreement on halting hostilities in North and South Vietnam, Kissinger and his Hanoi counterpart, Le Duc Tho, had not been able to work out a cease-fire covering Cambodia and Laos. Fighting continued in Cambodia, where American planes were flying up to 100 bombing missions a day against communist forces.
Congressional doves, who by now made up a decisive majority, were determined to halt the fighting throughout Indochina. In May, the House and Senate approved an amendment ordering a halt to the bombing of Cambodia, as well as the cessation of any hostilities that might erupt in Laos. Nixon promptly vetoed the measure, warning that unless the U.S. kept up the military pressure for a cease-fire, Cambodia would fall to the Communists. So high were the stakes, said presidential adviser Melvin Laird, that Nixon would veto every bill containing what had become known as “the Cambodia rider.”
Anti-war forces lacked the numbers to override a Nixon veto of a stand-alone withdrawal measure or of a less-than-crucial bill to which a withdrawal amendment had been attached. But they were not without leverage. They decided to tack the Cambodia rider onto a pending supplemental appropriation providing funds for a variety of federal agencies about to run out of money on July 1. The failure to appropriate funds would mean the immediate furloughing of thousands of government employees — including those charged with cutting monthly Social Security checks for 28 million retired and disabled Americans.
“If the president doesn’t want to stop the bombing but does want to stop the government, that’s his business,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) said angrily.
The administration blinked first. It said it would accept the Cambodia amendment if the bombing ban was pushed back from July 1 to Aug. 15. Despite grumbling by some doves who wanted the ban imposed immediately, House Democrats agreed to the deal. But as it turned out, the deal that was finally enacted went further than either side envisioned.
During debate on the measure, House Republican leader Gerald Ford of Michigan, verifying the administration’s understanding of the deal, casually employed some wordage of which few members in the chamber took any notice. One who did notice was Democratic Rep. Frank Evans, a quiet, thoughtful four-term congressman from Pueblo, Colo.
“Cambodia was the issue, but Ford kept using the term ‘Southeast Asia,’” Evans later recalled. “He appeared willing to accept North Vietnam and South Vietnam. So it seemed silly to limit the prohibition to Cambodia and Laos when we could extend it to Vietnam as well.”
So Evans quickly scribbled language adding North and South Vietnam to the amendment. No one saw a problem emerging in Vietnam, certainly not one requiring U.S. intervention. Hadn’t the war there already ended? The House readily accepted the Evans provision, as did the Senate. Nixon signed the bill into law, mandating that after Aug. 15, 1973, no funds could be spent on U.S. “combat activities” in, over or off the shores of North or South Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. But there was more to the story — much more.
Evans was not the only one whose ears had pricked up when he’d heard Ford use the term “Southeast Asia.” Others included a battery of aghast White House aides monitoring the session. Before Evans offered his amendment, they rushed from their seats in the visitors’ gallery and pulled Ford from the floor.
“Oh, Jerry, you can’t say Southeast Asia; you’ve got to limit it to Cambodia,” Ford was told.
“I have said it on the floor, you confirmed it and reconfirmed it, and there’s no way to go back on it. Sorry, that’s it, period,’’ Ford later recalled telling the aides, who had met with him just prior to the debate.
What followed was a series of frantic and confusing telephone calls between Ford and the vacation White House in San Clemente, Calif. One was a 10-minute conversation with Nixon, in which Ford read to the president what he had said on the House floor and in response was told by Nixon, “That’s fine.” Five minutes later, Ford was pulled off the floor again, this time to take an urgent call from a roiled Alexander Haig, then Nixon’s chief of staff. Haig claimed that what Ford had described to the House — and the world — as Nixon’s position on Indochina was not in fact Nixon’s position.
“What you have said was apparently not what the president understood you to have said,” said Haig.
Ford was unmoved. “I’m sorry, Al, but that’s the way it has to be,” Ford replied. And so it was.
The language approved that day by the House and the Senate, then accepted by Nixon, declared: “None of the funds herein appropriated under this act may be expended to support directly or indirectly combat activities in or over Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, or off the shores of Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam and South Vietnam by United States forces, and after Aug. 15, 1973, no other funds heretofore appropriated under any other act may be expended for such purpose.” (The brevity of the House’s 1973 end-the-war legislation is an interesting contrast to the 2007 language approved by the House to end U.S. combat involvement in Iraq, which runs more than 12 pages.)
Less than two years later, North Vietnam broke the Kissinger-negotiated cease-fire and launched a full-scale invasion of the south. The Communist offensive — as well as what historians consider the Vietnam War — ended on April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon. The Evans language kept the United States — whose president was now Ford — from aiding the beleaguered South Vietnamese army. Former South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu bitterly denounced the United States for failing to live up to what he claimed were its commitments to South Vietnam.
Ford insisted that the “Southeast Asia” concession was necessary to swing the legislative compromise. But circumstances of the moment — the almost solitary focus on Cambodia, the seeming end of the war in Vietnam and the impending threat of a government shutdown — suggest just as strongly that the House would not have gone to the cliff’s edge to wring out the additional language.
Another intriguing question is how Ford and the Nixon White House could have so misunderstood each other. Ford had always been plain-spoken, the Nixon White House almost legendary in its efficiency of operations. One possible explanation is that Watergate — an issue that was occupying an increasing amount of time, energy and concentration in the White House — had distracted Nixon and his closest advisers.
With or without the inclusion of “Southeast Asia” in the final war legislation, Congress in 1973 demonstrated that with sufficient will it could find the means to prevail in a struggle with the president. By choosing to stare down the White House, Congress immunized itself against a presidential veto then. Today, however, the hurdle is a 60-vote majority in the Senate. With simple majorities attainable in both chambers, the 1973 game plan is still available for dealing with Iraq.
While Congress was not culpable in totally shutting off aid to South Vietnam, they certainly were responsible in its demise. By agreeing to allow the North Vietnamese to keep troops in South Vietnam and eliminating air support the fall of South Vietnam was assured.
historynewsnetwork.org, “The Myth That Congress Cut Off Funding for South Vietnam.” By Ken Hughes; prospect.org, “How Congress Got Us Out of Vietnam.” BY JULIAN E. ZELIZER; politico.com, “For Congress, the Secret to Ending Iraq War Lies in Vietnam.” By DANIEL RAPOPORT; wilsoncenter.org, “China and the Fall of South Vietnam: The Last Great Secret of the Vietnam War.” By George J. Veith; history.com, “U.S. withdraws from Vietnam.”; “An American Amnesia: How the US Congress Forced the Surrenders of South Vietnam and Cambodia Hardcover – March 10, 2010.” by Bruce Herschensoh;
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