Richard Nixon was a young congressman and senator when Vietnam fought to overthrow French rule after the Second World War and President Harry Truman sent the first U.S. military advisers to help the French in 1950. He was vice president of the United States when Vietnamese forces defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when Vietnam was partitioned into a communist North and non-communist South at the 1955 Geneva Conference, and when the United States under President Dwight D. Eisenhower committed itself to supporting an independent, non-communist South Vietnam. He was the titular leader of the Republican Party when President John F. Kennedy deepened U.S. involvement in South Vietnam, and later when President Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated U.S. involvement in the war. Finally, as president of the United States, Nixon gradually withdrew U.S. ground forces from South Vietnam and concluded a peace agreement in January 1973. When the war came to its final end in April 1975, Nixon had already resigned as president in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
Ten years after the war’s end, Nixon wrote a compelling retrospective on the war titled No More Vietnams. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and search for lessons, meaning and historical perspective, Nixon’s book is worth another look.
No More Vietnams was one of several books Nixon wrote on international affairs during his post-presidential years, most of which were timed for publication near U.S. presidential elections in order to have maximum impact and marketability. In this respect, No More Vietnams was different. Its publication in 1985 was timed not for any impact on domestic politics, but for the 10th anniversary of the war’s end. In some ways it was Nixon’s best opportunity to get back at his critics who had managed to transform a conflict that extended over six U.S. presidencies into “Nixon’s War.”
The former president began the book by listing 21 false statements about the war that had by then become unchallenged conventional wisdom. These included such accepted “facts” as: the Vietnam War was a civil war; Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist than a communist; Viet Cong forces were independent of North Vietnam; the U.S. lost the war militarily; the ant-war demonstrations in the United States shortened the war; and the domino theory was false. He characterized as “myths” the widely accepted judgments that the war was immoral, unwinnable, and that the U.S. was on the “wrong side of history” in the conflict. Nixon then set forth a well-argued narrative of why and how the United States entered the war, how the U.S. achieved military victory then lost the peace, the consequences of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and the true lessons of the war.
‘First Vietnam War’
Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Nixon wrote, “changed the geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia.” The end of Japanese hegemony brought the return of French colonial rule and Vietnamese resistance to that rule. What Nixon called the “First Vietnam War” lasted from 1946 to 1954, and resulted in a French defeat but a divided country. Nixon noted that although the Viet Minh suffered far more casualties than the French at Dien Bien Phu, the psychological blow to France was mortal. French will was broken. “In the end,” Nixon explained, “the war was lost on the home front in France rather than on the battlefields of Vietnam.” Interestingly and presciently, at the time of Dien Bien Phu, Nixon advised Eisenhower to assist French forces with air strikes, and warned that “our choice was to help the French now or be faced with the necessity of taking over the burden of preventing a Communist takeover later.” In hindsight, Nixon believed that this moment was the last chance the U.S. had “to stop the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia at little cost to itself.”
The primary U.S. interest in the region, Nixon wrote, “was to prevent the fall of Indochina to the Communists.” The Truman administration, and all successor administrations, believed that the fall of all of Vietnam to communist rule would result in communist takeover in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and all of Southeast Asia. This was the “domino theory,” which Nixon pointed out was set forth in a National Security Council memorandum in 1952. It had only been a few years since the communists seized power on mainland China and allied themselves to the Soviet Union, and communist North Korea – backed by the Soviet Union and China – invaded South Korea. The Eisenhower administration, with Nixon as vice president, accepted the “domino theory” and sought to bolster non-communist political forces in South Vietnam. Nixon noted that in 1956, then Senator John F. Kennedy described South Vietnam as “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike. Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, and obviously Laos and Cambodia would be threatened if the red tide of communism overflowed into Vietnam.”
Nixon made it clear that the threat to Southeast Asia was indeed communism, not Vietnamese nationalism. He debunked the notion that Ho Chi Minh was more of a nationalist than a communist. “There is nothing in Ho’s biography,” wrote Nixon, “to indicate that he placed nationalism above communism.” At the age of 30, Ho helped found the French Communist Party, then traveled to Moscow where he trained to be an agent of the Comintern. As a Moscow-trained revolutionary, Ho cooperated with Vietnamese nationalists when it suited his purposes, but collaborated with the French to undermine and in some instances to destroy nationalist forces. “Though he used the rhetoric of nationalism,” explained Nixon, “Ho was first and foremost a Communist totalitarian. He used nationalism to serve communism rather than the other way around.”
South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, on the other hand, was a nationalist, according to Nixon, and one of America’s crucial mistakes in Vietnam was the Kennedy administration’s support for and acquiescence in Diem’s assassination in 1963. “Whatever his faults,” wrote Nixon, “Diem possessed a significant measure of legitimacy. He was a strong leader of a nation that desperately needed strong leadership. With him gone, power in South Vietnam was up for grabs.” “The Kennedy administration,” Nixon continued, “ sowed the seeds of intrigue that led to the overthrow and murder of Diem. Now, we would reap a bitter harvest.”
Another critical mistake, Nixon explained, was the failure to prevent communist forces from using parts of Laos and Cambodia to wage war in South Vietnam. Nixon recalled that Eisenhower had advised Kennedy that Laos, not South Vietnam, was “the key domino in Southeast Asia.” U.S. acquiescence in communist control of key areas of Laos and Cambodia, Nixon wrote, “lengthened the front that Saigon had to defend from 40 to 640 miles.”
Nixon believed that the most critical U.S. mistake was its failure to grasp that the war from the beginning was an invasion by North Vietnam, not a home-grown insurgency in South Vietnam. This failure led to tactical and strategic decisions that doomed the U.S. effort from the start, especially the decision to limit the fighting to South Vietnam, the unwillingness to strike at the communist’s privileged sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, and the incremental, gradual escalation of our commitment. “While we treated the symptom,” Nixon lamented, “the disease went unchecked.”
When Nixon became president of the United States, he pursued a policy of gradual withdrawal masked as “peace with honor,” acknowledging that domestic support for the war had seriously eroded. He coupled U.S. ground troop withdrawals with training and supplying South Vietnam military forces to enable them to fight the war more successfully (“Vietnamization”), periodic bombing of North Vietnamese targets, incursions into formerly privileged sanctuaries, and diplomatic efforts with the Soviet Union and China, North Vietnam’s principal military and political supporters. He claimed in the book that as a result of these efforts, by 1973 the United States had won the war. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, according to Nixon, when Congress in a series of measures effectively eliminated his, and later President Gerald R. Ford’s, ability to enforce the peace agreements signed to much acclaim in January 1973. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon. The war was over, and as Nixon wrote, communist forces brought peace to South Vietnam and Cambodia – “but it was the peace of the grave.”
The immediate consequences of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Nixon explained, included the terror and tragedy that had accompanied all communist conquests throughout the 20th century. The dominoes fell – South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia joined the communist world – but fractures within world communism limited the long-term strategic effects of this development. Nevertheless, Nixon characterized the war as a “crucially important victory in the Soviet Union’s war for control of the strategically critical Third World.” The war’s greatest effect, Nixon wrote, was on the psychology of the United States as a world power “because it left the United States so crippled psychologically that it was unable to defend its interests in the developing world, the battleground in the ongoing East-West conflict.” The Soviets in the mid-to-late 1970s went on the geopolitical offensive, adding Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Yemen, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Afghanistan to their empire. “Thus did our defeat in Vietnam,” Nixon wrote, “tarnish our ideals, weaken our spirit, cripple our will, and turn us into a giant and a diplomatic dwarf in a world in which the steadfast exercise of American power was needed more than ever before.”
For Nixon the phrase “No More Vietnams,” meant not that the U.S. should never engage in limited wars in far away places, but that American power should be used wisely, prudently, and effectively in defense of U.S. national interests. If the United States withdraws as a global power, the political and military vacuum will be filled either by global anarchy or by a new would-be global hegemon. “In Vietnam,” he concluded, “we tried and failed in a just cause. ‘No more Vietnams’ can mean that we will not try again. It should mean that we will not fail again.”
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, the University Bookman, The Claremont Review of Books, The Diplomat, Strategic Review, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.