To me, the final days during the fall of Saigon were hours of shame. Not only did the U.S withdraw from Vietnam in disarray, we also abandoned our allies who had fought at our side. Was that defeat inevitable?
Until 1968, the U.S. had followed the Westmoreland strategy of search and destroy, assuming that if we killed enough Vietnamese Communists, they would give up. We underestimated the will of North Vietnam to win the war no matter what the cost. Ho Chi Minh had told the French, “It will be a war between and elephant and a tiger. If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges only at night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina.”
More succinctly he said, “You will ten of us, and we will kill one of you, and in the end it is you who will be exhausted.”
When Creighton Abrams took over the command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1968, he altered the way the U.S. fought to stress working with the South Vietnamese people, shifting the focus from body counts to population security, that is protecting the people from the Communists. He emphasized small unit operations aimed at defending villages and hamlets, forcing the North Vietnamese to attack U.S. forces in places and at times advantageous to the U.S.
It was working. But by then the U.S. population had turned against the war, and, after the peace accords of 1973, Congress eventually stopped even our air support to the South Vietnamese and withheld weapons, supplies, and funds from the South Vietnamese military, assuring that the North Vietnamese would win the war.
Whether the U.S. could have had the wisdom to shape Vietnamese politics so as to assure democracy and the rule of law in South Vietnam is another question entirely. But militarily, we were on our way to victory when the people of the U.S. decided the war must end, even if that meant shame and defeat.
That said, if we as a nation have learned nothing else from our failure, let us learn not to abandon the allies who have fought at our side and leave them to the mercy of our joint enemy. Our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest to me that we have not learned that lesson.