10/13/2006 10:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When "Staying the Course" Means Defeat: 2. Indochina

Note: Fred Branfman spent over 4 years on the ground in Indochina as a volunteer and journalist between 1967 and 1973, and was co-director of the Indochina Resource Center in Washington, D.C., which U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin blamed for the loss of Indochina.

This is the second of a two-part series, entitled "WHEN STAYING THE COURSE MEANS DEFEAT: 1. IRAQ 2. INDOCHINA"


However one feels about the rights and wrongs of the original U.S. intervention in Indochina, there is no question that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's prosecution of the war post-January 1969 was a major strategic failure, outrage against humanity, and betrayal of America's real interests. It is important to understand this history -- because it is being repeated today in Iraq. The Santayana observation pertains: ignorant of the Nixon-Kissinger history in Indochina, the Bush Administration is repeating it in Iraq.

Pro-Iraqi war apologists are correct to point out all the ways that the Iraqi war is different from Vietnam. It is true that both Shiite militias empowered by the Bush Administration and Sunni insurgents are criminal psychopaths whose targeting of civilian populations is beyond the pale, unlike the far more disciplined Indochinese guerillas who focused on attacking military targets. And it is also true that the consequences of Bush's failure in Iraq will be even greater than Kissinger's failure in Indochina.

But the fundamental real-world question facing America in Iraq is the same basic issue it faced in Indochina: to what extent CAN (not "should") it prevail? Yes, the Shiite militias are in fact the largest Islamo-fascist group in the world today: religious totalitarians who target civilians and engage in torture - gouging out eyes, attacking sensitive organs and bones with electric drills, burning people while still alive - not seen since the worst days of the Middle Ages. But it is the Bush Administration that has brought these Islamo-fascists into power, and the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq is actually increasing not decreasing their power.

Some will argue that this is a case for pushing the Bush Administration to disarm the Shiite militias. But, once again, the issue is not "should" but "can". Most outside observers believe that the U.S. cannot even hope to launch a full-scale attempt to eliminate the militias AND successfully fight Sunni insurgents without re-instituting the draft, dramatically increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and accepting a sharp increase in U.S. casualties. And it is unclear that even this inconceivable series of actions would succeed, especially given the likelihood that Iran would increase its support for the militias. Since it seems unlikely that the U.S. will ever make a serious effort to eliminate the Shiite militias (despite occasional skirmishes with them), there is no way that continuing the U.S. occupation in Iraq can create a stable, pro-American government there.

By seeking to "staying the course", therefore, the Bush Administration is making the same basic mistake that Nixon and Kissinger made in Indochina: prolonging a war that cannot be won. Understanding what really happened post-1968 in Indochina is key to understanding how badly the U.S. needs to end an occupation of Iraq that is today helping U.S. opponents and harming the people of both Iraq and America.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were forced, after taking office in January 1969, to withdraw U.S. ground troops from Indochina. Since it was obvious that local troops could not accomplish what the U.S. military had failed to do - defeat the North Vietnamese - U.S. national interests would have best been served by negotiating a settlement that would undoubtedly have led to a communist takeover, but one far less bloody and costly than what eventually occurred.

The alternative to a settlement chosen by Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger is a frightening augury for what the next few years may bring in the Middle East. Unwilling to acknowledge the defeat that pulling U.S. ground troops out of Indochina made inevitable, and concerned primarily with avoiding personal blame for the loss of Indochina, Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger chose to expand the U.S. air war. They conducted the most illegal, murderous, extensive and ineffective bombing of civilian targets in human history, killing well over one million human beings without changing the overall balance of forces.

It is largely unknown today that the Nixon and Ford Administrations, in a bombing campaign largely orchestrated by Henry Kissinger, dropped 3,984,963 tons of bombs on Indochina between January 1969 and April 1975 - TWICE the total tonnage dropped on all of Europe and the entire Pacific theater in World War II. (Emphasis added)

Nixon/Ford/Kissinger war-making killed most of the 1,541,398 human beings whom the Pentagon and U.S. Senate estimated died during this period, and was also responsible for most of the 6,318,615 Indochinese who were wounded or made homeless. Their expanded bombing campaign wound up striking thousands of undefended villages, particularly in Laos and Cambodia, in a blatant violation of the laws of war. Article 25 of the Hague Convention, for example, forbids the bombing or shelling of "undefended towns and villages," a daily occurrence throughout Laos and Cambodia during that period. The United States specifically stated after World War II that the Nuremberg Principles applied not only to the Nazis, but to protecting civilian populations in all future wars, including those waged by American leaders. Had the Nuremberg Principles been applied to Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger, therefore, they would have been brought to trial, incarcerated and quite possibly given the ultimate punishment.

Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger also sent 20,503 U.S. soldiers to pointless deaths. And $83 billion was expended- the equivalent of $284 billion today.

When Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, it was clear that all of these lives, this bombing, and this money were wasted for one simple reason: weak local regimes could not beat their stronger foe despite receiving double the bombing support enjoyed by U.S. forces in World War II. But rather than take responsibliity for their failures, Mr. Kissinger, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and others responsible for our loss sought - are still seeking - to shift the blame onto war critics who succeeded in halting Mr. Kissinger's pitiless bombing of Cambodia in August 1973, and somewhat reducing Ford /Kissinger equests for military aid to the Thieu regime in March, 1975.

Mr. Laird summarized this attempt not only to rewrite history but apply it to Iraq when he wrote, in a Nov./Dec. 2005 Foreign Affairs article entitled "Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam", that: "Summary: During Richard Nixon's first term, when I served as secretary of defense, we withdrew most U.S. forces from Vietnam while building up the South's ability to defend itself. The result was a success -- until Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by cutting off funding for our ally in 1975. Washington should follow a similar strategy now, but this time finish the job properly."

Mr. Laird's key assertion was that "South Vietnam held its own courageously and respectably against a better-bankrolled enemy" after the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in January 1973. In fact, U.S. military expenditures in Indochina in fiscal year 1974 amounted to $1.7 billion, more than four times greater than the CIA-estimated $400 million in Soviet and Chinese military aid to the North Vietnamese that year. (U.S. aid of $83 billion to U.S.-backed regimes from 1969-75 was more than twelve times greater than the $6.7 billion in military and economic aid that the CIA estimated the communists received from the Soviet Union and China during this period.)

And Mr. Laird's statement that Congress "cut off" funding to Thieu is another bald-faced lie. The Congress simply reduced the Administration's request, still leaving Thieu with well over $1 billion in U.S. support - far more than that enjoyed by his opponents.

I had an eyewitness view, both of the Administration's failures in Indochina and its attempt the shift the blame to its critics back at home. I interviewed nearly 2,000 refugees in Laos who described seeing relatives burned alive by napalm, suffocated by 500 pound bombs, shredded by antipersonnel bombs - as a result of the Nixon Administration's massive and fruitless bombing of civilian targets in Laos. The bombing failed militarily because communist forces, who hid in richly carpeted forests, were largely untouched.

I also interviewed some of the more than 100,000 political prisoners who had been tortured by the Thieu government in South Vietnam, a regime which relied on widespread torture because it enjoyed so little public support. I flew in the spring of 1973 over civilian areas in Cambodia inhabited by a U.S. Embassy-estimated 2 million people, but saw no signs of life. My CIA-financed pilot told me they were hiding from Mr. Kissinger's B52 carpet-bombing of their homes and villages. And, by listening in on radio transmissions during U.S. bombing raids, I helped document that U.S. pilots were bombing civilian targets in Cambodia in violation of stated U.S. policy.

I also saw clearly, as did most who lived in the ground in Indochina for an extended period of time, that the Nixon/Kissinger policy was not creating viable local regimes. It was true that massive carpet-bombing of subsistence level villagers could delay a communist victory. But it could clearly not prevent it.

When I returned home, however I found a totally different war -- the war for public opinion -- than that which I had witnessed on the ground in Indochina. Rather than accepting that their strategy of bombing to prop up weak local regimes was an abysmal failure, the Republicans consistently exaggerated their strength and tried to blame domestic war opponents like ourselves for undermining them.

he Indochina Resource Center, which I co-directed, was frequently accused of hurting U.S. war-making in Indochina. These attacks culminated in Mr. Kissinger's Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, testifying to Congress on January 27, 1976, 10 months after the loss of Vietnam, that "it is fashionable in some circles to blame the Congress for the final collapse of South Vietnam - but the negative decision was made inevitable by one of the best propaganda and pressure organizations the world has ever seen. The main organization I think is the Indochina Resources (sic) Center."

While a part of me would like to believe that our efforts helped end U.S. killing of Indochinese, experience and common sense indicates that we were at most minor players in the war's eventual outcome. The simple fact is this: it was as absurd in 1969 for Mr. Kissinger to assert that local forces could succeed as it is for Mr. Bush to today assert that Iraqi forces can "stand up" and create a viable pro-American government in Iraq on their own.

As difficult as it was, America's national interests - and the cause of humanity - would have best been served by negotiating a withdrawal from Indochina post-January 1969, when it was obvious that U.S. war-making had failed

And as difficult as it is today, America's national interests - and the cause of humanity - will best be served by responding to the iraqi people's desire for an end to the American occupation, and supporting an international effort to do what can be done to prevent an escalating civil war.

As in Indochina, It is understandable why politicians will shrink from being blamed for "losing Iraq" by moving to end the disastrous U.S. occupation there post- November. But though understandable, it is both unpatriotic and inhuman. Politicians who collude in continuing an occupation of Iraq which our own intelligence agencies say is helping our opponents are betraying not only America's national security, soldiers and people, but all humanity.