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Director: Bai An Tran, Ph.D.

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Realpolitik in the Vietnam War

The fall of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN aka South Vietnam) on April 30, 1975 was not because of its Armed Forces unwillingness to fight or solely because of its government’s corruption.  It was complex global politics and trade agreement superbly orchestrated between the superpowers, the United States (U.S.), the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union.  Sadly, the RVN was at the wrong place at the wrong time!!  

After World War II, the inherent ideological conflict between the two strongest powers in the world, the United States (U.S.) and the Soviet Union resurfaced rather notably.  The ideological competition was basically between capitalism (U.S and the free world) and communism (Soviet Union and the Red bloc).  To avoid another world war, the conflict between the two powers simmered into what was known as the “cold war.”  The rivalry between the two ideologies rapidly expanded beyond Europe and began to influence Asia.  In China, Mao Zedong, who had been sympathetic to the Soviet Union, seized power on October 1, 1949 and announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  Subsequently, the PRC and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance on February 17, 1950.  President Harry S. Truman was seriously concerned about communist expansion globally as well as in Asia.  In response to the potential threat, the Truman Administration formulated foreign policies to contain the Soviet Union’s political power, which was known as the “Containment Doctrine.”

The fear of communist aggression in Southeast Asia prompted President Truman to extend limited economic and military aid to the French who were fighting the Viet Minh, North Vietnamese Communist (NVC), in Indochina.  In November 1953, French General Henri Navarre wanted to lure the NVC forces into a set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu so he could use French superior firepower, combined with air strikes, to destroy them.  However, the French general was only successful in his tactical goal to get the NVC to take the bait, underestimating the massive logistical support his enemy received from the PRC.  As a result, the balance of forces, both in terms of artillery firepower and troop strength, leaned toward the NVC by five to one.  Ten days into the battle, General Paul Ely, the French chief of staff, arrived in Washington asking the U.S. for help.  In a meeting with Secretary of State, John F. Dulles and Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they discussed and approved Operation Vulture, a plan using 60 B-29s to launch massive bombardments on NVC positions around Dien Bien Phu.  Operation Vulture included an option to use up to three tactical nuclear bombs if necessary.  Declassified materials confirm that Operation Vulture was seriously considered, but in the end President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not willing to launch it without multinational support.  Dien Bien Phu fell on May 7, 1954.  Six weeks later, in Geneva, Switzerland, an Agreement was signed to end the war dividing Vietnam into two countries at the 17th parallel.  If we, the U.S. had launched Operation Vulture, there was a very strong possibility that NVC forces around Dien Bien Phu would have been annihilated under massive U.S. air raids.  Consequently, Vietnam would not have been partitioned.  We would not have had to involve ourselves in the war in South Vietnam and lose 58,000 American lives, and the lives of approximately three million Vietnamese may have been spared.  The fall of Dien Bien Phu was a prelude to our direct involvement in the second Vietnam War.

After the partition of Vietnam in 1954, we, the U.S., supported the RVN in the South to prevent the domino effect in Southeast Asia.  Throughout our direct involvement in the war against the NVC in the South, our policy had been desultory and inconsistent because of our domestic political division.  By 1968, confidence in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s handling of the war eroded and declined sharply.  Former Vice President Richard M. Nixon won the presidential election on November 2, 1968 and became the fifth U.S. President to handle the war in South Vietnam.  President Nixon was elected when America was in a very turbulent, divisive period, and global politics was undergoing dramatic changes.  Domestically, anti-war protests and civil rights movements erupted wildly across America.  Nixon needed to extricate U.S. troops out of Vietnam, the sooner the better, to defuse the increasing political turmoil.

On international politics, the existing ideological differences between the PRC and the Soviet Union, since Josef Stalin’s death, became more serious with the Soviet Union invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the actual Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969.  President Nixon and his National Foreign Adviser, Dr. Henry Kissinger, perceived the Sino-Soviet conflict as a good opportunity to bring the PRC, a newly emerged superpower, into the world balance of power along with the Soviet Union to create a new geo-strategy, triangular diplomacy.  Triangular diplomacy would pave the way for our rapprochement with the PRC and our relations with the PRC would help achieve détente with the Soviet Union.  Triangular diplomacy would encourage the Soviet Union to cooperate in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) negotiations, and would help us to exit Vietnam.  More importantly, Sino-U.S. relations would open the “bamboo curtain” for us to reenter the PRC’s huge, lucrative market after two decades.

The new geo-strategy once again shifted our policy toward the RVN.  With triangular diplomacy the communist threat in Southeast Asia no longer exists and, as a result, the political survival of the RVN became irrelevant to our interests in the region.  As a realist, Dr. Kissinger brought the concept of realpolitik(1) to the White House where it received the blessings of President Nixon.  In order to keep the policy-making decision within the White House, the State Department was practically excluded from involvement in triangular diplomacy.  The National Security Council (NSC) became the principal body to advise the President on foreign affairs.  Through this streamlined process and back door channel help from various sources, Dr. Kissinger was able to secretly meet with Xuan Thuy and then Le Duc Tho, NVC peace negotiators, in Paris and the PRC’s Premier Zhou Enlai in China.  Subsequently, Dr. Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai arranged for President Nixon to meet the PRC’s Chairman Mao Zedong on February 21, 1972 in Beijing, China.  The Nixon-Mao meeting produced a Joint Shanghai Communiqué, which marked the end of an old era of hostility.  The U.S. strategic alignment with the PRC did put pressure on the Soviet Union.  Only three months after Sino-U.S. high level meetings in China, President Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT-I treaty in Moscow and a new agreement with the Soviet Union on the Berlin Wall issue.

While global politics were changing and with the peace negotiations in progress, the obstinate NVC had no intention to relinquish their greedy goal to conquer the RVN by force.  After having recovered from their 1968 Tet Offensive catastrophic losses, on March 30, 1972, the NVC, without consulting their patron, the Soviet Union(2), launched another general attack against the RVN.  This was their attempt to defeat the RVN when U.S. combat troops were no longer involved.  After over two months of fierce fighting, the RVN with U.S. air support overwhelmingly defeated the NVC again.  Even though they were defeated in the battlefields, the NVC leadership strongly believed that if they could just hang on, the will of the Americans would collapse and they would win the war; not in South Vietnam battlefields, but in Washington D.C.  During this period, President Nixon was confronted with multiple political problems.  In the U.S., the Watergate investigation began to unfold unfavorably.  In South Vietnam, President Thieu refused to accept the Paris Peace Accord where the U.S. agreed for the NVC regular forces to remain in South Vietnam.  In Paris, NVC negotiator Le Duc Tho suspended negotiations.  To achieve the intended goals, the Nixon Administration exerted realpolitik towards both the NVC and, the RVN.  President Nixon furiously gave the NVC an ultimatum to resume negotiations or “suffer serious consequences,” which they failed to comply with.  To penalize the NVC, President Nixon authorized Operation Linebacker II, a massive air attack on Hanoi on December 17, 1972.  After eleven days of intense, low level, tactical air strikes, coupled with high altitude B-52 bombardments, the Hanoi leadership caved in.  In South Vietnam, President Nixon also threatened President Thieu on January 5, 1973 with “gravest consequences” if refusing to accept and sign the Paris Peace Accord.  As a result of aggressive exercise of realpolitik, the Paris Peace Accord was formally signed on January 27, 1973, against the RVN protest.  By June 1973, our Congress cut off funds for the war and, in November 1973, prohibited all U.S. military activity in Indochina.  The Watergate scandal exploded more wildly in the U.S., forcing President Nixon to resign.  Without any enforcement, the NVC repeatedly attacked South Vietnam.  By early 1975, the NVC, fully supported by its allies, had blatantly violated the Paris Peace Accord and launched their final attack.  The RVN, by contrast, received no logistical support from the U.S.  With the balance of power and troop strength in favor of the NVC, the fall of the RVN in South Vietnam was inevitable.  Even the NVC was surprised by their military victory on April 30, 1975. 

For the U.S., triangular diplomacy and realpolitik successfully achieved the intended goals.  The Sino-U.S. normalization process began, and the two countries set up liaison offices in each other’s capital cities after President Nixon and Chairman Mao’s meeting.  Shortly thereafter, many giant U.S. corporations mustered themselves into the PRC and bilateral trade improved throughout the decade.  The U.S. market was also inundated with products made in China.  U.S. capitalists were very happy to exploit the huge, profitable market in China after twenty years of closed door hostility.  The signing of the Paris Peace Accord brought an end to our involvement in Vietnam.  Our troops and all POWs returned home.  Through détente, the U.S. and the Soviets signed the SALT-I treaty in Moscow and the two countries were able to come to terms on a new agreement on the issues of the Berlin Wall.  For the people of the RVN, our about face during the time they needed us most, was a terrifying, shocking and painful experience.  Ironically, the RVN had nothing to offer after the war.  It was politically and economically beneficial for us to appease the three former foes, the Soviet Union, the PRC and the NVC. Our politicians knew full well that our credibility worldwide would, no doubt, decline sharply as a consequence of our actions.  But the cruel reality is; our country is a capitalistic business driven society, and the bottom line of a profit/loss report has always been more important.

Thirty years have since passed and many documents and audio tapes of Oval Office conversations during 1971 have been declassified and released.  Throughout this time, many studies and research projects have been performed by military and civilian historians and scholars, and many recent revelations have proven contradictory to previous prejudicial and hasty conclusions regarding the fall of Saigon.  With benefit of hindsight, it has become clearer that our goals were more ambitious than a superficial, bogus military victory.  Had we really wanted a military triumph, we could have easily achieved it after the massive bombings of Hanoi in December 1972.  Sir Robert Thompson, a British expert on Asia assertively said:  “In my view, by 30 December 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on Hanoi, you had won the war, and it was over.  They fired 1,242 SAMs and had none left.  They and their rear base at that point were at your mercy.  They would have taken any terms.  And that is why, of course, you actually got a peace agreement in January which you had not been able to get in October.”

This is not written in condemnation of our decision to abandon the RVN on the battlefields thirty years ago, nor is it written to vindicate the leaderships of the RVN. Rather it is written only to set the records straight.  The NVC did not defeat the U.S. militarily in Vietnam.  Instead, the U.S. was the architect of a new geo-strategy at the time global politics needed a change and withdrew its forces from Vietnam way before April 1975.  America’s socio-political situation coupled with its economic interests abroad required a shift of foreign policy.

After all, Carl Von Clausewitz (1780-1831) once said:  “Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, and not vice versa.”  This explains our policy toward the RVN.  And I believe it is now time we must stop putting the blame solely on the RVN and its Armed Forces for the fall of South Vietnam. There is plenty of blame to go around!

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 (1) Realpolitik is politics based on principles of power and expediency instead of by ideals or ethics.

 (2) Early March 1972, Soviet General Pavel Batitski was in Hanoi to assess NVC requests for military support.  During General Batitski’s presence in North Vietnam, Hanoi leadership never consulted nor informed the Soviets of their intent to launch the Easter offensive of March 30, 1972.

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