The War after the War by Johannes Kadura

 

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Four minutes before six o’clock on the morning of January 28, 1973, I awoke in my Tan Son Nhut BOQ room when four mortar rounds hit the base. We were six hours ahead of Greenwich, where it was nearly midnight and the start of the ceasefire designated by the Paris Peace Accords. No further rounds followed, but Big Voice kept ordering people to shelters. I rolled over in bed and smiled.

The North Vietnamese were telling us that they hadn’t quit, I thought with a touch of admiration. Two years and three months later, the NVA rolled into Saigon.

Events that led to that morning and followed it are the subject of The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility During America’s Exit from Vietnam (Cornell University Press, 231 pp.; $45) by Johannes Kadura. The story revolves around the Indochina endgame strategy employed by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford with counsel from National Security Adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon and Kissinger, Kadura explains, used two basic plans to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. They called their plans “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy.” Kadura discusses the plans and then offers his “new interpretation” of what occurred during the years immediately before and after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Paris. He focuses on the U.S. perspective and does not attempt to tell the Vietnamese version of the story.

The book is a masterpiece of research that is carefully footnoted. Kadura holds a doctorate in American history. He studied at Yale and Cambridge. He is Managing Director of AKRYL, an Internet company based in Hamburg and Beijing.

After American forces departed Vietnam and our POWs returned home, Nixon and Kissinger “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended,” Kadura says. “The implications were obvious: the United States had fulfilled its basic obligations and could focus on more important things; the South Vietnamese had to figure out the rest on their own.” Nixon and Kissinger soon shifted their attention to more critical international matters, such as the Yom Kippur War, the oil crisis, and relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

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Johannes Kadura

The book convincingly argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame on Congress for America’s lack of post-1973 support for the vulnerable nations of Indochina, particularly when Congress reduced military and economic aid to those nations each year.

Nixon’s distraction by Watergate and his eventual resignation forced Kissinger to guide America’s foreign policy for a considerable period, Kadura says. Ford, however, proved to be his own man, no more so than when he pardoned Nixon. Ford, emulating Nixon, continued to blame Congress for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ending up under communist rule.

The book presents information that filled gaps in my education. Like many people, I had stopped worrying about Southeast Asia in 1973. Material new to me included the fact that some 207,000 NVA regulars moved into South Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Accords; the North’s paving of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and its construction of SAM sites at Khe Sanh and A Shau—all in preparation for its final offensive. I also didn’t know about Nixon’s gross failure to take decisive action against cease-fire violations and of the political machinations that led to the fall of Cambodia. Kadura’s history lessons ensure that the reader sees the big picture.

Overall, Kadura convinced me that among Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, pessimism prevailed throughout the post-peace agreement period. Their goal had been to exit Vietnam without looking like they were running away (“peace with honor”), and they feared being accused of having done exactly that. Kadura barely mentions “peace with honor,” which was a byword of the era. He does discuss the “decent interval,” a goal that might have resulted in more favorable outcomes for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas. A two-year interval was not long enough.

The end of South Vietnam triggered a lot of soul searching in this country. Study groups from the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council came up with conflicting summaries of lessons learned. Kissinger’s insistence that “Washington had bought vital time for Southeast Asia’s non-communist nations to develop” became a popular but questionable conclusion because America had not prosecuted the war with that goal in mind, according to Kadura. The “buying vital time” claim, however, reassured other allies that Washington would help them fight communist aggression.

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Nixon in China

Looking “beyond defeat in Indochina,” Kadura shows that America retained post-Agreement influence in Southeast Asia during the Mayaguez incident, as well as with our denial of help to Hanoi, and through worsening relations with China.

Kadura’s conclusion: “The overall effects of Washington’s defeat in Indochina were quite limited. The strategic balance did not shift decisively in favor of the Soviets or Chinese. Washington emerged tarnished yet relatively strong. Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger did manage to control the damage caused by the U.S. defeat.”

The author’s website is johanneskadura.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Last Plane Out of Saigon by Richard Pena and John Hagan

Regardless of a reader’s attitude about the Vietnam War, Richard Pena’s Last Plane Out of Saigon (Story Merchant Books, 136 pp., $12.95, paper), written with John Hagan, offers insights worth reflecting upon four decades after the fact.

Drafted into the Army out of law school, Pena served as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. He ended up among the last American troops to evacuate South Vietnam in 1973. Discharged upon his return to the States, Pena finished college and became a lawyer. During his Vietnam War tour of duty, Pena kept a journal that he stashed away for thirty years. That journal serves as the core of this concise flashback to the life of a wartime draftee.

Pena arrived in Vietnam amid the chaos of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Upon deplaning at Tan Son Nhut, he wondered why he had been “sentenced to exile in this forsaken land.” He questioned whether America could win the war and worried about people “dying for a policy dictated out of ignorance and falsehood.”

Pena worked as a technician in the operating room of the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Most of the patients came there straight from the battlefield, having received no treatment elsewhere. Pena therefore saw the results of war in human terms every day.

Throughout his tour, one question haunted him: “What does it mean?”

Richard Pena

He tried to answer that question in several ways, and suffered emotionally along with the bloodied, shattered, men he treated. In his journal Pena analyzed his relationships with fellow American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the latter of whom he strongly distrusted.

Pena put his thoughts and theories in his journal because “to speak out about the tragedy is said to be anti-American.” To him, Vietnam became a land of lies, betrayals, and corruption that left soldiers and civilians “angry and bitter all the time.”

Despite his emotional turmoil, Pena persevered in his duties. Near the end of his journal, he wrote: “In these last days before departing, I realize that the weight I have carried for the past eleven months will never be lifted from my shoulders.” In other words, his journal tells a story that must never be forgotten.

Having read this short book three times, I believe it has its greatest impact when read uninterrupted. The journal is divided into four parts that are interwoven with chapters by John Hagan that provide background information about the war. I therefore suggest that those familiar with the Vietnam War read Pena’s chapters first. Those unfamiliar with the war should start with Hagan’s chapters.

The collaborators reach two conclusions: First, they agree that wars such as Vietnam are destructive to America’s society and economy. Second, they emphasize the need to learn from foreign policy failures and mistakes.

Neither idea is new, but the thought processes the authors follow to reach them clearly exhume the intellectual conflict of the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.lastplaneoutofsaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel