The War after the War
The Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam
Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2016, 272 pages
Book Review published on: October 20, 2017
Although President Donald Trump has extended military operations in Afghanistan, the United States will inevitably withdraw at some indeterminate point in the future and will allow the Afghan government to stand on its own. How will the United States extricate itself from Afghanistan? What impact will Afghanistan’s eventual fate have on the United States’ international stature? Johannes Kadura’s concise, well-researched history of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam provides a timely historical perspective. The War after the War is a meticulous look at the strategy and actions of the executive branch during the twilight of the Vietnam conflict.
Kadura’s research captures the struggle at the highest levels of government to plan the exfiltration of U.S. forces and prevent what seems, in hindsight, like an inevitable loss by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. As Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford planned foreign policy, they knew, privately, that if the South Vietnamese government collapsed, American influence on the international stage could be severely curtailed.
Nixon always planned to support the South Vietnamese to the best of his ability. A hawkish president, he believed that American intervention was important to South Vietnam’s success specifically and to combating communism in Southeast Asia generally. Nixon was often informed by Kissinger, his secretary of state. Although Kissinger and Nixon agreed on strategy, the executive branch’s powers were limited by domestic pressure. The war was immensely unpopular with voters, and Congress, desperate to stop paying for an unpopular foreign war, refused to fully fund Vietnam-related expenditures requested by Nixon. As the executive branch pressured Congress, Nixon and Kissinger quietly developed the parallel concepts of “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy.”
In the “equilibrium strategy,” Nixon hoped to achieve detente in Vietnam using a carrot-and-stick approach by pledging humanitarian aid to the North but keeping U.S. aerial bombardments in reserve. He also promised military aid to South Vietnam that would enable a continued defense after U.S. withdrawal. Through this approach, Nixon and Kissinger hoped to give South Vietnam “a reasonable time” to build their strength. The ideal outcome would be a truce between North and South, or at least a permanent stalemate; a more cynical acceptable outcome would be a period of South Vietnamese independence long enough to disassociate the United States with South Vietnam’s collapse.
Even as Kissinger advised Nixon to pursue the limited Vietnamese success still open to him, the two of them downplayed the importance of Vietnam and containment in Southeast Asia. Kadura calls this strategy the “insurance policy” that would allow the United States to recovery military and diplomatic credibility if South Vietnam did fall. Nixon took several significant steps to distance himself from Vietnam such as avoiding a meeting with the South Vietnamese president when he visited the United States and emphasizing successes in the Middle East or other regions over the deteriorating Asian situation.
Nixon’s funding requests were never approved, or even seriously considered, by Congress. His ability to make deals and put pressure on senators was severely degraded by the Watergate scandal. Kissinger, who from 1969 to 1975 was simultaneously the national security advisor and the secretary of state, never publicly broke with Nixon, but he understood that foreign policy leadership could not come from the White House during such a significant scandal. He continued to pursue “equilibrium” and “insurance” in order to preserve American leadership in the event of a collapse in South Vietnam. Following Nixon’s resignation, Kissinger brought Gerald Ford into the fold on both concepts. Ford, not considered a leader in Washington circles, was an ardent champion of the equilibrium policy, and fought hard to secure the funding and policies that he considered vital if South Vietnam was to have a chance at survival. In private, however, he realized the fight against Congress was nearly futile, and he made plans similar to Nixon’s to distance himself and the country from impending failure. In the end, North Vietnam was persuaded neither by the paltry economic aid nor the clearly diminished American war power, and they began a lightning march to Saigon as soon as the last Americans left.
Kissinger and the two presidents he served during the end of the Vietnam War were mostly successful in maintaining U.S. credibility through their insurance and equilibrium policies that allowed them separate their administrations slightly from the failure in Vietnam. Detente with Russia and rapprochement with China were concrete diplomatic accomplishments that contributed to U.S. credibility. This book is a great resource for understanding the behind-the-scenes foreign policy machinations of a time when our nation was trying to extricate itself from a long war while juggling touchy relationships with Russia and China, and the obvious current events implications that has for readers today.
Book Review written by: Capt. Jeremy M. Phillips, U.S. Army, Fort Meade, Maryland