A Model for Responsible Withdrawal

By Melvin R. Laird, secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973 and counselor to the president for domestic affairs in 1973 and 1974. He served nine terms as a Republican representative from Wisconsin (THE WASHINGTON POST, 29/06/07):

In a recent column on this page discussing lessons of Vietnam as they pertain to the war in Iraq, Henry Kissinger noted that the fall of South Vietnam was precipitated by a cutoff of U.S. aid that came at a time when «not a single American soldier had been in combat for two years.» Said Kissinger: «The imperatives of domestic debate took precedence over geopolitical necessities.» Meanwhile, even as U.S. aid was ended, the Soviet Union continued to supply North Vietnam.

This was not what was planned after the Paris Peace Accords of 1973. The plan was for continuing U.S. logistical support and keeping the American commitment until North and South Vietnam could reach a peace accord of their own. But the United States failed to live up to the promises of logistical aid made in Paris, and without that aid the South was doomed.

Some background is useful here. After I took office as secretary of defense for the Nixon administration in 1969, Gen. Creighton Abrams and I devised a troop withdrawal program (along with the great help of the Vietnam Task Force I established). Abrams was the man I was to rely on in Vietnam throughout my time as defense secretary.

I called our plan «Vietnamization,» and the withdrawals were planned and initiated within six months of my taking office. All withdrawals were based on the real and substantial improvement of South Vietnamese forces under the strict training objectives set by Abrams. The withdrawal announcements were made as we reached various readiness goals under Abrams’s skilled direction. (It was our policy for the president to make all these withdrawal announcements. It was my job to announce the casualties and mishaps.)

The South Vietnamese finally realized that they had the ball in their court: There would be no more «surges» in American military personnel — only reductions. In my first meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu in early 1969, I made it clear that I had turned down Gen. William Westmoreland’s request for another 150,000 American troops.

At my request, Gen. Abrams and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker accompanied me to this meeting. Afterward Bunker was critical of my being so tough with President Thieu, and he conveyed similar feelings to the State Department. But whether State and the White House realized it, Congress wanted nothing more to do with funding American troops or with American casualties in Vietnam. I assured the leaders of the congressional committees (both Republicans and Democrats) to which the Defense Department reported that no U.S. combat troops would be in Vietnam when the four years I had agreed to serve were over.

But never did I or anyone else in my department suggest to these congressional committees that military aid would be unnecessary after our withdrawal of combat personnel. And with appropriate Pentagon urging, Congress showed support for every overall defense budget request, including military assistance to South Vietnam. We never lost a vote on such requests during my service as secretary. And during those four years, the Democratic-controlled Congress was most cooperative with me as a member of the opposite party. (And as one who had, of course, served many years in Congress and on the defense appropriations committee.)

Abrams carried through magnificently on our plan for having a trained and ready South Vietnamese force in place when the U.S. withdrawal dates arrived. And this force never lost a battle from the time of our last withdrawal of combat forces until our government went back on its word to continue interim military support to the South Vietnamese.

Vietnamization meant much to the American men and women in uniform and to their country. Not only did we withdraw more than 520,000 ground troops from Vietnam, we were also able to reduce the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine support personnel committed to the Vietnam War by two-thirds, from roughly a million.

The same kind of well-devised plan for withdrawal over time is needed for Iraq as it takes over the military security job that belongs to the Iraqi government. We have had too many people in charge of planning in Iraq — too many changes in the top leaders. We first tried an in-country civilian with a Foreign Service background who insisted on disbanding the Iraqi army. We keep changing generals. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has no command authority, had to take a hit. Now we have a «czar» in the White House for everything in Iraq.

The secretary of defense must assert his leadership. We have found out that we cannot run a war or plan its execution or conclusion from the White House or the vice president’s office. But let us not forget in our planning that all of Iraq’s military equipment, munitions and training manuals are now U.S.-produced. Our assistance will be required.

The executive and legislative branches cannot walk away from their responsibilities and promises as they did in 1975. We have an obligation to carry through in Iraq. Many Americans did not agree on the reasons for going to Iraq in the first place, but the Middle East, with its political, economic, social and cultural issues, is of greater long-term interest to our national security than was Vietnam. Wars are very easy to start but very hard to get out of, as we are finding today in Iraq.