Small Wars Journal

The Loss of South Vietnam and the Coming Loss of Afghanistan

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The Loss of South Vietnam and the Coming Loss of Afghanistan

Stephen B. Young

Unlike conventional wars, which in Vietnam we called the “War of the Big Battalions”, small wars, or what back then we called “the other war”, integrate the military with the cultural and the political. Thus, small wars are hard to win with kinetic engagements and firepower alone. The complex reality of small wars also implies that they can be lost for cultural or political reasons even if single military engagements are won handily again and again.

Such a loss happened in Vietnam. For cultural and political reasons, the United States decided to lose the war, or at least to give up any continuing attempt to win it.

Such a loss is now happening in Afghanistan as the Trump Administration focuses on withdrawal of American forces leaving the Afghans to fight on among themselves, winner take all.

As Yogi Berra said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

And given the power relationship between a great power and its weaker, more vulnerable ally, abandoning the ally comes at little immediate cost to the great power.  It is easier to cut off a weak dependent than betray a powerful friend. The United States, for example, did not come to the aid of the Hungarians in 1956, or Cubans at the Bay of Pigs, and abandoned the Iranian Kurds at one point and the Iraqi Kurds at another. We abandoned the Cambodians to Pol Pot and the Lao to the North Vietnamese.  We muddled through in tepid support of allies in El Salvador and Honduras. The French abandoned their Algerian protegees.  The British, on the other hand, held firm in Malaya, Kenya, and Northern Ireland. And the United States has yet to abandon Israel.

One difference between the retreat of the United States from Vietnam and the one today under way in Afghanistan was that the abandonment of the Vietnamese Nationalists was done in secret and that of the Afghans is taking place very publicly. Otherwise the procedure is the same in both cases.

In both cases, the United States entered into direct negotiations with the enemy of its ally seeking terms on which US forces could be withdrawn.  When the United States obtained face-saving terms, it agreed to them and then imposed them on its ally. That happened in Vietnam and is on course for happing to our Afghan allies.  

The ally was (is) left with no real chance for survival: its alternatives were (are) either die today by refusing to go along or submit to American will and then try to live a little longer as your army and government lose their will to fight on against the inevitable, your economy collapses from capital flight and lack of investment, and your enemy takes to arms again with conviction and blood lust.

I remember how in South Vietnam after the Paris Peace Agreement guaranteed the freedom and independence of South Vietnam, my wife’s family and my friends placed high value on having gold and diamonds or other very liquid, moveable assets.  I didn’t see the long-term economic advantage in that. But I was wrong. They turned out to have been wiser as to the probable course history would take.

In the Vietnam case, on May 25, 1971 a Frenchman, Jean Sainteny, informed Henry Kissinger, then National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon, that if the Vietnamese Communists were assured that the Americans would leave South Vietnam and that some of their Southern followers would be given seats in South Vietnam’s National Assembly, then they would return American POWs, agree to a cease fire, and keep the two Vietnam’s “separate for a number of years”. (The relevant memorandum of conversation has been declassified.)

The proposed deal was in retrospect called a “Decent Interval”. Superficially, it saved face for the United States, giving us the fig leaf of a promise that the Vietnamese Nationalists had a right to freedom and independence.

That same day, Kissinger informed US Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker that in the forthcoming secret meeting with Hanoi the United States would only require that the “peoples of Indochina should discuss among themselves” the withdrawal of North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  Kissinger took up Hanoi’s offer that the US could enjoy a “Decent Interval” and did his part to meet Hanoi’s terms.

Bunker had previously recommended that the final peace agreement require that upon the withdrawal of American forces, North Vietnamese forces would withdraw from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. (The relevant secret cables have been declassified.)

In his later conversations with me, Ambassador Bunker said he had not understood Kissinger’s change of wording on May 25, 1971 to be a decision to abandon the Vietnamese Nationalists because President Nixon had not indicated any compromise of his demand that North Vietnamese forces withdraw back north and leave South Vietnam in peace. Thus, Bunker did not inform South Vietnam’s President Thieu of this concession by the Americans. Bunker reported back to Kissinger on his briefing of President Thieu but Kissinger did not correct Bunker’s misunderstanding.

Once the concession was made that North Vietnamese troops could remain in South Vietnam after a peace agreement went into effect, it was never revoked. It ended up in the Paris Peace Agreement of 1973 over the furious objections of Thieu. But his objections came too late.  All he got from Nixon was a pledge to commit B-52 bombers in the event Hanoi ever broke the Agreement.  When Nixon was forced from office in 1974 over the Watergate Scandal, the efficacy of his promise to Thieu evaporated. Upon the fall of Nixon, North Vietnamese leader Le Duan call for the military conquest of South Vietnam in 1975. Under attack, bitter at having been abandoned, Thieu at first dithered and then panicked and so precipitated an immediate collapse of South Vietnamese resolve.

According to press reports, this time he Americans will be getting a promise that after they leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will not work closely with Al-Queda again. Face saved for Donald Trump.

According to the same reports, the Taliban will not have to disarm. All Afghan President Ashraf Gani is getting from the Americans is a pledge that the Germans and the Norwegian will used their good offices to promote negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government on power sharing in the future. But f those negotiations break down and the fighting resumes, the Americans will be gone and our Afghan allies will be all on their own.

In Vietnam the Paris Peace Agreement had a similar optimistic arrangement for power sharing.

The sacrifices of so many and the expenditure of so much in Afghanistan over 19 years will then just be detritus in the ash can of history, where the sacrifice of 58,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese nationalists already are, with bitterness festering and honor trampled under the feet of ambitious civilians.

About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.


Mike in Hilo

Mon, 08/26/2019 - 7:17pm


Concur 100%. Loyalty defines honor [notwithstanding the misuse of this definition by a notably dishonorable entity not so many years ago], and once we ourselves besmirch our honor, it is not easily cleansed. And then there are the unavoidable national policy implications: Deterrence, the longstanding US defense policy, stands on the bedrock of credibility, and a large portion of credibility is the perception of political will to pursue victory. The perception of Afghanistan as Vietnam redux will do nothing to reassure our friends while emboldening our foes. I share your personal anguish, as my late wife (Thu-Mai, who taught us both--though not in the same timeframe--the Vietnamese language at the Vietnam Training Center for CORDS officers in Arlington) found herself bereft of her ancestral homeland; on top of which it seems our son's efforts (like those of so many others) in Afghanistan may shortly turn out to have been for naught. 




From our article above:

"And given the power relationship between a great power and its weaker, more vulnerable ally, abandoning the ally comes at little immediate cost to the great power.  It is easier to cut off a weak dependent than betray a powerful friend. The United States, for example, did not come to the aid of the Hungarians in 1956, or Cubans at the Bay of Pigs, and abandoned the Iranian Kurds at one point and the Iraqi Kurds at another. We abandoned the Cambodians to Pol Pot and the Lao to the North Vietnamese.  We muddled through in tepid support of allies in El Salvador and Honduras. The French abandoned their Algerian protegees.  The British, on the other hand, held firm in Malaya, Kenya, and Northern Ireland. And the United States has yet to abandon Israel."

From my initial comment below, one might consider that the proper question that follows from this -- and, thus, the one that needs to be both asked and answered here -- is: 

a.  While abandoning SOME weaker, more vulnerable allies MAY, indeed, come at little immediate -- and/or long term cost -- to the great powers; for example, as in the abandonment of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to the communists and communism cir. 1975.

b.  Can the same be said in ALL such abandonment of weaker, more vulnerable allies cases; for example, as in the case of the abandonment of Afghanistan, et. al, to the Islamists and Islamism today?

Herein to consider, for example, that:

a.  While in the Vietnam "abandonment" case, noted immediately above, the U.S. DID NOT, formally and simultaneously, announce the abandonment of its overall "revolutionary" raison d'etre -- of (a) defeating alternative ways of life, alternative ways of governance and alternative values, attitudes and beliefs and (b) transforming the Rest of the World more along modern western lines -- 

b.  In the Afghanistan "abandonment" case, noted immediately above, the U.S./the West DID, in fact, make such a formally and simultaneous "capitulation" announcement -- re: the abandonment of our "revolutionary" "reason to exist:"

U.S. President Donald Trump:

"We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.” )

Bottom Line Question -- Based on the Above:

This being the case (Vietnam-"apples;" Afghanistan-"oranges"?), then can we indeed say that, this time with Trump and Afghanistan,

a.  The abandonment of a weaker, more vulnerable ally

b.  "Comes at little cost to the great power?" 

(Herein to note, also, that at this early time, we have no real idea how this "victory" by our "resisting transformation" opponents -- which today include not only the Islamists but also the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians and the N. Koreans -- has and will "cost" the United States -- today and/or in the future.  Yes?)


Thu, 08/22/2019 - 7:07pm

“The coming loss of Afghanistan” presupposes we currently “have it” now, in order that we might lose it in the future.  There are no objective metrics to support such a claim.  

GIROA has never been accepted as legitimate by a majority of the population.  The ANP for years have been more feared than the Taliban. Corruption has been so endemic the Taliban were able to present themselves as a suitable alternative to ordinary Afghans.  

Our response to this, throw more money at the problem, fueled corruption and further undermined Afghan confidence in our credibility.  Read any SIGAR report from the past decade to verify. 

Our initial aim, to destroy Al Qaeda, was more successful than generally known.  The average age of today’s jihadists is 24.  That means they were about 6 years old on 9/11.  The group of Al Qaeda who were responsible for 9/11 are dead or in prison.  The new generation, though they use the Al Qaeda name, do not have the same capabilities or intentions.  Are they a threat?  Yes.  Do they justify a perpetual large scale presence in Afghanistan?  No.  

So we have a choice.  We can simply make Afghanistan some sort of protectorate with the aim of never leaving.  This will likely be enormously expensive and likely to rekindle Taliban opposition.  Or we could negotiate a settlement and leave quietly.  The author uses Vietnam as an example for comparison.  Ok, look at Vietnam today.  It is not the communist stronghold we feared it would become.  There is no reason to believe Afghanistan will become our worst fears either.  Not because Al Qaeda has learned anything, but because the Taliban has.  They never really cared for Al Qaeda anyway.  The idea of us coming back for another 20 years will give them plenty of incentive to keep Al Qaeda at arms length. 

Bill C.

Thu, 08/22/2019 - 11:37am

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the political objective (Clausewitz) of the U.S. would seem to have been: 

a.  To transform these such outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.  And, by way of these and other processes, 

b.  "Cure" the ills (Vietnam: expansion of communism; Afghanistan; expansion of Islamism/Islamists?) that, otherwise, might continue to emanate from these such states and societies. 

(In this regard, might we consider that -- in both the Vietnam and Afghanistan cases above -- [a] "transformation," [b] more along modern Western lines, etc., this was seen as [c] a "means of containment?")

In Vietnam, with the U.S. moving toward "retrenchment" under Nixon, and with his "bigger fish to fry" rationale/excuse back then,   

a.  The U.S. gave up on (and thus "lost") this portion of its "containment of communism" battle.  And, thus, 

b.  The Southeast Asian "dominoes" (South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) were allowed to "fall"/were allowed to join the communist world.

In Afghanistan, with the U.S. likewise in "retrenchment" mode now under Trump -- and with Trump's now "bigger fish to fry" excuse/rationale -- 

a.  The U.S. has given up on (and thus has "lost") this portion of, in this case, our "containment of Islamism"/our "containment of the Islamists" battle.  And, thus,  

b.  Certain of the Greater Middle East's/the Islamic World's "dominoes" will now, accordingly, be allowed to "fall"/be allowed to join the Islamism/the Islamist World?"

Question:  In the Southeast Asian case above, this such "giving up on"/this such "loss" was considered to be non-consequential [?].  Can the same be said re: our "giving up on"/our "loss" re: the Greater Middle East/the Islamic World?

(Note: You can see, in my discussion above, that I have, for better or for worse, intentionally stayed away from the term/the tactic of "terrorism," and/or our supposed "war" against same. 

Herein, seeing the "fight" against Islamism/the Islamists in much the same way as our fight against communism and the communists, to wit: as a "fight" more against [a] alternative ways of life, alternative ways of governance and alternatives values and [b] the entities bent on sponsoring, supporting and/or advancing same.)

Mixed emotions here...


South Vietnam was militarily indefensible due to geography (which had been an advantage for South Korea) and the material support that Soviets and Chinese could bring to bear.  McNamara's DOD was apparently aware of these disadvantages, and had counselled Kennedy not to intervene heavily.  


Geography aside, it is interesting to compare the Korean and Vietnam Wars:


  • Far more of the enemy were killed in Vietnam than Korea (849,000 vs. 639,000), amounting to 95% and 39% of enemy peak strength, respectively. 
  • The US also had manpower and technological advantages in Vietnam that it did not in Korea, where it was outnumbered and fairly evenly matched for equipment. 
  • People speak of the willpower of the Vietnamese Communists, but I am not sure how relevant that is.  Notably, 20% of the North Korean population died during the Korean War, 25% of whom were civilians, compared to 5% of the North Vietnamese population, 15% of whom were civilians.  
  • In terms of American willpower, there was a hesitancy to fully commit to the war, and when commitments were made, they were delayed and reactive.  


State failure is endemic to Afghanistan because of its multi-ethnic and sectarian composition, cross-border conflicts with its neighbors, and a stateless Pashtun nation shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan the straddles the Durand Line.  Although Pakistan has been adept at diverting Pashtun nationalism toward Islamism and outward toward Afghanistan, the Taliban do not enjoy the same material support as the Vietnamese Communists did.


Pakistan is still smarting from the loss of East Pakistan - now Bangladesh - in 1971, and continues to be at risk of splitting apart further.  It will not tolerate autonomy or independence for its Pashtuns in Pakistan or across the border in Afghanistan; it can be counted on to sabotage attempts to integrate Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan.  Pakistan also has nuclear weapons, and ensuring their security is more important that state construction in Afghanistan or self-determination for Pakistan's various ethnic and sectarian groups.  


Therefore, the US and its allies should retain a presence in Afghanistan, perhaps not dissimilar to the one in Somalia.  The presence should be large enough to ensure that no terrorist quasi-state can develop, but small enough that the US public is not perturbed by the costs of the mission.  


Stephen refers to a number of examples, many of which are not relevant to the situation in Afghanistan, but we might agree that the US continues to have a presence in Germany, Japan, Italy, and South Korea, which continue to 'win the peace', many decades after conflict has ceased.  



So we cannot blame the politicians this time and it really did not work as an excuse for the loss in Vietnam. 

Do these article ring true now?

USSOCOM/JSOC sold CT as a strategy to the Intelligence Community, the Legislative Branch and the NCA. We attacked people and not the enemies strategy.

Maj. Jim Gant was one of the few, if not the only one, that attacked the enemies strategy. He used maneuver warfare principles in the political warfare rel at the local/tactical level to search for Surfaces and Gaps in their strategy and found a gap and exploited it. The VSO was the best strategy out there and came closest to making a strategic impact. It failed because SF does not understand it's primary mission. SF suffers from a Dual Personality Disorder, the battle in its psyche between the Super Commando/DA and the Revolutionary/Counter-Revolutionary (revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries understand the political warfare aspect of the fight. If War Is Politics By Other Means Then Politics Is War By Other Means. We will never win by operating only in the physical element of war.  

Mission Command will not fix the problems as our Command Culture is wrong. It is a Command Push/CYA/School Solution/Follower/Risk Adverse culture instead of a Recon Pull/Trust/No School Solution/Innovation/Risk Taker culture.

I am tired of losing and yes we need to have a complete post mortem and change it as our enemies are watching.

De Oppresso Liber