The New Escalation In Vietnam

by Hans J. Morgenthau | May 20, 1971

Given the war aims of the President, as pointed out on these pages many times before, the escalation of the war was inevitable; only its nature was in doubt. The President is still resolved that the Thieu government remain in power in South Vietnam. There was never a chance that Thieu could survive by his own efforts, and that estimate has now been proven correct by the failure of Vietnamization. Hence, the United States must fill the vacuum left by that failure and by the withdrawal of the main bulk of American combat troops. In order to do that, the President had essentially five choices: reintroduction of American combat troops, use of nuclear weapons, invasion of the North, massive bombardment of the North, denial of war supplies. For the time being, the President has ruled out the reintroduction of American combat troops for domestic political reasons; he has likewise ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in view of the anticipated reaction of domestic and world opinion. He appears also to have ruled out the invasion of North Vietnam because of the scarcity of available combat troops and of the negative results of expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos. He has chosen massive bombardment from the air of both North and South Vietnam without achieving anything close to decisive results. Thus he had to look for another remedy, and he found it in increasing still more the range of aerial bombardment and in mining the harbors of North Vietnam. This new escalation is not likely to serve the purposes of the President any more than the escalations of the past, but it carries within itself unprecedented risks. It is an act of desperation rather than of rational policy. Over the years. North Vietnam has switched back and forth between land- and sea-borne supplies and over long stretches of time received the main bulk of its war materiel by land; it can switch back to that means of transportation again. Furthermore, a Chinese port just north of the frontier could receive sea-borne cargo to be transshipped south over land. Thus even if the mining of the ports were to be fully effective, it would but marginally affect the warmaking potential of North Vietnam. The extension of the air bombardment to the rail lines connecting North Vietnam with China cannot have a decisive effect either, since similar bombardments further south have had no such effect. In sum, the new escalation will make the task of North Vietnam more difficult but by no means impossible.

 

WHILE thus the new escalation is likely to turn out to be another palliative, it achieves something that President Johnson was anxious and successful to avoid: a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and a challenge to China. China declared that it would intervene in the Vietnam war only if the war were to be brought close to its borders. This formulation gives the government of China considerable latitude in determining its course of action. The Soviet Union, however, is in a different position. For the Soviet Union is faced with a challenge similar or even graver than that to which it yielded during the Cuban missile crisis when Kennedy offered it an acceptable avenue of retreat. It is told by the United States that it risks the destruction of its merchant shipping which might sail from and to North Vietnam's ports. Aside from its dubious legality, such a move, which is not a blockade in the technical sense but an act of war against third parties, presents a political and military challenge to which a great power such as the Soviet Union must react in some fashion.

Unable to have his way in Vietnam, the President first extended the conflict to Cambodia and Laos and failed. He now tries to draw the Soviet Union into the conflict in order to redress the balance in Vietnam by expelling its influence from Southeast Asia. This escalation is by no means attenuated by the offer of a settlement contained in the President's speech. The crux of that offer, canceling out its concessions, is a cease-fire during which Thieu would remain in power in Saigon. That is to say, Thieu's police and army would continue to enforce "law and order" as interpreted by Thieu, while the other side would be temporarily disarmed. Such a settlement obviously serves the preservation of the political status quo in South Vietnam, the very issue over which the war has been fought. What has been true of all the previous negotiating offers of both sides is also true of this one: it is an attempt to win at the conference table what has not been won on the battlefield. 

The President justifies the taking of these risks with the same untenable argument he and his predecessors have used before. It is, of course, obvious that we are not dealing here with the invasion of one country by another, but with an attempt at unification of one nation which was artificially and illegally divided by foreign intervention in order to frustrate its unification under the auspices of Ho Chi Minh. The absurdity of preventing a hypothetical Communist bloodbath by inflicting upon all of Vietnam an actual bloodbath in perpetuity is also obvious. So is the claim that 17 million South Vietnamese want to be protected by us from a Communist takeover at the price of their own obliteration. Argument that we must do what we are doing in order to free the POWs and the 60,000 American troops remaining in Vietnam is specious; for the continuation of the war increases the number of the former who would not be in captivity if we were not waging war in Vietnam. And the safety of the remaining troops will be in jeopardy only if they take an active part in the fighting.

All this has been argued before without making the slightest impact upon the people who govern us. For living in an unreal world of their own, making arid pursuing policies that are doomed to failure and fraught with enormous risks, concerned above all with their own personal prestige, they are not accessible to rational arguments. But not in order to present a rational argument to our government, but for the sake of this and other nations whose survival is at stake, one must ask the question: provided we come out of this new crisis alive, what is the President going to do when it becomes obvious even to him that the present escalation is as futile as ware those that preceded it? Are we going to leave the fate of this nation and perhaps of humanity in the hands of one man, or perhaps of two, who have demonstrated so conspicuously their fallibility, if not their recklessness? This is a question for the American people and for Congress to answer.

Mr. Morgenthau is Leonard Davis distinguished professor in political science, City College of the City University of New York, and distinguished service professor emeritus of political science and modern history at the University of Chicago.

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