I am acquainted with a man who served bravely in Vietnam. We see each other often at a men’s forum that meets weekly in normal times. He has written a number of books about Vietnam, and he frequently lectures on his experiences there. He had several tours in that country over the course of a decade or more, and he was in Saigon the day we pulled the last of our people out in April 1975. He was fortunate to escape death or capture. The trauma of his battlefield exposures caused him severe PTSD and played havoc with his personal life. I hold him in high esteem, and I honor him for his outstanding service to our country.
This man was profoundly disturbed by the abandonment of our Vietnamese allies. He personally knew and had great respect for those South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers among whom he served. He saw many of them fight on to the very end in the face of almost certain death or imprisonment. We had encouraged them in this struggle, and some of our leaders, including President Johnson, had promised them our undying friendship and support.
What went wrong? Should we condemn our leaders for failing to support South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese violated the peace agreement and struck south in the spring of 1975?
Truth is, there was no way that the American people would have tolerated our reentry into the Vietnam conflict in April 1975. They were sick of the war; and the national media, including the revered Walter Cronkite, had helped turn their hearts and minds against any further involvement. President Nixon had promised that he would build up South Vietnamese military capabilities and turn the war over to them, and he tried to do that. Many Americas believed that it was time for the South Vietnamese to take care of their own problems.
There were other Americans who felt that we had broken our sacred promises and betrayed our late allies. They felt a profound sense of shame.
We now face similar moral dilemmas in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. We get involved in an area, we form alliances, and then we withdraw, leaving our allies to hold the bag
Some months ago I posted an article titled “Expediency and Honor.” I pointed out that our beloved nation has a long history of abandoning allies when our national interests dictate such a move. This behavior is not unique to the United States. Other nations do it as well, usually with much less compunction than we often exhibit in those circumstances.
The bottom line is this. Anyone who cooperates with the United States should always be aware that we are a fickle and unreliable ally. Presidents who make promises may be voted out of office, and their promises go with them. A war party may be replaced by a peace party, and the constant call to “bring the boys home” often wins the day. The generals cannot go it alone. Thus, in the final analysis, the somewhat nebulous concept of national honor is always trumped by what our citizens perceive as our nation’s and their own self-interest.
That’s just the way things are.