The American public and its policymakers remain enamored with Gen. (ret.) David H. Petraeus. Despite pleading guilty in 2015 to mishandling classified material and suffering the attendant legal consequences, the former U.S. Army officer and CIA director still commands a wide audience in national security and foreign policy circles.
When the Trump administration, for example, considered reinforcing the stalled war in Afghanistan during the summer of 2017, it was Petraeus who came forth to help silence the critics of the campaign he once commanded. Appearing on PBS NewsHour in June, the general defended staying the course in what some have viewed as a Vietnam-esque quagmire. “This is a generational struggle,” Petraeus declared. “This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag and go home to a victory parade.”
The real issue, however, centers around a vital question that has hardly garnered serious debate, and even less attention, in the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration. How are these “generational wars” advancing America’s foreign policy objectives? Indeed, one year into the Trump presidency, it seems simply identifying these objectives is itself a difficult task.
Some have argued that generals like Petraeus have been taking pages of out of former President Richard Nixon’s playbook. Nixon’s decision to abandon the draft and move to an all-volunteer force, according to Tom Engelhardt, “functionally created a legacy for the ages, paving the way for the American military to fight its wars ‘generationally.’” Thus, enduring wars could continue without the larger public caring all that much. For a citizenry with a short attention span and scant connections to servicemembers, tactical successes can obscure ever-elusive strategic victories in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
While Engelhardt’s point is valuable, such a reading of history arguably undervalues a more important perspective to be gained by studying the latter stages of the American war in Vietnam. Both Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his national security advisor, saw prolonging the conflict in southeast Asia as antithetical to their larger foreign policy aims. Even before entering office, Nixon sought to reimagine Cold War paradigms and restructure global relations between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China.
These grander policy objectives established the parameters for how his administration evaluated the merits of continuing the war in Vietnam. And to Nixon himself, the thought of a generational war in southeast Asia made little sense.
Unsurprisingly, the consideration to disengage from Vietnam engendered much debate in early 1969. Both a RAND strategic-options paper and a “Situation in Vietnam” questionnaire (known formally as National Security Study Memorandum 1) elicited sharp disagreements over a host of strategic issues: military progress in the South Vietnamese countryside, the political stability of the Saigon regime, and the overall prospects for “victory.” Nixon, though, had already decided upon a negotiated settlement as the end-state for America’s long war in Vietnam. An “honorable” peace would have to be produced from more than just battlefield victories.
The president announced this vision in the summer of 1969 at Guam. Meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, Nixon argued the United States should retain a “significant role” in Asia. Yet he also believed “we must avoid that kind of policy that will make countries in Asia so dependent upon us that we are dragged into conflicts such as the one that we have in Vietnam.”
This “Nixon Doctrine,” as it soon became known, likely would have generated fierce resistance a decade earlier. Yet the president had come to an uncomfortable conclusion. There were, in fact, limits to American power overseas. A persistent state of war in Vietnam was not only sapping the nation’s strength but undercutting the larger goals of U.S. grand strategy.
Of course, the White House had to consider domestic pressures as well. By 1969, the antiwar movement had grown in size and influence. A nationwide “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam” in October unleashed a wave of protests and demonstrations across the country. Tens of thousands of protestors gathered in major cities across the United States — New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston. Brandeis University professor John P. Roche believed “The moratorium was a legitimate symbol of the war-weariness of the American people.”
Yet while Nixon refused to be overpowered by antiwar activists, he nonetheless spoke not of continuing war but of finding peace. In his “silent majority” speech in early November 1969, the president noted that the fundamental question facing Americans on the war in Vietnam was “the best way to end it.” Nixon dismissed calls for a precipitate withdrawal, but his message was clear. The “primary mission” of American troops was now “to enable the South Vietnamese forces to assume the full responsibility for the security of South Vietnam.”
Perhaps expectedly, senior military commanders, especially in Saigon, contested any notion of U.S. troop withdrawals. Gen. Creighton Abrams, head of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, consistently warned against redeploying American soldiers for fear of incurring increased casualties on the battlefield. Kissinger agreed, believing a strong military presence in South Vietnam was his greatest leverage point in negotiations with Hanoi’s diplomats.
Yet even before assuming the presidency, Nixon had decided “total military victory was no longer possible.” Such conclusions no doubt rankled uniformed leaders. Here was their new commander-in-chief apparently questioning the capabilities, if not professionalism, of the U.S. armed forces. And here the seeds were planted for the enduring myth that civilian policymakers had betrayed their military officers in Vietnam.
Thus, the decision to begin the process of “Vietnamization,” of seeking a negotiated settlement that would extricate the United States from a long, but not won, war. It would forever shape how many Americans remembered the trauma of Vietnam. To veterans in particular, the real tragedy was abandoning a wartime ally in its time of greatest need. If only, the story went, the United States had remained at war, South Vietnam would have lived on.
For sure, the president promised continued aid to the Saigon regime. Heated debate endures on the authenticity of this pledge and whether Nixon and Kissinger cared only for a “decent interval” — that time period between the withdrawal of U.S. troops and an expected communist takeover of South Vietnam.
Yet most importantly, Nixon decided not to continue in a generational war inside South Vietnam only for the sake of being at war. Throughout the long road to a negotiated settlement, the president worried about how best to maintain American prestige and credibility. To Nixon and Kissinger both, any restructuring of Cold War relations demanded that the United States not be seen as fatally weakened by its withdrawal from Vietnam.
There surely remains room to debate whether or not Nixon achieved “peace with honor” in Vietnam. But one thing seems clear. Nixon saw little honor in generational war to sustain South Vietnam. There was purpose behind the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and, if done correctly, a hope that American credibility would remain intact as the White House turned its attention to other global matters.
We can and should continue to evaluate Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. We should not stop asking hard questions about the efficacy of remaining at war in southeast Asia for four more years after the 1968 Tet offensive. We should examine how well the White House balanced the competing aspects of a complex grand strategy — political, military, and diplomatic — and whether or not Nixon was asking too much of his senior military commanders in Vietnam.
But we also should think more deeply about the acceptability of withdrawing from wars not won. Blindly committing to “generational war” out of some misplaced faith in Douglas MacArthur’s dictum that there is no substitute for victory is a poor substitute for good strategy.
Richard Nixon unquestionably was a flawed politician. He was mistrusting, at times dishonest and purposefully deceitful, and often as suspicious of his allies as of his enemies. Yet Nixon also understood the limits of military power abroad and rightfully questioned its role within the larger conception and implementation of American grand strategy. We may even entertain the notion, distasteful as some might find it, that he was courageous for not committing the United States to perpetual war in southeast Asia.
The challenge before us today is to have the courage to break from a cycle of war which, to paraphrase B.H. Liddell Hart, never bequeaths to us a better state of peace. Americans should not fall victim to unquestioning adulation of senior military officers. We can appreciate the service of generals like Petraeus while still challenging their assumptions on why the United States should remain forever at war.
It seems at least one group of Americans is offering an example for the rest of us to follow — our veterans. One recent poll suggests that more than 60 percent of “veterans/military believe the armed forces are currently overextended.” This should not surprise given the imbalance between our penchant for deploying soldiers abroad and our small all-volunteer armed force. (This despite a defense budget that can best be described as insatiable.)
But more importantly than their impressions of being overburdened, our veterans have demonstrated the courage to challenge the notion of generational war. One former infantry officer, wounded in Afghanistan, recently summoned his fellow citizens to “engage with our elected representatives and let them know that we expect them to debate the merits of our wars.” Yet another increasingly outspoken veteran has questioned the largely unnoticed American military endeavors in Africa, pointedly asking what “vital, strategic interests” were being accomplished there.
Thus, we have examples to follow, from both history and contemporary dialogue. Political leaders from the past and veterans from the present have demonstrated that generational war need not be an inescapable part of who we are as Americans. They have shown the courage to contest the notion of perpetual war. It’s time for our political and senior military leaders today to do the same.
Gregory A. Daddis is an associate professor of history and director of Chapman University’s MA Program in War and Society. His most recent book is Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2017).