History has a way of reprising itself in parallel, if not precise leitmotifs — why else would we study it?
The travesty of Kabul airport in 2021, a botched U.S. withdrawal that almost certainly emboldened Vladimir Putin and encouraged his invasion of Ukraine, is a modern reflection of the 1975 Saigon evacuation. Both indicated a decline in American power and the absence of American resolve. In both cases, the strategic arguments in favor of engagement, of manning the distant rampart, were ignored or lampooned.
Yet, history is not cyclical. In Ukraine, the United States has a chance to demonstrate its strategic resolve, to avoid the failure of Vietnam and, in turn, prevent a Eurasian strategic confrontation with nuclear implications.
American military involvement in Vietnam — the 50th anniversary of its end being marked May 11-13 in Washington — had well-cataloged missteps. But the underlying strategic logic of the U.S. engagement from 1945 onward was sound. Situated on the eastern edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, Vietnam’s location and robust ports at Haiphong and Da Nang made the onetime French colony a geopolitical prize. Particularly once Mao Zedong’s communists took control of mainland China, Vietnam became a critical rampart for the American-led Eurasian anti-communist coalition. This logic only intensified with time.
The Chinese Communist Party, until the 1960s under Soviet control, pushed outward rapidly. In May 1950, it took Hainan Island, Taiwan’s major southern bastion; that June, the Korean Communists — many of whom had fought alongside the Chinese Communists against Japan — mounted a lightning invasion of the peninsula’s south. China intervened months into the war, leading to a protracted superpower struggle darkened by nuclear shadows. A year after the Korean armistice, China again attacked Taiwan, capturing several outlying islands.
The so-called Domino Theory has gained a poor reputation in the United States, partly for good reason. As articulated in the American public education system, the Domino Theory stems from an irrational fear of communist ideology, with the countries that border communist powers somehow falling prey to the mystical machinations of Marxism. But the thesis, if properly defined, contains several truths.
The communist bloc was expansionist, seeking to gain mastery of Eurasia and to reorganize it along communist lines. The more territory that communist powers held, the more resources they could access, and the more pressure points they could cultivate against other countries. A domino effect was by no means inevitable — America and its allies could resist communist aggression in specific areas, while more limited engagements in other regions might suffice — but the communist powers were accruing specific strategic gains to be marshaled in a general war against the West. Thus, Vietnam was a strategic gem in an iron crown.
Unfortunately, that rational American strategy was not the specific logic of the Kennedy or Johnson administrations, to their detriment. Indeed, a clear articulation of Vietnam’s role in Eurasian competition may have prompted a variety of different military decisions before 1968.
Far more military pressure could have been applied against North Vietnam than was brought to bear; the United States could have mounted offensive operations past the poorly-named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), at minimum to dislodge the North’s artillery and supply depots. Indeed, pressure against Cambodia and Laos to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail also undermined communist supplies and cohesion. Much like in Afghanistan decades later, the key to the war lay beyond the immediate territory of combat.
Read the rest at The Messenger.
Seth Cropsey, president of the Yorktown Institute, served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and assistant secretary of Defense during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.