Here's a pop quiz about Vietnam. When the 94th United States Congress finally pulled the plug on American support, how many of our GIs were still fighting in Vietnam? The question was posed to us the other evening by Secretary of State Kissinger, full of sagacity and wisdom 30 years after the events in question. We guessed somewhere on the order of 100,000, down from the more than half a million American military personnel who had been in Vietnam at the height of the fighting. But Mr. Kissinger had us.
It turns out that when the Congress pulled the plug on Vietnam, the number of our U.S. troops in Vietnam was zero. When, in the 1974 elections, the Democrats widened their majority in the Congress and then, in the spring of 1975, finally defied President Ford and ended support for the free Vietnamese government in the South, the number of GIs was something on the order of two or three dozen, mostly embassy guards.
This is something to think about as the Democrats maneuver against a war-time president over funding for our GIs and our ally in a free Iraq. It turns out that when one looks at the time-line of the betrayal of South Vietnam, one of the lessons is that, in the end, it was not about our GIs and the loss of American lives, great though that treasure was. Our GIs had long since been drawn down, as President Nixon fulfilled his campaign promise of Vietnamization of the war.
By the time the Congress forsook free Vietnam, there was no prospect of more American combat deaths at places like Hamburger Hill and the Ashau Valley. On October 26, two weeks before the 1972 election, Mr. Kissinger, then national security adviser, appeared at a press conference and gave his famous "peace is at hand" remark. Nor was it without reason. After our bombings of North Vietnam in December 1972, a cease-fire among all the parties to the war was signed shortly thereafter, in January of 1973. The last of our combat soldiers left in March of 1973.
On June 19, the Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment that forbade what Vietnamresearch.com, which issued one of the many timelines on the Web, called "any further U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia, effective August 15, 1973." The law led to an end to American bombing and the de-mining of North Vietnam's harbors. The majority was veto proof, Vietnamresearch.com reminded us. It characterized the amendment as one that paved "the way for North Vietnam to wage yet another invasion of the South, this time without fear of U.S. bombing."
In January 1974, according to a timeline at PBS.org, the North Vietnamese were then "still too weak to launch a full-scale offensive," but had "rebuilt their divisions in the South" and "captured key areas." Watergate was gathering, and on August 9, 1974, President Nixon resigned. At this point, there was only a doughty little government in South Vietnam that was standing alone against the combined might of the Soviet Union and the Communist Chinese. And it was prepared to fight on for another generation.
The Congress, however, wasn't prepared to stake them, despite the fact that South Vietnam was a partner, if not a member, of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. In October 1974, the 93rd Congress voted to end foreign aid to Vietnam. President Ford vetoed the measure. Congress, after an election that expanded the Democratic majority by 48 seats in the House and five in the Senate, overrode the veto. In the Spring, the 94th Congress blocked military appropriations for the South Vietnamese. It was not about our GIs. They had long since gone. A country of 50 million individuals who had sided with America and yearned for freedom was cast into the dark night of communist tyranny.
So what are the Democrats thinking today? Is this the direction in which they want to go? President Bush's threat of a veto appears to have forced them to abandon a timeline for defeat in Iraq. But Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi have made it clear they are going to keep trying. What was it about the Communists that the Democrats wanted to give them Indochina, a region with as many persons as Eastern Europe? And what is it about our Islamist enemies that makes the Democrats so determined to abandon a free Iraq? The tragedy of Vietnam taught that this is the question that needs to be asked and answered and that a default will haunt the politicians now in power for generations, as their own children and the children of our GIs demand to know their motives.