It took less than two and a half years from the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that were to end the Vietnam War to the final conquest of Free Vietnam and the establishment of communist rule in Indochina. The accord was signed on January 27, 1973, by South Vietnam, communist North Vietnam, the communist Viet Cong operating in the south, and by the United States. The Nobel Peace Prizes — for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho — were announced in November. By May 1975, Free Vietnam was gone.
- Slandering senators as warmongers
- Where the Democrats divide on Iran (and Israel)
- U.S. Senate sanctions bill is all about torpedoing a nuclear deal with Iran
- White House releases details of Iran nuclear deal amid calls for transparency
This is what I keep thinking about as the U.S. Senate and President Obama maneuver over sanctions against Iran. Nearly a veto-proof majority of the Senate, including something like 16 members of President Obama’s own party, want a bill that would promptly restore, and even tighten, sanctions if the mullahs don’t keep their side of the deal. The Senate is clearly nervous about the deal hatched in Geneva. Could this be because of the way things went in 1975?
Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the pact for the United States, had held a famous press conference in October 1972, announcing that “peace is at hand.” It was triggered by a shift in the communist negotiating position that would allow the South Vietnamese government to remain in power. On the eve of the signing of the accord, President Nixon gave a speech announcing that we had achieved “peace with honor,” a phrase once used by, among others, Shakespeare and Disraeli.
Yet the communist side began violating the agreement from the moment the papers were signed. It infiltrated yet more troops into the South. It continued to levy the war. America kept its word, pulling out the last of its GIs in the spring of 1975. Congress then ended its last military aid for the South Vietnamese. The communist armies swept out of the jungles in April. The Free Vietnamese surrendered in May. A population the size of Eastern Europe’s was plunged into the darkness of communism.
It is not my intention here to suggest an exact parallel between what happened in Vietnam and what is happening in the Middle East today. And there are other competing paradigms. In Washington there is a good bit of chatter about 1938 and Munich. Others are, as we prepare to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, talking about Sarajevo, meaning the drift toward war that erupted with the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Ferdinand, in the summer of 1914.
It is my intention to suggest that Vietnam offers its own insights into the current crisis. It is the door through which Secretary of State Kerry entered public life. In 1970, just back from winning his Silver Star in the Mekong Delta, he went to Paris and met with, among others, members of the enemy delegation to the Paris talks. He returned to America to publicly endorse the enemy’s key talking points. In 1971, he testified against American GIs before the very Committee on Foreign Relations that he would eventually chair in the Senate.
'Messianism' — the jibe defense minister Moshe Ya'alon used to characterize Kerry in his pursuit of a deal with the Palestinian Arabs — isn’t quite the right word to describe the character trait the future secretary of state disclosed during the Vietnam years.
And it would be inaccurate to blame Kerry for a major role in the disaster that unfolded in Paris and Washington in the closing years of the Cold War. But it would equally not be inaccurate to suggest that Vietnam stands as a warning to the idea of negotiated settlements with determined, strategic foes.
No doubt there are those who reckon that the loss in Vietnam didn’t matter in the long run. America went on to win the Cold War, after all. “All I am saying is ‘give peace a chance’” was a stanza in the John Lennon song that emerged in the 1970s as war weariness was exploited by the anti-war movement that cajoled Congress into quitting Vietnam. President Obama the other day actually quoted the 'give peace a chance' line in respect of Iran. All I am saying is that in 1975 it didn’t work out so well for the Vietnamese.
The writer is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.