Self-Determination - Vietnam

Nowhere did such a policy ultimately come to be regarded by the American public as more bankrupt than in Vietnam. When France was driven from Indochina by the communist forces of Ho Chi Minh in 1954, the United States established a noncommunist regime in South Vietnam in the hope of confining communism to the northern half of Vietnam. The objective was not only to help "free people" maintain their independence but also, the rationale went, to save neighboring Southeast Asian regimes that, it was believed, would fall like dominoes should South Vietnam fall. Then, communism would be in a position to threaten the Indian subcontinent. By 1968 the weakness of the Saigon government and the military success of the Vietcong had led the U.S. government to commit a military force of 550,000 soldiers and a budget of roughly $24 billion. But as President Johnson escalated the war and the costs and casualties mounted, public criticism reached a level that made the Vietnam conflict the most unpopular war in American history.

Such criticisms ultimately led to President Johnson's decision to announce a halt in bombing north of the seventeenth parallel and to stay out of the 1968 presidential election. Among the arguments used to oppose the war was the charge that not only had the United States betrayed its own revolutionary traditions by becoming the aggressor in a civil war between peoples of the same linguistic background who resented foreign interference, but that it was also violating the Wilsonian principle of self-determination by conniving at the flouting of the Geneva Agreement of 1954, which had stipulated that general elections to unify the country be held in Vietnam in 1956. In the early 1970s, as criticism of the war continued to mount, and particularly after President Richard Nixon authorized ill-starred incursions into Cambodia and Laos, serious peace negotiations were begun by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. But the Paris accords, which Kissinger negotiated in early 1973 with North Vietnam and South Vietnam, never worked. The pact promised discussions leading to reunification "without coercion or annexation by either party." By late 1973, however, full-scale war had emerged. In 1974 an economically troubled United States cut aid by 30 percent. By early 1975, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu, forced to surrender two-thirds of the country, prepared to defend Saigon and called for President Gerald Ford to provide the American "full force" promised by President Nixon in 1973. In late 1973, however, Congress had prohibited the reintroduction of any U.S. forces in Vietnam. Furthermore, Nixon's 1973 promise was of no effect, for he and Kissinger did not make the promise public, while Congress never acted to make it a national commitment. In April 1975, South Vietnam fell into communist hands. After the failure of the United States to impose self-determination by military means in Southeast Asia, foreign liberation movements and separatist groups rarely attracted any sizable American constituency.

The military collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, combined with the serious pursuit of détente with both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China beginning in the late 1960s, appeared to offer the possibility not only of a redefinition of the American concept of self-determination but also of a modified implementation of the doctrine of intervention as a means of supporting it. The Nixon Doctrine offered to provide money, arms, and training, but no American troops. Nations seeking self-determination must now provide their own armies.

Yet it must be noted that throughout this period, Washington continued to oppose self-determination movements that appeared to favor any communist cause. This could be clearly seen even in the most cursory review of American policies in South Asia, Chile, and southern Africa.

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