When we talk about Iraq we often are thinking about Vietnam, and conversely our analysis of the older war may not only influence but reflect views about our current predicament. One common focus is the politics of troop withdrawal, where we see both historical puzzles and contemporary conundrums.

Even though wars usually yield a surge of domestic approval at the start, leaders must continually cultivate popular support, if not set the policy with the public uppermost in mind.1 The challenge is especially great when leaders use force in pursuit of an interest that is important but less than vital: domestic support for these engagements will be tenuous even though (or perhaps because) something less than the full mobilization of national resources is sought. Furthermore, the fact that survival is not at stake will be known to the adversary, who can wear the state down and wait for domestic opposition to mount. If what is in dispute is vital to one's foe, that state will be willing to suffer high losses in order to prevail and so will have an advantage in the bargaining, which is why large states with powerful militaries may lose wars that they could win if they were willing to fight to the finish.2

Democracies, and perhaps especially the United States, find it particularly difficult to convince the electorate to support prolonged wars for less than vital interests. This dynamic may explain why democracies win most of the wars they start: since losing a war is likely to result in a leader losing office, he or she will initiate wars only when the odds of winning are good.3 But the longer the war lasts, the less likely the democracy is to win, in large part because of declining public support.4 As a result, democracies can readily fight small wars (as the United States did in Grenada and Great Britain did in the Falklands) if the power disparity is great enough to permit a quick victory. If it is not, problems will emerge.

If negotiations are impossible or unsuccessful, and if escalation is too costly, the gradual reduction of effort and withdrawal of troops is an obvious option. It is never a happy one, however, and will be considered only after all other alternatives have failed or been rejected. Leaders, moreover, are likely to adopt this policy only when support for the war (and for them) has dropped to embarrassingly low levels. It is not surprising, then, that the surrounding politics are contentious and often lead to remorse if not regret. This general pattern has been evident in both Vietnam and Iraq.

Reducing the number of troops deployed may well raise as many problems as it solves, however. Leaders may hope that withdrawals will lead to a stable plateau that will be supported at home, but this strategy poses political dangers as well. National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger identified one such danger in a memorandum he sent to President Richard M. Nixon, warning that withdrawals were like salted peanuts: once they started, the public would demand more.5 The hope is that as spending and casualties decrease, public hostility to the war will decrease as well. The public, for example, could oppose a war at a certain level but favor it at a lower one on the grounds that the costs and benefits of waging it at that more reduced level are more equally balanced. Politically and psychologically, however, this scenario is unlikely. While casualties may originally drive most of the opposition to a war, once people turn against it they are likely to come to see the entire endeavor as unnecessary and unworthy. Cognitive dissonance and related processes will lead people to reject the war altogether instead of seeing it as worth a reduced but still significant effort. More prosaically, they may simply get tired of the war and no longer want to hear about it. No one likes a losing enterprise.

Perhaps support for war can be rebuilt if the prospects for victory brighten.6 Yet troop withdrawals usually decrease military and diplomatic capabilities, not enhance them. As Nixon, Kissinger, and the North Vietnamese understood full well, if the United States could not win with a large number of troops, how could it do so as its effort declined and as the expectation of continued decline gave the North even fewer incentives to negotiate? Bargaining leverage argues for making withdrawals contingent upon success on the ground and progress in the negotiations. But domestic politics calls for a steady if not accelerating withdrawal schedule. It is not surprising, then, that the Nixon administration was caught between these two competing imperatives. Kissinger sought to attach conditions to the withdrawals while Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who was stamped by his experience in Congress, did not. In time, Nixon would side with Laird.

The basic dilemma was on display in February 1970 in remarks that Le Duc Tho, the chief negotiator for North Vietnam, made to Kissinger:

We think that you have two methods to try to end the war: (1) Vietnamization; and (2) negotiations from a position of strength. How do you want to apply Vietnamization? You proceed with a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces down to a level bearable to the American people in human lives and cost. You will leave behind enough support forces to help the puppet forces to prolong the war. You try to strengthen the puppet forces, so they can assume responsibility for the war, and leave behind a large number of advisors. . . . But we wonder whether and when the puppet troops can do that. It will take an unlimited time. . . . If it does not work, you will have the choice to remain in Vietnam or leave. . . . Before, there were over a million U.S. and puppet troops, and you failed. How can you succeed when you let the puppet troops do the fighting?7

While generally prescient about the shape of the endgame to come, Le Duc Tho exaggerated America's ability to maintain a residual force large enough to be effective but small enough to be sustainable.

Although troop withdrawals are generally forced on the state, they may have international as well as domestic advantages. Before turning to these benefits, however, I should note that what is often claimed as the main rationale for a troop withdrawal is usually a rationalization. This is the claim that such draw-downs are being counterbalanced by an increase in the potency of the state's indigenous allies. Nixon called his policy Vietnamization, not “de-Americanization” (as it was initially termed); more recently President George W. Bush often said that “as the Iraqis stand up, we can stand down.” The argument seems to make sense: training should be able to significantly improve an ally's performance. In fact, Vietnamization did greatly increase the size and capability of the South Vietnamese military, but it could not do everything that was asked, especially when the requirement morphed from defending against the Viet Cong to holding back the North Vietnamese army.8 Training troops in a weak and divided country is difficult, quality leadership at all levels is scarce, logistics and air power are particularly hard for the indigenous ally to develop, and the country's political leaders often fear a strong army. Most cases are likely to resemble Vietnam in that the United States will end up doing less with less, not more with less. Here as elsewhere, free lunches are hard to find.

But troop withdrawals can have significant indirect advantages, especially in helping the state escape from what Douglas Macdonald calls “the commitment trap.”9 Macdonald found that during the Cold War, the American attempt to get its Asian allies to reform in the face of domestic Communist threat faltered not because the ally did not think that the United States was unreliable, but because it knew that it was reliable. Once America had committed itself to support the ally, it lost its bargaining leverage because it could not credibly threaten to withdraw if the ally failed to reform. The fact that the ally depended on the United States was irrelevant because America was perceived as having no choice but to continue its support. The hostile domestic opinion that forces the withdrawal of troops returns to the state some of the bargaining power that it had lost.

If the state can promise that withdrawals will halt if the ally carries out effective reform, leverage will increase. The obvious danger here is that the ally will believe—probably correctly—that if the reforms succeed too well, withdrawals will resume because the state will think that its troops are no longer necessary. The golden mean—rarely achieved—is for the indigenous ally to believe that while its patron will depart unless it does a better job of contributing to the war effort, the patron will not walk away if this response is forthcoming. In the second-best situation, in which the indigenous ally believes that the process of withdrawal is irreversible, the client may still increase its own efforts in order to survive, even if this requires it to make distasteful domestic bargains.

This theory is at least consistent with the historical record. Throughout the conflict in Vietnam, but especially during the Kennedy and Johnson years, American officials expressed their frustration at the refusal of South Vietnamese leaders to broaden their political base, control corruption, professionalize the military, and energetically respond to Communist challenges. During the Nixon administration, reduced American commitment meant increased influence, and Vietnamization seems to have produced, or at least been accompanied by, some improvement in the government's performance.10

In Iraq, the proposition was not given a test at first, despite the Iraqi public's belief that their leaders would cooperate more with each other if the United States departed.11 President Bush successfully resisted pressure to declare that he would withdraw troops unless the Iraqi government and factions moved toward political reconciliation. At most, he agreed that “benchmarks” should be met, but refused to make this a condition for continued American support. In a sense, his domestic critics threw him a lifeline by enabling him to tell the Iraqis that he would have no choice but to withdraw at least some troops unless they complied. But Bush declined; whether he did so because he did not accept this logic, did not think reconciliation was possible or important, or thought this ploy would be too risky is impossible to determine. Bush was nearing the end of his term when the issue arose most sharply, and among his possible successors, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was most likely to have pursued the use of such leverage. Senator John McCain was committed to unconditional support for the war effort and Senator Barack Obama to unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops, although on an uncertain timetable.

Unconditional withdrawal, although removing the bargaining lever of a promise to stay if the indigenous government reforms, could also induce desired changes in behavior. Not only local factions, but governments of neighboring states might see that avoiding civil and international war requires them to play a more constructive role in the region. With “free riding” on the United States no longer an option, their own self-interest may motivate them to stabilize the situation. The American forces provided a safety net for the competing factions; with the prospect of a lighter American touch, all of the players might come to realize that unless they dealt constructively with each other, they would face the prospect of greatly increased violence. Any that were confident of victory might welcome this, but to the extent that they take their counsels from their fears rather than their hopes, they would feel significant pressures to compromise.

The political situation in Iraq also created obstacles to a U.S. troop withdrawal. Escaping the commitment trap gave the United States leverage only over those who wanted it to stay. To those who did not, this was a reward, not a punishment, and so they had even greater incentives not to cooperate. To make the situation even worse, it was far from clear that the United States knew which groups wanted it to stay and which did not, and indeed Iraqis themselves were likely unsettled on their own preferences. Many were torn, especially because the American presence was not popular. Thus, during the status of forces negotiations, Prime Minister Maliki pushed for setting a date for U.S. withdrawal, partly because of his rising confidence that he could handle his numerous domestic enemies and partly to gain wider public support. With increases in his strength (and probably in his fear of a Sunni revival), he distanced himself from the United States and moved closer to Iran. By late November 2008, the Iraqi parliament had ratified a deal to end the U.S. military presence by 2011.12

Although the gradual withdrawal of troops is usually a response to declining domestic support, such a policy may do little more than waste resources and lives at a lower rate, postponing the inevitable. With regard to Vietnam, most historians have argued that the eventual settlement of the war was little different from what could have been achieved when Nixon first came into office.13

However, there is reason to doubt this conclusion. While scholars may debate whether America's gains were worth the price the United States and others paid, the Nixon administration did gain quite a bit. To start with, the strategy slowed the decline in support for the war. As American troops started coming home, people saw that the war would eventually end, and fewer troops meant fewer American deaths, which had been the primary driver of opposition to the war. Furthermore, with the reduction in draft calls and the end of the draft in January 1973, student opposition became much less strident, and it had been this group that had been the most vocal and disruptive of the antiwar critics. None of this meant that Nixon could continue the war indefinitely, for he understood that he had made a Faustian bargain: he could gain continued tolerance for the American effort only at the price of steadily decreasing it. But while yielding to domestic pressure, he had not given up all control.

He did lose influence over the North, however, as Vietnamization reduced its incentives to make concessions at the bargaining table. After all, Hanoi was steadily if slowly gaining what it needed, which was the withdrawal of American troops. Yet the loss was not complete. The North realized that as long as the war went on, it would pay a high price. Probably more importantly, it feared that without an agreement, the United States would leave in place a residual force that could provide valuable advice and coordinate devastating attacks from American air power.

That the United States still had influence was shown by events on the ground and the resulting change in the North's bargaining position. The significant if limited success in training the South Vietnamese Army, combined with the ability of even a small American force to call in air strikes, were responsible for the defeat of the North's massive Easter Offensive in 1972.14 In the aftermath of this failure to take over the South by force, the North decided to settle the war, expecting that while it would eventually win and unify the country, it would have to postpone this objective for a number of years. So it dropped its demand that the United States remove the Thieu government, which had been the stumbling block to an agreement ever since May 1971, when the United States acceded to the North's demand that its troops be allowed to stay in the South.15 Time and the efforts by the United States and its South Vietnamese ally had forced the North to make a large concession.

The obvious reply to this argument is that such a concession had little meaning because the North was able to take over the country quickly. What the United States gained was symbolic only; to put it more cynically, the “decent interval” that Nixon gained was important only for domestic politics. There is something to this claim, but the counterrebuttal has more merit: if the concession by the North was meaningless, why did it wait more than a year to make it? The cost to the North of continuing the war was significant and Hanoi was willing to pay a high price to avoid this concession. Refusing to agree to the North's demand, if not producing a positive gain for the United States, did at least avoid a major loss because the nation—and not only Richard Nixon—would have paid a significantly higher price if it had forced Thieu from office in return for freeing its POWs.

This is particularly clear when we consider what much of the U.S. foreign policy elite thought was at stake in Vietnam, which was America's image and reputation. It was not the fall of Saigon itself that the U.S. leaders feared, but rather the negative consequences in the region and the world that were expected to ensue. The domino theory, although denied and often derided, strongly influenced contemporary decision makers. This theory held that limited defeats would have widespread consequences if they cast doubt on American capability and resolve. Because the effect rested on perceptions, the impact of events was largely determined by how they took place. For Vietnam to become Communist because the United States forced out its ally could reasonably be believed to hurt America much more than if the South fell to indigenous political forces and the North. So when Nixon and Kissinger told the Soviets, the North Vietnamese, and most explicitly the Chinese that while the United States would not overthrow Thieu, it would not try to prevent a Communist victory in the postsettlement struggle, they were not being hypocritical or seeking a concession that lacked real meaning.16 They had reason to believe that the consequences for world politics of such a defeat, although unfortunate, would be much less than those following from a U.S. removal of Thieu at the insistence of Hanoi. As Nixon put it to Zhou Enlai, a settlement based on American withdrawal was inevitable, but “it must be done in the right way,” a phrase he then repeated.17 Looking at the concrete outcome, this seems like a distinction without a difference. But it is not.

For similar reasons, the very fact of an interval—decent or not—between the departure of American troops and the fall of Saigon was significant. Although the American withdrawal was at least a permissive cause of the change of regime of the South, the impact was attenuated by the two years' delay. Vietnam receded from view, other issues displaced it in the headlines and diplomatic cable traffic, and the degree to which the American reputation was staked on the outcome declined.18 Vietnamization could not “save” Vietnam, but it did put off defeat in a way that domino theorists had reason to believe would reduce the harm to American interests.

The most important benefit of the slow withdrawal of American troops was that the delay permitted the United States to change the international environment in a way that greatly reduced the impact of defeat. In 1969, American relations with the Soviet Union were bad and those with China were nonexistent. In this context, defeat in Vietnam could be expected to have had severe consequences, with allies being disturbed by the apparent American retreat when under attack, and the USSR and Peoples' Republic of China (PRC) seeing opportunities to press harder. Four years later, the situation was very different. The United States and the USSR had established a détente, unprecedented arms control agreements had been reached, and there was major progress toward settlements in Berlin, Germany, and Europe. Equally important, and partly a cause of these developments, the United States and China had opened relations.

The United States had hoped to get the USSR and the PRC to push North Vietnam to make concessions by holding out the prospect of better relations as a reward. Its gambit did not succeed, but dropping this condition and reversing the temporal order did. It is far from certain that the North would have been willing to make its key concession had the United States been in full competition with the USSR and PRC.19 Nixon and Kissinger were wrong to think that their adversaries would help in Vietnam as the price for better relations, but better relations produced some assistance. A form of linkage was at work, if not the one they had counted on at the start. With America's main adversaries competing with each other as much as they were with Washington, a continuation of the war did not serve their interests.

At least as important for the United States is that when the defeat came, world politics were very different and less conflictual than they had been previously. Both of America's major adversaries now had a stake in maintaining good relations with it and seeing that conflicts did not flare up excessively. Domino effects were not precluded; the Soviets did push harder in the third world because they (correctly) perceived that American domestic politics would inhibit the United States from responding.20 As a result, détente ended roughly five years after the fall of Saigon. But the subsequent increase in conflict was not the inevitable consequence of the American defeat, for its repercussions would have been graver had it occurred when antagonisms were at their height. In the late 1960s, defeat would have been widely seen as linked to, if not produced by, the superpower struggle and as a sign of which side was winning. The fact that it was delayed until a more propitious time made a great difference to international politics even if it did not produce a different outcome in Vietnam. For the United States, the Vietnam War was never about Vietnam, but rather about its impact on the Cold War. And here, the time gained was put to good use.

Whether or not Vietnamization produced international benefits for the United States, its implementation suggests that Nixon missed an opportunity in both international and domestic politics by mishandling his crucial concession to North Vietnam. His fundamental political problem was strong domestic criticism of the war, largely but not exclusively from the Left. Most of this criticism targeted the president not because he refused to bring home the troops all at once, but because his unreasonable negotiating position was prolonging the war. The critics felt that the war could not be won on the ground and that it was foolish of Nixon to expect to gain at the negotiating table what he could not accomplish on the battlefield. Initially, this criticism made a great deal of sense, and the critics were correct to argue that frightening the USSR or punishing the North could not force the latter to withdraw its troops. But Nixon abandoned his position in the spring of 1971, falling back to one that the critics would have had difficulty objecting to.

Indeed, Nixon might have secured the backing of leading Democrats if he had proposed to them that he would drop his demand for Hanoi's withdrawal in return for their supporting (or at least not opposing) a continued if truncated war effort if the North continued to insist that Washington dump Thieu.21 Instead, Nixon kept his new position secret from the American people, revealing it only in January 1972, and even then not highlighting what he had done. By neglecting—or refusing—to work with the Democratic opposition, he threw away a real chance of gaining both domestic support and increased leverage against the North.

Why did he do this? We should be wary of arguments that rest on the assumption that the scholar making it is smarter than those he or she is analyzing. If nothing else, Nixon was a shrewd judge of domestic politics. He feared opposition from the Right more than he did the antiwar movement, and the former would have been quick to accuse him—correctly—of selling out. But because he remained open to this attack (and indeed was subject to it even before the 1972 election), this kind of rational calculation cannot fully explain his behavior.

Nixon was blinded by a lethal combination of the fear of appearing weak, his hatred of domestic opponents, and an obsession with secrecy—elements that reinforced each other and that were deeply rooted in his personality. He did not want to acknowledge to others—or to himself—the magnitude of the concession he made when he abandoned his demand for the withdrawal of the North's troops. To have taken his domestic foes into his confidence would have been to treat them with respect; moreover, to tell them that he had in essence adopted their position would have implied that they were right all along and would have made him seem vulnerable, if not feeble, in his own eyes. He also would have had to abandon his commitment to secrecy, which was a debilitating hallmark of his administration. As Walter Isaacson notes, time and again Nixon “showed his strange inclination, when given the choice of explaining the truth or engaging in deception, reflexively to opt for the latter, even if it served no purpose.”22 Another president with many of the same substantive views might have tried this more open approach, but Nixon could not.

The irony of Vietnamization is that while it was more sophisticated and less self-serving than most scholars have understood, Nixon's secretive if not paranoid outlook led him to miss the chance to implement it in the most effective way.

  • 1

    This is true even when conditions are propitious, as in the United States during World War II: see Steven Casey, Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion and the War against Nazi Germany (New York, 2001), and D. M. Giangreco, “ ‘Spinning’ the Casualties: Media Strategies during the Roosevelt Administration,”Passport, December 2004, 22–30. For such efforts in an unpopular war, see Steven Casey, Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion, 1950–1953 (New York, 2008).

  • 2

    The classic study is Andrew Mack, “Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars: The Politics of Asymmetric Conflict,” World Politics, 27 ( (January 1975): 175200.

  • 3

    Dan Reiter and Allan Stam, Democracies at War (Princeton, NJ, 2002).

  • 4

    John Mueller, War, Presidents, and Public Opinion (New York, 1973).

  • 5

    Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Boston, 1979), 14880–82; U.S. Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–76: Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970 (Washington, DC, 2006), 6: 370–74 (hereafter cited as FRUS). The memorandum was drafted by National Security Council (NSC) aide Anthony Lake.

  • 6

    Christopher Gelpi, Peter Fever, and Jason Reifler, “Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq,” International Security, 30 (Winter 2005/06): 746.

  • 7

    Jeffrey Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence, KS, 2004), 128–29. A good summary of the shifting, conflicting, and conflicted American views can be found in Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon's Vietnam War (Lawrence, KS, 1998), 182–85.

  • 8

    Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (New York, 1999), 350.

  • 9

    Douglas Macdonald, Adventures in Chaos: American Intervention for Reform in the Third World (Cambridge, MA, 1992).

  • 10

    Sorley, A Better War.

  • 11

    World Public, “Poll of Iraqis,” (accessed April 23, 2008). The poll was taken in January 2006.

  • 12

    Alissa Rubin and Campbell Robinson, “Iraq Backs Deal that Sets End of U.S. Role,”New York Times, November 27, 2008.

  • 13

    See, for example, Larry Berman, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (New York, 2001); Kimball, Nixon's Vietnam War; Kimball, Vietnam War Files. Nixon and Kissinger later said that a better outcome might have been reached if they had carried out their plans for an escalation in 1969; see the summaries in Kimball, Nixon's Vietnam War, 173, and Walter Isaacson, Kissinger (New York, 1992), 248. For the alternative of the advantages of a quick withdrawal, see ibid., 484–85.

  • 14

    An excellent study of the causes, conduct, and consequences of the Easter Offensive is Stephen Randolph, Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive (Cambridge, MA, 2007).

  • 15

    The United States had hinted at this earlier, in September and October 1970. Yet there is little in the historical record to explain exactly how Nixon and Kissinger made this decision or if they fully understood its significance. Kimball argues that in response to the American concession, the North hinted at a willingness to allow Thieu to stay in office, a signal that the Americans missed: Kimball, Nixon's Vietnam War, 267. This would not explain why the North was not more explicit over the next fourteen months, however. Kimball also argues that even in these last stages, the United States conceded as much as the North (ibid., 321–22, 339), a judgment I do not find convincing.

  • 16

    Nixon and Kissinger put it in several different but not inconsistent ways to different audiences; see Kimball, Vietnam War Files, 24–28, 137, 203, 233; Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (New York, 2007), 396, 405, 408.

  • 17

    Kimball, Vietnam War Files, 203.

  • 18

    By the end of 1971, only 15 percent of Americans said that Vietnam was the most important issue facing the country. Sorley, A Better War, 282.

  • 19

    For the ways in which the Sino-Soviet competition generally complicated American policy in Vietnam, see Thomas Christensen, “Worse Than a Monolith: Disorganization and Rivalry within Asian Communist Alliances and U.S. Containment Challenges, 1949–69,”Asian Security, 1 (January 2005): 80–127. Also see Li Danhui, “Vietnam and Chinese Policy Toward the United States,” in William Kirby, Robert Ross, and Gong Li, eds., Normalization of U.S.-China Relations (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 175–208; Priscilla Roberts, ed., Behind the Bamboo Curtain: China, Vietnam, and the World Beyond Asia (Stanford, CA, 2006), especially the essays by Li Danhui, Niu Jun, and Shen Zhihua.

  • 20

    Ted Hopf, Peripheral Visions: Deterrence Theory and American Foreign Policy in the Third World, 1965–1990 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1994).

  • 21

    Kissinger hints at the underlying logic in his memo to Nixon of September 11, 1969, FRUS, 381.

  • 22

    Isaacson, Kissinger, 236; also see 245, 255–55, 331, 484–87. Kissinger also was obsessed with secrecy, in part because it was the key to his control of the foreign policy apparatus and partly because of his love of intrigue. But on the crucial issue of dropping the demand for the withdrawal of the North's troops, he wonders “whether we paid too high a price for secrecy.” Nevertheless, his explanation that he thought it was necessary for successful negotiations does not ring true; see Kissinger, White House Years, 1020.