Tuesday, May 23, 1972
President's Grimmest Crisis
by Joseph Alsop
Maybe the trouble is that no Americans of any generation in the entire history of this country have ever experienced final defeat in war. Defeat's bitternesses, its cruelties, its humiliations are not part of our national memory. So no one is reflecting upon the consequences of final defeat in Vietnam.
It had better be faced, however, that a final U.S. defeat in Vietnam is entirely possible. Begin with the Saigon government's extreme shortage of reserves. Add the Hanoi government's totally ruthless way of expending manpower. The odds then have to be quoted as about even, either way.
In the next days and weeks (and we should know the answer within weeks), it will be critically important not to mistake local defeats for final defeat. In South Vietnam's Central Highlands, for example, there may well be local defeats that will make hair-raising headlines, lend themselves to hair-raising descriptions and, of course, produce hair-raising news and television pictures.
But just such headlines, stories and pictures were the cause of all but universal American misjudgment of the Tet offensive in 1968. That year, after all the horrors were over, the upshot was a military and political disaster for the enemy. The Viet Cong of South Vietnam are trifling factors in the present fighting because of that same disaster.
This time local defeats, especially in the Central Highlands, will not add up to final defeat any more than they did in 1968. There are in fact only two areas where final defeat appears possible-on the approaches to Saigon, where the outlook is hopeful but tricky; and around Hue.
If you consider these two areas, however, you can see that defeat, if it comes, will not seem unimportant to Americans and important only to the remote South Vietnamese. At the Hue-Phu Bai base alone, for example, there are some thousands of American troops. They add up to the air power and the helicopter power that give a pretty good chance of throwing back the worst the enemy can throw. But if the northern front goes really wrong, those Americans will be in deadly danger. And no one should suppose that Hanoi is averse to killing or taking prisoner large numbers of additional Americans.
Besides all the world-political factors in play, in short, there is another unavoidable problem. This is the problem of what will happen to the tens of thousands of Americans in uniform who are still in South Vietnam. Now that the crisis has come, anyone should see that President Nixon's talk of "protective reaction" was the very opposite of empty or hypocritical.
Again, is it not only prudent to embark the Marine division from Okinawa without delay so that those thousands of Americans at Hue-Phu Bai will have a rescue party near at hand if the need arises? Logically, those are the kinds of choices that President Nixon must be mulling over at this instant. Few American Presidents have had uglier choices to make.
So far as a returning traveler can take the temperature in a short interval, it seems and excellent bet that the President will make his hard choices with maximum tough-mindedness.
Those who are horrified about tough-mindedness -indeed all of us -had better reflect upon the consequences of a final U.S. defeat in war. They cannot be exactly predicted because no such thing has ever happened before.
"President's Grimmest Crisis", by Joseph Alsop, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes Tuesday, May 23, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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