No Exit

“The man who runs away will fight again.”
– Menander, 303 B.C.

In April 1972, with North Vietnamese forces advancing as part of their Nguyen Hue Offensive, Seventh Air Force Headquarters in Saigon began drawing up evacuation plans. Approximately 60,000 U.S. military personnel remained in South Vietnam along with many more thousands of civilian contractors, American reporters, missionaries, businessmen, State Department personnel and employees of other U.S. government agencies. The planners soon gave up. In 1972, if South Vietnam had fallen, there would have been no way to evacuate that many Americans. If the North Vietnamese and their communist Viet Cong cohorts in the South didn’t stop us, the South Vietnamese army would have. After all, they controlled the airports and seaports and without their cooperation, we would have to shoot our way out.

In the spring and summer of 1972, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) evidenced much improved fighting qualities by containing the massive North Vietnamese onslaught. The ARVN bent, but it didn’t break. American air power provided close air support while unleashing Operation Linebacker, later dubbed Linebacker One, on North Vietnam. Linebacker kicked off on May 8, 1972 when naval aircraft seeded magnetic and acoustical mines into the harbor entrances at Haiphong and Dong Hoi. Then laser guided bombs, at that time a relatively new technological innovation, severed the northwest and northeast rail lines and highway north of Hanoi. Two-thousand pound laser guided bombs brought down bridges over deep mountain gorges and took out tunnels in the Annamite Mountains. Fighter-bombers laden with conventional 500-pound bombs then blasted the backed-up rail and road traffic. American air power effectively isolated North Vietnam from sources of supply pouring in from China by rail and highway and from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe through North Vietnam’s ports. Hanoi’s divisions on the offensive in South Vietnam were conventional armies employing tanks, trucks and heavy artillery. These forces consumed a thousand tons of supplies a day rather than the 100 or so tons previously required by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units between 1969 and the spring of 1972. Linebacker effectively restricted this flow of supplies making it the most effective use of air power in the Vietnam War and one of the most successful aerial interdiction efforts in history.

Three years later, with only a handful of U.S. military personnel and far fewer civilians remaining in South Vietnam, Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon, still proved a close-run thing. Indeed, some missionaries and a small number of other Americans did not get out. Enormous numbers of South Vietnamese who fought for the Saigon government and who supported U.S. policy were left behind to face the harsh “justice” of the victorious communists. In Cambodia and Laos major blood baths took place. The Cambodian Khmer Rough systematically annihilated anyone associated with the Phnom Penh government along with an entire class of educated people. Millions were murdered. In Laos, the Pathet Lao, under the control of the North Vietnamese, imprisoned and murdered the Lao royal family along with hundreds of officials of the Vientiane government. The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao conducted a genocidal campaign against the Hmong, a tribal people who, with U.S. support, fought valiantly for their homes in the mountains surrounding the Plain of Jars.

In early 1975, as the communists initiated their final offensives in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the American left remained riveted on the supposed ravages of war wreaked on Indochina by U.S. military forces. A continuous cacophony bellowed about “secret bombings” and lamented an “eco-disaster” issuing from a supposed “bathing of South Vietnam” in Agent Orange. In the aftermath, the left’s silence over the murderous aftermath undertaken by the communist Vietnamese and their cohorts in Cambodia and Laos was pervasive.

The lessons for today are clear. First, any precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be costly even if it were possible, which it isn’t. Second, the sectarian violence that follows, being religiously and ethnically-driven, will be far bloodier than what happened in South Vietnam, more resembling the ethnic and class-cleansing carried out by the Khmer Rouge and Pathet Lao. Third, in Indochina there was no regional power ready or able to fill the void left by America—China tried in 1979 and the Vietnamese army trounced its invasion forces. Iran, by contrast, is anxious to dominate Iraq, seize its oil, and then exercise hegemony over the Persian Gulf region.

Iran ultimately plans to establish a global Islamist caliphate. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Shi’ite mullahs in Teheran know the United States and Israel present major obstacles to realizing that vision. Make no mistake: Iran is at war with the Judeo-Christian West. If we lose this war, we lose Western civilization.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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