“He’s had it. Look, he’s fat and he’s not able to do the job.” “He’s shown no imagination. He’s drinking too much.” We need to “send someone over there as a cop to watch over that son-of-a-bitch.” “I have no confidence” in him. “I think he’s run his course.”
These remarks—excerpts from conversations between President Richard M. Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger—left little doubt about how the White House’s inner circle viewed the top US general in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams. The dialogue, while coarse, nonetheless paints a crucial aspect of the Nixon administration’s attempts to withdraw from Vietnam in a way that achieved what it hoped would be “peace with honor.” In short, a dysfunctional relationship between the White House and the US military headquarters in Saigon undermined the coordination and advancement of US military strategy during the years of American withdrawal from South Vietnam.
Nixon’s aims of maintaining pressure on Hanoi while reducing the US presence in South Vietnam surely required subtlety. The implementation of this delicate military strategy, however, foundered in an atmosphere of distrust, cynicism, and outright hostility between soldier and statesman. By 1972, Richard Nixon’s relations with Creighton Abrams had reached the nadir of Vietnam era civil-military affairs. But that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
Abrams’s replacement of William Westmoreland in June 1968 promised improved relations between Washington and Saigon. The following year, journalists trumpeted that the new military chief was displaying “considerable brilliance in conducting the war.” The general surely appeared aggressive enough. Abrams’s guidance spoke of expanding “spoiling and pre-emptive operations” against the enemy and of striking “crushing blow[s]” to “defeat him decisively.”
Abrams may have improved American tactics by profiting from his predecessor’s own mixed experiences, but he was unable to link any military successes to the more important goal of political stability inside South Vietnam. As Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker admitted in January 1969, “very little progress has been made toward the development of a strong and united nationalist political organization…While popular support for the government has improved, it is still not strong enough.”
This lack of political progress weighed heavily on Nixon. Even before assuming the presidency, he recalled, Nixon believed in a fundamental premise that “total military victory was no longer possible.” Thus, the White House sought a broad strategic approach that rested on several key components: Vietnamization, which aimed at the South Vietnamese governing and defending themselves; pacification, with a focus on local village security; diplomatic isolation of North Vietnam; peace negotiations in Paris; and a gradual withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. As Nixon acknowledged, “all five elements of our strategy needed time to take hold.”
Certainly, balancing all these tasks—many at odds with one another—was no easy task. Abrams had to consider troop reductions in relation to the enemy threat, the status of negotiations, the improvement of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), and the Saigon government’s confidence in “going it alone.”
Yet perhaps most importantly, Nixon’s withdrawal plans hinted at deep civil-military divisions inside the US policymaking apparatus. Abrams balked at further troop withdrawals on the eve of the 1970 Cambodian campaign, arguing that military progress was critical to maintaining Vietnamese confidence and political stability, key prerequisites for an American departure.
One year later, after the botched incursion into Laos, a frustrated Abrams told the press that the “obtuse messages he was receiving from Washington were no less nonsensical than some of the messages correspondents in Vietnam were receiving from their home offices.” The trust between military and civilian leaders was quickly breaking down. So displeased was Nixon with Abrams’s performance that he considered relieving him of command.
In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched their Easter Offensive aimed at crippling the southern regime. Once more, Abrams’s performance provoked frustration at the White House. Once more, Nixon considered relieving the general.
Arguably, American civil-military relations between 1969 and 1972 reached their lowest point of the entire Vietnam War. Even compared to the dysfunctional relationship between Lyndon Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the animosity that Nixon held for his principal field commander was unmatched in intensity and in injury to the overall war effort.
In the eyes of the president and his national security advisor, Abrams had failed to balance the oft competing requirements of military operations, Vietnamization, pacification, and US troop reductions.
More importantly, though, America’s final years in Vietnam suggest that civil-military relations are apt to be more contentious during strategic withdrawals from wars with no clear-cut endings. As one US Army colonel quipped in early 1971, “It’s hard to look good when you’re walking out of a war backwards.”
Featured image credit: Sunset on Thu Bon river, Hoi An, Vietnam by Loi Nguyen Duc. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.