On this date in 1973, President Richard Nixon announced a peace agreement to end the Vietnam War. Significantly or not, that was just one day after the Supreme Court recognized that women have a constitutional right to make their own decisions about reproduction, the subject of yesterday’s Almanac entry. It is difficult to say which defeat has been more scarring for the conservative cause.
In the February 12, 1973, issue of The Nation, O. Edmund Clubb published an article titled “The Cease-Fire.” Clubb was one of the State Department’s vaunted “China Hands” in the 1940s, blamed in an anti-communist uproar after Mao’s revolution for “losing China.” As the last American Foreign Service Officer in China after the Communist takeover of 1949, Clubb himself took down the American flag at the consulate in Beijing. After returning to the United States, Clubb was suspended from the State Department and labeled a “security risk.” He was perhaps uniquely suited to reflect on the scale of the losses from the failed American crusade in Vietnam.
So, for 46,000 American battle dead, the expenditure of $136 billion, the distortion of the American economy, and the sad tarnishing of the American world image and consequent loss of political influence, we get—this—and we officially call it “peace with honor.” If it be deemed honorable, the United States supported a series of reactionary Saigon governments well beyond the call of any imagined duty; and it was not defeated on the field of battle—but it never stood in danger of that. The final outcome did however make quite manifest something that could readily have been learned from 20th century history, namely that B-52s are ineffective for fighting revolutionary ideas in the age of nationalism. Washington failed lamentably to appreciate Asian post-colonial aspirations, to understand the nature of the modern Asian revolution. By the evidence, the policy makers in Washington never really understood, from beginning to end, what the Indochinese revolution was all about—that it was inherently a political, not a military, struggle. Blinded by this error, the United States tried to dominate and suppress the Indochinese revolutionaries—and failed ingloriously. Whether it can repair its position in Asia will depend on whether it has learned the lesson of its eleven-year Indochinese war: Asia is not to be molded after American patterns.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.