By Matt Pommer
“Getting out of a war is still dicier than getting into one,” Melvin Laird warned four years ago as the Iraq struggle grew.
Laird knew about getting out of war. He served as President Nixon’s first secretary of defense and led the efforts to get American servicemen out of Vietnam, a war he called an “ugly, mismanaged, tragic episode in the U.S. history.”
“Richard Nixon was elected on the assumption that he had a plan to end the
Vietnam war. He didn’t have any plan, and my job as his first secretary of defense was to remedy that – quickly.”
Laird’s essay in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in 2005 continues to ring true as 2010 approaches.
“As long as military people – current and future – know where their president is leading them, the enlisted will follow,” Laird wrote. “American soldiers will step up to the plate, and the American people will tolerate the loss of life if the conflict has worthy achievable goals that are clearly espoused by the administration and their leadership deals honestly with them,” he wrote.
Laird, a Republican, served six years in the Wisconsin State Senate and 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming secretary of defense in the Nixon administration.
Laird recalls his opposition to Nixon’s decision to secretly expand the war into Cambodia without telling either the American people or getting permission from the Congress.
“Vietnam gave the United States the reputation for not supporting its allies. I believe then and still believe that given enough outside resources, South Vietnam was capable of defending itself,” he wrote. That view is widely disputed by historians who have studied the Vietnam war.
Historians point to the corruption in the Saigon government and the impact of the heroin trade on that country’s economy. There is no mention of the government corruption or the drug trade in Laird’s essay.
The lesson of Vietnam, Laird indicates, is that the Saigon government needed U.S. money and training – “Vietnamization” was the term – not, in his words, “more American blood.”
“We owe it to the restive people back home to let them know there is an exit strategy,” he wrote of the conflict in Iraq. The same would seem to apply to the military developments in Afghanistan.
Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.