TEN years after the fall of Saigon, the United States is seeking to draw lessons from our Vietnam experience. Most analyses dwell on the effect of that war on American society and on attitudes toward the use of military power. Few dwell on another: the importance of international support for United States policy. We did not have broad support in Vietnam from other nations.
In 1974, only twenty-three nations, including the United States, had diplomatic relations with South Vietnam. Most of these were nations tied to us by alliances or aid; nine were NATO members. Only four nations joined us militarily: Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea, and only the latter provided combat troops.
By contrast, thirty-nine nations, including two members of NATO and moderate Indonesia, had formal relations with Hanoi.
Throughout the conflict we hesitated to raise the issue in the United Nations. We would almost certainly have encountered a Soviet veto, but we were aware, also, that we did not have the majority for even a symbolic vote in the General Assembly.
For a cause in which we considered we were defending the free world and for which we were making a major national sacrifice, we had little genuine international cooperation.
There were leaders, particularly in Southeast Asia, who privately welcomed our efforts; these efforts gave them time to strengthen their own societies against advances from the North. But even in these countries, uncertainty about how the war was viewed by their own people and by other third-world nations inhibited them from expressing open endorsement.
Throughout the world of former colonies, war in Vietnam was seen as the continuation of an anti-colonial struggle with the United States picking up the gauntlet of France.
As United States diplomacy during this period sought to create wider understanding and more open endorsements, without notable success, we created a credibility problem. Our view of the war and its prospects was contradicted by the experience of others. I recall the visit to Indonesia of a senior American official in early 1975. He described the prospects for the war in glowing terms. The Indonesians, who had troops throughout Vietnam as part of the International Commission of Control and Supervision, saw our prospects as bleak. One Indonesian official afterward said to me, ``He must be talking about a different war.''
The Vietnam experience raises a question for today: Is broad international support necessary for the pursuit of what we consider a just cause?
There are those in the US who will say that, if our policy is dictated by the interests of the United States, international support is not important. We can proceed as we wish. Yet, in each main issue or conflict in recent years, the US has sought to win international support, whether in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Grenada, or Central America.
Presidents have deemed such support important domestically, in relations with Congress, and in our global confrontation with the Soviet Union. In today's interdependent world, there is an inescapable interaction between the views of events by our own citizens and by those abroad. In seeking such support, however, the reaction of presidents has been more often, out of frustration, to press other nations to accept our policies rather than to listen for their opinions.
US aid to other nations has been tied to the support they give to us; our diplomacy has pressed for endorsements and has often reacted sharply to opposition. We have selectively used phrases from the polite utterings of foreign officials and visitors to demonstrate they are with us, at times to their embarrassment. None of these efforts have been totally successful.
Ultimately, in Vietnam, we accepted that we had limited foreign support. We looked to our friends, finally, for sympathy and for help in extricating ourselves from the problem.
The Vietnam lesson has clearly not been learned. The United States is repeating the process today. On Nicaragua, we are pressing for support in changing a government, listening selectively to the views of those in the region. On the Strategic Defense Initiative, we are taking European expressions favoring research as approval for our entire plan of ultimate development and deployment.
The perspectives of other nations, particularly those in a region of conflict, deserve attention and need to be taken seriously if we are to gain a genuine international consensus for our policies. If we decide, regardless of their views, that we should go it alone, we can do so. But, in doing so, we run the risk that their skepticism and, at times, opposition, will undermine our policies, both at home and in the affected region.
David D. Newsom, now an associate dean at Georgetown University, was ambassador to Indonesia at the time of the fall of Saigon.