Our choices and objectives
These facts show substantial advance. But to confine discussion of Vietnam to a recital of statistics, however impressive, would be inadequate, even irresponsible. While figures reflect policies, they do not fully define purposes.
Thus, this brief record of achievements is not meant to ignore the serious difficulties that remain. We do not intend to add to a painful record of prematurely optimistic assessments on Vietnam; we will discuss the problems and uncertainties as well as the advances.
The above record does recall the situation we inherited two years ago. I will not dwell on events leading up to January 1969, but rather on the choices we had in selecting our course.
The conflict had been costly and frustrating for Americans, and many believed that this administration should move to end immediately either the conflict or American involvement in it.
Some urged that we escalate in an attempt to impose a military solution on the battlefield. We ruled out this approach because of the nature of the conflict and of the enemy, the costs of such a policy, the risks of a wider war, and the deeply held convictions of many of our people. Increased military pressure could not alone win a struggle that was in part guerrilla war as well as conventional invasion, and included political as well as military aspects. It would have entailed a greatly increased toll in lives, treasure and diplomatic objectives. It would have heightened the prospects of direct intervention by Hanoi's allies. It would have split apart our own society.
Others urged that we liquidate our presence immediately, cut our losses, and leave the South Vietnamese on their own. I have repeatedly explained why I considered this a disastrous path: for the South Vietnamese people, who would have lost their collective political choice and countless individual lives; for other non-Communist countries, especially in Asia, among whom not a single leader recommended such a policy; for the global credibility of the U.S. word; for those Americans who had made such heavy sacrifices; and for the integrity of American society in the post-Vietnam era.
Thus we rejected both of these routes. Yet we knew that we could not continue previous policies which offered no hope for either peace or reduced American involvement.
We chose instead what we considered the most responsible course left to us. We sought above all a rapid negotiated solution to the conflict by progressively defining the terms of a settlement that would accommodate the legitimate interests of both sides. And in the absence of a settlement we sought, through Vietnamization, to shift American responsibilities to the South Vietnamese.
In charting this course we recognized the following realities: The way we treated the most painful vestige of the previous era was crucial for a successful transition to a new foreign policy for a new era.
The other side, which had fought for two decades, would agree to a negotiated settlement only if the terms were generous, and the battlefield looked less promising than the conference table.
Progressive turnover of the burden to the Vietnamese themselves, however uncertain, was the only policy available once we had rejected the status quo, escalation and capitulation.
The support of the American people during the remainder of the conflict required a diminishing U.S. involvement.
The health of the American society after the conflict called for a solution that would not mock the sacrifices that had been made.
There has been one guiding principle, one irreducible objective, for both our negotiations and Vietnamization. I stated it on May 14, 1969, and consistently since: "We seek the opportunity for the South Vietnamese people to determine their own political future without outside interference."
In our search for a negotiated solution we have stretched our positions towards those of the other side. But we have not agreed to their demand that we impose a political future on the South Vietnamese at the conference table.
In Vietnamization we have withdrawn our forces as rapidly as the South Vietnamese could compensate for our presence. But we have not withdrawn them so as to allow the North Vietnamese to impose a political future on the battlefield.
A peaceful settlement will remain our overwhelming preference. We will not give up our search. But in the meantime we will not let down our friends.
Our policy has not satisfied-and cannot satisfy either those who believe in a military solution or those who press for an immediate end to our involvement. For the vast majority of Americans who prefer a just peace to capitulation, there is, of course, still room for debate and criticism. But we ask these Americans to recall the situation we found two years ago, to judge the soundness of our purposes, and to measure the record to date against these purposes. They can be sure that we shall keep our promises in the future, as we have kept them in the past.