United States PolicyThis canvas poses two fundamental questions for the United States: What should be our policy toward Laos and Cambodia as countries under external attack?
How do we deal with the major implications for our policy in South Vietnam?
North Vietnam's aggression against Laos and Cambodia and its violation of the 1954 and 1962 Geneva agreements are important. We care about the preservation of international agreements and the independence of these nations. But our immediate concern is that North Vietnam uses them as springboards for assaults on a country where we have a firm commitment, have invested lives, treasure and prestige and have Americans to protect as we progressively withdraw. Furthermore, if Hanoi were to gain control of Laos and Cambodia, a large portion of the more than 140,000 Communist troops now engaged in these countries would be freed to fight in South Vietnam.
As we pursued our policy of Vietnamization and negotiation for Vietnam, we could not ignore these unavoidable facts on its flank. Our basic choices for Laos and Cambodia became: to seek diplomatic settlements for both countries, either as part of an all-Indochina arrangement or separately; to provide military support both to Laos and Cambodia and to South Vietnamese defensive operations, without U.S. ground combat involvement.
We have always wished to stabilize the borders of South Vietnam and to insure the neutrality of its neighbors by diplomatic means. My October 7 peace initiative, supported by the three governments, proposed, for all of Indochina, a cease-fire to stop the fighting; an international conference to seal the peace; the immediate release of all prisoners of war.
This comprehensive approach came against a background of consistent efforts to reach diplomatic solutions. From the outset, this administration has continued American support for the efforts of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma to reconstitute the 1962 Geneva agreements guaranteeing his country's neutrality, independence and territorial integrity. In Cambodia we long tolerated a difficult military situation and encouraged negotiations when Prince Sihanouk was removed.
To date Hanoi has rejected diplomacy and spread the conflict. The Lao government for many years, and the Cambodian government this year, have turned to us and others for assistance.
These developments left us with the choice between military options. After our one-time sweep against the Communist bases in Cambodia, we have ruled out American ground combat troops in either Laos or Cambodia for several reasons. Our fundamental Vietnam- related objectives are served by other means. In any event, we believe that the two governments can survive through their own efforts, our various kinds of assistance and that of other friends. We look to them to shoulder the primary combat responsibilities for their own defense.
Moreover, the enemy has its own problems. Despite its ability and willingness to pour thousands of troops into all three countries, North Vietnam faces certain limits imposed by manpower drain and long supply lines. Lack of indigenous support in Laos and Cambodia severely hampers Communist troop movements. And we do not assume that Hanoi's allies want Laos and Cambodia removed from the map of Southeast Asia.
Thus we did not oppose congressional restrictions this past year on the use of U.S. ground combat forces in those countries, even though we had strong reservations about the principle of circumscribing executive authority. Instead of deploying our troops we have helped those countries help themselves. In Cambodia, South Vietnam's preemptive thrusts have been crucial for their mutual defense.
Three arguments are raised against these South Vietnamese operations outside their borders:
That they spread South Vietnamese forces thin.
On the contrary, by striking against the enemy's supply system and reducing the border threat, these actions contract the territory that the South Vietnamese army must defend. The alternative of inviolate enemy sanctuaries along a front of six hundred miles would stretch South Vietnamese forces much more severely.
That South Vietnam is expanding the war.
Its troops have gone only where the North Vietnamese have been entrenched and violating one country's territory to attack another. It is Hanoi which expanded the war years ago.
That our support of the South Vietnamese will draw us into wider
If we are to reduce our involvement in Indochina, we must shield our withdrawals by backing these sweeps against potential threats. At a time when we are cutting our military presence in one country we are naturally reluctant to send troops into neighboring ones on grounds both of strategy and American domestic support. It would make little sense for us, while withdrawing hundreds of thousands of ground combat troops from Vietnam, to reintroduce a few into Laos or Cambodia.
The arguments against South Vietnam's defensive actions suggest that Hanoi has the right-without provocation and with complete immunity to send its forces into Laos and Cambodia, threaten their governments and prepare to bring its full strength to bear on South Vietnam itself.
The choice for South Vietnam is not between limiting and expanding the war. It is between what it is doing in self-defense and passively watching the menace grow along its borders.
In time the combined populations of 28 million in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with assistance from their regional partners, should more than balance the resources of North Vietnam, with its population of 20 million. During this transition period, however, our own defensive supporting actions are important. Let me briefly review them.