Former Defense Secretary: Lessons from Vietnam

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President Bush vowed Wednesday that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq would not be reduced to satisfy what he called "artificial timetables." The last man to withdraw significant numbers of troops from an ongoing war was Melvin Laird, toward the end of the Vietnam War. Renee Montagne talks to Richard Nixon's former defense secretary.


Now this week we've been hearing different views on ending the war in Iraq. The Bush administration's strategy essentially calls for pulling out US troops and replacing them with Iraqis even if the war is continuing. My colleague, Renee Montagne, spoke to a man responsible for doing something similar toward the end of the Vietnam War.


Melvin Laird was secretary of Defense under Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, he writes that the war in Iraq is not another Vietnam. Still, he believes that old conflict is a textbook case on how to get out of Iraq.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Laird.

Mr. MELVIN LAIRD (Former Defense Secretary): Delighted to have an opportunity to visit with you.

MONTAGNE: You write that our presence is what feeds the insurgency in Iraq. I take it that you believe the United States must somehow get out.

Mr. LAIRD: Well, eventually we have to get out as soon as our job is done, but we can't walk away from the conflict now. We will be able to start withdrawal of our forces as the Iraqi forces come into readiness.

MONTAGNE: You helped devise the plan that came to be known as Vietnamization.

Mr. LAIRD: That's a good term, and I coined that term, and it worked very well, I think. But we had to get the Vietnam military to understand that we were gonna be withdrawing and they would have to take over the responsibilities.

MONTAGNE: Is that what the Bush administration is basically doing now in Iraq?

Mr. LAIRD: Yes, but I don't think they started soon enough. They are going forward with that program now, and I think that it will be successful, but it's gonna take a while, and you're probably not going to be able to pull all troops out of there for some months, but you're gonna be able to make reductions.

MONTAGNE: Is it possible the US will have to get out of Iraq before the Iraqi troops are ready?

Mr. LAIRD: I think the Iraqis are going to realize that they have the responsibility for this security, and I think that as we start our withdrawals and they realize all the more that they're gonna have this responsibility, that they'll come through.

MONTAGNE: You wrote in your article in Foreign Affairs that there must be a standard of competence for Iraqi forces, but you also write that the president should not make those standards public.

Mr. LAIRD: Well, I think it's a mistake that you insist that you have 100 percent readiness on those troops and on the military force in Iraq. You're not going to be there, and if you put out a standard like that, it does not give the incentive for those forces to come up to a readiness point that is adequate.

MONTAGNE: So you mean it's like a timetable. If you set a standard, not meeting it means that the American troops would stay?

Mr. LAIRD: Right, and I think that's a mistake, and I don't think you should set a public standard. I think it has to be up to the American commander to make his recommendations to the commander in chief as to the number of troops he can release from time to time.

MONTAGNE: Mr. Laird, Vietnamization did not in the end work, and you blame the Congress of the time for ...(unintelligible).

Mr. LAIRD: Well, Vietnamization did work. I mean, the forces of the South Vietnamese were doing very well, but they had to have US support to carry on the war, and we promised them that. My point is this: Just because we get our force level down in Iraq doesn't mean that we can walk away from Iraq. We have certain responsibilities that I hope aren't overlooked or our position in Iraq and the losses we've suffered will be in vain.

MONTAGNE: In proposing Iraqization, if you will, how would you keep the American public on board and interested when the historical comparison, that is Vietnam, proved that the public couldn't be brought back on board?

Mr. LAIRD: Well, that's what leadership is all about. I think we have to have more straight talk in order to show real leadership in this field.

INSKEEP: Renee was speaking with Melvin Laird, defense secretary for President Richard Nixon.

By the way, you can read the strategy for victory and hear President Bush's speech on Iraq at


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