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Getting Others to Fight Our Wars

by Henry Butterfield Ryan on Mar 24, 1999

Henry Butterfield Ryan

The Clinton administration is poised to begin a war with Serbia over Kosovo in NATO’s name.

These days we rarely fight in the name of the United States. Sometimes, in fact, we try to hide our hand completely. For example, the administration frankly says it will use $97 million to encourage dissident Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Such proxy wars feature prominently in our endless campaign against Saddam, but they didn’t begin with him.

In 1954 the CIA stitched together a mercenary force that toppled Guatemala’s leftist government. A few years later, encouraged by that success, President Eisenhower approved a CIA-crafted Cuban-exile invasion of Castro’s Cuba. When John Kennedy came to office, with the exiles still training, the decision to invade or not fell to him. In 1961 he approved uneasily, stipulating no U.S. combat involvement.

The Cuban exiles were convinced that the U.S. government would guarantee their success. Their trainers encouraged that belief, and even top-level Washington planners assumed that if the exiles faced defeat, Kennedy would relent and send in U.S. forces. But after some scorching remarks from Soviet Premier Khrushchev, while Castro was making mincemeat of the invaders, Kennedy left the exiles to their fate, always a peril in proxy wars.

And then there was Vietnam!

We ourselves certainly entered that fight, so it was not a total proxy war. Still it fits the pattern.

We encouraged the South Vietnamese to fight a war in which we demonstrated more interest than they did, a proxy war syndrome. But eventually it became obvious that U.S. money, supplies and advisers plus South Vietnamese soldiers was not a winning combination. Then Washington sent some half million U.S. troops. So how can Vietnam still fit in the proxy war category?

Because in 1973 when the U.S. public, press and eventually Congress, could no longer stomach the war, we removed our troops, urging the South Vietnamese to continue fighting — “Vietnamizing the war,” we called it. In other words, returning it to proxy status.

To make our exit look less like desertion, President Nixon promised renewed military assistance if the South Vietnamese should need it. When they asked for help, President Ford denied the agreement existed. In any event, Congress had cut funds for military involvement shortly after the Nixon promise.

Two years later, with North Vietnamese soldiers overrunning South Vietnam and storming the U.S. embassy, our remaining diplomats fled by helicopter to ships offshore. Television brought it all home to Americans, who saw ghastly scenes of our Vietnamese supporters being left behind, some desperately clinging to the helicopter skids.

Next, the Middle East. In 1975, at the behest of our ally, the Shah of Iran, then at war with Iraq, we armed Iraq’s Kurds so they could rise against Baghdad. When Iraq and Iran made peace, the Kurds found themselves abandoned.

Again, in 1991, after the Gulf War, with Saddam still in place, we urged both Shiite Muslims and Kurds in Iraq to oppose him, hoping they could do what we had left undone. When Saddam mopped them up easily while we watched, they felt betrayed by the United States. Again, newscasts showed us refugees fleeing their homes, and one pathetic woman crying, “Where is President Bush?” He was, of course, quite comfortable in Washington, thank you, planning his next electoral campaign.

In 1996, the CIA, always involved in these things, again tried to organize Kurdish resistance to Saddam. But when he moved against the rebels in strength, the CIA agents flew away, leaving their Kurdish collaborators to fend for themselves. (You have to wonder what it will take for the Kurds to say “no” to the CIA.)

The point is not that Washington should back these proxy wars to the bitter end, sending U.S. troops if necessary. It is that we should be far more reluctant to encourage them. Undoubtedly, the most worrisome factor in any alliance is each ally’s dedication to the cause — how firm each will be when a heavy price must be paid. And when we remember that 36 casualties were enough to abort our Somalia mission we must ask how much we will invest to redeem another ill-fated proxy war.

Let’s hope we will not mislead the dissident Iraqis. It will not be Bill Clinton or Madeleine Albright who will be pulling a few salvaged belongings in carts over back roads if the mission fails. Like George Bush and others before them, they will be comfortably at home, probably planning their memoirs.


Henry Butterfield Ryan is a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.