"Nixon and Vietnam: Vietnam and Electoral Politics"
by Stephen E. Ambrose
*Stephen E. Ambrose delivered the third biennial Eisenhower Lecture at Kansas State University on October 25, 1988. At the beginning of 2002, Ambrose was discovered to have incorporated passages from the works of other authors in several of his own books without proper attribution. The Department of History considers these and all other instances of plagiarism to be fundamentally incompatible with the most basic standards and values of the historical profession. At the same time, however, we believe that we have a responsibility to make the full texts of all of the Eisenhower lectures available to the scholarly community and the public, and have therefore decided not to remove this lecture from our website.
by Jon Wefald
President, Kansas State University
I take great pleasure in introducing Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose, who tonight will deliver the third biennial Dwight D. Eisenhower lecture in War and Peace. This evening also has a special meaning because it is a homecoming of sorts, for Professor Ambrose held the Dwight D. Eisenhower Chair in War and Peace, a position that was the forerunner of this distinguished lecture series, at Kansas State University during the year 1970‑1971.
Professor Ambrose received a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin and a master's degree from Louisiana State University. Then, returning to his undergraduate alma mater, he earned a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1963. During his career he has held a number of distinguished academic positions including the Ernest J. King Professorship at the U.S. Naval War College and the Mary Ball Washington Chair at University College, Dublin. He is currently the Alumni Distinguished Professor at the University of New Orleans.
As a scholar, Stephen Ambrose has specialized in United States foreign relations, in military history, and as a biographer of American political and military leaders. Almost from the beginning of his career, Prof. Ambrose has evidenced a particular interest in Dwight D. Eisenhower: within ten years of completing his doctorate. He had authored three books on the general and edited five volumes of The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower.
It has been in the 1980's, however, that Prof. Ambrose's gifts as a biographer have come to full flower. And it is hardly surprising that he turned first to the object of his abiding interest, Dwight Eisenhower. In 1983 he published Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President‑Elect, and in 1984 he released Eisenhower: The President. Together these works have been heralded as the best biography of Dwight David Eisenhower yet produced.
Many in this audience are probably aware of these volumes, but I assume that far fewer ‑even here at K‑State ‑ know that 1983 also witnessed the publication of Prof. Ambrose's study of another famous Kansan, Milton Eisenhower, Educational Statesman.
As a biographer of President Eisenhower, Prof. Ambrose has entered the lists in some of the most important debates in the historiography of the recent American past. These include the re‑examination of Dwight Eisenhower as Chief Executive, and the broader discussion of the role of the President in foreign and domestic policy since the end of the Second World War.
But Prof. Ambrose did not stop with Ike. In 1987, he published the first installment in a biographical study of Eisenhower's Vice President and the man who became the Commander in Chief of America's military forces in our nation's longest war, Richard M. Nixon. This volume, entitled Nixon: the Education of a Politician, which received broad public acclaim, traced the former President's life from childhood to his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in California in 1962. Since the appearance of The Education of a Politician, Dr. Ambrose has been at work on a now‑completed second volume on Richard Nixon, and it is this research that provides the basis of his lecture this evening on the topic “Nixon and Vietnam: Vietnam and Electoral Politics.”
"Nixon and Vietnam: Vietnam and Electoral Politics"
by Stephen E. Ambrose
When Dwight Eisenhower became President, in January 1953, he inherited an unpopular and expensive Democratic war on the Asian mainland. During the '52 campaign, he had been critical of Harry Truman's handling of the war, but careful not to commit himself on how he would conduct it. His options, once elected, were open. The Republicans, led by Vice President Richard Nixon, urged him to either march to the Yalu River with a reinforced U.N. army, or use atomic weapons against China. Instead, Ike decided that Korea was not worth the cost and the risk, and made peace within six months of taking office.
When Nixon became President, in January 1969, he inherited an unpopular and expensive Democratic war on the Asian mainland. During the '68 campaign, he had been critical of Lyndon Johnson's handling of the war, but careful not to commit himself on how he would conduct it. Unlike Ike in Korea, he had played a major role in getting America involved in Vietnam. Also unlike Ike, he could not threaten the Communists with escalation if they did not accept an armistice, because the Soviets could match him bomb for bomb in nuclear warfare, while on the ground he had to accept the fact that the American political system could not stand the strain of a larger war.
Nixon had to retreat. It was his fate, and a big part of his tragedy. For twenty years, he had been the most prominent and persistent advocate of taking the offensive against Communism around the world. In every crisis, his policy was to attack, with more firepower, now.
But in 1969 he had to preside over a retreat. He knew it, he accepted the fact, made his decision, and although he hated doing so, announced in June 1969, that a retreat was underway. Fifteen years earlier, at a Cabinet meeting, during a discussion of a bill before Congress, Nixon had turned to Eisenhower and said, "As in any battle, you need a second line of retreat."
"No, Dick," Ike had replied. "You need two to attack, only one to retreat."
If Dick had chosen that single line, and gone about it with more dispatch, much would have been different. Suppose that in the summer of 1969 Nixon had withdrawn all American troops, as he finally did in early 1973. Think of the effect on the economy, on inflation, on the campuses, on the media's attitude towards Nixon, on a lasting detente and arms control and Nixon's whole structure of peace, on law and order (in and out of the White House), on everything. Think of the things that would not have happened ‑ no Cambodian incursion, no Kent State tragedy, no 4 a.m. meeting with students at the Lincoln Memorial, no antiwar demonstrations, no Christmas bombing.
But all these things did happen, because Nixon mishandled the retreat, stretching it out at a terrible price in lives and treasure and his own reputation. Because the war went on, tension and division filled the land, and the Nixon‑bashers went into a frenzy. It was the continuation of the Vietnam War that prepared the ground and provided the nourishment for the Watergate seed, which without the Vietnam war would never have sprouted.
It was fitting, however, that Vietnam was the ultimate cause of Nixon's downfall, because except for LBJ no other political leader in the nation had done so much to put America into Vietnam. The process began way back in 1954, when Nixon told Eisenhower he should use atomic weapons to rescue the French at Dien Bien Phu. When Ike refused, Nixon told a press conference that if sending American boys to Vietnam was the only way to prevent a Communist victory, "I personally would support such a decision." Ike would not, and a Communist North Vietnam was born at Geneva in 1954, Nixon then became the leading advocate of the creation of SEATO and extending its protection to South Vietnam.
Ten years and many events later, the South Vietnamese were under attack and demanding that America live up to Its promises to provide protection. Nixon was in the forefront of those American politicians urging an all‑out response. Through the first half of the sixties, Nixon was the number one critic of JFK's and LBJ's Vietnam policy; his criticism was not that they were getting involved. but rather that they were not getting involved deeply or quickly enough. And Iong before Johnson ever opened peace talks with the North Vietnamese, Nixon had denounced any and all possible negotiations as a disguised surrender. When Nixon later said, in 1969, that he had inherited a war not of hismaking, he was being too modest. From the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution onward, Nixon spurred Johnson to ever greater involvement in Vietnam.
As Johnson escalated through 1965, Nixon stayed one step ahead of him, demanding more ‑ more troops, more bombing raids, more firepower. He accused Johnson of allowing America to get "bogged down" in a long and costly ground war and said that military commanders should be allowed to bomb targets in and around Hanoi, and to put mines in Haiphong harbor.
In December 1965, Nixon published an article in Reader's Digest on the specifics of the war in Vietnam and on the general problem of how to relate to aggressive Communism in Asia.
Nixon said he would negotiate only on the basis of three minimum conditions; that North Vietnam stop its aggression; that South Vietnam's freedom and independence be guaranteed; that there be "no substitute for victory. " In other words, no negotiations. Nixon was explicit on this point: "To negotiate in Vietnam would be negotiation of the wrong kind, at the wrong time, at the wrong place." To negotiate with the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese before driving them out of South Vietnam "would be like negotiating with Hitler before the German armies had been driven from France."
All this led up to Nixon's rock solid position on negotiations: "We should negotiate only when our military superiority is so convincing that we can achieve our objective at the conference table." To most people, that sounded more like a surrender than a conference table.
Nixon was as one with President Johnson on the question of what was at stake. "If the United States gives up on Vietnam," Nixon wrote in the Digest, "the Pacific Ocean will become a Red Sea." He explained that "the true enemy behind the Viet Cong and North Vietnam is China. . . . If Vietnam is lost, Red China would gain vast new power. 11 Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos would "inevitably fall under communist domination." Red China would be "only 14 miles from the Philippines and less than 100 miles from Australia."
But with a small investment now, in South Vietnam. America could hold the Reds back. Nixon wrote that the tide had turned in Vietnam, and "a real victory" was now possible. It would "take two years or more of the hardest kind of fighting. It will require stepped‑up air and land attacks."
Thus, Nixon at the end of 1965 was harkening back to the war of his youth, using images and symbols and a basic frame of reference from World War 11 to describe and think about Vietnam. For Nixon, victory was possible. It was a question of will. His call for escalation, immediate and decisive.
Johnson then launched with the great search and destroy offensive of 1966‑1967, as General Westmoreland's force expanded to over a half‑million men. But in late January, 1968, at Tet, the Communists launched a counter‑offensive. They took fearful losses, but they nevertheless achieved their objective of making it obvious that the Americans were not winning, that the massive influx of American weapons and men into Vietnam had not turned the tide. And the panic reaction of the press, television, and the public all indicated that John Kennedy had been wrong when he said back in January, 1961, that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden" to insure the survival of freedom, in Vietnam and elsewhere. There were limits, and they had quite possibly been reached, to what the Americans would pay, to the burden they would bear. Meanwhile, Johnson's policy of escalating the war while extending the Great Society programs whilc refusing to raise taxes to pay for either was threatening to create runaway inflation along with uncontrollable deficits.
In sum, the policy Nixon had advocated relentlessly for the past four years fell apart almost at the exact time he began his formal campaign for the Presidency. He needed time to think of a new approach.
His, staff, however, was pressing him, insisting that he had to speak out on Vietnam. Herbert Brownell, formerly Ike's attorney‑general and an unofficial advisor to the Nixon camp, said that Nixon had to say he would end the war, just as Ike had done back in 1952 with regard to Korea. Speechwriter Bill Safire told Nixon that people wanted hope, that he had an obligation to give it to them, and that as ending the war was what he wanted to do anyway, that was what he should promise.
On March 5, 1969 Nixon spoke out on Tet and its aftermath. "I pledge to you," he said, "new leadership will end the war and win the peace in the Pacific. " He did not say, as was later reported and widely believed, that he had "a secret plan to end the war. " In fact, he said the opposite: that he had no gimmick, "no push‑button technique" to end the war. He insisted that he was not suggesting "withdrawal from Vietnam."
Over the next few days, Nixon repeated his pledge to "end the war and win the peace. " Indeed, he added to it, reminding his audiences that he had been part of an Administration that had come to power in 1953 in the middle of "another war in Asia. We ended that war and kept the nation out of other wars for eight years. And that's the kind of ' leadership you'll be voting for this year if you support my ticket. " As he continued this campaign, Democrats joined reporters in demanding to know some details of how he proposed to achieve his objectives. Nixon refused to provide any. He explained that to give out any details of how he would carry out his pledge would fatally weaken his bargaining position if he became President. "I'm not trying to be a coy or political," Nixon coyly said.
Although he refused to talk about his plan (which was non‑existent anyway), Nixon was fairly specific about what he would not do. He said he would not seek an "unconditional surrender" by North Vietnam, "nor do I want Ho's head on a plate. " He would work for an " honorable " bargain that would insure self‑determination for South Vietnam, that could not be construed as a "defeat for the United States or a reward for aggression," and that would not lead to "further wars of liberation" in Asia. Hidden in all the verbiage was a clear‑cut change in Nixon's thinking about Vietnam. No longer was he calling for victory. No longer was he calling for escalation. Never before had he suggested cutting a deal with the Russians. For the first time he was using the words "honorable peace," not "victorious peace." Never before had he used the word "withdrawal," and even though he denied that he intended to withdraw, that was the logical conclusion.
Johnson agreed. At the end of March, he announced that he was limiting the bombing of North Vietnam. He added that he was withdrawing from the Presidential race. He also decided that he would not meet Westmoreland's request for reinforcements, which meant he had decided to settle for something short of victory ‑ although he did not say so. Escalation, as a policy, was dead as a result of Tet. Now the problem was how to extract the United States from Vietnam.
Complicating that process was the Presidential election. Nixon went into the campaign with a 30 point lead over Vice‑President Hubert Humphrey, but by the last week in October the Democrats were gaining. Johnson gave the Humphrey campaign a terrific boost when he announced that in return for a complete bombing halt in North ‑Vietnam, the Communists had agreed to come to peace talks in Paris. Nixon, very much afraid that an outbreak of peace would mean a Humphrey victory, contacted a dear friend of South Vietnamese President Thieu. Her name was Anna Chennault, and she passed a message to Thieu: refuse to go to the peace table, undercut the peace talks, and you will get a better deal from the Republicans after Nixon wins.
Thieu did just what Nixon wanted ‑ he sabotaged the peace talks.
Over the years, as the details of the Chennault story began to emerge in the memoirs of the participants, it became one of the favorites of the Nixon bashers. They charged that he was so utterly cynical, so completely self‑serving, so absolutely lacking in principle of any kind, that he deliberately sabotaged peace just to win the election.
Insofar as the charges imply that Nixon prevented peace in November 1968, they are false.
Not that Nixon did not want to, or try so, but he did not have to.
Nixon did not need Mrs. Chennault to persuade Thieu to refuse to go to Paris. Thieu had no trouble figuring that one out for himself, as the Johnson people well knew. In an unsigned, undated memorandum in the LBJ Library in Austin, with no salutation or other indication as to who it was directed to, Clark Clifford wrote by hand: "Reason why Saigon has not moved and does not want to move [on peace talks]. A). Saigon does not want peace.
1 . Make better political settlement later. In no danger because of U.S. troops. No compulsion to help ARVN.
2. Wealth in country.
3. Personal corruption.
Clifford was absolutely right.
The Government of Vietnam (GVN) was a government without a country or a people. Its sole support was the U.S. government. Its sole raison d'etre was the war. For the GVN to agree to peace would be to sign its own death warrant. The 550,000 American soldiers in South Vietnam, plus the U.S. Navy off‑shore, plus the American Air Force stationed in Thailand, the Philippines, Guam, and elsewhere, meant exactly what Clifford said, that the GVN was "in no danger."
There was no need to improve the ARVN when the Americans insisted on doing all the fighting, anyway. The only wealth in the country, the only source of employment, was the U.S. Army and the American embassy. The personal corruption in the GVN was as bad as any in the world.
Under these conditions, why on earth should Thieu go to a peace table? He had everything to lose, nothing to gain.
And who created these conditions? Not Richard Nixon.
It is true that he had contributed, with his hawkish statements from 1954 right on through to 1968, but io did the Kennedy Administration and before that the Eisenhower Administration and after that the Johnson Administration. The GVN of 1968 was an all‑American creation.
The big lie in 1968 was that there was a way to peace through a coalition government, one that could be achieved in peace talks in Paris. That implied that the GVN really was a government that really did represent something more than itself and a handful of corrupt high‑ranking ARVN officers.
Nixon knew that Thieu would not got to Paris, with or without Mrs. Chennault whispering in his ear. Being Nixon, he worried, and could not keep himself from trying to influence Thieu through Chennault, so he was guilty in his motives and his actions, but he was not decisive. It was not Nixon who prevented an outbreak of peace in November, 1968. He merely exploited a situation he did not create.
He did so by mounting a calculated campaign to convince the American people that their President had sold out the people of South Vietnam, tried a tricky political deal and failed, capitulated to the Communists, deceived the GVN, and played politics with peace.
On his nation‑wide television broadcast on Election Eve, Nixon seized his final opportunity to drive home the point that the bombing halt was a political decision taken at the expense of American boys fighting in Vietnam. He said that at first Johnson's order had appeared to offer real hope, "but then the negotiations came apart at the seams. "
Nixon said he had heard "a very disturbing report" that in the past two days "the North Vietnamese are moving thousands of tons of supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and our bombers are not able to stop them."
He had heard no such report. He simply made that up.
The Democrats were monitoring the Nixon show. Humphrey was told about what Nixon had said. He immediately replied, telling his audience "there is no indication of increased infiltration." His aides had checked with the Pentagon, he said, and no one there had heard any such thing. "And let me say that it does not help the negotiations to falsely accuse anyone at this particular time." Of course, it also did not help the negotiations for the Democrats to pretend that serious peace talks were going to begin on Wednesday.
There was a remarkable similarity to the last days of the 1968 campaign and the last days of the 1972 campaign. In the first case, the Administration implied that peace was at hand. In the second case, the Administration said explicitly that peace was at hand. In each case, the President knew that the GVN had not agreed to the proposed peace formula, and that the North Vietnamese had not agreed to settle for something short of victory. In each case, in its quest for votes, the Administration treated the American people with cynical contempt.
In 1968 American politics had sunk to depths not reached since the Civil War and Reconstruction. America's political leaders, Johnson and Humphrey, Nixon and Agnew, and most of the others, were just playing with people. The image they conjure up for this author is one of Charley Chaplin, acting the mad dictator, kicking around the globe as if it were a balloon. If they had the slightest feeling for the death and destruction that was devouring Vietnam, if they had any concern for the lives of the American soldiers in Vietnam, if they had the least commitment to a decent respect for the opinion of mankind, if they had the vaguest concern to meet their Constitutional obligation to promote domestic tranquility, if it ever even occurred to them to strive to provide the conditions that would allow the American people to pursue happiness, they managed to ignore it all, in their single‑minded pursuit of personal political victory at any cost. It would take years, and many violent storms with hurricane‑force winds, to clear the air of the loathsome stench of the last week of the 1968 campaign.
Nixon won the election, and took office in January, 1969. A couple of months later, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched a major offensive in South Vietnam. Nixon responded by instituting a bombing campaign against the enemy supply line, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in Cambodia and Laos. This was done secretly. In public, once the bombers had stopped the offensive, Nixon announced his plan to end the war. He called it Vietnamization, and it was a plan to continue the war with American air and sea power, while leaving the ground fighting, and the heavy casualties, to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
Nixon said that his withdrawal policy would be based on the level of enemy action, the improvement in the ARVN, the progress In negotiations in Paris. That meant, in practice, that the withdrawal would be long and painful. Nixon was thus tempted to go for broke, and in the fall of 1969 began planning Operation DUCK HOOK. It was the hawk's dream ‑ an all‑out offensive, including a declaration of war against North Vietnam, an invasion and occupation of Hanoi, and atomic weapons along the Vietnamese‑Chinese border. Nixon set an "or‑else" deadline for Hanoi ‑ either leave South Vietnam by November 1, or get ready for all‑out war.
At the same time, the anti‑war activists were mounting their biggest action ever, a Moratorium in mid‑November. Nixon's advisors, led by Henry Kissinger, told the President he dared not escalate on the eve of the Moratorium; they feared DUCK HOOK would goad the anti‑war demonstrators into acts of pure desperation and might throw the country into something like anarchy.
Nixon talked to the British guerrilla warfare expert, Sir Robert Thompson, who had played a leading role in defeating Communist insurrection in Malaysa in the 1950s.
"What would you think if we decided to escalate?" Nixon asked.
Thompson was opposed. He thought it would cause a worldwide furor without enhancing South Vietnam's long‑term survival chances. Vietnamization, the improvement of the ARVN, was the right course. The analogy was Korea, where the improvement of the ROK forces, not a massive offensive against North Korea or a political settlement, had insured the survival of South Korea.
Vietnamization meant a continuation of American involvement in the war beyond Nixon's self-proclaimed target date on the end of 1970 or earlier. He asked Thompson if he thought it important for the United States "to see it through."
"Absolutely, "Thompson replied. "In my opinion the future of Western civilization is at stake in the way you handle yourselves in Vietnam."
That was bombast, pure and simple, but Nixon agreed with Thompson's apocalyptic view. He also accepted Thompson's judgment, and Kissinger's recommendation, about DUCK HOOK. He felt that "the Moratorium had undercut the credibility of the ultimatum."
Put cynically, after having proclaimed that he would not let policy be made in the streets, Nixon let policy be made in the streets. Put positively, he had repressed his instinct to smash the enemy to choose a more moderate course with better long‑term prospects. Put objectively, he had recognized that even though he was Commander in Chief of the world's most powerful armed forces, there were definite limits on his power.
Almost twenty years later, in April of 1988, Nixon said on "Meet the Press" that his decision against DUCK HOOK was the worst of his Presidency. He said that if he had implemented the offensive, he could have had peace in 1969. He did not explain why he thought so, or how that could have happened.
After deciding to let his November I deadline come and go without action, Nixon escalated the rhetoric.
On November 3, 1969, he made the most famous speech of his Presidency, concluding: "And so tonight ‑ to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans ‑ I ask for your support . . .
"Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”
"Very few speeches actually influence the course of history," Nixon wrote in his memoirs. "The November 3 speech was one of them."
That was nonsense. Had Nixon announced DUCK HOOK, or had he announced a complete withdrawal by the end of the year, along with a unilateral ceasefire, the speech might have changed the course of history. But by announcing that he was going to continue doing what he had been doing for nine months, all Nixon did was to divide the nation more deeply than ever. It was true that in the process he showed, at least temporarily, that support for his policies was greater than most people imagined.
Media criticism meanwhile, continued. which infuriated Nixon and his supporters. He wrote a note to himself, saying that he had surprised the press, and defeated the reporters, which delighted him.
It was almost as if the media, not Hanoi, was the enemy. He wrote, "The RN policy is to talk softly and to carry a big stick. That was the theme of November 3." Actually, the opposite was more nearly true; he had let the ultimatum deadline come and go without action, while he inflated the rhetoric. And for Nixon to say that the survival of peace and freedom in the world depended on whether the American people supported him in his policy of keeping Thieu in power was simply ridiculous.
In his "silent majority" speech, Nixon had not set out to win support, but to show that it was there; he did not aim to convince, but to clobber the opposition; he was not attempting to reach out, to bring people together, but to 'isolate his domestic opposition. It worked, temporarily.
That same week, Nixon wrote a sentence that. 'in a real sense, summed up all the agony and pain and frustration and difficulty of the situation he found himself in with regard to Vietnam; "We simply cannot tell the mothers of our casualties and the soldiers who have spent part of their lives in Vietnam that it was all to no purpose."
There is power and truth and a beautiful simplicity in that sentence. But it poses this problem: could Nixon supply a purpose and justify the sacrifices that had been made by sending more boys over, by continuing the war, even after he had decided it would not be won'?
In the Spring of 1970, Nixon launched the invasion of Cambodia. In announcing this action, Nixon grossly exaggerated, making it sound as if he were Ike on D‑Day, or Caesar at the Rubicon. In fact, it was a rearguard action designed to buy time for the long‑drawn‑out retreat. But it set off such a storm of protest, culminating at Kent State, that Nixon had to go back on TV to promise that he would have all American troops out of Cambodia within three weeks. That made the hawks furious, and illustrates nicely what an impossible position Nixon had put himself in with his policy of fighting a war while retreating from it without attempting to win it but refusing to admit that his country had lost it.
In the Spring of 1971, Nixon launched an invasion of Laos, this one without American ground troops but with American air cover. It was a spectacular failure. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force continued to pound Laos, Cambodia, and increasingly, North Vietnam.
In the Spring of 1972, however, the NVA had recovered sufficiently from the set‑back of 1969 to begin its own offensive. It was a go‑for‑broke attack that came close to success. Massive American bombing missions just did manage to stop the communist offensive. Nixon, furious with the North Vietnamese, extended the bombing to Hanoi itself, and mined the harbor at Haiphong.
Simultaneously, he launched detente, capped by a trip to Peking and another to Moscow. In so doing, he had put himself in the damnedest position. The original rationale for the war was to stop Chinese expansion‑, now, while the killing went on in Vietnam, Nixon was exchanging toasts with Mao in Peking and with Brezhnev in Moscow, arranging for trade missions, signing arms agreements, and trying to bribe the Chinese and Russians into withdrawing, their support from Hanoi.
Under the pressure of the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong, and the pressure from their Communist backers to compromise, the North Vietnamese agreed to serious negotiations in the summer of 1972. These negotiations ran up against the American Presidential election date. Once again, the questions of peace talks and negotiations "in Vietnam would be a major factor in the American election.
The North Vietnamese were willing to cut a deal. which, reduced to its essentials, was this: in return for a complete withdrawal of all American armed forces, Hanoi would give back the American POWs. The NVA would stay in South Vietnam (about 150,000 strong). There would be a National Council of Reconciliation to supervise new nationwide elections; its membership would be one‑half Communist.
These terms amounted to capitulation by the Americans. Nixon himself had so characterized them, when the North Vietnamese first offered them in 1969. In late October of 1972, however, Nixon said they represented a "complete victory for the United States."
Unfortunately for Nixon, and for his chief negotiator, Henry Kissinger, President Thieu did not agree. Thieu, who had been so helpful in 1968, proved in 1972 to be exceedingly difficult. Kissinger was beside himself. Having achieved so much, in his own view, he was being undercut by the very people he had saved. He compared the Vietnamese, North and South, to tigers balanced on stools in a cage with himself as the animal trainer, cracking the whip to force them to go through the paces. "When one is in place, the other jumps off."
To Nixon, Kissinger said he was caught in a paradoxical situation "in which North Vietnam. which had in effect lost the war, was acting as if it had won, while South Vietnam, which had effectively won the war, was acting as if it had lost.
Had Thieu seen that message, he would have exploded in laughter or broken down into tears. How could Kissinger say such a thing'? The accord gave the NVA the right to keep its troops in South Vietnam and the Communists the right to play a role in the political life of his country, because no matter how brilliantly Kissinger defended his National Council proposal, he could not cover the truth ‑ it meant a coalition government with Communist participation. Meanwhile, the Americans would be leaving.
Nixon began to realize that he had been premature in calling the agreement complete, and the doubts that he had had all along about the wisdom of settling before the election began to strengthen. Three developments reinforced those doubts.
First. General Alexander Haig told the President that the Communists were on the move militarily seizing as much territory around Saigon as they could before the agreement was signed.
Second, Nixon was under pressure from the right wing in the United States. National Review, William F. Bucklev's magazine. warned that “a settlement must not be a cover for a coalition government. and must include a public pledge to continue all‑out military aid to South Vietnam. Third, General Westmoreland told Nixon he was opposed to the agreement. Although Westmoreland had recently completed his four‑year tour as Army Chief of Staff and retired on October 20 Nixon called him to the White House for consultation.
When the President finished briefing the General on the proposed settlement, Westmoreland urged him "to delay action on the new agreement and to hold out for better terms. " He believed that more bombing of Hanoi and continued mining of Haiphong would force the Communists to make "meaningful concessions." He emphasized that it was "vital" that North Vietnamese troops be compelled to withdraw from South Vietnam. As to the National Council of Reconciliation, Westmoreland thought it was ‑impractical, almost absurd, nothing more than a facade. "
Westmoreland was not the only high‑ranking officer to oppose the agreement. The American military had fought long and hard in South Vietnam, under severe restrictions and at the cost of many a reputation. To a number of senior officers, the idea that the politicians were ready to make deals that they, like Thieu, believed would all but certainly lead to the eventual collapse of the Saigon government, was galling. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt made a bitter comment: "There are at least two words no one can use to characterize the outcome of that two‑faced policy. One is 'peace.' The other is 'honor. ' "
So even as he put pressure on Thieu to accept, even as he encouraged Kissinger to push the settlement, Nixon was drawn increasingly to the option Westmoreland had recommended, especially when Haig joined in. Haig said that after the election Nixon would be armed with a mandate that he could use to force concessions from Hanoi, because he would "be less constrained." Nixon noted in his diary, "Immediately after the election we will have an enormous mandate . . . and the enemy then either has to settle or face the consequences of what we could do to them. "
But it was Thieu who refused to settle, not Hanoi. Kissinger's manipulations, and Nixon's policies, had put Nixon into a potentially embarrassing position. If Hanoi went public at this point, the negotiating record would show that the Communists had agreed to everything Nixon had required, and prove that Saigon, not Hanoi, was blocking peace. The tall was wagging the dog. Thicu had a veto power that he was determined to use. But if he used it, Nixon knew that the doves would stir up American public opinion against Saigon. The 93rd Congress would refuse to give the President any funds to continue the war. Hanoi would then win everything. All the sacrifices would have been in vain. Instead of peace with honor, there would be defeat with humiliation.
So what did the President want'? A settlement, or a chance to bomb Hanoi into further concessions'? Did he want Thieu to accept the Kissinger deal, or reject it'? It is impossible to say, because he did not know himself. In any case, he had put himself into a position in which it was no lon(Yer his decision to make. After all those lives sacrificed, all those bombs, all that money spent, all that effort, the United States had lost control of events. It was up to the Vietnamese, North and South, to settle their war.
A week before the election, Hanoi went public. The Communists announced that they were ready to sign an agreement that Kissinger had accepted, but Thieu refused to go along.
To undercut the Communist propaganda, Kissinger then held a news conference. His purpose was "to undercut the North Vietnamese propaganda maneuver and to make sure that our version of the agreement was the one that had greater public impact. "
Kissinger had given hundreds of backgrounders by this time, and held dozens of on‑the‑record press conferences, but he had never before appeared live on television, because the White House press people were convinced that his heavy German accent would not play well in Middle America. But this occasion was so important that the decision was to go live.
The Briefing Room was jammed with reporters, confused and skeptical. Kissinger, calm and professional, appeared confident.
In his opening remarks, he declared. "We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is within sight based on the May 8th proposal of the President which is just to all parties." Only minor details remained before the settlement was signed.
The phrase "peace is at hand" made banner headlines around the world. An enormous wave of relief swept over the country, tempered by skepticism from those who had gotten their hopes so high before, exactly four years earlier, when Johnson announced the bombing halt, only to have those hopes dashed. Still. overall, Kissinger's announcement created euphoria similar to that following, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's post‑Munich conference claim to have achieved "peace in our time.
Inside the White House, however, there was more anger than euphoria. Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, among others, felt that Kissinger was forcing his way into the center in an election that was already won. He had violated a cardinal rule, calling attention to himself and distracting it from Nixon. They suspected, rightly, that Kissinger had been saying in his private briefings that Nixon could not have achieved the breakthrough, that Kissinger had indicated that Nixon was so belligerent that he had failed to pick up the nuances of Le Due Tho's position, that he had even accused Nixon of slowness of thought. Only Kissinger had the subtlety of mind to discern the changes in Hanoi's attitude. And if Kissinger had actually concluded an agreement, Haldeman and Ehrlichman wondered, where was it'?
All the brilliance in the world, all the good PR nothwithstanding, could not disguise Kissinger's duplicity. He had described as a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough what was in fact a diplomatic failure. In the process, he had put his boss into a highly vulnerable position, not necessarily for the election, but afterwards.
President Thieu made this clear on October 27, when he declared that South Vietnam would not be bound by any peace agreement that he did not sign. He repeated his demands, that North Vietnam withdraw its troops from the South and that Hanoi recognize South Vietnam as a sovereign nation without Communist participation in the government. He rejected the National Council out of hand.
Nixon was in a bind. He could not fire the popular Kissinger, or repudiate the agreement that he himself had called "complete." The President struggled to extract himself from a bad situation. On October 29 he stressed that he had achieved "peace with honor ‑ nor surrender ‑ not begging." He spoke of the "historic year of 1972," in which he had given the world ''a chance for peace for a generation.”)
That same day, he put pressure on Thieu. In a letter to the South Vietnamese President, Nixon defended the National Council idea, calling it "a face‑saving device for the communists to cover their collapse on their demands for a coalition government and your resignation.‑ He added a warning, "If the evident drift towards disagreement between the two of us continues . . . the essential base for U.S. support for you and your Government will be destroyed. In this respect the comments of your Foreign Minister that the U.S. is negotiating a surrender are as damaging as they are unfair and improper. "
There was irony here: exactly four years earlier, Nixon had urged Thieu not to go to Paris for negotiations with the North Vietnamese, now he was trying to force Thieu to go to Paris to accept a settlement. But Thieu would not cooperate. As a result, a backlash, similar to the one that had hit Humphrey in 1968 began to appear possible. As the details of the agreement began to sink in, Democratic nominee McGovern and others joined Senator Eugene McCarthy in demanding to know what had been gained that could not have been achieved four years earlier. McGovern's aides were cheering up at news that polls were indicating people had doubts as to how close peace really was. Mary McGrory wrote in the Washington Star that there was a "bewildering adverse reaction [to "peace is at hand"]. Canvassers reported even among the Silent Majority, there was indignation about the timing."
Nixon did what he did best. He counter‑attacked. On November 2, in his first televised political broadcast of the campaign, he said he was determined that "the central points be clearly settled, so that there will be no misunderstanding, which could lead to a breakdown of the settlement and a resumption of the war.
"We are going to sign the agreement when the agreement is right, not one day before ‑ and when the agreement is right, we are going to sign without one day's delay."
The next day, in Rhode Island, Nixon again defended the settlement. He said ‑we have made a breakthrough in the negotiations which will lead to peace.
Nixon's speech was a tour de force. His explanation was satisfactory to a majority of the American people and rescued him from the potential trap Kissinger had created. He had solved his political problem.
And he won the election. But Thieu still would not sign so Nixon undertook a new offensive. In order to get Saigon to do his will, he started bombing Hanoi, in a massive offensive unprecedented in the history of warfare. It did not cause Hanoi to crumble, but it did convince Thieu that Nixon would stand behind him, so in January the agreement that had been worked Out three months earlier was finally signed. Nixon had finally achieved peace.
In the process, however, he had left a terrible taste in the mouths of many Americans. He had promised (or at least Kissinger had promised) that peace was at hand. As Haldeman and Ehrlichman knew, the promise was not necessary to win the election, but it was made, and when the next move was not peace but the Christmas bombing, people felt betrayed.
It was that sense of betrayal, so widely shared, that gave the Democrats the courage to go after Nixon with the opening gavel of the 93rd Congress in January of 1973. He had just won with 60% of the vote, but the Democrats figured ‑ correctly, as it turned out ‑ that they could drive him from office.
Usually, when bad things happened to Nixon, he had no one to blame but himself. In this case, however, when the ultimate catastrophe hit him, he could quite properly blame Henry Kissinger and President Thieu.
Two final points need to be made about Nixon and Vietnam. First, he was by no means a free agent. His policies did not reflect his best judgment about what should be done. His options were increasingly limited by the ever‑growing strength of the doves.
especially in Congress. Ironically, his success in driving the anti‑war demonstrators off the streets attributed to this growth, by making the dove controversial cause respectable. The result was that the 93rd Congress was not going to let him have one penny to carry on the war. He had to make peace before January 1973, or face the impossible situation of trying to carry on the war without funds.
Second, nearly all the names on the left‑hand side of the Vietnam Wall in Washington commemorate men who died in action while Richard Nixon was their Commander in Chief, and they died after he had decided that the war could not be won.