Military history

6. Exit: 1969–73

Use of mustard gas in World War I had to be abandoned because it had an erratic tendency to blow back on the user. The war in Vietnam in its final period turned back upon the United States, deepening disesteem and distrust of government and, in reverse, breeding a hostility in government toward the people that was to have serious consequences. Although the lesson of Lyndon Johnson was plain, the legacy of folly gripped his successor. No better able to make the enemy come to terms acceptable to the United States, the new Administration, like the old, could find no other way than to resort to military coercion, with the result that a war already rejected by a large portion of the American people was prolonged, with all its potential for domestic damage, throughout another presidential term.

Johnson’s last year in office, despite the bombing halt and Hanoi’s agreement to talk, had brought the war no nearer to an end. Meetings were talks about where to hold the talks, about protocol, about participation by South Vietnam and the NLF, about seating and even the shape of the table. Keeping to their original demand for “unconditional cessation” of bombing as a pre-condition for negotiations, the North Vietnamese would not move from procedure to substance. The United States, while maintaining the bombing halt north of the 20th parallel, tripled its air strikes against infiltration routes below the line and kept search-and-destroy missions at maximum pressure in the effort to improve Saigon’s position for a settlement. Two hundred Americans a week were killed in these combats, and the total number of Americans killed in action in 1968 reached 14,000.

The year flared into violence and hatred at home, marked by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the riots following King’s death, the anarchy and vandalism of student radicals, the vicious reaction and police savagery of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Domestic intelligence agencies expanded activity against possible subversives, opening private mail, employing agents provocateurs, compiling dossiers on citizens who through some suspect association might be considered dangers to the state.

For the sake of progress in the Vietnam talks, the American delegates, Ambassador Harriman and Cyrus Vance, urged the President to declare a total bombing halt. Johnson refused without reciprocity by Hanoi in reducing military activity, which Hanoi in turn refused unless the bombing ceased first. At the desperate pleas of his party as election approached, Johnson declared a total bombing halt on 1 November, but progress was then frustrated by President Thieu of South Vietnam, who, expecting greater support from a Republican victory in the United States, balked, refusing to participate in the talks. When at last substantive negotiations began in January 1969, a new team under President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, was in command.

In words reminiscent of Eisenhower’s electoral pledge to “go to Korea” to end an unpopular war, Nixon in his campaign for the presidency assured voters, “We will end this one and win the peace.” He did not say how, justifying reticence on the ground that he was not going to say anything that could upset Johnson’s negotiations in Paris and not “take any position that I will be bound by at a later point.” But by stressing the theme “End the war and win the peace,” he managed to give the impression that he had a plan. He appeared to take a realistic view. “If the war goes on six months after I become President,” he privately told a journalist, “it will be my war,” and he said he was determined not to “end up like LBJ, holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face in the street. I’m going to stop that war—fast.” If this determination was genuine, it indicated common sense, a faculty that has a hard time surviving in high office. Once Nixon was installed in the presidency, the promised process of stopping the war was stood on its head to become one of prolonging it. The new President was discovered to be as unwilling as his predecessor to accept non-success of the war aim and as fixed in the belief that additional force could bring the enemy to terms.

Inheriting a bad situation that could bring them nothing but trouble, Nixon and Kissinger, whom the President had chosen to head the National Security Council, would have done well to consider their problem as if there were a sign pinned to the wall, “Do Not Repeat What Has Already Failed.” That might have suggested a glance back to Dien Bien Phu; a clear appraisal of the enemy’s stake and his will and capacity to fight for it; and a close look at the reasons for the consistent failure of all Johnson’s efforts to negotiate. Reflection thereafter might have led to the conclusion that to continue a war for the sake of consolidating a free-standing regime in South Vietnam was both vain and non-essential to American security, and that to try to gain by negotiation a result which the enemy was determined not to cede was a waste of time—short of willingness to apply unlimited force. Even if negotiation under military pressure could bring the desired result, it would contain no guarantee, as already pointed out by Reischauer in 1967, that ten or twenty years later “political rule over South Vietnam would not be more or less what it would have been if we had never got involved there.”

The logical course was to cut losses, forgo assurance of a viable non-Communist South Vietnam and leave without negotiating with the enemy except for a one-condition agreement buying back American prisoners of war in exchange for a pledged time limit on American withdrawal. Just such an option was in fact presented as the least militant in a range of several options proposed, at the request of the Administration, by specialists of the Rand Corporation; it was eliminated from the list by Kissinger and his military advisers before the proposals were presented to the President, but it would not have appealed to him if he had seen it. From being a fiction about the security of the United States, the point of the war had now been transformed into a test of the prestige and reputation of the United States—and, as he was bound to see it, of the President personally. Nixon too had no wish to preside over defeat.

He did have a plan and it did involve a radical reversal of Johnson’s course—up to a point. The intention was to dissolve domestic protest by ending the draft and bringing home American ground combat forces. This did not mean relinquishing the war aim. The American air war in Vietnam would be intensified and if necessary extended further against the North’s supply lines and bases in Cambodia. To compensate for American troop withdrawal, a program of vastly increased aid, arming, training and indoctrinating would enable South Vietnam’s forces to take over the war, with continued American air support. Known as “Vietnamization,” this effort was perhaps belated in what had always been supposed to be “their” war. The theory was that floods of matériel would somehow accomplish what had not been accomplished over the past 25 years—the creation of a motivated fighting force able to preserve a viable non-Communist state, at least for an “acceptable interval.”

Besides appeasing Americans, unilateral withdrawal of American troops was designed to demonstrate to Hanoi “that we were serious in seeking a diplomatic settlement” and thus encourage the enemy to negotiate acceptable terms. If, however, the North Vietnamese proved intractable, the punitive level of the bombing would be raised until, convinced of the impossibility of victory, they would be forced to give up or let the war simply fade away. To assist in persuading Hanoi, hints were conveyed through the Soviet Union that blockade and mining and more forceful action against supply lines and sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos were in prospect. As a gesture of intent, the first secret bombing of Cambodia took place in March 1969, when Nixon had been only two months in office; a second followed in April, and the raids became regular and frequent in May.

“Vietnamization” in effect amounted to enlarging and arming ARVN. Considering that arming, training and indoctrinating under American auspices had been pursued for fifteen years without spectacular results, the expectation that these would now enable ARVN successfully to take over the war could qualify as wooden-headedness. Recalling the conditions of 1970, an American sergeant who had been attached to a South Vietnamese unit said, “We had 50 percent AWOLs all the time and most of the [ARVN] company and platoon leaders were gone all the time.” The soldiers had no urge to fight under officers “who spent their time stealing and trafficking in drugs.”

The grander folly was to reverse the conduct of the war only halfway—that is, by taking out the Americans while maintaining the strategy of increasing punitive pressure from the air (or “negative reinforcement,” as it was called). Apart from its domestic purpose, disengagement on the ground would have made sense only if the objective it had been intended to achieve had been given up at the same time.

Withdrawal of combat troops is an unusual way to win a war, or even to force the way to a favorable settlement. Once started, it could not easily be halted and would, like escalation, build its own momentum and, as forces dwindled, become irreversible. Understandably bitter, the American military saw it as precluding success and, since they had small confidence in Vietnamization, making even a tenable settlement unlikely. It had become necessary because the idea that the war could be fought without arousing the public ire had proved an illusion. Nixon and Kissinger, for all their hard-headed calculations, were apparently victims of another illusion. They appear to have thought that American withdrawal from ground combat could be accomplished without weakening South Vietnam’s already infirm morale and without re-affirming the determination of the North. Of course it did both.

Reduction of effort does not signal to the enemy stern and determined intentions, but rather the reverse, as in the case of General Howe’s evacuation of Philadelphia. American colonists saw in that departure a trend that was drawing the British away, and knew they need make no terms with the Carlisle Peace Commission. Hanoi received the same message. When Nixon announced the withdrawal program in June 1969 and the first American contingent of 25,000 sailed for home in August, the North Vietnamese knew the contest would end in their favor. Whatever the cost, they had only to hold out. As if in recognition, Ho Chi Minh, after half a century’s struggle, died in September.

At home, Nixon’s plan failed to recognize that something more than distress at casualties was active in the dissent; that many people felt a sense of wrong in the war, a violation of the way they felt about their country; that although protest would subside for a while with the return of troops, the deeper feeling was a corollary of the war itself and would grow stronger with continued belligerence.

In its assured belief that the Americans, like the French, would lose the war at home, Hanoi remained intransigent. In anger and frustration, the United States turned to “negative reinforcement.” Plans for a “savage blow” or a “decisive blow” or the “November option,” as it was variously called, were drawn. Blockade would be established, harbors, rivers and coastal waters mined, dikes broken, Hanoi carpet-bombed. “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point,” Kissinger said in the course of the planning. He was correct in that everything has a breaking point; the test is the degree of force required. Faced by the objections of civilian analysts who argued that the proposed measures would not significantly reduce the North’s capacity to fight in the South, and by fear of awakening what Kissinger called the “dormant beast of public protest,” the November option was called off.

Frenzied Vietnamization was pursued with ARVN doubled in numbers and gorged with arms, ships, planes, helicopters, more than a million M-16 rifles, 40,000 grenade launchers, 2000 heavy mortars and howitzers. Even with 10,000 ARVN officers, pilots, mechanics and intelligence analysts sent abroad for training in advanced skills, it was late in the day. Through the process, a stronger hold was gained for a while in South Vietnam, mainly because the Viet-Cong had never recovered from their losses in the Tet offensive, but with 150,000 American troops scheduled to leave in 1970 and more to follow, it looked like a race between Vietnamization and the withdrawals.

Protest, far from dormant, did not fade. An organized Vietnam Moratorium Day to demand “peace now” was marked in October 1969 by demonstrations across the country, with 100,000 rallying on Boston Common to hear Senator Edward Kennedy call for withdrawal of all ground forces within a year and all air and support units within three years, by the end of 1972. A sign carried by a demonstrator in San Francisco read, “Lose the war in Vietnam—Bring the boys home.” In a planned reply to the Moratorium, the President appealed in a national address to the “silent majority” that he said supported him, promising to complete the withdrawals according to a scheduled though unspecified timetable, and to “end the war in a way we could win the peace.”

If there was a majority of the silent, it was mainly from indifference, whereas protest was active and vocal and unfortunately a focus for people Nixon, in an unguarded if justified response to campus bombings, called “bums.” A second Vietnam Moratorium Day, in November, mobilized 250,000 demonstrators in Washington. Watching from a balcony, Attorney-General John Mitchell, Nixon’s former law partner, thought “It looked like the Russian Revolution.” In that comment, the anti-war movement took its place in the eyes of the government, not as citizens’ rightful dissent against a policy that large numbers wanted their country to renounce, but as the malice and threat of subversion. It was this view that produced the “enemies list.”

Because the dissent was voiced by the press and shared by prominent figures of the establishment, Nixon perceived it as a conspiracy against his political existence by the “liberals” who he believed had “sought to destroy him since the Alger Hiss case.” Kissinger, disturbed and often angered, as his memoirs attest, regarded the protest as interference with the conduct of foreign affairs, a necessary nuisance of democracy that had to be endured but should not be allowed to influence a serious statesman. It did, not tell him anything, even when voiced by a delegation of colleagues from the Harvard faculty. It did not tell the President anything he thought worth listening to about the constituency in whose name he acted. Neither man heard anything valid in the dissent. Like the clamor for reform that assailed the ears of the Renaissance Popes, it conveyed no notice of an urgent need, in the rulers’ own interest, for a positive response.

Negotiations, whether in secret meetings between Kissinger and Hanoi’s emissary Le Duc Tho or in the four-party talks in Paris, could make no progress because each side still insisted on conditions unacceptable to the other. North Vietnam demanded the ouster of the Thieu-Ky government and its replacement by a nominal “coalition” to include the NLF. As this would amount to abandonment of its client, it was obviously rejected by the United States, which in turn demanded the withdrawal of all Northern forces from the Southern zone. As violating their right to be in any part of what they never ceased to consider one country, this was adamantly rejected by the North Vietnamese. Although their concept was the same as Abraham Lincoln’s insistence on the immutability of union, the Americans gave it no credit or else believed that Hanoi must be brought by force to give up.

“To end the war in a way we could win the peace,” that is, by preserving a non-Communist South Vietnam, was the ball and chain of American negotiations. It was equated with credibility, now called “peace with honor,” as endlessly asserted by Nixon and Kissinger. “Peace with honor” had become the “terrible encumbrance” of America in Vietnam. “Show the thing you contend for to be reason,” Burke had said, “show it to be common sense, show it to be the means of attaining some useful end, and then I am content to allow it what dignity you please.” Instead, what the United States was contending for was a “hopeless enterprise,” as Jean Sainteny, from his long French experience in Vietnam, told Henry Kissinger. If Kissinger had read more Burke than Talleyrand, the course of his policy might have been different.

The alternatives were either to batter North Vietnam into defeat by a degree of force the United States was unwilling to use, or else to relinquish American conditions, leaving South Vietnam, when sufficiently strengthened by Vietnamization, to defend itself and, as envisaged by Kissinger himself, “end our involvement without agreement with Hanoi.” The major obstacle was the American prisoners of war, whom Hanoi refused to surrender unless its conditions were met, but a promised deadline for withdrawal of all combat air and ground forces could have bought their release. This alternative, for the sake of a quick end and the health of the American nation, was feasible, and there were those who called for it. It was disallowed because of assumed damage to America’s reputation. That cutting losses and getting back to the proper business of the nation might have aided rather than harmed America’s reputation was not weighed in the balance of policy-making. As between battering and relinquishing, Nixon and Kissinger chose the so-far-sterile middle way of trying by graduated force to make “continuation of the war seem less attractive to Hanoi than a settlement.” That program had been around for years.

It now took the form of intensified bombing directed not at North Vietnam’s own territory but at its supply lines, bases and sanctuaries in Cambodia. The sorties were systematically falsified in military records for convoluted reasons having to do with Cambodia’s neutrality, but since an excuse was at hand in the fact of the enemy’s having long violated that neutrality, the secrecy probably had more to do with concealing extension of the war from the American public. Given the anti-war sentiments of the press and of many government officials, the supposition that the raids could be kept secret was one of the curious delusions of high office. A Pentagon correspondent of the New York Times picked up evidence and reported the strikes. Although the story excited no public attention, it started the process that was to make Cambodia Nixon’s nemesis. Enraged at what he believed were “leaks” on the secret bombing, he called in the FBI, which under Kissinger’s direction established the first of the wire-taps on a member of his own staff, Morton Halperin, who had access to classified reports. A long sequence that was to end in the first resignation of a President in the history of the Republic was begun.

Nixon’s secret operations were still in the dark, but in April 1970, furor erupted when American ground forces together with ARVN invaded Cambodia. To widen the war to another, nominally neutral, country when the cry in America was to reduce rather than extend belligerence was—like Rehoboam’s summoning the overseer of forced labor to quell the Israelites—the most provocative choice possible in the circumstances. An act perfectly designed to bring down trouble upon the perpetrator, it was the kind of folly to which governments seem irresistibly drawn as if pulled by a mischievous fate to make the gods laugh.

Military reasons for the invasion were seemingly cogent: to preempt an expected offensive by North Vietnam supposedly intended to gain control of Cambodia and place the enemy in a position of serious threat to South Vietnam during the period of American withdrawals; to buy time for Vietnamization; to cut off a major supply line from the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville; and to support a new and friendlier regime in Phnom Penh that had ousted the left-leaning Prince Sihanouk. Yet if it were in Nixon’s and America’s interest to end the war, wisdom in government could have counseled equally cogent reasons against the operation.

Nixon supposed that his previously announced schedule of withdrawing 150,000 troops in 1970 would cancel protest or, if “those liberal bastards” were going to make trouble anyway, that he might as well be hanged for a wolf as a sheep. He announced the campaign in a combative speech as a response to North Vietnamese “aggression,” with familiar references to not being a President who would preside over American defeat. An objective of the invasion was said to be destruction of an alleged enemy headquarters, or “nerve center,” labeled COSVN (Central Office of South Vietnam). Tactically the invasion succeeded in capturing significant quantities of North Vietnamese arms, destroying bunkers and sanctuaries, adding 200 to the body count and causing the enemy enough damage to set back the purported offensive by a year, even if the mysterious “nerve center” was never discovered, despite its majestic acronym. The overall result was negative: a weakened government in Phnom Penh left in need of protection, land and villages wrecked, a third of the population made homeless refugees, and the pro-Communist Khmer Rouge greatly augmented by recruits. The North Vietnamese soon returned to overrun large areas, arm and train the insurgents and lay the ground for the ultimate tragic suffering of another nation of Indochina.

Reaction in America to the invasion was explosive, antagonizing both political extremes, impassioning debate, kindling the hate of dissenters for the government and vice versa. While polls often showed spurts of support for Nixon’s more aggressive actions, anti-war sentiment was louder and the press outspokenly hostile. The New York Times called Nixon’s reasons for the invasion “Military Hallucination—Again” and affirmed that “Time and bitter experience have exhausted the credulity of the American people.” Revelation a few months previously of the Mylai massacre, in which American soldiers in a burst of crazy brutality had killed over 200 unarmed villagers, including old men, women and helpless crying children, had already horrified the public. The shock was greater when, following Cambodia, Americans killed Americans. On 4 May, at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard, called out by the Governor to contain what appeared to him dangerous campus violence, opened fire on the demonstrators, killing four students. The picture of the girl student kneeling in agonized unbelief over the body of a dead companion became a memorial more familiar than any picture since the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The war had indeed blown back upon America.

Protest blazed after Kent State. Student strikes, marches, bonfires caught up the campuses. An angry crowd of close to 100,000 massed in the park across from White House grounds, where a ring of sixty buses with police was drawn up like a wagon circle against Indians. At the Capitol, Vietnam veterans staged a rally marked by each man tossing away his medals. At the State Department, 250 staff members signed a statement of objection to the extended war. All this was denounced as aiding the enemy by encouraging them to hold out, which was true, and as unpatriotic, which was also true, for the saddest consequence was loss of a valuable feeling by the young, who laughed at patriotism.

Protest had its lunatic fringe in idiocy of rhetoric and in lawless destruction, and this outraged the righteous, not necessarily because they were hawks, but because they considered such actions an offense against respectability and law and order. The antagonism was epitomized in physical clash when construction workers in hard hats attacked a march of student protesters in Wall Street, beating them with whatever they had at hand for use as weapons. It reached a peak in October at San Jose, where Nixon came to speak in the mid-term election campaign of 1970. He was greeted by a mob screaming oaths and obscenities and, when he left the hall, throwing eggs and rocks, one just grazing him. It was the first mob assault on a President in American history. “We could see the hate in their faces … hear the hate in their voices,” he said afterward in a statement denouncing the rioters as “violent thugs” representative of “the worst in America.”

The clouds of criticism of his Cambodian action infuriated the President even before the San Jose incident and sharpened his always active sense of persecution. “A siege mentality” pervaded the White House, according to Charles Colson of the staff. “It was now ‘us’ against ‘them.’ ” The palace guard, according to another observer, “genuinely believed that a left-wing revolution was a distinct possibility.” The resort to secret surveillance of “enemies,” undercover methods of harassment and espionage, breaking and entering, wiretapping without warrants became a full-fledged operation. A White House staff member assigned to watch radical terrorist groups drew up a plan for unleashed police power and unauthorized entry as a tool of law enforcement. Signed by the President, the program existed as policy for five days until the FBI, perhaps jealous of its own prerogatives, advised its abandonment. The search for the source of leaks on the secret bombing expanded until it reached seventeen wire-taps on members of the National Security Council and on several newspapermen. As with the elusive COSVN, no leaks were discovered; the stories proved to be the ordinary enterprise of the press.

Right of dissent is an absolute of the American political system. The readiness to attempt its suppression by and on behalf of the Chief of State and to undertake and tolerate illegal procedures laid the lines to Watergate. With continued frustration in negotiations, and prolonging of the war into another year, these procedures increased and grew to excess on publication of the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. A collected record of mostly classified government documents originally authorized by McNamara in an effort to uncover the roots of American involvement, the Papers were purloined by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon official now an ideologue of anti-war convictions, and made available to the press and certain members of the House and Senate. Although the record did not go beyond 1968, the sensitivity to leaks of the Nixon-Kissinger team was extreme, especially so because they were working in secret to bring off the re-opening of relations with China and a summit meeting with Moscow and did not wish Washington to be regarded as incapable of confidential relations. A “plumbers” group to locate leaks was established in a basement office next door to the White House, and orders came “right out of the Oval Office” (according to later testimony) to get something on Ellsberg. The result was the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office with the object of framing him as a Soviet agent, an enterprise of doubtful utility for, if successful, it could well have spiked Nixon’s intensely desired summit with the Russians. Fortunately for their employer, the plumbers came away empty-handed, but no matter what they might have discovered about Ellsberg it could not in any case have discredited fourteen volumes of photocopied government documents. Folly at the top was clearly seeping down. Here too, in the absence of scruple against lawbreaking, the morality of the Renaissance Popes re-appears.

Signals of trouble were rising from Congress, which had been content so far to be hardly more than a spectator of the affair tormenting the nation. Congress, said a member, “is a body of followers not leaders.” Since it may be presumed to follow what it senses to be the trend of public opinion, its torpor is evidence that until Cambodia the silent majority probably was a majority. When Nixon’s first six months in office brought no cease-fire as his campaign had promised, the anti-war Senators, Mansfield, Kennedy, Gaylord Nelson, Charles Goodell and others, began to call publicly for measures to end the war. Invasion of Cambodia without Congressional authority galvanized efforts in the Senate to reassert the prerogatives vis-à-vis the Executive it had allowed to lapse in self-enfeeblement. One thing the Pentagon Papers had revealed was the conspicuous absence in any of the discussions or documents of concern about the share of Congress in determining defense and foreign policy. After the invasion of Cambodia was a fact, Nixon offered assurances to a selected group from both Houses that American troops would not penetrate deeper than 30 to 35 miles without Congressional approval being sought—he did not say obtained—and that all troops would be withdrawn within three to seven weeks.

Senators were not reassured. Amendments to appropriation bills, to cut off funds, to curb or put time limits on military involvement in one way or another, were introduced, approved in committee, debated by an aroused chamber and adopted by ample majorities. In each case, under the autocratic management of super-hawk committee chairmen of the lower House, they were emasculated or thrown out in conference or stifled by parliamentary tactics to cut off debate. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was finally repealed, but only when the Administration, outfoxing opponents, itself sponsored repeal on the ground that authority for war lay in the constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief. That ground was muddy—for was he in fact Commander-in-Chief without a declared state of war?—but the Supreme Court, confronted by several tests, walked carefully around it.

Nevertheless, anti-war votes in the lower House were rising. When 153 Representatives, the largest number so far, voted against tabling, that is killing, the Cooper-Church Amendment to cut off funds for operations in Cambodia after July, it was a rumble of revolt. In the following year the number rose to 177 in favor of the Mansfield Amendment, originally fixing a deadline of nine months (modified by the House to “as soon as possible”) for withdrawal, pending release of the POWs. Though small, the rise implied growing opposition, even the possible approach of that unimaginable moment when the Legislature might say “Stop” to the Executive.

In 1971, ARVN forces with American air support, although without American ground forces, invaded Laos in a repeat of the Cambodian operation. The cost of “Vietnamization” for ARVN proved to be a 50 percent casualty rate, with the added impression that they were now fighting and dying to permit Americans to depart. This was reinforced by Washington’s tendency to herald all operations as designed to “save American lives.” Anti-Americanism in Vietnam spread, and with it undercover cooperation with the NLF and open demands for a political compromise. Protest movements revived—this time against Thieu in place of Diem. Morale among the remaining American forces sank, with units avoiding or refusing combat, wide use of drugs, and—something new to the American Army—cases of “fragging,” or murder by hand grenade, of officers and NCOs.

At home, polls showed a majority beginning to emerge in favor of removal of all troops by the end of the year, even if the result were Communist control of South Vietnam. For the first time a majority agreed to the proposition that “It was morally wrong for the U.S. to be fighting in Vietnam,” and that getting involved in the first place was a “mistake.” The public is volatile, polls are ephemeral, and answers may respond to the language of the question. Immorality was discovered because, as Lord North said of his war, “111 success rendering it at length unpopular, the people began to cry out for peace.”

By 1972, the war had lasted longer than any foreign conflict in American history, and the six months Nixon had given himself had stretched out to three years, with 15,000 additional American casualties and the end not yet in sight.

All the Paris talks and Kissinger’s secret missions failed of result, essentially because the United States was trying to negotiate itself out of a war it could not win and look good at the same time. North Vietnam was equally to blame for the prolongation, but the stakes were not equal. It was their land and their future that for them were at stake. In March 1972, when most American combat forces had gone, North Vietnam mounted an offensive that was at last to propel the war to an end.

Launched across the DMZ, 120,000 North Vietnamese troops with Soviet tanks and field guns pierced ARVN defenses and advanced against the populated centers around Saigon. Unable to respond on the ground, the United States re-activated the first stage of the “savage blow” planned in 1969, sending the B-52S over the North for heavy attacks on fuel depots and transportation targets in Hanoi and Haiphong. Nixon announced the campaign as the “decisive military action to end the war.” A month later Kissinger offered a plan for a standstill cease-fire which for the first time omitted the requirement of Northern withdrawal from the South and which declared American readiness to withdraw all forces within four months after return of the prisoners. Political settlement was left open. The four-month deadline might have summoned in Hanoi the wisdom to accept, but having always refused to negotiate under bombing, they did so again.

With re-election on his mind, Nixon was enraged by the enemy’s recalcitrance and swore among associates that “The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” Against advice of a fearful domestic reaction and the risk that the Russians might cancel the Moscow summit scheduled in two weeks along with the signing of the painfully negotiated SALT agreement, he announced the second half of the “savage blow”—naval blockade and mining of Haiphong harbor and round-the-clock raids by the B-52s. Because of nervousness about damage to Soviet and other foreign shipping, resort to blockade and mining had long been avoided and were expected to arouse howls of censure at home. The White House staff, in its hopped-up state of nerves, believed the decision “could make or break the President” and spent over $8000 from election funds to elicit a flood of phony telegrams of approval and concocted advertisements in newspapers so that the White House could announce opinion running in support of the President. They might have spared themselves the exertion; while the press and articulate dissenters condemned the blockade, public opinion was not outraged but seemed rather to appreciate tough American action in the face of North Vietnamese intransigence.

Another incident of sharp practice came to light shortly afterward when five agents of CREEP (Committee to Re-elect the President), connected to the two chief plumbers (Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy) who had staged the Ellsberg raid, were caught in the act of rifling the files and bugging the phones of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office building. Ultimate revelations of what the presidency was engaged in at this time were not to become public knowledge until the trials of the five agents and the hearings of Senator Ervin’s special investigating committee in the following year. They were to uncover an accumulated tale of cover-up, blackmail, suborned testimony, hush money, espionage, sabotage, use of Federal powers for the harassment of “enemies,” and a program by some fifty hired operators to pervert and subvert the campaigns of Democratic candidates by “dirty tricks,” or what in the choice language of the White House crew was referred to as “ratfucking.” The final list of indictable crimes would include burglary, bribery, forgery, perjury, theft, conspiracy and obstructing justice, most of it over-reacting and, like the tape that was to bring down the edifice in ruins, self-inflicted.

Character again was fate. When worked on by the passions of Vietnam, Nixon’s character, and that of the associates he recruited, plunged his Administration into the stew that further soured respect for government. Disgrace of a ruler is no great matter in world history, but disgrace of government is traumatic, for government cannot function without respect. Washington suffered no physical sack like that which disrespect for the Papacy visited upon Rome, but the penalty has not been negligible.

While only the tip of the Watergate scandal so far showed, the explosion of combat in Vietnam brought results. Blockade combined with destruction of fuel and ammunition stores drastically reduced North Vietnam’s supplies. The Russians proved to be more concerned about detente with the United States than about Hanoi’s need. They welcomed Nixon in Moscow and advised their friends to come to terms. China too wanted to dampen the conflict. In the flush of re-opened relations recently brought off by Nixon and Kissinger, they were now interested in playing off the United States against Russia, which led Mao Tse-tung, during a visit by NLF leaders, to advise them to give up their insistence on the overthrow of Thieu, until now their sine qua non. “Do as I did,” he said. “I once made an accord with Chiang Kai-shek when it was necessary.” Persuaded that their day too would come, the NLF agreed.

The North too, suffering under the B-52s, was ready to yield the political condition. From the evidence of polls in the United States, where the Democratic candidate was floundering in the gaffes of an inept campaign, Hanoi realized that Nixon would be in command for the next four years and concluded that it could get better terms from him before the election. Negotiations were renewed, complicated compromises and intricate arrangements were hammered out to permit United States disengagement behind a facade of Thieu’s survival, and Kissinger was able to announce on 31 October, prematurely as it proved, that “Peace is at hand.”

Thieu refused absolutely to accept the draft treaty, which allowed 145,000 North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South and recognized the NLF as a participant in the future political solution under its newly assumed title of Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). Considering that to do otherwise would have been to acquiesce in his own demise, his position was not unnatural. At this juncture, Nixon was stunningly re-elected by the largest popular and electoral majority ever recorded, an extraordinary triumph for a President who not long afterward was driven to assure the American people that “I am not a crook.” The landslide was the result of many causes: the weakness and vacillations of his opponent, Senator McGovern, whose ill-chosen declaration that he would go “on his knees” to Hanoi and his proposal of a $1000 welfare give-away to every family repelled the voters; the success of the “dirty tricks,” which had destroyed a stronger candidate in the primaries; public relief in the expectation of peace at last; and perhaps in the background a reaction of middle America against the counterculture of long hair, hippies, drugs and radicals with all their implied threat to accepted values.

Invigorated by his mandate, Nixon exerted the strongest pressure on both sides, in Vietnam for a settlement. He assured Thieu in a letter that while his concern about the remaining presence of North Vietnamese forces in the South was understandable, “You have my absolute assurance that if Hanoi fails to abide by the, terms of this agreement, it is my intention to take swift and severe retaliatory action.” The intention was undoubtedly just that, for the Paris agreement had not undertaken to withdraw air power from carriers in nearby waters or from bases in Thailand and Taiwan. The Joint Chiefs were in fact directed to draw plans for possible retaliatory action, using air power from Thailand, and $1 billion worth of arms were ordered for delivery to Saigon. Thieu was also told that if he continued obdurate, the United States could make peace without him, which failed to move him. In re-opened secret negotiations with the North, Kissinger backed away from the agreed terms; he now asked for a token withdrawal of Northern troops from the South, lowered status for the NLF and other changes, accompanied by threats of renewed military coercion.

Re-confirmed in its belief in the perfidy of the United States, Hanoi refused to make the required adjustments. Freed of concern about public protest, Nixon responded with a ferocious blow, the notorious Christmas bombing, heaviest American action of the war. In twelve days of December the Air Force pounded North Vietnam with a greater tonnage of bombs than the total of the past three years, reducing areas of Hanoi and Haiphong to rubble, destroying Hanoi’s airport, factories and power plants. One effect blew back. Plane losses owed to North Vietnam’s strong concentration of SAM missile defenses cost America 95 to 100 new prisoners of war and the worrisome price of 15 heavy bombers (or 34, according to Hanoi). The purpose of the Christmas bombing was twofold: to bring about a sufficient weakening of North Vietnam to permit the survival of Saigon for long enough to allow the United States to be gone and, by this proof of America’s determination, to overcome Thieu’s resistance or else to provide the excuse to proceed without him. “We had walked the last mile with him,” according to a later explanation, “and as a consequence we could settle.”

The fierce attack so near the end darkened America’s reputation at home and abroad, enhancing its image of brutality: New members elected to Congress by the revised rules in Democratic primaries promised an approaching challenge, which took visible shape when the Democratic caucus of both Houses voted on 2 and 4 January for an “immediate” cease-fire and cut-off of all funds for military operations in any of the countries of Indochina, contingent only upon release of the POWs and safe withdrawal of American forces. Faced by the long-discounted possibility of revolt by Congress, and with Watergate disclosures rising in Judge John J. Sirica’s courtroom, the Administration proposed to call off the bombing if Hanoi would resume peace talks. Hanoi agreed; negotiations of desperation were resumed; a treaty was drawn and Thieu given an explicit ultimatum that unless he complied, the United States would terminate economic and military support and conclude the treaty without him.

In the final treaty, the two conditions for which North Vietnam and the United States had prolonged the war for four years—overthrow of Thieu’s regime on the one hand and removal of North Vietnam’s forces from the South on the other—were both abandoned; political status of the old Viet-Cong, now metamorphosed into the PRG, was acknowledged, though to spare Thieu’s feelings not explicitly; the DMZ or partition line, whose elimination Hanoi had demanded, was retained but—going back to Geneva—as a “provisional not a political or territorial boundary.” The unity of Vietnam was implicitly recognized in an article providing that “The reunification of Vietnam shall be carried out” by peaceful discussion among the parties, thereby relegating “external aggression” across an “international boundary”—America’s casus belli for so many years—to the dustbin of history.

Thieu gripped refusal with the rigor of death until the last hour of Nixon’s ultimatum, then gave way. Signed in Paris on 27 January 1973, the treaty left the situation on paper no different from the insecure settlement of Geneva nineteen years before. To the physical reality had since been added more than half a million deaths in North and South, hundreds of thousands of wounded and destitute, burned and crippled children, landless peasants, a ravaged land deforested and pitted with bomb craters and a people torn by mutual hatred. The procedures for eventual agreement by the two zones were generally recognized as unworkable and an early resort to force widely assumed. The viability of a non-Communist South Vietnam, for which America had wrecked Indochina and betrayed herself, inspired confidence in no one—unless in Nixon and Kissinger, who convinced themselves that the United States could still retrieve the situation if necessary. What was left standing by the treaty was a temporary screen behind which America, clutching a tattered “peace with honor,” could escape.

In the aftermath, as everyone knows, Hanoi overcame Saigon within two years. When Nixon had been destroyed by Watergate and Congress had finally gathered the votes to preclude, by cutting off funds, American re-intervention, North Vietnam launched a final offensive and the disheartened South failed to withstand the onslaught. For all that some units fought hard, ARVN as a national army, in the words of an American soldier, “was like a house without any foundation—the collapse came naturally.” The Communists established their rule over the whole of Vietnam, and similar results were accomplished in Cambodia. The new political order in Vietnam was approximately what it would have been if America had never intervened, except in being far more vengeful and cruel. Perhaps the greatest folly was Hanoi’s—to fight so steadfastly for thirty years for a cause that became a brutal tyranny when it was won.

Congressional refusal to allow the United States to re-intervene represented the functioning, not, as Kissinger lamented, “the breakdown of our democratic political process.” Rather than weakness of American will to see the task through, it was belated recognition of a process clearly contrary and damaging to self-interest, and the summoning of political responsibility to terminate it. It came too late, however, for the country to escape punishment. Human casualties are bearable when they are believed to have served a purpose; they are bitter when, as in this case, 45,000 killed and 300,000 wounded were sacrificed for nothing. Expenditures of about $20 billion annually for nearly a decade, amounting to a total of about $150 billion over and above what would have been the normal military budget, contorted the economy to a condition that has not since been righted.

More important than the physical effects was the lowered trust in and authority of government. Legislation by Congress in the post-Vietnam years was repeatedly directed to restricting the Executive in various kinds of conduct on the assumption that without such restrictions, it would act irregularly or illegitimately. The public too learned suspicion, and many would have felt their attitude expressed in two words by one of the White House staff, Gordon Strachan, who on being asked by the Ervin committee what advice he would give to other young people wishing to serve in government, answered, “Stay away.” For many, confidence in the righteousness of their country gave way to cynicism. Who since Vietnam would venture to say of America in simple belief that she was the “last best hope of earth”? What America lost in Vietnam was, to put it in one word, virtue.

The follies that produced this result begin with continuous over-reacting: in the invention of endangered “national security,” the invention of “vital interest,” the invention of a “commitment” which rapidly assumed a life of its own, casting a spell over the inventor. In this process the major mover was Dulles, who, by setting out to wreck the compromise of Geneva and install America as the keeper of one zone and relentless opponent of the other, was the begetter of all that followed. His zeal as a Savonarola of foreign policy mesmerized associates and successors into parroting “national security” and “vital interest,” not so much in belief as in lip service to the cold war, or as scare tactics to extract appropriations from Congress. As late as 1975, President Ford told Congress that unwillingness to vote aid for South Vietnam would undermine “credibility” as an ally, which is “essential to our national security.” Kissinger repeated the theme two months later, telling a press conference that if South Vietnam were allowed to go under it would represent “a fundamental threat over a period of time to the security of the United States.”

Over-reacting was present in the conjuring of specters, of falling dominoes, of visions of “ruin,” of yielding the Pacific and pulling back to San Francisco, of minor dragons like the invisible COSVN, and finally the paranoia of the Watergate White House. More serious, over-reacting led to the squandering of American power and resources in a grand folly of disproportion to the national interest involved. The absence of intelligent thought on this issue was astonishing for, as General Ridgway wrote in 1971, “it should not have taken great vision to perceive … that no truly vital United States interest was present … and that the commitment to a major effort was a monumental blunder.”

A second folly was illusion of omnipotence, cousin to the Popes’ illusion of invulnerability; a third was wooden-headedness and “cognitive dissonance”; a fourth was “working the levers” as a substitute for thinking.

In the illusion of omnipotence, American policy-makers took it for granted that on a given aim, especially in Asia, American will could be made to prevail. This assumption came from the can-do character of a self-created nation and from the sense of competence and superpower derived from World War II. If this was “arrogance of power,” in Senator Fulbright’s phrase, it was not so much the fatal hubris and overextension that defeated Athens and Napoleon, and in the 20th century Germany and Japan, as it was failure to understand that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques or even American goodwill. “Nation-building” was the most presumptuous of the illusions. Settlers of the North American continent had built a nation from Plymouth Rock to Valley Forge to the fulfilled frontier, yet failed to learn from their success that elsewhere, too, only the inhabitants can make the process work.

Wooden-headedness, the “Don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts” habit, is a universal folly never more conspicuous than at upper levels of Washington with respect to Vietnam. Its grossest fault was underestimation of North Vietnam’s commitment to its goal. Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations, and Washington could therefore ignore all the evidence of nationalist fervor and of the passion for independence which as early as 1945 Hanoi had declared “no human force can any longer restrain.” Washington could ignore General Leclerc’s prediction that conquest would take half a million men and “Even then it could not be done.” It could ignore the demonstration of élan and capacity that won victory over a French army with modern weapons at Dien Bien Phu, and all the continuing evidence thereafter.

American refusal to take the enemy’s grim will and capacity into account has been explained by those responsible on the ground of ignorance of Vietnam’s history, traditions and national character: there were “no experts available,” in the words of one high-ranking official. But the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina. Attentive consultation with French administrators whose official lives had been spent in Vietnam would have made up for the lack of American expertise. Even superficial American acquaintance with the area, when it began to supply reports, provided creditable information. Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a “fourth-rate” Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.

Underestimation was matched by overestimation of South Vietnam because it was the beneficiary of American assistance, and because Washington verbiage equated any non-Communist group with the “free” nations, fostering the delusion that its people were prepared to fight for their “freedom” with the will and energy that freedom is supposed to inspire. Such was the stated anchor of our policy; dissonant evidence had to be rejected or it would have made it obvious that this policy was built on sand. When dissonance disturbed attitudes toward either enemy or client, the attitudes, following the rules of wooden-headedness, rigidified.

A last folly was the absence of reflective thought about the nature of what we were doing, about effectiveness in relation to the object sought, about balance of possible gain as against loss and against harm both to the ally and to the United States. Absence of intelligent thinking in rulership is another of the universals, and raises the question whether in modern states there is something about political and bureaucractic life that subdues the functioning of intellect in favor of “working the levers” without regard to rational expectations. This would seem to be an ongoing prospect.

The longest war had come to an end. Faintly from a distance of 200 years might have been heard Chatham’s summary of a nation’s self-betrayal: “by the arts of imposition, by its own credulity, through the means of false hope, false pride and promised advantages of the most romantic and improbable nature.” A contemporary summing up was voiced by a Congressman from Michigan, Donald Riegle. In talking to a couple from his constituency who had lost a son in Vietnam, he faced the stark recognition that he could find no words to justify the boy’s death. “There was no way I could say that what had happened was in their interest or in the national interest or in anyone’s interest.”

* Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Theater Commander, reported on 2 October 1945 to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that the only way he could avoid involving British/Indian forces was “to continue using the Japanese for maintaining law and order and this means I can not begin to disarm them for another three months.”

* Radford had in mind, it has been said, provoking a Chinese military response in order to precipitate a war with the United States before China was strong enough to threaten American security. His suggested use of A-weapons in Indochina was submitted orally by the Admiral’s assistant to General Douglas MacArthur, then acting as Counselor to the Defense Department, who firmly discouraged the idea. “If we approached the French,” he wrote to Dulles, “the story would certainly leak … and cause a great hue and cry throughout the parliaments of the free world,” particularly among the NATO allies, especially Britain. America would then be pressured to give assurances that she would not use A-weapons in the future without consultation. Furthermore, Soviet propaganda would portray “our desire to use such weapons in Indochina as proof of the fact we were testing out weapons on native peoples.” According to an attached note by one of Dulles’ staff, “Sec did not want to raise this now with Adm. R—and the latter I gather did not raise it with Sec.”

* Previously cited in two scholarly works (see Reference Notes), this statement, which Mr. McNamara does not recall, has defied all efforts to trace it to a documented primary source. It is included here because the ring is authentic and the implications serious, then and now.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!