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From the City of Lies


Mr. Nixon, who has his nightmares while he is wide awake, cannot sleep at four o’clock the morning of Saturday, May 9; telephones and arouses Helen Thomas, the United Press’s White House correspondent, to talk about her predecessor, who committed suicide a month ago; leaves her at last in peace to lurch off to the Lincoln Memorial and a conversation with the young waiting, as he puts it, “to shout your slogans in the Ellipse.”

Joan Polletier, a Syracuse University student, remembers the encounter: “Here we come from a university that’s completely uptight, on strike, and, when we told him where we are from, he talked about the football team, and when someone said he was from California, he talked about surfing.” (The New York Times, May 10.)

What was it he had said to the Negro trooper in Vietnam? Something to the effect that “I guess you miss those collard greens.”

Memories keep intruding like uneasy ghosts—memories of Six Crises,1 that curious confession which Mr. Nixon disguised as a memoir of prideful occasions and which went largely unattended in 1962 because then he had little place in history except as a national disaster that no one thought could ever happen.

When a man has been through even a minor crisis,” Mr. Nixon reflected then, “he learns not to worry when his muscles tense up, his breathing comes faster, his nerves tingle, his stomach churns, his temper becomes short, his nights are sleepless. He recognizes such symptoms as the natural and healthy signs that his system is keyed up for battle. Far from worrying when this happens, he should worry when it does not.”

There had been the moment, during the pursuit of Alger Hiss, when he “…began to notice the inevitable symptoms of tension. I was ‘mean’ to live with at home and with my friends. I was quick-tempered with members of my staff. I lost interest in eating and skipped meals without even being aware of it. Getting to sleep became more and more difficult.

I suppose that some might say I was ‘nervous,’ but I knew these were simply the evidences of preparing for battle. There is, of course, a fine line to be observed. One must always be keyed up for battle but he must not be jittery. He is jittery only when he worries about the natural symptoms of stress.”

So Mr. Nixon is most confident about himself when there stir in his interior those symptoms which can only alarm every sober person around him.

We are ruled then by a night mind of this sort. Its exegesis and explanation to the concerned are a major chore of Henry Kissinger, Mr. Nixon’s assistant for National Security Affairs. Kissinger is supposed to have said recently that every war has its casualties and that he is resigned to being a casualty of this one; but he seems to bear his martyrdom with marked equanimity. The day after Mr. Nixon moved into Cambodia, Kissinger made his contribution to the public calm by lunching for two hours at the Sans Souci. It is natural that the journalists cling to him; he is a symbol of that continuity of our national policies, according to which the same advisers counsel an infinite variety of Presidents.

Kissinger’s background briefings are instruments to support—if not often to comport with—Mr. Nixon’s public speeches. His system seems to be to offer persons discontented with the public explanation the semiprivate alternative of its direct opposite. On April 30 we had Mr. Nixon presenting an enemy “concentrating his main forces in these sanctuaries where they are building up to launch massive attacks” on our troops in South Vietnam. The next day, Kissinger could describe this same enemy as one who, far from threatening South Vietnam, was actually “debouching” westward—which ought to suggest that he had fewer troops in this area of massive build-up than he had had two weeks before.

Tonight,” Mr. Nixon had said, “American and South Vietnamese troops will attack the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam.”

The next day, Kissinger had to answer the questions of journalists who wondered whether Hanoi might be aroused to reprisal by any such slash at its jugular. His reply, tailored to cover such alarms, did not remotely fit Mr. Nixon’s immediately previous image of North Vietnam’s “intransigence and belligerence.” Instead he reminded his questioners of Hanoi’s fidelity to our understanding that its troops will not cross the demilitarized zone, which “is, in fact, the only ground sanctuary from which they can threaten our forces in Vietnam.”

The other monument to Kissinger’s flexibility of response has been his establishment of a designation for the Cambodian venture, which is not an “invasion” but a “technical incursion.” This term became immediately popular with those few persons with whom the enterprise was popular. Senator Tower of Texas, for example, took at once to describing it as this “incursion,” dropping Kissinger’s modifier. It is curious that these two academicians should each have thought that this substitute would elevate the tone of the affair, “incursion” being a word rather more pejorative than “invasion,” inescapably echoing the burglary statutes as it does. Higher civilizations invade while barbarians incur. The New Webster definition of “incursion” is: “a running in, into, or against; hence a hostile entrance into a territory; a sudden invasion; raid, inroad.” Dictionary instances of its usage run to expressions of outrage or contempt for the sort of creatures who do such things: the New Webster’s example is a sentence of Justice Cardozo’s from a tort opinion involving an incursion of pigs; the Shorter Oxford’s is from Milton (“Against the Scythian, whose incursions wild / Have wasted Sogdiana…”).

This is territory which is technically inside Cambodia, completely occupied by North Vietnamese forces, containing very little Cambodian population if any

—Henry Kissinger, April 302

On May 5, Mr. Nixon proclaimed Mother’s Day (“in special recognition of the high esteem in which this nation holds mothers”) and on May 6, Congressman Saylor of Pennsylvania occupied the moment of exhaustion in the arms budget debate to inform the House that “this is National Goodwill Week.” In Cambodia, the messengers of this spirit found their progress incommoded by desperate clusters of lost civilians; and the reporters, whose performance in this war may be the only proud memory Americans can ever draw from it, were remorselessly transmitting accounts of infants napalmed or buried in the tracks of tanks, and of their liberators—some who paused for moments to apologize and others for minutes to loot: the soldiers of the richest country on earth were stealing shoes from the women of one of the poorest.

Kissinger is not a man to be exempted from all suspicion of lying; still who would lie about a matter where his exposure had inevitably to be so quick and so degrading? In that case, Kissinger must only have been retailing in good faith what the most refined intelligence sources had permitted him to believe. The ultimate secret of our armed services is the conduct of their war against women; it is a portal from which advance notice is barred even to the President’s National Security Adviser.

Last October, Senator Symington had before him Colonel Robert L. F. Tyrell, our Air Attaché in Vientiane. Colonel Tyrell was describing the system of armed reconnaissance (“armed recce”), which enables American planes to study hostile troops in Laos with the assistance of scientific detection devices like “500-pound, 750-pound general purpose bombs, CBU, rockets.”

Senator Symington: You say the operation constitutes armed recce—how do you know a certain moving vehicle is not full of school children instead of soldiers, when you use napalm?

Colonel Tyrell: Well I think the only way I can answer that is based on all source intelligence that we will not have school buses in certain segments of certain roads that are used.

Senator Symington: Forget about a school bus per se. It might be a native with a couple of kids…

Colonel Tyrell: I understand what you mean. I think in areas that have been approved for armed recce it would be highly unlikely that you would find that.

Senator Symington: I agree, but it would be possible, would it not?

Colonel Tyrell: I would not deny that it would not be impossible.

On May 7, Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, commenced his hearings on the causes and conditions of the sufferings of civilians in Laos. As is a necessity with guerrillas, he had to stock his effort with what materials he could obtain from the enemy; so he began with the written answers of Secretary of State Rogers to his inquiries on the subject. Before its public release, Secretary Rogers’s response had to be “sanitized” for security reasons. The military purposes of sanitization are suggested by what had to be excised from the Secretary’s reply to questions about the evacuation of refugees from the war zones:

Question: What are the justifications and objectives of these evacuations?

Secretary Rogers: [DELETED].

Question: What is the current number of refugees in Laos?

Secretary Rogers: [DELETED].

These considerations of the dangers to our safety in the publication of details did not, of course, inhibit the State Department from commenting generally in tones insistently tendentious. Secretary Rogers found a number of causes for casualties among civilians and for their flight from the war zones: “Civilians become involved when Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forcibly detain villagers in an area to provide them with a shield and logistical support…. Most Lao citizens learn very quickly that bombing necessarily follows the North Vietnamese. But they also know that life under the North Vietnamese is difficult in any event. It is therefore not surprising that the Lao move to Government areas to avoid the Vietnamese.”

Secretary Rogers could scarcely concede that an American presence might endanger civilians; intimations of even the faintest peril, where they are suggested at all, are made the responsibility of the Royal Laotian Government:

Instructions have been issued to American personnel in Laos in their liaison with RLG and other officials to attempt to ensure that RLG forces exercise every precaution to protect the civilian population. The same is true of air activities. These guidelines are being followed.


In fairness there arises the supposition that the material deleted from that particular reply included a summary of the Defense Department’s “Air Operating Restrictions in Northern Laos,” whose prescriptions for humane conduct carry a classification of “Secret.”

Yet so keen remains the State Department’s appreciation of the custom by which to have been detected need not mean in any degree to be deterred that the same censors who were careful to erase from Secretary Rogers’s document any small suggestion of an American presence in Laos were also clearing at just the same time the largest revelations of a thundering American intrusion there. The Foreign Relations Committee’s hearings on our intervention in Laos, after being held up for five months to be sanitized, were made public only two days after Secretary Roger’s manful pretense to Senator Kennedy that what the State Department had already confessed to doing had never been done at all.3

  1. 1

    Doubleday, 460 pp., $4.95.

  2. 2

    A breach of courtesy, if not of security, has to be confessed in the printing of these words and in the identification of Kissinger as speaking them. Kissinger’s briefings are offered the White House correspondents on the condition that they are not to be attributed to him by name or relayed in direct quotations. The code phrase to signal Kissinger’s entrance on stage is “top White House official,” as in James Reston’s “When reporters here tried to obtain information about the [May 1 aerial bombardment of North Vietnam], they were asked by a top official at the White House not to embarrass the Government by printing the details” (The New York Times, May 4). Even so, such is the gospel of service that Kissinger’s briefings are extensively mimeographed by the White House press office and available for inspection by a Tass staff which enjoys its every courtesy. The violation of sanctuaries is never appetizing; still this is one case where the alternatives are hardly consonant with the ethics of controversy. The sentence, “A spokesman for President Nixon said today that he doubted whether there were any civilians in the areas of incursion,” could not, for example, be called an entirely unfair summary of the above and would fit the White House rules for attribution. Still it seems altogether more decent to say just who the speaker was and just what he said.

  3. 3

    The Laos hearings of Senator Symington’s Subcommittee on US Commitments Abroad were made semipublic on April 20 with the release of censored transcripts which the Departments of Defense and State and the Central Intelligence Agency had kept sealed for sanitary purposes since November, 1969.

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