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Laos: What Nixon Is Up To

As though driven by Che’s curse, Richard Nixon seems compelled to create “two, three…many Vietnams” in Southeast Asia.

The pace of invasion is quickening. On the first evening of the invasion of Laos, Vice President Ky pointed to what could be the next. South Vietnamese ground forces, he said, might have to cross the 17th parallel into North Vietnam to hit supply bases above the DMZ. It was six years since South Vietnamese forces had first done that, in the air, with Ky himself leading the attack. In fact, Ky was speaking at a dinner marking the anniversary, largely unnoticed in the US, of those raids of February 7 and 8, 1965, which “retaliated” for the death of eight Americans in an NLF attack on Pleiku and led to a three-year bombing campaign against the North. Ky’s warning, coinciding with the new offensive in Laos, linked the past, present, and future of a fundamentally unchanging US strategy in Indochina.

In the US itself, not even the Orwellian communiqués seem to have altered. On February 7, 1965, the White House chose the occasion of its announcement that US bombers were crossing the borders of North Vietnam to repeat its past assurances to the American public: “As the US Government has frequently stated, we seek no wider war.” On February 9, 1971, as US bombers and helicopters were for the first time accompanying South Vietnamese forces—paid, equipped, and supported by the US—into Laos, Secretary Laird told the nation: “We have not widened the war.” He added: “To the contrary, we have shortened it.”

To the contrary—as all can see—we have widened it. Why? When and why will we do it again? There is, in truth, a coherent inner logic to the policy that contains answers to these questions. It is a logic that has pointed for at least the last year to the invasion of Laos—and beyond.

For twenty years—since the “fall of China” and the rise of McCarthy—Rule 1 of Indochina policy for an American President has been: Do not lose the rest of Vietnam to communism before the next election. But there was also Rule 2, learned shortly thereafter, in Korea: Do not fight a land war in Asia with US ground combat troops either. Three Presidents, starting with Truman, managed to satisfy both constraints during their terms and passed the challenge on to their successors. The problem grew, and Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency was crushed in its first full term by the impossibility of fulfilling both requirements. But Johnson’s foundering on Rule 2 did not repeal Rule 1 for his successor: even in 1969, even for a Republican, even for Richard Nixon.

Like Kennedy and Johnson before him, Richard Nixon believes he cannot hold the White House for a second term unless he holds Saigon through his first.

His two predecessors had seen the leaders of the previous Democratic administration driven from office after they had been charged with having “lost China.” More specifically, they were accused of losing China without trying, without making full use of US airpower or advisers, without giving full support to an anticommunist Asian ally: omissions pointing to weakness or treason. Kennedy and Johnson both feared that the accusation of “losing Vietnam”—or simply “losing a war”—could rally again the hounds of McCarthyism against their party.

Nixon does not feel immune just because he once was one of the leaders of that pack. On the contrary, he knows better than anyone else just what he would try to do with such an issue if he were on the outside seeking power, even against a Republican President. He is determined not to have to suffer from it in 1972, either from Reagan summoning away his supporters in the convention or from Wallace calling to his voters in the election. (Whether the fears shared by Nixon and his predecessors of a threat from the right are based on political reality, or on a specter of their own making, is not the issue here. What matters is that four of the last five Presidents have felt compelled to take such a threat seriously and Nixon still does.)

No doubt there are other and perhaps even stronger motives that influence Mr. Nixon’s choices, but they point in the same direction. There is good evidence that the President is, even more than his predecessors, a “true believer” in the cold war premises they all shared, including that of the importance of maintaining US power in Asia, showing strength to the Russians and Chinese, containing communism—monolithic or not—and avoiding the reverberating damage of a US failure or humiliation.

Which of these instincts is the stronger matters little in this case, for they reinforce each other in Vietnam policy: Saigon must not “fall”…above all, not too soon or too suddenly. Those who imagine otherwise, who suppose that Nixon’s views on domestic politics conflict with his notions of US interests abroad, and that his instincts for political survival inexorably urge him toward total withdrawal “no matter what,” are almost surely wrong.

During 1968 Henry Kissinger frequently said in private talks that the appropriate goal of US policy was a “decent interval”—two to three years—between the withdrawal of US troops and a Communist takeover in Vietnam. In that year, an aim so modest had almost a radical ring; no major public figure, in fact, dared openly to endorse it. But in 1969, when Kissinger moved to the White House, his notion took on a sharper meaning and new urgency. It became not a goal but a requirement; and the “interval,” it became evident, could not end before November, 1972. In its new, tougher form, the doctrine had practical implications for policy well beyond 1972. In effect, it meant acting immediately and over the next several years to achieve both an indefinite fighting stalemate in Vietnam and support for such a stalemate in the US. And that aim had implications for the prospects of renewed escalation of the air war in Indochina.

To begin with, it was evident in Paris by the spring of 1969 that Hanoi and the NLF would not accept terms that would meet the Administration’s needs for assuring non-Communist control in Saigon through at least 1972. Nor would the Russians intervene to achieve this, as Nixon had hoped. So the war had to go on.

Total Vietnamization? US military advisers held out no hope whatever that Saigon could be held with any assurance for three years, or even one year, if no US military personnel remained in South Vietnam. No foreseeable improvement in ARVN, or amount of US aid, including air support, would prop up Saigon reliably in the face of North Vietnamese forces if all our troops went home. Both US troops and airpower were needed, in sizable amounts, for years, perhaps indefinitely.

In fact, through 1969 and, so far as is known, today, the highest military leaders have never judged officially that the job of holding Saigon could be done, with reasonable assurance and with adequate safety for remaining US troops, with fewer than 200,000 military personnel in the country to provide air support, logistics, communications, intelligence, self-defense, and strategic reserve. That figure, Nixon probably thinks, and with reason, is inflated; but there are limits to what the Joint Chiefs of Staff will certify as “militarily acceptable,” and the semi-permanent minimum may well turn out to be not much lower than 100,000 for the end of 1972 and after. It is more likely to prove higher; and it will almost certainly not be less than half that figure, long after 1972.

With the military floor somewhere between 50 and 150,000 troops, the political ceiling is surely not very much higher. LBJ’s strategy, putting half a million US troops in the South, met the goal he defined in his first week in office; he left the White House five years later accused of many things, but not of being the first President to lose a war. Yet his approach was, obviously, only a partial success; it saved Saigon but lost the White House. As would anyone determined to hold both, Nixon drew an immediate lesson: US troop levels and budget costs must go down, and casualties, draft calls, and news space must go down even more sharply. In fact, even 50,000 troops—still twice as many as LBJ had in Vietnam at the onset of the bombing—could be acceptable to the public or, better, ignored by it, only if US casualties were very low indeed and newsworthy North Vietnamese successes anywhere in Indochina almost nonexistent.

Thus Nixon’s practical goal—a “Korean solution,” as officials began to call it—became clear: to make Indochina safe for an indefinite presence of 50,000 US troops or more in South Vietnam. The key to a solution, Nixon and Kissinger concluded, was to expand the role of airpower, and in particular, to restore and increase the threat of bombing the North.

How else, they reasoned, could Nixon ever compel successful negotiations? How could he induce the Russians to use their leverage for a settlement, unless the Russians were made to fear—in Laos, say, or in Haiphong—that they would become more directly involved?

How else could Nixon deter the North Vietnamese forces, once they recovered from the 1968 losses, from making embarrassing gains at will in Laos; or worse, from coming south to overpower ARVN; or worst of all, attacking the reduced US units, either destroying them or forcing them home?

Vietnamization,” if confined to the borders of South Vietnam and with the threat of escalation excluded, had no persuasive long-run answer to these threats. That, in the minds of some in Washington, in view of the unpromising prospects in Paris, was an argument for total, prompt US extrication from Vietnam. To Nixon and Kissinger, it meant instead that a credible bombing threat was essential to their program.

The policy they decided on was in many ways a familiar one, especially for Republicans. Its main ingredients were precisely those prescribed twenty years ago by the “Asia-first” right-wing Republicans in Congress for preventing the “fall of China” and, later, by MacArthur and others, for winning “victory” in Korea—the threat and, if necessary, use of US strategic airpower and allied Asian troops under a US-approved, authoritarian, and anticommunist regime, financed and equipped by the US and using American advisers and logistical and air support. (Vice President Nixon had been willing to add some US ground combat troops to that package to save North Vietnam in 1954, before the fall of Dienbienphu, but this was considered an aberration at the time.)

If one adds the threat of nuclear weapons—a threat used privately, Nixon believes, by Eisenhower to settle the Korean War, and later used publicly by Secretary Dulles to influence the First Indochina War—one has all the elements underlying Dulles’s doctrine of “massive retaliation” and the “New Look” defense posture of the Eisenhower Administration. This was the policy that enabled Republicans to combine aggressive rhetoric with a limited defense budget throughout the years when Nixon was Vice President. As an academic strategist during that period, Henry Kissinger dissented from this formula mainly by stressing the role of “tactical” nuclear weapons (in the book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which made his reputation). But in Nixon’s Administration, the threat of nuclear weapons in Indochina is not—as yet, at least—an essential part of the strategy of Kissinger and Nixon (except, as usual, to deter Chinese intervention)—though they have pointedly refused explicitly to foreclose their use. The new strategy differs from the old mainly in relying on the strategic threat of non-nuclear bombing.

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