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 …

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Letters

Vietnam Casualties April 22, 1971