Catch the Falling Flag
National Security Study Memorandum No. 1: The Situation in Vietnam
Four years ago Richard Nixon was just where he is now on Vietnam, i.e., on the brink of a wider conflict. He didn’t think the war could be won, but didn’t want to lose “leverage” by saying so in public. His one hope, his “secret plan” for “an honorable peace,” i.e., for snatching political victory from military defeat, was to shut off Haiphong and bring about a confrontation with the Soviet Union. This is exactly where he—and we—are today. After all the years of costly losses, all he offers is a bigger gamble.
Catch the Falling Flag, Richard J. Whalen’s memoir of his service as a speech writer for Nixon in the 1968 campaign, could not have appeared at a better moment. It provides the full text of the speech Nixon was about to give on his own plan to end the war when Johnson announced on March 31 that he would not run again. Two days before, conferring with his speech writers, Nixon startled them by an extraordinarily—and uncharacteristically—candid remark. “I’ve come to the conclusion,” Whalen quotes him as saying, “that there’s no way to win the war. But we can’t say that, of course. In fact, we have to seem to say the opposite, just to keep some degree of bargaining leverage.”
But the only bargaining leverage he had in mind was to threaten a bigger war. “We can’t send another three hundred thousand men,” Whalen quotes Nixon as ruminating with the speech writers. “We can’t invade North Vietnam. The only thing left is Haiphong and that involves risks with the Soviet.” Once again four years later the only thing left is Haiphong.
The rationale of the Moscow summit was exposed then as he “thought aloud” with his speech writers. “Now,” Nixon went on, according to Whalen, “there could be a new era in our relations with the Soviets, a new round of summit meetings and other negotiations. We have to make that plain to them. We have to say, ‘Look if you go on supporting North Vietnam, we will have to act dramatically.” We won’t add—’if we have the power,’ of course. On the other hand, we have to say, ‘If you are willing to give ground and help us out of this morass, it could mean lots of good things. Otherwise, we’re going toward confrontation.’ ”
Had he not hastily canceled his speech when he learned that Johnson would speak the same night and shelved it altogether when Johnson’s turned out to be an abdication, Nixon would have sounded exactly the same theme we have been hearing from the Administration in recent weeks. The speech Nixon prepared in 1968 said:
Today the Soviet Union and the Communist States of Eastern Europe are providing fully 85 percent of the sophisticated weapons for North Vietnam and 100 percent of the oil. It is Soviet SAMS and Soviet anti-aircraft guns that are …