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I.F. Stone Reports: Nixon’s War Gamble and Why It Won’t Work

Catch the Falling Flag

by Richard J. Whalen
Houghton Mifflin, 308 pp., $6.95

National Security Study Memorandum No. 1: The Situation in Vietnam

Anonymous Xerox Publication, 548 pp.

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 shooting down American planes. It is Soviet artillery that is pounding the Marine fortress of Khe Sanh. Without Soviet military assistance, the North Vietnamese war machine would grind to a halt…. Not the small primitive state of North Vietnam but its great Soviet ally and protector inhibits the full exercise of America’s military power. Not even the proximity of Red China’s massive armies is as powerful a deterrent to US actions as the presence of Soviet freighters in the port of Haiphong.

So either the freighters are removed or we sink them? Nixon in 1968 did not propose to say anything so bald. But he was ready to say, “We need a new policy that will awaken the Soviet Union to the perils of the course it has taken in Vietnam.”

No mention was made of arms control in the bargaining Nixon then envisaged, though the SALT talks were soon to begin. “The agenda at the summit” was to include not only Vietnam but other points of tension including the Middle East and Cuba, “which is attempting to export subversion.” Nixon was prepared to offer the Soviets “in the most specific ways possible, as much friendship as they were willing to reciprocate.” This was the blueprint for the advance trips made to Moscow in recent months by the Secretaries of Agriculture and of Commerce. “And prudent diplomacy,” said the speech Nixon never gave, “would reserve further economic concessions to the Soviets for use as bargaining counters.”

The plan then and the strategy now is to offer the Soviet Union a kind of junior partnership in the Pax Americana in return for US trade concessions. The alternative is an escalated war, threatening the destruction of a Soviet satellite and daring Moscow, if it doesn’t like it, to come on out and fight. This, in the thermonuclear age, is a pretty juvenile scenario. If the bluff is called is Nixon seriously prepared to go this far to have his way in a distant Asian Lilliput?

The revelations in the Whalen book1 complement those in National Security Study Memorandum No. 1, which was drawn up at the very beginning of the Nixon Administration as its basic guide to future policy on Vietnam. This was leaked widely in recent weeks to the press and on Capitol Hill, another triumph of the Xerox machine over bureaucratic secrecy. Senator Gravel sent copies to every member of the Senate2 but he told me the other day that some senators had primly sent the document back with a note saying that they refused to read it! Perhaps like Roman senators they would rather make policy by inferring omens from the flight of birds.

Generally speaking there is nothing in the 548 pages that is new, much less secret. They might as well classify the telephone book as this compendium of grim observations familiar to every close reader of the newspapers. The report would best be entitled “Basic Facts About the Vietnam War the Bureaucracy Privately Admits, Manfully Denies in Public, and Continues to Ignore in Making Future Policy.”

The least important part of the report has had the most newspaper attention. This is its recognition—for the umpteenth time since World War II—that airpower is not a decisive weapon, a fact graphically demonstrated every day in the current offensive where the enemy was able to transport and stockpile huge quantities of matériel despite a torrential rain of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and seems able to bring up reserves, supplies, artillery, and huge quantities of shells despite saturation and carpet bombings by B-52s around the firebases and cities they threaten and take.

The most timely and urgent parts of the report, which we present verbatim in this issue of The New York Review, have nowhere else been printed in full. These are the replies of the CIA, the State Department, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) to the question of what would happen if we shut off Haiphong, heavily bombed the area around Hanoi, and left North Vietnam dependent on what it could bring in, under bombardment, over the rail and road lines from China. This is Nixon’s last card and he is now playing it, though it is obvious from a close reading of the replies that here again airpower is not likely to be decisive, nor worth the cost and risk.

Before we look at the replies, one basic observation about NSSM-1 is in order. This was the first comprehensive study ordered by Kissinger for Nixon after he took office in January, 1969. It was supposed to give the new Administration a completely fresh look at the war. Actually it raises no fundamental questions about the war itself. It asks why the NVN and VC are in Paris but not why we are in the war. It does not assess its over-all costs or its impact on America’s over-all world situation. The questions, for all their detailed precision, avoid these bigger issues and are set in the context of how to win the war politically, if not militarily.

It is characteristic of this approach that the question of bombing Haiphong and Hanoi, hitherto off limits to our bombers for fear of a larger war and probably in accord with a tacit understanding between Washington and Moscow, is raised tangentially. There is no question 1) about the huge additional cost in planes and pilots or 2) about the international complications which could follow if the Soviets took steps to defend their ships from planes and mines in North Vietnam’s harbors. The reader will see that only the State Department, as if gratuitously, touches on these broader and riskier aspects of the problem in its final paragraph:

It should be noted, in conclusion, that this paper does not address the advisability [italics in original] of closing Haiphong, nor the question of the Soviet and Chinese responses. These matters, clearly the most central problems, lie outside the terms of reference of Question 28 (d).

This seems to have been the State Department’s quiet way of registering a protest against the failure to include the wider risks in this first comprehensive survey by the new Administration. None of the agencies touched on the failure to ask about the cost in planes and pilots of intensive bombing over so heavily defended an area as that around Hanoi, Haiphong, and the Chinese border. The number of pilot POWs and MIAs would certainly go up sharply in the wake of any such campaign, but this is covered by silence.

The reader will see that, of the three agencies, the CIA is the most outspoken on the question of the Hanoi-Haiphong bombings, concluding that they would be “unlikely” to “significantly interdict import levels.” The replies from the State Department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense are more guarded. They follow the style of carefully calibrated ambiguity favored by ancient oracles and economic forecasters—hedged against every contingency and with a little something for every ear.

State and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, their bureaucratic antennae attuned to what the White House probably wanted, are more optimistic than the CIA. The State Department even goes so far at one point as to say that bombing of the Haiphong-Hanoi area “would over time prevent North Viet-Nam from receiving sufficient economic and military aid to continue the war effort.” But the reader will see that this is followed by the hedge that in the past North Vietnam had “surprised many observers, and confounded many predictions” by maintaining itself and sending “ever-increasing” amounts of supplies southward “during 3 1/2 years of bombing.”

With this experience in mind,” the Department concludes, hedging and then re-hedging the new hedge, “there is little reason to believe that new bombing will accomplish what previous bombings failed to do, unless it is conducted with much greater intensity and readiness to defy criticism and risk of escalation.” Pretty clearly, the State Department, if asked to vote on bombing Hanoi-Haiphong, would vote No.

  1. 1

    This despairing story of the efforts by a right-of-center idealist to write speeches for Nixon is one of the most revealing accounts of the man and his entourage. “I could no longer find phrases to express Nixon,” Whalen writes in anguish at one point, “because I could not find him.” At another point, in describing the request during the 1968 campaign for emotional, hard-hitting copy, Whalen says, “As usual the problem was Nixon…. None of us could say what, if anything, Nixon felt passionate about.”

    Even during the racial crisis in the “hot summer” of 1968 “the Nixon organization’s operational environment was like that of a studio control booth: hushed, sealed off from all distractions, all buttons and dials set for carefully timed, skillfully executed moves. The racial crisis was not part of a scheduled program. The man in the booth did not live emotionally in this time, in this country set aflame, yet he was determined to preside over it.”

    The atmosphere of the Nixon White House has turned out to be quite similar to the atmosphere Whalen describes at the Nixon campaign headquarters. Only the fear of being “humiliated” over Vietnam seems to stir gut feelings in this skilled but plastic operator. Whalen’s account, written with verve and wit, is indispensable for an understanding of the crisis Nixon has precipitated.

  2. 2

    Gravel, as always a breath of fresh air in a stuffy and sclerotic Senate, made valiant but unsuccessful efforts culminating in two secret sessions on May 2 and May 4 to read the entire memorandum into the Congressional Record. The transcript of the secret session debates—so disappointing when measured against the dimensions of the growing Vietnam crisis—may be read in the Record for May 5, at pp. S7393-S7427.

    On May 9, Gravel finally read into the Record selections from those portions of the documents printed in full in this issue. He did so despite a hint from Republican Senator Griffin of Michigan, the GOP Whip, that he might be prosecuted for reading classified documents. But Griffin did not block him by invoking unanimous consent as he had a week earlier when Gravel tried to read the entire 548 pages into the Record. At press time, in a Congressional cliffhanger, Gravel had made a forward pass with NSSM-1 to Congressman Dellums, who managed to get part of it into the Record.

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