Will the War Go on Until 1976?

Every aware person, he [Nixon] believes, knows that the Vietnam war will soon be over.”

How the President Sees His Second Term,” by Daniel P. Moynihan in
Life, September 1.

The US Air Force dropped a bomb of its own on Richard Nixon the night he was making his acceptance speech in Miami. A senior Air Force official spent that evening with some eight reporters who cover the Pentagon regularly. The comings and goings of Kissinger are a pantomime which creates the illusion that peace somehow may be imminent. But what this Air Force official told the reporters in the course of a long and cozy visit opens the possibility that the war may still be going on when the election campaign of 1976 gets underway.

This “backgrounder” and its implications have all too hastily been swept under the rug, in part because the New York Times—unlike the Washington Post and the Washington Star-News—buried the story. One participant in the meeting said the whole affair made him feel as if he were taking part in a sequel to the Pentagon Papers. The Air Force official’s revelations, and the clash with the Pentagon’s—and the Nixon Administration’s—party line on the war ought not to be forgotten. There is no reason why the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could not call Air Force, Pentagon, and CIA officials to get a fuller picture of the war’s prospects and costs. Could it be that the Air Force is restive because the cost of the war in planes and pilots far outweighs the results being achieved? What are the plane losses per sortie? How many more pilots have been lost this year? Does the Air Force find itself, as in the Korean war, swapping planes for trucks?

Michael Getler, a Washington Post man at the meeting, said the Air Force official told reporters that in spite of heavy damage from US bombing and a mine blockade of North Vietnamese ports since early May, Hanoi was still getting 25 percent or more of the previous flow of war matériel and that this was enough “to sustain Hanoi’s war effort for a long time to come, although at an uncertain level of fighting” (Washington Post, August 25). Orr Kelly, another of the Pentagon reporters at the backgrounder, wrote in the Washington Star-News August 24 that they were told, “The way things are going…the United States could still be bombing North Vietnam two or three years from now.” By then Agnew, too, will probably have a secret plan to end the war if elected.

Kelly wrote that while the Air Force official voiced the hope of an early settlement he thought it “unlikely that the bombing and mining can force a quick negotiated end to the war.” He said reporters were told “it would require unacceptable measures—such as bombing of the dikes or destruction of Hanoi and Haiphong—to cause any further reduction in the flow of supplies …

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Letters

Touching the Elephant November 2, 1972