Nixon’s Blitzkrieg

We have got ourselves a moral monster for a President. His Christmas message, as written in the skies over shattered Hanoi, is that he is determined to have his own way, at whatever cost in human suffering. “Strength and resolution command respect…. But weakness and naïve sentimentality breed contempt.” Thus spake our Zarathustra in his radio address of October 29 on America’s need to be ever first in military might, so we can all be Supermen and make little people tremble.

Almost everything Nixon has done since his re-election, whether at home or abroad, in small ways as well as large, fits the portrait of a crafty, suspicious, and vindictive man; isolated and distrustful of those around him, and with that touch of megalomania virtually inescapable when one sits at the buttons which can unleash thermonuclear thunderbolts. Like the Godfather, he is ever watchful of the respect due him, and ready for salutary measures of enforcement where it flags.

Thus when the B-52s were ordered out on December 18, “Administration officials” explained, according to the New York Times next day, that “the principal purpose of the President’s action was to insure that the North Vietnamese leaders would comprehend the extent of his anger.” One felt piously that the “h” in “his” should have been capitalized. He is, as we have been constantly told the bombings were intended to show, not to be “trifled” with.

He is also a gambler, and his foreign policy begins to seem more and more a succession of daring wagers. Ever since the Cambodian invasion, he has been winning. But one day the little white ball is going to end up somewhere else. Hitler, too, beginning with the occupation of the Rhineland, launched a series of gambles and won them all—all, that is, except the last.

The lesson for Americans lies in the price the Germans paid for following their leader as long and as blindly as they did. The real problem, as the coming weeks will make clearer, is not just to disengage America from South-east Asia but from the increasingly one-man rule of Richard Nixon. He can undo with one plunge of his bombers months of slow progress toward détente. He can unite the world against us in hate and fear.

How rapidly the scene has changed since the bombing began! It was only seven days before Nixon ordered the B-52s over Hanoi—but it seems a vanished age—when Senator Edward Kennedy told a Los Angeles audience, “There is more good will in Congress now toward Mr. Nixon than perhaps at any time in his career” and offered Democratic cooperation “in launching a new and effective era of progress….”

A day later, six days before the bombing began, Senator Humphrey, with that cheerful idiocy that has become his hallmark, told a Washington press conference on his return from a fifteen-day trip to Moscow, Warsaw, Bonn, and London that nowhere had he been asked a single question about Vietnam—except by one stray American reporter. The absence of questions even then indicated an appalling absence of astuteness on the part of Humphrey and his interlocutors. He had had three hours with Kosygin in Moscow, and talked with Prime Minister Jaroszewicz in Warsaw, Willy Brandt and his rival Barzel in Bonn, and both Heath and Harold Wilson in London. That none of them asked about Vietnam shows how easily taken in they were. So was Teddy Kennedy with his lightheaded reference in the Los Angeles speech, “Now that peace is near in Indochina…America as a nation has a new horizon of unparalleled opportunity.”

In a world that spends billions on intelligence, these statesmen don’t even seem to read the newspapers. They had only to skim the Washington dispatches of the past few months to see that the US has been making long-term military and economic aid commitments to South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, and that American air and seapower were being repositioned for new interventions from Thai bases and by the Seventh Fleet. Preparations for a new and prolonged stage of Nixon Doctrine warfare were already visible even before the renewed bombings.

What makes one despair of the standard model Democratic opposition by men like Mansfield, Humphrey, and Kennedy is that they don’t seem to see what’s happening unless it’s so outrageous that it creates eight-column headlines. They can’t seem to read fine print.

The myopia is not limited to foreign policy. Kennedy’s references to the domestic front in that same Los Angeles speech were downright schoolgirl gushy. “We can find new directions for old approaches,” he said, whatever that means. “Already by bringing new faces into old agencies, at a time when the glow of his almost incredible election victory is still bright, President Nixon has shown that he knows the opportunity is there….”

What new faces in what old agencies? The promotion of Roy Ash, wonder boy of the Litton roller coaster, leading casualty of the Great Conglomerate Bubble of the Sixties, to oversee through OMB (Office of Management and the Budget) the biggest conglomerate in the world, the US government? The shift of Nixon’s sharpest cost-cutter, “Cap the Knife” Weinberger, to HEW, where he can pare social welfare; and of the Administration’s softest liberal patsy Richardson to the Pentagon, where he can front for the $4 billion increase already announced in military expenditures? The replacement at Commerce of the Administration’s ablest new figure Peterson by a nonentity out of Southern textiles? The packing of sub-Cabinet jobs with plastic men out of the White House staff, all tried and true one-dimensionals? Neither in the reshufflings nor in Nixon’s rhetorical inanities about the Protestant work ethic was anything visible but an effort to reinstitute for the Seventies a Coolidge-type government inadequate even a half century ago, as the stock market crash of 1929 proved.

How easily Nixon could have kept the Democrats quiet. If only he had proceeded softly, if he hadn’t—in his own favorite phrase—blown his cool and resumed the bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong. Thanks to the B-52s, that proved the shortest era of good feeling in American politics.

The bombings ended with the strangest White House press conference of all time. What the newspapers failed to explain is that the Presidential announcement for which correspondents were hurriedly summoned to the White House Saturday morning, December 30, never mentioned the end of the bombing. This came out only in response to questions from startled correspondents. Only readers of the New York Times, which ran the transcript, could realize this. The announcement by Gerald Warren, the deputy Presidential press secretary, simply said:

The President has asked me to announce this morning that negotiations between Presidential adviser Dr. Kissinger and special adviser Le Duc Tho, and Minister Xuan Thuy, will be resumed in Paris on. January 8. Technical talks between the experts of the two sides will be resumed on January 2. That is the extent of the announcement.

Nothing was said about any suspension of the bombing. The very first question seemed to assume that, since no stoppage had been announced, it must be going on—

Q. Senator Saxbe has said and been quoted quite widely that the President “appears to have left his senses.” And he described the sort of bombing going on in Hanoi as an act of “arrogance and irresponsibility.” Gerry, can you reply to that? Is there any reaction from the President?

A. No. I wouldn’t reply to that.

It was only then that somebody thought to ask the question and drew these stingy responses—

Q. Will there be a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam?

A. The President has ordered that all bombing will be discontinued above the 20th Parallel as long as serious negotiations are underway.

Q. Effective when?

A. I can’t discuss the timing of military operations.

Q. Are we bombing right now, this minute?

A. I really can’t discuss military operations from here.

The press was still in the dark, and tried a new tack—

Q. Did you say “effective negotiations”?

A. No, “serious negotiations.”

Q. You are implying then that it wouldn’t halt until they actually start and we decide that they are serious?

To this Mr. Warren finally replied, “No, as soon as it was clear that serious negotiations could be resumed at both the technical level and between the principals, the President ordered that all bombing be discontinued above the 20th Parallel.” But the sparring continued, and after three more questions and answers we had this—

Q. So the order has been made. In other words the bombing halt is in effect?

A. The order has been made.

* * *

Q. Has the order taken effect?

A. I cannot discuss that.

Q. But it has gone out?

A. That is correct….

And after thirteen more questions, which still shed no further light on what had happened, the briefing ended with this—

Q. Gerry, since you won’t discuss the military aspects, is it possible the Pentagon can tell us whether, like, from midnight on, there was no more bombing?

A. It is possible. I just don’t know.

With the whole world waiting and on edge, that is all the White House would say. The bare record seems to reflect an arrogant contempt for the press and for world opinion.

Gerald Warren did not claim that the bombings had forced North Vietnam to the negotiating table. The North Vietnamese walked out on the negotiations because of the bombing, but said all along they would return when it stopped. On the other hand when it did stop, Vo Van Sung, their representative in Paris, declared that the result of the large-scale bombing had been “a military and political defeat” for the US and “a strategic victory for our people.” The bombing was undoubtedly a moral and military defeat for Nixon. He not only succeeded in making the United States look like a bully in the eyes of the world but a bully who had suffered a well-deserved bloody nose.

Like so much else about this disgraceful episode in our national history, most of what led up to the bombing is still secret. When the North Vietnamese and PRG delegations walked out of the Paris talks on December 21 to protest the bombings, they charged that ever since the talks resumed in November the US had threatened “two or three times daily” to break off talks and resume bombing north of the 20th Parallel. The North Vietnamese spokesman, Nguyen Thanh Le, told a press conference that day, “The more good will we showed, the more the Nixon Administration adopted an unreasonable attitude; the more we proved our flexibility, the more it demanded fundamental modifications [of the agreed text] and the more the Nixon Administration used military pressure to [try to] subjugate us.”1

If the other side’s account is correct, these threats explain North Vietnam’s order of December 3 to begin evacuating all schoolchildren from Hanoi. The US has not denied that threats were made, but its propagandists have twisted the evacuation order to prove that “as of December 3, Hanoi already was planning to scuttle the negotiation” (see Hearst service backgrounder from Washington in the Boston Traveller, December 22). This is on a par with Pentagon claims that if civilians were hurt in Hanoi it must have been their own fault because a) Hanoi had shot down American planes and the debris had hit civilians or b) they were hit by debris from all those SAM missiles. As the mugger said, if the victim hadn’t resisted, he wouldn’t have been hurt.

It is hard to decide which is worse—the vindictive cruelty of the air raids or the lies told to excuse them. The most transparent of these lies was that the attacks on Hanoi and Haiphong were needed to disrupt a new offensive. When Nixon suspended the bombing above the 20th Parallel in October to express his satisfaction (then) with the agreement disclosed October 26, Aviation Week (October 30) carried a two-page summary of the results. It said the seven months of “Operation Linebacker,” which Nixon launched last May 8, had “proven more effective, more crippling than the years of the Rolling Thunder operation” that Lyndon Johnson ended in October, 1968.

Even should the cease-fire efforts fail,” Aviation Week reported, “they [i.e., US military officials] believe the Communist supply network has been so severely crippled that it will require months to repair.” Similarly Michael Getler, Pentagon correspondent of the Washington Post, reported in that paper (December 24), “Prior to the renewed bombing no US military commanders were expressing any fears of a new North Vietnamese assault.” Intelligence reported that the other side was preparing for political rather than military action.

No doubt great suffering was imposed on the civilian population and great damage on communications and transport as well as on remaining industrial and power facilities. But the price was high enough to be humbling to the world’s strongest military power. To see the losses in perspective one must recall that the B-52s were intended for the nuclear bombardment of the Soviet Union. Air Force sources said the average losses over Hanoi were no greater than expected—from 2 to 3 percent of the planes participating. But reporters could not find out whether this was the margin of loss expected in all-out nuclear war or in conventional bombardment over the heavily defended Hanoi-Haiphong area.

In nuclear war, even if only 2 to 3 percent get through the results would be terrible. One B-52 can carry enough nuclear weapons to wreck a moderatesized city. But in conventional war, a 2 to 3 percent rate of loss is high, particularly when you are talking of a virtually irreplaceable aircraft like the B-52. A 2 percent rate means that in fifty days of concentrated bombing the entire fleet would be lost; a 3 percent rate would eat up a B-52 fleet in thirty-three days or a little more than a month.

In the eleven days of concentrated bombing over Hanoi and Haiphong, the Air Force admitted to fifteen B-52s shot down and later added that six more B-52s made it back but landed as wrecks. That is 10 percent of the 200 B-52s supposed to be assigned to the Far East theater and 20 percent of the 100 B-52s supposed to have been used daily. No definite and final official figures have been given; if the number of B-52s used was smaller, and the losses greater, than so far given out, the rates of loss would be even higher. Hanoi claims seventy-six planes downed, including thirty-three B-52s, which cost $8 million apiece. So we admit $168 million in B-52s and the enemy claims $264 million.

The loss in pilots was worse. When Johnson called off the air war in October, 1968, the Pentagon said “more than” 450 airmen had been killed, captured, or were missing since the air war began in 1961. In eleven days of bombing Nixon lost ninety-three airmen, or 20 percent as many in eleven days as were lost in the first eight years. The number of prisoners in the other side’s hands had gone up about a third. That’s a bleak outlook for an Administration which had been promising to have the POWs home soon.

At the time of the October, 1968, halt, the Pentagon figured the mean cost of training a modern combat pilot at $450,000 each. Planes and training have become more expensive since. The ninety-three airmen lost could easily have cost another $40 million. If one adds the cost of bombs, fuel, and other planes to the B-52s lost, the price for Nixon’s eleven-day tantrum over Hanoi and Haiphong could easily add up to a quarter billion dollars.

It would be most enlightening if a congressional committee could learn what exactly was gained in strictly military terms for all this expenditure. A Saigon dispatch in the New York Times, December 31, noted reports that a textile factory and a noodle factory in Hanoi had both been heavily bombed in one of the final raids. The complaint in the Korean war was that “we were trading B-26s [the predecessor of the B-52] for trucks in a most uneconomical manner.”2 We wonder how many noodles Nixon got per lost pilot.

With us Americans aerial bombardment is more than tactical or strategic: it has become a disease; it is downright maniacal, a compulsive twitch. The year-end compilation out of the Pentagon3 says we have showered about 7 million tons of bombs and rockets on Southeast Asia since we set out to make it safe for something or other on January 1, 1961. This is more than 2 million tons greater than all the bombs we dropped on Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific in World War II, and more than ten times the 635,000 tons dropped on Korea.

If victory-by-airpower were more than a delusion, Korea long ago would have been united in desolation. We literally left nothing standing above the 38th Parallel. We had overwhelming air superiority yet we were pushed back to the parallel and North Korea was re-established. Bombing surveys after World War II showed that in industrial countries output expanded and morale rose as the bombs fell. But delusions are not cured by rational demonstration.

In underdeveloped countries like Indochina’s, the cost of every peasant killed is by now many times his weight in gold, but life—and the war—goes on. Our war—since we took over from the French—is just entering its thirteenth year. In the eight months alone since the mining and bombing of Haiphong and Hanoi were ordered by Nixon, more bombs have been dropped than during the entire Korean war. But Hanoi has still been able to impose deadly losses on our B-52s and—with justice—claim a strategic victory. Pain we can impose on the innocent, but militarily bombs and blockade just don’t seem to work as promised.

Now both sides are back at the negotiating table, but there is no sign that either has changed. My guess is that Nixon is more frustrated; Hanoi more determined. Nixon has shot another bolt. He is unlikely soon again to risk B-52s over Hanoi, not with conventional weapons at least. So far he has bought every military recipe for victory-by-demolition except wholesale destruction of the dikes—and “nukes.” How much more will our gambler gamble, and how much more can his new friends in Moscow and Peking take before they begin to think their own security endangered?

There is a point at which destruction in the Red River Valley of North Vietnam may threaten internal convulsions in the Russian and Chinese ruling bureaucracies. If the war cannot soon be stopped, it can still get out of hand. Once it begins to slip into big-power tension, it may be too late to stop escalatory gambles. This is where action by the new Congress is urgent.

Nixon’s frustration must be all the greater because he began calling in 1965 for the mining of Haiphong and the bombing of Hanoi as sure ways “to win the war in Vietnam and to end it,” as he said on “Meet the Press” in December of that year.4 We now know from the Pentagon Papers that this was what the Air Force asked for in March, 1968, in a last attempt to stave off the bombing halt that year by Lyndon Johnson.

Never was barbarity put forward more suavely. Dr. Harold Brown, then Secretary of the Air Force, now the “liberal” member of our SALT negotiating team, argued in a memorandum in March, 1968, that intensified bombing of the “remaining important targets” (already few) around Hanoi and “neutralization of the port of Haiphong by bombing and mining” would “permit bombing of military targets without the present scrupulous concern for collateral civilian damage and casualties.” And just in case anyone missed the point so antiseptically suggested, or thought these civilian casualties were merely tangential and accidental, Dr. Brown’s concluding paragraph on the objective of this exercise began, “The aims of this alternative campaign would be to erode the will of the population by exposing a wider area of NVN to casualties and destruction….”

Erode the will”—what stylistic delicacies are cultivated by these Pentagon Flauberts. This erosion, plus the destruction of import and transit facilities, Dr. Brown argued, “would be expected to bring NVN to negotiation of a compromise settlement, or to abandonment of the fight in SVN.”5 That’s the blue-print Nixon has been following for the last eight months, and in his final fierce spasm of terror-for-Christmas.

Just what happened to the earlier compromise announced in October nobody, outside of an ever smaller circle, knows. Nixon’s is becoming government-by-soliloquy. In the two weeks before the Christmas bombing, the visitors’ record at the White House showed only three persons who had conferred with Nixon—Kissinger, Kissinger’s aide Haig, and the Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott, who later said he had been urging the White House for days to end the bombing.

Despite the momentous gambles Nixon has been taking, there has not been a meeting of the National Security Council since May 8, of the Cabinet since November 8, no press conference at which he allowed questions since October 5. He came out of isolation only for the Truman funeral and to see the Redskins’ coach after their victory, an event he seemed to consider earthshaking.6 The free press in the capital of the free world has been largely dependent on Hanoi radio and Thieu’s personal newspaper in Saigon, Tin Song, for news of what’s going on.

All we know is that on October 26, Kissinger said “peace is at hand” and that Nixon in a series of pre-election barnstorming speeches in various small towns around the country repeated the same theme. At Huntington, West Virginia, October 26, he spoke of “a significant breakthrough” in the peace talks. In Ashland, Kentucky, the same day, he even compared this with the Armistice in 1918. At Saginaw, Michigan, two days later, he said, “Vietnam being over, we are proud of the fact that our trips to Peking and to Moscow have paved the way not just for ending this war but for a generation of peace.” In a nationwide radio broadcast on November 2, he said the “major breakthrough” would “accomplish the basic objectives” he set forth last May 8, when he ordered the mining and bombing. These were the return of all POWs, a ceasefire throughout Indochina, and the right for South Vietnam to determine its own future “without having a Communist government or a coalition government” imposed upon it.7 No mention, of course, of the one-man dictatorship we have been helping Thieu to fasten on its 17 million people.

Even on December 16, the day Kissinger appeared to let it be known, though as opaquely as possible, that peace was no longer at hand, Herbert G. Klein, Nixon’s top PR man, released for publication a lengthy survey of “Nixon’s Four Years—Change That Works,” which repeated the same theme that peace was at hand, except for a few final details. “Peace”—Nixon told Garnett Horner of the Washington Star in an interview released just after the election—was near: “You can bank on it.”

If Kissinger’s deliberately obscure and one-sided presentation is read side by side with Xuan Thuy’s appearance on ABC’s “Issues and Answers” on December 24, what has happened seems reasonably clear. Hanoi and the PRG were willing to swallow a bitter compromise in October which enabled Nixon to appear as a peace candidate. The other side then accepted what until last October it had always said was unacceptable—the “two-track approach” by which Nixon would get the POWs in return for a ceasefire, while leaving Hanoi to negotiate a political settlement with Thieu “on the other track.” That track, as we showed in the New York Review, November 30, is made for more collisions, not for US disengagement.

But now, with the election over, Nixon is going for more. Now he wants a one-track settlement, a ceasefire and a political settlement in one package, which will force Hanoi to accept a divided country permanently, under pain of renewed US bombing and shelling. This would mean that many more years of involvement in Indochina are “at hand.”

January 2

  1. 1

    Jonathan C. Randal from Paris in the Washington Post, December 22.

  2. 2

    Colonel G. S. Brown, 5th Air Force director of operations, quoted on page 425 of Robert F. Futrell: The United States Air Force in Korea 1950-53, the official history (Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1961; reprinted by Arno Press, 1971).

  3. 3

    AP in the Baltimore Sun, December 30, and AP in the New York Times, December 31.

  4. 4

    Facts on File for 1965, p. 421B2.

  5. 5

    The Pentagon Papers by Neil Sheehan and others in the New York Times (Bantam), p. 606. See also pp. 182-184 of The Air War in North Vietnam, Vol. II, in Book 6 of 12, U.S.-Vietnam Relations 1945-67, the Pentagon Papers as printed by the Pentagon for the House Committee on Armed Services (US Government Printing Office, Washington, 1971, Stock Number 5270-1201). Also pp. 260-262 in Vol. IV of the Senator Gravel edition, The Pentagon Papers (Beacon Press).

  6. 6

    For fuller accounts see Carroll Kilpatrick in the Washington Post, December 31, “Nixon Even More Secretive Since Peace Talk Breakdown” and Robert S. Boyd the same day in the Philadelphia Inquirer and other Knight newspapers, “Anybody Here Seen the President? Not Often in Seven Weeks.”

  7. 7

    All these speeches may be found in full in the October 30 and November 6 issues of Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.