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