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The Ancient Mariner

No More Vietnams

by Richard Nixon
Arbor House, 240 pp., $14.95

A Vietcong Memoir

by Truong Nhu Tang, with David Chanoff, by Doan Van Toai
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 350 pp., $17.95

The tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the ignominious departure of the Americans has brought forth an abundance of post-mortems and reinterpretations. The passions released by the war have made it impossible for many, even at this distance, to approach the subject with equanimity. The rhetoric is charged with too much history and too many allusions. Today in Central America many of the arguments heard in the mid-1960s are being repeated. The Vietnam War cannot be put to rest because the issues it raised—the containment of communism in the third world, the limits of American intervention, and the proper definition of the national interest—are still hotly contested.

These two books could hardly be more different. One is by a former president, the other by a revolutionary; one full of resentment and accusation, the other mournful and disillusioned. Yet both men have pursued lost causes to the point of no return. Because of who they were, their stories are important.

This is Richard Nixon’s fifth book since resigning the presidency in 1974 and his third on foreign policy. Though much of the material on the Vietnam negotiations is taken from his memoirs, it has the ring of this morning’s diatribe. But Nixon is an intelligent man and many things in his book are thoughtful and challenging. He is always interesting to listen to, particularly on foreign policy, a field in which he has concentrated so much of his energies. While his administration had many diplomatic successes, Vietnam was not one of them. It is not surprising that he should want to press his own view of the war, and that he believes he should not be held responsible for the failed peace. The tone is angry, the words accusatory.

Truong Nhu Tang commands our attention for very different reasons. For nearly two decades he fought against the Saigon government and the Americans. Not a Communist, he joined the underground opposition to Diem in the late Fifties while he was working as chief comptroller of a Saigon bank. He describes how he took part in organizing the NLF and was brutally tortured when he was arrested in 1967. After he was freed as part of a prisoner exchange, he became minister of justice in the provisional revolutionary government in 1969. He entered Saigon in triumph in April 1975 with the victorious Vietcong and North Vietnamese armies. Three-and-a-half years later, bitterly angry at Hanoi’s domination of the south, he left his country in an open boat—the highest Vietnamese official ever to defect. His story, sensitively and dramatically rendered by David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai, is important as an account not only of the making and disillusionment of a revolutionary, but of how the war was seen and played from the other side. Our Vietnam literature has been almost entirely an argument by and among Americans. Tang offers a useful and disturbing corrective.

Nixon’s book is essentially an apology for his conduct of the war and an effort to blame his critics for the lost peace. It is also the latest installment in one of the most remarkable acts of self-resuscitation in modern memory. He has not yet become an elder statesman, though his foreign policy credentials are considerable, but he is certainly our ancient mariner, forever tugging at our sleeve to let him tell his tale of what really happened.

The accusatory part of Nixon’s book is simple and direct: “We won the war in Vietnam, but we lost the peace…in a spasm of congressional irresponsibility.” By refusing to continue military aid to Saigon and allow him to resume the bombing of North Vietnam for violations of the peace accords, Nixon charges, Congress lost South Vietnam to the Communists. There is some truth to this. Congress, like the public, was sick of the war. It cast Thieu out on his own, with a raft full of American military supplies, and told him to make the best of it. If he couldn’t win with half a million American troops, how was he going to win without them? Nixon, for all his angry charges against Congress and the press, implicitly acknowledged that Saigon’s days were numbered when he pulled American troops out of Vietnam in 1972 and forced Thieu to go along with the Paris peace accords of 1973. By that time Nixon, preoccupied with his courtship of China, was backing away from the war. What he most likely was banking on was not victory but a “decent interval.”

Understandably sensitive to the accusation that he could have ended the war in 1969, and spared 20,000 American lives, Nixon rightly points out that it was not until 1972 that Hanoi gave in on the key condition that Thieu be allowed to remain in power. In return, however, Nixon also reluctantly agreed that North Vietnam would be allowed to retain its troops in the south. Thieu naturally was alarmed by this bargain and refused to go along with the agreement Kissinger had reached in Paris in October. To reassure Thieu of continuing American support, and to warn the Vietnamese that they could not violate the pending accords with impunity, Nixon ordered heavy air attacks on the Hanoi-Haiphong corridor.

For eleven days at the end of December US planes conducted the most concentrated air offensive of the war against North Vietnam. “I don’t want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one,” Nixon said to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to Stanley Karnow, whose Vietnam: A History is one of the best accounts of the war so far.1 “This is your chance to use military power to win this war, and if you don’t, I’ll hold you responsible.”

The Christmas bombing which, according to the North Vietnamese, resulted in 1,623 civilian deaths, provoked intense controversy and contributed to growing antiwar feelings in the United States. The raids also resulted in high American casualties. Twenty-six American planes were shot down, including fifteen B-52s—only one had been lost in the entire war up until then—with ninety-three crew members aboard. Nixon believed he had made his point. He had signaled to the North Vietnamese that he would resume the bombing if they violated the peace accords, and he had reassured Thieu that South Vietnam would not stand alone. But it was his last concession to Thieu. “You must decide now whether you desire to continue our alliance or whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves our interests alone,” Nixon told him. Thieu acquiesced. “We have finally achieved peace with honor,” Nixon announced to the nation. But the accord signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, was essentially the same one that Kissinger had drafted in October.

It was not the first time that Nixon had used the B-52s for symbolic and psychological purposes. In the spring of 1972, on the very eve of his scheduled summit meeting with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow, and only two months after his historic opening of ties with China, he ordered the bombing of Hanoi and the mining of Haiphong harbor. His ostensible reason was to stop a North Vietnamese offensive in the south, but he was at least as concerned with the geopolitical signal he believed he was giving. “If we allowed North Vietnam to conquer South Vietnam,” he explains here, “the hardheaded realists in the politburos in Peking and Moscow might think a United States that lacked the will to defend its interests was not worth talking to.”

A master at the game of Realpolitik, Nixon was determined to confront Brezhnev at the summit from a position of strength. And what showed greater strength than the willingness to pulverize Moscow’s ally? “He knew we were worth talking to, because our actions in Vietnam had demonstrated that we had not only the power to defend our interests but also the will to use it,” Nixon relates. “If we had not acted…we would have been in an intolerable position of weakness. Brezhnev would have assumed that if I could be pushed around in Vietnam, I could also be pushed around in Moscow.” The Soviet leader, who desperately wanted American grain and a SALT I agreement, and was alarmed by Nixon’s stunning démarche in Peking, let his friends in Hanoi take it.

Nixon was clearly preoccupied with the notion of will, and by fear that his adversaries would not take him seriously. His carefully calculated and often brutal use of American military power was designed to demonstrate to the leaders in Hanoi that he had the will to prevail. “The enemy has tested us,” he wrote to Kissinger at the time of the North Vietnamese spring 1972 offensive. “He has now gone over the brink and so have we. We have the power to destroy his warmaking capacity. The only question is whether we have the will to use that power.” Yet though Nixon had the will and understood its value in diplomacy, he had lost the domestic consensus that would have allowed him to exercise it. This is why he never sought a declaration of war from Congress. He would not have received it.

Nixon built his policy on a crumbling foundation, and the North Vietnamese knew it. Their military initiatives, like their 1972 spring offensive, also had political goals. Nixon, in his fixation on will and firepower—one shared by Kissinger—failed to understand this. “The overriding aim” of the Communist leaders, Truong Nhu Tang recalls, “was to get the United States out of Vietnam on the best basis possible, and keep her out—thus isolating the Thieu regime.” In this effort military maneuvers and psychological pressures went hand in hand. “To do this it was necessary to weaken still further Nixon’s and Kissinger’s ability to make war, by bringing domestic opposition to their policies to a head. We now judged that the conclusive isolation of the American government from its internal support was within reach, and this goal was one we were willing to make large sacrifices for.”

The strategy proved successful. Though Nixon’s retaliation for the spring offensive caused terrible damage and the Communists could not continue their territorial advances, the North Vietnamese leaders nonetheless considered the offensive to be, in Tang’s words, “a decisive triumph.” For them the battlefield was only one ground of confrontation; there they were willing to take heavy losses if it suited their political calculations. Equally important, in those calculations, was American public opinion. For this reason, the Tet offensive of 1968, though disastrous militarily for the Communists, was a political victory.

Similarly, they considered that they gained more than they lost from Nixon’s bombing and invasion of Cambodia. Though the Cambodian invasion achieved its military objectives, “this ‘victory’ arguably did more to undermine American unity than any other event of the war,” Tang observes.

  1. 1

    Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (Penguin, 1984), p. 652.

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