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Nixon Redivivus

From the very start of the negotiations in 1969, the North Vietnamese made their position clear—the removal of the South Vietnamese regime headed by General Nguyen Van Thieu and the equivalent of a North Vietnamese victory. Nixon’s policy was three-fold—the progressive removal of American troops from South Vietnam, the continued pressure on North Vietnam by large-scale bombing and mining of North Vietnamese harbors, together with refusal to give up on Thieu.

According to Haldeman, both Nixon and Kissinger were strangely optimistic about ending the war rapidly. On March 20, 1969, Nixon “stated flatly that war will be over by next year.” On October 8, 1969, Nixon “fully expected that an acceptable, if not totally satisfactory, solution would be achieved through negotiation within the first six months.” In April 1970, both Nixon and Kissinger agreed that the war could be wound up this year “if we keep enough pressure on and don’t crumble at home.” In March 1971, both again agreed that “there’s a 50/50 chance at least of getting a Vietnam settlement this summer and ending the war completely.”

When none of these expectations was fulfilled, Nixon resorted to heavy bombing in Cambodia and Laos and the mining of Haiphong harbor. Through all of these setbacks and miscalculations, Nixon continued to bring back American troops; both he and Kissinger agreed in May 1972 that “regardless of what happens now, we’ll be finished with the war by August.” By the end of 1972, 500,000 American troops were reduced to 20,000. A break came on October 8, 1972; the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, Le Duc Tho, agreed to end the war without removing Thieu. More months passed before the final accord was reached. It gave the North Vietnamese all they wanted except for one thing—the United States was not going to take responsibility for kicking out Thieu.

Nevertheless, Thieu opposed the agreement with North Vietnam all the way. The main thing for North Vietnam was to get the Americans out of South Vietnam. Kissinger later wrote: “What was success for us—the withdrawal of American forces—was a nightmare for our allies; even with a cease-fire they simply could not imagine how they would be better off without us.”3 Kissinger went to Saigon to convince Thieu and his associates to sign on. After days of being bullied, threatened, and implored, Thieu burst into tears—and eventually signed.4 In his most recent version of the negotiations, Kissinger wrote, “we had gone to the outer limit of what could be conceded.” 5 The outer limit was the immediate removal of the Thieu regime. When North Vietnam gave up trying to get the Americans to overthrow Thieu, the deal was made.

But Thieu knew better than the Americans that the real issue was the presence of American forces in South Vietnam. Once they were removed, South Vietnam’s fate was sealed. Kissinger has recently defended the removal: “Nevertheless, Nixon and I, along with many senior members of the Administration, believed that the military and economic provisions of the agreement would enable South Vietnam to resist foreseeable pressures from the North, provided the North Vietnamese adhered to the portion of the agreement that prohibited renewed infiltration.”6 After all the destruction that North Vietnam had suffered, and in view of the Communist doctrine that agreements were only as good as the power to enforce them, to have expected North Vietnam to adhere to this prohibition was a pipe dream. The idea that the agreement—with no more American ground forces on the scene—could be enforced only by more bombing and that Congress would tolerate a renewal of the war was a delusion.7 In 1975, North Vietnam struck again and the Nixon-Kissinger house of cards collapsed ignominiously.

Kissinger’s version of the negotiations in his books makes it appear that he wore down the North Vietnamese. Haldeman gives a quite different impression. He records that Kissinger came back time and again from the secret negotiations in Paris empty-handed. In his memoirs, Kissinger has a chapter entitled “Vietnam 1970-71: Forcing Hanoi’s Hand.” Nixon knew better. In April 1971, he made the point to Haldeman that “if we wait more than a couple more months, we won’t have anything left to negotiate anyway, except the residual force and the bombing vs. the release of POW’s.” Hanoi’s hand was never forced; the negotiations essentially went the way the North Vietnamese wanted them to go. “It was Hanoi, not President Nixon, that determined the timing and the pace of the negotiations,” Kissinger wrote in a letter to The New York Times of June 3, 1994, shortly after the publication of the Haldeman diaries. In effect, Kissinger waited month after month to get a signal from Le Duc Tho that North Vietnam was willing to settle for something short of Thieu’s immediate elimination.

Nixon tried to do the impossible in Vietnam. He committed himself to “Vietnamization,” which implied reducing American ground forces to the vanishing point. This limited him to bombing and mining, which could not bring North Vietnam to give up its ultimate aim—the conquest of South Vietnam and unification of the country. The Americans had long accustomed South Vietnam to depend on them, but he had to take away this crutch before they had learned to walk by themselves. There were two ways for Nixon to abandon the South Vietnamese—by agreeing to overthrow Thieu’s regime in the negotiations with North Vietnam and to eliminate American ground forces outside the negotiation. Finally, North Vietnam settled for the second route, which made it possible to conclude the negotiations but did not make possible the ultimate survival of South Vietnam.

A new book on Nixon by Jonathan Aitken is seriously vitiated by its treatment of the Vietnam War. Aitken, a British member of Parliament and minister of state for Defense, is Nixon’s latest, and somewhat unlikely, biographer. He has worked hard on getting the facts in place, and some of his interviews add interesting sidelights to the story. His strategy is to admit many of Nixon’s failings but to end up by praising him. He refers to Nixon’s “rough edges, his uncomfortable political abrasiveness, and his social insecurities,” his “tyrannical streak” and “willingness to engage in duplicity, and at times mendacity,” the “‘dark’ side of his nature.” In the end, he celebrates Nixon as having been “excessively maligned for his faults and inadequately recognised for his virtues,” his “Shakespearean complexity,” his “hidden depths.” Aitken treats Kissinger in much the same way. Kissinger was an “intellectual valet of prodigious industry,” “a courtier skilled in the arts of flattery and manipulation,” “pandering to Nixon’s worst instincts with cunning sycophancy.” But he was also “a shrewd diplomatic bargainer…and an effective collator of briefing papers…an excellent presidential assistant, but he was a follower, not a leader; a brilliant draftsman, not an innovator of conceptual thinking.”

For Aitken, Nixon stood firm for “peace with honor” in his dealings with North Vietnam. This verdict is wholly based on Nixon’s refusal to oversee the overthrow of Thieu. Aitken asserts: “This ability to read the minds of Communist leaders was one of Nixon’s greatest strengths.” But Aitken does not show how Nixon succeeded in reading the minds of the North Vietnamese leaders in 1972- 1973. They were willing to wait a while before cashing in on their agreement with Nixon, knowing full well—as Thieu knew—that the South Vietnamese regime could not survive without major American ground forces.

A different view of Nixon’s war policy is taken by Joan Hoff, professor of history at the University of Indiana, in Nixon Reconsidered. She has produced a “revisionist” version of Nixon’s administration, which means that she believes Nixon’s domestic policy was more important and successful than his foreign policy. She claims that Nixon

exceeded the accomplishments of the New Deal and the Great Society in the areas of civil rights, social welfare spending, domestic and international economic restructuring, urban parks, government reorganization, land-use initiatives, revenue sharing, draft reform, pension reform, and spending for the arts and humanities.

Little of these activities finds its way into Haldeman’s diary and Nixon himself might have been surprised at her conclusions.

One of her chapters on the Vietnam War is entitled “Vietnam: Without Peace or Honor.” In contrast to Kissinger’s view that Watergate prevented the United States from successfully carrying out the 1973 agreements with North Vietnam, she asserts: “Watergate cannot be blamed for the failure of the Paris Peace Accords to work; they were unworkable the day they were signed, and so were the secret pledges that were supposed to make them workable.” Hers is a strong-minded book that may change to some extent the way Nixon’s administration has been regarded.


The Watergate scandal is the least satisfactory portion of Haldeman’s book, though it is the only subject about which his diaries are published in full. We can learn a great deal about it but not what Nixon did to merit his punishment.

Nixon clearly was not responsible for and did not know in advance about the break- in of the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. The event is first mentioned by Haldeman on June 18, 1972—“a group of five people had been caught breaking into the Democratic headquarters. Actually to plant bugs and photograph material.” On June 20, Haldeman noted: “I told the P about it on the plane last night. He was somewhat interested. The more he thought about it, it obviously bothered him more.” His immediate reaction was how to counterattack—“He feels we should be on the attack for diversion, and not just take it lying down.” He asked, as if to defend one wrongdoing by bringing up what he considered to be another: “Do they justify this kind of thing less than stealing the Pentagon Papers, or the Anderson files, and so on.”

This was the introduction to the “cover-up,” the phase of the scandal that finally brought Nixon and his closest associates down. One reason Nixon was not upset by the break-in was that it was only another “dirty trick” of which he was an old practitioner. In his memoirs, written after his resignation, he boldly recalled what he had said at the outset of his administration: “I told my staff that we should come up with the kind of imaginative dirty tricks that our Democratic opponents used against us and others so effectively in previous campaigns.”8

Haldeman’s diary is full of Nixon’s dirty tricks. He put forward a welfare program called the Family Assistance Plan, which he told Haldeman “to be sure it’s killed by Democrats and that we make a big play for it, but don’t let it pass, can’t afford it.” Haldeman dutifully reports:

Has several plots he wants hatched. One to infiltrate the John Gardner “Common Cause” deal and needle them and try to push them to left. Feels we can benefit from a third party to the left. I’m not so sure, might push Democrats to center, better to have them go left. Next, a front that sounds like SDS to support the Democratic candidates and praise their liberal records, etc., publicize their “bad” quotes in guise of praise. Give the senators a “radiclib” rating.

  1. 3

    Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Little, Brown, 1979), p. 1372. Kissinger stressed this point several times: “Moreover, Thieu understood Hanoi far better than we did…. A compromise would be the beginning, not the end, of massive problems in South Vietnam. We would withdraw; South Vietnam would remain. Hanoi would never give up its implacable quest for victory; sooner or later South Vietnam would have to fight alone.” (p. 1310) “A world in which the South Vietnamese would have to stand entirely on their own was full of terrors that his [Thieu’s] pride would not let him admit.” (p. 1320) “The South Vietnamese, after eight years of American participation, simply did not feel ready to confront Hanoi without our direct involvement. Their nightmare was not this or that clause but the fear of being left alone.” (p. 1375)

  2. 4

    0n October 22, 1972, during a meeting in Saigon to get Thieu to agree to the deal with North Vietnam, “while talking he [Thieul frequently burst into tears -of rage rather than sorrow, [Ambassador Ellsworth] Bunker and I thought” (White House Years, p. 1385).

  3. 5

    Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, p. 695.

  4. 6

    Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, pp. 695696.

  5. 7

    Kissinger wrote: “But if all else failed, the use of air power to enforce the agreement was never ruled out, either in the minds of the Nixon Administration or in its public pronouncements” (Diplomacy, p. 696). On December 6, 1972, Haldeman recorded: “The P just feels the bombing-to-submission idea won’t work” (p. 550).

  6. 8

    The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, p. 496.

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