Mr. Nixon, who has his nightmares while he is wide awake, cannot sleep at four o’clock the morning of Saturday, May 9; telephones and arouses Helen Thomas, the United Press’s White House correspondent, to talk about her predecessor, who committed suicide a month ago; leaves her at last in peace to lurch off to the Lincoln Memorial and a conversation with the young waiting, as he puts it, “to shout your slogans in the Ellipse.”

Joan Polletier, a Syracuse University student, remembers the encounter: “Here we come from a university that’s completely uptight, on strike, and, when we told him where we are from, he talked about the football team, and when someone said he was from California, he talked about surfing.” (The New York Times, May 10.)

What was it he had said to the Negro trooper in Vietnam? Something to the effect that “I guess you miss those collard greens.”

Memories keep intruding like uneasy ghosts—memories of Six Crises,1 that curious confession which Mr. Nixon disguised as a memoir of prideful occasions and which went largely unattended in 1962 because then he had little place in history except as a national disaster that no one thought could ever happen.

“When a man has been through even a minor crisis,” Mr. Nixon reflected then, “he learns not to worry when his muscles tense up, his breathing comes faster, his nerves tingle, his stomach churns, his temper becomes short, his nights are sleepless. He recognizes such symptoms as the natural and healthy signs that his system is keyed up for battle. Far from worrying when this happens, he should worry when it does not.”

There had been the moment, during the pursuit of Alger Hiss, when he “…began to notice the inevitable symptoms of tension. I was ‘mean’ to live with at home and with my friends. I was quick-tempered with members of my staff. I lost interest in eating and skipped meals without even being aware of it. Getting to sleep became more and more difficult.

“I suppose that some might say I was ‘nervous,’ but I knew these were simply the evidences of preparing for battle. There is, of course, a fine line to be observed. One must always be keyed up for battle but he must not be jittery. He is jittery only when he worries about the natural symptoms of stress.”

So Mr. Nixon is most confident about himself when there stir in his interior those symptoms which can only alarm every sober person around him.

We are ruled then by a night mind of this sort. Its exegesis and explanation to the concerned are a major chore of Henry Kissinger, Mr. Nixon’s assistant for National Security Affairs. Kissinger is supposed to have said recently that every war has its casualties and that he is resigned to being a casualty of this one; but he seems to bear his martyrdom with marked equanimity. The day after Mr. Nixon moved into Cambodia, Kissinger made his contribution to the public calm by lunching for two hours at the Sans Souci. It is natural that the journalists cling to him; he is a symbol of that continuity of our national policies, according to which the same advisers counsel an infinite variety of Presidents.

Kissinger’s background briefings are instruments to support—if not often to comport with—Mr. Nixon’s public speeches. His system seems to be to offer persons discontented with the public explanation the semiprivate alternative of its direct opposite. On April 30 we had Mr. Nixon presenting an enemy “concentrating his main forces in these sanctuaries where they are building up to launch massive attacks” on our troops in South Vietnam. The next day, Kissinger could describe this same enemy as one who, far from threatening South Vietnam, was actually “debouching” westward—which ought to suggest that he had fewer troops in this area of massive build-up than he had had two weeks before.

“Tonight,” Mr. Nixon had said, “American and South Vietnamese troops will attack the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam.”

The next day, Kissinger had to answer the questions of journalists who wondered whether Hanoi might be aroused to reprisal by any such slash at its jugular. His reply, tailored to cover such alarms, did not remotely fit Mr. Nixon’s immediately previous image of North Vietnam’s “intransigence and belligerence.” Instead he reminded his questioners of Hanoi’s fidelity to our understanding that its troops will not cross the demilitarized zone, which “is, in fact, the only ground sanctuary from which they can threaten our forces in Vietnam.”

The other monument to Kissinger’s flexibility of response has been his establishment of a designation for the Cambodian venture, which is not an “invasion” but a “technical incursion.” This term became immediately popular with those few persons with whom the enterprise was popular. Senator Tower of Texas, for example, took at once to describing it as this “incursion,” dropping Kissinger’s modifier. It is curious that these two academicians should each have thought that this substitute would elevate the tone of the affair, “incursion” being a word rather more pejorative than “invasion,” inescapably echoing the burglary statutes as it does. Higher civilizations invade while barbarians incur. The New Webster definition of “incursion” is: “a running in, into, or against; hence a hostile entrance into a territory; a sudden invasion; raid, inroad.” Dictionary instances of its usage run to expressions of outrage or contempt for the sort of creatures who do such things: the New Webster’s example is a sentence of Justice Cardozo’s from a tort opinion involving an incursion of pigs; the Shorter Oxford’s is from Milton (“Against the Scythian, whose incursions wild / Have wasted Sogdiana…”).


This is territory which is technically inside Cambodia, completely occupied by North Vietnamese forces, containing very little Cambodian population if any

—Henry Kissinger, April 302

On May 5, Mr. Nixon proclaimed Mother’s Day (“in special recognition of the high esteem in which this nation holds mothers”) and on May 6, Congressman Saylor of Pennsylvania occupied the moment of exhaustion in the arms budget debate to inform the House that “this is National Goodwill Week.” In Cambodia, the messengers of this spirit found their progress incommoded by desperate clusters of lost civilians; and the reporters, whose performance in this war may be the only proud memory Americans can ever draw from it, were remorselessly transmitting accounts of infants napalmed or buried in the tracks of tanks, and of their liberators—some who paused for moments to apologize and others for minutes to loot: the soldiers of the richest country on earth were stealing shoes from the women of one of the poorest.

Kissinger is not a man to be exempted from all suspicion of lying; still who would lie about a matter where his exposure had inevitably to be so quick and so degrading? In that case, Kissinger must only have been retailing in good faith what the most refined intelligence sources had permitted him to believe. The ultimate secret of our armed services is the conduct of their war against women; it is a portal from which advance notice is barred even to the President’s National Security Adviser.

Last October, Senator Symington had before him Colonel Robert L. F. Tyrell, our Air Attaché in Vientiane. Colonel Tyrell was describing the system of armed reconnaissance (“armed recce”), which enables American planes to study hostile troops in Laos with the assistance of scientific detection devices like “500-pound, 750-pound general purpose bombs, CBU, rockets.”

Senator Symington: You say the operation constitutes armed recce—how do you know a certain moving vehicle is not full of school children instead of soldiers, when you use napalm?

Colonel Tyrell: Well I think the only way I can answer that is based on all source intelligence that we will not have school buses in certain segments of certain roads that are used.

Senator Symington: Forget about a school bus per se. It might be a native with a couple of kids…

Colonel Tyrell: I understand what you mean. I think in areas that have been approved for armed recce it would be highly unlikely that you would find that.

Senator Symington: I agree, but it would be possible, would it not?

Colonel Tyrell: I would not deny that it would not be impossible.

On May 7, Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts, as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Refugees, commenced his hearings on the causes and conditions of the sufferings of civilians in Laos. As is a necessity with guerrillas, he had to stock his effort with what materials he could obtain from the enemy; so he began with the written answers of Secretary of State Rogers to his inquiries on the subject. Before its public release, Secretary Rogers’s response had to be “sanitized” for security reasons. The military purposes of sanitization are suggested by what had to be excised from the Secretary’s reply to questions about the evacuation of refugees from the war zones:

Question: What are the justifications and objectives of these evacuations?

Secretary Rogers: [DELETED].

Question: What is the current number of refugees in Laos?

Secretary Rogers: [DELETED].

These considerations of the dangers to our safety in the publication of details did not, of course, inhibit the State Department from commenting generally in tones insistently tendentious. Secretary Rogers found a number of causes for casualties among civilians and for their flight from the war zones: “Civilians become involved when Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forcibly detain villagers in an area to provide them with a shield and logistical support…. Most Lao citizens learn very quickly that bombing necessarily follows the North Vietnamese. But they also know that life under the North Vietnamese is difficult in any event. It is therefore not surprising that the Lao move to Government areas to avoid the Vietnamese.”


Secretary Rogers could scarcely concede that an American presence might endanger civilians; intimations of even the faintest peril, where they are suggested at all, are made the responsibility of the Royal Laotian Government:

Instructions have been issued to American personnel in Laos in their liaison with RLG and other officials to attempt to ensure that RLG forces exercise every precaution to protect the civilian population. The same is true of air activities. These guidelines are being followed.


In fairness there arises the supposition that the material deleted from that particular reply included a summary of the Defense Department’s “Air Operating Restrictions in Northern Laos,” whose prescriptions for humane conduct carry a classification of “Secret.”

Yet so keen remains the State Department’s appreciation of the custom by which to have been detected need not mean in any degree to be deterred that the same censors who were careful to erase from Secretary Rogers’s document any small suggestion of an American presence in Laos were also clearing at just the same time the largest revelations of a thundering American intrusion there. The Foreign Relations Committee’s hearings on our intervention in Laos, after being held up for five months to be sanitized, were made public only two days after Secretary Roger’s manful pretense to Senator Kennedy that what the State Department had already confessed to doing had never been done at all.3

William H. Sullivan, former Ambassador to Laos, had admitted at the Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Laos last October that, starting in 1965, the United States had committed itself at the least to intense air support for the Royal Lao Government. This was, Sullivan explained, a “discrepancy” from rather than “an overt violation” of the Geneva agreement for the neutrality of Laos.

“Would the American air strikes over Laos,” Committee Counsel Roland Paul had asked, “be considered a violation of [the Geneva agreement’s] provision(s)?”

“I think the precise letter of the agreement does not define that activity,” Sullivan answered, “but I should certainly suspect that anybody would consider that the spirit of it would extend to that.”

As Ambassador, Sullivan appears to have been field commander of a military operation which annually cost the United States a sum larger than the gross national product of Laos. He had cleared all air strikes, and he had been both shield and inspiration for the Meo hill tribes in their war in Northern Laos. In 1969, General Vang Pao, the Meo commander, advised the American Embassy that he had decided to withdraw his bloodied troops from the front lines and move his tribe to Northwest Laos. Colonel Edgar Duskin, Ambassador Sullivan’s military aide, exhorted the General to carry on, and offered to support him with American pilots. He accepted, and Colonel Duskin threw enough weight into a war whose enemy, he did not deny, was Laotian (“Pathet Lao and ‘dissident neutralist’ “). The American pilots destroyed a number of Pathet Lao tanks, which broke their offensive and encouraged the Meo to try one of their own. Here they were again bloodied, after which they have struggled with lessening hope against a heavy infusion of North Vietnamese troops.

In 1968, while he was well along in his flight as a cloud conqueror, Ambassador Sullivan appeared before Senator Symington’s subcommittee in closed session and attested: “We do not have a military training and advisory group [in Laos].” He reported himself undisturbed by Pathet Lao threats to the Plain of Jars. “If they came down from the hills,” the Royal Lao Air Force in its majesty would destroy them. Why, Senator Fulbright asked the Ambassador a year later, had he not mentioned that the Royal Lao Government was enjoying less air cover from its own planes than from the United States Seventh Air Force?

“But if there were any direct questions asked of me about US air operations—“ Ambassador Sullivan began to answer and seems then to have trailed off.

Now, still as eager to please as he is careful to bemuse, William F. Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, took his seat as running guard for a team of sub-cabinet officers before Senator Kennedy’s refugee committee. Ambassador Sullivan, Senator Kennedy observed as introduction, has had a distinguished career. It was a privilege to be here and talk about the refugees, Sullivan answered, refugees being a subject of such fundamental human interest.

There had been no suggestion of irony either in his reception or in his bearing; to have been caught lying for duty in Washington is cause neither for the liar to be ashamed nor for any of his multiple victims to feel resentment. There had been two premises to our air war policy in Laos, Sullivan explained: “a major effort to prevent civilian casualties” and “humanitarian assistance.”

Senator Kennedy read aloud one of that morning’s reports on the sacking of villages and the wounding of children in Cambodia; how many villages in Laos, he asked, had suffered like that? A Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense licked his lips and struggled for the answer he would later summon up (“mechanical and not human error”) and was rescued by William Sullivan:

“We established very clear rules putting all villages out of range of American air activity. Before I approved a strike, I insisted on photographic evidence to see the area and the target.”

“Seven hundred sorties a day?” Senator Kennedy gently wondered. “That’s a full time job.” Approving the strike, checking the photographs afterward to assure himself it had been sanitary, then getting prepared for the next day’s targets. “I wonder how an ambassador has enough time.”

“It took quite a bit of my time,” Sullivan conceded.

Senator Kennedy took up an Agency for International Development chart which estimated the increase in displaced Laotians at 100,000 in 1969. “That was an internal document,” the AID man said, his reproach muted but the wound to his sensibilities too much to repress. Senator Kennedy began asking if this could be a trend; and Ambassador Sullivan rode up again as rescue party: things are, he said, in a seesaw pattern; until now we could predict the rate of displacement, but these figures may represent a change in the pattern. The best judgment is that the North Vietnamese are now here to stay, and there is “this pattern of the North Vietnamese pushing the population out in front of the line of fire, apparently deliberately.”

Earlier, Senator Kennedy had asked the AID man whether he had any figures on civilian casualties. The AID man called upon Dr. Patricia McCreedy, Public Health Adviser to AID/Laos. Our service in this area is continuous, she began: a program of basic care, practical nurses, she had here the training figures.

“I wish you could tell us about civilian casualties,” Senator Kennedy intruded.

But nobody could. “We can get the statistics for you,” the AID man promised doubtfully. The special strength of all official witnesses is their capacity for continual surprise at being asked the questions that would come first to the normal mind and for earnest assurance that they would certainly have brought along the answer if they had imagined any subject so obscure interesting anyone. There the question died and the Public Health Adviser settled comfortably into her area of competence. “In the village health program in the outlying areas…,” she resumed.

While Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Sullivan and the rest of the permanent company had been waiting to perform, Senator Kennedy listened to Ronald J. Rickenbach, who had been AID refugee relief officer in Northern Laos for three years, had been reassigned to the United States for Vietnamese studies, and had thereupon quit the service of the government of the United States at the age of twenty-seven.

Rickenbach’s area of competence was the Meo tribes. The Meo seem to dislike everyone, the North Vietnamese even more than the Lao. When the North Vietnamese came, they had the choice habitual to their history—as Rickenbach put it—“to fight, flee, or accommodate.” The CIA persuaded them to fight.

Now they are all destitute, as a direct result of the attrition that they have had to endure, from the battles we encouraged them to fight. They fought because we armed them…[W]e had no moral right to encourage the Meo into protracted battle against such overwhelming odds.”

In 1969, as a bonus for protecting our radar installation near the North Vietnamese border, Ambassador Sullivan promised the Meo tactical air support. And, thereafter, Rickenbach testified, “more havoc and meaningless destruction, rather than military advantage, has been wrought by what in many cases can only be characterized as indiscriminate bombing of civilian population centers…. I actually dealt with four incidents, purely civilian areas which were targeted by American jet aircraft.

“The truth of this unhappy story is that the Meo and every other hill tribe in North Laos has been had. The American government has exploited them for their regional usefulness. Now the battle is almost over—in defeat not victory. Their reward: the stated policy of our Government that we have no commitments in the country of Laos.”

Senator Fong of Hawaii was at him with whatever passion remains to such of the conscript fathers who are Republicans. “Should we have allowed them to be overrun?” he asked.

Ronald Rickenbach answered from what suddenly and quite plainly seemed the authority of years: “You give a Meo a gun and he’ll go hunting for you. But they’ve had 40,000 killed, and if they had to do it over again, they wouldn’t pick up their guns…. They would say, ‘I’d rather be alive and red than dead.’ ”

Those words, whose mere suggestion had been the occasion for numberless unanimous resolutions of anathema across the span of an entire generation, sat casually in the air. Senator Fong subsided. The permanent party’s collective expression did not alter from its accustomed worry about getting out of here in time for lunch. No eagle screamed in outrage. It was one of those moments which suggest that here we know that what was is over and that what will be is about to come. Ronald Rickenbach went on: “If we abandon these people it’ll be genocide. We’ve got to take care of these people. It’s a lost war. Maybe we should resettle them in Colorado.”

You might think that the story he had told would have affronted Deputy Assistant Secretary Sullivan, for what, after all, did his account of this dreadful history mean except that his distinguished career as Ambassador added up to little more than a contribution to the incidence of murder? Instead, Sullivan, in the course of his subsequent excursions, referred twice and most respectfully to the testimony of “the young man who appeared here a while ago.” Rickenbach had been, he said afterward, very interesting. Ronald Rickenbach and his sorrow; the students and the sacrifice to the cause of dialogue of their fresh haircuts, their resurrected ties; even Mr. Nixon, with his alarmed eyes and his untrusted hands—curious and interesting specimens all, but temporary. Only the permanent party can be sure of enduring.

The permanent party’s garrison in the Congress is the Armed Services Committees. These draw their weight from the fidelity of their adherence to that history of the last generation embodied in the institution of a Department of State that shrinks in the shadow of a Department of Defense. The majority leader of the Senate sits on the Foreign Relations Committee with the Senate’s two most revered Republicans; yet as a body its weight is a feather against that of John Stennis, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, or of Richard Russell, his predecessor. Still, on May 5, the President had to meet the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

His tactics for that engagement were as careful as they had been imprudent for every other the week before; but, then, the only recent war which our armed forces have brilliantly fought and up to now decisively settled has been the one against their enemies in Congress. For the encounter itself Nixon surrounded Senate Foreign Relations by inviting along the unidentifiable throng of House Foreign Affairs, an instrument whose one power is consent. In advance, he reinforced his outworks with detachments of the Armed Services Committees.

House and Senate Armed Services met with the President for two and a half hours on the morning before his appointment with Foreign Relations; afterward Ronald Ziegler, the President’s press secretary, brought their leaders before the journalists. The weight of their tread, the fixity of their commitment to whatever had always been was epitomized in Mendel Rivers, chairman of the House Committee. Mendel Rivers had until now cut his hair according to the fancy of John C. Calhoun; the unexpected visibility of the back of his neck as he waited was itself a statement: we are two nations with different badges of identity.

The enemy, Mendel Rivers proclaimed, will be destroyed.

“Nixon caught this crowd flat-footed.”

So the legislator was claiming for the executive what the executive himself would no longer assert. Ronald Ziegler would spend most of a day when the journalists were infrequently kind enough to let him finish a sentence describing the Cambodian performance in dimensions steadily diminishing from the President’s promise. His citations of trophies ran to the rice rather than to the captains of the enemy. COSVN—less than a week before, Mr. Nixon’s “headquarters for the entire Communist military operation”—was now no more than “a group of people who move around.”

Mendel Rivers returned to garrison to drill the House of Representatives. Fifty-one senators had attacked the Cambodian adventure, but no one of them seemed to have a very plausible idea of what to do about it; and at that moment, in any case, it would be for the Senate to deplore but for the House to vote. Mendel Rivers’s military appropriations bill would be up for passage the next day.

That afternoon’s debate may or may not have been the last affirmation of the history which for thirty years has established for the average member of the House of Representatives a weight of authority against the Joint Chiefs of Staff approximating that of a citizen of Tennessee under the governorship of General Sherman. There were a number of attempts at amending the arms bill, most of them desperate, if occasionally ingenious, efforts to inhibit the President from the flank. Only one amendment could be expected to pass. It had been introduced by Paul Findley of Illinois and forbade the provision of funds to send combat troops to Laos, Thailand, or Cambodia, “except that such is required, as determined by the President and reported promptly to the Congress, to protect the lives of American troops remaining within South Vietnam.”

Mr. Nixon had endorsed the Findley amendment, as well he might; and all through the debate his opponents indicated how sure they were of its passage by indulging that habit of House liberals, a consequence of servitude, of making sure that no stranger could henceforth doubt the proportions of their defeat. They described the Findley amendment as worse than the Tonkin Gulf resolution and essentially a repeal of the prior House resolution, passed in 1969, which forbade expenditures for ground combat in Laos and Cambodia. After a while Mendel Rivers gave up the pleasure of hearing his enemies thus complain of how powerful he was for the duty of showing them how powerful he was. He mustered his legions to limit the debate to an hour, which would confine the remarks of each congressman still waiting to speak to thirty seconds.

There followed a scene which was a reminder that, in occupied countries, protest becomes possible not with speeches but with graffiti.

“Where are the Members who walked through that line [to cut off debate],” asked Congressman Riegle of Michigan. “They’re down in the gymnasium playing paddleball.” That evening, his sense of comity restored, he excised that sudden outbreak into truth from the record. Congressman Jacobs of Indiana had time for little more than: “If we bring freedom for Asia, will they be allowed to speak longer than thirty seconds?”

Unexpectedly, Congressman Thomas O’Neill of Massachusetts moved down the aisle. “Mr. President,” he said, “I move a preferential motion.” He moved to strike the enacting clause, which under the rules would allow him five minutes instead of the thirty seconds allotted. Tip O’Neill of the Rules Committee, steward of the Irish tenancy in the Massachusetts delegation, had joined those insurgents twenty years his junior and, casually, almost amusedly, he was using, as a rebel, one of those tricks of parliament he must have used so often before as a deputy policing rebels.

The students, he began, are saying to him, “Congressman, can’t you do anything?”

“I say to our Senior members of the House of Representatives, ‘Look at the situation as it exists, not as you would like it to be, not as it used to be, but as it is.’

“The students of America believe and I believe that we are obliged to do all that we can to change the perilous course of this Nation. Truly my children awakened me three years ago to the realization of how great this concern is, how deep the love of country and the desire to protect it.”

There was applause and a sudden notice of how young the gallery was this day, and a sense that an old man need only throw a rope to a young one to find out how strong it is. There followed a point of order, an admonition to the gallery, and Mendel Rivers taking the opportunity Thomas O’Neill had afforded him to steal five minutes for himself:

“The young people are not serious about pulling out of this war now…. Families have not taken enough time with their children to talk about a thing called patriotism.”

At which a few of the young broke the pledge of containment they had plainly brought here and would otherwise manifest all that week and faintly hissed, while in Mendel Rivers’s legions there roused the mutterings of “Throw them out.” The permanent party had watched one defector depart and closed its ranks. It had closed them indeed even against Congressman Findley. When his amendment came to the floor, Congressman Thompson of Georgia stood up to ask:

“Mr. Chairman, if this amendment is defeated, is there no restriction whatsoever on the President…?”

The chairman answered that such would be the case; and, to Findley’s open-mouthed amazement, the legions of Mendel Rivers thereupon walked into the teller lines with Thomas O’Neill and the other House guerrillas and the Findley amendment was rejected 221-32. The Findley amendment had required of the President no more than that he promptly report to the Congress whatever it might be that he would already have done. Even that nullity was too much for the garrison to concede. The power of the House had made absolutely plain its commitment never to ask the Commander-in-Chief to explain anything. Having formally resolved not to burden the military with so much as a question, the House then moved to smother it with gifts. There would be only sixty-nine votes against a military procurement bill which rendered to the Air Force $2.33 billion for five prototypes of a new bomber, to the Navy Department $435 million more for ship construction than it had quite had the effrontery to ask, to the ABM $1.6 billion.

It was not possible to leave this ceremony of customary ratification of military power without thinking how permanent it all was, how impervious. What is that feeling of helplessness, however gallant, which every visitor eventually finds in the very best of senators except the consequence of years across which it became harder and harder to remember what it was like to live under anything except an Occupation? After all, who here could have been expected to know that we were not as we were? The man in the dungeon of a citadel can hardly hope to know more about the world outside than his keeper does. On Monday Mr. Nixon could be so sure that no great number of Americans remained capable of reacting to anything, no matter how dreadful, that he could learn of Kent State and not even need to wait for the details before announcing this too as one ratification of what he had been telling us all along.

That same day, his opponents in the Senate, meeting to find some device to moderate him, kept coming back to the defeat of Senator Yarborough in Texas as a portent that they are all condemned men. No one on either side could then have conceived that extraordinary week and its end, with Mr. Nixon incessantly, sleeplessly explaining, with Kissinger reduced to asking no more from his outraged academic visitors than another seven weeks, the students needing only to appear to push aside that caricature of them at which the Vice President had labored so long to so much apparent applause. It had taken only a week for the arousal against Mr. Nixon to be reduced to silence or pleadings of having been misunderstood, every visible officer on temporary duty. But one important difference between temporary and permanent duty is that anything that is visible is only temporary. It took the shortest of campaigns to drive the transient powers to cover; the permanent ones remain.

This Issue

June 4, 1970