Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

As though driven by Che’s curse, Richard Nixon seems compelled to create “two, three…many Vietnams” in Southeast Asia.

The pace of invasion is quickening. On the first evening of the invasion of Laos, Vice President Ky pointed to what could be the next. South Vietnamese ground forces, he said, might have to cross the 17th parallel into North Vietnam to hit supply bases above the DMZ. It was six years since South Vietnamese forces had first done that, in the air, with Ky himself leading the attack. In fact, Ky was speaking at a dinner marking the anniversary, largely unnoticed in the US, of those raids of February 7 and 8, 1965, which “retaliated” for the death of eight Americans in an NLF attack on Pleiku and led to a three-year bombing campaign against the North. Ky’s warning, coinciding with the new offensive in Laos, linked the past, present, and future of a fundamentally unchanging US strategy in Indochina.

In the US itself, not even the Orwellian communiqués seem to have altered. On February 7, 1965, the White House chose the occasion of its announcement that US bombers were crossing the borders of North Vietnam to repeat its past assurances to the American public: “As the US Government has frequently stated, we seek no wider war.” On February 9, 1971, as US bombers and helicopters were for the first time accompanying South Vietnamese forces—paid, equipped, and supported by the US—into Laos, Secretary Laird told the nation: “We have not widened the war.” He added: “To the contrary, we have shortened it.”

To the contrary—as all can see—we have widened it. Why? When and why will we do it again? There is, in truth, a coherent inner logic to the policy that contains answers to these questions. It is a logic that has pointed for at least the last year to the invasion of Laos—and beyond.

For twenty years—since the “fall of China” and the rise of McCarthy—Rule 1 of Indochina policy for an American President has been: Do not lose the rest of Vietnam to communism before the next election. But there was also Rule 2, learned shortly thereafter, in Korea: Do not fight a land war in Asia with US ground combat troops either. Three Presidents, starting with Truman, managed to satisfy both constraints during their terms and passed the challenge on to their successors. The problem grew, and Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency was crushed in its first full term by the impossibility of fulfilling both requirements. But Johnson’s foundering on Rule 2 did not repeal Rule 1 for his successor: even in 1969, even for a Republican, even for Richard Nixon.

Like Kennedy and Johnson before him, Richard Nixon believes he cannot hold the White House for a second term unless he holds Saigon through his first.

His two predecessors had seen the leaders of the previous Democratic administration driven from office after they had been charged with having “lost China.” More specifically, they were accused of losing China without trying, without making full use of US airpower or advisers, without giving full support to an anticommunist Asian ally: omissions pointing to weakness or treason. Kennedy and Johnson both feared that the accusation of “losing Vietnam”—or simply “losing a war”—could rally again the hounds of McCarthyism against their party.

Nixon does not feel immune just because he once was one of the leaders of that pack. On the contrary, he knows better than anyone else just what he would try to do with such an issue if he were on the outside seeking power, even against a Republican President. He is determined not to have to suffer from it in 1972, either from Reagan summoning away his supporters in the convention or from Wallace calling to his voters in the election. (Whether the fears shared by Nixon and his predecessors of a threat from the right are based on political reality, or on a specter of their own making, is not the issue here. What matters is that four of the last five Presidents have felt compelled to take such a threat seriously and Nixon still does.)

No doubt there are other and perhaps even stronger motives that influence Mr. Nixon’s choices, but they point in the same direction. There is good evidence that the President is, even more than his predecessors, a “true believer” in the cold war premises they all shared, including that of the importance of maintaining US power in Asia, showing strength to the Russians and Chinese, containing communism—monolithic or not—and avoiding the reverberating damage of a US failure or humiliation.

Which of these instincts is the stronger matters little in this case, for they reinforce each other in Vietnam policy: Saigon must not “fall”…above all, not too soon or too suddenly. Those who imagine otherwise, who suppose that Nixon’s views on domestic politics conflict with his notions of US interests abroad, and that his instincts for political survival inexorably urge him toward total withdrawal “no matter what,” are almost surely wrong.


During 1968 Henry Kissinger frequently said in private talks that the appropriate goal of US policy was a “decent interval”—two to three years—between the withdrawal of US troops and a Communist takeover in Vietnam. In that year, an aim so modest had almost a radical ring; no major public figure, in fact, dared openly to endorse it. But in 1969, when Kissinger moved to the White House, his notion took on a sharper meaning and new urgency. It became not a goal but a requirement; and the “interval,” it became evident, could not end before November, 1972. In its new, tougher form, the doctrine had practical implications for policy well beyond 1972. In effect, it meant acting immediately and over the next several years to achieve both an indefinite fighting stalemate in Vietnam and support for such a stalemate in the US. And that aim had implications for the prospects of renewed escalation of the air war in Indochina.

To begin with, it was evident in Paris by the spring of 1969 that Hanoi and the NLF would not accept terms that would meet the Administration’s needs for assuring non-Communist control in Saigon through at least 1972. Nor would the Russians intervene to achieve this, as Nixon had hoped. So the war had to go on.

Total Vietnamization? US military advisers held out no hope whatever that Saigon could be held with any assurance for three years, or even one year, if no US military personnel remained in South Vietnam. No foreseeable improvement in ARVN, or amount of US aid, including air support, would prop up Saigon reliably in the face of North Vietnamese forces if all our troops went home. Both US troops and airpower were needed, in sizable amounts, for years, perhaps indefinitely.

In fact, through 1969 and, so far as is known, today, the highest military leaders have never judged officially that the job of holding Saigon could be done, with reasonable assurance and with adequate safety for remaining US troops, with fewer than 200,000 military personnel in the country to provide air support, logistics, communications, intelligence, self-defense, and strategic reserve. That figure, Nixon probably thinks, and with reason, is inflated; but there are limits to what the Joint Chiefs of Staff will certify as “militarily acceptable,” and the semi-permanent minimum may well turn out to be not much lower than 100,000 for the end of 1972 and after. It is more likely to prove higher; and it will almost certainly not be less than half that figure, long after 1972.

With the military floor somewhere between 50 and 150,000 troops, the political ceiling is surely not very much higher. LBJ’s strategy, putting half a million US troops in the South, met the goal he defined in his first week in office; he left the White House five years later accused of many things, but not of being the first President to lose a war. Yet his approach was, obviously, only a partial success; it saved Saigon but lost the White House. As would anyone determined to hold both, Nixon drew an immediate lesson: US troop levels and budget costs must go down, and casualties, draft calls, and news space must go down even more sharply. In fact, even 50,000 troops—still twice as many as LBJ had in Vietnam at the onset of the bombing—could be acceptable to the public or, better, ignored by it, only if US casualties were very low indeed and newsworthy North Vietnamese successes anywhere in Indochina almost nonexistent.

Thus Nixon’s practical goal—a “Korean solution,” as officials began to call it—became clear: to make Indochina safe for an indefinite presence of 50,000 US troops or more in South Vietnam. The key to a solution, Nixon and Kissinger concluded, was to expand the role of airpower, and in particular, to restore and increase the threat of bombing the North.

How else, they reasoned, could Nixon ever compel successful negotiations? How could he induce the Russians to use their leverage for a settlement, unless the Russians were made to fear—in Laos, say, or in Haiphong—that they would become more directly involved?

How else could Nixon deter the North Vietnamese forces, once they recovered from the 1968 losses, from making embarrassing gains at will in Laos; or worse, from coming south to overpower ARVN; or worst of all, attacking the reduced US units, either destroying them or forcing them home?

“Vietnamization,” if confined to the borders of South Vietnam and with the threat of escalation excluded, had no persuasive long-run answer to these threats. That, in the minds of some in Washington, in view of the unpromising prospects in Paris, was an argument for total, prompt US extrication from Vietnam. To Nixon and Kissinger, it meant instead that a credible bombing threat was essential to their program.


The policy they decided on was in many ways a familiar one, especially for Republicans. Its main ingredients were precisely those prescribed twenty years ago by the “Asia-first” right-wing Republicans in Congress for preventing the “fall of China” and, later, by MacArthur and others, for winning “victory” in Korea—the threat and, if necessary, use of US strategic airpower and allied Asian troops under a US-approved, authoritarian, and anticommunist regime, financed and equipped by the US and using American advisers and logistical and air support. (Vice President Nixon had been willing to add some US ground combat troops to that package to save North Vietnam in 1954, before the fall of Dienbienphu, but this was considered an aberration at the time.)

If one adds the threat of nuclear weapons—a threat used privately, Nixon believes, by Eisenhower to settle the Korean War, and later used publicly by Secretary Dulles to influence the First Indochina War—one has all the elements underlying Dulles’s doctrine of “massive retaliation” and the “New Look” defense posture of the Eisenhower Administration. This was the policy that enabled Republicans to combine aggressive rhetoric with a limited defense budget throughout the years when Nixon was Vice President. As an academic strategist during that period, Henry Kissinger dissented from this formula mainly by stressing the role of “tactical” nuclear weapons (in the book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, which made his reputation). But in Nixon’s Administration, the threat of nuclear weapons in Indochina is not—as yet, at least—an essential part of the strategy of Kissinger and Nixon (except, as usual, to deter Chinese intervention)—though they have pointedly refused explicitly to foreclose their use. The new strategy differs from the old mainly in relying on the strategic threat of non-nuclear bombing.

But how could Nixon and Kissinger believe, after the experience of the Sixties, that threats of massive bombing could solve their problems in Indochina? What could new threats promise now, when the practice of sustained bombing under Johnson had in fact failed to deter or physically to prevent even the Têt offensive?

Nixon’s answer was that the Democrats had moved too gradually and too predictably, and had never threatened or used heavy enough bombing. This is what the Joint Chiefs had been saying all along, though Nixon had no need to take instruction from them. He was using a language he shares with the generals when he explained after the Cambodian invasion that, whereas Johnson had moved “step by step,”

This action is a decisive move, and this action also puts the enemy on warning that if it escalates while we are trying to deescalate, we will move decisively and not step by step.

What he was then threatening, as he had done before the election, was “decisive” bombing of targets long proposed by some US military chiefs and their political spokesmen: Haiphong, “military targets” in Hanoi and unrestrictedly throughout the North, the dikes, the communications with China.1

Second, Nixon believed the threat would be newly credible and effective because he would demonstrate to Hanoi that it could be carried out without destroying his own political base or ability to govern the US. Johnson had lost these, in Nixon’s view, because he had combined inadequate air attacks with excessive numbers of ground troops, US casualties, and draft calls. Once those numbers were diminished, Nixon believed, the American public and its representatives in Congress would accept even a semi-permanent and geographically extended war, financed by America but with direct American combat action limited primarily to airpower.

That was a bold judgment to make in 1969. Yet the North Vietnamese had to be forced to accept this judgment if Nixon’s threat of bombing were to deter them from challenging a protracted American presence, or bring them, ultimately, to accept his terms for a “just peace.” Only convincing demonstrations of his willingness and ability to escalate could bring that about.

The notion of “warning demonstrations” has thus been central to the tactics of Nixon and Kissinger, and it explains the sequence of political threats and offensive actions they have taken over the last two years. As early as the spring of 1969, our first air attacks on Cambodia—not officially announced and little noticed in the US—were soon followed by a warning to Hanoi which was inserted in an otherwise moderate speech by Nixon on a Vietnam settlement.

At the same time the bombing expanded in Laos, and a series of bombing raids began on North Vietnam. As these raids continued, Administration officials gradually dismantled Johnson’s 1968 “understanding” which had strictly limited the justification for such raids. Finally, in his televised interview with the press on January 5, 1971, the President virtually abandoned this “understanding.”2

The ground invasion of Cambodia took place in spring, 1970; in the fall, troops landed in North Vietnam; now we are supporting an invasion of Laos. In each case the White House has conveyed unmistakable warnings to Hanoi that more such action was to come.

All of these actions could be, and were, defended as tactics necessary to delay enemy build-ups or “spoil” enemy offensives. Indeed, all of them may keep things quieter in South Vietnam, in the short run. They make offensive action difficult and costly for the North Vietnamese, thus delaying a new offensive until Hanoi once again faces the inescapable need to make the necessary sacrifices. They do, in short, buy time, with US airpower and thousands of Asian lives. The airpower, especially the lavish use of armed helicopters, substitutes for US troops. The fewer American troops in Vietnam, the more need for US airpower throughout Indochina, if US losses are to be cut and the North Vietnamese prevented from taking the initiative.

Of course this view can be challenged on tactical grounds as well. By expanding the war, the US commanders are multiplying their risks and committing themselves to protracted war in three countries, for only limited gains. In Laos, for example, US helicopter losses and South Vietnamese casualties may turn out to be sizable. A right-wing coup may follow our interventions—reversing the order of events in Cambodia—with complex repercussions, possibly including an increased Chinese combat presence, which would automatically cause US nuclear contingency plans to be presented for consideration to the Secretary of Defense, if not to the President. And the North Vietnamese have considerable ability, as in Cambodia, to respond to our moves in the border areas by enlarging their control elsewhere.

But, as the White House planners see it, none of this tactical argument really matters. The domestic risks, in their view, are not great ones, even in the worst circumstances. After an unpopular beginning, the operation in Cambodia showed to Nixon’s satisfaction that the war can be reduced in visibility while expanding geographically, so long as US ground units are not involved.

In fact, tactical success is not what these initiatives are all about. Their real significance, in every case, is that they are concrete warnings to the Hanoi leadership, and to their Soviet and Chinese allies—violent warnings to back up verbal threats.

They warn, first, of what Nixon is willing to do and feels free to do without consulting Congress or feeling limited by Johnson’s precedent. Each one of the measures listed above broke a restraint maintained or eventually imposed by Lyndon Johnson in his campaign to bring “pressures on Hanoi.” There were, after all, some good reasons for observing those limitations, and many of those reasons are still plausible. Nixon’s actions thus serve all the more forcefully as deliberate signals to his opponents that he will not be bound by earlier constraints.

His actions demonstrate, furthermore, how far Nixon thinks he can go by using the rationale of “protecting the lives of American troops” and the formula of “limited-duration interdiction operations, to permit continuation of the withdrawal of US forces.” These terms—Hanoi is meant to notice—could be used just as well for the “limited” ground invasion of North Vietnam to destroy depots and bases above the DMZ that has been mentioned by General Ky. The same language could be used to justify the mining and aerial destruction of the port of Haiphong; or full-scale attacks on the land and water links to China and on “military targets” throughout the North including Hanoi. All of these could be described as “limited in time and space.”

In fact, each one of these moves could be presented as a logical progression in a series of “interdictions” running from south to north, just as the present attacks in Laos “logically” followed the closing of the port of Sihanoukville by the Lon Nol government and the invasion of Cambodia. Each step could be explained as “closing” a remaining door in the channel of war materiel to North Vietnamese and NLF forces in South Vietnam.

To be sure, none of these steps could reliably close off that necessary trickle of supplies from the North, even if they were all taken together. But Nixon has been told this; again, that is not what such threatened moves are about. They point, rather, toward the program that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have urged over the last decade in the absence of a permanent and “acceptable” settlement by Hanoi: the final destruction of “the will and capability of North Vietnam to wage war.” Or to survive.

Not that Nixon hopes or expects this ultimate escalation will be necessary; his threats and commitments make it contingent on North Vietnamese behavior. Hanoi’s leadership is left two options for avoiding this punishment. It can, tacitly but permanently, accept things pretty much as they are in the South, without initiating heavy combat, or with no more than can be handily contained by South Vietnamese ground forces with US air support. The war would continue but military action would taper off and US casualties would virtually cease. Or else, bowing to the conclusion that the American people will support a low-level or airpower war indefinitely, and that the American President will meet any attempt to convert it to a high-cost war by burning North Vietnam to the ground, the Hanoi leaders can seek to conclude a formal settlement on US terms.

US officers choose to call the first possibility a “Korean solution”—though it could mean permanent war and permanent US air operations—because it combines a permanent US presence with very low US casualties. The second possibility, which defines Nixon’s aim of “winning a just peace,” would more truly be a “Korean solution,” especially in view of Nixon’s conviction that settlement in Korea was based on the threat of massive bombings. Faith in either possibility permits Nixon to deny charges that he has chosen a “no-win” strategy.

So Che’s prescription, finally, is turned around to Nixon’s ends. Not only did the short-run problem of lowering US casualties during a gradual and limited reduction of strength—the problem of “getting through ’72″—invite a broadening of the battleground to include the border bases and supply routes in Laos and Cambodia. Far more important, the symbolism of such widening—the dramatic crossing of frontiers in defiance of domestic protest and contrary expectations—was uniquely suited to making credible Nixon’s crucial threat: to extend the battleground to all of North Vietnam. From the moment that Sihanouk’s ouster cleared the way, it was almost inevitable that the search for a second “Korea” would lead the President to institute a second and a third “Vietnam”—to warn the North he could create a fourth.

In Laos the Administration is showing that it has learned its “lessons from Cambodia.” No American rifle units in action, crossing borders or shooting white college students. No promises, no bulletins, no news at all, in fact. No statement on the operation by the President. Instead, on the afternoon of the day the helicopters and amtracs moved across the border, Nixon went before the TV cameras with a brief message on ecology, beginning (according to the White House press release):

In his Tragedy, Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Elliott [sic] wrote, “Clean the air. Clean the sky. Wash the wind.” [sic]

I have proposed to the Congress a sweeping and comprehensive program to do just that, and more—to end the plunder of America’s natural heritage.

No TV or news photos of the invasion were permitted; cameramen were barred from recording what we and our allies were doing to the natural heritage of their neighbors. (The Vietnamese were struck, a New York Times account reported, by the lushness of the yet undefoliated jungle they were entering.) Instead viewers were offered pictures of the moon and of the staging areas at Khe Sanh: an uncanny juxtaposition, the war-created moonscapes near the DMZ compensating for the lack of live coverage of the lunarization of Laos.

What will this new invasion mean to the people of Laos? War is not new to them, nor are foreign soldiers or American bombers; yet they are now feeling the impact of all these in a new and terrible way. As in Cambodia, the first operations are in relatively unpopulated areas; and as in Cambodia, the North Vietnamese forces will most likely fight back in more heavily populated lowlands and against towns, where our bombers and armed helicopters will seek them out. Then the refugees will come—many of them from areas where they have lived for years in the vicinity of Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese troops—to the fetid enclosures on the outskirts of towns that are not being bombed, leaving their dead behind them.

“We have learned one thing in Laos and Cambodia,” the counsel for the Kennedy Subcommittee points out. “The mere presence of enemy forces does not lead to refugees. Heavy battles do; US bombing does.”

As an essential part of Nixon’s “winding down the war” for American troops in South Vietnam, American pilots were sent to inflict the war more heavily on Laos and Cambodia. In the fall of 1969, more than 600 sorties a day were being flown over Laos; some of the heaviest months of bombing in the war occurred in that year, and again in 1970. The number of refugees in Laos had already risen sharply in 1968, after American bombers were shifted in late March from North Vietnamese targets to areas in both northern and southern Laos.

But in the first twelve months of the Nixon Administration, the number of refugees nearly doubled. The official estimate for the end of 1969—certainly a low one—was at least 240,000 (in a population of under three million). In the first eighteen months there were at least 30,000 civilian casualties, including more than 9,000 killed. The number of refugees continued to rise in 1970; by the fall it was almost three times the estimate for February, 1968.3 Then in November of last year, US bombing escalated sharply in Laos.

Whatever the impact of recent events on the flight of people within Laos, it is likely soon to be magnified by the effects of operations similar to those in Cambodia, where well over a million refugees have been “generated” during the last nine months (in a population of about 6.7 million). There is no available estimate of the number of civilian deaths in Cambodia since last spring’s invasion.

How many will die in Laos?

What is Richard Nixon’s best estimate of the number of Laotian people—“enemy” and “non-enemy”—that US firepower will kill in the next twelve months?

He does not have an estimate. He has not asked Henry Kissinger for one, and Kissinger has not asked the Pentagon; and none of these officials has ever seen an answer, to this or any comparable question on the expected impact of war policy on human life. And none of them differs in this from his predecessors. (Systems analysts in the bureaucracy make estimates as best they can of factors judged pertinent to policy: “costs” or “benefits,” “inputs” or “outputs.” The deaths of “non-combatant people” have never been regarded by officials as being relevant to any of these categories.)

Officials would, however, have an answer of some sort if other parts of the government or the press or the public had ever demanded one. Were it not for the Kennedy Subcommittee there would be no over-all official calculations of past casualties in Vietnam—not even the underestimated figures that have been made available. But as a result of that questioning and the subcommittee’s own surveys and analyses, we now know that at least 300,000 civilians have been killed in South Vietnam—mostly by US firepower—between 1965 and 1970, out of at least one million casualties. Of these, the subcommittees’s calculations indicate that about 50,000 civilians were killed in Nixon’s first year in office, about 35,000 in the first half of his second, and more than that in the second half. (So the war is not “winding down” for the people of South Vietnam any more than for their neighbors; as would be apparent to the American public if such figures were flashed on the evening TV news along with US and “enemy” casualties.)

But even the Kennedy Subcommittee has made no effort to calculate deaths and injuries from American bombing in North Vietnam; or to elicit estimates of future victims throughout Indochina. Nor have the press and television. Nor has there been any public demand for this information.

It is against this background of two decades of American official and public ignorance about and indifference to our impact upon the people of Indochina that one must understand the ease with which the Nixon Administration has sold the slogan: “The war is trending down.” To agree with that proposition—and it is scarcely questioned—is to define “the war” narrowly as “what is trending down”: US ground troops, US casualties, budget costs. It is simply to ignore those aspects of the war that are “trending up“: US air operations and ground fighting outside South Vietnam, and the resulting deaths and casualties we are sponsoring in Laos and Cambodia. But it cannot really be said that this narrowed perception is simply a hallucinatory trick played by the Nixon Administration on the public. Americans have always seen the Indochina war this way.

US military officers are sometimes better at perceiving things clearly. “War is killing people,” a RAND physicist was once instructed by General Curtis LeMay, one of history’s “terrible simplifiers.” “When you kill enough people, the other side quits.”

But the new Administration is abandoning the previous crude strategy of ground combat “attrition,” with its bloody-minded calculus of “body counts” and abstruse models of the birth rate of young “enemy males” to be killed in the future. Most of the victims that the new strategy kills as a result of its “warning demonstrations” have no place in bureaucratic calculations. The same is true of the vast numbers of North Vietnamese people who will be threatened if their leaders, continuing thirty years of armed struggle, decide to fight against a “Korean solution.” The plans for air war designed by General LeMay may then be carried out by the Nixon Administration.

Joseph Alsop, whose column noting the “cool courage” of the President in Laos had been distributed widely by the White House, wrote several days after the Laos invasion: “As of now, Richard M. Nixon is beginning to appear as one of our better war presidents.”

The passage our war President chose to recall to the American people that Monday afternoon of the invasion does not have to do with air pollution, or with any ordinary defilement. It speaks of murder. It is a chorus of horror chanted as murder is being done, in full view, at the wishes of a ruler, for reasons of state.

Clear the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take stone from stone and wash them.
The land is foul, the water is foul, our beasts and ourselves defiled with blood.
A rain of blood has blinded my eyes….

How how can I ever return, to the soft quiet seasons?
Night stay with us, stop sun, hold season, let the day not come, let the spring not come.
Can I look again at the day and its common things, and see them all smeared with blood, through a curtain of falling blood?
We did not wish anything to happen….

In life there is not time to grieve long.
But this, this is out of life, this is out of time,
An instant eternity of evil and wrong….

These lines are almost unbearable for an American to read, in the year 1971, after the other years. If we are ever to return to the soft quiet seasons—and we have not earned an easy passage—enough Americans must look past options, briefings, pros and cons, to see what is being done in their name, and to refuse to be accomplices. They must recognize, and force the Congress and President to act upon, the moral proposition that the US must stop killing people in Indochina: that neither the lives we have lost, nor the lives we have taken, give the US any right to determine by fire and airpower who shall govern or who shall die in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos.

This Issue

March 11, 1971