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.
To achieve a year or so of dubious battlefield grace, Nixon and Kissinger incurred a propaganda defeat whose effects are still apparent (fifteen years later) and, to the extent that they have entered the American national psyche, may well be permanent. Whatever the facts of who infringed first on Cambodian neutrality, the significance of that engagement was that it helped separate the American leadership from its internal support and instilled among many Americans a lasting skepticism about their government’s morality. It was—to Vietnam’s revolution and to the revolutions that have followed Vietnam—an enduring gift.
Nixon, by contrast, saw the struggle primarily in military terms. “The only way we could get things moving on the negotiating front was to do something on the military front,” he explained of his decision to bomb Cambodia. The two sides were not fighting quite the same war. “You know,” an American negotiator said to his North Vietnamese counterpart, “you never defeated us on the battlefield.” “That may be so,” was the reply, “but it is also irrelevant.”2
Tang casts light on the key issue of the negotiations: whether Thieu would be allowed to remain in power in Saigon, and the North Vietnamese army in place in South Vietnam. Each side claimed the other had made a great concession. But according to Tang, the Communists’ demand for “anyone but Thieu” was merely a ploy to drive a wedge between Washington and Saigon and to stir up political dissent in South Vietnam. According to him, the ease with which Hanoi dropped a demand that had been “non-negotiable” for four years—once the Americans agreed to withdraw—revealed how secondary it was, and how willing the North Vietnamese were to betray their South Vietnamese supporters.
When the accords were signed in January 1973 the Saigon government seemed in a strong position, having benefited from large American supply shipments during the last months of the negotiations. The Vietcong were seriously weakened, and Hanoi feared that its army in the south might be pushed back across the borders by the heavily armed South Vietnamese. When it turned to its two allies, Russia and China, for more supplies, however, the response was cool. Chou en-Lai, now playing his American card, told his Hanoi comrades that “it would be best for Vietnam and the rest of Indochina to relax for, say, five or ten years.” Nixon passes over this statement but it is important for any reassessment of the American intervention. The war had been justified, at first, as necessary to prevent Chinese Communist expansion in Asia. Now China, as a result of the Nixon administration’s diplomacy, was detaching itself from North Vietnam. And although he does not admit it, Nixon, by withdrawing American troops and agreeing to leave North Vietnamese troops in place, was detaching the US from South Vietnam.
But Thieu’s army, for all its American supplies, suffered from corruption, bad leadership, the lack of an effective air force, and Thieu’s military errors. In the fall of 1974 the North Vietnamese, having used the truce to turn the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a highway for reinforcing their troops, resumed the attack. When they saw that the Americans would not retaliate, they pushed hard and seized Phuoc Long, capturing for the first time an entire southern province. As they pressed their offensive Thieu precipitously decided to abandon the central highlands. This fatal mistake was to destroy him. The hastily ordered withdrawal turned into a panicked rout. Within a month he had lost half the country. As his army collapsed around him, a million refugees streamed toward the coast. President Ford asked Congress for emergency funds for Thieu and, when these were refused, he decided to put the war behind him. “Today Americans can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam,” he declared at Tulane on April 23, 1975. “But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished…. These events, tragic as they are, portend neither the end of the world nor of America’s leadership of the world.” A week later Communist troops entered Saigon and the war was over.
There was little for the Americans to be proud of. We had washed our hands of Thieu, however undeserving he may have been, and left those who had supported him and us to their fate. The ignominious escape of the Americans and a few lucky Vietnamese from the roof of the embassy into helicopters symbolized our failure. Whether Thieu could have held on indefinitely with continued American military backing we will never know. But it is almost inconceivable that the American public would have tolerated the continued bombing of North Vietnam for years after we signed the peace accords.
The fall of Saigon was also the end for the southern Communists and anti-Thieu nationalists of the National Liberation Front who wanted some kind of autonomous evolution for South Vietnam. In Tang’s bitter words, Hanoi soon made it clear that “the Vietnam of the future would be a single monolithic bloc, collectivist and totalitarian, in which all the traditions and culture of the South would be ground and molded by the political machine of the conquerors.” For the South Vietnamese, he writes, “peace, which they had so passionately desired, had brought with it not blessings but a new and even more insidious warfare, this time a warfare practiced by the liberators against their own people.”
What happened after the Communist victory was appalling, and the horrors of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge are almost beyond comprehension. Nixon describes our intervention in Vietnam as a “moral cause,” and the description cannot be rejected outright. The South Vietnamese regime, for all its excesses, was much less oppressive than its successor. But the effects of the war itself on the Vietnamese were cruel and devastating. More than one million Vietnamese were killed. Was the cause “moral” enough to justify such carnage? Geopolitics does not provide us with an easy answer to that kind of question. Many Americans, in their disgust with the war, romanticized the Vietcong and failed to see the ruthless ambitions of the North Vietnamese. But many who supported the war enthusiastically sought to justify a geopolitical power struggle by invoking moral issues. Theirs was a cynicism for which Vietnamese on both sides suffered.
After all the horror of the war and the horror that came afterward, we are still trying to understand why we were there. Nixon tries to bring both the moral and the geopolitical together. We intervened, he maintains, “both because a communist victory would lead to massive human suffering for the people of Vietnam and because it would damage American strategic interests.” While it is right that we should try to alleviate human suffering, the fact is that our intervention itself caused terrible suffering both for the Vietnamese and for ourselves and it would likely have caused more suffering as long as it continued, with no realistic prospect of military success short of the destruction of North Vietnam.
But what of Nixon’s claims to protect strategic interests? “Our defeat in Vietnam sparked a rash of totalitarian conquests around the world,” he charges, as the Russians “licked their chops and gobbled up South Yemen, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua.” This is a global version of the domino theory. Although Laos and Cambodia were engulfed in the war and taken over by ruthless Communist regimes, the domino theory—despite the dire predictions of Nixon and other strategists at the time—did not apply even to the rest of Southeast Asia. Today the vitality of the non-Communist societies of the region, and the American position there, is far stronger than when we were fighting in Vietnam. It was the triumph of communism in Vietnam that discredited its appeal throughout the region and has made Vietnam today a poor, miserable, and oppressive state without attraction for anyone. One lesson of Vietnam is that we did not “win” until we “lost.”
Nixon’s argument that the Soviets were emboldened to take initiatives in the third world as a result of the American defeat in Vietnam can be neither demonstrated nor refuted. It is a hypothesis that demands proof from specific circumstances. Did the Nicaraguans overthrow Somoza because the United States lost in Vietnam? Is that why the Marxists seized power in Ethiopia or the Soviets invaded Afghanistan? One would be hard pressed to prove any of this and, interestingly, Nixon does not even try.
Suppose we imagine for a moment that we “won” in Vietnam and the Thieu government was still in place—and, in all likelihood, requiring constant infusions of American military and economic support. After the terrible price we paid there, and would have had to go on paying, would we then have intervened on a similar scale in all the places where the Russians “licked their chops and gobbled up,” such as South Yemen, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua?
Nixon by hyperbole is trying to suggest that our defeat in Vietnam made the Russians less cautious in vulnerable parts of the third world. He may have a point. But one could also argue that it was not our defeat so much as the very scale of our effort that made us shy of intervention throughout the third world. The public’s resistance today to Reagan’s military pressures on Nicaragua does not spring from our defeat in Vietnam, but rather from the fact that we became so obsessively and deeply involved without a clear strategic reason for being there. The involvement in Vietnam would have been tolerable and been sustained by public opinion only if America’s own security were seen to be directly implicated. This Nixon failed to demonstrate during his time in office, as he fails to demonstrate it in this book. That is why he had to conduct his bombing of Cambodia in secret and secretly promise Thieu that he would “respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.”
This brings us to the central issue of American national interests. We must be willing to use military force in “crucial Third World battles,” Nixon tells us, or else lose what he calls the “Third World war.” But he does not indicate where those crucial battles might be, how to distinguish them from battles that are not so crucial, or exactly why Vietnam was crucial. “Where our interests are involved we must take risks to protect them,” he states. Fair enough. But there are interests and there are interests.
Once we were told that South Vietnam held the key to all of Southeast Asia. John F. Kennedy called it the “finger in the dike” against spreading communism. Now Nixon argues that it was important less for itself than for what it represented with regard to the global power struggle. “Vietnam was a crucially important victory in the Soviet Union’s war for control of the strategically critical Third World,” he declares. “It was an important victory not so much because it gave the Soviets dominance over Vietnam but because it left the United States so crippled psychologically that it was unable to defend its interests in the developing world, the battleground in the ongoing East–West conflict that is best characterized as Third World war.”
The assumption that the third world has become the center of Soviet–American rivalry is unexceptionable. Though Star Wars may offer a new frontier, all the other borders—China, Japan, Central Europe—are rigidly fixed. But what are we to make of Nixon’s assertion that the most important loss in Vietnam was that it left us “crippled psychologically”? This is to suggest that the main problem was not what happened on the ground but in our heads. In this sense, victory, if it had left us gun-shy, would have been no better than defeat. And that is probably what would have happened. Such an outcome does not occur to Nixon, whose main concern is to argue that we should always be ready to intervene elsewhere.
This would be a feasible policy for a disciplined imperial power in which the public is willing to let the geopoliticians lead them wherever they want. It is not, however, a very realistic one for a country like the United States, where the burden of war in sweaty and distant places can be tolerated only if leaders are able to connect it directly to the nation’s security. One of the purposes of the Congress and the press is to express public anxieties, and this they do extremely well. This is why Nixon was unable to keep his secret promise to Thieu. He was never able to build let alone maintain the public consensus that would have allowed him to pursue his policies in Vietnam. He had to resort to subterfuge—even though he thought the cause was justified by the demands of geopolitics—and in the end this is what undid him. His attacks on Congress and the press for “irresponsibility” do not relieve him of responsibility for his own failing. In this sense Kissinger is correct in arguing recently that “Nixon should have gone to Congress early in his term, outlined his strategy, and demanded an endorsement. Failing that, he should have liquidated the war.”3
The trouble with Nixon is that he is more interested in assigning blame than in drawing lessons. That is why this book has such a shrill tone, and why in the end it is so unsatisfactory. What we would like to know at this point is not who ostensibly betrayed Richard Nixon by denying him his one-man war after 1973, but what we can now learn from our disastrous adventure in Vietnam. He tells us “‘No More Vietnams’ can mean that we will not try again,” but that “it should mean we will not fail again.” But fail again at what? At winning, or at understanding our interests? We must not “define our interests too narrowly” for fear of another Vietnam, he insists, for “our vital interests are affected by what happens in other parts of the world as well.” No doubt they are. But to what degree and how to define them? Here Nixon, like so many current masters of geopolitics, falls back on vague formulas. A vital interest has to be more than just an afterthought to justify an intervention that gets to be unduly expensive. If one has to write books to justify it, it probably isn’t a vital interest.
Nixon’s book is a deep disappointment. There was reason to expect something better. His Memoirs, for all their self-justification, were of immense interest, and his more recent Real Peace, with its call for a “live-and-let-live” relationship between the superpowers, seemed the work of a statesman. Indeed, in the final section of this book he is able to admit that the Soviets are “not responsible for all the conflicts in the world,” no matter how much they may profit from them. He even proposes a global Marshall Plan to lure the third world from the false but tempting attractions of communism. But then Nixon was always a big spender, and for all his diatribes against the Democrats was content to finance and even expand Johnson’s Great Society programs so long as he could be left alone to deal with foreign policy. For him that was where the real action lay.
If much of Nixon’s foreign policy record seems better today than when he was in office, it is partly because his successors have been so inept, and partly because he writes so expertly about the issues. But in this book, as in much of his life, two Nixons are at war. There is the statesman with his prescriptions for managing the perpetually unbalanced struggle for power, and the street fighter obsessed with his real and imagined political enemies. He forever perplexes and annoys. Every time you think he is about to show the statesmanship for which his intelligence and experience have equipped him, he throws a spit ball. Perhaps the instinct is too ingrained, the real and imagined hurts too great, the desire for revenge and vindication too strong. Whatever the reason, one side of Nixon is at odds with the other, and one sees that self-destructive side of the man at work in this exasperating and defensive book.
One gets glimpses of the other Nixon in Robert Sam Anson’s skillful study of the post-Watergate years, Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon.4 There one sees the insecurities, the anxieties, and even the courage of a man who brought himself back from deep disgrace by sheer determination. Anson makes no effort to romanticize Nixon, but he does make him human, and in so doing gives a deeper sense of the underlying contradictions of his curious character.
Without excusing Nixon for the crimes of Watergate, history will probably judge him far less harshly than have his contemporaries. In those of us who have lived through his various offices and incarnations, joyless victories and resentful defeats, he often produces a visceral reaction. Just as Reagan’s charm will not work on those who have never been exposed to it, neither will Nixon’s distasteful public personality repel. He will be remembered for his deeds. For Watergate, yes, but also for détente, the China opening, for a mastery of Realpolitik, and for expanding the liberal welfare state he inherited.
Nixon craved power, yet seemed to enjoy it so little. Henry Kissinger, in the first volume of his memoirs, tells us how Nixon, on the very morning of his overwhelming 1972 electoral sweep, greeted his celebrating White House staff by demanding their resignations. He had achieved the electoral approval that was his lifetime ambition, and “it was almost as if it had been sought for its own sake; as if standing on a pinnacle, Nixon no longer had any purpose left to his life,” Kissinger writes. “Isolation had become almost a spiritual necessity to this withdrawn, lonely, and tormented man who insisted so on his loneliness and created so much of his own torment. It was hard to avoid the impression that Nixon, who thrived on crisis, also craved disasters.”
His charge in this book that the US won the great prize of victory in Vietnam and then threw it away has its ironic echo in Nixon’s own life. It is as though he accuses others of doing with Vietnam what he himself did with the presidency. He threw his prize away as if, in some unconscious way, he sought to render valueless what he had won at such cost. Whether he did so because in the depths of his heart he felt he was unworthy, and thus had to diminish not only the meaning of the prize but the prize itself, or whether it was from some irresistible compulsion forever to create new crises to be measured against and struggle to surmount—none of this will we ever know. Nor is it likely that he will know himself.
No More Vietnams shows, except for the last chapter, the vindictive and self-destructive side of Nixon’s character. He would like to be accepted as an elder statesman, and perhaps he could be. But he has yet to learn that vindication does not lie in the denigration of others, or wisdom in recriminations. From his experience as a skilled practitioner of foreign affairs there is much that he could contribute. There is also an audience ready to listen, if only he would try to understand and to teach, rather than to score points and inflame.
May 30, 1985