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The Nixon Presidency and Vietnam

By 1968, over 500,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam. More than 42 percent of them were draftees. Nearly 1,000 were being killed per month, and many more were being injured. On October 31, President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt of his bombing campaign in North Vietnam, "Operation Rolling Thunder." His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, was competing that a year with Richard Nixon in campaigns for the presidency.

Johnson halted the bombing hoping to negotiate a settlement with the regime in North of Vietnam. Described by Hugh Thomas in his book Being Nixon, Richard Nixon also presented himself as favoring peace. On 17 October, candidate Nixon said: "We will support President Johnson because he wants peace and we do not want to play politics with peace."

Behind the scenes, something else was taking place. In late October, Nixon ordered his campaign chief of staff, Haldeman, to find a way to sabotage President Johnson’s plans to stage productive peace talks, Nixon according to Politico magazine "hoping that a frustrated American electorate would turn to the Republicans as their only hope to end the war. Here are documents on what is called the Chennault Affair.

Nixon like others in politics spoke publicly as if he were most sincere, but there was a private side to Nixon. Thomas describes Nixon being asked by an aide, Bill Saffire, if he were enjoying the campaign.

"Never do," replied Nixon.

Thomas writes,

He wearied of the hangers-on and glad-handers and favor-seekers, even the ministers and priests who went on too long in God's name. After one windy prayer, he turned to Safire and said, "No more goddamned benedictions."

During his campaign, Nixon pledged to end the draft. He saw this as an effective way to undermine the anti-Vietnam war movement. He sent an ally, Anna Chennault, to tell South Vietnam's anti-communist president, Thieu, to "Hold on, we're gonna win." According to Thomas, Nixon "hoped, unrealistically in retrospect, to end the war quickly," and in private he claimed: I'm not going to end up like LBJ, holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face on the street. I'm going to stop that war. Fast. I mean it." (Being Nixon, p 218)

1969: Nixon becomes President

Nixon won the election and took office in January. He chose Henry Kissinger as his National Security advisor. Kissinger had been a Harvard professor who had studied 19th-century European history, and he was thought of as a foreign policy expert. According to Hugh Thomas,

Kissinger, too, believed that the war could be ended quickly – in a matter of months, he told various acquaintances and friends. He had faith in diplomacy backed by the threat of force, in carrots and sticks, and in his own skill. (p 219)

On 25 January, five days into Nixon's presidency, peace talks with the Hanoi regime opened in Paris. Kissinger wanted to link peace in Vietnam with his bargaining with the Soviet Union concerning arms control and trade agreements. The Soviet Union was giving military aid to North Vietnam, and Kissinger wanted Soviet officials to put pressure on Hanoi. But it didn't work out. "In time," writes Thomas, quoting Walter Isaacson, "Kissinger would be reduced to ranting that Hanoi communists were 'tawdry, filthy shits'."

On 22 February, the second month into Nixon's presidency, North Vietnam launched an offensive into the south. Nixon thought Hanoi was testing him. He was emotionally upset and ordered bombing in Cambodia against the Ho Chi Minh Trail there. The trail was a shifting web of jungle roads and paths over which Hanoi had been moving supplies and men into the south of Vietnam. Cambodia was ostensibly neutral, and Nixon and the Pentagon felt obliged to keep a widening of the war secret from the US public and Congress.

Nixon's hit against the Ho Chi Minh trail gained nothing. Writes Thomas:

A US Special forces team was sent in to the area to mop up. The unit was wiped out. A second Special Forces unit was ordered to go but mutinied. (p 224)

Nixon Hesitates

In May 1969, Hanoi rejected a new proposal by Nixon that the US would pull out of South Vietnam when Hanoi also pulled out of the South. Nixon was frustrated. Declining morale and pot smoking were reported among US troops. Playing to his strategy, in September Nixon ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 US troops from Vietnam and a reduction in draft calls.

Nixon still wanted Hanoi to fear him. According to Thomas's Being Nixon, Kissinger "was playing to the president's madman" strategy" and was "agitating to step up the war." According to Thomas,

Nixon, at first, favored Kissinger's plan to strike the North with a heavy bombing campaign. But then he pulled back. He could not be absolutely sure that North Vietnam ... would break under the onslaught. He worried that the Russians and Chinese would react violently (and that he would undermine his plan, still half-formed, to create an opening to China).

Demonstrations against the war were receiving TV coverage. On November 3, Nixon delivered a major TV speech asking for support from "the great silent majority of my fellow Americans." The more divided we are at home," he said, "the less likely the enemy is to negotiate at Paris" He added that "North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States; only Americans can do that."

The day after his "silent majority" speech, telegrams and letters of support flooded the White House. According to Being Nixon, "Polls showed that more than three out of every four Americans approved the speech. and Nixon's approval rating shot up from 52 to 68 percent."

Nixon was joyous about his public relations achievement and the support he received from Congress. But he was gloomy. In a note to Kissinger on 24 November he wrote:

I get the rather uneasy impression that the military are still thinking in terms of a long war and eventual military solution. I also have the impression that deep down they realize the war can't be won militarily, even over the long haul.

Vietnamization, Cambodia again, and Kent State

In December, Nixon ordered the withdrawal of an additional 50,000 military personnel from Vietnam. Nixon then went to the other part of his strategy: a military response that would pressure Hanoi. On 2 February, in response to a rising number of Viet Cong raids in South Vietnam, B-52 bombers stuck again at the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia. The official peace talks in Paris had been deadlocked, and on 21 February Kissinger and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho began what would become a series of secret talks.

Nixon gave up on the secrecy of the Cambodia operations. The war had destabilized Cambodia. Its monarch, King Sihanouk, had been officially neutral but highly critical of the United States. He was replaced by one of his generals, Lon Nol. Communist forces in Cambodia had been making gains against Lon Nol's forces. On 30 April, ten days after announcing the withdrawal of another 150,000 troops from Vientam, Nixon announced on television that US forces and Thieu regime forces were moving into Cambodia. Its purpose, he said, was "To protect our men who are in Vietnam and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs." With the anti-war movement in mind he added.

We live in an age of anarchy. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civiliations in the last five hundred years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.

The anti-war movment was stunned by what appeared to be Nixon's expansion of the war. Many pundits derided Nixon. Nixon went to a Pentagon briefing, looking for support. In the Pentagon lobby he told a woman whose husband was in Vietnam that the troops in Vietnam were "the greatest," and he said:

You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are burning up the books, storming around about this issue.

On 2 May, campuses across the US erupted in protest over the push of troops into Cambodia. On 4 May at Kent State University in Ohio, National Guardsmen shot and killed four student protesters and wounded nine. Responding to this, more than 400 colleges and universities across the US shut down. In Washington, nearly 100,000 protesters surrounded various government buildings, including the White House.

Nixon was to write in his memoirs that "Those few days after Kent State were amongst the darkest of my presidency." The man who had been a friend of Dale Carnegie and a devoté of his book How to Win Friends and Influence People would write that he "felt utterly rejected." Nixon saw a quote in his newspaper from the father of one girls killed at Kent State. It read: "My child is not a bum."

At a press conference on May 8th, Nixon explained what he thought was on the minds of the protesters while defending his strategy for peace:

They are trying to say that they want peace. They are trying to say that they want to stop the killing. They are trying to say that they want to end the draft. I agree with everything that they are trying to accomplish.

Thomas writes in Being Nixon that a "Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans held the protesters responsible for the Kent State shootings, while only 11 perent blamed the National Guardsmen."

More War

On 3 June 1970 the Thieu regime, backed by US air power and US ground troops, launched a new offensive into Cambodia. The US ground troops pulled back by the end of the month, with more than 350 of them listed as killed in action. On 24 August, B-52s were sent on bombing raids along the border between the south and north. On 24 October, Thieu launched another offensive into Cambodia, and Nixon and Kissinger were not impressed by the ability of Thieu's troops. Hugh Thomas writes,

Kissinger had by now begun to consider that the best Americans could hope for was a decent interval between the withdrawal of US troops and the collapse of the Thieu government... If the US pulled out too quickly, the Saigon government would fall before the 1972 election.

Nixon continued to look for a massive application of US power to bring "peace with honor." Thomas describes him as believing that,

overwhelming force was moral and justified in the face of evil, which he believed, with all sincerity, communism to be.

On 10 December 1970, President Nixon warned Hanoi that more bombing might occur if it continued its military operations in the South. On 22 December an amendment to the US defense appropriations bill forbade the use of any US ground forces in Laos or Cambodia. By the end of the year, US troop levels in Vietnam had dropped to 280,000.

On 4 January 1971, President Nixon announced: "the end is in sight." Two weeks later, US fighter-bombers were striking against supply camps in Laos and Cambodia. Between 30 January and 6 April, 17,000 of Thieu's troops followed up with a ground offensive into Laos – another attempt to sever the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Thieu's force was aided by US helicopter lifts, artillery and air strikes. Hanoi had anticipated the incursion and had massed their forces against it. Thieu's force suffered 7,682 casualties and withdrew in disorder with Hanoi's forces in hot pursuit. The US lost over 100 helicopters. The North Vietnamese were reported as having lost an estimated 20,000 killed as a result of intense US bombardment.

By March, President Nixon's approval rating among Americans had dropped to 50 percent and approval of his Vietnam strategy has slipped to just 34 percent. Nixon claimed that his "Vietnamization has succeeded." And at the end of April, the last of the US Marine combat units departed from Vietnam.

In June, Nixon was angered by the media publication of the Pentagon Papers – officially titled United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967. It revealed secret actions, and Nixon wanted to destroy the man he thought responsible for the leakage. This was Daniel Ellsberg, a former gung-ho Marine officer, Harvard PhD, State Department employee and Rand Corporation scholar who had turned against the war. Nixon compared Ellsberg with his old nemesis Alger Hiss. (It would be Nixon's approval and cover-up of illegal acts regarding Ellsberg, and lying about it, that would lead to his Watergate crisis and resignation in June 1974.)

Meanwhile, President Nixon spoke of the war as having been a mistake. In December 1971, in a private conversation with his aide John Ehrlichman, Nixon would say,

Whenever you make a mistake, unless you cut your losses and get out, you compound it by trying to prove you're right. That was the trouble with Kennedy and Johnson on Vietnam. Assuming it was a mistake, they compound it by trying to prove that it wasn't. So it got deeper, and deeper, and deeper, and deeper and deeper. (Being Nixon, p 355)

If Nixon believed that US military intrusion into Vietnam was a mistake, he was not about to undo mistake simply by removing US forces from Vietnam. This is what would happen soon, but for the time being Nixon had appearances that he wanted to maintain, foremost among them the the appearance of honor.

CONTINUE READING: Toward the 1972 elections