Frank Gannon: Historians And Partisans





The Nixon Library has just released some 30,000 pages of new presidential records and 150 new tapes from January and February 1973.   Among the many subjects covered are the end of the war in Vietnam.  The New York Times, Politico, and the Los Angeles Times all turned to Ken Hughes, of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, for explanation and explication.  Charlie Savage in  The Times quoted Mr. Hughes at some length:

Ken Hughes, a Nixon scholar and research fellow at the University of Virginia’s Presidential Recordings Project, said he was struck by listening on one of the new tapes to Nixon telling his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, that to get Thieu to sign the treaty, he would “cut off his head if necessary.”

“What this quote shows is that Nixon was willing to go to any length to force the president of South Vietnam to accept a so-called peace settlement that Nguyen Van Thieu, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon all realized would lead to a Communist military victory,” Mr. Hughes said.

Mr. Hughes said the conversation bolstered his view that Nixon, Thieu, and Mr. Kissinger all knew at the time that the ceasefire could not endure, and that it was not “peace with honor,” as Mr. Nixon described it, so much as a face-saving way for the United States to get out of the war. In 1975, North Vietnam would violate the ceasefire and conquer Saigon.

Andrew Glass’ Hughes quote  in Politico was more concise but no less definitive: “All three [of them] realized [these terms] would lead to a communist military victory following a face-saving (for Nixon) ‘decent interval” said Ken Hughes, a Nixon scholar at the Miller Center for Public Affairs in Charlottesville, Va.”

The notion that RN purposely prolonged the war for political gain and then faked a peace that he knew would fail is still held by many hardcore critics. But on the spectrum of Vietnam criticism it is unquestionably extreme.  And it has been challenged by more recent scholarship.

The Miller Center’s website describes Mr. Hughes’ background as “a reporter and anchor and as a freelance journalist. As part of the Presidential Recordings Project, Ken coordinates team of scholars reviewing and transcribing President Richard M. Nixon’s White House tapes.”  And Mr. Hughes is up front about his opinions.  His website is called Fatal Politics, and he describes its genesis and its mission:

I decided to make the Fatal Politics web documentary videos because, at some point in my study of the Nixon White House tapes as a Research Fellow with the Presidential Recordings Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs of the University of Virginia, it occurred to me that every voting age citizen of the United States needs to know how a President could prolong a war and fake peace for political gain. The videos incorporate the research I’ve presented at academic conferences, but they’re made for everyone 18 and older.

This blog builds on the Fatal Politics web documentary miniseries. It’s an attempt to correct/dispel/shatter myths that Nixon created about his exit from Vietnam, myths that persist in news media reports and political debate today.

More inquisitive reporters might have thought twice before making such a definitive authority of such a self-identified partisan.

The Washington Post ran an account of the new material by Cal Woodward of AP’s Washington bureau.  He deals more fairly with the controversy surrounding the Vietnam war’s settlement:

Nixon historian Luke A. Nichter said the circumstances surrounding Nixon’s acceptance of a flawed peace-deal will probably be what scholars note from the latest disclosures.

“Producing the Vietnam peace agreement took the administration to the emotional brink,” he said. “At the very moment of triumph after finally ending combat operations in Southeast Asia, that process caused deep and lasting fissures among the top ranks in the White House.”

UPDATE 12.30 PM:

Is it possible that over at The New York Times (or at least in Charlie Savage’s cubicle) there are readers of The New Nixon?  (Admittedly unlikely, but stranger things have happened.)  Whatever the reason, The Times has removed Mr. Hughes’ provocative quotation and replaced with a more measured paraphrase.  And on Fatal Politics, while noting this change, Mr. Hughes acknowledges the outlier nature of his opinions:

But now my beautiful, beautiful quote is gone — gone — vanished!

Here, I have a picture of it, before it was torn from its natural habitat.

It’s there! I know it’s small, but look closer. Look! Gaze upon its quotatiousness.

This week the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations convenes and, gentle reader, I was so gonna rock my New York Times quote at SHAFR.

At last, I can hear myself saying, at last, some mainstream media recognition of Nixon’s “decent interval” exit strategy.

It would’ve been swell.

Now I’m afraid I’m gonna get paraphrase-probed. It’s gonna hurt.

“Mr. Hughes said the conversation bolstered his view that Nixon, Thieu and Mr. Kissinger knew at the time that the cease-fire could not endure, and that it was not “peace with honor,” as Nixon described it, so much as a face-saving way for the United States to get out of the war. In 1975, North Vietnam would violate the cease-fire and conquer South Vietnam.”

So, Ken, I can hear them all snidely sneering, wasn’t it basically everyone’s view that the ceasefire would not hold? And to say that Nixon did not achieve “peace with honor,” well, isn’t that a little vague? Like “a face-saving way for the United States to get out of the war”? I don’t know, we were expecting something a little . . . more.

Come back, li’l quote! I love you!



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