The inscription on President Richard Nixon's grave marker repeats a line from his first inaugural address in 1969. The diplomatic machinations on the day of his second inaugural belie his claim to the title. Photo by author.
The month of January 1973 stands for many things. Roe v. Wade, the decision establishing a right to abortion, was announced that month. Lyndon Johnson died at just 64 years of age. Harry Truman’s memorial took place in the National Cathedral (Truman died the day after Christmas, 1972).
And the Watergate burglars’ trial resulted in convictions of the two defendants who had not pled guilty, starting a chain of events that would bring down a president.
But the enduring lesson from January 1973 comes from the flimsy peace President Nixon forced on the South Vietnamese under the guise of “peace with honor.”
Nixon’s desperation to be known as peacemaker led to a dramatic showdown on the day of his second inaugural, Saturday, January 20, 1973—fifty years ago this month.
The White House tapes reveal a true sense of panic on the morning of the inaugural. Nearly half of Nixon’s second inaugural address was dedicated to the subject of peace, and it was premised on his belief that Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, had concluded the peace negotiations in Paris and that the peace accords would be announced soon after the inaugural ceremonies.
But that plan was thrown into chaos when Kissinger called Nixon at 9:32 a.m. (per the 20th Amendment, Nixon was to be sworn-in at noon that day).
Nixon had been up talking on the phone with adviser Chuck Colson until well past midnight happily reading passages from his speech for Colson’s entertainment. Just a few hours later, he arose and ran five hundred steps in place before eating breakfast at 8:30. “It left me breathless,” he wrote in his memoirs, “but I thought it was a good idea to be in as good a shape as I could for the ceremonies to take place that day.”
Aware of the historical significance of the day, he stepped into the Lincoln Bedroom to say a silent prayer in the spot where the Emancipation Proclamation was preserved and where he understood Lincoln’s desk had been located.
Then the phone rang.
Expecting good news from Kissinger, Nixon was stunned by the report from General Alexander Haig, whom Nixon had sent to Saigon to meet with President Nguyen Van Thieu to enlist support for the peace terms negotiated by Kissinger in Paris.
Thieu balked. “Well, [Haig’s] had a session and Thieu has written you another letter,” Kissinger told Nixon.
“Oh God!” Nixon responded. One of the wonders of the White House taping system is how intimately listeners can participate in these historic moments during the Nixon presidency. In this instance, you can hear Nixon’s breathing grow heavier—the fear in his voice is clearly detectible.
Kissinger, as he so often had to do, immediately tried to soothe Nixon’s anxiety. “What the guy has done, he’s obviously posturing himself, step-by-step,” he said. “He’s now reduced his—in his letter he made four conditions and he’s now reduced them to two.” Then some more bad news. “He’s also sending his foreign minister to Paris to meet with me.”
Another exhale by Nixon. “Oh God!”
Kissinger’s initial reaction had been the same, he told Nixon, but after analyzing it with his team for the past two hours, he concluded that “the problem with [Thieu] is that if we initial an agreement Tuesday, without visible participation by them, it is a great loss of face.”
Nixon asked, “the foreign minister is his nephew?” No, Kissinger responded, “the nephew is that little bastard, that kid who is the Minister of Information [referring to Hoang Duc Nha].”
Kissinger had even less regard for the foreign minister Tran Van Lam, telling Nixon, “The foreign minister is an ass, and he won’t be able to do anything.”
Yet the risk that South Vietnam would not go along with a peace agreement was real. One of the two remaining conditions was easy to fix—allowing South Vietnamese to carry carbines instead of just pistols or sidearms. The other went to the heart of the peace terms. Thieu continued to object to the condition that allowed the North Vietnamese to keep their troops in place in the South. This, Thieu recognized, effectively spelled the end of the existence of the South.
Nixon grew petulant, instructing Kissinger to threaten the cut-off of all aid and financial support if Thieu rejected the Paris Peace Accords. “I’ll do any damn thing it is, or cut off his head if necessary,” he said in total exasperation.
The fact is that Nixon and Kissinger had sabotaged America’s ally by giving into the demand that North Vietnamese troops remain in place in the South as part of the settlement. They had engaged in a violent and horrific bombing campaign in December to bring the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table and they were not going to let the legitimate concerns of the South Vietnamese upend the impending settlement.
Two hours later, Nixon took to the inaugural stand on the East Front of the Capitol to take the oath of office for a second time. The first part of his short speech continued to focus on peace and, without betraying the irony, Nixon said, “The peace we seek in the world is not the flimsy peace which is merely an interlude between wars, but a peace which can endure for generations to come.”
Nixon said nothing about cutting off President Thieu’s head to accomplish peace in Vietnam.
Americans had voted for Nixon twice based in large part on his pledge to have “peace with honor.” Nixon’s own grave marker at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, in fact has only one message engraved from his first inaugural: “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.”
Perhaps Nixon and Kissinger intended to go back into Vietnam if the North violated the settlement agreement by reinstituting war in the South. But by the time that happened, Watergate had taken Nixon down and President Gerald Ford could only watch helplessly as the South fell in 1975, helicopters desperately removing American diplomats from the roof of the American embassy.
The peace turned out—not unsurprisingly—to be simply an interlude. It was a “flimsy peace.”
The lesson of Vietnam is that no matter the military might, it is impossible to bomb into submission people who are united, resistant, and fighting for their own independence and sovereignty. Putin and Russia should take note.
As importantly, lying to the public about wars and foreign affairs always compounds the danger to national security. Nixon should have learned through the Pentagon Papers, the secret study showing the United States could not win in Vietnam, that dissembling about war makes things worse. His own sales job to the nation that he had reached peace with honor was a sham. The terms of the Paris Peace Accords, signed fifty year ago, did nothing but hasten the end for South Vietnam.