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The Nixon Library's Vietnam Exhibition Obscures the Truth about the War's End

The Nixon Foundation held a 50th Anniversary commemoration for the Paris Peace Accords, signed in 1973 to end American involvement in the Vietnam War, and organized a panel emphasizing Nixon’s “grand strategy” in reaching the agreement.  One might question the strategy implemented by Nixon—it led to the disintegration of Cambodia, a war torn Laos, North Vietnamese troops below the DMZ in South Vietnam after the 1972 Easter Offensive—all hallmarks of a failed policy. While the panel consisted of acclaimed historians such as Pierre Asselin, no one on the panel suggested “grand strategy” ended the war.  Scholarship by Nixon historians Jeffrey Kimball and Carolyn Eisenberg, moreover, shows that Nixon made major concessions to China and the Soviet Union in several failed attempts to end the war.  

The Nixon Foundation’s marketing of the Paris Peace Accords as the result of “grand strategy,” made me curious about how they treat the war in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.  A joint production of the Nixon Foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration, the Vietnam exhibit is one of the first exhibits visitors to the library go through. Other scholars have criticized the exhibit for placing Nixon above the culture wars of the era, but I found Nixon’s voice was nowhere to be found.

At the front of the gallery, a sign invites visitors to come to their own conclusions about Nixon’s life and career. Was Nixon a “warmonger,” the sign asks. The gallery then proceeds into the turmoil of the 1960s and the Vietnam era, with Nixon above the fray, and continues into the war he inherited. The exhibit is heavy on American P.O.W.s, giving the impression that Nixon fought the war to win their release. While there are several placards and photographs, there are significant gaps in the presentation of Nixon’s Vietnam policy.

To begin with, there is no mention of Nixon’s Madman Strategy.  Nixon’s idea that using threats of nuclear force to scare the communist world into ending the Vietnam War.  Think this concept is false? Nixon engineered a secret nuclear alert, Operation Giant Lance, to intimidate the Soviet Union into convincing the North Vietnamese to end the war.  It failed and is not in the exhibit.

Also absent are the famous Nixon Tapes. 

This impacts the presentation of Operation Menu, the secret bombing of Cambodia; significant sources regarding the results of this operation are missing.  Perhaps most noteworthy is Nixon’s admission that the bombing led to the collapse of Cambodia.  As Nixon states in a taped conversation, 

Before we did Cambodia—this is not known to anybody—I had ordered, and we’d carried out, a series of strikes called the Menu strikes—nobody knows it—on Cambodia, on the sanctuaries, with B-52s. They were called the Menu strikes, well, because—[Kissinger attempts to interject] they were called the Breakfast strikes, and then I said, “All right, we’re going to”—so I said, “All right, that’s what—that’s what I don’t imagine the bastards out there called them.” I said, “Henry, the hell with that. A menu just isn’t breakfast; let’s have lunch and dinner, too.” So we took Breakfast, Lunch, and then we bombed the hell out of those sanctuaries. Nobody ever knew it and they didn’t say a goddamn word.

Kissinger replies, “It led to the collapse of Cambodia because it pushed the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodia.”   

Could Nixon have brought the P.O.W.s home earlier? In one cynical tape, Nixon orders Kissinger to offer a false peace proposal for “cosmetic” purposes to deter the efforts of P.O.W. wives.

While Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler supposedly said the tapes are like the Bible, and can be used to support any theory, the idea that Nixon’s timetable for ending the war was driven by political concerns is supported by archival records and the tapes.  Fearful that another Tet Offensive would occur in 1972, and knowing that the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front Offensive forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to shelve his plans to run for reelection in 1968, Nixon kept the war going throughout 1972 to ensure his own reelection.

Did Nixon believe South Vietnam would survive? Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger offered a “decent interval”—a two year break between the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the collapse of South Vietnam-- to the Soviets and Chinese.  While the concept of the decent interval has been controversial, visitors deserve to hear this tape, from August 3, 1972, where Nixon and Kissinger discuss the timing of ending the war and the likelihood of South Vietnam’s survival:

Nixon: Let's be perfectly cold-blooded about it. If you look at it from the standpoint of our game with the Soviets and the Chinese, from the standpoint of running this country, I think we could take, in my view, almost anything, frankly, that we can force on Thieu. Almost anything. I just come down to that. You know what I mean? Because I have a feeling we would not be doing, like I feel about the Israeli, I feel that in the long run we're probably not doing them an in—uh … a disfavor due to the fact that I feel that the North Vietnamese are so badly hurt that the South Vietnamese are probably gonna do fairly well.

Nixon: Also due to the fact—because I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably is never gonna survive anyway. I'm just being perfectly candid—I—

Kissinger: In the pull-out area—

Nixon: [unclear] There's got to be—if we can get certain guarantees so that they aren't … as you know, looking at the foreign policy process, though, I mean, you've got to be—we also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important.

Nixon: It's terribly important this year, but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That's the real question.

Kissinger: If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it's the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say in a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink—we ourselves—I think, there is going to be—even the Chinese won't like that. I mean they'll pay verbal—verbally, they'll like it—

Nixon: But it'll worry them.

Kissinger: But it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won't help us all that much because our opponents will say we should've done it three years ago.

Nixon: I know.

Kissinger: So we've got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which—after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January 74 no one will give a damn.

Broadly, the history of the war is contested and divided into two schools.  The first, sometimes called the revisionist school, tends to argue that the Vietnam War was a just cause improperly executed by the United States’ political leadership. The second and most dominant, the orthodox school, argues the war itself was an immoral mistake.  Regardless of the school, the Nixon Library’s and Nixon Foundation’s claim that the Paris Peace Accords resulted from Nixon’s grand strategy does not fit into the historiography and distorts the history of the war. The exhibit itself needs to include crucial archival sources, the latest scholarly debates, and most importantly, crucial Nixon tapes as evidence.