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Nixon and Kissinger Obfuscations About Vietnam: What the Documents Show

Fact & Fiction




Mr. Kimball is a professor of history at Miami University and the author of Nixon's Vietnam War. His most recent book is The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (University Press of Kansas, 2004).

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Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger's accounts of the Vietnam War were self-serving, incomplete, and obfuscatory. In addition, their legal and administrative steps delayed the release of relevant documentary evidence about their policies, strategies, and motives. With the declassification of a large body of formerly secret papers and tapes during the past decade, however, historians, journalists, and attentive citizenry now have an evidentiary basis upon which they can reassess Nixon's and Kissinger's versions of history.

In The Vietnam War Files , I have tried to show through selected excerpts of audio tapes and paper documents that the trail of evidence contradicts many of the claims Nixon and others made during and after his presidency about his Vietnam-War policies and related strategies. In some cases—as with the secret nuclear alert of October 1969, Nixon's emphasis upon the madman theory, his and Kissinger's adoption of the decent-interval solution by 1971, and the importance of Vietnam in the evolution of détente and rapprochement—the evidence uncovers a story that has heretofore been little known to both scholars and the general public. Furthermore, some of this new documentary material throws more light on the policies and strategies of the other side in the conflict. The evidence does not support Nixon's and Kissinger's key arguments but instead reveals a different story of what happened in history, how it happened, and why it happened.

In his public statements, for example, Nixon had emphasized the primacy of ending the war, extricating American troops, and gaining the release of American POWs. In practice these policy goals were held hostage to his other policy goal of protecting the credibility of the United States as a loyal and effective counterrevolutionary power and his personal political goal of winning the 1972 election. Having failed in 1969 to achieve this goal through aggressive military and diplomatic strategies, Nixon rejected a negotiation track that might have led to some form of coalition government in Saigon, and he often considered using the “bug-out-with-bombing” option, which might have resulted in a rapid pullout of most American forces. In order to resolve his dilemma, Nixon, with Kissinger's collaboration, adopted the decent-interval option, which, through paced troop withdrawals and stalling tactics in the Paris negotiations, had the effect of prolonging the war and extending Nguyen Van Thieu's regime past the 1972 American presidential election.

Several textual documents and Oval Office tapes seem to provide incontrovertible "incriminating" proof of Nixon-Kissinger support for a decent-interval exit strategy from Vietnam. One of the most revealing pieces of evidence is a marginal notation Kissinger wrote in the Indochina section of the briefing book for his July 1971 trip to China. What is significant about Kissinger's marginalia is that (1) he actually used the phrase "decent interval"; (2) it serves as a direct summation of the additional evidence to be found elsewhere for what he and Nixon variously called "decent interval," "reasonable interval," "healthy interval," and "sufficient interval"; (3) Kissinger wanted to assure the Chinese--with whom Nixon and Kissinger very much desired rapprochement and from whom they wanted assistance in persuading Hanoi to sign a cease-fire agreement--that the U.S. would not leave forces in Vietnam to defend Thieu. Even without this marginal note, the relevant paragraph of the briefing book itself is a diplomatic phrasing of the decent-interval solution. Expressed with a word Kissinger thought the Leninist Chinese would understand, the adjective "objective" before "realities" in this paragraph was a reference to the military developments that would influence the political balance of power after American troop withdrawals.

Excerpt from the Indochina section of the briefing book for Kissinger's July 1971 trip, POLO I [Part I]:

On behalf of President Nixon I want to assure the prime minister [Zhou] solemnly that the United States is prepared to make a settlement that will truly leave the political evolution of South Vietnam to the Vietnamese alone. We are ready to withdraw all of our forces by a fixed date and let objective realities shape the political future. . . .
We want a decent interval. You have our assurance. [marginal notation in Kissinger's hand.]
If the Vietnamese people themselves decide to change the present government, we shall accept it. But we will not make that decision for them.

Even though Nixon correctly denied that he had sought military victory over North Vietnam, his initial policy goal in South Vietnam—that is, maintaining Thieu's government and South Vietnam as an independent state—required that he win a political victory in South Vietnam and a diplomatic victory in the Paris negotiations over North Vietnam and its southern ally, the Provisional Revolutionary Government ("Vietcong"). These tasks, in turn, hinged on his ability to gain a significant military advantage on the ground in South Vietnam and, in addition, to lever cooperation from the Soviets and concessions from the North Vietnamese with madman-theory threats, triangular diplomacy, and military escalation.

Nixon's threats failed him. Triangular diplomacy produced mixed and limited results. His escalations in Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam succeeded only and mainly in countervailing the military initiatives of the People's Army of Vietnam and the People's Liberation Armed Forces (although the Communist side, failing in its maximum aims, gained ground during the Spring Offensive of 1972).

The documentary record shows, moreover, that Nixon's pursuit of triangular diplomacy through détente and rapprochement had more to do with achieving his goals in the Vietnam War than has been previously understood. Détente was more a coercive or instrumentalist strategy than one aimed at a relaxation of relations with the Soviets. Rapprochement—the “opening” to China —originated in Nixon's attempt to play the China card against the Soviets. Subsequently—between 1970 and 1972—the China card evolved into what we know as rapprochement with China out of Nixon's interest in shoring up his political standing at home while he continued with his triangular strategy to try to marshal international pressure against Hanoi .

Nixon and Kissinger later argued that it was their realpolitik-guided triangular policies toward Beijing and Moscow and their military measures toward North Vietnam that had caused Hanoi to accept a diplomatic solution that favored Saigon and Washington . The new evidence indicates that China and the Soviet Union did exert pressure on the North Vietnamese in the form of diplomatic advice or admonition, but at the same time, there is evidence that it was not decisive.

Instead, it seems that the Political Bureau in Hanoi acted mostly in response to their assessment of the balance of forces in South Vietnam, which would favor them after a U.S. withdrawal, and also to their assessment of American political and economic conditions, which limited Nixon's options and exerted pressure on him to compromise. Neither Chinese nor Soviet diplomatic pressure was the primary contributing cause of Hanoi 's decision to negotiate and sign the Paris Agreement of January 1973. In any case, by 1972, if not before, Nixon's effort to exert pressure on Hanoi through his qualified successes in summitry took the form of trying to convince the Soviets and Chinese that he was interested in a decent-interval solution for South Vietnam.

Nixon and Kissinger blamed the antiwar movement, liberal intellectuals, the press, and Congress for opposing their policies, encouraging the enemy, prolonging the war, and ultimately causing the collapse of South Vietnam. Without such opposition, they claimed, they could have applied more military pressure and negotiated an agreement sooner than January 1973. Had the War Powers Act of November 1973 and the Watergate scandal of 1972 to 1974 not hobbled Nixon, he and others claimed that he could have resumed bombing in 1973 or 1974 and forced Hanoi's acquiescence in Thieu's survival. Had Congress provided sufficient post-agreement aid to Saigon and also allowed President Ford to unleash American airpower, they further asserted, Thieu could have stopped the North Vietnamese Spring Offensive of 1975, saving South Vietnam.

Nixon and Kissinger's defense of their policies after the Paris Agreement and the fall of Saigon in April 1975 rested on the assumption that additional military force would have turned things around. But this assumption conveniently omitted consideration of those analyses within the Johnson and Nixon administrations at the time that the use of even greater force than what was already being applied would have triggered Soviet and/or Chinese entry into the war, probably would have failed, and would have overtaxed America's military and economic resources, further damaging the economy, undermining America's global military posture, and provoking political rebellion among mainstream, fence-sitting voters. Nixon and Kissinger themselves were influenced by these analyses and additional appreciations. Midstream into their first year in office, Nixon and Kissinger had concluded that direct American involvement in the war must end, not only because of antiwar sentiment in the streets and campuses but also because of continuing pressure for de-escalation from cabinet members and administration dissidents, growing opposition in Congress from both sides of the aisle, declining public support for the war, North Vietnamese persistence, their own desire to improve relations with the Soviet Union and China, and fiscal and economic constraints. They understood that the war could not be won in a military victory over the southern guerrillas and the North Vietnamese main-force units, and so they carried on to win a favorable political result in Saigon while withdrawing American troops. They, not the antiwar movement or Congress or the press, decided that de-escalation should be prolonged past the 1972 presidential election.

Nixon and Kissinger's spin on history won for them a decent interval from having to accept their own share of responsibility and blame for what happened. It also sustained those individuals and groups then and later who had an ideological or self-interested stake in maintaining the credibility of Americans' will and ability to intervene in "Third World" revolutions and trouble spots.

For some, it also contributed to their deep sense of betrayal by the federal government, social institutions, and fellow Americans, and it fostered continuing divisions between Americans about the meaning of the war and the lessons to be drawn from its history. Nonetheless, with the new documentary evidence, a more complete and accurate historical record will perhaps help free us from the burden of this past. Or if it cannot free us, this new evidence may at least clarify the nature of the burden.


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Kenneth E Turner - 8/1/2006

Now that the NSA Archives has been able to acquire more of H.Kissengers notes/memorandums, and with their publishing the "Memorandum of Conversation with Zhou Enlai, 20 June 1972", there can be little doubt about Nixon's 'Decent Interval' strategy in Vietnam disengagement.

There may also need to be a few revisonary footnotes about Fonda's Hanoi foolishness, in light of:

1) Her trip occurred approximately one month after Kissinger's Bejing meeting.

2) at the meeting Kissinger said:

"Why in the name of God would we want a pro-American government in Saigon when we can live with governments that are not pro-American in much bigger countries of Asia?"

and

"And therefore, we believe that the war must now be ended for everybody's sake. If the war continues, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam will surely lose more than it can possibly gain. Its military offensive has stopped; its domestic situation is difficult; and we are forced to do things to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that go beyond anything that is commensurate with our objective. We don't want them to be weak."

If the Secretary of State didn't think the North Vietnamese was an enemy, even when they still held and mistreated so many American POWs, how could Fonda have been giving treasonous aid and comfort? Either Nixon and Kissinger were traitors, or Fonda was not, but I doubt that either side of the political BiPolarity will look at it honestly.

As for the "Decent Interval" Kissinger laid out a pretty good timeline:

"It is difficult for me to answer partly because I don't want to give encouragement for this to happen. But let me answer it according to my best judgment. For example, if our May 8 proposal were accepted, which has a four-month withdrawal and four months for exchange of pri­soners, if in the fifth month the war starts again, it is quite possible we would say this was just a trick to get us out and we cannot accept this.

If the North Vietnamese, on the other hand, engage in a serious negotiation with the South Vietnamese, and if after a longer period it starts again after we were all disengaged, my personal judgment is that it is much less likely that we will go back again, much less likely."

Another notworthy mention about the meeting is a NSC staffer listed in attendance, John D. Negroponte.

The transcript can be viewed at:
http://www.gwu.edu/%7Ensarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB193/HAK%206-20-72.pdf
(3.13 MB PDF File)


mark safranski - 2/8/2004

Thank you, Oscar. I quite agree with you regarding Nixon's penchant for duplicity, secrecy and intrigue - ironically the combination of realism in analysis with deviousness and paranoia in execution made Nixon very effective in foreign policy until those same qualities brought him down. One point in Nixon's defense is that he did not have the freedom to remove obstructive career ppl at State and Defense that presidents from Carter on had ( a reform act in 1978 expanded presidential appointments within the upper tiers of the federal bureaucracy. Today Clinton or Bush II were able to appoint around 6000 ppl - much more leeway than Nixon had to shift uncooperative subordinates to other jobs. Many of these posts actually go to career ppl but in a " political " post they can be fired or transferred easily)


Oscar Chamberlain - 2/8/2004

Excellent comment; I think you are precisely right.

Of course, this did nothing to increase Nixon's honesty with the public. In fact, Nixon's duplicity vis-a-vis the American public over Vietnam and (until 1971) over China is one of the best examples that one can find for the inevitable clash between a quasi-imperial foreign policy and the accountability to the public essential for a democracy (or republic).

Nixon probably had to be duplicitous--particularly on China--or he could not have pulled off a change in policy. The diplomay required secrecy and secrecy required deception.

However, in the process he sold himself to the public on false pretenses and betrayed many of his conservative supporters on a matter of great importance.


mark safranski - 2/3/2004

Perhaps the key to understanding Nixon's Vietnam policies is that they were always relational to something else - detente, the China opening, credibility, elections, image- not an end in themselves.

Nixon preceded his campaign for president with a world tour where he discussed Vietnam and foreign affairs with foreign leaders ( those who would see him) and was intrigued by Ceaucescu's flattery and wish to be a go-between on Vietnam and China. His article in Foreign Affairs " Asia after Vietnam " and his speech at Bohemian Grove indicate Nixon had already acquired a more accurate view of South Vietnam's actual strategic importance to the United States - far less value than what LBJ had given it. Nixon also delegated heavily to Kissinger on Vietnam which indicates it was a secondary interest of his behind China and US-Soviet relations.

Nixon wanted out of the war on the terms that were the best for the United States that would confirm for Richard Nixon's reputation as a " tough " world leader. Hence the twists and turns his policy took until at the end, the Paris Accords were the best deal available.

http://www.zenpundit.blogspot.com


William Livingston - 2/3/2004

Mr. Kimball complains that Nixon & Kissinger's acconuts of the VN War were "self-serving..." Ah come on now, they were expected to present the Communist point-of-view? Get real! What was so strange about Nixon placing his goal of protecting the credibility of the U.S. as a loyal and effective...power? IMHO that indeed was a primary factor, a proper and reasonable justification for fighting the war & for not bugging out abandoning our South Viet ally to the untender viciousness of the Communists as the Democratic Party controled Congress forced us to do--the cowardly back-stabbing weasels, our Democratic Congressmen.

If the Viet-Nam War was the wrong war in the wrong place and at the wrong time, why then did a succession of U.S. Presidents, both Democratic & Republican choose to fight it? Did L.B.J. commit political suicide because of his hubris? Humbug! The Viet-Nam War was a war that needed to be fought by us for a number of reasons. Indeed, in the long run our fighting it proved beneficial to the West and to the United States regardless whimpers of complaint about the wars effect on the domestic social environment and the negative effect the war had on the U.S. Army from some weak sisters.


Michael Meo - 2/1/2004

While it is somewhat pleasant to find the actual words 'decent interval' in Dr K's own handwriting on a contemporary document, it is claiming too much, it seems to me, that any 'new perspective' comes from detailed study of the documents in this case.

Nixon and Kissinger acted consistently toward a goal of withdrawal in time for the 1972 elections--surely Prof. Kimball recalls the "Peace at hand" announcement--and the recently released documents abundantly confirm this interpretation.