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A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency

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An authoritative historical assessment of american foreign policy in a crucial postwar decade.

William Bundy's magisterial book focuses on the controversial record of Richard Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's often overpraised foreign policy of 1969 to 1973, an era that has rightly been described as the hinge on which the last half of the century turned. But Bundy's principled, clear-eyed assessment in effect pulls together all the major issues and events of the thirty-year span ...

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Overview

An authoritative historical assessment of american foreign policy in a crucial postwar decade.

William Bundy's magisterial book focuses on the controversial record of Richard Nixon's and Henry Kissinger's often overpraised foreign policy of 1969 to 1973, an era that has rightly been described as the hinge on which the last half of the century turned. But Bundy's principled, clear-eyed assessment in effect pulls together all the major issues and events of the thirty-year span from the 1940s to the end of the Vietnam War, and makes it clear just how dangerous the consequences of Nixon and Kissinger's deceptive modus operandi were.

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Editorial Reviews

James G. Hershberg
A major critique . . . Bundy has made a strong case-a stimulating reconsideration of the gauzy nostalgia [for] Nixon's foreign policy. -- The Washington Post Book World
William Pfaff
An exemplary and fascinating story, and rather frightening. -- Los Angeles Times
Tony Judt
Carefully written and painstakingly researched . . . nothing of importance is left out . . . a devastating, and within its limits definitive, dismantling of a certain myth . . . [A Tangled Web] anticipates what one must hope will be the considered judgment of history. -- The New York Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Bundy, a former adviser at the State and Defense Departments as well as the CIA under presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and editor of Foreign Affairs from 1972 to 1984, here recaps U.S. foreign policy during the Nixon era. He has a lot to say, some of it negative, about the role of Henry Kissinger as Nixon's special assistant for national security affairs, then as secretary of state. Bundy credits Nixon as a brilliant strategist who was undone by his tendency to exclude the public and Congress from his deliberations. He is less charitable to Kissinger, whom he describes as obsessed with control and often making errors of judgment when refusing to consult professionals at the State Department and failing to bring Congress into his confidence. Bundy takes a jaundiced view of the memoirs of both men in their respective depictions of what transpired in Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as what he describes as their self-serving accounts of the opening to China and relations with the Soviet Union. He does credit the Nixon Administration with successful policies in the Middle East, many negotiated by Kissinger, to defuse Arab-Israeli conflicts, and concedes that Nixon was a skillful maneuverer and an experienced analyst. He maintains that Nixon's foreign policy accomplishments were undone less by Watergate than by the president's obsession with secrecy and his practice of deception. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Booknews
His diverse career as editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, and in intelligence and foreign policy positions under several administrations positions Bundy in a unique vantage point to challenge Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy "successes" in regard to establishing relations with China, initiating detente with the USSR, and ending US participation in the Vietnam War. He faults patterns focusing on short-term domestic gains and deceptive tactics many perceived only in a Watergate context. Includes several b&w photographs and maps. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
NY Times Book Review
A fair-minded and dispassionate assessment that gives Nixon higher marks for shrewdness and manipulation than for statesmanship.
From the Publisher
"Carefully written and painstakingly researched . . . nothing of importance is left out . . . a devasting, and within its limits definitive, dismantling of a certain myth. . . . [A Tangled Web] anticipates what one must hope will be the considered judgment in history."—Tony Judt, The New York Review of Books

"A major critique . . . Bundy has made a strong case—a stimulating reconsideration of the gauzy nostalgia [for] Nixon's foreign policy."—James G. Hershberg, The Washington Post Book World

"Judicious and comprehensive . . . The most complete and balanced account of Nixon's foreign policy."—Mark Feeney, The Boston Globe

"An exemplary and fascinating story, and rather frightening."—William Pfaff, Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809091515
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/1/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 647
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.12 (d)

Meet the Author

William Bundy held key positions in the Defense and State Departments from 1951 to 1969 and in the Central Intelligence Agency, and served as the editor of Foreign Affairs from 1972 to 1984. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

Tanlged Web

Chapter One

AN HOUR AND A MAN

The election year of 1968 was as eventful and tumultuous as any in American history—a war in Vietnam that had turned sour yet offered no easy exit; an antiwar movement at home, chiefly among a generation born during or after World War II to great expectations and ideals, with many both resenting and profiting from a conscription system loaded in favor of the educated and well-to-do; new movements such as feminism just starting to take hold; and above all a deep-seated racial division between African-American and white citizens, as old as the nation itself but attacked more forthrightly by President Lyndon Johnson than by any predecessor, with the result, common in history, that as the possibility of improvement showed itself, bitterness and frustration became all the greater.

There had been election years of equally deep domestic discontent and convulsion—in 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, bonus marchers and breadlines in the cities conveyed a whiff of revolution. In other intense election years the nation faced and debated issues of peace and war—1860, 1864, 1916, 1940. But never before had the two elements come together powerfully in the same election year. That they did in 1968 is basic to understanding the Nixon presidency. This was an hour of testing, and the experienced Republican candidate in that year was, in the eyes of a plurality of the American voting public, ready for the test.

For twenty-plus years, Richard Nixon had cut a wide swath in American public life and made a deep impression on two fronts. One was political campaigning. He had raised to a high level the art of imputing subversivetendencies to liberal opponents, acquiring early the nickname "Tricky Dick." Almost every campaign he fought was etched in the memory of his contemporaries for some extraordinary event: 1952 for a "Checkers speech" in brilliant defense of his own honor; 1960 for woebegone handling of a TV debate with John F. Kennedy; 1962 for a bitter farewell press conference in California before the despised media. This Nixon was emotional, capable of igniting deep chords of feeling for and against his personality and positions, and at the same time of masterly expository speeches. He was a superb practitioner of politics, occasionally with the raw side showing.

The other feature that stood out in Richard Nixon's record was his extensive foreign policy experience. As a member of Congress, Vice President in the collegial Eisenhower structure, and then as a much-traveled private citizen, his exposure to the world and to foreign leaders stood near the top among the political figures of his time and among twentieth-century candidates for the presidency. He had been particularly involved in and articulate over policy toward East Asia, stressing the threat from China after the Communists won power there in 1949, and had made dramatic impressions of competence and coolness on two occasions — under the physical threat of a crowd in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1958, and in a dramatic kitchen debate in the Soviet Union in 1959 with the redoubtable Nikita Khrushchev. On the other hand, both in public and in government councils, Nixon demonstrated on many occasions a strong inclination to deal with problems by decisive action, violent and military if necessary, and not to be constrained by potential opposition at home or by the attitudes of allied countries. Both in domestic politics and in his foreign policy views, he had the temperament of a "true believer," fervent, intolerant, sure of his own positions.a

An hour and a man had come together. The story of Nixon's prepresidential career, his years of preparation, is not only an account of the personal development of an extremely energetic and intelligent American of his generation, but a study of what the American nation itself went through, especially in East Asia, in the first twenty-five years of the Cold War.

1. The Making of a True Believer

Richard Nixon grew up next door to the Pacific Ocean. His wartime service was as a Navy officer in the South Pacific. Elected to Congress in 1946 over a popular liberal Democratic incumbent, in a campaign that he made markedly negative by the standards of the period, Nixon made a strong impressionat once as an articulate younger voice in a Republican Party that retained many elements of its prewar isolationism.

When the Marshall Plan for Europe was announced in the spring of 1947, Christian Herter of Massachusetts picked Nixon as a junior member of a special bipartisan House committee, which spent several weeks examining the European situation. The committee soon endorsed the Plan, and Nixon went all out to turn around his skeptical California constituents. The experience did much to establish him as a serious worker and thinker on foreign policy.1 In his own account of the trip, Nixon dwelt on what he learned about Communists, whom he insisted on meeting face to face and found to be men of great ability to be taken extremely seriously. He concluded that the only thing Communists would respect and deal with was "power at least equal to theirs and backed up by willingness to use it" and that a basic rule with Russians must be "never bluff unless you are prepared to carry through, because they will test you every time." At the same time, Nixon saw that it was essential to improve economic conditions in Europe, the main object of the Marshall Plan. (The question of military measures was not then to the fore.)2

At the opposite extreme from this high-toned committee was the House Un-American Activities Committee, dominated by right-wingers from both parties and often accused of irresponsibility in exposing supposed Communist activity. Doubtless on the strength of his election campaign, in which he had so successfully attacked his Democratic opponent for leftist leanings, Republican leaders put Nixon on HUAC, where he rapidly distinguished himself as an active participant and articulate questioner. By the summer of 1948 he was the lead figure in the committee's investigation of a just-retired State Department official, Alger Hiss, on charges of association with Communists leveled by a confessed Communist informant, Whittaker Chambers. A dramatic confrontation between the two was inconclusive, but Nixon kept pressing Chambers, who finally came forward that fall with microfilm of State Department cables, stored for years in a pumpkin on the farm of a friend. These so-called Pumpkin Papers became the key evidence leading to the conviction of Hiss, in early 1950, for perjury concerning his relationship with Chambers.

Nixon was also in the lead in linking the celebrated Hiss case to alleged Communist influence on American policy in China during and after World War II. As the Chinese Civil War turned in favor of the Communist side in 1947-49, he consistently supported attempts to increase American military aid to the Chiang Kai-shek government, and when Mao Zedong took over China in October 1949, became a strident proponent of the charge that the "loss" of China had been the fault of President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. While Nixon steered clear of some of the wilder attacks mounted by the mostly conservative andRepublican "China Lobby," he remained close to its members in and out of Congress.

When North Korea attacked South Korea in June 1950, Nixon fully supported Truman's decision to commit American forces to the defense of South Korea. Unlike many Republicans—Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, for example—he never challenged Truman's refusal to seek a declaration of war or any other congressional approval, apart from the voting of appropriations. Nixon consistently took an expansive view of presidential authority in matters of war and peace. On the other hand, he was also one of the first to charge that the Truman Administration had invited the North Korean attack, particularly by a speech Acheson had given in January 1950 that omitted Korea from a geographically defined American "defense perimeter" in East Asia. Whether the charge was valid or not, a great many Americans, then and later, found it persuasive; it was repeatedly invoked not merely for partisan purposes but to show that the United States ought to clarify its attitude toward military intervention in all regions. Ironically, Acheson had intended primarily to stir up latent conflicts between the Soviet Union and a now Communist-controlled China (which were to become central in Nixon's presidency). Only secondarily did he draw on the known views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, given the reduced postwar U.S. military forces, defense perimeters should be defined only for areas that could realistically be defended. Yet the episode came to be a main argument for drawing lines firmly and fixedly, first in Northeast Asia and in the mid-1950s in Southeast Asia as well.3

In the turbulent summer and fall of 1950, as forces under General Douglas MacArthur held on precariously in South Korea and then rebounded in the brilliant Inchon landing, Richard Nixon was winning an invectiveladen Senate campaign against a Democratic incumbent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he charged, often in nasty ways, with being "soft" on the threat of Communism. It was a campaign that, even more than the pursuit of Alger Hiss, made him anathema to a great many Democrats and not a few independent voters and observers.

That September, the Truman Administration enlarged its objective from simply restoring South Korea to unifying all of Korea by force. Authorized to go into North Korea with care and caution, MacArthur did so with maximum fanfare and aggressiveness. As his forces approached the Yalu River boundary with China, the Chinese intervened massively and to devastating effect.

Under the field command of General Matthew B. Ridgway, the war became a grinding struggle near the 38th parallel, with the Truman Administration effectively abandoning the objective of unifying Korea. The unchastened MacArthur, declaring that "war's very object is victory," urged stronger action against China. In March 1951, the charismatic general statedhis views in a public letter to Congressman Joseph Martin, Republican Minority Leader. Truman, who had put up with earlier critical statements from MacArthur, finally relieved the general for insubordination and for publicly advocating a policy opposed to that of the government. It was an epic confrontation: legendary war hero versus upstart President. Many wondered whether the very principle of civilian control of the military could survive, or whether MacArthur's views might sweep the country and make Truman's position untenable.

On the day the firing was announced, April 11, 1951, Richard Nixon, in a role rare for a freshman senator, was picked to lead his party in a long and acrimonious debate on the Senate floor. He did not challenge the President's power to relieve a commander, but urged simply that General MacArthur be reinstated. Nixon also did not lend himself to attacks by other Republicans on Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, who had joined in recommending the President's action. He went beyond familiar Republican attacks on past policy to urge all the immediate steps MacArthur had proposed. Seeing no hope that the war could be ended successfully "with concerted United Nations action," he argued that the United States unilaterally insist on strategic bombing of key targets within China and on allowing Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces on Taiwan to threaten the mainland and thus divert some Chinese forces from Korea.4

As the historian Stephen Ambrose rightly sums up, the debate that spring was "between those who wanted to crush the Communists in Asia and those who wanted to contain them." The Truman Administration—through Acheson, Marshall, and General Omar Bradley—stressed the fundamental strategic importance of ground forces, of accepting geographical limits and taking account of the views of allies; the MacArthur side advocated drastic use of airpower, enlarging the war zone, and making political and alliance factors subordinate to military needs.5 (This sharp division of opinion over American policy in East Asia continued for the next two decades.) In 1951, exhaustive joint congressional hearings, impressively chaired by Senator Richard Russell, convinced many Americans that Truman had been right both to fire MacArthur and to reject his advice. Nixon did not return to the fray during or immediately after those hearings, but he had clearly aligned himself with the MacArthur school, in favor of drastic military action with maximum objectives.6

At the same time, Nixon continued to distance himself from Taft Republicans by his strong support of the U.S. commitment of major forces to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and of the designation of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Alliance's supreme commander in Europe. Nixon was an early supporter of Eisenhower as the Republican nominee in 1952, and his own selection as Vice President fell naturally into place, highlighting the issue of Communism and balancing the ticket geographically.In the campaign, much of Nixon's oratory repeated his earlier litany of attacks over the "loss" of China and "softness" on Communism. Calling Acheson the dean of a "college of cowardly communist containment" was a sample of rhetoric that endeared him to the right, enraged liberals and many moderates, and left a deep mark.

Nixon was more involved in foreign policy than any previous Vice President. He formed close and friendly ties with both Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles. And whereas the custom in most administrations was for the Vice President to air his views only directly and personally to the President, Eisenhower allowed the Vice President to participate frequently and apparently frankly in meetings of the National Security Council. All in all, Nixon got a training in foreign policy that was comparable to the kind of apprenticeship that is usual in Cabinet-style governments but a rare exception in the American system.7

By 1953, with a stalemate in Korea, Eisenhower took the secret step of warning the Chinese, through an Indian intermediary, that if the war went on the United States might feel impelled to attack China; the clear implication was that it might use nuclear weapons. It was an action consistent with Eisenhower's New Look strategy of defending outlying areas by making a threat of "massive retaliation" at places and times chosen by the United States—a strategy Nixon accepted and was surely much influenced by.8

North Korea and China did accept an armistice in July 1953: whether the secret Eisenhower warning was decisive has been much debated among historians. But there can be little doubt that Eisenhower and Nixon (whenever he learned of it) believed that the warning had been a crucial and perhaps the single most decisive factor. Nixon repeatedly said so in later years, and must have marked down stern private messages and threats of all-out war as special and important tools of policy.

By the fall of 1953, the Eisenhower Administration had scored a noteworthy series of successes, including the armistice in Korea, the election of Ramon Magsaysay as President of the Philippines (with substantial American advice and a strong public campaign to make the election fair), and a CIA-assisted coup in Iran that restored the pro-American Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi to power.9 NATO was firmly established, Latin America and the Middle East at peace. The greatest remaining worry was Indochina, where the French position was deteriorating rapidly, so that Eisenhower decided in September on a major increase in military aid.

At this apogee of American power and prestige, Nixon embarked on a seventy-day "goodwill" trip to nineteen different countries. This had no ceremonial purposes; rather, it was a down-to-earth survey with little formality and a great deal of direct talk with senior foreign officials and Americans in the countries visited. The format gave Nixon the chance to refine his already great capacity to digest written materials and to conduct searchingconversations with foreign leaders, usually without tension. On the trip he also formed a number of strong impressions of individuals. Carrying with him the ideas that were soon to be embodied in treaty links with Pakistan, he was drawn to the bluff and downright Pakistani generals, but found Jawaharlal Nehru in India iniquitously neutral ("immoral" was John Foster Dulles's label); similarly, although Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia was a non-Communist leader with legitimacy and popular support almost unique in Southeast Asia, Nixon found him intelligent but "vain and flighty," above all naive about Communism.10

With American officials likewise, his assessment depended heavily on evidence of hard-line anti-Communist views. In Tokyo, Samuel Berger, a Foreign Service officer with a labor background, briefed Nixon on the important labor federation SOHYO. Under Nixon's stern cross-examination, Berger stuck to his judgment that SOHYO was not then Communist-dominated or likely to become so—a judgment confirmed by later events. The result, at Nixon's behest, was the early reassignment of Berger to a less important post.11

The overall situation in Southeast Asia made by far the greatest impression on Nixon. He came to believe that holding off the Communist threat in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was essential to a stable East Asia and the top priority for American policy. He found the French too tarred with the colonialist brush to be effective; locally rooted regimes were essential, but so was outside support in some form, to deal principally with the threat of Communist China.

On his return, Nixon made a two-hour report to the National Security Council. He urged that the United States forge mutual-defense links from Turkey right around to a rearmed Japan — an Asia-wide security structure to deter and resist Communist expansion in any form, with the United States in the central role as it already was in Europe. He was thus an early advocate of the "pactomania" that characterized John Foster Dulles's foreign policy, with its great emphasis on formal defense commitments.

The situation in Indochina became critical even sooner than Nixon had feared. In April 1954, Vietminh forces besieged the remote fortress of Dien Bien Phu, and Eisenhower had to decide whether the United States should intervene directly. Intense discussions with the French produced a plan for strategic air attacks, in line with the Administration's New Look military strategy. But the French public was sick of the war, the British government was cool to taking military action, and Eisenhower's old colleague, General Ridgway, now Army Chief of Staff, argued strongly that a land war in Indochina would be costly, unpredictable, and unwise. In early April, a Gallup poll found 68 percent of the American public against armed intervention.12

Within the Administration, Nixon for a time joined with Admiral Arthur Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in favoring the air attackplan. He also expressed his views in a dramatic public fashion. At the important annual meeting of newspaper publishers in Washington, he said in response to a question that if the situation required he would favor a decision to commit U.S. ground forces to help the French. Although the response was theoretically "off the record," it was far too explosive for him or anyone else to suppose it would remain private. Both comment and speaker were at once reported in the media, bringing the issue of American intervention to a head.

Eisenhower did not rebuke or repudiate Nixon—part of a cool and somewhat detached position in the crisis that continues to puzzle historians. When the President met with congressional leaders shortly afterward, he found them strongly opposed to military action and decided to pursue a more diplomatic policy of "united action," designed less to prevent a Communist takeover in North Vietnam than to forestall further Communist gains after that. As in the MacArthur crisis three years earlier, Nixon was for taking risks with strong action, especially air attacks. But when Eisenhower moved in a more moderate direction, Nixon supported his policy loyally.

The upshot was that France gave up the fight when Dien Bien Phu fell in early May. A July conference in Geneva set the 17th parallel as the demarcation line between the Communist-held territories in the North and the Western-supported non-Communists in the South, with an ambiguous provision for elections after two years to determine whether the country should remain divided. The United States accepted these 1954 Accords, but did not sign them or participate in the hasty final decisions that produced them.

That fall, "united action" took shape in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) that John Foster Dulles designed and promoted. The signatories—the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan—pledged to come to each other's aid against armed aggression and to consult on common action against "indirect aggression." Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam (called the Republic of Vietnam) became "protocol states" under the treaty, entitled to call on the signers for help against direct or indirect aggression—a status that Sihanouk in Cambodia promptly rejected as part of a determined policy of neutrality.

That the Senate readily ratified the SEATO treaty reflected the Eisenhower Administration's prestige, relief that America had not become militarily involved in Southeast Asia, and belief in the "lesson of Korea," that drawing firm lines helped to deter Communist expansion and make war less likely. But it was a weak and unrealistic treaty: it offered no answer to subversion and guerrilla warfare, so everything depended on whether solid local regimes could emerge and win the support of their people.

The next few years saw remarkable apparent progress in South Vietnam. In July 1954, on the recommendation of Democratic senator Mike Mansfield (a long-standing expert on East Asia), Ngo Dinh Diem, a central Vietnam mandarin with a staunch nationalist record and some administrative experience, was plucked from a New Jersey retreat and persuaded to take office as Prime Minister of South Vietnam. The next spring, with strong support from some officials in a divided U.S. Embassy, Diem beat back threats from local sect forces and established himself in control. In the fall of 1955 his power was ratified by a formal, though hardly free, election as President.

Just what part Nixon played in these dramatic developments is not clear. His association with the activist Dulles brothers suggests that he may have been a significant force behind the scenes at critical points. Certainly he welcomed and publicly cheered for each successive move to strengthen South Vietnam and to enlarge American activities there. He was also one of the first U.S. officials to describe America's new relationship to South Vietnam as a "commitment."

July 1956 was the due date for the elections called for under the Geneva Accords, but by then a confident Diem had publicly refused to accept these, on the ground that South Vietnam had never signed the Accords and was not bound by them. A more persuasive argument, urged on Diem by Secretary Dulles and endorsed at the time by at least one senator, John F. Kennedy, was that any semblance of free choice was impossible in the territories controlled by the Communist regime in North Vietnam. Hanoi sharply attacked Diem's decision, but could do nothing.

Nixon came to Saigon again that July, to celebrate the second anniversary of Diem's taking charge. In the next four years, American aid to South Vietnam was massive and varied. Military equipment and training were provided to create a conventional defense force, organized in division units on the South Korean model, and designed to hold off a frontal attack from the North until help came. Large quantities of economic aid and training in public administration were also supplied. But the political situation was left almost entirely to Diem, who developed a system of personal rule, relying heavily on his brothers. It was apparent from an early stage that his regime was antagonizing Buddhists and other groups in Vietnam's varied society, and thus playing into the hands of the initially small Communist movement in the southern part of the country, but when a courageous American ambassador with experience in Communist situations, Elbridge Durbrow, tried to offer advice, Diem ignored him with impunity, believing rightly that the pliant American general in charge of military aid was the effective voice of Washington.13 This passive and acquiescent American posture probably had an important influence on Diem's later behavior and onhis refusal to take American advice seriously. Again, just what part Nixon played in this American posture has not been revealed.

Certainly the Eisenhower Administration saw its record in South Vietnam as a success story. When it invited Diem to Washington for a state visit in 1959, the exchange of statements was flowery — with the Vice President to the fore. In all, Nixon's record suggests that his sense of the need to support South Vietnam went beyond normal loyalty to Administration policy and took on a personal, almost evangelical character. Nixon had developed, as Stephen Ambrose concludes, "almost a lifelong commitment to saving the people of Indochina from Communism."14

In Laos, meanwhile, the Eisenhower Administration moved away from formal support of an unstable coalition regime, which had been prescribed in the 1954 Geneva Accords, and in 1960 gave its outright backing to a rightist general, Phoumi Nosavan. This set off a sharp conflict with "neutralist" forces, and by the end of the year small U.S. military detachments were in Laos supporting Phoumi's side. Wider hostilities seemed imminent.

In South Vietnam, 1960 saw widespread terrorist activity and increasing small-scale actions by local Vietcong (Vietnamese Communist) forces and a tremor of instability in the form of an abortive coup against Diem in November by Air Force officers. Much more important, but then unknown to the American government or public, was a North Vietnamese move in May 1959, which most historians regard as the start of the Second Indochina War. Hanoi decided to turn up the pressure by supporting and directing the already sizable Vietcong guerrilla forces it had helped to create in South Vietnam. Trained cadres flowed across the porous border and down the blossoming supply trail through eastern Laos (the Ho Chi Minh Trail). American intelligence soon detected a Hanoi-led radio command network, but American policymakers only dimly grasped the scale of the North's intervention. The Lao Dong (Communist) Party in the North wanted total control of Indochina—a goal that was encouraged, but never directed, by the Communist regime in China. Thus, what appeared to the American public—even, apparently, to the two presidential candidates in 1060 — as a fairly stable Indochina situation was in fact drifting badly.

 

 

In all, Richard Nixon's performance as Vice President won high marks, especially among Republicans. When Ike had serious illnesses in 1955 and 1956, Nixon behaved with tact and restraint, and his personal performances in Caracas in 1958 and in the 1959 kitchen debate with Nikita Khrushchev added to his stature. By 1960, when he won the Republican nomination for the presidency after a brief contest with Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, he had established himself as a serious participant in and experton foreign policy, holding the views then common among responsible conservatives. Bipartisan consensus was the order of the day, and differences between parties and between liberals and conservatives were less than at any other time in the postwar period. In fact, when Senator Kennedy went into action after winning the Democratic nomination, his campaign theme quickly became an attack on the Eisenhower Administration and Nixon, not for going too far but for being sluggish and unimaginative, both at home and in the conduct of the Cold War abroad.

In the 1960 campaign, U.S. support for South Vietnam was not an issue, nor was concern about China paramount: the Communist regime had first "let a hundred flowers bloom" in an apparently generous effort to encourage freer expression of opinion, then cut off the new freedom abruptly and embarked on "the Great Leap Forward," a draconian economic program that failed almost immediately. Even over the only foreign policy issue involving China—whether to help the Nationalists in Taiwan defend the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, lying between Taiwan and the mainland—the differences between the two candidates were "mainly rhetorical."15 Throughout the campaign, neither candidate suggested any change in the nation's hard-line policy toward China, nor was the chain of alliances around the rim of East Asia questioned. Vietnam simply never came up.

The main foreign issue was Cuba. The Administration had begun, in the spring of 1960, with Nixon's knowledge and support, to create and arm a small force of Cuban exiles intended to overthrow Castro. Kennedy was not briefed before the election on this operation, but on his own suggested such a plan in one of the debates, to Nixon's intense annoyance.16

With the choice between Nixon and Kennedy turning finally less on substantive policy positions than on apparent fitness to lead, the election was extraordinarily close. Kennedy won by the smallest margin of both electoral and popular votes in the twentieth century, a result that seemed to many to turn on last-minute events: a sympathetic phone call from Kennedy to Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., when her husband, already famous, was briefly thrown into prison on an unconvincing charge; a late surge of Democratic votes from areas of southern Texas with dubious past reputations; and above all the "machine" vote in Cook County, Illinois, where irregularities were habitual. Since overturning the Illinois and Texas results would have reversed the whole election, Eisenhower and others urged Nixon to protest and force recounts, which would have consumed months. Although his defeat was a searing experience, Nixon declined to do so, in a decision widely regarded as wise and courageous. Undoubtedly, he came out of the election with more than a close loser's normal feeling that little things had tipped the scale; he was convinced that he had been done out of victory by shady Democratic practices.

2. The Years in the Wilderness

Nixon held his peace as President Kennedy moved to cope first with the mess in Laos and then with the decay in South Vietnam. We can only guess whether he would have made a stand in Laos with American forces, as Eisenhower appeared to urge when he had his only meeting with Kennedy just before the Inauguration.17

Kennedy chose to negotiate, and enlisted Soviet help in getting a new set of Geneva Accords for Laos in 1962, reaffirming its neutral status and barring the use of Laotian territory for military purposes. But the regime in Hanoi soon shook off any Soviet influence and cynically violated the Accords. Nixon in his memoirs called Kennedy's policy "an unqualified disaster," but he was silent at the time and, to judge from comments later in the 1960s, saw the point of having, as a goal of American policy, a formal neutral status for Laos, a theater always secondary to South Vietnam and dependent on the outcome there. He may or may not have noted how little leverage the United States had with the Soviet Union on issues related to Indochina, or paused to question the degree of Soviet influence over Hanoi. 18

Would Nixon have gone further in South Vietnam in 1961 than the several thousand military advisors and massive military aid Kennedy sent late that year? Again, there is no public evidence. In 1961 and 1962, confrontation with Fidel Castro in Cuba and deadlock with the Soviet Union over Berlin were the centers of attention. Nixon concentrated on going after the governorship of California, where he unexpectedly lost out to the popular Pat Brown. In a notable farewell, he lashed out at the press — which he always saw as hostile to him and dominated by liberals—with the memorable quotation: "Now you won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore!" Humiliated, Nixon left the West Coast and came to New York to practice law and get back, quietly, into the national political arena. He attracted major clients, some with interests abroad, and was soon able to travel frequently and extend his contacts, and to renew his involvement in debate over foreign policy.

In the summer and fall of 1963, the Diem government in South Vietnam got into a political crisis brought on largely by Buddhist opposition. The worsening situation led the Kennedy Administration to draw back from the regime and set up covert links to dissident military groups. To Nixon, Diem remained "a foe of communism and a friend of the United States," and the repressive actions he took against demonstrators were no more than "embarrassing to us." Kennedy saw Diem as not only repressive but no longer effective, and in effect acquiesced in the coup that toppled Diem in early November, though he never intended, and tried to forestall, the ensuing assassination of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Nixon, probablysincerely, remained deeply suspicious that there had in fact been American complicity in the killings.19

The clouded year of 1964 passed in the shadow of the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963. In the spring, Nixon took a long trip to East Asia, stopping for two days in South Vietnam. Seeing that the situation was going downhill, and fortified by the expressed worries of mostly rightist Asian leaders at other stops, he began to speak guardedly of denying the enemy, through unspecified countermeasures, a "privileged sanctuary" in North Vietnam.20 But as a long-shot potential presidential candidate that year, Nixon was cautious. American policy was still to support the regime in South Vietnam but not engage in military action against North Vietnam itself. Only in a Reader's Digest article in August, after Barry Goldwater had gotten the Republican nomination, did Nixon forthrightly urge attacks on the North-South supply routes. Even then he stressed that only South Vietnamese air forces should be used—a clear evasion to anyone who knew, as he must have, that their offensive capabilities were virtually nonexistent. Yet Nixon's inspirational appeals for the "will to win" and his totally dark picture of the consequences of defeat suggested that he was ready to go, in Ambrose's words, "all the way," and was "the most hawkish of all national politicians" during that eventful summer. In August, after an incident in the Tonkin Gulf, President Johnson got Congress to pass a resolution authorizing strong measures, including military force, to hold Southeast Asia, but in his campaign speeches he stressed that Americans should not do the job of Asians in this war. In November, with the Republicans badly divided, Johnson won a landslide victory.21

With Goldwater's defeat, Nixon quickly reemerged as a leading Republican spokesman. In late January 1965 he came out for U.S. naval and air bombardment of North Vietnam, while saying that ground forces would not be necessary and (as he had already argued in the 1964 campaign) that nuclear weapons should not be considered. When Johnson decided in February to bomb North Vietnam, Nixon applauded, and as North Vietnamese pressure increased and with it American involvement (culminating in the commitment of major U.S. ground combat forces in late July) Nixon was always ready to call for more. In September he visited South Vietnam again, predicting that the war might go on for two or three years; on his return he urged air attacks against military targets near Hanoi and a naval blockade of Haiphong, North Vietnam's main port of entry for equipment—part of a constant emphasis on airpower rather than getting "bogged down" in a ground war, as he saw Johnson doing. At the same time, in a widely noted TV appearance, he "strongly opposed" a suggestion by Congressman Gerald Ford that the United States declare war on North Vietnam, saying this might lead the North to seek the open intervention of the Soviet Union and China.22

At the same time, Nixon consistently opposed any negotiating concessions and insisted that the objective had to be "victory" — defined as an independent and secure South Vietnam. In December, when Johnson decided on a long pause in the bombing to see if North Vietnam showed any signs of compromise, Nixon commented that the United States "should negotiate only when our military superiority is so convincing that we can achieve our objective at the conference table."23

Throughout 1966, the drumfire of his criticism went on. Whereas he had spoken in late 1965 of a maximum of 200,000 American ground forces, in August 1966, after another visit to South Vietnam, he called for a rapid increase to 500,000. He did, however, criticize Johnson for going too far, on the basis of an inaccurate story that the President planned a force of 750,000, saying that the South Vietnamese must "carry the brunt of the responsibility."24

In October 1966, with dramatic Republican gains in the House and Senate races appearing likely, President Johnson decided not to campaign hard, but to dramatize the American role in East Asia by a tour of the countries directly supporting the war effort, culminating in a conference at Manila. Nixon at once saw the trip in domestic political terms. When Johnson announced at Manila that the United States was prepared to withdraw its forces from South Vietnam six months after the North Vietnamese had pulled out all of theirs, as part of a verifiable peace settlement, Nixon erupted in a sharp attack on the eve of election day. His argument was that in such a situation, even if North Vietnamese regular forces truly withdrew, the South Vietnamese armed forces could not be sure of being able to handle the indigenous Vietcong forces who would remain in place. Stung, Johnson responded angrily and in a personal vein, which only helped Nixon's standing.25

The Republicans did indeed score great gains in the 1966 congressional elections, and Nixon's important and highly visible participation in the campaign reestablished him solidly as a potential presidential candidate. It was an extraordinary comeback from the depths of late 1962. From then on, every move he made was calculated in terms of winning the nomination and then the election. He assumed that Johnson would run again and, if the Vietnam War was still inconclusive, would be increasingly vulnerable. For his part, Johnson considered Nixon the most dangerous Republican candidate and watched his every move and statement. Nixon may well have come to symbolize for Johnson a fear that he often expressed to his closest confidants: that the really sharp backlash over Vietnam policy might easily come—as earlier, over Korea—not from the vocal liberal left but from the hard-line right.

To refurbish his foreign policy credentials, Nixon made another seriesof trips abroad in 1967, again including a stop in Saigon. Here he made an upbeat public statement that Communist defeat was inevitable, although his private view, stated in his memoirs a decade later, was that the strategy of attrition was not working. By then, it must have been clear to him that the war was not likely to be under control by the 1968 campaign season, and he knew well (from Korea) how much Americans hated long, bloody, and inconclusive wars.

Nixon drew on his travels for a major article on U.S. policy in East Asia, which was published by Foreign Affairs in October. In later years there grew up a considerable mythology, furthered by Nixon supporters, that this article foreshadowed his later policy toward China. In fact, the tenor of the article was generally tough and uncompromising. He had found in Asia "an extraordinarily promising transformation," in which the "U.S. presence" had been "vital" to the 1965-66 turnaround in Indonesia and the emergence of an anti-Communist government in that key country, "by far the richest prize in the Southeast Asian area." It was "beyond question that without the American commitment in Viet Nam, Asia would be a far different place today."

As he saw it, most non-Communist leaders "recognize a common danger, and see its source as Peking." "Red China's threat is clear, present, and repeatedly and insistently expressed." What was being attempted in Vietnam was a Communist advance by proxy, and a similar threat of "externally supported guerrilla action ... is even now being mounted in Thailand, and ... could be launched in any one of a half-dozen spots in the Chinese shadow."26 The major thrust of the article was to urge a regional military grouping, based on the core group of nations who had just set up an Asian and Pacific Council: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. Even India might be enlisted, he thought, since it had been a "target of overt Chinese aggression" in 1962.27

Interestingly, the four countries he saw as most important for the future of the area were the United States, Japan, China ("the world's most populous nation and Asia's most immediate threat"), and, again, India — leaving out the Soviet Union on the ground that "its principal focus is toward the west" and its Asian lands were essentially "an appendage of European Russia." 28 He looked especially to Japan to take more responsibility "both diplomatically and militarily," and (as he had done as far back as 1953) advocated lifting the restraints written into Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which forbade the creation of any Japanese military forces other than for self-defense narrowly defined.

Only at a late point in the article, after these major themes, did Nixon discuss future U.S. policy toward China. He urged the United States to[recognize] the present and potential danger from Communist China, and [take] measures designed to meet that danger ... .

Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place in this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation. But we could go disastrously wrong if, in pursuing this long-range goal, we failed in the short run to read the lessons of history.29

 

Looking to the next decade, Nixon saw two prospects that, together, "could create a crisis of the first order":

(1) that the Soviets may reach nuclear parity with the United States; and

(2) that China, within three to five years, will have a significant deliverable nuclear capability [and would be free to] scatter its weapons among "liberation" forces anywhere in the world.

In his view, this combination required

that we now assign to the strengthening of non-communist Asia a priority comparable to that which we gave to the strengthening of Western Europe after World War II. [This means] ... a marshaling of Asian forces [so that non-communist nations] no longer furnish tempting targets for Chinese aggression [and] the leaders in Peking ... turn their energies inward rather than outward. And that will be the time when the dialogue with mainland China can begin.30

It was a carefully crafted article, with eloquent generalizations to appeal to moderate and liberal sentiment, but specific proposals that were distinctly more cautious and appealing to conservatives. Most notably, it postponed even a "dialogue" with "mainland China" to the day when China turned inward—a vague condition that Nixon plainly did not think would be met for many years.

Any such major statement must be interpreted in context. In the spring and summer of 1967, Chinese policy was particularly hard to make out: the Cultural Revolution had been under way since late 1965, spread to massive repression by June 1966, and in the summer of 1967 included attacks on the British and other foreign embassies in Beijing. China seemed out of control, but it had taken no threatening external action. Nixon mentioned none of these uncertainties. He seems to have seen the Cultural Revolution, at that stage, as simply accenting the radical-threat component in Chinese policy, a view common among hard-line China watchers.

Moreover, it is striking that he did not mention the Soviet Union as athreat in East Asia, or North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh as forces in their own right, or the ancient and deep-seated hostility between China and Vietnam. Rather, the several references to "aggression by proxy" suggest that he still saw China as the moving force and Ho as essentially a client or puppet—a view totally at variance with the long-standing judgment of the Johnson Administration and of the great majority of East Asian experts worldwide.31

In all, there was a great deal more revived and reframed 1950s thinking in the article than any foretaste of communication, let alone a real easing of relations, with China. Along the spectrum of serious American thinking about China by that time, Nixon's views were still on the hard-line side.32

 

 

In mid-October 1967, Nixon paid a visit to Eisenhower at his farm in Gettysburg. By Nixon's account, Ike was strongly opposed to stopping the bombing and criticized Johnson for restricting it; he also thought LBJ "had been a year and half late at every stage: in committing U.S. troops, in initiating the bombing, and in building up public support for the war." For his part, Nixon again put forward his idea that North Vietnam's harbors should be mined, but Eisenhower demurred on the ground that this would need a declaration of war—which apparently neither man favored.33

In late November, Eisenhower publicly urged that U.S. troops be allowed to cross the demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel (the DMZ, the border between North and South) and to pursue Communist forces into Cambodia and Laos. Campaigning in Oregon, Nixon responded to a request for comment by saying that Ike was "absolutely right" from a "military standpoint," but that such a move would be both diplomatically and politically unsound "at this time," for it might "run a substantial risk of widening the ground conflict in Vietnam."34

In sum, Nixon wanted to mine Haiphong but Eisenhower did not, while Eisenhower wanted to send U.S. forces into Cambodia and Laos, but Nixon demurred on political grounds. The two top Republicans thus tended to cancel each other out over expanding the war.

 

 

Such was the record Nixon made in his years out of office. He remained a "true believer" in the cause of resisting Communism in East Asia, in the crucial importance of supporting South Vietnam, and in the strong use of airpower. More than most, also, and certainly more than the Johnson Administration by this time, he saw China as the greatest threat and as the mainspring of Communist efforts. The Nixon of late 1967 remained a confirmed hawk, although more sophisticated and less reflexive than he had been in the 1950s.

3. The 1968 Campaign: Through August

When Nixon formally announced his candidacy on January 15, 1968, he was at once the clear favorite to win the Republican nomination. His anti-Communist record, his extraordinary familiarity with international affairs, and his hard-line positions on law and order issues made him almost invulnerable to any challenge from the Republican right. But he could also reach out to the party's moderate wing and to the important independent vote and concentrate, with increasing success, on his effort to shed the negative images of his past and present himself as a "new Nixon." The assessment of the veteran political writer and historian Theodore H. White was typical. In contrast to 1960, White now found a "total absence" of earlier bitterness and rancor, and was also impressed by how diligent and "driven to get to the bottom of things" Nixon was. White was still worried about "the ability of the man to stand up to the strain and heat of violent decision," and about the nature of his dreams. But all in all, "one must respect this man."35

Within a few weeks, the Tet offensive launched by Communist forces in Vietnam drastically changed the American people's view of the war and, thus, its place in the election campaign. Initial Communist successes, including a brief invasion of the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon, attacks on many other cities and towns, and the occupation for several weeks of the key northern cities of Hue and Danang — all this was so different from the picture the Johnson Administration had been painting of slow but steady progress that public confidence was deeply shaken. Though the Vietcong suffered enormous casualties and were shortly driven out of the cities, the Communist side was winning on the American home front, where it most counted.

The Tet offensive was the decisive turning point in the war. For the first time, polls showed a majority of the public believing that it had been a mistake for the United States to get so deeply involved in Indochina. Opponents of the war renewed their efforts, while much moderate and even conservative opinion moved toward a conclusion that, valid as American objectives might still be, they could not be achieved in an acceptable time. In late March the majority of a group of bipartisan elder statesmen and retired military leaders who advised President Johnson in private—the so-called Wise Men—told him that the country would not accept further increases in the military effort and that the United States should start to reduce its effort and role. The Wise Men also urged entering into serious negotiation with North Vietnam if possible.36

As public opinion changed and Johnson tried to cope with the crisis, Nixon lay low. On March 5, campaigning in New Hampshire, he told an American Legion audience that "the war can be ended if we mobilize oureconomic and political leadership," and pledged "new leadership" to "end the war and win the peace in the Pacific." Pressed for details of what shortly became known as his "secret plan to end the war"—a media tag he himself neither used nor disclaimed — he refused on the ground that to do so would weaken his bargaining position if and when he became President.

He did say, at various campaign stops, that the objective should be an "honorable" peace that would not be regarded as a defeat—a considerable modification of earlier statements insisting that the United States must be in a commanding position to dictate terms. He also emphasized that the United States should engage the Soviet Union in efforts toward peace. Publicly he spoke only of doing this by unspecified political, economic, and diplomatic actions; in private he told Eisenhower he was thinking in terms of a combination of pressures (presumably having a military component) with a "carrot" of "economic detente" in Europe.37

By mid-March, the military situation in South Vietnam had stabilized. President Johnson and his advisors went through weeks of anxious deliberation over a February request from General William Westmoreland, the commander in Vietnam, for major reinforcements. Finally, President Johnson announced, in a nationwide TV speech on March 31, that he was providing only a modest force increase of 24,500 men, bringing the authorized U.S. force level to 549,500; that bombing of North Vietnam was being suspended except for the area near the demilitarized zone, and that it could stop entirely if this would lead to prompt peace negotiations and if Hanoi did not "take advantage" of the halt. Finally—to universal surprise — he announced that he was withdrawing as a candidate for reelection.

With the Democratic nomination now wide open, Vice President Hubert Humphrey quickly entered the fight against two antiwar senators, Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. When, on April 3, Hanoi declared its readiness to enter into talks about stopping the bombing completely, and implied that it was ready for serious substantive negotiations, the Vietnam War took on a totally different complexion as a political issue.

Nixon had a radio speech planned on the night Johnson withdrew, but naturally canceled the appearance. He was to have expanded on the Soviet Union as the possible key to peace, while reiterating sharp criticism of Johnson's policy of gradualism on the military front (without, however, advocating increased bombing) and urging that more of the war be turned over to the South Vietnamese. Thus, for practical purposes Nixon now abandoned his advocacy of tougher bombing, blockades, and (at intervals) higher force levels. Moreover, he never referred in the campaign to action in Laos or Cambodia.

Johnson named the veteran Ambassador Averell Harriman and the former Deputy Secretary of Defense (later Secretary of State) Cyrus Vance as U.S. negotiators, and the bilateral talks got under way in Paris in early May.They focused only on the terms for stopping the U.S. bombing, not on peace terms.

Nixon made the obvious decision to refrain from comment lest this in any way affect the Paris talks. Through the horror months from April to July—months that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy as well as a devastating racial riot in Washington itself—Nixon attended quietly to sewing up the Republican nomination and seeking particularly to limit the effect of the third-party candidacy of Governor George Wallace of Alabama by firming up his own support in the South. Challenges from the last-minute candidacies of Governor Ronald Reagan of California and Nelson Rockefeller were never serious, and served only to underscore Nixon's new "responsible" image. Wallace was a different story, with his often racist appeal to blue-collar voters North and South who in a straight two-party race would go mostly to Nixon. To head him off, Nixon made a private promise, through Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, to help the textile industry, a political power and major source of political funds, by insisting that Japan, the leading textile exporter to America, accept firm quotas on its shipments.38

Meanwhile, as the Paris talks focused on the format and conditions for later peace talks, Hanoi's negotiators left no doubt of their ultimate terms, insisting over and over that the United States must withdraw all its forces from South Vietnam and dismantle the regime of Nguyen Van Thieu in favor of a coalition government formed with the National Liberation Front, or NLF—the Vietcong organizational title since 1961. In response, the initial American position rested on Johnson's March 31 speech: there could be a total bombing halt if Hanoi gave some assurance of reciprocal military restraint; the South Vietnamese government (the GVN) must participate in peace negotiations; and there must be agreement to move promptly to such negotiations. In the formal Paris sessions, as well as accompanying press interviews and releases, these three central points were repeated over and over, to no avail.

On the key issue of a cessation of bombing, Johnson all along shared the concern of his advisors, especially his military commanders, that any reduction in the bombing could increase the threat to American and other non-Communist forces. The format for peace negotiations was an equally difficult issue, not in U.S. eyes but for the Vietnamese on both sides. Thieu insisted, reasonably, on having a recognized position in substantive peace negotiations, in which the future of South Vietnam itself would be thrashed out. On the other hand, Hanoi predictably took the position that the only South Vietnamese representative must be the National Liberation Front and that the Saigon government was a puppet with no standing. Yet for the GVN to imply recognition of the NLF in any way would not only weaken its own legitimacy but seem to portend a future coalition government. Thevery word "coalition" evoked in Saigon the disastrous historical record of such coalitions in the years after World War II, when they had uniformly been manipulated to produce Communist governments. Thus, both the GVN and the NLF—indeed, all politically conscious Vietnamese of whatever stripe—saw any concession by either side about the legitimacy of the other as a matter of enormous importance.

To meet the problem, the South Vietnamese themselves came up with a formula. In April, Thieu and his Vice President (and perennial rival), Nguyen Cao Ky, suggested what came to be called the "your side-our side" formula: the South Vietnamese government would participate alongside the United States on a non-Communist "side," while Hanoi would be free to bring representatives of the NLF on its side.39 Hanoi was bound to put forward the NLF as an ostensibly separate delegation, and neither the United States nor, ultimately, the GVN could resist or prevent this. But it was quickly agreed that the United States would continue to emphasize its categorical refusal to recognize that the NLF had any legitimacy. Each side devoted much attention and many press releases to justifying these opening positions and to expounding its view of the war. The two basic issues—military restraint and representation at the talks — were widely publicized and understood, certainly by a sophisticated observer such as Richard Nixon.

After hoping briefly that the failure of a follow-up Communist offensive in May, involving rocket attacks against several South Vietnamese cities, might produce a change, President Johnson in June and July accepted the advice of the Paris negotiators to initiate private and unannounced talks with the North Vietnamese at which the three central points of the basic American position were spelled out: Hanoi must accept the "your side-our side" formula; Communist forces (in practice, North Vietnamese) must refrain from significant violations of the demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel (the DMZ); and Communist forces of all types must refrain from indiscriminate or large-scale attacks on major cities in the South. At the same time, in a significant change of position, the U.S. negotiators did not demand that Hanoi commit itself expressly to the second and third points. Rather, they proposed informal "understandings," but Hanoi was left in no doubt that any significant breach of these would mean a resumption of the bombing. The use of such informal understandings had in fact been proposed publicly by Johnson in late September 1967, in a speech at San Antonio, so that the idea became known as "the San Antonio Formula."40 As for the specific military restraints proposed, giving up attacks across the DMZ and on cities would amount to a major reduction in potential North Vietnamese and Vietcong operations.

In June and early July, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in Saigon at least twice went over the proposed position on military reciprocity with PresidentThieu and got his assent, and Thieu repeatedly reaffirmed the "your side-our side" representation formula.41 On July 15, Vance carefully spelled out the whole position in a private session with Ha Van Lau, his opposite number in the Hanoi delegation. Hanoi's negotiators obviously grasped all three key points, but remained totally unresponsive, thus reinforcing the public picture of stalemate and impasse.

 

 

In the last days of July, Johnson held unpublicized meetings to bring the main candidates fully into the picture. By then, Humphrey had a clear majority of the nomination votes lined up, mostly through state and local party leaders; a Gallup poll of professed Democrats also showed him ahead of Eugene McCarthy 53-39, though the same poll showed that a strong majority of Democrats in their twenties, and of those opposed to LBJ, were against Humphrey (34-58). Together with a great many older liberals, these groups passionately opposed the war and had come to focus, along with many moderates, on a demand for a total, immediate, and genuinely unconditional halt to all bombing of North Vietnam.

For some time Humphrey, even though he was Vice President, had not been brought into the government's discussions about negotiations. On July 25 he saw the President alone and asked his reaction to a draft statement that noted the recent drop in Communist operations and said that if this continued it might approximate the reciprocal action the Administration was seeking, in which case Humphrey would favor an immediate halt to the bombing. Tentative as this suggestion was, Johnson rejected it vehemently. 42

On the next day, July 26, it was Nixon's turn to come to the White House for a briefing. Johnson related that a proposal had been made to the North Vietnamese, and to the Soviets, that called for a quid pro quo—that is, reciprocal military restraint on Hanoi's part—and that no bombing halt was planned "at that moment." In response, Nixon "pledged not to undercut our negotiating position just in case the Communists came around."43

This was the setting when Nixon, with the nomination as good as his, drafted a personal statement on Vietnam, which he presented to the Republican platform committee on August 1. "The war must be ended," he wrote. But until then "it must be waged more effectively. But rather than further escalation on the military front, what it requires now is a dramatic escalation of our efforts on the economic, political, diplomatic and psychological fronts." Nixon did not comment directly on the Paris talks or the terms for a bombing halt, but he did say that efforts toward peace should include "the most candid and searching conversations with the Soviet Union." His main theme was "a fuller enlistment of our South Vietnamese allies in their own defense." He also referred to his own past urging ofstronger military measures: "The swift, overwhelming blow that would have been decisive two or three years ago is no longer possible today." Yet neither in 1965 nor in 1966 had Nixon offered any such drastic proposal, publicly or, as far as the evidence shows, privately.44

The Vietnam plank that the Republican Party adopted at its convention on August 6 was consistent with Nixon's ideas, which observers found "surprisingly dovish." The final version also reflected strenuous drafting sessions, in which Nixon's people joined forces with representatives of Nelson Rockefeller, notably Professor Henry Kissinger of Harvard, to fend off challenges from the more hawkish supporters of Governor Reagan.45 It stressed the importance of "pacification" operations within South Vietnam and promised, "We will sincerely and vigorously pursue peace negotiations, as long as they offer any reasonable prospect for a just peace." By devoting itself mostly to sweeping criticisms of Johnson's handling of the war, the platform appealed to conservatives, while in its vague promises for the future it reached out to moderate and liberal opinion—"ambiguously peaceoriented" was The New York Times heading. A complete bombing halt was not mentioned, though the text appeared to assume that there would be early peace negotiations.46

Stripped of the hyperbole common to opposition party platforms, this one appeared to most observers to complete the process of removing from the campaign substantive differences between Democrats and Republicans over what to do in Vietnam. Reducing the U.S. role and stepping up that of the South Vietnamese had already been embraced by Johnson and Humphrey. The idea of new "economic, political and diplomatic" initiatives was vague, although in interviews at the convention Nixon spoke not only of bringing in the Russians but of negotiations "eventually" with the Chinese.47 In effect, he was going along with the Paris talks, wishing them success (undefined), and holding the rest of his views to himself. Voters were asked to accept that he had been wise about Vietnam in the past, knew a great deal about it, probably had some kind of plan for moving toward peace and ending at least American involvement in the war, and was being a statesman in not commenting on issues that might be under discussion in Paris. It was a strong position, which he used to fend off all pressures to elaborate on his own proposals.48

Right after the Republican convention, on August 10, Nixon and the Republican nominee for Vice President, Governor Spiro Agnew of Maryland, were Johnson's guests for lunch at his Texas ranch, along with Secretary of State Rusk, CIA Director Richard Helms, and Cyrus Vance. The two hours of discussion and briefing included a presentation by Vance on the Paris talks and what the United States was "suggesting" there. The "your side-our side" formula was discussed as something already familiar and accepted by all present; and Vance almost certainly covered the San Antonioformula and the specific military restraints being insisted on.49 After the meeting the press was told that Nixon had expressed support for Johnson's basic position that any total bombing halt should not be done unilaterally without Hanoi providing a meaningful quid pro quo—a public affirmation of what Nixon had said to Johnson privately on July 26.

Two days earlier, on August 8, Humphrey too had been received at the President's ranch, and this time Johnson filled him in much more fully on what was happening in Paris. He agreed to a public statement Humphrey could make that linked a bombing halt on the U.S. side to an "appropriate act of restraint and response" on the North Vietnamese one.50 But this was not enough for the opposition within the Democratic Party. In addition to the pro-McCarthy delegates, a large number of younger liberals and antiwar protesters converged on Chicago, where the convention was shortly to begin, with "Stop the Bombing" as their principal cry. In the week before the convention, Johnson fed the antiwar fires when his speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 19 reiterated in strong terms his insistence on reciprocity. Speaking to the always hawkish VFW earlier the same day, Nixon also referred to the need for reciprocity.

Thus, when Dean Rusk started to testify before the Democratic platform committee on the evening of August 20, the stage was set for a bout of hostile questioning by dovish members of the committee and a widening of the split in the party. However, before the expected donnybrook could get under way, news came of a dramatic development abroad. Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague.

Earlier in the year a reform movement had taken power there, with a new Premier, Alexander Dubek, insisting on greater freedoms and more liberal internal practices. The reformers were all Communists, but they wanted "socialism with a human face" and hoped for democracy. The Dubek government during that "Prague spring" disavowed any intention to change Czechoslovakia's external policies or its adherence to the Warsaw Pact, but the Soviet leadership wavered on how to respond to what was obviously a challenge to Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, and for months the situation hung in the balance. Many Sovietologists were inclined to think that Brezhnev and his colleagues might after all accept an unprecedented degree of internal change in Czechoslovakia, so the August 20 invasion came as a shock. Dubek and his colleagues were deposed and arrested, and a regime of hard-line Communists loyal to Moscow was installed. As in Budapest in 1956, Europe and the world saw a constant stream of pictures showing ruthless repression, with courageous civilians trying to defy tanks and dying in the process.

For a day or two, the events in Czechoslovakia took the limelight away from the Democrats' problems in Chicago. And, unknown to all but a very few senior officials in the Administration, they also forced Johnson to cancelplans for a dramatic move in U.S.-Soviet relations. Over the previous months, Soviet leaders had been slowly persuaded, largely by U.S. Ambassador Llewellyn (Tommy) Thompson in Moscow, to start serious talks on strategic arms limitation. Broad agreement to this effect had been mentioned publicly on June 30 when Johnson signed the multilateral Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a worldwide undertaking on which the U.S.S.R. had almost for the first time collaborated with the United States, and on August 21 there was to have been a joint announcement that an opening meeting would take place between President Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin at the end of September, in Leningrad or Moscow.

LBJ's private discussions with Nixon in July and August had foreshadowed such a development and also put Nixon on notice that the President hoped to use these dealings with the Soviets to persuade them to exert effective influence on their North Vietnamese allies to move toward peace—precisely the policy Nixon was advocating on the stump. Certainly the announcement of a forthcoming "mini-summit" meeting with the Russians would have been considered a major move toward reducing tensions, and might have lessened the bitterness especially within the Democratic Party. But the Prague takeover dashed such hopes, and the fight over the Democratic platform quickly resumed. Johnson's friends submitted an "Administration" draft, which recommended a bombing halt only when there was clear evidence that it would not "endanger our troops in the field." The text also urged that negotiations seek "an immediate end or limitation of hostilities," the withdrawal of all foreign forces, and "a postwar government of South Vietnam ... determined by fair and safeguarded elections, open to all political factions and parties prepared to accept peaceful political processes." Meanwhile, there should be accelerated efforts to train South Vietnamese forces, so as to permit "cutbacks in U.S. involvement."

Set alongside the Republican plank, the differences were slight. But the alternative Democratic plank offered by the antiwar forces of Senator McCarthy was very different: it favored stopping the bombing promptly and unconditionally, negotiating at once a complete withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam, and "encouraging" the Saigon government to talk with all political elements, including the NLF, with a view to a new political regime in the South without the "prop" of American aid. The thrust was clear: peace soon, at whatever risk of a Communist-dominated South Vietnam.51

The resulting floor fight was long and disorderly, ending in the defeat of the alternative plank by a 1,567-1,041 vote. The bitterness that had marked the convention from the outset, accentuated by a feeling that it was dominated unduly by officeholders and professional politicians, broke open in physical battles within the hall and wild demonstrations outside it, which the Chicago police dealt with harshly. National television carried unforgettablescenes of policemen beating up helpless demonstrators, while old-line politicians, led by Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, silenced respected liberals within the convention hall. By the end, on August 29, the Democratic nominees, Humphrey and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, stood at the head of a dispirited and sharply divided party, appealing to an electorate that had just seen another round of horror on its television screens. A few weeks before, after the Republican convention, Nixon had led Humphrey in the unofficial trial-heat polls by 45 to 29 (with 18 percent for Wallace), and ordinarily, the Democratic convention would have produced a substantial swing in the Democrats' favor. But after Chicago the polls still showed Nixon far ahead, 43-31-19.52

Given the condition of the Democratic Party at that point, pundits and public alike thought that Nixon was now virtually sure to win the election. So, too, must the leaders of the Soviet Union and North and South Vietnam.

4. Crescendo: The Last Weeks of the Campaign

As President Johnson turned back to the Paris talks after the convention period, it was clear that the domestic political implications of the negotiation had become greater. Neither he nor the two presidential candidates needed to be reminded of the potential importance of the "peace" theme, or that in 1968 it was even more powerful than usual. Yet at the same time, Johnson and Nixon were well aware that a peace move by Lyndon Johnson could produce disbelief or even a backlash, especially if it came close to the election. In the 1964 campaign he had twice burst out with statements that "Asians should fight Asians," appearing to say, even promise, that the government would not make a large-scale commitment of American forces in Vietnam. When such a commitment was made in 1965, the charge of deception and lack of candor contributed mightily to the "credibility gap" that dogged him thereafter.

Thus, Johnson knew well that his every move would be carefully scrutinized and suspiciously regarded, and that the initial reactions to any breakthrough were likely to be vehement and simplistic. Even the slightest movement toward peace might unite the Democratic Party and bring back those of its liberal wing who had opposed the Chicago platform and for critical weeks thereafter sat on their hands, often not expecting to vote at all. So it was natural for Nixon to feel that only a breakthrough in the Paris talks could wrest (in his eyes steal) the election from him at the last minjute. 53

In mid-August, the situation in Vietnam and in Paris suddenly changed. There was a surge in fighting between August 19 and September 3. Thenumber of Americans killed in action rose to 308 and 408 in successive weeks, and attacks were made on several provincial capitals. Yet this was tame compared to Tet or even the May offensive. The steam seemed to have gone out of the Communist threat, and the performance of South Vietnamese forces had improved greatly.54 As September went on with no renewal of enemy action, the overall situation seemed favorable for the government side, perhaps more so than at any previous time.

Yet for many Americans and certainly for most of the world, events in Eastern Europe held center stage, as the reversion to a harsh Soviet policy in Czechoslovakia was reinforced and extended to other Communist regimes. Unmistakably, by deed if not by any single statement, Moscow was asserting that it considered itself entitled to intervene wherever a Communist regime got out of line. This position, soon to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, also appeared to apply to China.55

The Soviet action in Prague was almost universally condemned. The European members of NATO were especially alarmed, and stayed on military alert even as the threat of wider action subsided. Although the reaction in the United States was also one of outrage, Lyndon Johnson did not want to give up the hope that he could end his term with U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms control negotiations under way. He also had in mind that warmer relations with Moscow might produce Soviet help toward peace in Vietnam. Official U.S. statements therefore used less harsh language about the Soviet action than those of many other governments, and the President continued to express hopes to the Soviet leaders for an exploratory summit. Using an indirect channel, he gave the Soviets an explicit picture of the U.S. three-point position on stopping the bombing in North Vietnam.56 In response, Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in Paris became much more accessible.

In mid-September the press stepped up its coverage of the Paris talks. When Harriman and Vance followed each other to Washington, the possibility of a U.S. initiative figured in several stories. (In fact the two visits produced no change in the U.S. position.) With the atmosphere expectant, Humphrey made a move. His campaign was still in great disarray, behind 28-43 to Nixon (and with Wallace still high at 21 percent). Finally, on September 30, responding at last to the urging of advisors led by former Under Secretary of State George Ball, he made a major speech in Salt Lake City saying that he would be prepared to risk a complete bombing halt, see what response might develop, and resume the bombing if there was no constructive response. This was a deliberately vague version of the San Antonio formula, not explicitly contrary to the Chicago platform but designed to shade it in a dovish direction—and above all to differ in tone from Johnson's public statements.57 In domestic political terms, the speech was a resounding success, bringing back to the fold a great many idle Democrats and some independents and giving Humphrey a surge of personalconfidence. It was a visible turning point in the campaign: thereafter Humphrey's stock rose steadily and an ultimate victory for him became conceivable. In Hanoi, the speech may have strengthened a preference for a Humphrey victory. In Saigon, more certainly, it added to distaste for Humphrey and fed the already evident desire to see Nixon win.

For whatever combination of reasons, on October 9 the North Vietnamese negotiators hinted at a major change in their position at the regular announced session in Paris, and confirmed the change in private on October 11. What would happen, they asked, if Hanoi agreed to accept official representatives of the Saigon government for a discussion of substantive terms? This implied offer to accept the Saigon government as a party to the peace negotiations was at once recognized as a simple but vital concession on a point where the U.S. negotiators had almost given up hope. The North Vietnamese again made clear that the NLF must also be there. In effect, they were no longer contesting the U.S. position that each side should have its South Vietnamese representative, with neither accepting the asserted status of the rival. The representation impasse had been resolved. The following day, October 12, the Soviet deputy in Paris visited Vance to deliver a message promising hopeful results if talks got under way, a message said to be on behalf of North Vietnam as well as the Soviet Union.58

Johnson at once cabled Ambassador Bunker and General Creighton Abrams, who had succeeded General Westmoreland, asking their comments on draft instructions for Harriman and Vance to go full speed ahead to get an agreement and to discuss convening the actual peace discussions immediately afterward. Bunker went over these instructions and the whole plan with President Thieu and cabled that "Thieu was for the plan without reservations."59

The next day, in Washington, Johnson met first with an inner circle of advisors and then with a larger group that included Senator Richard Russell as a special guest. The two meetings framed with remarkable clarity the advice the President got, and his own thinking. Bunker and Abrams cabled that they regarded Hanoi's move as a significant concession and its "shift to the conference table as a result of an unfavorable military situation ... . 1968 has been a disaster for Hanoi." The Joint Chiefs agreed, with General Earle Wheeler, the chairman, going so far as to say, in substance: "The military war has been won." Secretary Clark Clifford was strongly in favor of going ahead, as was Secretary Dean Rusk, while noting that even if the proposal was accepted, "the negotiations will be long, difficult and troublesome ."60

The most reserved participant was Senator Russell, who predicted that the proposal would be attacked as a "purely political trick," but thought most people would support it over such objections ("they want to get this infernal war over"). The President responded that the record since March"shows conclusively that no action has been taken for domestic political reasons," to which Russell replied that he did not need to be convinced of that, but that it would be difficult to persuade others, especially if the bombing was later resumed. In the ensuing discussion, according to one account, Nixon's possible reaction was mentioned. "[I]t was argued that Nixon had been honorable on the war issue and had said he wanted the peace talks moved along as far as possible by the incumbent President."61

In the end, Senator Russell agreed that the proposal was "worth a try," and the President made a moving statement:

If this isn't the way to stop it, I don't have any way to end it ... . [W]e couldn't survive if all of this became public and it became known that we had done nothing about it.62

The two crucial meetings ended with all present understanding that the President, well aware of the problems, had decided to go ahead. On October 16, Johnson instructed Harriman and Vance to press for agreement that peace discussions should get under way at once after a bombing halt, and that the announcement of the halt should specify the date at which delegations would meet in Paris for the new negotiations. Briefly, Johnson hoped to make a joint announcement that evening, but during the day both Hanoi and Saigon registered reservations about his plan. As predicted, Hanoi wanted a longer or indefinite interval; Thieu's plea was that he needed time to marshal and instruct a proper delegation.63

At this point, press speculation was feverish, and to keep it from making the final ironing out harder, Johnson put out word that there was "no change, no breakthrough."64 He then made a conference telephone call to the three candidates, out on the campaign trail, still taking the "no breakthrough" line but indicating there had been "some movement." Nixon asked what assurances Johnson was seeking, and Johnson replied by listing the standard three points. Nixon later summarized his own reaction: "If these conditions were fulfilled, of course, I would support whatever arrangements Johnson could work out."65

Over the next ten days, Harriman and Vance met almost daily with their North Vietnamese counterparts in Paris. At Johnson's insistence, the Soviet Union was also brought more closely into the situation. Rusk and Harriman told Dobrynin and Zorin how serious it would be if Hanoi were to violate the understandings on military restraint, and by their replies the ambassadors in effect certified that Hanoi fully understood the American terms. In fact, Zorin came close to saying that the Soviet Union would make sure they were observed. This was the strongest Soviet diplomatic involvement in exchanges over Indochina in years, and seemed a useful and hopeful sign.

Notably, the North Vietnamese did not further debate the plans for participation in the peace talks. Everyone understood that Saigon would be at the table, and so would the NLF. But Thieu focused heavily on this issue. From May onward, the Americans had asked him to restrict the key exchanges to himself and his inner circle, which included Vice President Ky and his Foreign Minister. Only this inner circle, it appears, knew that Thieu had suggested the "your side—our side" formula, that he had accepted the American three-point position in July, and that he had concurred with the whole American plan, including the rapid convening of serious peace talks, on October 13.

By this time, a year after his election, Thieu had consolidated his personal power and was in control of the government, including the elected Assembly, on most matters. He had rallied his people after the Tet setbacks and put on a good performance in moving ahead with increases in the armed forces and somewhat greater military responsibility. But elements in both the Assembly and his National Security Council were hostile to him personally and especially to the idea of allowing the NLF at the peace talks, for fear that such a move would lead to a coalition government. The Johnson Administration (repeatedly) and both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms had expressly rejected the idea of a coalition in any form, but the bugaboo now reared its head again, and at the most difficult time.

As South Vietnamese politicians must have noted, moreover, the American presidential race was narrowing. In contrast to the mid-September Gallup reading of 43-28-21 for Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace, respectively, the tally by the end of the third week of October was 44—36—15! Much of the labor vote was returning to its traditional Democratic home; the extreme nuclear bomb rattling of George Wallace's chosen running mate, retired Air Force general Curtis LeMay, weakened that third party's appeal; the Democrats were campaigning more effectively; and most presidential races tend to become closer as election day approaches. All the pundits were describing a Humphrey trend, with some suggesting parallels to Harry Truman's last-month overtaking of Thomas Dewey in 1948 and others recalling the close 1960 race Nixon had lost to Kennedy.66

Despite Thieu's earlier concurrences, he now made difficulties. Beginning on October 16, as the press reported, Bunker met with him no fewer than ten times, while Thieu in turn consulted with his National Security Council and a widening circle within South Vietnam's small political establishment. Most of these sessions were devoted to the question of NLF participation in peace talks. American officials knew that Thieu had a genuine political problem, but the "your side-our side" formula remained the only practical way to start talks. To walk back from the deal both Saigon and Hanoi had agreed to would have been difficult in any circumstances;to do so on the basis that Saigon had to be accepted as the preeminent South Vietnamese representative would have been impossible to explain to the American people, let alone Hanoi.

On October 25, Nixon injected his voice, through a statement that he was hearing reports that Johnson was acting for political reasons, but did not believe these reports and assumed it was not so. As The Washington Post and many other papers noted, this was an old Nixon technique of maximum innuendo and pious dissociation. To the White House, it seemed an unpleasant political move but not more. The President still believed Nixon both knew and accepted Johnson's positions and knew that the timing had not been LBJ's to decide.

On Sunday, October 27, Harriman and Vance were at last able to report complete agreement with the North Vietnamese in Paris. In Saigon, however, Thieu had come up with a new list of demands, most notably that the United States must "guarantee" that Hanoi would talk directly and bilaterally with Saigon. This was just the kind of impossible demand the "your side-our side" formula was designed to avoid. To all the Americans involved, Thieu seemed to be backing off a clear commitment.

Facing this difficulty but also to be absolutely sure of his ground, Johnson that weekend brought in General Abrams from Saigon. Reporting immediately after his arrival, in the early morning of October 29, Abrams reiterated his judgment that a bombing halt on the proposed understandings was militarily tolerable and "the right thing to do." For Johnson, this was the clincher: he was now fully committed. That same evening, however, Bunker reported that in an extraordinary morning meeting on October 30, Thieu still refused to budge. All the following day, Johnson deliberated, and finally decided to announce on the evening of October 31 that the bombing would halt at once and peace negotiations would begin on November 6, with the South Vietnamese government "free to attend." His hope, encouraged by Bunker, was that the prospect of isolation would get Thieu to participate.

On the afternoon of October 31, Johnson made a second conference call to Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace, to inform them that he was going ahead. He specifically stated that the Saigon government was not yet committed to attending the substantive negotiations—and his interlocutors did not seek to pursue the matter. That evening, on nationwide television, Johnson announced that the bombing in Vietnam would stop completely at eight o'clock the following morning, Washington time. The public response was enthusiastic and hopeful. Few doubted that difficult negotiations lay ahead, but the announced actions still seemed a big move toward peace.

On Saturday, November 2, however, Thieu made a dramatic speech to the National Assembly in Saigon, stating flatly that the South Vietnamese would not attend peace negotiations unless they were categorically accorded a superior position to that of the NLF. The result was a weekend of totalconfusion on the American political front, with the polls at first showing significant gains for Humphrey but then diverging. After Thieu's rejection was reported, Nixon made a short statement on Saturday, regretting that the prospects were not as bright as they had at first appeared. That evening he went further, by having his top assistant on the campaign plane, Robert Finch, tell reporters that Nixon had been surprised by the Thieu rejection, since Johnson had led him to believe that "all the diplomatic ducks were in a row." (This was untrue, as we have just noted.) Nixon's obvious purpose was to portray the President's action as sloppily prepared and politically motivated. The Finch story made banner headlines on Sunday, dominating Nixon's appearance that morning on the important national program Meet the Press. Asked about claims that the bombing halt was a political stunt, Nixon replied that Johnson had been "very candid with me throughout these discussions, and I do not make such a charge"—innuendo and dissociation once again. He went on in a statesmanlike tone to say that the South Vietnamese should attend the new peace talks and that he was willing to go to Paris or Saigon to help if that were deemed useful; he had assumed from the announcement that the South Vietnamese were "aboard," since their attendance was "the only quid pro quo we got from the bombing pause." (This was again untrue, in that it ignored the military restraint understandings.)

In further appearances on Sunday and Monday, Nixon again took the line that politics should not be a factor. He was sorry the "outlook was so bleak" and would do anything to get the early peace talks back on track, adding that he had conveyed this message to President Johnson, who had seemed grateful for it.

On Sunday evening, in Houston, Johnson finally pitched in and joined Humphrey in a dramatic rally, but by Monday the polls showed a swing back in favor of Nixon, giving him a hairline edge. Most people were persuaded that Nixon had handled Johnson's announcement in a correct and responsible fashion, while many believed that Johnson had been motivated in large part, if not entirely, by a desire to help Humphrey and the Democrats.

Finally, on Tuesday, November 5, the voters spoke, giving Richard Nixon a small margin in the overall vote (43-42), but a greater one in the decisive electoral college (302—191). It was a dramatic ending to a painful campaign. Humphrey conceded gallantly, and Nixon saw the outcome as the vindication of years of effort, a successful campaign, and (privately) his resourceful handling of the last days after Johnson's announcement.

To most Americans, it was a relief simply to have it over. In American elections, the dominant tradition has always been not to go back over the result unless the defeated candidate brings forward evidence of gross and exceptional misconduct. Close as the result had been, Nixon's electionseemed confirmed and accepted. Only in later years, mostly after he had been forced from office, did the full story emerge of how he had personally organized in 1968 a covert operation to persuade Nguyen Van Thieu to defer joining in the peace talks—the very act that may have tipped the election result in Nixon's favor.

5. Behind the Scenes: The Chennault Affair

When President Johnson told the three candidates on October 31 of his forthcoming statement announcing the bombing halt, he added a thinly veiled warning aimed at Nixon. As recalled by members of his staff listening in, Johnson said there had been implications "by some of our folks, even including some of the old China lobbyists, that a better deal might be made with a different President."67 The remark can hardly have been lost on Richard Nixon. He knew at once that the reference was to Anna Chennault, Republican activist and an official in his campaign, and at the core of what remained of the strongly pro-Nationalist-China groups loosely labeled the China Lobby.

Over the next four days, a rumor that Chennault had played some role spread to the press, which was already well aware that senior Republicans like Senator Everett Dirksen were fulminating that the bombing halt was an election stunt. Two normally shrewd election watchers, Theodore White and Tom Wicker, queried Nixon's campaign people. Both readily accepted that Chennault had done something, yet both knew her well enough to think it possible that she had acted on her own. In White's account:

At the first report of Republican sabotage in Saigon, Nixon's headquarters had begun to investigate the story; had discovered Mrs. Chennault's activities; and was appalled. The fury and dismay at Nixon's headquarters when his aides discovered the report were so intense that they could not have been feigned simply for the benefit of this reporter. Their feeling on Monday morning before the election was, simply, that if they lost the election, Mrs. Chennault might have lost it for them. She had taken their name and authority in vain.68

Both reporters were convinced, and along with another reporter, Jules Witcover, who had also picked up the story, they decided not to pursue the matter.

Once the election was over, interest in what came to be called "the Chennault affair" ebbed rapidly. In January 1969 an article by Thomas Ottenad of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch spelling out what he had learned about her activities attracted only slight attention. Later in 1969, TheodoreWhite's third quadrennial campaign history, The Making of the President 1968, brought the episode to wider public attention but at the same time seemed to confirm that Chennault's actions had not involved Nixon himself. Witcover's book on the campaign left open whether Nixon had known of Chennault's activities, while painting a damning picture of the successive statements made by the Nixon camp in the final days. For a few years, the affair seemed to have been laid to rest.69

On Nixon's side, William Safire's 1973 memoir argued strenuously that Johnson's actions were politically motivated and Nixon's innocent, and went on to attack Johnson in harsh terms for the use of intelligence methods directed at Anna Chennault. That Johnson had information from official intelligence sources was part of the early rumors, and was confirmed in 1976 hearings on intelligence activities before the Church Committee of the Senate, with mention of wiretaps and other surveillance and intercepted diplomatic messages of the South Vietnamese Embassy. Working from these revelations and his own inquiries, Thomas Powers, in a book on the CIA published in 1979, spelled out that part of the story in some detail.70

Nixon's memoir, published in 1978, mentioned neither Chennault nor Johnson's several reports to him about the Paris talks. Instead, he went on at length about general warnings he received from Henry Kissinger and other sources alleging political motives among Johnson's advisors. This position—in effect avoiding direct comment on the charges while claiming this justification for whatever was done — was maintained thereafter by others close to Nixon. In 1980, the memoir of Anna Chennault herself appeared, though little noted; it went into great and revealing detail about her role in the campaign and her relationship with Nixon then and later. This was followed in 1986 by The Palace File by Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold Schecter, which tells this story and much else as seen by President Thieu, to whom Hung was a close advisor, and in 1987 by an equally revealing memoir of Bui Diem. On the Democratic side, Carl Solberg's 1984 biography of Hubert Humphrey contained an excellent account reflecting careful research. Most recently, the 1991 memoir of Clark Clifford dealt at length with the affair, using other materials by then available.

The sharp conflict among the various accounts must compel a historian to be especially clear in naming and evaluating sources. The chronological sequence of the published accounts is also relevant: each built on, or felt the need to rebut or modify, what others had said or published before.

 

 

On July 12, 1968, Nixon received three visitors in New York, either at his apartment or in a room at his campaign headquarters. The first was John Mitchell, his law partner and confidant, later to become his Attorney General.The second was Ambassador Bui Diem of South Vietnam. The third was Anna Chennault.71

Bui Diem had been shuttling back and forth to Paris since May, as South Vietnamese liaison officer to the talks there. As Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, I was in regular contact with him whenever he was in Washington, and his memoir states that before going to see Nixon he asked me whether the Administration would have any problem with his doing so. I have no recollection of such a conversation, but would surely have told him that such a meeting (in itself) would not be objectionable or improper. In his inquiry, he did not mention who else might be there.

Chennault had proposed a meeting to Nixon in late June, but just how it was arranged is obscure. The evidence suggests that it was done clandestinely, circumventing everyone on Nixon's staff except Mitchell, and going to some lengths to keep even the fact of the meeting from becoming known to his staff or his Secret Service escort.72 Nixon had known Anna Chennault for a long time; over the years the two came to regard each other as natural allies. By the 1960s Chennault was an established Washington character, moving in wide circles. Chinese-born and close to Nationalist Chinese leaders, she became in 1947 the young second wife of the legendary General Claire Chennault, who had left the U.S. air forces to organize and lead a group of American volunteers, the Flying Tigers, who operated in support of the Chinese against the Japanese before America came into the war. When the general died in 1958 she stayed on in Washington, working actively for various air transport organizations in Asia, some with CIA connections, as was widely known in Asia and generally surmised in Washington. 73

Attractive, outgoing, always well informed and an excellent hostess, she was more and more active in Republican causes from the late 1950s on, close to many top senators such as Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois and John Tower of Texas. She also kept up her ties in Asia, not only in Taiwan but around Southeast Asia, with frequent visits to the area. Through a sister married to a Chinese (Nationalist) diplomat in Saigon, she was in constant touch with the situation there, and on her habitual visits, from the mid-1960s on, developed a friendship with Thieu through personal talks alone with him. In Taiwan her regular contacts included the South Vietnamese Ambassador, Nguyen Van Kieu, President Thieu's brother. Anna Chennault was totally dedicated to support for South Vietnam and had special feelings about any possibility of a coalition, from having lived through the 1946-47 phase of the Chinese Civil War, when the United States briefly promoted such a coalition between the Nationalists and the Communists. When this fell through and the Communists won, she, like most Nationalists, blamed the United States rather than the corruption and incompetence of the Chiang Kai-shek regime. In 1968, Chennaultwas undoubtedly sincere in opposing serious peace negotiations with Hanoi, fearing that, whatever their original intentions, the Americans would end up abandoning the Thieu regime, as she believed they had done shamefully in China.

In short, Anna Chennault was an ideal intermediary, bright, resourceful, acting from deepest conviction, with only the drawbacks of being a bit too conspicuous and not always discreet in speech and action. These same qualities made her memoir more revealing than she may have intended.

Bui Diem was a highly capable journalist turned diplomat, with a long record of anti-Communist activity in North Vietnam before he was forced to flee to the South. As editor of the leading English-language daily in Saigon, he was respected by Americans of all stripes, so that it seemed natural that when Thieu was elected President in October 1967, he sent Bui Diem to Washington. There he readily found his way around, keeping up with all shades of opinion, including vehement critics of the war, and in constant touch with leading Republicans, often through Anna Chennault's salon. As for John Mitchell, the best description of his position is that of Anna Chennault herself: "From the beginning it was clear that John Mitchell was commander-in-chief of the campaign ... . [H]is presence was very much felt, his approval sought on all major decisions." By her own account, at the height of the campaign she was on the phone to Mitchell at least once a day!74

The later accounts by Chennault and Bui Diem agree that the July 12 meeting went well beyond a courtesy call. The four talked together for a half hour, and Nixon, Mitchell, and Bui Diem then withdrew without her to another room and talked for another hour. The second session discussed the need for better weapons and training for the South Vietnamese troops, and Thieu's plans for a Honolulu meeting with Johnson the following week. The session that included Chennault centered on the election and the need for continuing close communication between Nixon and Thieu. According to both accounts, Richard Nixon used the meeting to confirm to the others that Anna Chennault was his channel to President Thieu. He told the ambassador that he should feel free to convey messages to her at any time, and that she in turn would relay thoughts from the Nixon camp, via Mitchell. He stressed that she "would be the sole representative between the Vietnamese government and the Nixon campaign headquarters," saying: "Anna is a very dear friend ... . We count on her for information on Asia. She brings me up to date."75 The relationship thus established was hardly a normal or customary one, and may have been unique. The opposition party's candidate for President was setting up a special two-way private channel to the head of state of a government with whom the incumbent President was conducting critically important and secret negotiations!

Soon thereafter, Anna Chennault attended the Miami Republican convention.She then made one or more trips to Asia, using one stop in Saigon to visit with President Thieu in what she described as "an informal presentation of credentials. I was delivering a message from Nixon requesting that I be recognized as the conduit for any information that might flow between the two." She also discussed the Paris talks, finding (and reporting to Nixon and Mitchell) that the South Vietnamese government "remained intransigent" in its "attitudes vis-à-vis the peace talks."76

In mid-September, with speculation growing that there might be progress in Paris, Henry Kissinger became a part of the story. As we have noted, Nixon knew his reputation and writing, and in August, Kissinger, acting for Nelson Rockefeller, had negotiated effectively on the contents of the Republican platform, showing himself receptive to Nixon's ideas, which were close to his own. After the conventions, Kissinger set out to prepare an article for Foreign Affairs, his habitual outlet for policy-related pieces, about the possible shape of substantive negotiations over Vietnam. He was completely familiar with the issues, and especially with the Administration's San Antonio formula on military restraint under a bombing halt, which had emerged from a secret 1967 negotiating effort in which he had been the principal American intermediary.77

With this interest and previous exposure, Kissinger planned a stopover in Paris in mid-September, on his way to a conference in England. Just before he left, John Mitchell, following up on an earlier suggestion from Nelson Rockefeller to Nixon, got in touch with him and on September 12 enlisted him to give judgment and advice to the Nixon campaign. The arrangement was apparently secret, or at least not to be publicized.78 Kissinger was thus an undisclosed advisor to Nixon when he went to Paris and talked with several members of the U.S. delegation in September 18-22. On his return, about September 26, he reported to Mitchell that he felt, on the basis of his Paris trip, that "something big was afoot." According to Nixon's account, Kissinger was "completely circumspect" and did not reveal any details of negotiations, but simply warned against launching any new ideas or proposals that might be undercut by developments in Paris.79

But was this all? Did Kissinger learn something more concrete about the prospects and convey this to the Nixon people? In 1983 the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh made headlines by leading off his important book The Price of Power, which is sharply critical of Kissinger throughout, with the charge that Kissinger got inside information in Paris, conveyed it to the Nixon camp, and followed up repeatedly during October, ingratiating himself with Nixon to secure a high appointment. On a great many other points in his book, I have found Hersh reliable and often original, showing a solid grasp of problems and issues. But in this case, I believe his charge does not stand up under careful examination. There is of course nothing wrong in offering advice and judgment to a candidate in the hope of preferment. Inany presidential campaign, many individuals do so. Such action is open to harsh criticism only if it involves the use of inside government information. Yet that is where the charge collapses.

As of September 18, and until at least the end of the month, not only was the American position unchanged on the terms for a bombing halt and start of negotiations (as it remained throughout), but there was no sign that the North Vietnamese were wavering in their rejection of that position. The most that Kissinger could have picked up was a sense of increased activity and possibly that an effort was being made to engage the Soviet Union. Even if one or more members of a disciplined delegation was ready to confide in a former colleague, there simply was no useful "inside information" at that point.80

Nixon's memoir goes on to say that in early October, Kissinger reiterated his warning of late September, suggesting that a bombing halt might be arranged for mid-October. About October 12, according to Nixon, a third Kissinger message suggested that this might happen about October 23. It is plausible that in the first three weeks of October, Kissinger did convey one or more warnings to Nixon, via Mitchell, that a break in the Paris talks might be imminent. His later rebuttal, however, saying that any such messages were based on his judgment alone—primarily his assessment that the North Vietnamese might see it to their advantage to move into peace talks while Johnson was President—is persuasive. Almost any experienced Hanoi watcher might have come to the same conclusion.81

On October 15, Bui Diem learned that a deal might be imminent—from Thieu himself and from Philip Habib, a member of the Harriman-Vance delegation who was back in Washington that day. Undoubtedly Bui Diem told Anna Chennault right away, and she passed the word on to Nixon, via Mitchell (as prescribed), making it plain that Johnson's "no breakthrough" line in his conference call to the candidates on October 16 was not to be taken literally. According to one source, Chennault wrote Nixon at once to protest the idea of a bombing halt; she also activated her lines to Saigon.82 By her own account, her messages by whatever routing went direct to Thieu himself. As "the campaign neared its climax" and as Thieu came under "steady pressure ... by the Democrats to attend the Paris Peace Talks," she was repeatedly in touch with Thieu through one or more channels.83

In these exchanges (again by her account) Thieu stated a consistent position: he opposed peace talks on the ground that no one was ready, and "would much prefer to have the peace talks after your election." Chennault would then ask if this was a message to "my party." Invariably, Thieu would respond that she should "convey this message to your candidate." Given her instructions, there is every reason to believe that she did so, via Mitchell or perhaps directly to Nixon himself.84

Important further exchanges occurred on the night of October 31, whenChennault, at a private party, listened to Johnson's speech announcing the bombing halt. Mitchell telephoned her there immediately (showing how closely they were staying in touch), and when she went to a private place to return the call, he said at once: "Anna. I'm speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It's very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you have made that very clear to them."

According to her account, she was startled, believing that her instructions had been only "to keep Nixon informed of South Vietnamese intentions" and detecting in Mitchell's tone a request to go further. She responded, she says:

Look, John, all I've done is to relay messages. If you're talking about direct influence, I have to tell you it isn't wise for us to try to influence the South Vietnamese. Their actions have to follow their own national interests, and I'm sure that is what will dictate Thieu's decisions.

Mitchell still "sounded nervous" and asked whether "they really have decided not to go to Paris." To which she replied: "I don't think they'll go. Thieu has told me over and over again that going to Paris would be walking into a smoke screen that has nothing to do with reality." At the end of the call Mitchell asked her to be sure to call him if she got any more news.85

In short, very soon after Johnson's speech, or earlier, Nixon knew that Thieu was adamant, unlikely to consent to an early bombing halt or to participate in any talks. Chennault's assertion to Mitchell, that she never tried to exert "direct influence" on Thieu, was at best a quibble: repeated inquiries, coming from an authorized Nixon agent like herself, surely conveyed Nixon's fervent desire that Thieu should not go along with the Johnson plan. She may have avoided direct appeals, but her message was hardly subtle or obscure.

The other principal in the story, Ambassador Bui Diem, has given an exceptionally precise account in his memoir. On October 23 (he wrote), he cabled Saigon: "Many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged us to stand firm. They were alarmed by press reports to the effect that you had already softened your position." Then, on October 27, he reported that he was "regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage," by which he says he meant Chennault, Mitchell, and Tower; his memoir does not give further details of that cable.86

 

 

What did President Johnson learn and how did he and Hubert Humphrey react? Sometime on October 29, as President Johnson and his inner circle realized that Thieu was being more and more resistant and devious in his objections, they received a report that shook them. Almost certainly it wasbased on the deciphered and translated text of one or more intercepted cables from the South Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, most likely those of October 23 and 27, which were the basis of Bui Diem's later reconstruction of events.87 One of those who saw the deciphered text of Bui Diem's personal cable to Thieu on October 27 kept notes of it, according to which Bui Diem reported that he had "explained discreetly to our partisan friends our firm attitude" and "plan to adhere to that position." He went on: "The longer the [impasse] situation continues, the more we are favored" and Johnson would "probably have difficulties in forcing our hand." The ambassador concluded that he had been told that if Nixon was elected he would first send an unofficial emissary to Thieu and would consider going to Saigon himself prior to his inauguration.88 While there is no direct evidence that such a message came personally from Nixon, it is hardly the sort of semi-promise that would be made without his authority.

Aroused by this solid information, and by other evidence of Republican agitation, Johnson on October 30 ordered the FBI to conduct "physical and electronic surveillance" (a euphemism for phone tapping) of Anna Chennault. In so doing, he relied both on national security concerns and on possible violations of existing laws dealing with contacts between private citizens and foreign governments.89 On November 2, the phone tap picked up a call from Chennault to Saigon (presumably Thieu or his office) specifically urging that Thieu stand firm and saying that they would get a better deal (unspecified) from Nixon. Asked if Nixon knew of her call, she responded that he did not but "our friend in New Mexico does." Spiro Agnew, as the candidate for Vice President, was campaigning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on that day.90

As information about Chennault's activities flowed in to Johnson, he and his inner circle debated what to do. Clark Clifford strongly favored a confrontation with Nixon, or making the gist of the evidence public. Dean Rusk, on the other hand, thought that this would so blacken Thieu's standing with the American public as to make any further American support for South Vietnam difficult, if not impossible.91 With conflicting advice, Johnson hesitated from Thursday till Sunday. He did, however, inform Humphrey about Chennault's activities on Friday, November 1. Returning to Washington, Humphrey went through agonizing hours on Sunday morning, trying to decide whether he himself should make an issue of this Republican intervention. He was urged to do so by his staff, and was told of the conflicting arguments being put to Johnson, along with a summary of the evidence. In the end he decided not to raise the issue, for two reasons: that the evidence did not on its face show that Nixon himself was involved and that "it would have been difficult to explain how we knew about what she had done."92

Theodore White later wrote that he "knew of no more essentially decentstory in American politics than Humphrey's decision." Another acute observer, Jules Witcover, wrote: "The decision was either one of the noblest in American political history or one of the great tactical blunders. Possibly it was both."93

Johnson himself finally boiled over on Sunday afternoon, after listening to Nixon on television. Nixon said that his aide Robert Finch thought the Democrats must have plotted the bombing halt for election purposes, but piously added that he himself did not believe this. Since Johnson knew beyond doubt by this time about the Republican efforts to persuade Thieu to be obdurate, it must have been especially galling when Nixon volunteered to help straighten things out by going to Saigon himself! So Johnson telephoned Nixon, then in Los Angeles, to complain vigorously about what "Fink" had said and to ask point-blank whether Nixon was involved. Nixon responded with a categorical denial, saying flatly that whatever Chennault had done had been on her own, with no connection or knowledge on his part. This barefaced lie was his only tenable line of defense, and the word must have gone out to his top campaign people, accounting for the vehement denials Theodore White encountered at the Republican campaign offices on Monday.94

In the closing days of the campaign, therefore, Nixon artfully gave maximum play to the notion that Johnson was simply playing politics—white at the same time repeating that he himself made no such charge and that Johnson had been candid with him. In his 1978 memoir, however, Nixon shifted ground and adopted the position that Johnson's decision had been "sufficiently political to permit my taking at least some action."95 For this view he claimed to have relied heavily on reports given him by Bryce Harlow (an old election hand and expert on defense matters who was working for the Nixon campaign) from "someone in Johnson's innermost circle," especially one on October 22 to the effect that Clark Clifford, Joseph Califano (of the White House staff), and Llewellyn Thompson (Ambassador to Moscow) were "the main participants" in "driving exceedingly hard for a deal," that George Ball (Humphrey's chief foreign policy advisor) was in on the effort, and that the wires were set up for Humphrey to take maximum advantage.

On its face, such a report should have sounded odd. An experienced White House hand like Harlow would surely have known that Califano was wholly concerned with domestic policy and that Thompson, in Moscow, was an apolitical diplomat who was hardly in a position to exert influence on Johnson. Neither was in fact involved in the policy discussions of those weeks, nor was Ball, who had left government many months earlier. The reports were indeed so implausible as to throw doubt that anyone at all near the actual center of decision was the source. They were the rawest sort of campaign rumor.

What did Nixon really believe, and why did he act as he did? He does not address or answer these questions frankly in his memoir, while other Nixon supporters who have written books, notably Safire, did not know what he was doing through Chennault.

In all, however, the weight of evidence should have left Nixon in no doubt that Johnson was hewing straight to the position with which he was familiar and that he had endorsed more than once, and most specifically on October 16. But the final days of campaigns are not notable for careful reflection, and the bedrock of his actions was surely that he simply could not accept having his candidacy founder over the timing of a peace move—even one that he formally supported. Still vivid were the memories of important last-minute developments in 1960 and 1962 that he believed had sent him down to defeat.

Yet this cannot excuse his lining up the Chennault-Bui Diem operation as far back as July, and his encouragement of Anna Chennault's contacts with Thieu through the summer, which must have made Johnson's task of persuasion much more difficult. Nor, in light of his sure knowledge, at least after October 31, that Thieu would not go along, is there any way to condone his public line on the final weekend. The pundits thought he was taking chances, but he was actually betting on a sure thing, and his Sunday offer to "go to Saigon" to bring Thieu around surely set some sort of record for hypocrisy, given what he had been doing via Chennault to cause Thieu to dig in!

A further word should be said about Nixon's technique. In selecting Anna Chennault as his emissary, he made it impossible to dissociate the Republican Party from the enterprise if it was detected. But by keeping himself at a distance, working only through the totally discreet John Mitchell, he could achieve what the covert-action trade always wants, "plausible deniability," that no action can be definitely linked to the key individual. Unless his other subordinates were guilty of mass lying—which I do not believe—he had them totally persuaded that he had not been involved. He was thus, of course, much better able to deny convincingly that it was anything but an unauthorized caper by a headstrong lady who happened to be also involved in his campaign organization.

In the 1950s Nixon had become fascinated with covert operations. His adoption of central principles of the trade in this case was wholly in character. It leaves a last question. By 1972, was his relationship with Mitchell so well established that when it came to getting whatever it was he wanted to get from Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex that June, it was not necessary for him to express to Mitchell any more than the wish to learn, or nail down, something he deemed crucial to his reelection? Was the Chennault operation, in short, a preview of techniques used at Watergate—techniques designed to make it impossible to prove any direct Nixon connection to the burglary that set off that scandal?

As we have seen, no mention of Chennault appeared in the media until the following January. When the public voted, few were aware of the episode. By the time the election was over, however, the rumors were enough to make Anna Chennault radioactive. Nixon and Mitchell must have been very afraid that she would spill the beans at some point, and her memoir tells vividly how they treated her. In the ten days after the election, senior figures in Nixon's entourage repeatedly asked her to be the channel for further messages to Saigon (which she indignantly refused to do) and urged her in the strongest terms to protect "our friend," meaning Nixon. The final appeal came from Senator Dirksen, who told her he wanted "to make sure that I would not let my anger get the better of me by talking to the press."

Chennault got a showcase position on the Inaugural Committee and a visit from the man handling personnel in Nixon's transition, the veteran ambassador Robert Murphy. But she never got an offer of the kind of appointment, at least to some honorific commission, to which she would normally have been entitled on the basis of her overt campaign work and highly successful fund-raising alone, doubly so after she had run some risks. When, months later, she saw Nixon briefly at a large reception, he drew her aside to thank her for what she had done and especially for having been such a "good soldier" about it. Hurt and indignation shine through her account of these encounters, which surely reflected the bad conscience of Nixon and his people and at the same time their overwhelming desire to keep her out of sight, especially out of reach of any congressional committee considering a nomination of her for some post.96

In 1981, after the publication of her memoir, The Washington Post published a feature article on the career and personality of Anna Chennault. Her old friend Thomas Corcoran, asked about the 1968 events, replied: "People have used Anna scandalously, Nixon in particular. I know exactly what Nixon said to her and then he repudiated her. But Anna said nothing; she kept her mouth shut."97 It was a fitting epitaph to an episode that from a personal standpoint alone was sordid.

 

 

What was the effect of Thieu's decision on the election? How much was that decision influenced by Nixon's agents and by Republicans generally? Did the delay in getting into serious negotiations affect, even destroy, a real chance for peace?

The first question is easy. There can be little doubt that a joint October 31 announcement that included Thieu's participation would have had a powerful effect on the American voting public, which would have lastedthrough the election. The plan Thieu endorsed on October 13 called for this, and had Thieu done the things he promised, the effect would surely have been decisive in favor of Humphrey. Thieu's pulling back in those last days was crucial to Nixon's victory.

But did Thieu act as he did because of Nixon's urging (via Chennault and the various Republican senators talking to Bui Diem), or would he have taken the same course without that urging? On this key question, any judgment must be tentative. While those who have adopted the latter conclusion have not known how much Nixon actually did, their arguments are respectable. First, as we have noted, the mere idea of getting into negotiations was always suspect in Saigon, and the reality that the NLF would also be present at the table (a reality drummed in by their prompt appearance in Paris in the last week of October, with press conferences and maximum fanfare) raised fears of a coalition government emerging even though the United States disavowed this time and again.98 Second, in South Vietnamese political circles the preference for Nixon over Humphrey was strong and deep-seated. Eleven members of the South Vietnamese Senate went so far on November 2 as to issue a statement endorsing Nixon.

Ambassador Bunker in Saigon, the American in the best position to appraise Thieu, gave this retrospective analysis in January 1969, after emotions had cooled:

The idea of sitting down [in Paris] with the NLF in international negotiations has all along been very troublesome to Thieu and his colleagues. To their mind it gives a degree of recognition and respectability to a tool of Hanoi, and raises the specter of its inclusion in a future government ... .

Thieu's recoil from [including the NLF] at the moment of truth in October sprang from these basic factors: his inability adequately to prepare public opinion; his normal reluctance to bite the bullet; and his hope that with a new U.S. administration coming in he could postpone or perhaps evade entirely the bombing halt and the confrontation with the NLF it implied.

Bunker thought that American insistence on Thieu's keeping things to a very narrow group did not give him enough time to persuade important political figures in Saigon. Given the need on the American side to preserve security during the crucial mid-October period (to confirm the deal with Hanoi), "delay was inevitable" at the Saigon end.99 This is an analysis with which I would have agreed at the time, before the evidence of the Chennault and Bui Diem memoirs showed how strongly the Nixon-established "Republican position" was pressed on Thieu and others. Bunker knew onlygenerally of this pressure and thus, I believe, underestimated its importance. 100

Moreover, there is good evidence that Thieu had a degree of personal animosity toward Humphrey, based apparently on a talk between the two at the end of Humphrey's visit to South Vietnam for Thieu's inauguration in October 1967. When Humphrey said that Thieu should start to think about a transition to self-reliance and a reduced American role, Thieu replied that U.S. forces would have to remain in South Vietnam indefinitely at their strength at that time, which was already over 500,000, whereupon Humphrey commented that retention of the full American military presence was "not in the cards." Thieu took this very badly.101

It is certainly plausible that when Thieu saw Humphrey's election suddenly as likely, this personal animosity and concern affected his actions. On the other hand, if he had not been told that he would have Nixon's support in holding back, he would surely have had to give greater weight to what refusing to go along could do to his chances of full support from any American President. He was, in effect, assured that the top Republicans would soften any immediate criticism of him, and would themselves hold him in greater favor for holding back.

In sum, a historical jury trying to decide whether Nixon's Chennault operation actually carried the day in Saigon and led Thieu to act as he did would, I believe, conclude that Nixon intended that result and did all he could to produce it. Yet there is no way to prove beyond doubt that the operation was decisive in Saigon.

Was a chance for peace lost? Here again one must be tentative. If North Vietnam was as hard pressed as Johnson's advisors believed and said at the decisive meeting of October 14, then immediate and serious peace negotiations might have produced useful concessions. Yet, as Dean Rusk then pointed out, complete negotiations would have taken months, and Hanoi might have reverted to a very hard line.

My conclusion is that probably no great chance was lost. Yet from a moral and political standpoint, Nixon's actions must be judged harshly. Certainly, if the full extent of those actions had become known then — or indeed at any point during his presidency—his moral authority would have been greatly damaged and the antiwar movement substantially strengthened.

At the practical level, Nixon (and, soon, Kissinger) must have learned from the experience that South Vietnam could not be made a full party to serious negotiations. Even formal concurrence by Thieu in a negotiating position did not prevent him from pulling back when he chose.

This leaves a final question—whether serious peace negotiations involving the United States are ever possible in the months just before a closeelection. If American forces are fighting and dying, and if the peace issues are debatable and in some respects painful, getting the concurrence of the opposition party may be as difficult as going ahead without it. Moreover, a serving President can easily be pressured—as Johnson was not—into unwise concessions. It is not hard to envisage situations in which the American national interest would suffer; it is one of the prices our country pays for holding elections in time of conflict.

What cannot be debated, however—and this may be the key point of the whole affair—is that Thieu emerged from it convinced that Nixon owed him a great political debt. On this the testimony of his closest advisor, Nguyen Tien Hung, was categorical: Thieu not only believed in 1968 that such a debt had been created, but attached great weight to it throughout his association with Nixon.102 In most cultures, but perhaps especially in East Asia and in Vietnam, the sense of such a debt raises profound questions of loyalty and honor, even at the expense of other obligations. Over and over, throughout the war, orthodox American calculations about X or Y military or political figure turned out to be wrong because of some unknown favor (or slight) to the individual or, often, simply to a family member. The act might have taken place years ago, but its impact lingered.

American political figures can have a similar sense of debt, and help extended in the crucial phases of a presidential campaign has a special place. In this case, the help and the stakes were about as great as they could possibly have been, as Nixon knew well. Moreover, while it is possible that Thieu would have dug in for his own reasons, the fact that Nixon urged him to do so was bound to increase the debt.

The effect of such a debt on future dealings between the two men—which were at the core of American policy in South Vietnam—was in my judgment the most important legacy of the whole episode. As we have already seen and will have occasion to reiterate over and over, the greatest single problem for the United States in South Vietnam was how to bring effective influence to bear, so that the South Vietnamese government would improve its performance and take on more of the burden of assuring its own survival. That a new American President started with a heavy and recognized debt to the leader he had above all to influence was surely a great handicap, brought on by Nixon for domestic political reasons.

6. Aftermath and Transition

On the Saturday after the election, Ambassador Bui Diem was startled to receive an unannounced visit from Senator Everett Dirksen. The Republican Minority Leader came right to the point: he was conveying, in strong terms, a joint message from Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson that PresidentThieu should immediately announce that he was sending a full South Vietnamese delegation to Paris to participate in substantive negotiations.103 Johnson had decided on this message on Thursday, November 7, and presumably it was he who chose Dirksen as his channel to Nixon.104 There is no evidence whether Johnson referred in any way to the Anna Chennault affair, but he had already done so elliptically on October 31 and Nixon must have realized that, through the government's intelligence services, Johnson probably knew essentially what the Republicans had done.105

In the postelection week, Johnson also invited Nixon to the White House for a substantial briefing and discussion on all outstanding matters, with Vietnam at the forefront. The meeting came off on November 11, involving the principals (and their wives) and Johnson's assembled advisors. Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow (Johnson's National Security Advisor) reviewed the whole sequence of dealings with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union going back to June, which should have left little doubt that Johnson had acted all along for honest policy reasons. Nixon was totally supportive and cooperative, offering to do anything to help get substantive peace talks started and stressing that it was essential to have "a united front." He also asked whether it would help for him to "travel," but dropped the idea when Johnson reacted negatively.106

At the close of the meeting and lunch, Johnson assured Nixon that in line with Eisenhower's practice with him as ex-President, he would never criticize Nixon publicly. As Nixon saw it:

[O]n that day our political and personal differences melted away. As we stood together in the Oval Office, he welcomed me into a club of very exclusive membership, and he made a promise to adhere to the cardinal rule of that membership: stand behind those who succeed you.

It was true that, in contrast to many past periods in American history, refraining from public criticism had become the common practice among postwar Presidents familiar with the crushing foreign policy burdens of the office and also well aware that they now lacked information they once had. In this case, the friendly atmosphere surely also reflected the compatible attitudes of the two men toward the Vietnam War and the considerable effort Nixon had made, for practical political reasons, not to seem critical of Johnson during the campaign. The objective of an early reconciliation had been achieved.107

As he left, Nixon said to the press that, on the matters on which he had been briefed, citing specifically Vietnam, the Middle East, and Soviet relations, "I gave assurance in each instance to the Secretary of State and, of course, to the President, that they could speak ... for the nation, and that meant for the next administration as well."108 Three days later, however, hebacktracked, claiming a parallel understanding that there would be "prior consultation and prior agreement" before the incumbent took any major step. For this claim there was no basis according to Johnson, who responded with a crisp and constitutionally correct public statement that decisions up to January 20 would be taken by him and his Secretaries of State and Defense.

This confusing exchange surely weakened the message that Bui Diem carried to Saigon that week. Thieu had seen the first Nixon statement as pressure to act promptly. But then, in the words of one of his close advisors: "We saw Nixon as biding his time until he took office, letting Johnson do the dirty work."109 Dirty work it was, with Johnson a lame duck. Clark Clifford vented his wrath at Thieu in public, in a series of statements saying that the Administration should consider going ahead without him, but this was a threat Johnson was unwilling to make. It would surely have confused the American public all the more.

The result was a further grinding series of talks between Thieu and Ambassador Bunker, in which Thieu was walking a narrow line. He did not wish substantive negotiations to start with the experienced Democratic negotiating team still in place; on the other hand, he knew that appearing to drag his feet could hurt his standing with the American public and Congress. Finally, on November 27, after the Johnson Administration had issued a formal statement that the United States had no intention of accepting a coalition government, Thieu agreed to send a delegation to Paris, and in early December, Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky duly arrived there. But six more weeks were then consumed fussing over the shape of the negotiating table—a ridiculous issue for American and other observers, but full of symbolic and psychological meaning for the Vietnamese.110 Only in mid-January did Soviet diplomats mediate a compromise, in the form of a very oddly shaped table.111

Did the delay of two and a half months destroy what might otherwise have been realistic hopes of progress? Harriman and Vance thought so, basing their views in part on suggestions Le Duc Tho had made in mid-September that the Vietnamese were willing to discuss reciprocal troop withdrawals seriously.

Here it is useful to draw on a contemporary analysis of the situation by Henry Kissinger. In mid-December, Foreign Affairs published the article he had been working on during the fall; it had been essentially completed prior to the election, so that he wrote as a private citizen, not noting his negotiating activities the year before or his more recent tie to the Nixon campaign.112 In the article, Kissinger approved and defended key features of Johnson's handling of the preliminary Paris talks, such as the insistence on prompt negotiations. Reliance on an understanding about military restraint should be

a more certain protection against trickery than a formal commitment ... . Hanoi can have little doubt that the bombing halt would not survive if it disregarded the points publicly stated by Secretary Rusk and President Johnson.

He also noted that in its main outlines the American position had "remained unchanged throughout the negotiations."113

In his last pages, Kissinger analyzed the issues he believed would arise in substantive negotiations. The United States should not withdraw unilaterally, he believed, and Hanoi would have to negotiate over what he saw as the two main objectives for U.S. negotiators:

(1) to bring about a staged withdrawal of external forces, North Vietnamese and American, (2) thereby to create a maximum incentive for the contending forces in South Viet Nam to work out a political agreement ... . The primary responsibility for negotiating the internal structure of South Viet Nam should be left for direct negotiations among the South Vietnamese.

Perhaps not by coincidence, his proposals matched almost exactly what Johnson's negotiators would have suggested, and at the same time highlighted the difficulties Dean Rusk had foreseen. For North Vietnam to agree on reciprocal withdrawals would be to admit that its forces did not belong in the South, undercutting its claim that the conflict was a civil war in which only the United States was truly "foreign." Likewise, conceding that the South Vietnamese government had standing of any sort would go far toward surrendering the ambition that was central to its whole effort. Clearly, as Rusk had noted, an early agreement was not in the cards, even though Hanoi faced a difficult military situation. What might have been hoped for, however, was an early negotiation aimed initially at reducing the level of fighting, then the level of forces. This was how Harriman and Vance envisioned it, based on the September signals they had detected from Le Duc Tho. Equally important, if serious negotiations had got under way promptly, it would have been possible to observe and insist on North Vietnam's compliance with the understandings about military restraints. Kissinger's optimism that Hanoi could be held to these restraints was probably not misplaced during the fall. But by January, with Saigon dragging its feet, Hanoi could well argue that it had met the provision for prompt negotiations while the other side had not.

In November and December 1968, however, the public saw only the delay, found it hard to understand what the fuss was about or why South Vietnam was objecting, became more irritated with Saigon, but probably thought the problems reflected failures or errors on the part of PresidentJohnson and his advisors. The dominant reaction was simply vast relief that the hideous ten months since the Tet offensive had ended. On the whole, the country welcomed the advent of a new President who had managed to dissociate himself almost entirely from the turmoil of the year.

For his part, Lyndon Johnson was prepared to suppress doubts about Nixon's involvement in Anna Chennault's activities, and was ready to do all he could to make the handover of power smooth and effective. As columnist Kenneth Crawford wrote: "Never in living memory has national power passed from one party to the other as amicably and smoothly as it is passing this time from Democrats to Republicans."114 On December 12, the Cabinet and White House staff of the outgoing Administration held separate receptions for the incoming team, and Johnson and Nixon had a second meeting. As many people noted, this was in striking contrast to the frigid Truman-Eisenhower transition and the skimpy and confused handover between Eisenhower and Kennedy.115

Nixon's key appointments were made rapidly and coherently. The first to be announced was that of Henry Kissinger as Special Assistant for National Security Affairs — "National Security Advisor," as it had come to be known. Although Nixon had only met Kissinger once before the election, he had read and studied his writings, and knew that Kissinger had handled easily, on behalf of Nelson Rockefeller, the final discussions on the Republican platform at the Miami convention. There is no evidence whether the information Kissinger conveyed to Mitchell during the campaign played any part in the appointment, although his capacity for secrecy must surely have appealed to Nixon. In addition, Kissinger's appointment would outwardly represent the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party while justifying Nixon's making no move to enlist Rockefeller himself, whom he cordially disliked—just the kind of carom shot Nixon relished. Most of all, Kissinger fit well with Nixon's style of decision making. When the appointment was announced on December 2, Nixon piously rejected any intent to make the new man a "wall" between the White House and the Department of State, but this was in fact exactly what he had told Kissinger he wanted him to be—an example of the tendency in Nixonian discourse to disavow a true motive loudly and explicitly.

Kissinger quickly assembled a strong staff, mostly career people or civilian holdovers from the Johnson Administration. From previous work as a consultant, he had an excellent network of contacts. Nixon gave him his head, and even had Kissinger interview and give his judgment on William P. Rogers as a possible Secretary of State. It was a strange but appropriate beginning for a painful relationship, virtually prescribed by Nixon from the start. In the Eisenhower Administration, Rogers had been Deputy Attorney General and later Attorney General, and had worked closely with Vice President Nixon on many matters. A lawyer's lawyer, he had excellent practicaljudgment and sound political instincts but almost no experience of foreign policy. As Nixon judged him, he would be loyal and discreet, not likely to kick over the traces when differing on policy or even on being excluded from important matters that would historically have been the primary responsibility of the Secretary of State.

The other principal Cabinet appointment in the national security area, Secretary of Defense, was first offered to Senator Henry M. Jackson of Washington, a senior Democratic member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a rising star on other matters. (Some other Nixon offers of positions to Democrats—such as Hubert Humphrey for Ambassador to the United Nations—were for show purposes and with little expectation they would be accepted.) Nixon well knew how seldom powerful senators, in the American system, have been lured into Cabinets even of their own party, but he needed, and felt a kinship with, a "strong defense" Democrat and wanted at least credit for making the offer. Jackson was briefly tempted but in the end refused, saying he could be more help where he was.116 Nixon then turned to Melvin Laird, Republican congressman from Wisconsin and a longtime member of the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, therefore thoroughly familiar with the budgets and problems of the Pentagon. Laird had a power base in Congress, through the respect he commanded on both sides of the House, as well as an independent mind and (as it turned out) considerable bureaucratic skills. He could not be easily circumvented, and was to become a more powerful Cabinet member than Nixon had bargained on.

For the Treasury, Nixon chose David Kennedy, a Chicago banker of no outstanding stature, and as Attorney General he installed John Mitchell, closest to him personally of all these men, though with a legal background that was very limited in terms of the range of Justice Department concerns. Kennedy's role in economic policy was to be secondary to that of Arthur Burns, a conservative veteran of the Eisenhower Administration, who was made a Cabinet-level Counselor in the White House.

With the rest of the new Cabinet, these appointments were announced with maximum fanfare on December 11. All were moderates, representing diverse geographical areas. Nixon privately thought that as a whole they were a little to the left of what he saw as his own "centrist" position. But even less than other late-twentieth-century Presidents did he intend to use the Cabinet as a serious forum for debate and advice, let alone decision.117

After some delay, Nixon decided to retain CIA Director Richard Helms, a career intelligence officer who had held the position since 1966. In contrast, Nixon instantly reaffirmed the status of J. Edgar Hoover, legendary head of the FBI since the early 1920s, with unctuous expressions of praise and confidence, despite his having passed the retirement age four years before. The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also remained in place,with Army general Earle Wheeler as Chairman (as he had been since 1964), William C. Westmoreland, former commander in Vietnam, as Army Chief of Staff, and Admiral Thomas Moorer as Chief of Naval Operations. To the surprise of some, Nixon also retained Ellsworth Bunker as Ambassador in South Vietnam, along with General Abrams as commander, Samuel Berger as Deputy Ambassador, and William Colby of the CIA in charge of pacification operations. It was, and was meant to be, a signal of continuity in the conduct of the war.

Elliot Richardson was chosen as deputy to Rogers. He was a veteran from the Eisenhower Administration, where he had served in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and was well known to Nixon though never personally or professionally close. The rest of the new cast in State was drawn mostly from the career Foreign Service, led by the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, U. Alexis Johnson, most recently Ambassador to Japan and an old Asia hand who had held other senior positions in the Eisenhower years. One notable change was the retirement of the veteran Llewellyn Thompson as Ambassador to the Soviet Union; Thompson had served in Moscow twice, for a total of seven years, and between these tours had exerted considerable influence on President Johnson in favor of the "thaw" in Soviet-American relations initiated by President Kennedy in 1963 after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Finally, for the apparently key post of Paris negotiator, Nixon picked Henry Cabot Lodge, his running mate in the 1960 presidential election and later twice Ambassador to South Vietnam, in 1963-64 and 1965-67. A distinguished moderate and internationalist Republican, symbolic of patriotism and of bipartisan support for a strong stand in Vietnam, Lodge appeared to be a highly qualified choice who would have Nixon's confidence. In fact, the two men were antithetic in personality and to a considerable extent in their underlying views.118 As with some other Nixon choices, therefore, there was less to this than met the eye. From the beginning Nixon drew a sharp demarcation line between individuals genuinely in his confidence and those who, whatever their titles, were not.

Along with the necessary appointments, Nixon quickly initiated a major shift in the relative power of the institutions that make and carry out foreign policy. He had disliked the formal and collegial procedures of the Eisenhower Administration and been put off in lesser degree by the freewheeling way Kennedy and Johnson had operated on occasion; in all three Administrations, as he saw it, the State Department had had too much power. Under President Johnson, State had clearly become primary in formulating policy papers and options and in following up on presidential decisions, after 1967 through a Senior Interdepartmental Group (SIG) presided over by the Under Secretary of State.119 (The two dominant policy problems, the Vietnam War and relations with the Soviet Union, however, were controlledclosely and constantly by President Johnson himself.) This SIG system was Nixon's first target. To Kissinger, who already had a taste for power and scant regard for "bureaucrats," the assignment to prepare a memorandum defining the new system was right up his alley.120 One reason for this important decision was undoubtedly Nixon's gut feeling about many of the Foreign Service personnel he had encountered over the years, especially during the out-of-office years in the 1960s. In Kissinger's words, "the Foreign Service had disdained him as Vice President and ignored him the moment he was out of office," while the CIA (meaning the analysis and estimating sections, not the covert operators) "was staffed by Ivy League liberals who behind the facade of analytical objectivity were usually pushing their own preferences."121

Yet the methods Nixon chose were not merely a matter of personal dislikes or even of a personal style that stressed solitude and working from papers. He sought White House control in part from a coherent view of what effective policy required in the situation he confronted in 1969. In this and in many other ways, it was significant that the contemporary statesman Nixon most admired was Charles de Gaulle of France. Secrecy, aloofness, an aura of mystery, limiting personal statements and achieving maximum surprise and effect with those he did make, frequent dissimulation of his true purposes in order to keep criticism at bay—all these were leaves from de Gaulle's book that Nixon was prepared by instinct and calculation to borrow. He must also have seen in his own foremost problem of disengaging from the Vietnam War a strong resemblance to de Gaulle's brilliant extrication of France from a fruitless war in Algeria.

In January, Nixon approved Kissinger's secretly produced blueprint for White House control of the foreign policy process, over the mild protests of a belatedly alerted William Rogers. Policy papers would now flow up through a structure of "panels" chaired by the National Security Advisor (Kissinger) and comprised of deputies from State and Defense and the heads of the CIA and the Joint Chiefs, with final decisions taken by the President sometimes in the National Security Council but often without any further meetings. The system permitted the President to intervene all along the way, through Kissinger, while making it difficult for the Secretaries of State and Defense to get hold of an issue until it had been virtually decided in one of the panels. It was a palace coup, entirely constitutional but at the same time revolutionary.

 

 

During the transition period, Nixon confronted one action decision, how to handle a Johnson project he definitely did not support. The Soviet take-over of Prague in August, as we have seen, aborted what was to have been an announcement of a summit meeting between Johnson and Soviet PremierAlexei Kosygin. The precise plans for a September meeting had never leaked, and after Prague most observers assumed the idea was dead. But Johnson had never given up on it, and in mid-September there was a further exchange on the subject, possibly linking it with the suggestion of an active Soviet role toward a bombing halt deal with Hanoi in Paris. When the Soviets duly played such a role, they may well have hoped that the summit too would come back on track and help them regain the respectability they had forfeited by the brutal Prague takeover.

On November 6, right after the American election, an article in a Soviet publication suggested that a top-level meeting could be useful, and on November 14, Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin made the suggestion explicitly to Walt Rostow. While it had never been intended that the meeting would get beyond a general exchange on principles, with no precise agreement in view, any such meeting in the closing months of a lame-duck Administration presented problems. Nixon could hardly be asked to sign on to whatever positions Johnson might take, and would have been entirely right to consider himself not bound even by the tenor of the discussions. When Johnson consulted Nixon about the possibility of such a summit before the transfer of power, his reaction was noncommittal, but in early December the President-elect used two channels to dissuade the Soviets from going ahead. Kissinger, to the Soviet number two in Washington, and Robert Ellsworth, a prominent Nixon advisor during the campaign, to a Soviet official in New York, conveyed identical messages to the effect that any such meeting would not be taken seriously by the incoming Administration. The line went dead and the project was abandoned.122

In itself this was a simple decision for Nixon, wholly justified as a matter of realistic behavior during an interparty transition. But behind the decision lay a line of thinking stressed in the memoirs of both Nixon and Kissinger. The two men put great emphasis on what they called "linkage"—a constant weighing of all the points of contact with a given nation (above all the Soviet Union) so that these fitted with the intended overall line of policy. Moreover, they had in mind more explicit forms of linkage, such as telling the Soviet Union that certain actions were in effect preconditions to American actions thought to be desired by the Soviets. For such a policy to work, every strand of policy had to be inventoried and deployed in a concerted manner toward the desired end. Linkage was an important feature of Nixon's initial policies. Whether it could be used effectively remained to be seen.

In all, Nixon's handling of the transition period gave him a strong base and starting point. He had filled out his appointments to general approval, he had the policymaking process he wanted and the key man at its center, and he had conveyed a strong image of moderation and responsibility. From every standpoint it had been a good eleven weeks' work. He would land running.

Copyright © 1998 by William Bundy All rights reserved

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Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
Ch. 1 An Hour and a Man 3
Ch. 2 The First Fifteen Months 57
Ch. 3 1970: A Troubled Year 145
Ch. 4 1971: Progress and Preparation 230
Ch. 5 The Triumphs of 1972 303
Ch. 6 "Peace" Comes to Indochina 351
Ch. 7 Under Pressure 400
Ch. 8 The Middle East War and the Oil Crisis 428
Ch. 9 What Came After 473
Ch. 10 Summing Up 510
Chronology of Events 531
Notes 545
Bibliography 607
Index 621
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First Chapter


CHAPTER ONE

AN HOUR AND A MAN

The election year of 1968 was as eventful and tumultuous as any in American history--war in Vietnam that had turned sour yet offered no easy exit; an antiwar movement at home, chiefly among a generation born during or after World War II to great expectations and ideals, with many both resenting and profiting from a conscription system loaded in favor of the educated and well-to-do; new movements such as feminism just starting to take hold; and above all a deep-seated racial division between African-American and white citizens, as old as the nation itself but attacked more forthrightly by President Lyndon Johnson than by any predecessor, with the result, common in history, that as the possibility of improvement showed itself, bitterness and frustration became all the greater.

    There had been election years of equally deep domestic discontent slid convulsion--in 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, bonus marchers and breadlines in the cities conveyed a whiff of revolution. In other intense election years the nation faced and debated issues of peace and war--1860, 1864, 1916, 1940. But never before had the two elements come together powerfully in the same election year. That they did in 1968 is basic to understanding the Nixon presidency. This was an hour of testing, and the experienced Republican candidate in that year was, in the eyes of a plurality of the American voting public, ready for the test.

    For twenty-plus years, Richard Nixon had cut a wide swath in American public life and made a deep impression on two fronts. One was political campaigning. He had raised to a high level the art of imputing subversive tendencies to liberal opponents, acquiring early the nickname "Tricky Dick," Almost every campaign he fought was etched in the memory of his contemporaries for some extraordinary event; 1952 for a "Checkers speech" in brilliant defense of his own honor; 1960 for woebegone handling of a TV debate with John F. Kennedy; 1962 for a bitter farewell press conference in California before the despised media. This Nixon was emotional, capable of igniting deep chords of feeling for and against his personality and positions, and at the same time of masterly expository speeches. He was a superb practitioner of politics, occasionally with the raw side showing.

    The other feature that stood out in Richard Nixon's record was his extensive foreign policy experience. As a member of Congress, Vice President in the collegial Eisenhower structure, and then as a much-traveled private citizen, his exposure to the world and to foreign leaders stood near the top among the political figures of his time and among twentieth-century candidates for the presidency. He had been particularly involved in and articulate over policy toward East Asia, stressing the threat from China after the Communists won power there in 1949, and had made dramatic impressions of competence and coolness on two occasions--under the physical threat of a crowd in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1958, and in a dramatic kitchen debate in the Soviet Union in 1959 with the redoubtable Nikita Khrushchev. On the other hand, both in public and in government Councils, Nixon demonstrated on many occasions a strong inclination to deal with problems by decisive action, violent and military if necessary, and not to be constrained by potential opposition at home or by the attitudes of allied countries. Both in domestic politics and in his foreign policy views, he had the temperament of a "true believer," fervent, intolerant, sure of his own positions.

    An hour and a man had come together. The story of Nixon's prepresidential career, his years of preparation, is not only all account of the personal development of an extremely energetic and intelligent American of his generation, but a study of what the American nation itself went through, especially in East Asia, in the first twenty-five years of the Cold War.

1. The Making of a True Believer

Richard Nixon grew up next door to the Pacific Ocean. His wartime service was as a Navy officer in the South Pacific. Elected to Congress in 1946 over a popular liberal Democratic incumbent, in a campaign that he made markedly negative by the standards of the period, Nixon made a strong impression at once as an articulate younger voice in a Republican Party that retained many elements of its prewar isolationism.

    When the Marshall Plan for Europe was announced in the spring of 1947, Christian Herter of Massachusetts picked Nixon as a junior member of a special bipartisan House committee, which spent several weeks examining the European situation. The committee soon endorsed the Plan, and Nixon went all out to turn around his skeptical California constituents. The experience did much to establish him as a serious worker and thinker on foreign policy. In his own account of the trip, Nixon dwelt on what he learned about Communists, whom he insisted on meeting face to face and found to be men of great ability to be taken extremely seriously. He concluded that the only thing Communists would respect and deal with was "power at least equal to theirs and backed up by willingness to use it" and that a basic rule with Russians must be "never bluff unless you are prepared to carry through, because they will test you every time." At the same time, Nixon saw that it was essential to improve economic conditions in Europe, the main object of the Marshall Plan. (The question of military measures was not then to the fore.)

    At the opposite extreme from this high-toned committee was the House Un-American Activities Committee, dominated by right-wingers from both parties and often accused of irresponsibility in exposing supposed Communist activity. Doubtless on the strength of his election campaign, in which he had so successfully attacked his Democratic opponent for leftist leanings, Republican leaders put Nixon on HUAC, where he rapidly distinguished himself as an active participant and articulate questioner. By the summer of 1948 he was the lead figure in the committee's investigation of a just-retired State Department official, Alger Hiss, on charges of association with Communists leveled by a confessed Communist informant, Whittaker Chambers. A dramatic confrontation between the two was inconclusive, but Nixon kept pressing Chambers, who finally came forward that fall with microfilm of State Department cables, stored for years in a pumpkin on the farm of a friend. These so-called Pumpkin Papers became the key evidence leading to the conviction of Hiss, in early 1950, for perjury concerning his relationship with Chambers.

    Nixon was also in the lead in linking the celebrated Hiss case to alleged Communist influence on American policy in China during and after World War II. As the Chinese Civil War turned in favor of the Communist side in 1947-49, he consistently supported attempts to increase American military aid to the Chiang Kai-shek government, and when Mao Zedong took over China in October 1949, became a strident proponent of the charge that the "loss" of China had been the fault of President Harry Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. While Nixon steered clear of some of the wilder attacks mounted by the mostly conservative and Republican "China Lobby," he remained close to its members in and out of Congress.

    When North Korea attacked South Korea in June 1950, Nixon fully supported Truman's decision to commit American forces to the defense of South Korea. Unlike many Republicans--Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, for example--he never challenged Truman's refusal to seek a declaration of war or any other congressional approval, apart from the voting of appropriations. Nixon consistently took an expansive view of presidential authority in matters of war and peace. On the other hand, he was also one of the first to charge that the Truman Administration had invited the North Korean attack, particularly by a speech Acheson had given in January 1950 that omitted Korea from a geographically defined American "defense perimeter" in East Asia. Whether the charge was valid or not, a great many Americans, then and later, found it persuasive; it was repeatedly invoked not merely for partisan purposes but to show that the United States ought to clarify its attitude toward military intervention in all regions. Ironically, Acheson had intended primarily to stir up latent conflicts between the Soviet Union and a now Communist-controlled China (which were to become central in Nixon's presidency). Only secondarily did he draw on the known views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that, given the reduced postwar U.S. military forces, defense perimeters should be defined only for areas that could realistically be defended. Yet the episode came to be a main argument for drawing lines firmly and fixedly, first in Northeast Asia and in the mid-1950s in Southeast Asia as well.

    In the turbulent summer and fall of 1950, as forces under General Douglas MacArthur held on precariously in South Korea and then rebounded in the brilliant Inchon landing, Richard Nixon was winning an invectiveladen Senate campaign against a Democratic incumbent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he charged, often in nasty ways, with being "soft" on the threat of Communism. It was a campaign that, even more than the pursuit of Alger Hiss, made him anathema to a great many Democrats and not a few independent voters and observers.

    That September, the Truman Administration enlarged its objective from simply restoring South Korea to unifying all of Korea by force. Authorized to go into North Korea with care and caution, MacArthur did so with maximum fanfare and aggressiveness. As his forces approached the Yalu River boundary with China, the Chinese intervened massively and to devastating effect.

    Under the field command of General Matthew B. Ridgway, the war became a grinding struggle near the 38th parallel, with the Truman Administration effectively abandoning the objective of unifying Korea. The unchastened MacArthur, declaring that "war's very object is victory," urged stronger action against China. In March 1951, the charismatic general stated his views in a public letter to Congressman Joseph Martin, Republican Minority Leader. Truman, who had put up with earlier critical statements from MacArthur, finally relieved the general for insubordination and for publicly advocating a policy opposed to that of the government. It was an epic confrontation: legendary war hero versus upstart President. Many wondered whether the very principle of civilian control of the military could survive, or whether MacArthur's views might sweep the country and make Truman's position untenable.

    On the day the firing was announced, April 11, 1951, Richard Nixon, in a role rare for a freshman senator, was picked to lead his party in a long and acrimonious debate on the Senate floor. He did not challenge the President's power to relieve a commander, but urged simply that General MacArthur be reinstated. Nixon also did not lend himself to attacks by other Republicans on Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, who had joined in recommending the President's action. He went beyond familiar Republican attacks on past policy to urge all the immediate steps MacArthur had proposed. Seeing no hope that the war could be ended successfully "with concerted United Nations action," he argued that the United States unilaterally insist on strategic bombing of key targets within China and on allowing Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces on Taiwan to threaten the mainland and thus divert some Chinese forces from Korea.

    As the historian Stephen Ambrose rightly sums up, the debate that spring was "between those who wanted to crush the Communists in Asia and those who wanted to contain them." The Truman Administration--through Acheson, Marshall, and General Omar Bradley--stressed the fundamental strategic importance of ground forces, of accepting geographical limits and taking account of the views of allies; the MacArthur side advocated drastic use of airpower, enlarging the war zone, and making political and alliance factors subordinate to military needs. (This sharp division of opinion over American policy in East Asia continued for the next two decades.) In 1951, exhaustive joint congressional hearings, impressively chaired by Senator Richard Russell, convinced many Americans that Truman had been right both to fire MacArthur and to reject his advice. Nixon did not return to the fray during or immediately after those hearings, but he had clearly aligned himself with the MacArthur school, in favor of drastic military action with maximum objectives.

    At the same time, Nixon continued to distance himself from Taft Republicans by his strong support of the U.S. commitment of major forces to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and of the designation of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the Alliance's supreme commander in Europe. Nixon was an early supporter of Eisenhower as the Republican nominee in 1952, and his own selection as Vice President fell naturally into place, highlighting the issue of Communism and balancing the ticket geographically. In the campaign, much of Nixon's oratory repeated his earlier litany of attacks over the "loss" of China and "softness" on Communism. Calling Acheson the dean of a "college of cowardly communist containment" was a sample of rhetoric that endeared him to the right, enraged liberals and many moderates, and left a deep mark.

    Nixon was more involved in foreign policy than any previous Vice President. He formed close and friendly ties with both Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles. And whereas the custom in most administrations was for the Vice President to air his views only directly and personally to the President, Eisenhower allowed the Vice President to participate frequently and apparently frankly in meetings of the National Security Council. All in all, Nixon got a training in foreign policy that was comparable to the kind of apprenticeship that is usual in Cabinet-style governments but a rare exception in the American system.

    By 1953, with a stalemate in Korea, Eisenhower took the secret step of warning the Chinese, through an Indian intermediary, that if the war went on the United States might feel impelled to attack China; the clear implication was that it might use nuclear weapons. It was an action consistent with Eisenhower's New Look strategy of defending outlying areas by making a threat of "massive retaliation" at places and times chosen by the United States--a strategy Nixon accepted and was surely much influenced by.

    North Korea and China did accept an armistice in July, 1953: whether the secret Eisenhower warning was decisive has been much debated among historians. But there can be little doubt that Eisenhower and Nixon (whenever he learned of it) believed that the warning had been a crucial and perhaps the single most decisive factor. Nixon repeatedly said so in later years, and must have marked down stern private messages and threats of all-out war as special and important tools of policy.

    By the fall of 1953, the Eisenhower Administration had scored a noteworthy series of successes, including the armistice in Korea, the election of Ramon Magsaysay as President of the Philippines (with substantial American advice and a strong public campaign to make the election fair), and a CIA-assisted Coup in Iran that restored the pro-American Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi to power. NATO was firmly established, Latin America and the Middle East at peace. The greatest remaining worry was Indochina, where the French position was deteriorating rapidly, so that Eisenhower decided in September on a major increase in military aid,

    At this apogee of American power and prestige, Nixon embarked on a seventy-day "goodwill" trip to nineteen different countries. This had no ceremonial purposes; rather, it was a down-to-earth survey with little formality and a great deal of direct talk with senior foreign officials and Americans in the countries visited, The format gave Nixon the chance to refine his already great capacity to digest written materials and to conduct searching conversations with foreign leaders, usually without tension. On the trip he also formed a number of strong impressions of individuals. Carrying with him the ideas that were soon to be embodied in treaty links with Pakistan, he was drawn to the bluff and downright Pakistani generals, but found Jawaharlal Nehru in India iniquitously neutral ("immoral" was John Foster Dulles's label); similarly, although Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia was a non-Communist leader with legitimacy and popular support almost unique in Southeast Asia, Nixon found him intelligent but "vain and flighty," above all naive about Communism.

    With American officials likewise, his assessment depended heavily on evidence of hard-line anti-Communist views. In Tokyo, Samuel Berger, a Foreign Service officer with a labor background, briefed Nixon on the important labor federation SOHYO. Under Nixon's stern cross-examination, Berger stuck to his judgment that SOHYO was not then Communist-dominated or likely to become so--a judgment confirmed by later events. The result, at Nixon's behest, was the early reassignment of Berger to a less important post.

    The overall situation in Southeast Asia made by far the greatest impression on Nixon. He came to believe that holding off the Communist threat in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was essential to a stable East Asia and the top priority for American policy. He found the French too tarred with the colonialist brush to be effective; locally rooted regimes were essential, but so was outside support in some form, to deal principally with the threat of Communist China.

    On his return, Nixon made a two-hour report to the National Security Council. He urged that the United States forge mutual-defense links from Turkey right around to a rearmed Japan--an Asia-wide security structure to deter and resist Communist expansion in any form, with the United States in the central role as it already was in Europe. He was thus an early advocate of the "pactomania" that characterized John Foster Dulles's foreign policy, with its great emphasis on formal defense commitments.

    The situation in Indochina became critical even sooner than Nixon had feared. In April 1954, Vietminh forces besieged the remote fortress of Dien Bien Phu, and Eisenhower had to decide whether the United States should intervene directly. Intense discussions with the French produced a plan for strategic air attacks, in line with the Administration's New Look military strategy. But the French public was sick of the war, the British government was cool to taking military action, and Eisenhower's old colleague, General Ridgway, now Army Chief of Staff, argued strongly that a land war in Indochina would be costly, unpredictable, and unwise. In early April, a Gallup poll found 68 percent of the American public against armed intervention.

    Within the Administration, Nixon for a time joined with Admiral Arthur Radford, Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, in favoring the air attack plan. He also expressed his views in a dramatic public fashion. At the important annual meeting of newspaper publishers in Washington, he said in response to a question that if the situation required he would favor a decision to commit U.S. ground forces to help the French. Although the response was theoretically "off the record," it was far too explosive for him or anyone else to suppose it would remain private. Both comment and speaker were at once reported in the media, bringing the issue of American intervention to a head.

    Eisenhower did not rebuke or repudiate Nixon--part of a cool and somewhat detached position in the crisis that continues to puzzle historians. When the President met with congressional leaders shortly afterward, he found them strongly opposed to military action and decided to pursue a more diplomatic policy of "united action," designed less to prevent a Communist takeover in North Vietnam than to forestall further Communist gains after that. As in the MacArthur crisis three years earlier, Nixon was for taking risks with strong action, especially air attacks. But when Eisenhower moved in a more moderate direction, Nixon supported his policy loyally,

    The upshot was that France gave up the fight when Dien Bien Phu fell in early May. A July conference in Geneva set the 17th parallel as the demarcation line between the Communist-held territories in the North and the Western-supported non-Communists in the South, with an ambiguous provision for elections after two years to determine whether the country should remain divided. The United States accepted these 1954 Accords, but did not sign them or participate in the hasty final decisions that produced them.

    That fall, "united action" took shape in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) that John Foster Dulles designed and promoted. The signatories--the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan--pledged to come to each other's aid against armed aggression and to consult on common action against "indirect aggression." Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam (called the Republic of Vietnam) became "protocol states" under the treaty, entitled to call on the signers for help against direct or indirect aggression--a status that Sihanouk in Cambodia promptly rejected as part of a determined policy of neutrality.

    That the Senate readily ratified the SEATO treaty reflected the Eisenhower Administration's prestige, relief that America had not become militarily involved in Southeast Asia, and belief in the "lesson of Korea," that drawing firm lines helped to deter Communist expansion and make war less likely. But it was a weak and unrealistic treaty: it offered no answer to subversion and guerrilla warfare, so everything depended on whether solid local regimes could emerge and win the support of their people.

    The next few years saw remarkable apparent progress in South Vietnam. In July 1954, on the recommendation of Democratic senator Mike Mansfield (a long-standing expert on East Asia), Ngo Dinh Diem, a central Vietnam mandarin with a staunch nationalist record and some administrative experience, was plucked from a New Jersey retreat and persuaded to take office as Prime Minister of South Vietnam. The next spring, with strong support from some officials in a divided U.S. Embassy, Diem beat back threats from local sect forces and established himself in control. In the fall of 1955 his power was ratified by a formal, though hardly free, election as President.

    Just what part Nixon played in these dramatic developments is not clear. His association with the activist Dulles brothers suggests that he may have been a significant force behind the scenes at critical points. Certainly he welcomed and publicly cheered for each successive move to strengthen South Vietnam and to enlarge American activities there. He was also one of the first U.S. officials to describe America's new relationship to South Vietnam as a "commitment."

    July 1956 was the due date for the elections called for under the Geneva Accords, but by then a confident Diem had publicly refused to accept these, on the ground that South Vietnam had never signed the Accords and was not bound by them. A more persuasive argument, urged on Diem by Secretary Dulles and endorsed at the time by at least one senator, John F. Kennedy, was that any semblance of free choice was impossible in the territories controlled by the Communist regime in North Vietnam. Hanoi sharply attacked Diem's decision, but could do nothing.

    Nixon came to Saigon again that July, to celebrate the second anniversary of Diem's taking charge. In the next four years, American aid to South Vietnam was massive and varied, Military equipment and training were provided to create a conventional defense force, organized in division units on the South Korean model, and designed to hold off a frontal attack from the North until help came. Large quantities of economic aid and training in public administration were also supplied. But the political situation was left almost entirely to Diem, who developed a system of personal rule, relying heavily on his brothers. It was apparent from an early stage that his regime was antagonizing Buddhists and other groups in Vietnam's varied society, and thus playing into the hands of the initially small Communist movement in the southern part of the country, but when a courageous American ambassador with experience in Communist situations, Elbridge Durbrow, tried to offer advice, Diem ignored him with impunity, believing rightly that the pliant American general in charge of military aid was the effective voice of Washington. This passive and acquiescent American posture probably had an important influence on Diem's later behavior and on his refusal to take American advice seriously. Again, just what part Nixon played in this American posture has not been revealed.

    Certainly the Eisenhower Administration saw its record in South Vietnam as a success story. When it invited Diem to Washington for a state visit in 1959, the exchange of statements was flowery--with the Vice President to the fore. In all, Nixon's record suggests that his sense of the need to support South Vietnam went beyond normal loyalty to Administration policy and took on a personal, almost evangelical character. Nixon had developed, as Stephen Ambrose concludes, "almost a lifelong commitment to saving the people of Indochina from Communism."

    In Laos, meanwhile, the Eisenhower Administration moved away from formal support of an unstable coalition regime, which had been prescribed in the 1954 Geneva Accords, and in 1960 gave its outright backing to a rightist general, Phoumi Nosavan. This set off a sharp conflict with "neutralist" forces, and by the end of the year small U.S. military detachments were in Laos supporting Phoumi's side. Wider hostilities seemed imminent.

    In South Vietnam, 1960 saw widespread terrorist activity and increasing small-scale actions by local Vietcong (Vietnamese Communist) forces and a tremor of instability in the form of all abortive coup against Diem in November by Air Force officers. Much more important, but then unknown to the American government or public, was a North Vietnamese move in May 1959, which most historians regard as the start of the Second Indochina War. Hanoi decided to turn up the pressure by supporting and directing the already sizable Vietcong guerrilla forces it had helped to create in South Vietnam. Trained cadres flowed across the porous border and down the blossoming supply trail through eastern Laos (the Ho Chi Minh Trail). American intelligence soon detected a Hanoi-led radio command network, but American policymakers only dimly grasped the scale of the North's intervention, The Lao Dong (Communist) Party in the North wanted total control of Indochina--a goal that was encouraged, but never directed, by the Communist regime in China, Thus, what appeared to the American public--even, apparently, to the two presidential candidates in 1960--as a fairly stable Indochina situation was in fact drifting badly

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