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Presidents at War: Nixon & Vietnam
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: July 1969, President Nixon’s first visit to South Vietnam as American commander-in-chief. (Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, Yorba Linda, CA.)


“The Nixon Era Begins” proclaimed the cover story of Life Magazine in January 1969 and as he took his first of two oaths of office as President of the United States. On the 20th he stated, “The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker. This honor now beckons America…this is our summons to greatness.”

According to Arianna Barrios-Lochrie, former Director of Communications for the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace at Yorba Linda, CA, “Achieving President Nixon’s quest for peace in Vietnam required a dual approach—he had to begin the process of ending the war, while uniting the nation behind his policy for achieving that goal. The war could not be won on the battlefield if it was being lost in the living rooms and the streets of America.

“The President had to move boldly to take control, to bring the American people firmly behind him if he was to have any hope of ending the war while winning the peace. He had to resist those on the left who wanted an immediate withdrawal, as well as those on the right who wanted an immediate escalation of the war.”

Before his sudden death on Apr. 12, 1945, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on record for ending French colonialism in what was then known as Indochina following the expulsion of the Imperial Japanese Army after V-J Day. He definitely did not favor the return of the French following the surrender of the Japanese, but wanted the unification and independence of a free Vietnam instead.

Upon his death, however, his Vice President, Harry S. Truman, acceded to the Oval Office and immediately reversed this policy, and ultimately the French Army returned to restore colonialism once more. In 1950, President Truman became the first American Chief Executive to send advisors to commit the US to aid the South Vietnamese puppet regime in Saigon.

His successor in turn—five-star General of the Army President Dwight D. Eisenhower—continued this commitment, but in 1954, following the catastrophic defeat of the French by the Communist Viet Minh forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and their subsequent withdrawal from Vietnam, the formula changed.

At the Geneva Accords meeting in Switzerland, North and South Vietnam were partitioned into two separate political entities, with Communist Ho Chi Minh in office in Hanoi and President Ngo Dinh Diem at Saigon in the South. By 1960, there were 685 non-combat US advisors in the South.

Notes the Nixon Library, “President (John F.) Kennedy was the third President to affirm our basic policy in Vietnam, but the first to expand it to a new, heightened level of commitment. He increased the number of US military combat advisors in South Vietnam to 16,000. The Kennedy Administration also committed a tragic blunder that forever changed the equation in Vietnam. “ On Nov. 1, 1963, a coup encouraged and supported by the Kennedy Administration led to the assassination of Diem. By participating in the removal of South Vietnam’s President, Kennedy had made the US directly responsible for the fate of South Vietnam. What had been Vietnam’s war became America’s war.” (A recent book from Oxford University Press—Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War by Howard Jones—discusses this aspect at length and well.)

Next, Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, escalated the American role to the level at which President Nixon found it in early 1969. Notes the Nixon Library, “Following overwhelming Congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (in August, 1964) which ratified his actions, Johnson began sustained bombing of North Vietnam, raised US troop levels to 200,000 by the end of 1965, and 540,000 by the end of 1968.”

As Vice President, Mr. Nixon had made his first trip to Vietnam in 1953 as part of an extensive Asian tour on behalf of President Eisenhower. He “came away convinced that the French failure to adequately train and inspire the Indochinese to defend themselves against Communist aggression would be their undoing. During 1961-68 he visited South Vietnam four times, once while this writer was serving there with the US Army in 1967.

States the Nixon Library, “Never criticizing US policy while abroad, he nevertheless raised serious reservations about it at home. He became convinced that the US was in danger of repeating the mistake made by the French—insufficient training of the South Vietnamese troops in defense of their country against Communist aggression. He also believed that the US could not prevail by pursuing a course of gradualism. The US policy of offering bombing halts in exchange for progress in negotiations only succeeded in convincing the North Vietnamese that American resolve was wavering.”

This was the policy then being advocated by the surviving Kennedy brothers in the US Senate, Robert and Edward; Sen. Robert Kennedy even naively advocated a “coalition government” that would somehow “share” power in Saigon with the Red Viet Cong.

In the 1968 Presidential campaign against Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota (whom I covered in 1972 as a Senator), candidate Nixon asserted in virtually every speech that the goal of his administration would be to “End the war and win the peace in Vietnam.”

Notes Ms. Barrios-Lochrie, “One of the enduring myths of the 1968 Presidential campaign is that the Republican nominee claimed to have a ‘secret plan’ to end the war. He never made such a claim.” Just before the election, President Johnson announced a bombing halt which many believed was designed to give HHH a last-minute boost at the polls; this was the famous “October surprise.”

It nearly succeeded, and the election turned out to be the closet in history to date at that time. Asserts the Library, “President-Elect Nixon was committed to ending the war in such a way that would guarantee freedom and security for South Vietnam, while maintaining America’s standing as a reliable ally on the world stage. He would enter office, however, hampered by LBJ’s bombing halt and by the peace negotiations in Paris, which were notable only for the propaganda points they earned for the North Vietnamese.”

It was now that the President and his hand-picked National Security Advisor---Dr. Henry A. Kissinger—began working together both in public and behind the scenes to bring the war to an end in a way that would ensure their mutual goal: “Peace With Honor.” (Details on these negotiations can be found in the President’s 1978 work RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon and Dr. Kissinger’s three-volume series of books: White House Years (1979), Years of Upheaval (1982), and Years of Renewal (1999).

From the start, RN and HAK established a two-tiered system of operations between them: officially using the US State Department headed by Secretary of State William Rogers and unofficially using “back-channel” negotiating tracks when and wherever they could.

In March 1969, Nixon ordered military action to clean out staging and supply areas being used in Cambodia to launch attacks on American troops. These unannounced bombing runs were not only a military success, but shortly after the first such attack took place, the North Vietnamese acted on the President’s proposal to initiate a secret negotiating channel, according to the Library.

In July 1969 on Guam, the President outlined what became known as the “Nixon Doctrine,” a vision for the US role in Asia after the war in Vietnam had been concluded. It declared that the US would honor its commitments in Asia by furnishing arms and aid, but not US ground troops, against direct or indirect Communist aggression.

Early in 1969 the President also announced his policy of “Vietnamization,” Notes Ms. Barrios-Lochrie, “This policy, mocked by many on the left who believed the South Vietnamese were unwilling or unable to fight Communist aggression, called for the training and equipping of a South Vietnamese Army which could stand up to the Soviet-trained and supplied North Vietnamese forces.

“The President tied American troop withdrawals to the success of Vietnamization. During his first term, President Nixon brought home more than 90% of our troops. The ability of the South Vietnamese troops was proven in combat. To the surprise of critics, the South Vietnamese fought bravely and well.

“After the US withdrew, even though the US Congress had drastically cut all aid to South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese troops were able to fend off the Soviet-backed North for nearly two years.”

Despite the RN-HAK “off the record” talks with the North Vietnamese during 1969-72, the enemy constantly tested the President’s resolve in dealing with them. Notes the Library, “In the spring of 1972, they launched a major military action, which coincided with a sudden lack of progress in the secret talks. The Communists were gambling that the President would not want to risk undermining his upcoming summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. They were wrong.

“President Nixon responded to the North Vietnamese action by bombing military targets in the capital of Vietnam—Hanoi—and mining the port city of Haiphong.”

There was another aspect to the equation, what later historians have called Nixon’s “madman theory.” Dr. Kissinger let it be known to his North Vietnamese counterpart negotiators that it was all that he could do to “restrain that madman Nixon” from dropping the atomic bomb in Vietnam. They recalled in horror that he had, indeed, as Vice President, urged President Eisenhower to do just that to prevent the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and that Ike himself had threatened the same thing if the North Koreans hadn’t signed the armistice concluding the Korean War at Panmunjom in 1953.

The North Vietnamese tried to torpedo the peace negotiations again in Paris in December, 1972 when RN responded with what has become known as “the Christmas bombing” of North Vietnam. The enemy returned to the peace table and the peace agreement was signed on Jan. 27, 1973.

As one POW said of the Christmas bombing, “When we heard the heavy bombs impacting in Hanoi, we started to go and pack our bags, because we knew we were going home, and we were going home with honor.” In 1970 President Nixon asserted, “We will not rest until every prisoner has returned to his family and the missing have been accounted for.” When he took office in 1969, 328 Americans were being held as POWs by North Vietnam.

The peace agreement signed on Jan. 27, 1973 brought these POWs back home; some of them had been in captivity more than eight years. Notes Ms. Barrios-Lochrie, “On May 24, 1973, the President and Mrs. Nixon hosted the largest sit-down dinner ever served at the White House for the returned prisoners and their families—over 1,300 people…The President was presented with a plaque by the men: ‘Our leader, our comrade, Richard the Lion-Hearted.’”

Stated Brig. Gen. John P. Flynt of the US Air Force at the dinner, “Sir, I would like to state for all of us that we never lost faith in your integrity or your courage or the courage of our people in the country, or of our (armed) services.”

Aside from the strictly “war in Vietnam,” RN and HAK had that “other” war—in Cambodia—also to consider, as the two were linked. Throughout 1969-70, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was making increasing use of so-called “ sanctuaries” in Cambodia, both to supply their troops in the field and as staging areas for offensives into South Vietnam. Communist violations of Cambodia’s sovereignty had begun as early as 1965.

Early in 1969, the new President ordered “unannounced bombing runs” into Cambodia to weaken the enemy’s supply routes and storage areas. While this action met with substantial success, it became clear that a more intensive operation would be needed to counteract North Vietnam’s massive abuse of Cambodian neutrality to support its war machine.

On Apr. 30, 1970, President Nixon announced to the nation the beginning of an operation to “clean out” enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia so they could not be used to prolong the war through further aggression in South Vietnam. Notes Ms. Barrios-Lochrie, “The President assured the nation that this was not an invasion of Cambodia” (precisely how it was, in fact, viewed on most American college campuses at the time, however). “Only areas occupied and controlled by the North Vietnamese would be attacked by the joint American-South Vietnamese force” of what came to be called “the incursion.”

By the time the action concluded on June 30th, “Huge supplies of arms, equipment, ammunition, and food had been captured. This included a year’s supply of ammunition, nearly 23,000 rifles and machine guns; more than 2,500 heavy mortars and rocket launchers, and over 14 million pounds of rice. In all, almost as much was captured in Cambodia in the first month of the operation than had been taken in all of Vietnam in 1969. The Communists had to scrap their plans for a spring offensive.”

The US withdrew its forces in 1973 and the Saigon regime collapsed two years later, in April, 1975. Since then, “More people have died under a Communist peace than were lost in the entire 25-year course of the war itself,” according to the Nixon Library. “The tragic evidence of the ‘boat people’ of Vietnam (attempting to escape) and the killing fields of Cambodia—where two million people were killed by the Communist Khmer Rouge—speaks to the horrors of the Communist tyranny and vindicates the nobility of our cause in Vietnam.”

It is the still asserted view of the Nixonian partisans that the late President did all he could to assure “ Peace with Honor” by means both public and secret, while he was in office, and afterwards as well.

States Ms. Barrios-Lochrie, “The responsibility for the ultimate failure of this policy lies not with the men who fought, but with those in the Congress who broke faith with the brave soldiers---Americans and South Vietnamese—who sacrificed so much for peace and freedom in Vietnam.”

In his book No More Vietnams —which he dedicated to those who served—former President Nixon wrote, “No more Vietnams can mean that we will not try again. It should mean that we will not fail again.”

That is, perhaps, a fitting epitaph for the late President, who died at age 81 in 1994 of a stroke. …

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* Presidents at War: Nixon & Vietnam


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