Robert Kaiser '64 on "The Disaster of Richard Nixon"
The Disaster of Richard Nixon
Robert G. Kaiser
The New York Review of Books
April 21, 2016
Being Nixon: A Man Divided
by Evan Thomas
Random House, 619 pp., $35.00
Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection
by Ken Hughes
University of Virginia Press, 273 pp., $24.95
Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War
by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball
University Press of Kansas, 455 pp., $39.95
One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon
by Tim Weiner
Henry Holt, 369 pp., $30.00
In the course of his twenty-eight years in politics and twenty more in active retirement, Richard M. Nixon uttered a great many dubious propositions. None was less accurate than the words he spoke on November 7, 1962 — the day after he lost the governorship of California to Edmund S. Brown, two years after losing the presidency to John F. Kennedy: “Just think of how much you’re going to be missing,” he told reporters gathered for what he billed as his last press conference. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
A flawed prognostication. The critics who first found fault with Nixon’s 1946 red-baiting campaign against Democratic congressman Jerry Voorhis of California have been disparaging him ever since. Reading these books twenty-one years after his death, one realizes that finding fault with Nixon still has a future. It may never end. Thanks to his gross abuses of presidential power symbolized by the Watergate scandal and to his own decision to record the details of his presidency on tape, Nixon seems destined to remain an object of fascination, amazement, scorn, and disgust for as long as historians pay attention to the American presidency. When the subject matter is their foreign policy, Nixon’s sidekick, Henry A. Kissinger, will be right there beside him.
Is Nixon’s historical reputation doomed forever? These books suggest that it is. Evan Thomas’s highly readable Being Nixon is, inadvertently, the most persuasive. Thomas set out to write a sympathetic account of Nixon’s life. He is persistently empathetic to his subject, but he is also a fine reporter and biographer (of Robert F. Kennedy, Edward Bennett Williams, John Paul Jones, and others). The good reporter gives his readers so many details of Nixon’s bad behavior that Thomas’s intention to write a sympathetic account collapses under the weight of its own facts. You can feel sorry for Nixon as a human being after reading Thomas’s book, but it is much harder to excuse his repeated transgressions — of ethical standards, of the law, of democratic values — and his quite abject reliance on alcohol and drugs. Thomas bends over too far in his effort to forgive Nixon’s misdeeds, particularly his Vietnam disaster and his ugly racial politics.
The other books in this collection of recent works are openly hostile to Nixon (Tim Weiner and Ken Hughes) or subtly devastating (William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball). Weiner, a former New York Times reporter and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, focuses on Vietnam and Watergate; he uses many of the most recently released tape transcripts and documents to give his version of these familiar stories new energy and salience, but his well-paced narratives of both stories don’t break much new ground. Hughes, a good researcher but inelegant writer who has been studying the Nixon tapes since 2000 at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, doesn’t hide his personal anger at Nixon and Kissinger for prolonging the Vietnam War when, according to the evidence of the tapes, they realized it couldn’t be won. He indicts them for sacrificing tens of thousands of American lives and over a million Asian ones to a lost cause. But Hughes oversimplifies when he claims that, almost entirely owing to political calculations, the war had to continue beyond November 1972, or Nixon could not win reelection. Burr and Kimball make more nuanced use of the same material.
Vietnam was the defining issue of Nixon’s presidency, as he knew it would be. Months before he became president, Nixon assured H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, his closest aide, that “I’m not going to end up like LBJ, Bob, holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face on the street. I’m going to stop that war. Fast.” Antiwar protesters had driven Lyndon Johnson into early retirement, which allowed Nixon to become president. Nixon played to the country’s war weariness in his 1968 campaign, implying that he had a plan to end the war.
But he had no plan. Ironically, even before he took office Nixon personally sabotaged an opportunity he might have had to avoid Johnson’s fate. The books under review suggest that this is one of the stories that will continue to stain Nixon’s reputation.
In late October 1968, when Johnson’s negotiators in Paris finally reached an agreement with North Vietnam to end American bombing and begin negotiations on a political settlement, Nixon took an enormous personal risk to derail the peace talks before they could begin. At the time, polls showed that Hubert H. Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent and Johnson’s vice-president, was rising fast — so fast that Nixon feared he might lose the presidency because of the peace deal. So he performed a dirty trick that foreshadowed many more to come.
For months Nixon had worried about a last-minute deal, or appearance of a deal, that would boost Humphrey. In July he opened his own channel to Nguyen Van Thieu, the president of South Vietnam. As his intermediaries to Thieu Nixon chose his campaign manager, the New York attorney John Mitchell, and Anna Chennault, the exotic, Chinese-born widow of Claire Chennault, a former US Air Force general who led the Chinese Nationalist air force during World War II. In a secret meeting (Nixon loved secret meetings) in Mitchell’s New York office with Chennault and Bui Diem, Thieu’s ambassador to the United States, Nixon explained that when he had a message for Thieu, he would give it to Chennault, who would convey it to the ambassador to forward to Saigon.
In September the Nixon campaign learned that something big would soon be announced from Paris. Haldeman wrote a memo to Nixon on September 17, 1968 saying that he learned from a source that Johnson would likely announce a halt in the bombing campaign in mid-October. In a diary entry of January 13, 1972, Haldeman identified this source as Kissinger, recording that “We’ve got to remember he [Kissinger] leaked things to us in ’68.” Kissinger at the time was a Harvard professor busily cultivating relationships with both the Humphrey and Nixon camps, apparently hoping for a big job in Washington whoever won the White House that year. Kissinger had been a consultant to the US delegation, although he wasn’t directly involved in the negotiations when he visited Paris in September 1968. Richard Holbrooke, a member of the delegation, said that “Henry was the only person outside the government we were authorized to discuss the negotiations with.”
On October 31, the day Johnson announced the suspension of bombing of North Vietnam and the imminent beginning of peace negotiations, Mitchell called Chennault, said he was speaking “on behalf of Mr. Nixon,” and told her it was “very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position” — that Thieu should wait for a better deal from Nixon. The same afternoon the FBI watched Chennault pay a call on Bui Diem, Thieu’s ambassador. A National Security Agency listening device in Thieu’s Saigon office heard him tell aides that Nixon wanted him to wait for the next president to take office. Thieu did refuse to send negotiators, and no peace talks began. Nixon won the election by a whisker — a popular vote margin of 0.7 percent, though he won in the electoral college more easily.
LBJ was livid; he thought Nixon had violated the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for private citizens to interfere with official diplomacy. Aides talked Johnson out of making public what he knew about Nixon’s secret maneuverings, much of it based on wiretaps. LBJ believed that Nixon subverted any chance for peace before he left office.
There is no persuasive evidence that peace talks would have succeeded; but Nixon’s presidency began with a newly incurred political debt to Thieu, and with no prospect of an early exit from the war, which Nixon said privately was unwinnable. “There’s no way to win the war,” he told his own speechwriters months earlier. “But we can’t say that, of course. In fact, we have to seem to say the opposite, just to keep some degree of bargaining leverage.”
Richard Nixon: “I’m probably the toughest guy that’s been in this office since — probably since Theodore Roosevelt.”
Henry Kissinger: “No question.”
—White House conversation, June 30, 1971
The most revealing of the newest books is Nixon’s Nuclear Specter by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball. It is better than its awkward title and subtitle. Burr and Kimball neatly recreate the Vietnam dilemma that Nixon and Kissinger confronted: they couldn’t win, but they couldn’t face losing. Nixon’s Nuclear Specter is a detailed and careful account of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s fruitless efforts during 1969 to find an “honorable” way out of Vietnam. As events that year unfolded, these authors demonstrate, honor had little to do with it.
Nixon’s one big idea for resolving the dilemma was to scare his Communist adversaries into making an acceptable deal to end the war. This is how he explained it to Haldeman, as reported by Haldeman in his book The Ends of Power (1978) and cited by Burr and Kimball:
They’ll believe any threat of force that Nixon makes because it’s Nixon…. I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t constrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button”…and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.
Nixon and Kissinger mobilized an extraordinary combination of unpublicized threats and unannounced acts of violence to pursue this chimera. The bluntest was the bombing of Vietcong and North Vietnamese base areas in Cambodia, near the border with South Vietnam, a huge military campaign in March 1969 that, amazingly, remained a secret for many months. Nixon tried to send “Madman” signals, particularly to Moscow but also to Hanoi and Peking, as it then was called, by multiple means. One was a personal letter to Ho Chi Minh to be delivered by Jean Sainteny, a Frenchman who had personal ties to Vietnam’s leaders. Nixon asked Sainteny to act as his envoy.
The letter that Sainteny delivered to a North Vietnamese official in Paris was a respectful plea to accelerate negotiations and “bring the blessings of peace to the brave people of Vietnam….” But Sainteny was instructed to accompany Nixon’s letter with a threatening verbal message setting a deadline of November 1 for reaching an agreement — the first anniversary of Johnson’s bombing halt. If “no valid solution has been reached” by then, Sainteny was to warn, “he [Nixon] will regretfully find himself obliged to have recourse to measures of great consequence and force.” Kissinger repeated similar language in a secret meeting in Paris with the North Vietnamese. All this had no visible effect on Hanoi’s behavior.
Nixon and Kissinger could not get a helpful reaction from the Russians or the Chinese, either. In the spring of 1969, Kissinger had tried using the threat to impress Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, to no effect.
Nixon and Kissinger both had high hopes for diplomacy with the two great Communist powers, the Soviet Union and China. Nixon’s boldest, most creative idea was to finally recognize “Red China,” “pulling it back into the world community,” as he wrote in 1967, and also as a way to exploit the Sino–Soviet split, put pressure on the Soviets, and restore America’s global primacy. Both men thought there was a good opportunity to negotiate meaningful limits on the nuclear arms race with Moscow. But a principal goal of their diplomacy was also to find a way out of Vietnam, and they hoped to scare or persuade the Communist powers to help by pressuring North Vietnam to make a deal. They never got such help.
The secret bombing of Cambodia, launched in March 1969 — advocated by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Earle Wheeler, endorsed by Kissinger, and embraced by Nixon — was their first attempt to impress the North Vietnamese with their seriousness of purpose. Over the subsequent four years American bombers dropped nearly 2.8 million tons of ordnance on Cambodian territory, a huge quantity, but North Vietnam never acknowledged that it knew this bombardment was occurring.
Kissinger, according to Burr and Kimball, favored a further escalation of the war with an aggressive bombing campaign against the North in 1969. Nixon authorized planning for such a campaign. Kissinger’s staff and Pentagon officials conceived Operation Duck Hook to be executed in October, shortly before Nixon’s November 1 deadline. In addition, the navy conducted exercises off the coast of North Vietnam that Nixon hoped Hanoi would interpret as practice for the mining of Haiphong harbor. Quite amazingly, Nixon and Kissinger, according to documents cited by Burr and Kimball, also ordered an unannounced, worldwide nuclear alert: an elaborate military exercise that put US strategic forces — missiles, missile-carrying submarines, and bombers — in a position of high readiness, as though the US was preparing to launch a nuclear attack.
These details were particularly fascinating for me because, as a young correspondent in Vietnam for most of 1969 and 1970, I knew nothing about any of this secret maneuvering. In early March 1969, I had stopped in Paris on my way to Saigon to meet with American officials who participated in the peace talks, Holbrooke among them. They told me how lucky I was to be getting to Vietnam just in time to witness the war’s last act.
My first months in Vietnam were dominated by “Vietnamization,” a plan conceived by Melvin Laird, Nixon’s politically astute secretary of defense. Laird’s priority was bringing American troops home. Vietnamization meant turning the fighting over to the South Vietnamese army and hoping for the best as Americans withdrew. By early 1970 an American force that peaked at about 540,000 had shrunk by 115,000, with more reductions promised. Bringing troops home was popular in the US, probably reducing the public pressure on Nixon to end the war.
Initially Vietnamization went smoothly. Communist forces inside South Vietnam, severely depleted by losses suffered in the Tet Offensive of January–February 1968, and another offensive in May, could not immediately exploit American withdrawals. In 1969, the South Vietnamese held their own in a quieter war. A weaker enemy also enabled the American-sponsored pacification program to bring a growing portion of the population under government control, especially in the populous Mekong Delta, where Vietcong — the local Communists — nearly disappeared in late 1969.
The earnest Americans tasked with pacification allowed themselves to become hopeful. I wrote a series of articles about them for The Washington Post that fall called “The New Optimists.” I described their hopefulness, but noted that none of them spoke of winning the war. The smartest American advisers realized that pacification could not create victory; winning would eventually require defeating an effective North Vietnamese army that had thousands of men inside South Vietnam, and tens of thousands more on its periphery in Cambodia and Laos. These were the troops that ultimately won the war.
The account of Burr and Kimball startled me by suggesting how little attention Nixon and Kissinger paid to pacification or Vietnamization. The war I was covering was largely separate from the war they were waging. Pacification and Vietnamization were delaying tactics; they knew they needed a deal with Hanoi — what they called “a political solution” — to end the war. Hence the secret bombing and threats. The trouble was, they had no apparent impact in Moscow, Peking, or Hanoi. As Nixon’s Nuclear Specter makes clear, by the end of 1969 the masters of American foreign policy had not managed to convince the targets of their strategy to make the deal they sought.
Their decision to withdraw American troops spoke louder than Nixon’s vague threat of “measures of great consequence and force.” We have no reliable account of North Vietnamese deliberations, but the growing antiwar movement in the United States seems to have impressed Hanoi more than the mining exercise in the Gulf of Tonkin. In a memo to Nixon on September 10, Kissinger acknowledged that antiwar protests and troop withdrawals encouraged Hanoi “to wait us out,” and admitted the weakness of Thieu and the South Vietnamese army. Kissinger initially wanted Duck Hook to go forward to “jar” the North Vietnamese into negotiating a deal.
But by October Nixon had lost his stomach for escalation. His secretaries of state and defense, William Rogers and Laird, might resign in protest, he feared, and the huge antiwar protests that fall seem to have scared him. Nixon called off Duck Hook.
The nuclear alert did go forward, beginning on October 13. Apparently, according to Burr and Kimball, the Russians barely noticed. They describe Nixon’s and especially Kissinger’s excitement when Dobrynin called on October 17 to request a meeting with Nixon. Kissinger told Laird that Dobrynin’s call suggested that the alert “seems to be working.” Haldeman recorded in his diary: “K thinks this is good chance of being the big break, but that it will come in stages. P [Nixon] is more skeptical.”
The excitement soon faded. When Dobrynin came to the White House, the alert was not mentioned. “The toughest guy [in the Oval Office] since TR” had prepared for a showdown with Dobrynin. Kissinger had advised him that the purpose of the meeting “will be to keep the Soviets concerned about what we might do around 1 November.” But Nixon, according to Burr and Kimball, “failed to frighten or intimidate the veteran statesman Dobrynin.” He rambled; he lost his temper; he complained that both North Vietnam and the Soviet Politburo were trying to “break” him; he was, by Dobrynin’s account, nervous and sometimes agitated.
Nixon did remember at one point to warn that “the United States would have to pursue its own methods for bringing the war to an end” if talks failed. But he ended by saying that if Hanoi continued to restrain its forces in the South, the US would reciprocate by taking no new offensive action — hardly a threat. Later that night, he instructed Kissinger to call Dobrynin back to the White House and scare him. Kissinger ignored the order.
Reporting this conversation to Moscow, Dobrynin observed that Nixon lacked emotional self-control. “The main thing now for him…is to end the war in Vietnam, everything else is secondary,” Dobrynin concluded. “The fate of his predecessor Lyndon Johnson is beginning to really worry him. Apparently, this is taking on such an emotional coloration that Nixon is unable to control himself even in a conversation with a foreign ambassador.”
The utter failure of the threats of 1969 to persuade Hanoi to compromise left Nixon and Kissinger with few cards to play. Their fallback position was one that Kissinger had discussed in academic settings as early as 1967, and that he and Nixon realized from the beginning might have to be their policy. This was the so-called decent-interval solution — making a deal with Hanoi providing for complete American withdrawal (and return of all US POWs). In return, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong would agree not to try to conquer South Vietnam for a brief period — “say eighteen months or some period,” Kissinger told Zhou En-lai in an after-dinner conversation on his first secret visit to Peking in July 1971 (which did not appear in Kissinger’s subsequent published account of the meeting).
Kissinger had offered this solution to Dobrynin four months after Nixon took office, on May 14, 1969. Dobrynin’s report on this meeting suggests that Kissinger’s message surprised him. “Nixon is even prepared to accept any political system in South Vietnam, ‘provided [here Dobrynin is quoting Kissinger] there is a fairly reasonable interval between conclusion of an agreement and such a system’ ” coming into being. From this evidence, both the Soviets and the Chinese knew that Nixon was ready to betray Thieu if he got a face-saving peace agreement.
The two men running US policy neither told members of Congress nor informed the American public that this was their position; nor did they tell President Thieu about it. Perhaps these choices were also sensible, given the absence of practical alternatives, but choosing them and then omitting later comment on them — as both did in books they published years later — will leave them vulnerable when future generations of historians address these events.
As a practical matter, the problem with the decent-interval strategy was the implicit requirement that North Vietnam agree to it. Though Nixon did launch unilateral withdrawals with Vietnamization, he rejected walking away from South Vietnam — what he called the “bug out” option. He wanted Hanoi to collaborate on the decent interval to give him political cover and allow him to claim that he found the long-promised “honorable” end to the war. Not surprisingly given both their history and Nixon’s, the North Vietnamese said openly that they did not trust or believe him. The result was more war.
Toward the end of 1970, his frustrations again mounting, Nixon considered simply announcing the total withdrawal of American troops by the end of the following year. On December 15, 1970, Haldeman recorded a memorable conversation with Kissinger:
He [Kissinger] thinks that any pullout next year would be a serious mistake, because the adverse reaction to it could set in well before the ’72 elections. He favors instead a continued winding-down and then a pullout right at the fall of ’72 so that if any bad results follow, they’ll be too late to affect the election.
Kissinger, the diplomatic expert, had here become a political adviser giving guidance to Nixon on his reelection campaign. Whether because of Kissinger’s advice or his own calculations, Nixon did not pursue the idea of getting out in 1971.
Prolonging the war was an expensive choice. More than 21,000 Americans died in Vietnam after Nixon became president, more than a third of our total losses in the war. Tens of thousands more were wounded. But Americans suffered the least; hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives were lost after 1969. The bombing of Cambodia, and then Nixon’s 1970 invasion in search of a target that never really existed, the “Central Office for South Vietnam,” COSVN, which US intelligence thought was a field headquarters for the Vietcong, contributed to the destabilization of Cambodia.
The March 1970 coup that ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the skillful Cambodian leader who had preserved his country’s independence and neutrality in a dangerous neighborhood, brought on more instability, encouraged by Nixon and Kissinger’s policy of supporting the creation of a large new Cambodian army under the coup’s leader, Lon Nol. That army never proved effective, and Lon Nol’s bumbling government could not cope with the chaos created by the widening war inside Cambodia that Nixon promoted. The Khmer Rouge rebels who started out as a small band opposing Sihanouk exploited that chaos. By 1975 they took over the country, and eventually killed some two million Cambodians.
The bombing of Cambodia was part of a failed effort to avoid what ultimately could not be avoided: the reunification of Vietnam. For more than four years Nixon and Kissinger looked desperately for a way to salvage the American commitment in South Vietnam and minimize the repercussions of losing the war. But they did so cynically, clumsily, and ultimately forlornly. Robert Dallek captured the essence of their Vietnam policy in two words: “a disaster.”
The disaster extended to Nixon’s presidency. In Haldeman’s memorable statement, “Without the Vietnam war, there would have been no Watergate.” Haldeman used the term not to describe just the break-in at the Democratic National Committee, but more broadly to cover all the craziness that John Mitchell memorably called “the White House horrors.” Haldeman realized how the war poisoned Nixon’s presidency. As Carl Bernstein wrote in a review of the books by Thomas and Wiener, “Vietnam and Watergate are inextricably linked in the Nixon presidency. They are an intertwined tale — one story — of sordid abuse of presidential power, vengeance, cynicism, and lawlessness.” The connection between Vietnam and Watergate is often missed. Thomas ignores it; Weiner doesn’t, but he makes too little of it.
Deceit and disregard for the law were the common threads. The abuses that constituted Watergate began with events tied to the Vietnam war: first was the attempt to sabotage LBJ’s peace talks in October 1968. In 1969 came the secret bombing of Cambodia and the wiretapping of reporters and White House aides, provoked by a leak to The New York Times about the secret bombing. Then the break-in at the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the war. The Huston Plan, drawn up by a White House aide in 1970 and approved by Nixon, proposed break-ins and black-bag jobs aimed at radicals, especially anti-Vietnam activists. The plan was rescinded, but many were kept under surveillance. Nixon explicitly ratified the use of illegal break-ins when he ordered aides to “blow the safe” at the Brookings Institution in Washington in search of Vietnam secrets from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. That order was also never carried out, but soon after Nixon issued it, Mitchell and others came up with the idea of breaking into the Democratic committee offices. Ultimately, deceit and lawlessness forced Nixon from office, and sent twenty-two of his colleagues to jail.
We have learned more about the Nixon presidency than about any other, but, astoundingly, there is much more to come. Nearly 2,700 hours of Nixon tapes have been released, but 774 hours more are still being withheld for various reasons. So are hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million pages of White House documents. Some of this material is still classified; some involves personal records of the Nixon family; some is being withheld without explanation. Eventually everything will come out, assuring that Nixon will live on as the subject of new books with new revelations. None of this seems likely to be exculpatory.