Nixon’s War 15

An allied force of twenty thousand men, supported by American aircraft, were attacking the two main North Vietnamese and Vietcong bases in Cambodia as Nixon spoke. The South Vietnamese had ini¬tially crossed the border two days before. The drive against COSVN, the Communist headquarters supposedly situated in the “Fish Hook,” turned out to be quixotic. Instead of the miniature Pentagon imagined by official U.S. spokesmen, American troops found a scattering of empty huts, their occupants having fled weeks before in anticipation of the assault. Meanwhile, Nixon’s claims of success for the campaign were debatable. As usual, the computers compiled impressive statistics of the enemy arms, ammunition, food and other supplies destroyed; and indeed the damage inflicted on the Communist logistical apparatus was a benefit, for it relieved the military pressure on the heavily populated region around Saigon, thereby giving the South Vietnamese a bit of additional time to prepare replacements for the withdrawing American troops.
But the triumph was temporary and, in long-range terms, illusory. The Communists were soon able to supplant their lost equipment from the vast stocks furnished by the Soviet Union and China. They also shifted their strategic focus to the northern provinces of South Vietnam, where they were to move toward the conventional conflict forecast by General Giap. More critically for the future, the United States was now going to be responsible for the flimsy Lon Nol regime in addition to propping up the shaky Saigon government. Nixon had promised only a couple of weeks earlier that “the just peace we are seeking” was in sight, yet he had expanded the war. The antiwar movement at home, which he had skillfully subdued, suddenly erupted again in the biggest protests to date.
A large proportion of the American people, traditionally loyal to the president in crucial moments, supported the Cambodian incur¬sions. But “opinion leaders” took a drastically different view. Press commentators lashed out at Nixon, the New York Times calling the action a “virtual renunciation” of his pledge to end the war and the Wall Street Journal warning against “deeper entrapment” in Southeast Asia. Educators, clergymen, lawyers, businessmen and others pro¬tested. Nixon’s secretary of the interior, Walter Hickel, publicly ob¬jected and was later fired, and more than two hundred State Department employees registered their dissatisfaction in a public pe¬tition. In many instances, top administration figures were stunned by the anguish of their children. A poignant scene occurred at the home of one senior official who had strenuously worked behind the scenes to prevent the Cambodian offensive. His two sons, unaware of their father’s exertions, denounced him over dinner—and walked out of the house.
Nixon went into a rampage even before the full storm of domestic opposition had burst, almost as if he relished the coming onslaught. At the Pentagon on the morning after the invasion, he interrupted a briefing and embarrassed the officers present by exhorting them in foul language to “blow the hell out” of the Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. Out in the corridor, he also uncorked a diatribe against antiwar students, whose fresh round of demonstrations had not yet even occurred. Not knowing that his remarks were being taped, he branded the youths as “bums blowing up campuses.” He later advised his staff on how to deal with congressional critics: “Don’t worry about divisiveness. Having drawn the sword, don’t take it out—stick it in hard. . . . Hit ’em in the gut. No defensiveness.”
Universities and colleges across the country were then seething over one issue or another, but Cambodia suddenly crystallized the unrest, and disaster struck at Kent State University in Ohio. There, as else¬where, antiwar students had attacked the reserve officers training building. Echoing Nixon’s inflammatory rhetoric, Governor James Rhodes assailed the rioters as “worse than the brownshirts” and vowed to “eradicate” them. He ordered national guardsmen onto the campus to impose order. On May 4, 1970, nettled by the demonstrators, they shot a volley of rifle fire into the crowd, killing four youths. The administration initially reacted to this event with wanton insensitivity. Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, whose statements were carefully programmed, referred to the deaths as a reminder that “when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.”
Kissinger was tom. On the one hand, he was chagrined by the resignation of fou,r of his aides, who urged him to quit as well. A group of Harvard colleagues also came to Washington to tell him personally of their revulsion, and he felt that the angry meeting marked his final rupture with the academic community. In an interview with me years later, he blamed Nixon for failing to find “the language of respect and compassion that might have created a bridge at least to the more reasonable elements of the antiwar movement.” But ac¬cording to Nixon’s recollections, Kissinger “took a particularly hard line” at the time, stressing that “we had to make it clear that our foreign policy was not made by street protests.” Roger Morris, one of the assistants who left his staff, recalled that Kissinger was chron¬ically alarmed by demonstrations, which summoned up the Nazi mobs of Germany during his childhood.
The Kent State killings sparked protests across the country. More than four hundred universities and colleges shut down as students and professors staged strikes, and nearly a hundred thousand demonstra¬tors marched on Washington, encircling the White House and other government buildings. The spectacle briefly sobered Nixon. One night, accompanied only by his valet, he drove to the Lincoln Me¬morial, where young dissidents were conducting a nocturnal vigil. He treated them to a clumsy and condescending monologue, which he made public in an awkward attempt to display his benevolence. But not long afterward, when several senators nearly succeeded in re-stricting his military activities in Cambodia, he decided to stop “screw¬ing around” with his congressional adversaries and other foes. He ordered the formation of a covert team headed by Tom Huston, a former army intelligence specialist, to improve the surveillance of domestic critics. During later investigations into Nixon’s alleged vi¬olations of the law, Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina called the Huston project evidence of a “Gestapo mentality,” and Huston himself warned Nixon that the internal espionage was illicit. Nixon afterward contended, however, that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
Nixon had campaigned for election on a pledge to “end the war and win the peace.” But after nearly a year and a half in office, he seemed to have gone in the opposite direction. He had extended the war beyond Vietnam into Cambodia, and he had brought the war home with greater intensity. And despite his pretension of toughness, he was not going to extricate himself without offering significant concessions to the Communists.

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