Nixon’s War 3

Humphrey’s supporters have contended for years that the Demo¬crats would have beaten Nixon had Johnson adopted a moderate po¬sition earlier. After all, Nixon and his running mate, Governor Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland, were to nose out Humphrey and his vice- presidential candidate, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, by only a half million votes—less than a 1 percent difference. But Nixon would have won by a larger margin if not for the third candidate in the race, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, who also appealed to hard¬line opinion.
Republican aspirants for the presidency had smelled blood late in 1967, when the public’s impatience with Johnson’s conduct of the war eroded his popularity. Governor George Romney of Michigan, the first Republican to enter the presidential contest formally, vowed to extricate the United States out of Vietnam with its reputation intact, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York echoed the same theme. Nixon, striving to match their promises, similarly emphasized during the primary campaigns that, if elected, he would “end the war and win the peace. ” One day in March 1968, after Nixon had addressed an audience of New Hampshire textile workers, a rookie wire-service reporter put a jazzy lead on his account of the routine speech. Nixon, he wrote, possessed a “secret plan” for Vietnam.
The sensational dispatch hit television screens that evening and newspaper headlines the following morning, and it eventually became a historical fact. But it was a canard. As Nixon himself promptly disclosed, he had no plan for Vietnam—secret or otherwise. He was then only pondering an “approach” derived from his experience dur¬ing the Eisenhower administration.
Having observed Johnson’s futile escalations, candidate Nixon ruled out a “military victory” in Vietnam. But, as he later put it, he had no intention of becoming “the first president of the United States to lose a war.” He figured instead that he could scare the North Viet¬namese into submission by borrowing a tactic devised by Eisenhower at the beginning of 1953. In Korea at that time, the Chinese and Korean Communists were simultaneously talking and fighting—deliberately stalling at the conference table while they strived to improve their stance on the battlefield. Eisenhower hinted through intermediaries that he might resort to atomic weapons unless the negotiations moved forward, and the prospects for an armistice quickly brightened. Now, with the discussions in Paris languishing, Nixon reckoned that he could emulate his former boss. As he explained the idea to Haldeman, he would threaten the North Vietnamese with annihilation.
I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that 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 Communists. We can’t restrain 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.
As he toyed with the notion, Nixon also contemplated the possi¬bilities of persuading the Soviet Union and perhaps even China to press North Vietnam to acquiesce to an acceptable solution of the war. In a radio speech that he had intended to deliver on the evening of March 31—then canceled because Lyndon Johnson announced his re¬tirement that night—he wrote that “if the Soviets were disposed to see the war ended and a compromise settlement negotiated, they have the means to move Ho Chi Minh to the conference table.” Now he estimated that he could make it worth their while to intercede on his behalf.
It took no particular prescience to surmise that the Soviet Union was fed up with the war. Its massive aid program to North Vietnam, a region outside its true realm of interest, was draining its domestic economy. Besides, the conflict was botching Soviet hopes of im¬proving relations with the United States. But like America, the Soviet Union was mired in Southeast Asia for essentially symbolic reasons. To abandon their Vietnamese comrades would expose the Soviets to charges, especially from their Chinese rivals, of betraying the world¬wide struggle against “U.S. imperialism.” Nixon estimated, there¬fore, that they would jump at the opportunity to help him make peace. Moreover, he would induce them to cooperate with such advantages as modern technology, wheat and an agreement to harness strategic nuclear weapons—all more vital to basic Soviet needs than Vietnam. Cooperation, however, would have to be global; the Russians could not expect arms control or trade unless they contributed to reducing tensions in other areas, like the Middle East, Berlin and Vietnam. Nixon called the concept “linkage.”
As for a Chinese connection, Nixon had long been toying with a somewhat different view. He had once been the darling of Chiang Kai-shek; indeed, he had made a fool of himself during his televised debates with John F. Kennedy in 1960 by arguing that the Nationalist- held islands of Quemoy and Matsu were crucial to U.S. security. But he had matured by late 1967, when he wrote in Foreign Affairs that Communist China could no longer be left “forever outside the family of nations … to live in angry isolation. ” A year later, with the Sino-Soviet dispute heating up, he began to perceive that Mao Zedong might be receptive to a rapprochement with America as a counterweight to the Russians. Triangular diplomacy would give both the United States and China added leverage in their dealings with the Soviet Union. And here, too, Nixon anticipated that the Chinese might reciprocate by persuading their Vietnamese allies to compromise.

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