Nixon’s War 6

Kissinger, like Nixon, believed that the war had to be ended “hon¬orably” for the sake of America’s global prestige. Like Nixon, more¬over, he was not averse to deploying force to compel the North Vietnamese to acquiesce. But they differed in at least two important respects at the start of their liaison. Though he subscribed to Nixon’s “linkage” concept, Kissinger seemed to be less sanguine than was his boss about the ability or willingness of the Soviet leaders to persuade Ho Chi Minh to be compliant. Indeed, he was wary of exerting too much pressure on the Soviets, lest their cooperation on Vietnam be¬come a precondition to the resolution of such cosmic problems as the control of nuclear arms. Nor did Kissinger and Nixon share the same hopes for South Vietnam’s ultimate fate. Perhaps, as presidents do, Nixon mused on his place in history—or he may have feared a revival of the “who-lost-China” squabble that had caused such an upheaval in American politics during the 1950s. So, while he ruled out victory in Vietnam, he also refused to contemplate defeat, and he envisioned a durable peace rather than just an armistice. Kissinger, by contrast, merely hoped for an agreement that would give the Saigon govern¬ment a “reasonable” chance to survive—a “decent interval,” as he later said privately.
No sooner was he installed in the White House than Kissinger directed his staff to canvass American officials in Washington and Saigon for their appraisals of the prospects for Vietnam. The bundle of confidential reports, like similar surveys conducted over the years, revealed sharp divergences. Senior officers asserted that the South Vietnamese army was making “rapid strides,” while civilian analysts doubted that the Saigon leadership would “ever constitute an effective political or military counter to the Vietcong.” Pentagon and CIA experts disputed the size of the Communist force in the south, and the contributors to the study were deeply divided over the value of the bombing of North Vietnam that Johnson had stopped. Nobody, however, discerned much light at the end of the tunnel. The “bulls” judged from their computers that it would take 8.3 years for the Saigon regime to gain the allegiance of some four million South Vietnamese living in enemy or contested areas; the “bears” foresaw that objective attainable in 13.4 years.
An introduction to the massive document, written by one of Kis¬singer’s assistants, underlined its “emphatic differences”—and that was the artful aim of the exercise. Kissinger had deliberately had the disparate estimates compiled in order to dramatize to Nixon the di¬visions among the Vietnam specialists. Implicitly, Nixon could now feel free to act without reference to the bureaucrats, and he did. His first target was Cambodia.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the Cambodian ruler, was acutely con¬scious of his uncomfortable location: flanked by Vietnam and Thai¬land, hated neighbors that had invaded Cambodia time and again through the centuries. He was continually contriving schemes to pre¬serve his nation’s fragile neutrality. In 1954, after wangling inde¬pendence from France, he bid for American protection. When the United States swung its weight behind South Vietnam, he shifted toward China and later broke the American connection completely. Gradually, expecting the Vietnamese Communists to prevail, he con¬sented to allowing them supply routes and bases in the Cambodian frontier zone near South Vietnam; the Chinese, he calculated, would restrain them from violating his sovereignty. But by late 1967, his maneuvers were faltering. China had sunk into the isolation of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces, bracing for the Tet offensive, were building up inside Cam¬bodia. And General Westmoreland was pressing President Johnson to approve American ground assaults against the enemy’s Cambodian sanctuaries.
At that juncture, Sihanouk began to switch again by repairing his diplomatic relations with the United States. He invited Jacqueline Kennedy to visit Cambodia’s wondrous Angkor temples, welcoming her with all the panoply accorded a state dignitary. Then, in an in¬terview with me published in the Washington Post on December 29, 1967, he advanced a formula to discourage the Vietnamese Com¬munists, deflate Westmoreland and minimize the encroachments on Cambodian territory: he would grant the United States the right of “hot pursuit” against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong in Cam¬bodia—as long as no Cambodians were harmed. He also suggested that President Johnson send a special envoy to Cambodia to discuss the situation, mentioning Senator Mike Mansfield, “a just and cou¬rageous man whom we consider a friend.” Desperately striving to prevent Cambodia from becoming a battlefield, Sihanouk said: “We are a country caught between the hammer and the anvil, a country that would very much like to remain the last haven of peace in South¬east Asia.”
In January 1968, an official American mission arrived in Phnome- penh, headed by Chester Bowles, the U.S. ambassador to India. Si¬hanouk told Bowles in private what he had told me in public. He was “not opposed to hot pursuit in uninhabited areas,” which “would be liberating us from the Vietcong.” But Lyndon Johnson was then re¬luctant to expand the war. Nothing came of the offer. American intrusions into Cambodia continued to be limited to so-called Daniel Boone squads—covert teams of U.S. volunteers and local mercenaries wearing either black peasant pajamas or unidentifiable uniforms, as¬signed to gather intelligence or to sabotage enemy installations.
Within a week of Nixon’s inauguration, however, the idea of U.S. action against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong presence in Cam¬bodia was resurrected by General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. He was seconded by Westmoreland’s successor, General Creighton Abrams, who calculated that the Communists had recently moved forty thousand fresh troops into the Cambodian bases and were supplying them largely by sea through the port of Sihanoukville, on the Gulf of Siam. Abrams recommended a “short-duration” raid by B-52s against the Cambodian sanctuaries, which presumably con¬cealed the elusive Communist headquarters—the central office for South Vietnam, or COSVN. He contended that no Cambodian ci¬vilians inhabited the sector, so that the project would not transgress Sihanouk’s “hot pursuit” restriction. Classified documents published later were to disclose that Abrams and other top officers, knowing the targeted areas to be populated by civilians, had secretly conceded that “some Cambodian casualties would be sustained in the opera¬tion.” State Department and CIA analysts also doubted Cambodia’s logistical significance, arguing instead that the Ho Chi Minh Trail threading through Laos was more important to the Communists.

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