Nixon’s War 7

Nixon initially procrastinated. But late in February, he proposed the bombing of Cambodia in retaliation for a renewed Communist offensive in South Vietnam. The impulsive decision worried Kissin¬ger, Rogers and Laird for practical rather than ethical reasons. Kis¬singer was concerned about embarking on the venture without preparing for the diplomatic consequences; Rogers feared its potential effect on private peace talks; and Laird was alarmed by the possible impact on congressional, media and public opinion. Himself a sea¬soned politician, Nixon could appreciate Laird’s reservations. He de¬layed. Still, he was determined to launch the air strikes. On March 16, meeting with Kissinger, Rogers, Laird and Wheeler in Washing¬ton, he insisted that the “only way” to get the Communists to ne¬gotiate was “to do something on the military front . . . something they will understand. ” The Cambodian bombing began the next day.
Dubbed Menu, the “short-duration” operation was in fact to go on continuously for fourteen months, and it conformed to the conviction Nixon had held since 1950, when he had asserted that “peace with honor” could be attained in Korea by attacking China. Now, though, he was adjusting to circumstances. He would have preferred to resume the strategic bombing of North Vietnam, since hitting the Cambodian sanctuaries was simply tactical. But such a step might have disrupted the discussions in Paris and given the Communists an excuse to de¬nounce him. Thus his strikes against Cambodia were essentially an oblique threat, intended to signal to the North Vietnamese his read¬iness to resort to tougher measures unless they let up—just as Eisenhower had tamed the Chinese by rattling atomic weapons. Years after the war, Nixon asserted that his failure to bomb North Vietnam from the start was the “biggest mistake” of his administration.
A key ingredient in the Cambodian operation was total secrecy. Nixon and Kissinger realized that by admitting to bombing raids against a country whose neutrality they professed to respect, they might cause an international crisis. Their silence was therefore cal¬culated to avert protests from Sihanouk, and it succeeded. Not .only did he shut his eyes to the bombing, but soon his army was furnishing the Americans with intelligence on the Vietnamese Communist bases. Nor did the North Vietnamese complain, since their objection would have indirectly confirmed the illicit deployment of their troops on Cambodian soil.
But another consideration motivated Nixon’s blackout. Still in the honeymoon period that favors all new presidents, he feared that dis¬closures of the bombing would reawaken antiwar sentiment at home, which had abated at the time. Accordingly, an elaborate dual reporting system was introduced at the Pentagon to divert information on the air strikes from normal channels. The secretary of the air force and the air force chief of staff, along with many government specialists responsible for Cambodia, were not told of the details. Nixon, Kis¬singer and Laird briefed a few sympathetic members of Congress but kept the legislature as a whole uninformed. The subject was suppos¬edly sealed against leaks.
In May, however, an enterprising New York Times correspondent, William Beecher, revealed the bombings in Cambodia. His scoop aroused no public reaction, but it outraged Nixon and Kissinger. They consulted J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, and wiretaps of du¬bious legality were placed on the telephones of four journalists and thirteen officials, including members of Kissinger’s own staff. Hoover quoted Kissinger as saying that the administration “will destroy whoever did this.” The first abuses of authority, later to emerge as the Watergate scandal, had begun.
Officially acknowledged in 1973, the clandestine bombing campaign was also to fuel the clamor in Congress for Nixon’s impeachment. In testimony before a Senate committee, several distinguished lawyers agreed that Nixon had exceeded his constitutional prerogatives, and they supported proposed legislation to curb the president’s ability to wage war. One among them, ironically, was Nicholas Katzenbach, who as attorney general in the previous administration had defended Johnson’s right to commit U.S. forces to Vietnam under the Tonkin Gulf resolution.
The Cambodian bombing failed to deter the North Vietnamese. And the other part of Nixon’s original scheme—to induce the Soviet Union to act as intermediary—was equally unsuccessful. Kissinger first essayed this approach in March, when he conceived of an as¬signment for Cyrus Vance, a former deputy defense secretary who had participated in the Paris talks. Vance was to go to Moscow to open preliminary discussions with the Soviets on the control of stra¬tegic weapons, making it plain that their help in concluding the Viet¬nam war would facilitate an arms deal. While there, Vance would also arrange through Soviet auspices to meet discreetly with a senior North Vietnamese to underscore Nixon’s eagerness to reach a compromise. In an attempt to organize Vance’s mission, Kissinger conferred with Anatoly Dobrynin, the veteran Soviet ambassador in Washington, warning him that the United States would intensify the war unless a settlement could be achieved. So Nixon and Kissinger had set out to translate the “linkage” theory into reality.
Nothing happened. Either the Soviets could not exert any real le¬verage on the North Vietnamese or, more likely, they never tried. They knew that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades would tilt toward the Chinese to resist Soviet pressure. Late in 1969, as Nixon’s patience wore thin, Kissinger again cautioned Dobrynin, telling him ominously that “the train has just left the station and is now headed down the track. ” But Dobrynin parried the threat; his superiors in Moscow, he said, wanted to improve relations with the United States regardless of Vietnam. They were not going to become snared in the “linkage” trap.
Nixon fell back on other alternatives. One, to be called Vietnam- ization, would enable the United States to pull its combat troops out of Vietnam by transferring responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese. The other was to negotiate directly and secretly with the North Vietnamese, thereby circumventing the Saigon government, whose leaders feared that any accord with the Communists would undermine them. But these two efforts seemed to be incompatible, even contradictory. Why should the Communists conciliate if the U.S. forces were being withdrawn? Time was on their side. They were not troubled by an anguished public. From every indication, the Saigon regime would crumble if the Americans quit South Vietnam. So they had only to wait until the Americans departed, then overwhelm the South Vietnamese—as they nearly had before Lyndon Jonson inter¬vened with ground units in the spring of 1965.

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