Nixon’s War 8

The answer was that Nixon had no intention of retreating entirely from Vietnam—not, at least, during his presidency. To placate public opinion at home, he sought an agreement that would gain the release of the American prisoners, then numbering about four hundred, being held in brutal conditions in North Vietnamese jails. For the same reason, he envisioned the removal from South Vietnam of the more than half million GIs sent there during the Johnson administration. Meanwhile, he would stiffen the South Vietnamese army with advis¬ers, equipment and a shield of B-52s and other aircraft to prevent a Communist takeover. Thus, by assuring South Vietnam’s security, he would not be the first American president to lose a war.
Nixon advanced the idea informally to reporters in July 1969, during a stop in Guam on the first leg of a round-the-world journey, and soon his publicists elevated the notion to a “doctrine.” In the past, Nixon said, the United States had committed men as well as money and materiel to protect nations against Communism. From now on, countries receiving American military and economic assistance would have to furnish their own troops. Nixon later explained that this was “not a formula for getting America out of Asia, but one that provided the only sound basis for America’s staying in and continuing to play a responsible role.” In short, by shifting the human burden to local surrogates, the United States could project its global power at a cost tolerable to Americans. The policy was not tailored exclusively for Vietnam. Nixon was then beginning to lavish a sophisticated arsenal on the Shah of Iran to make him the pivot of U.S. defenses in the Middle East.
Opinion surveys conducted in the spring of 1969 showed that most Americans were willing to give Nixon a chance to cope with Vietnam. But Nixon realized that his approval ratings would slip fast unless he made progress in bringing the boys home. Signs of impatience were already visible in Congress, which the Democrats dominated. Senator Mike Mansfield, the Democratic majority leader who had muted his misgivings during the Johnson era, was now speaking out, along with familiar Democratic critics like William Fulbright and Edward Ken¬nedy, and even Republicans urged Nixon to act rapidly. The Senate Republican whip, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, called for the unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam of a “substantial number” of American troops, and his plea was echoed by such party colleagues as Jacob Javits of New York and Charles Percy of Illinois. Secretary of Defense Laird, attuned to the mood on Capitol Hill from his years in the House, also lobbied Nixon to accelerate the repatriation of U.S. soldiers.
Nixon started by hinting that some GIs might be pulled out in the months ahead. Then, on May 14, in his first major address on Vietnam, he appealed to the public to trust him. He rejected either a “purely military solution on the battlefield” or a compromise “that would amount to a disguised American defeat” and suggested instead that “the time has come for new initiatives.” But he offered little more than a rehash of Johnson’s old proposal for the mutual withdrawal of American and North Vietnamese forces from Sputh Vietnam—giving it a fresh look by suggesting a simultaneous pullout over a one-year period. On his instructions, Kissinger staged a “good guy-bad guy” charade: he briefed Dobrynin about the speech in advance, warning him that the petulant Nixon would “escalate the war” if the Soviets “didn’t produce a settlement.”
The response from the North Vietnamese was predictably negative, as it would be again and again on the same point. They were not going to redeploy their troops to the north, since the Vietcong alone was no match for the Saigon government army. And though for diplomatic purposes they maintained the fiction that they were not involved in the south, they considered it their right to resist foreign intruders anywhere in Vietnam. At that stage, their principal demand was the resignation of South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, in favor of a coalition regime that included the Vietcong—which, they well knew, Nixon would never accept. But they were hardly in a hurry to negotiate seriously; better to let Nixon stew in the pressure cooker of mounting antiwar sentiment in the United States.
And indeed it was true that Nixon could not afford to delay at least token American troop withdrawals. General Abrams was depressed by the prospect. But he adjusted, supplanting Westmoreland’s huge search-and-destroy sweeps with small unit actions. Thieu was jittery, but, reconciling himself to the fact that he had no choice, he complied. Nixon arranged a meeting with him in early June on Midway island— the forlorn atoll being a safer place than Washington, where antiwar demonstrations might have greeted Thieu. The Midway sessions ended with Nixon announcing the repatriation of Americans—and he added another forty thousand to the redeployment schedule in three months.
By now, Laird was pressing for a timetable to shrink the U.S. force in Vietnam to roughly two hundred and six thousand men by the end of 1971. He also factored the anticipated troop reductions in the Pen¬tagon budgetary procedure, thereby making it difficult to interrupt them without upsetting the defense establishment’s entire financial equilibrium. In an interview years later, Laird recalled to me that he had joined the Nixon cabinet convinced that the American people were “fed up with the war,” and he was alarmed as well by its de¬bilitating effect on U.S. security obligations in Europe and elsewhere. Looking back, his contribution to America’s departure from Vietnam has been underestimated.

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