Nixon’s War 9

Laird’s eagerness to disengage in Vietnam annoyed Kissinger, who spoke differently to different people. He assured his liberal Harvard friends that he was working to extract the United States from Vietnam, adding that he had no desire to end up like Walt Rostow, whose toughness on the war issue had earned him excommunication from the ranks of Ivy League intellectuals. But to Nixon he cautioned against hasty “de-escalation,” arguing that a strong American presence in Vietnam “remains one of our few bargaining weapons,” and again in September he warned Nixon that he was “deeply disturbed” by the administration’s course. He doubted the ability of South Vietnamese soldiers to replace GIs, whose withdrawal would become like “salted peanuts” to the American public: “The more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.” Thus, he reasoned, the enemy had only to “wait us out. ” He recommended instead that the North Vietnamese be bombed and their ports mined unless they agreed to respect Thieu’s regime in Saigon. “I can’t believe,” Kissinger said to his staff, “that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.”
In September 1969, without Laird’s knowledge, Kissinger picked a few assistants to prepare a plan for inflicting what he called a “savage, punishing” blow against North Vietnam. Three of the aides, after drafting the details, dissented. Lawrence Lynn, a former Pentagon official, criticized its military aspects. Anthony Lake and Roger Mor¬ris, contending that the North Vietnamese could not be broken, argued for an immediate settlement to reduce American casualties and perhaps salvage something. They proposed that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong be permitted to remain in the areas of South Vietnam they already held, and the peaceful formation of a coalition regime in Saigon be encouraged. Otherwise, they predicted, “we see the president sink¬ing deeper into the Johnsonian bog.” Kissinger forwarded the attack project to Nixon anyway but Laird, learning of it, intervened. The bombing strikes against North Vietnam would exacerbate domestic opposition to the war and postpone “Vietnamization,” Laird argued. Nixon shelved the idea—for the time being. “I’m not sure we’re ready for this,” he said.
Laird concocted the unwieldy term Vietnamization as an improve¬ment on “de-Americanizing.” He had visited Vietnam in March, a defense secretary assessing the situation through the eyes of a politi¬cian. The U.S. electorate, he told Nixon on his return, would “not be satisfied with less” than the “eventual disengagement of American men from combat.” So it was “essential to decide now to initiate the removal from Southeast Asia of some U.S. military personnel.” As for the South Vietnamese, they could be equipped and trained to defend themselves. Nixon found confirmation of Laird’s appraisal in the sanguine view of Sir Robert Thompson, the British guerrilla warfare specialist, who advised him that the Saigon regime had the ca¬pacity, with continuing American aid, to hold its own. Thompson also steeled Nixon’s resolve to stand firm with an apocalyptic ad-monition: “The future of Western civilization is at stake in the way you handle yourselves in Vietnam.”
Communist intractability and Nixon’s growing inflexibility mean¬while nourished each other. In his 1969 Foreign Affairs article, Kissinger had described the Johnson administration’s vain attempts to negotiate as having been “marked by the classic Vietnamese syndrome: opti¬mism alternating with bewilderment; euphoria giving way to frus¬tration.” Now, in 1969, he and Nixon were on the threshold of the same experience, which was to go on for the next three years.
The Soviet avenue to Hanoi had turned out to be a blind alley. Then, on August 4, Kissinger was stymied at his first secret meeting in Paris with a Communist representative, Xuan Thuy, the chief North Vietnamese delegate. The two men repeated positions that both sides had already spurned—Kissinger proposing the mutual with¬drawal of U.S. and North Vietnamese troops and Xuan Thuy insisting on the dissolution of the Saigon government. Jean Sainteny, the former French colonial official who had tried to avert the Indochina war nearly a half century before, had set up the rendezvous in his apartment, and now he performed another service for the Americans. In July, he had transmitted a letter to his old friend Ho Chi Minh from Nixon, who urged that they “move forward at the conference table” to settle “this tragic war.” But Nixon also asked Sainteny to deliver an ultimatum to the North Vietnamese. Unless a diplomatic breakthrough occurred by November 1—the first anniversary of Johnson’s bombing halt— he would resort “to measures of great consequence and force.”
Ho Chi Minh’s answer, which did not reach Washington until Au¬gust 20, merely reiterated the public Communist line—prompting Nixon to call it a “cold rebuff.” Ho may not have written the reply to Nixon. His secretary, Tuu Ky, recalled to me in Hanoi in 1981 that Ho’s heart had begun to fail in early 1969, and by late August he could no longer work. On September 2, Ho died at the age of seventy-nine.
His death inspired a burst of emotional mourning in North Vietnam, along with a pledge by his successors to carry on the struggle “until there is not a single aggressor in the country.” His mantle now fell on old warriors like Le Duan, Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap, nationalists who had been fighting against Westerners, for most of their adult lives. Like Ho, they regarded the defeat of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies to be a sacred duty, not a matter for compromise or, even less, capitulation to Nixon’s conditions. So the prospects were remote that they would buckle. But Nixon was pro¬ceeding, as Johnson had, on the assumption that he could compel them to forsake their goal of national reunification and concede to a divided Vietnam, another Germany or Korea.

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