Nixon’s War

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon shared several traits. Both of them, born and raised in lace-curtain obscurity, had clawed their way to prominence, often resorting to devious means to overcome obstacles. As Westerners, both oscillated be¬tween envy and disdain for the Ivy Leaguers from New York and Boston who supposedly comprised the power elite. And though both were seasoned politicians, whose hides should have been thickened in the rough-and-tumble of the Washington arena, neither ever learned to react gracefully to criticism. But they differed in at least one im¬portant respect. While Johnson, the earthy extrovert, constantly sought solace in the company of cronies and advisers, relying on their real or contrived consensus for reassurance, Nixon, by contrast, was a dour, humorless figure who fancied himself a solitary giant, like Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle or Mao Zedong.
Just as the Vietnam war shattered Johnson, so it eventually con¬tributed to Nixon’s downfall. Johnson had sunk deeper and deeper into the quagmire of Southeast Asia until his senior aides turned against him, fearing that the American public’s frustrations with the endless struggle might wreck the Democratic party—as indeed it did. Nixon, on the other hand, was largely responsible for his own doom. The domestic opposition to the conflict that grew during his first term in office exacerbated his sense of beleaguered isolation, prompting him to sanction the accumulation of offenses that became Watergate. His White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, later wrote that “without the Vietnam war there would have been no Watergate”—asserting that Nixon might be “revered today” as a brilliant president had the scandal remained submerged. Given his record, however, Nixon seemed to be destined for disrepute. His political career began as it ended, with deliberate duplicity designed for one purpose: to win. “If you can’t lie,” he once confided to a friend, “you’ll never go any¬where.”
A native of southern California, he was graduated from Duke Uni¬versity Law School and served as a naval officer in the Pacific during World War II—afterward, like Johnson, inflating his combat role. In 1946, local Republicans picked him to challenge the incumbent con¬gressman, Jerry Voorhis, a wealthy and idealistic New Deal liberal. Nixon triumphed after smearing Voorhis as a Communist sympa¬thizer—the same tactic he was to employ in his race for the Senate four years later, when he pinned the label of “pink lady” on his Democratic opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas. By then he had stoked the anti-Communist hysteria of the period by pursuing Alger Hiss, the distinguished former State Department official alleged to have been a Communist agent, who was convicted of perjury.
Nixon’s crusade against the “Red menace” seemed to be motivated less by ideology than by opportunism. He derived satisfaction from nailing Hiss because, as he divulged afterward, the case gave him “nationwide publicity.” As vice-president during Eisenhower’s first term, he endorsed Senator Joe McCarthy’s wild witch-hunts—shifting only after McCarthy slandered Eisenhower and became a liability to the Republican party. Even so, Nixon later looked back on McCarthy with affection and indulgence, describing him as “a casualty in the great struggle of our times.”
Nixon initially strayed into foreign affairs—a field in which he eventually claimed to be an expert—for domestic political reasons. Along with other right-wing Republicans, he seized on the Com¬munist conquest of China in 1949 to blast the Truman administration, contending that Mao Zedong’s victory was a “direct result” of Pres¬ident Truman’s decision to withhold U.S. aid from Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader. He kept up the attack after Truman dismissed General Douglas MacArthur, the flamboyant American commander during the Korean war who had insisted on extending the conflict into China. Nixon excoriated Truman’s move as “ap¬peasement,” and he sponsored a resolution in Congress calling for MacArthur’s reinstatement. Arguing for the intensive bombing of Communist installations inside China, he invoked a phrase that re¬sonated through his oratory two decades later, when he tried to blast the North Vietnamese into a compromise settlement of the Vietnam war: “Our broad objective, of course, is peace with honor.”
Apart from his naval service, Nixon had never been abroad. Then, in 1953, Eisenhower sent him on a seventy-three-day tour of Asia, and he discovered the world. Greeted sumptuously by Asian leaders, masters of the art of lavish welcomes, he acquired the taste for pomp and pageantry that he would later introduce to his presidency, when he garbed the White House guards in Ruritanian splendor. He also began to regard himself as a statesman of international stature, though his observations during the trip tended to confirm his preconceptions rather than open his eyes to fresh vistas. A brief visit to Vietnam, where he talked with French soldiers fighting against Ho Chin Mirth’s legions, stiffened his conviction that France deserved assistance in its desperate effort to block the advance of global Communism. The next year, however, he characteristically zigzagged when Eisenhower’s ad¬visers assembled to discuss actual ways to rescue the besieged French garrison at Dienbienphu.
Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, had floated the notion that the United States might save the French by deploying three tactical atomic weapons against the Communists. Nixon, along with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and others, supported Radford—and, in a public speech at the time, he even raised the possibility of making a direct American troop commitment to Vietnam should the French be defeated. But he backtracked after Ei¬senhower ruled out any form of U.S. intervention without British participation. Still, the idea of wielding force stuck in his mind, and it repeatedly punctuated his later denunciations of Lyndon Johnson’s reluctance to escalate the Vietnam war rapidly. Writing in the Reader’s Digest in August 1964, for example, he cautioned that Asia’s entire fate hinged on the outcome in Vietnam, and he appealed for tougher action: “All that is needed, in short, is the will to win—and the courage to use our power—now.”

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