The Peace That Never Was 12

Kissinger, aware that real estate meant strength, urgently cabled Thieu to “seize as much territory as possible,” especially in the pop¬ulous Saigon region. Orders meanwhile went out from the Pentagon for crash deliveries of military equipment to the Saigon government, an operation dubbed Enhance Plus—its purpose to furnish Thieu with hardware that, under the agreement, could be replaced. Materiel worth some two billion dollars was flown to South Vietnam from such American aid recipients as Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, which were to receive more modern weapons in exchange. The pro¬gram, completed in six weeks, gave the Saigon regime the fourth largest air force in the world. To circumvent a clause in the draft accord that required the dismantling of U.S. bases in South Vietnam, the American installations were swiftly and secretly transferred to South Vietnamese ownership. Even so, Thieu began to panic.
Then forty-eight, Thieu was the youngest of five children of a small landowner in coastal Phamrang province, a barren area that spawns people as rugged as its rocky soil. After attending a French missionary school in Hue, he had served briefly as a village chief under the Viet- minh but saw brighter prospects in the French colonial army, in which he earned a commission in 1949. He was an able officer. Ambition spurred him to marry into a prominent Vietnamese Catholic family; he converted to Catholicism himself, like the collaborateurs of the nine¬teenth century. Following the French defeat, he attracted the attention of his American military advisers, who sent him to train in the United States. His subsequent career was almost exclusively political. He plotted and juggled incessantly, finally becoming president in 1967, after which he plotted and juggled incessantly. Stubborn and indeci¬sive, suspicious, cunning, yet often naive, he bought the fidelity of subordinates by tolerating their corruption, governing through his own instincts and the counsel of an astrologer. His attitude toward the Americans was ambivalent. He was certain that they—and the stars—held the key to his fate. But he distrusted them just as pro¬foundly as he did everyone else.
Nixon was now equally ambivalent toward Thieu. During the sum¬mer, as the Communists seemed to be edging toward a compromise, he sent Haig to Saigon to assure Thieu that “under no circumstances” would South Vietnam’s security be traded away. But in early October, with Kissinger poised in Paris for a possible breakthrough, Nixon insisted that Thieu, implacably opposed to any deal whatsoever, be pressed to accept a settlement, remarking that “the tail can’t wag the dog.” Kissinger himself flew to Saigon after a session with Le Duc Tho to obtain Thieu’s approval of the draft accord, and again Nixon’s messages were mixed. He told Thieu in a letter that he saw “no reasonable alternative” to the agreement, adding that the Communists would face “the most serious consequences” if they violated it; but meanwhile he cautioned Kissinger to be gentle: “Thieu’s acceptance must be wholehearted so that the charge cannot be made that we forced him into a settlement. … It cannot be a shotgun marriage.”
On October 21, four days after ironing out a few details with Kis¬singer in Paris, the North Vietnamese officially approved the proposed accord, and Nixon promptly acknowledged their assent. Kissinger, who was scheduled to initial the document in Hanoi at the end of the month, flew to Saigon to obtain Thieu’s concurrence. Accompanied only by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, he met in the presidential palace with Thieu, who was attended by his flashy cousin Hoang Duc Nha. The talks, which began placidly, soon degenerated into melo¬drama.
Kissinger blundered from the start by handing Thieu an English-language copy of the agreement, thereby wounding his national pride. Thieu in turn antagonized Kissinger by rudely canceling one of their meetings, ostensibly to study the document. Then Kissinger alarmed Thieu by showing him an interview that Pham Van Dong had just given Arnaud de Borchgrave of Newsweek, in which the North Viet¬namese prime minister, trying to exert pressure on Thieu, described him as having been “overtaken by events,” and said that he envisioned the planned “council of reconciliation” to be a “coalition of transition.” The word “coalition” enraged Thieu. He and Nha now accused the United States of colluding with the Soviet Union and China to subvert their regime. Weeping, they protested that the Americans were paving the way for the Communists to grab power in Saigon. They also objected to the presence of North Vietnamese troops in the south and contended that the demilitarized zone dividing the two parts of the country should be a secure border. In short, they wanted to unravel the whole agreement and have South Vietnam recognized as a sov¬ereign state—thus nullifying the entire Communist struggle for re¬unification. That, however, was the supreme irony of the moment. After fighting for years to defend South Vietnam’s independence, the United States was now denying its legitimacy.
Kissinger, himself inclined to rages, reported to Nixon that Thieu’s terms “verge on insanity. ” Nixon shifted once again. He cabled Thieu, threatening to cut off American assistance to South Vietnam, and warned him that his intransigence “would have the most serious effects upon my ability to continue support for you.” He also ordered Kis¬singer to “push Thieu as far as possible,” even to the extent of threat¬ening that the United States would sign a separate treaty with the North Vietnamese. The notion of having the CIA organize a coup to oust Thieu wafted through the White House. Chronically distrustful, Thieu sensed the danger, but he refused to budge. Kissinger went home. “In twenty-four hours,” as one of his aides recalled, “the bot¬tom fell out.”

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