The Peace That Never Was 13

At this stage, Nixon backtracked yet again. To scuttle Thieu, he feared, would lead to a Communist takeover of Vietnam. So he de¬cided to stop hectoring him, reckoning that Thieu would acquiesce once he realized that Congress, which reconvened in January, might cut off his aid. Perhaps, as Kissinger suspected, Nixon was being badgered by White House hard-liners like H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who equated compromise with capitulation. He knew as well that Nixon was quite capable of a complete flip—scrapping the accord and blasting North Vietnam to bits. Kissinger’s priority was to salvage the agreement.
Amid these complications, Nixon had proposed to North Vietnam that the signing of the accord be delayed because “the difficulties in Saigon have proved somewhat more complex than originally antici¬pated.” But the difficulties in Saigon worsened. On October 24, Thieu publicly denounced the draft treaty and told his forces that the Com¬munist apparatus in the south “must be wiped out quickly and mer¬cilessly.” His call for action gave the North Vietnamese the pretext to test America’s professed desire to end the war. Two days later, they broadcast a summary of the proposed settlement and charged the United States with attempts to “sabotage” it. Kissinger, aiming both to reassure them of America’s sincerity and to convey to Thieu the administration’s dedication to a compromise, made his television debut that afternoon in a press conference attended by hundreds of reporters in the packed White House press room: “We believe that peace is at hand,” he declared. “We believe that an agreement is within sight.”
As Kissinger admitted afterward, his misguided statement inflated expectations in the United States. It also upset Nixon, who felt that it showed weakness toward the Communists and would also stiffen Thieu’s intransigence. Virtually disavowing Kissinger, he publicly de¬clared that the agreement contained “differences that must be re¬solved.” Nixon then began to zigzag around Thieu again. “We are going to have to put him through the wringer,” he noted. But on November 14, a week after his landslide reelection, he gave Thieu his “absolute assurance” that he would “take swift and severe retaliatory action” should the North Vietnamese violate the agreement. At the same time, he directed Kissinger to submit to Le Due Tho the sixty- nine amendments to the draft agreement that had been proposed by Thieu. Kissinger, who regarded the changes as “preposterous,” faced a dilemma. Nixon was hustling him to terminate the war before the inauguration on January 20, but confronting Le Duc Tho with Thieu’s grievances might abort the embryonic accord. Kissinger’s relations with Nixon grew taut. Haldeman and Ehrlichman were also sniping at him for seeking publicity. And genuine diplomatic problems, such as a schedule for the exchange of prisoners and the creation of a credible mechanism to monitor the cease-fire, were still unresolved.
Kissinger and Le Duc Tho both hardened their positions as their talks dragged on into December. Now the Communist hierarchy in Hanoi felt, as an official there recalled to me, that the Americans were maneuvering to rewrite the draft. On December 13, Le Duc Tho suspended the deadlocked sessions and returned to Hanoi for consul¬tations. Kissinger, for his part, recommended two options to Nixon: either intensify the bombing of North Vietnam immediately to compel the Communists to talk “seriously,” or wait until January to resume negotiations, displaying real toughness if the discussions failed then. According to Nixon’s account, Kissinger’s attitude toward the Com¬munists was apoplectic: “They’re just a bunch of shits. Tawdry, filthy shits.”
Nixon, again in one of his Patton moods, needed no advice from Kissinger. On December 14, he sent an ultimatum to North Vietnam to begin talking “seriously” within seventy-two hours—or else. He simultaneously ordered Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to prepare massive air attacks against railroads, power plants, radio transmitters and other installations around Hanoi as well as docks and shipyards in Haiphong. He was lifting the re¬strictions, as the joint chiefs had requested for years, and he told Moorer: “I don’t want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one. This is your chance to use military power to win this war, and if you don’t, I’ll hold you responsible.” Kissinger meanwhile put out a sweet-and-sour statement. The settle¬ment was “99 percent completed” but, he asserted, “we will not be blackmailed into an agreement. We will not be stampeded into an agreement, and, if I may say so, we will not be charmed into an agreement until its conditions are right.” The Communists echoed a similar line. Apart from “a very small number” of technicalities, said Xuan Thuy in Paris, the draft still contained differences of “funda¬mental importance.”
Rather than explore the differences further, Nixon gave the signal for a new operation, Linebacker Two. Starting on December 18, B-52 and other American aircraft flew nearly three thousand sorties during the next eleven days, excluding Christmas Day, mainly over the heavily populated corridor that stretched sixty miles between Hanoi and Haiphong. They dropped some forty thousand tons of bombs in the most concentrated air offensive of the war against North Vietnam—and the episode still arouses controversy.
The public response in the United States was relatively muted; with almost all the American troops home, the war had ceased to be a national torment. Congress, adjourned for the holidays, seemed to be split along partisan lines, with the Democratic majorities in both cham¬bers planning moves to end the American involvement in Vietnam after the recess. By contrast, news commentators reacted with outrage. A New York Times editorial excoriated Nixon’s reversion to “Stone Age barbarism,” and the Washington Post called his assaults “savage and senseless.” The revulsion abroad was widespread. Pope Paul VI told an audience at the Vatican that the bombing of “blessed” Vietnam was causing him “daily grief.”
The dispatches of a lone French correspondent on the spot, cited in many American newspaper, television and radio accounts, referred repeatedly to the “carpet bombing” of downtown areas in Haiphong and Hanoi. But Malcolm Browne of the New York Times reported from Hanoi soon afterward that the damage had been “grossly over¬stated,” and other foreign journalists corroborated his testimony. So did Tran Duy Hung, mayor of Hanoi. American antiwar activists visiting the city during the attacks urged the mayor to claim a death toll of ten thousand. He refused, saying that his government’s cred¬ibility was at stake. The official North Vietnamese figure for civilian fatalities for the period was 1,318 in Hanoi and 305 in Haiphong— hardly the equivalent of the Americans’ incendiary bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, for example, when nearly eighty-four thousand people were killed in a single night. The comparison is, of course, irrelevant, except that the Christmas bombings of Hanoi have been depicted as another Hiroshima.

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