The Peace That Never Was 15

The American public, exposed to accounts of these agonies, was not consoled by the knowledge that the Vietnamese on both sides could be just as cruel to each other. South Vietnamese and Vietcong prisoners were frequently savaged by their respective captors. Thieu’s jails bulged with critics of his regime, many of them innocuous, and the Communists were no more lenient toward their dissenters. But all that was irrelevant. As the last Americans left Hanoi in March, the prevailing sentiments in the United States were relief that the war had ended and revulsion toward the very subject of Vietnam. American news organizations closed their offices or drastically reduced their staffs in Saigon, exorcising Vietnam from newspaper headlines and television screens. Even so, Nixon still feared the residual antiwar protesters. Fulfilling a long-standing promise, he invited Thieu to the continental United States for the first time but limited him to a small “family dinner” at his personal retreat in San Clemente, California. Vice-President Agnew, assigned to welcome Thieu in Washington, found that very few dignitaries were willing to attend the ceremonies.
Congress now began to disengage America totally from Southeast Asia. Nixon had hinted on March 15 that the United States might again intervene in Vietnam to prevent reported Communist violations of the truce, and his new secretary of defense, Elliot Richardson, said somewhat more explicitly that “we cannot rule out” that eventuality. But on June 4, the Senate acted to prevent such a move by approving a bill sponsored by Senators Clifford Case of New Jersey and Frank Church of Idaho to block funds for any U.S. military activities in Indochina, and the House of Representatives endorsed the legislation. Nixon and Kissinger frantically lobbied to have the ban extended until August 15 to enable American aircraft to continue bombing in Cam¬bodia, which had not been included in the cease-fire agreement. By then, Nixon had been publicly accused by his special counsel, John Dean, of covering up various illegalities within his administration, and another aide, Alexander Butterfield, had disclosed the existence of tapes recording White House conversations which were to sub¬stantiate Dean’s charges. Nixon’s presidency was crumbling as the Watergate revelations came thick and fast, and the votes on Capitol Hill deprived the Saigon regime of recourse to direct American help in the event of impending disaster.
Kissinger and others have suggested that Watergate, by turning Congress against Nixon, spelled the end for Indochina. But the ar¬gument is simplistic. The Watergate scandal did indeed ruin Nixon, thereby propelling Congress into asserting its prerogatives in foreign policy, as frequently occurs when the executive branch is weakened. But given the public’s antipathy toward Vietnam at the time, it is doubtful that the United States could have regenerated a commitment to rescue Thieu’s government. The Vietnamese Communists, through political or military means or a mixture of both, were determined eventually to gain power in Saigon. And Thieu, inept and corrupt, was unable to stop them—especially without the Americans.
The CIA reported in April that the North Vietnamese presence in the south numbered roughly one hundred and fifty thousand men— essentially the same as the year before. Kissinger, by contrast, thought that illicit infiltration from the north was swelling the enemy ranks in the south. Whatever the facts, Kissinger met again with Le Duc Tho in Paris, and they issued a joint pledge to respect the truce. But neither Thieu nor the Communists intended to honor the armistice. Kissinger realized then that “only a miracle” could salvage the Saigon government. He was even gloomier about Cambodia, where the Lon Nol regime held little more than Phnompenh, the capital. Earlier he had dismissed Le Duc Tho’s plea that North Vietnam lacked the in¬fluence to persuade the Cambodian Communists to stop fighting. As later events were to prove, Le Duc Tho was telling the truth.
Ambassador Graham Martin, who arrived in Saigon in April to head the diminished American mission, did not share Kissinger’s pes¬simism. Anachronistically, he was still inspired by the crusade to save Southeast Asia. But he had been given the assignment because he was expendable—the ideal “fall guy,” whose probable failure to maintain an American presence in Indochina would not cause any political dam¬age. Astonishingly, neither Nixon nor Kissinger mentions him, even in passing, in their memoirs.
A North Carolinian, then sixty-one, Martin had begun his govern¬ment service in the Roosevelt era as an aide to Averell Harriman, an important political figure in the New Deal, who later promoted his diplomatic career. Martin, who spent eight years in the U.S. embassy in Paris after World War II, was a fierce anti-Communist liberal. He was no stereotype, however. As ambassador in Bangkok during the 1960s, he squelched an attempt by the American military establishment to inflate its functions there by deploying U.S. troops to check a minor insurgency in Thailand. But Martin was miscast for Vietnam. His wife’s son had died in the war, which left him with a heavy emotional burden. Physically frail following an automobile accident, he could not travel around the country. And his prickly style was ill suited to coping with Thieu, who desperately needed to be nursed, reassured, restrained.

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