The Peace That Never Was 3

But apart from its value as a domestic political ploy, would the offer hasten a conclusion to the war? Nixon had flamboyantly billed his statement as “the most comprehensive” ever made on the war until then, but in his memoirs he conspicuously omitted any expla¬nation of its purpose—nor, indeed, did he even mention the speech. Kissinger recalled the initiative in his memoirs, recollecting that after meeting with Xuan Thuy in Paris a week before Nixon’s address, he was pessimistic about its chances. At the time, however, Kissinger intimated to his aides that the cease-fire proposal was actually a dis¬guised concession of major proportions, intended to convey to the North Vietnamese that the United States had scrapped the mutual withdrawal requirement: their forces could remain in place only if they dropped their demand that Thieu be jettisoned. Some members of Kissinger’s staff stick by that version to this day, putting the onus on the Communists for their refusal to take up the offer. The North Vietnamese did in fact reject the truce plan and again insisted that no progress was possible until the Thieu regime ceded authority to a coalition government in Saigon that “favors peace, independence and democracy.” But their rebuff was not gratuitous; they had valid mo¬tives for spuming the offer.
Nixon had sidestepped the phrase “mutual withdrawal” in his speech, thereby creating an impression of new flexibility—and for that reason he won acclaim. But his language was deceptive. He said that the removal of the American forces from Vietnam would be “based on principles” that he had “previously” outlined. One of these prin¬ciples was, of course, the mutual withdrawal of both American and North Vietnamese troops. A day later, speaking to reporters during a trip to Georgia, he bluntly confirmed that he had not diluted this policy. His offer of “a total withdrawal of all our forces,” he said, was contingent on “mutual withdrawal on the other side.”
It could be argued that Nixon felt constrained to restate the mutual withdrawal policy openly so as to avoid demoralizing the Saigon regime, which trembled at any suggestion that the Americans might switch strategy on an issue vital to its security. But Kissinger made no effort to hint privately to the North Vietnamese that American policy was shifting. At that point, in fact, there was no change. The “standstill cease-fire” offer was nothing more than a tranquilizer to placate the American public on the eve of the November elections. Kissinger saw it in just that context—a device that “at a mini¬mum . . . would give us some temporary relief from public pres¬sures.” Strangely, however, he scolded North Vietnam for dismissing it and did for years afterward, when in fact they shared his view that it was merely window dressing.
I have digressed into this apparently theoretical exegesis in order to raise a crucial question that aroused controversy then and has ever since. The United States and North Vietnam were to reach an agree¬ment, in October 1972, after Kissinger had dropped the mutual with¬drawal theme and Le Duc Tho had dropped the demand for Thieu’s resignation. Could the same agreement have been reached two years earlier? Kissinger has asserted that the Communists were implacable at that time and even refused to budge when he began to ease his stance shortly afterward. The North Vietnamese contended later, as they did then, that Nixon’s cease-fire proposal of 1970 was a “trick,” allowing that they might have acquiesced in it had it been authentic. This is one of those speculative what-could-have-beens of history, unlikely to be elucidated as long as the participants in the negotiations hold each other responsible for the failure to achieve a settlement sooner. My own feeling, though, is that both were at fault—Kissinger for not making the truce offer a real concession and Le Duc Tho for not pressing him to explore its possibilities. In reality, neither was ready for an accommodation. The Vietnam tragedy is a story of squan¬dered opportunities.
The diplomacy of Vietnam had seesawed in a similar pattern since the start of the struggle. Neither side was willing to deal from weak¬ness, hoping for a stronger battlefield position to improve its bar-gaining posture. Nor was either side eager to compromise from current strength, reckoning that an even stronger battlefield position would enable it to dictate terms. Now the two sides were stalled. At the beginning of 1971, however, a debacle augured a break in the deadlock.
Nixon and Kissinger foresaw a massive Communist drive unfolding in 1972, timed to influence American voters during the presidential election campaign. Accordingly, they expected a big North Vietnam¬ese logistical move during the early months of 1971, before the rains made the transport of supplies difficult. The U.S. commanders in Saigon and their colleagues in the Pentagon assumed that the enemy buildup could be thwarted by cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the web of roads and jungle paths in the Laotian panhandle. A congressional amendment, passed after the Cambodian incursion of 1970, barred American ground troops from entering Cambodia and Laos, so the job would have to be performed by the South Vietnamese infantry with U.S. air support. Given the code name Lamson 719, for an ancient Vietnamese triumph over China, this trial of Vietnamization got under way on February 8, 1971. As Kissinger was to describe it later, “The operation, conceived in doubt and assailed by skepticism, proceeded in confusion.”
The blunders were monumental. The South Vietnamese had never been tested in major deployments, especially without accompanying American advisers. American planners had estimated that the thrust would require four seasoned U.S. divisions—roughly sixty thousand men—but the Saigon regime assigned to the attack an inexperienced force only half that size. The objective, the Laotian town of Tchepone, situated about twenty miles inside the border, was a trap within easy range of North Vietnamese and Vietcong units. Thieu, a model of pusillanimity, ordered his officers to stop their soldiers when they had taken a total of three thousand casualties, so that the South Vietnamese army halted less than halfway to its target. And, as if it mattered, scant attention was paid to Prince Souvanna Phouma, prime minister of Laos, who protested in vain against the violation of his country’s neutrality. His complaints were chronic; international agreements notwithstanding, the benighted land had for years been an unpubli¬cized sideshow to the war in Vietnam.

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