The Peace That Never Was 6

The Watergate trauma lay ahead, but Nixon was profoundly de¬pressed by the middle of 1971. He had failed to persuade the public, the press, the politicians or the judiciary to share his indignation over the Ellsberg affair. Overcome by self-pity, a typical mood, he felt victimized by the antiwar demon and its sympathizers in the news media; they were poisoning American opinion. He knew that the virus was Vietnam, yet he had no antidote. He would occasionally toy with the wild notion of blasting North Vietnam to bits and then pulling out, horrifying Kissinger and even Haig with bloodcurdling descrip¬tions of his fantasy holocaust. Then, regaining his composure, he would studiously ponder negotiating possibilities.
Kissinger had resumed his discussions with the North Vietnamese in Paris in late May 1971, and the intermittent talks dragged on in¬conclusively into the next year—the main obstacle being the eventual status of the Saigon regime. Once again, the Americans were strapped by the same dilemma that had limited them throughout the war: despite their immense power, they had little control over internal South Vietnamese politics. Thieu was the stumbling block, but they could not plausibly supplant him with a compromise figure acceptable to the Communists. For one thing, Nixon and Kissinger remembered the chaos that had convulsed South Vietnam following Diem’s ouster, which the United States had encouraged. They also realized that, by submitting to the Communists, they would make themselves hostage to further enemy demands. And they feared that Thieu might, under extreme pressure, threaten to pull down the Saigon government struc¬ture and accuse them of betrayal. The specter of an ignominious finale in Vietnam haunted Kissinger. A humiliating collapse would shatter America’s global credibility, he believed, and, as he put it, “leave deep scars on our society, fueling impulses for recrimination.” Constantly on his mind was the tragedy of the Weimar Republic, a member of his staff later recalled, the democracy that had eventually been ripped asunder by the tensions that divided Germany after its defeat in World War I.
The Communists were to claim later that Nixon and Kissinger missed a chance for a settlement in 1971, when Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky and General Duong Van Minh were each considering the possibility of challenging Thieu for the presidency of South Vietnam in an election scheduled for October 3. Le Duc Tho suggested to Kissinger that the United States “stop supporting” Thieu, who would presumably be defeated in a three-way contest by a rival willing to work out a political accommodation with the Vietcong. Thus, the Communist thesis went, Thieu would have been deposed legally, thereby satisfying North Vietnam’s demand that he be removed as the prerequisite to an overall agreement. As it turned out, Thieu found a pretext to disqualify Ky’s candidacy; Minh, knowing he would lose, dropped out of the race; and Thieu won another term with no op-position. So, the Communists alleged afterward, Nixon and Kissinger had squandered an opportunity for peace.
The charge contained an element of truth. The CIA, acting on orders from Washington, furnished Thieu with funds to finance his cam¬paign, and the U.S. mission in Saigon did little to dissuade him from eliminating Ky, though Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker reportedly tried to bribe Minh to run in order to make the exercise look “dem¬ocratic.” Nevertheless, it is doubtful that a real challenge to Thieu would have made a difference. In the first place, there was no guarantee that either Ky or Minh could have beaten Thieu, whose loyal army and police units were capable of mobilizing votes in his favor. Nor was it certain that either Ky or Minh would have been congenial toward the Vietcong; both realized that continuing American aid de¬pended on their continuing a tough anti-Communist line. To Nixon and Kissinger, Thieu represented stability; the last thing they wanted were fresh convulsions in Saigon.
By early 1972, Nixon could justly claim that he was fulfilling his pledge to reduce the U.S. combat role in Vietnam. He had withdrawn more than four hundred thousand GIs since he entered office, and American battle deaths were down to fewer than ten a week. To show the American public his earnest desire for peace, he also revealed for the first time that Kissinger had been talking secretly with the North Vietnamese. But his effort to pacify domestic opinion had drawbacks. Like a bridge player losing his trump cards, Kissinger was being de¬prived of his “negotiating assets” as the American force in Vietnam shrank. Moreover, the troop withdrawals made it increasingly prob¬able that U.S. aid to the Saigon regime would sooner or later be drastically cut; congressmen could no longer be shamed into voting appropriations for Vietnam with the argument that “our boys in the field” had to be supported. For broader diplomatic purposes, Nixon and Kissinger were then planning dramatic new overtures to China and the Soviet Union. The paths to peace in Vietnam might run through Beijing and Moscow. They set out to explore those routes.
As the war escalated after 1965, the North Vietnamese had relied more and more on help from the Soviet Union and China. They needed Soviet surface-to-air missiles, radar, communications equipment and other sophisticated military materiel to counter the American bomb¬ing, and they depended on Chinese rice to feed their population. Disputes between the Soviet Union and China complicated these aid programs. Mao Zedong, after the tumultuous Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, had elevated himself to the stature of Marx and Lenin in the pantheon of Communist deities, and he refused to cooperate with Soviet “revisionists,” even in supporting their Vietnamese com¬rades. Among other things, he denied the Russians the use of Chinese airfields as well as the right to fly supplies to Vietnam over China, telling the Kremlin leaders, “Frankly speaking, we do not trust you.”

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