The Peace That Never Was 10

The crucial question at the moment was the potential Soviet reac¬tion. Nixon was due to meet Brezhnev in Moscow later in the spring to discuss such cosmic issues as the control of nuclear weapons. Kis¬singer had scheduled a secret trip to Moscow to arrange the encounter, but he and Nixon differed sharply over how to proceed. Nixon, obsessed by Vietnam, was prepared to cancel the meeting unless Brezh¬nev persuaded the North Vietnamese to accede to an acceptable peace. “Whatever else happens, we cannot lose this war,” Nixon insisted. “The summit isn’t worth a damn if the price for it is losing in Viet¬nam.” He told Kissinger to warn Brezhnev that Vietnam alone would determine America’s relations with the Soviet Union; if Brezhnev proved to be recalcitrant, he added, Kissinger “should just pack up and come home.” Kissinger, while endorsing a strong approach to North Vietnam, favored more flexibility toward the Russians. He feared that a cancellation of the talks between Nixon and Brezhnev would jeopardize the international power balance. Besides, he doubted the degree of Soviet influence in Hanoi. Unlike Nixon, he had ceased to believe in the concept of “linkage.”
Kissinger’s mission to Moscow, seen in retrospect, should destroy the notion that governments function smoothly and rationally. He landed there on April 20 without informing the U.S. ambassador, Jacob Beam, who represented the hated State Department. He then met with Brezhnev while his assistant, Alexander Haig, in the White House, relayed feverish admonitions to “hang tough” from Nixon, who was ensconced with his friend Bebe Rebozo at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. Disobeying instructions, Kissinger strayed from the subject of Vietnam and discussed arms control with Brezhnev, who, he concluded, was eager for a summit meeting “at almost any cost.” As for Vietnam, he repeated past American offers but added that the North Vietnamese troops that had invaded the south for the present offensive must be withdrawn.
This new proposal subsequently inspired much nuanced hairsplit¬ting. Many historians regard Kissinger’s “demand” to have been a major American concession in disguise. They submit that, by requir¬ing North Vietnam to pull back only the troops sent south for the 1972 offensive, he was actually permitting the northerners already in South Vietnam to remain there—thus finally dropping the futile “mutual withdrawal” formula. Dismissing that analysis as “pure nonsense,” Kissinger has claimed in his memoirs that the “standstill cease-fire” scheme had superseded the “mutual withdrawal” idea long before, and that hjs suggestion to Brezhnev, designed to be relayed to Hanoi, was merely confected to keep the Russians involved in the Vietnam negotiations. A key to the bargaining process, however, was how the Vietnamese Communists interpreted Kissinger’s proposal. They rebuffed it at the time, understandably refusing to disengage six or seven crack divisions in the middle of a massive drive. However, as one of their senior officials told me after the war, they again sensed that the Americans would ultimately scrap the mutual withdrawal condition. But, the official recalled, they would not be satisfied that Kissinger had discarded it explicitly.
Kissinger, back from Moscow, was confident that Nixon’s forth¬coming summit meeting with Brezhnev would yield a landmark stra¬tegic arms control treaty. But Nixon was transfixed by Vietnam to the exclusion of everything else. He decided to unleash B-52s against the area around Hanoi and Haiphong over the weekend starting May 5, whatever the outcome of talks between Kissinger and Le Due Tho, planned to take place in Paris three days earlier. Consistent with his view since the Korean war, Nixon felt that “peace with honor” could be achieved only by bombing. He also suspected that the Communists were stalling in hopes of making a deal with the Democratic “sup¬porters of Hanoi” in Congress after the November election. Privately reproaching Kissinger as being “obsessed” with the need for a ne¬gotiated settlement, he dispatched him to Paris with an ultimatum for the North Vietnamese: “Settle or else!”
The session with Le Duc Tho, held outside Paris the day after the Communists captured the city of Quangtri, produced only strident rhetoric. Kissinger was fretful. He shared Nixon’s resolve to be tough, but he worried that Brezhnev might withdraw his invitation to Mos¬cow, and he dreaded a rupture with China as well. He was trying to rebuild his good relations with Ivy League colleagues, and he also repeated to close aides his fear of becoming “this administration’s Walt Rostow,” the aggressive aide to Lyndon Johnson who had been ban¬ished to the unfashionable University of Texas.
By the morning of May 8, Nixon had decided to mine Haiphong harbor and intensify the bombing of North Vietnam elsewhere. He planned to announce the raids that evening, and his aides, canvassed by Kissinger beforehand for the record, reacted predictably. Laird dissented, arguing that South Vietnam was the main arena. Richard Helms, the CIA director, was also opposed; the agency’s analysts doubted, as they always had, that air strikes would deter the North Vietnamese. Agnew was enthusiastic, and Lyndon Johnson’s old Democratic party pal, John Connally, now Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, asserted that the president had to “show his guts and lead¬ership on this one.” Nixon, surprisingly moderate in his televised speech, offered the Communists somewhat more supple proposals. He consciously omitted any mention of the mutual withdrawal for¬mula but said that U.S. forces remaining in Vietnam would pull out within four months of a cease-fire and the release of American pris¬oners of war. An internal political settlement could be negotiated “between the Vietnamese themselves.”
As the air strikes and harbor mining began, Nixon and especially Kissinger nervously awaited the thunder from the Kremlin. All they heard was a routine statement of reproval and a mild protest against the bombing of a Soviet freighter in Haiphong harbor. The Soviet foreign trade minister, Nikolai Patolichev, then in Washington, in¬stead posed for photographs with Nixon at the White House. As a Washington Post diplomatic correspondent at the time, I received a signal from a Soviet embassy official, who urgently suggested that we meet in a local cafeteria. “We’ve done a lot for those Vietnamese,” he said, “but we’re not going to let them spoil our relations with the United States.” The Moscow summit was on.

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