The Peace That Never Was 14

One argument advanced to explain the low casualties is that the populations of Hanoi and Haiphong were by then largely evacuated to the countryside. But that thesis skirts the fact, as I observed after the war, that most of the buildings in both cities were neither demol¬ished nor reconstructed. In fact, the B-52s were programmed to spare civilians, and they pinpointed their targets with extraordinary preci¬sion. Nevertheless, some bombs did stray, with ghastly results. I interviewed survivors in the Kham Thien district of Hanoi, a neigh¬borhood located near a railway yard, where more than two hundred died. A young woman, Nguyen Thi Duc, broke down in tears as she recalled the deaths of her mother, two brothers, sister and brother- in-law when their house was struck. At the Bach Mai Hospital, sit¬uated near an airfield, Dr. Nguyen Luan related how he had amputated the limbs of victims in order to extricate them from the rubble. Of the one hundred patients and staff in the hospital at the time, eighteen were killed.
The American military costs were not inconsequential. The North Vietnamese shot down twenty-six U.S. aircraft, among them fifteen B-52s, and ninety-three pilots and crew members were lost, thirty- one of them captured. By December 30, when the bombing stopped, the Americans had exhausted their targets and the Communists had run out of surface-to-air missiles, having launched more than twelve hundred during the period. Four days earlier, replying to an American message, the North Vietnamese signaled their willingness to talk again as soon as the bombing halted. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho resumed their meetings on January 8, 1973, resolving their differences the next day-—Nixon’s sixtieth birthday. Nixon had already sent an ultimatum to Thieu: “You must decide now whether you desire to continue our alliance or whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves U.S. interests alone.” Thieu caved in. He realized that he could not, as he put it, “allow myself the luxury” of resisting America.
“We have finally achieved peace with honor,” intoned Nixon. But the peace agreement, formally signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, scarcely differed from the draft hammered out in October. Nixon’s dynamic bombing campaign had been superfluous—at least as an in¬strument of diplomacy. His purpose, however, had not been diplo¬matic. He had sought to reassure Thieu and to warn the Communists that he would not hesitate to bomb North Vietnam again should the armistice break down. The “madman theory” was no abstraction.
At that juncture, all the peace settlement accomplished was to stop the conflict pending a political solution, which might never be achieved. The Saigon regime had gained time—a “decent interval”— in which to resist the Communist challenge. But the Communists were not going to evaporate. Unlike the Geneva agreement of 1954, which had required their army to regroup in the north, this accord authorized both their northern and southern forces to remain in the areas of the south that they controlled. Thus the situation—a Com¬munist commentator called it “half war and half peace”—was almost certain to erupt in renewed fighting. It took no particular prescience to anticipate that eventuality. Writing in the New Republic from Paris at the time, I noted that the present phase “may only be an interlude that precedes the beginning of what could become the third Indochina war.” The key, I added, was “whether the struggle that lies ahead can be waged without American involvement.”
For Nixon—and for much of the public in the United States—the war would not be finally finished until the American prisoners held in North Vietnam came home. Since 1961, nearly nine thousand U.S. airplanes and helicopters had been lost in action over Cambodia, Laos and the two Vietnams. Some two thousand pilots and crew members had been killed, more than a thousand were missing and the captives in Communist hands numbered close to six hundred. The first Amer¬icans to be freed under the cease-fire agreement emerged on February 12, 1973; they included Robinson Risner, an air force colonel, who had been incarcerated in Hanoi for seven and a half years. Flown to Clark Field in the Philippines along with a hundred other airmen in the initial group released, Risner showed his spit and polish when he was summoned to the telephone to speak to the president: “This is Colonel Risner, sir, reporting for duty.”
There was no glory, however, in the ordeal of Risner and other Americans kept in the “Hanoi Hilton” and other jails. Though the North Vietnamese had acceded to the Geneva convention of 1949, which holds that prisoners of war are “victims of events” who merit “decent and humane treatment,” they followed the Soviet lead in making an exception for “crimes against humanity”—their portrayal of the U.S. bombing of their country. They confined many of the Americans to solitary cells for long periods, submitting them to such brutalities as a rope torture that yanked their limbs out of joint. They abused the captives for declining to broadcast prepared antiwar state-ments—often excerpted from the American press—or for rejecting other requests for “cooperation.” Admiral James Bond Stockdale, a navy pilot downed in 1965, noted that the hardiest survivors were not necessarily the strong political or religious types, but the “plucky little guys” who refused to be “reasonable” toward their Communist tor¬mentors. Yet, as Stockdale observed, “the pain and the loneliness were shallow complaints compared to finding yourself stripped of all en¬titlement to reputation, love or honor at home.”

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