The Peace That Never Was 2

Though they parried Kissinger’s gambit, the Communists sensed a softening of the American position. In Hanoi after the war, one of Le Duc Tho’s senior aides read to me excerpts from his official diary of the talks. Kissinger’s offer to consider the North Vietnamese and American forces in South Vietnam differently, he had noted, suggested that the United States would eventually retreat from its requirement that the northern troops be removed from the south. Kissinger had no such thought in mind at that stage, but the Communist perception was prescient.
By the late summer of 1970, American combat units had been pulled out of Cambodia, and the domestic turmoil aggravated by the incur¬sions seemed to have abated. But the relative calm was fragile, par¬ticularly in the academic community. Hardly a week passed without sporadic student protests, and returning veterans were beginning to participate in the demonstrations. A special commission appointed by Nixon to assess the unrest in universities and colleges reported that the country was “so polarized” that campuses might again explode in a fresh cycle of violence and repression, which would jeopardize “the very survival of the nation.” The commission, directed by Wil¬liam Scranton, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, called the divisions splitting American society “as deep as any since the Civil War” and contended that “nothing is more important than an end to the war” in Vietnam. The public appeared to share that attitude. Surveys showed that increasing numbers of Americans wanted a firm deadline for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Southeast Asia, whatever the risks for the Saigon government. The hope found expression on Capitol Hill, where the Senate only narrowly defeated a bill sponsored by Senators George McGovern of South Dakota and Mark Hatfield of Oregon to bring all the GIs home by December 31, 1971.
Vice-President Spiro Agnew, acting as Nixon’s lightning rod, flailed the opposition senators as “radical liberals” and even excoriated the Scranton group for its “neutrality” in recommending national rec¬onciliation. Nixon, meanwhile, oscillated between bravado and alarm. On the one hand, convinced that the “silent majority” would continue to back him under almost any circumstances, he boasted that he could resume the bombing of North Vietnam with impunity. On the other hand, troubled by the erosion of his popularity, he privately expressed the fear that he might be denied a second term. What especially rattled him was a growing disaffection among conservative politicians, the pillars of his support in Washington and in county courthouses across America, who were worried that the interminable war would damage their prospects in the congressional and local elections in November. He was not disturbed by the McGoverns and Hatfields; they had nothing better to suggest, he said, than a “bug-out.” “But,” he con¬fided to Kissinger, “when the Right starts wanting to get out, for whatever reason, that’s our problem.”
Richard Nixon’s dilemma in Southeast Asia was in many ways worse than Lyndon Johnson’s chronic nightmare. Nixon had ex¬panded the war into Cambodia while the North Vietnamese, in re-sponse, had extended their grip over Laos. Instead of dealing solely with Vietnam, a daunting challenge in itself, Nixon had assumed responsibility for all of Indochina. He also had to maintain the mo¬mentum of GI withdrawals, yet without any guarantee that the South Vietnamese army could improve rapidly enough to compensate for the departing U.S. troops. As the size of the American force shrank, moreover, the United States would inevitably lose leverage in its bargaining with North Vietnam. Clearly, Nixon and Kissinger des¬perately needed a drastic new initiative.
They dredged up the notion of a “standstill cease-fire,” one idea among many that had been buried in the bureaucratic files for years: the two sides would stop shooting and remain in place while an international conference hammered out an equitable settlement. The plan scared Thieu, who envisioned the North Vietnamese troops staying indefinitely in the southern regions they occupied, And Nixon had never liked the formula, which he regarded as dangerous to the Saigon regime. Kissinger had also voiced reservations in his Foreign Affairs article two years before, observing that the plan would probably result in a partition of South Vietnam. In addition, he had cautioned that with such a formal cessation of hostilities, the belligerents would then base their claims on the amount and location of the real estate they dominated.
But Nixon and Kissinger lacked room to maneuver in late 1970. Domestic dissent, again bubbling, threatened to boil over unless they ended the war. Le Duc Tho had made it plain, however, that the North Vietnamese troops were not going to pull out of the south, even if all the Americans departed. As far as the Communists were concerned, a mutual withdrawal scheme was no more negotiable now than it had been when Lyndon Johnson’s advisers Thus Nixon and Kissinger turned to the “standstill cease-fire” notion for lack of another idea.
Nixon unveiled the plan in a televised address on October 7, 1970, having told reporters it would be “the most comprehensive statement ever made on this subject since the beginning of this difficult war. ” He stressed that he had already repatriated one hundred and sixty-five thousand GIs from Vietnam and would bring home another ninety thousand by the following spring. The scheme earned instant praise in Congress, where even such antiwar stalwarts as McGovern, Hatfield and Fulbright lent their names to a resolution of approval. The press applauded, with the usually skeptical Wall Street Journal hailing the approach as “so appealing and so sane that only the most unreasonable critic could object to it.” This positive reaction seems to have been a combination of relief at Nixon’s moderate tone and sincere hope for the success of his effort. Once again, Nixon had foiled his opponents.

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