“. . . A War . . . Which We Can No Longer Win . . .”

“I knew domestically we’d wind up in something like this position sooner or later. Sooner or later the doves were going to come after us. And we would have to pay ransom to the Soviet Union and to Communist China just to keep a war going in Southeast Asia which we can no longer win because of the errors of your predecessor.” National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger, January 3, 1973. 

I was asked today, did President Nixon know that the Communists were going to win in Vietnam? 

Nixon realized that the Communists were going to win in Vietnam. “I look at the tide of history out there,” he said in the Oval Office, “South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway.” 

Nixon publicly promised to end the war through Vietnamization or negotiation. Vietnamization was supposed to train and arm the South Vietnamese to defend themselves. Negotiation was supposed to produce a settlement with the North guaranteeing the South’s right to choose its government by election. Nixon pledged to withdraw American troops from Vietnam only when Vietnamization or negotiation succeeded — when the South could defend and govern itself. This was his definition of “peace with honor” — in public, that is. 

Privately, however, Nixon realized that the South would not be able to defend and govern itself. His military and diplomatic decisions about the war were based on his recognition (1) that he would not be able to make the South capable of self-defense and self-government and (2) that if voters recognized what he recognized, they would reject him in the 1972 election as a President who lost a war. 

Viewers of Fatal Politics have seen how this recognition shaped Nixon’s military and diplomatic decisions:

Military: More than a year in advance, Nixon decided to bring the troops home shortly before or after Election Day 1972. Stretching out troop withdrawals through his first term would keep enough American troops in Vietnam to enable Nixon to avoid a pre-election collapse of the South Vietnamese government, while also enabling him to announce a series of partial troop withdrawals throughout his first term, withdrawals he presented to the American people as “proof” that Vietnamization was working. But we heard Nixon on tape privately express his determination to bring the troops home whether South Vietnam can survive without them or not. His timetable for withdrawing American troops was based on politics. 

Armed with the results of a secret opinion poll on Vietnam exit strategies, Nixon implemented the most popular one when it would do him the most good. The poll showed a large majority in favor of bombing and blockading the North for six months to get a compromise settlement, and Nixon announced the bombing and mining of the North six months, minus one day, before the 1972 election. The bombing and mining were as popular as the polling suggested, but did not bring us any closer to a South Vietnam that could defend and govern itself. 

Diplomatic: Through triangular diplomacy with the Chinese and the Soviet Union, Nixon let the Communists know that if they overthrew the South Vietnamese government after he withdrew American troops, he would not intervene–provided they gave him a “decent interval” of about 18 months.

In other words, the Communists agreed, one month before the 1972 election, to a settlement that called for elections in the South, because Nixon had let them know through diplomatic channels that they didn’t have to abide by the settlement’s terms — that they could overthrow the South Vietnamese government after a “decent interval,” or, in Kissinger’s words, “a year or two.” 

I don’t say Nixon knew what was going to happen in Vietnam, because it’s impossible to know the future. But Nixon thought the Communists would win. He expected the Communists to win. He realized the Communists would win. 

Nixon and Kissinger didn’t like talking about this, but sometimes they had to — especially when it was time to make a decision. In August 1973, when the North made the crucial concession of allowing Thieu to stay in office at the time the settlement was signed. In October 1972, when the North was ready to settle on Nixon’s terms. And in January 1973, when Thieu’s continuing refusal to accept Nixon’s settlement terms gave the President a choice: get Thieu to agree to the settlement (Nixon called this Option One) or settle without him (Option Two). 

I transcribed these January 3, 1973, passages from the latest Nixon tapes release this afternoon:

President Nixon: Let me put it this way, putting it quite candidly: Where frankly taking an Option One, which we know has many potential risks — although not certainty — risks of a collapse in South Vietnam, I think it’s better than going with Option Two, with all of the pressure [unclear] that we’ve had to go through. In other words, there comes a point in war when–not defeat, because that isn’t really what we’re talking about, fortunately, in a sense–but where an end that is not too satisfactory–in fact, that’s very unsatisfactory–is a hell of a lot better than the alternative. That’s really what we get down to.

Later in the conversation, Nixon continues:

President Nixon: The reason I paint that picture as dark as it is, is that I want us to see whatever the other picture is. Dark as it is, it may not be as dark as this one. You see? I know the darkness in the other picture. I know what Thieu [unclear] I know that we ought to improve on the agreement, because otherwise he can’t take it, it’ll make him collapse and so forth. In my view . . . 

Kissinger: Well, you know, I was always 

President Nixon: [Unclear.]

Kissinger: I was always [unclear] Mr. President, for all the reasons you gave, for the reason that I knew domestically we’d wind up in something like this position sooner or later. Sooner or later the doves were going to come after us. And we would have to pay ransom to the Soviet Union and to Communist China just to keep a war going in Southeast Asia which we can no longer win because of the errors of your predecessor. And thirdly because Option One fulfills your May 8th [1972] objectives, it exceeds them, and if the guy collapses it’s his fault. So for all these reasons, I always thought–and the criminal thing he has done to us is–your authority. I mean, supposing we had brought this thing off at the end of October [1972] or, let’s say, the middle of November in order to separate it from the election. 

President Nixon: Any time. 

Kissinger: Your authority of having foreseen it–for anything, even in Southeast Asia, would be unchallenged today. That was my major–

President Nixon: In America or the world?

Kissinger: In America and the world. You would have shoved it down their throats and you would have made it.

President Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: And this son of a bitch has involved us in a totally [unclear], totally needless domestic brawl in a war which was well-designed. We achieved our objective, and suddenly he raised objections which he had never raised before.

Both these passages came from a tape released today, conversation 832-10, 3 January 1973, recorded at an unknown time between 4:19 and 5:05 PM in the Oval Office. The first one starts 17.5 minutes into 832-010b.flac. The second passage begins 20 minutes into the same tape. You can download a broadcast-quality sound file of this conversation by clicking on the link or by going here and, in the FLAC column, opening the chron5 folder, then the 197301 (January 1973) folder, and the tape 832 folder and right-clicking on 832-010b.flac.

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