Meeting Jeff Kimball

Sunday 17 July, 2011 at 5:03 pm Ken 0

I remember the day I met Jeff Kimball.

I was looking through boxes of declassified documents in the vast, sunny research room at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, when I noticed the name “KIMBALL” printed on one of the pieces of cardboard the archives use to keep us researchers from dissolving into an undifferentiated herd.

By then I was very familiar Kimball’s book, Nixon’s Vietnam War, because my first project for the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center was to start listening to the Nixon tapes day-by-day, from the beginning, for those playing at home) and identify passages of historical interest. I got to hear Nixon’s presidency in real time and then start transcribing the most historic parts.

It quickly became apparent, as those of you who have watched the Fatal Politics videos know, that Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger had, by the time taping began (Tuesday, February 16, 1971) adopted a “decent interval” exit strategy for Vietnam. While they told the American people they were seeking “peace with honor,” they were really seeking a face-saving period of a year or two between Nixon’s final withdrawal of American troops and North Vietnam’s final takeover of the South. Nixon deliberately, consciously, prolonged the war for four years because he knew he wouldn’t be reelected if South Vietnam collapsed before Election Day 1972. (Click on Videos in the upper right hand corner to hear and see the evidence yourself.)

In other words, Kimball was right. While most writers, stretching back to the Nixon administration, accepted the President’s public proclamations that he would withdraw from Vietnam only when the South Vietnamese were capable of defending themselves, Nixon’s Vietnam War argued that Nixon and Kissinger had a “decent interval” exit strategy. When Kimball published that in 1998, he was a lone voice in the wilderness. Few other writers (I can’t think of one) were willing to admit that they’d been wrong, although everyone had to admire his research, the rigor of his analysis, and his careful and weighing of the evidence.

That was 1998. The following year, the National Archives released the first six months of Nixon tapes (from February through July 1971). Since then, the Archives and, after it became part of the presidential library system, the Richard M. Nixon Library & Museum, have released more than 2,000 hours of Nixon tapes (from February 1971 through March 1973) and the evidence–the best primary source historians have ever had or will ever have–has proved Kimball right.

So when I saw that he was working in the Archives’ research room at the same time as me back in 2001, I went over to shake his hand and tell him about one of the tapes that supported his thesis. He then showed me a new piece of evidence that had emerged since he’d published–Kissinger’s briefing book for Polo I, his secret trip to China 40 years ago this month, in the margins of which the national security adviser had scribbled, “We want a decent interval. You have our assurance.” (The written record of the Nixon administration, as well as the tape-recorded one, has also backed Kimball up. Nixon’s is the best-documented presidency in history. In addition to the tapes generated by Nixon’s secret, voice-activated recording system in the Oval Office and elsewhere, Kissinger’s staff made near-verbatim transcripts of face-to-face meetings with foreign leaders.)

Since then, the tide has turned, and what was once Kimball’s lonely view is now widely acknowledge as the view that the abundant evidence forces on all who face it. Even Jeremi Suri, whose studiously neutral Henry Kissinger and the American Century has won praise from the left, right and middle, wrote: “Though he would later deny it, the NSC advisor received consistent information that Saigon could not sustain an American troop withdrawal. Kissinger hoped to use his secret talks with North Vietnam to  forestall the collapse of the US-supported regime as American troops withdrew. By 1971 he and Nixon would accept a ‘decent interval’ between US disengagement and a North Vietnamese takeover of the south.”

Kimball’s a model scholar and I’m glad to see his work vindicated.

Here’s the Polo I briefing book. The “We want a decent interval” marginalia is 62 pages in.

I’ll be moderating a panel on Vietnam that features Kimball, the prolific and impressive John Prados, author of many valuable books on Vietnam, and Katherine Scott, a newly minted Ph.D. whose done extraordinary work on the national security state, as part of “Understanding Richard Nixon: A Symposium,” at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, on July 22-23. C-SPAN plans to cover it.

Links aren’t working for me today, and I refuse to bug my webmaster on one of her few free weekends, so . . .

Find out more about the symposium at the Nixon Library web site:

Kimball’s follow-up to Nixon’s Vietnam War, 2003’s The Vietnam War Files, includes the evidence that wasn’t available in 1998:

Find out more about the Miller Center at:

And more about the PRP at:



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