Mistakes in News Reports on the Latest Nixon Tapes Release

Tuesday 16 June, 2009 at 1:16 pm Ken 0

Journalists must learn this lesson early in their careers: What you don’t know can hurt you, but what what you assume will kill. 

In the hopes of avoiding the kind of false assumptions that marred news media coverage of the last opening of Nixon tapes to the public by the National Archives, I’m going to try to nail them (most of them (some of them (the ones that make my howls of pain particularly piteous))) before the next release on Tuesday, June 23, 2009.

(No, I’m not going to name names or link links, deriving little pleasure from nipping careers in the bud and recognizing the impossibility of writing a story on “What’s New and Important in This 154-Hour Nixon Tapes Release?” within the confines of a single 24-hour day.) 

In the period covered by this release — January and February 1973 — the most significant event in both foreign policy and domestic politics went by the name of the “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam.” 

One might assume that the parties to an “Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” believed that it would end the war and restore peace in Vietnam. One might further assume that such a belief would be the parties’ motive for entering the agreement. But one would be sadly mistaken. 

South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu believed that the agreement would lead to destruction of his government through a final Communist military victory. As he told General Alexander M. Haig through a translator during an October 4, 1972, classified briefing in Saigon: “In the proposal you have suggested, our Government will continue to exist. But it is only an agonizing solution, and sooner or later the Government will crumble and Nguyen Van Thieu will have to commit suicide somewhere along the line.” (Quote comes from page 17 of this memo.) 

At 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 6, 1972, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger walked into the Oval Office and began to discuss the memo with the President. 

Kissinger: I read Haig’s transcript and these guys are scared. And they’re desperate. And they know what’s coming. And [South Vietnamese President] Thieu says that, sure, these proposals keep him going, but somewhere down the road he’ll have no choice except to commit suicide. And he’s probably right. I mean, we have to be honest— 

President Nixon: Right. 

Kissinger: —among ourselves. 

Richard Nixon had not informed Kissinger when he had a voice-activated recording system wired to seven hidden microphones in the Oval Office 21 months earlier. Neither man had reason, at that point, to think that the conversation would not stay “among ourselves” forever. 

Kissinger noted that triangular diplomacy — detente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with China — was producing results. Hanoi was under pressure from its Communist allies and aid suppliers to make a deal with Nixon. 

Kissinger: Hell, the thing that worries me is that—before we get to the specifics—is that we’ve now got all the steam into the boiler. Everything—

President Nixon: I know. 

Kissinger: that we have a plan for is happening. The Russians are pressing them. The Chinese are pressing them. 

President Nixon: The French? 

Kissinger: VIP planes going back and forth between Peking, Moscow and Hanoi. [Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F.] Dobrynin was in again yesterday. I got another message from [North Vietnamese negotiator] Le Duc Tho yesterday. I’ve had five since the last meeting. And I actually think we can settle it. On terms, however.

President Nixon: On our terms [unclear] but not [South Vietnamese President] Thieu’s. 

Kissinger: On close to our terms. But—and I also think that Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him.  

Needless to say, Nixon and Kissinger left this conversation out of their respective memoirs. While both boasted that the Communists accepted their settlement terms at the October 8, 1972, round of negotiations outside Paris, neither mentioned that these terms doomed the South Vietnamese government. Their political ambitions — indeed, their political survival in office — depended on fostering the illusion that they had saved South Vietnam. A settlement was essential to that illusion. 

The North Vietnamese accepted Nixon and Kissinger’s terms for the same reason that the South Vietnamese rejected them. North and South both realized that these terms would lead to Communist military victory. As did Nixon and Kissinger. 

Which leads us to the trouble with press reports on the previous opening of Nixon tapes. Last year, when the Nixon Library opened the White House tapes from November and December 1972 to the public, reporters went searching for new insight about that year’s “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi. 

One might assume that a President bombed North Vietnam to defeat its government or to persuade it to settle on his terms. But one would be sadly mistaken. 

Once the North accepted Nixon’s terms in October 1972, his chief political problem was getting the South to accept them, too. He wanted to claim that he’d achieved the “peace with honor” that he’d promised in two winning presidential campaigns. The South’s refusal to take the deal made him look bad. If the settlement was as good for Saigon as he said, why was Saigon refusing it? 

In the hopes of gaining South Vietnamese acquiescence, Nixon privately assured President Thieu that America would enforce it. Nixon promised to use his authority as commander in chief to respond to Communist violations of the settlement with American military power. 

After Nixon won reelection by the largest percentage of the popular vote of any Republican presidential nominee in history, the negotiations between Kissinger and the North resumed. In another attempt to mollify the South, Kissinger presented the North with additional settlement demands desired by Saigon. The North, having been assured by Nixon and Kissinger before the election that it had a deal, got testy and started making additional demands of its own. 

This was the context of the “Christmas bombing.” It was aimed less at persuading our enemy than at persuading our ally. All Nixon needed from the Communists was the willingness to settle on basically the terms they had already agreed to two months earlier. It wasn’t Hanoi, after all, that had backed off from the deal. 

What Nixon needed from South Vietnamese President Thieu would be much harder to get: Saigon’s agreement to terms that, as Thieu and Nixon both realized, would lead ultimately to the South Vietnamese government’s demise. Nixon wanted Thieu to believe that he would retaliate militarily if the North violated the settlement after the deal was made. The “Christmas bombing” was another chance to show resolve. 

This December 13, 1972, cable that Haig sent to Kissinger after meeting with the President puts the decision to bomb Hanoi in perspective:

The President asked me if I favored doing so and I answered affirmatively. The President then went through a long exposition of the fact of how difficult this would be. The American people would not understand and the realities were that that it was the U.S. and not Hanoi that was backing away from the agreement because we had, in effect, placed additional demands on them. He also added that the other culpable party was Saigon and not Hanoi and that we can expect a massive push from the [political] left charging us with being tools of Thieu. (Emphasis added.) 

Bizarre as it sounds, Nixon’s decision to bomb the enemy capital of Hanoi was part of his attempt to win concessions from the allied capital of Saigon. 

The attempt failed. Even after the “Christmas bombing,” South Vietnam refused to settle on Nixon’s terms. Why would Saigon make a deal that would lead to its destruction following a “decent interval” of a year or two? 

Because Nixon threatened the South Vietnamese with the prospect of something worse: Loss of the U.S. military and economic aid that Saigon depended on for its survival. 

That threat lacked teeth until the middle of January 1973, when Nixon enlisted the aid of two conservative political legends to back him up: Armed Services Committee Chairman John C. Stennis, D-Mississippi, and “Mr. Conservative” himself, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater, R-Arizona. How Nixon got Goldwater and Stennis, staunch supporters of the Vietnam War, to help him force President Thieu to accept a settlement that would doom his government to destruction — a government that nearly 60,000 Americans died defending — is a question that the June 23, 2009, release of tapes from January and February of 1973 will help answer. (I hope. We won’t know what’s on the tapes until we hear them.) 

In my next post, I’ll provide some background on what we currently know about this strange chapter in the history of the Vietnam War. 

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The Nixon tape quoted above is: Conversation 793-6, 6 October 1972, 9:30 am – 10:03 am, Oval Office. As the government continues to declassify the Nixon’s tapes, the Presidential Recordings Program makes them available for download. Free! 

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