Nixon Didn’t Have to Accept Congressional Cut-Off of U.S. Combat in Indochina

On June 29, 1973, Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford, R-Mich., rose on the floor of the House of Representatives and made an announcement that left his colleagues stunned. 
President Richard M. Nixon, Ford said, would sign a bill barring U.S. combat activities in all of Indochina–North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnamese battlefields. As Republican leader during the Vietnam War, Ford had led many successful floor fights against bills to end the U.S. combat role in it. 
To his colleagues, Ford’s announcement made no sense. Just that week, Nixon had vetoed a much weaker bill, one that would have stopped his bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese supply lines through Laos and Cambodia. Only two days before Ford’s surprise announcement, the House had sustained the President’s veto. Nixon had denounced the “Cambodia rider,”saying it would “cripple or destroy the chances for an effective negotiated settlement in Cambodia and the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops,” as required by Nixon’s January 1973 settlement, commonly called the Paris Peace Accords. 
Now Ford was telling the House that Nixon would sign a bill that would not only bar him from sending U.S. bombers into Cambodia and Laos, but into North Vietnam and South Vietnamese battlefields as well. Antiwar lawmakers couldn’t believe it. They knew they lacked the votes to force Nixon to accept a ban on combat in even part of Indochina; how could it be that he’d accept a ban for all of Indochina? “We did not have the votes to override the veto,” said Rep. Paul W. Whitten, R-Ct. “We do not have them now.” 
The override attempt had been a key test of Nixon’s political authority. At this point all U.S. ground forces had come home from Vietnam, so Nixon could no longer say the bombing was needed to protect them. Watergate had begun to erode the President’s popularity. All he needed to sustain a veto, however, was one-third of the votes in either the Senate or the House. He had them in the House, as he’d proven that week when 173 representatives voted with him. (He needed, at most 146, and that was only if every member voted.) Supporters of the Cambodia and Laos bombing ban had mustered 241 votes, a simple majority, but 35 short of what they needed that day. 
They had not picked up enough votes in the two days since, according to the New York Times: “there was a majority of votes in both Houses of Congress to attach amendments cutting off bombing funds to fiscal measures that the Government needs to continue operating into the new fiscal year starting Sunday. But Congress did not have the two-thirds vote necessary to override Presidential vetoes of these measures.” 

Haig’s Version

General Alexander M. Haig, former deputy to National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger and then the White House chief of staff, provided a charming explanation for the great reversal in his memoirs. According to him, it was all a big misunderstanding. 

In June 1973, while in San Clemente, as White House Chief of Staff, I was informed that the House of Represenatives was on the verge of passing a bill to call a total halt to all bombing by U.S. aircraft throughout Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by August 15. Passage of this bill would render worthless the promises Nixon had made in person and I had so often repeated to Thieu that the U.S would punish Hanoi for breaches of the cease-fire. The level of violence had greatly intensified in South Vietnam, and this measure was tantamount to giving Hanoi a green light to conquer the country. 

I phoned the Republican leader of the House, Gerald Ford, and asked him in the name of the President to stop the bill. Ford, as honest as the day is long, made no effort to hide his surprise and dismay. He said he had been led to believe by Mel Laird that this bill was acceptable to the President. I told him that Laird’s support was news to the President. Ford was stunned. If he reversed himself now, he might have to resign as Republican leader.

Despite my concern, Nixon could not bring himself to ask Ford to do that: “Al, I can’t afford to lose Jerry Ford.” The bill passed on June 29 and Nixon signed it into law three days later, thereby sealing the fate of [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu and his people . . . (Haig, Inner Circles, pp. 316-317.)

There are some holes in Haig’s story. 

Kissinger Telcons

Melvin R. Laird was no amateur at congressional relations or military issues. He’d represented Wisconsin as a Republican congressman for eight terms before becoming Nixon’s secretary of defense. After Laird resigned as SECDEF in 1973, Nixon called him back to the White House to work on legislative issues. 

Thanks to Kissinger’s habit of having his secretaries transcribe his phone calls, it’s clear neither Laird nor Ford made the mistake Haig laid on them. 
On the eve of Ford’s announcement, Kissinger was worried, because Sen. Jacob K. Javits, R-N.Y., had told him the Senate was considering an all-Indochina combat ban. 
“I think we can save the House vote,” Laird assured him. As Laird was flying out to the “Western White House” in San Clemente, Calif., Ford had called him twice on the plane. The House Republican leader was working on a compromise bill. It would allow Nixon to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia for six more weeks, until Aug. 15. 
“And that’s the way it should go to the Senate,” Laird said, “and the House will stand firm on that, Henry.”
“OK, then,” Kissinger said, “I’ll tell Javits we can’t make any deals.”
“Yeah, I think that you should stay with the House language. Don’t give up any more. I think we’ve gone as far as we can.”
“Mel, we’ve gone further than we can afford.” (Kissinger had wanted to be able to continue the bombing until September.) 
With Laird’s assurances, Kissinger personally lobbied against an all-Indochina combat ban. “I don’t normally call congressmen about congressional–about votes, in fact, I’ve never done it,” Kissinger told House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas E. Morgan, D-Pa., “but I think that vote on Cambodia today is really so important that I wanted you to have our view, which is that the House version [stopping the bombing of Cambodia] is one we can live with, but the Eagleton Amendment [banning U.S. bombing in North and South Vietnam as well] would be really serious.” How serious? “If the Senate version were adopted,” Kissinger, referring to the all-Indochina ban, told House Government Operations Committee Chairman Chester E. Holifield, D-Calif., “it might really destroy this.” 

More Holes

Another hole in Haig’s story: House Appropriations Committee Chairman George H. Mahon, D-Tx., had spoken with Laird himself and didn’t see how Ford could be right. “I certainly have received assurances from people such as Mel Laird,” Mahon said, “although I have not talked to the President, but these assurances have been unequivocal.” 
The biggest hole in the Haig version is what Ford did to ease his colleagues’ doubts: He left the floor of the House and spoke by phone with the President himself (not, as Haig had it, Haig). “Mr. Chairman, I just finished talking with the President himself for approximately 10 minutes,” Ford said, “and he assured me personally that everything I said on the floor of the House is a commitment by him.” 
Nixon was at the Western White House in San Clemente, away from his taping system, so we can’t listen to his phone call with Ford. But it was the President–not Laird, Ford or Kissinger–who decided to accept a bill that would bar him from bombing battlegrounds in the South and anywhere in the North. 

Haig’s story is cute. It excuses all parties involved (well, all the Republican ones at least) as victims of one big misunderstanding. But it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Nixon’s Version

Afterward, Nixon claimed that he had no choice but to accept the all-Indochina ban on U.S. bombing, writing that “it was becoming clear that the antiwar majority in Congress would soon be able to impose its will.” But seasoned vote-counters like Ford and Laird thought that the President didn’t have to give up, that he could win this battle.

“When I protested to Nixon,” Kissinger wrote, “he said it was too late; he had yielded to force majeure”–a greater force. Nixon had done something stranger. He’d yielded to a lesser force. 
By doing so, he solved most of the political problems created by his “decent interval” exit strategy

Political Benefits

Although Nixon had promised Saigon that he would respond to Communist violations of the Paris Accords with massive military retaliation against North Vietnam, it was a promise he couldn’t keep–not without creating an impossible military, diplomatic and political dilemma for himself. 
The dilemma would arise as soon as the North captured the crew members of any downed U.S. aircraft. Hanoi had had some practice shooting down American planes. During the 1972 Christmas bombing alone, it shot down 15 B-52s and captured 24 U.S. airmen. 
That was before the Paris Accords, when Nixon still had something to trade for release of the POWs–namely, total U.S. withdrawal of all ground forces. As of June 1973, however, after all the ground forces had come home, Nixon no longer could trade the withdrawal of ground forces for the release of any new POWs. If he launched air strikes on the North and it captured any crew members, he would face a terrible choice–leave the POWs in North Vietnam or surrender. Not the disguised surrender of the “decent interval” deal, but public, open, undeniable surrender. Hanoi could simply refuse to release the prisoners unless Nixon called off all air strikes and/or cut off aid to Saigon. Either of those moves would amount to surrender. (Nixon had tried a rescue mission in his first term, but intelligence couldn’t locate the prisoners.) 

The new prisoners dilemma was only one of the factors keeping Nixon from using American airpower against North Vietnam. Air strikes in Vietnam would also violate the secret assurances he had given North Vietnam through Beijing and Moscow that if they waited a year or two after he withdrew the troops before conquering the South, he would not intervene. That was why Hanoi had signed the Paris Accords. (Nixon realized long before the deal was done that he would not be able to “enforce” the agreement. On April 30, 1972, he’d written to Kissinger that he wanted the bombing of North Vietnam to, “if possible, tip the balance in favor of the South Vietnamese for battles to come when we no longer will be able to help them with major air strikes.”) 

Once the Paris Accords were signed and American POWs and troops had come home in early 1973, Nixon needed an excuse not to use US airpower to punish the North for violating the agreement. (Sending in the bombers would, of course, violate Nixon’s secret assurances to the Communists that he would not intervene if they took over the South following a “decent interval.”)  Kissinger had told the President that his own settlement terms would destroy South Vietnam, and Nixon himself had said, “I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway. I’m just being perfectly candid.” Their private view was that Saigon was going down, no matter how much they claimed in public that they had achieved “peace with honor.”

A congressional ban on any US combat in Indochina gave him that excuse–and a politically convenient scapegoat to blame for the Communist takeover of the South.

The thought of letting Congress stop the bombing of Cambodia and then blaming it for whatever happened afterwards certainly occurred to Kissinger and Laird on June 26, 1973. 

Kissinger: We really have to think about whether we are not better off saying these sons of bitches just are responsible for the defeat. 

Laird: Politically, you’d be better off. I don’t think Cambodia will ever work out very well anyway and I’d like to be able to blame these guys for doing it myself. But that’s–Henry, you know I’m kind of a black character and I’d like to blame these guys for the incapability of getting these things resolved, because I think it’s damn touch-and-go to get it resolved as far as Cambodia is concerned anyway.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Laird:  I’d like to be able to blame them.

Kissinger: No, we’d have a pretty good chance [of a Cambodia settlement] because we got the Chinese involved and the Soviets, but I get your point. 

If a congressional prohibition on U.S. bombing in Cambodia could be blamed for Communist victory in that country (as Laird suggested) then a congressional prohibition on U.S. bombing in all of Indochina could be blamed for Communist victory in Vietnam. 
A few days after signing the bill, Nixon attacked Congress for passing it in a public letter to Democratic leaders decrying “the dangerous potential consequences of this measure,” “the hazards that lie in the path chosen by Congress,” and the “abandonment of a friend.” 
Democrats saw this as an attempt to dump in their laps anything bad that happened thereafter in Cambodia: “In Congressional quarters,” the Times reported, “Mr. Nixon’s letter . . . was widely interpreted as an attempt to shift onto Congress the blame and the responsibility if Cambodia should fall to the Communists after the halt in the bombing.”
What the Democrats didn’t realize was that Nixon would later use the same bill to shift blame and responsibility onto them for the fall of Saigon as well. 

Edited on Dec. 9, 2011. 

Read Part One and Part Two of “Legends of the Fall of Saigon.” 

Learn more about the Presidential Recordings Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

All of the transcripts of Kissinger telephone conversations (the “Kissinger Telcons”) quoted in this post are available online through the good offices of the Digital National Security Archive. The quotes from the House floor are in the June 29, 1973, Congressional Record. 

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  • 1 comment

    1. Alda Schrayter Comment:December 21, 2011 at 8:29 pm

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