Nixon Threatened South Vietnam With a Cutoff of American Aid by Congressional Conservatives

Just as one might assume that Richard Nixon would not force South Vietnamese leaders to accept a settlement that he and they realized would destroy the government that 58,000 Americans had died defending, one might also assume that congressional conservatives would not threaten a cut off of U.S. military and economic aid to the Saigon government if it didn’t give in to Nixon’s demands. But one would be sadly mistaken.

Three weeks after President Richard M. Nixon won reelection with the largest percentage of the popular vote of any Republican in history, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger read an ultimatum to Nguyen Phu Duc, special assistant to the President of South Vietnam. The ultimatum came in the form of a cable from Nixon himself :

November 24, 1972

I have checked today [the President’s cable said] as to the attitude of the leading Democrats and Republicans who support us in the Senate on Vietnam. In preparing them for the consultation which must take place once agreement is reached we have informed them of the key elements of the October 8 agreement: the return of our POWs, a ceasefire, and a formula under which [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu remains in power and all South Vietnamese have an opportunity to participate in a free election to determine what government they want for the future.

The result of this check indicates that they were not only unanimous but vehement in stating their conclusions that if Saigon is the only roadblock for reaching agreement on this basis they will personally lead the fight when the new Congress reconvenes on January 3 to cut off all military and economic assistance to Saigon. My evaluation is that the cut-off would be February 1. They further believe that under such circumstances we have no choice but to go it alone and to make a separate deal with North Vietnam for the return of our POWs and for our withdrawal.

(Emphasis added.)

This was an astonishing threat, one Nixon didn’t dare make in public. Cutting off American aid would mean destroying the South Vietnamese government. The Saigon government simply could not continue to exist without U.S. military and economic assistance. (A point Nixon himself made directly to Special Assistant Duc five days later: “Without U.S. aid, Saigon could not survive . . . without U.S. funds Saigon would be through.” See page 6 of this memcon.) In its 18-year existence up to that point, the South Vietnamese government simply had never survived without American aid.

And, according to the President, this threat to destroy an ally was being made by his congressional allies, the conservative Republican and Democratic senators who had backed his war policies.

These [Nixon continued] are men who who have loyally supported us on November 3, Cambodia and Laos, and May 8.

Those dates and places refer respectively to (1) Nixon’s November 3, 1969 “Silent Majority” television address rallying American public support for continuing the war until the South was capable of its own self-defense and self-government, (2) the offensive Nixon ordered in 1970 to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a military action known alternatively as the invasion of Cambodia or as the Cambodian incursion (3) a 1971 offensive by the South Vietnamese, backed with American air support, to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, and (4) Nixon’s May 8, 1972, announcement of his decision to bomb and mine North Vietnam.

Tell [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu that I cannot keep the lid on his strong supporters in the House and Senate much longer.

(Emphasis added.)

These were lawmakers who had supported Nixon even as he had added (up to that point) 46 months to the war, and 20,031 to the total American dead. Yet the President was telling Thieu that his supporters would not allow the war to go on if the South refused to settle on Nixon’s terms.

The third option of our trying to continue to go forward together on the basis of continuing the war is simply not open. The door has been slammed shut hard and fast by the longtime supporters of the hard line in Vietnam in the House and Senate who control the purse strings. (Emphasis added. You can read the entire cable from Nixon here, starting on page 2.)

The threat didn’t work at first. Saigon held out for nearly two more months, until January of 1973, when two of these “longtime supporters of the hard line” publicly declared that South Vietnam had to settle or else lose American aid.

Goldwater and Stennis Tell Saigon Not to Balk

By David E. Rosenbaum

Special to The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18[, 1973]. Two of the Saigon government’s strongest supporters in the United States Senate–Barry Goldwater and John C. Stennis . . . warned that South Vietnam would lose support in the United States for further economic and military assistance if President Nguyen Van Thieu blocked a settlement of the war.

. . .

The warnings addressed to the Saigon government by Senator Stennis, who spoke in the Senate, and by Senator Goldwater, who issued a statement, were markedly similar. . . .

Stennis, conservative Mississippi Democrat, chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee, was a longtime and influential advocate of escalating the Vietnam War. Historian Joseph Fry wrote: “The Mississippi Senator hounded [Lyndon B. Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert S.] MacNamara and the DOD and lobbied relentlessly for unrestrained bombing of North Vietnam.” (Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings, p. 96.) This was a very popular move when Nixon finally implemented it (see “Poll-Tested Bombing,” parts one and two). While it succeeded for Nixon politically, it did not persuade the North to give up on military victory, just delay it for a year or two under Nixon’s “decent interval” terms.

Stennis told the Senate:

“I do not think this is the time for the Government of South Vietnam to be an obstacle to peace. The South Vietnamese Government must realize that there are limits to what the American people are willing to do.

“The South Vietnamese will need economic and military aid in the coming years. However, the South Vietnamese can jeopardize American support for such programs if they emerge now as the obstacle to peace in Southeast Asia.”

Senator Barry M. Goldwater, R-Ariz., was, of course, “Mr. Conservative.” His successful bid for the Republican nomination in 1964 signaled the dawn of an era of conservative dominance in the party (though he was crushed in the general election by Lyndon Johnson in the only popular landslide bigger than Nixon’s).

Senator Goldwater said that his statement was “directed to President Thieu,” whom he cautioned not to object to minor points in any peace agreement.

“I am sure that support for President Thieu and his Government will diminish rapidly in this country if this happens,” Senator Goldwater declared. “It would imperil any future help which South Vietnam might obtain from this country.”

(Subscribers can read the full article on the New York Times web site.)

Nixon cited the Stennis and Goldwater statements in the final letter he sent Thieu demanding acquiescence to his settlement terms.

It is obvious that we face a situation of most extreme gravity when long-time friends of South Viet-Nam such as Senators Goldwater and Stennis, on whom we have relied for four years to carry our programs of assistance through the Congress, make public declarations that a refusal by your Government of reasonable peace terms would make it impossible to continue aid. (“Nixon to Thieu,” 19 January 1973, quoted by Jussi M. Hanhimäki and Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, pp. 234-235. Or you can read the letter itself here.)

The threat worked.

“For Nixon to use Goldwater in the letter as evidence that support against Thieu was building up in Congress had a strong influence on Thieu,” wrote Nguyen Tien Hung, another special assistant to the South Vietnamese President, after the war. “He realized that even his staunchest supporters had deserted him.” (Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter, The Palace File, p. 155.)

A deal that would keep the South Vietnamese government around for a “decent interval” of a year or two was more attractive than an American aid cutoff that would destroy it even more quickly.

The June 23, 2009, release of Nixon White House tapes from January and February of 1973 could shed light on this sordid chapter in political history. (I know, “could” is not saying much, but we never know what’s on the tapes until we get to hear them.) The first key words I’ll be searching for in the finding aids will be “Goldwater” and “Stennis.” How did Nixon get these two pillars of the right to put teeth in his ultimatum to South Vietnam? What did he tell them? 

ETA: June 22, 2009, 11:43 AM: I found (most of the) answer in the Kissinger Telcons (transcripts of the national security adviser’s phone calls made by his NSC secretaries) and will post . . . as soon as I can!

All three — Nixon, Goldwater and Stennis —  had a compelling political interest in convincing a majority that continuing the war for four years had paid off — had achieved the “peace with honor” that Nixon spoke of. If all Nixon’s continuation of the war had achieved was a deal that would lead to a Communist military victory in a year or two, then the 20,200 American casualties that occurred during those four years had been in vain. And the Americans who tried to force Nixon to withdraw sooner had been right — prolonging the war had merely postponed defeat until after Nixon was safely reelected.

Coming soon: more than one post needed to puncture some of the aid cutoff myths that have sprung like weeds around this subject.

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