Was our December 1972 bombing of Hanoi a great victory that brought “peace with honor”? Or was it a blunder that cost South Vietnam its freedom?
IF THE MANY CONTROVERSIES THAT SWIRL around the American role in the Vietnam War, one of the most contentious centers on the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in December 1972. This event followed Henry A. Kissinger’s October news conference in which he said, “Peace is at hand,” and President Richard Nixon’s triumphant reelection in November. It preceded the signing of the armistice in January 1973 and the release of the American POWs.
According to Nixon and his supporters, the Christmas bombing forced the North Vietnamese to make concessions, accept an armistice, and release American POWs. It was a great U.S. victory that brought peace with honor.
According to Nixon’s critics, the armistice agreement signed in January 1973 was identical to the one reached in October 1972. The bombing brought no concessions from the enemy, nor was it intended to; its purpose was to persuade the South Vietnamese to go along with an armistice to which they were violently opposed. The bombing ended not because the enemy cried “enough” but because American losses of B-52s were becoming intolerable. In addition, conservative critics called the bombing an American defeat that brought a temporary cease-fire at the cost of a free and independent South Vietnam.
Like so much else in the Vietnam War, the issue of the Christmas bombing was divisive and remains so. To the pro-war hawks, it was done with surgical precision, sparing civilian lives; to the antiwar doves, it was terror bombing, pure and simple. These differences in view cannot be reconciled or settled, but they can be examined.
FOR THREE YEARS, KISSINGER, AS NATIONAL security adviser, had been engaged in secret talks with Le Duc Tho in Paris, seeking a negotiated peace. In the spring of 1972 the Communists had launched their largest offensive ever and had almost overrun South Vietnam. Nixon had responded by bombing Hanoi and mining Haiphong Harbor. The offensive was stopped. In October Kissinger and Le Duc Tho finally reached an agreement. Its basic terms were a cease-fire in place; the return of POWs; total American withdrawal from South Vietnam; and a National Council of Concord and Reconciliation in South Vietnam to arrange elections, its membership to be one-third neutral, one-third from the current government in Saigon, one-third Communist. Nixon was satisfied that this agreement met his conditions for peace with honor.
President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam, however, felt betrayed. He perceived the agreement as a surrender: it gave the Communists a legitimate role in the political life of his nation, it allowed the Viet Cong to hold on to the territory it controlled in South Vietnam; worst of all, it permitted the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to continue to occupy the two northern provinces and retain more than 150,000 troops in his country. Thieu absolutely refused to agree to the cease-fire. In early December Kissinger went to Paris to persuade Le Duc Tho to remove the NVA from South Vietnam; Le Duc Tho adamantly insisted on going through with the October agreement.
On December 13, 1972, Kissinger flew back to Washington to meet with Nixon and an aide, General Alexander Haig, to discuss the options. The doves urged them to make a separate deal with Hanoi for the release of the POWs in return for a total American withdrawal, leaving Thieu to sink or swim on his own. This proposal had no appeal to Nixon and his aides. To abandon South Vietnam now, after all the blood that had been shed, all the money that had been spent, all the uproar that had overwhelmed the American political scene, would be wrong, cowardly, a betrayal. To abandon Thieu would amount to surrendering the fundamental American goal in the war: the maintenance in power of an anti-Communist government in Saigon.
To get Thieu to sign the agreement, and to force Le Duc Tho to give just a bit more, some dramatic action by the United States was necessary. With fewer than 25,000 U.S. troops remaining in South Vietnam, down from a high of 550,000 when Nixon took office, there was no possibility of escalating on the ground. The only real option discussed was to expand the bombing campaign against North Vietnam.
There were, however, powerful arguments against that course. Sending the B-52s over Hanoi meant risking those expensive weapons and their highly trained crews, because the Soviets had been rushing SA-2 SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) to North Vietnam. The SAMs fired a 10-meter-long missile that U.S. airmen ruefully called “the flying telephone pole.” Each missile carried a 286-pound warhead with fuses that could be set to detonate close to a target, on impact, or on command. Guided by a radar tracking beam that honed in on its target, they traveled at a speed of Mach 1.5. The range was up to thirty horizontal miles and about 11 miles up. Fighter-bombers could evade the missiles by diving toward them and then veering off sharply, but that technique was not possible for B-52 pilots.
There were other technological problems for the big bombers. Built in the 1950s, they had been designed to drop nuclear weapons over the Soviet Union. They had only four 4.5mm tail guns—and, in any case, the SAMs came on too fast to be shot down. The B-52s’ best defense was altitude: They usually dropped their bombs from 30,000 feet. But the SAMs were able to reach almost 60,000 feet.
And there were political as well as technological problems. Because of the strength of the antiwar movement in the United States, the government—under both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon—had imposed many restrictions on targets in the air war, which, naturally, infuriated the airmen. This policy had little effect on public opinion—the doves and foreign critics still charged that the U.S. Air Force was carrying out a barbaric, terrorist campaign—but it was a great help to the North Vietnamese. They knew what was off-limits and could concentrate their SAMs around such predictable targets as railroad yards and radar sites.
The technological advantage was with the enemy; for this reason, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, his deputy Kenneth Rush, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer, were opposed to using B-52s over Hanoi, and they so advised the president. Many of Nixon’s political advisers were also opposed, because to escalate the bombing after Kissinger’s “peace is at hand” statement would drive the Nixon-haters in Congress, in the media, on the campuses, and among the general public into a frenzy.
But something had to be done to convince Thieu that, whatever the formal wording of the cease-fire agreement, he could count on Nixon to come to the defense of South Vietnam if the NVA broke the cease-fire. And Le Duc Tho had to be convinced that, despite the doves in Congress, Nixon could still punish North Vietnam.
That made the bombing option tempting. Although the B-52s were relatively slow and cumbersome, they packed a terrific punch. They carried 84 500-pound bombs in their bomb bays and 12 500-pound bombs on their wings. They could drop those bombs with relative accuracy, much better than World War II bombers. (The Seventh Air Force commander, General John Vogt, complained that the internal radar systems of the B-52s were “notoriously bad” and that “misses of a thousand feet or more were common.” However, in World War II, misses of 1,000 meters—three times as much—had been common.) They flew from secure bases in Guam and Thailand. They had been used with devastating effect in the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968 and again to stop the WA spring offensive of 1972. The temptation to use them against Hanoi was great, and growing.
Kissinger tried to resist it. He recommended more bombing south of the 20th parallel, against NVA units that were not as well protected by SAMs as Hanoi was, and reseeding the mines in Haiphong Harbor. On the other hand Haig, always a hard-liner, argued forcefully for an all-out bombing campaign by the B-52s against Hanoi itself.
Nixon later said that ordering the bombing was “the most difficult decision” he had to make in the entire war. But, he added, “it was also one of the most clear-cut and necessary ones.” He issued an order on December 14 to reseed the mines, from the air—and also to send the B-52s against llanoi. He told Kissinger he was prepared “for new losses and casualties and POWs,” and explained, “We’ll take the same heat for big blows as for little blows.”
To Kissinger, the president seemed “sullen” and “withdrawn.” Nixon “resented” having to do what he did, because “deep down he was ready to give up by going back to the October draft” of the armistice agreement. His bombing order, according to Kissinger, was “his last roll of the dice…helpful if it worked; a demonstration to the right wing if it failed that he had done all he could.”
Once Nixon set the policy, public relations became his obsession. John Scali, White House adviser on foreign affairs information policy, put the problem succinctly to Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, in a telephone conversation: “We look incompetent—bombing for no good reason and because we don’t know what else to do.” On May 8, 1972, Nixon had gone on television to explain his reason for bombing Hanoi and mining Haiphong: it was in response to the Communists’ spring offensive. Scali had thought the television appearance unnecessary in May, as the justification for Nixon’s strong action was obvious then. But in December, when his critics and even some of his supporters could not figure out his reasons, Nixon refused to go on television to explain his actions.
Kissinger badly wanted Nixon to make a broadcast; he had been urging it for days. But Nixon, according to Kissinger, “was determined to take himself out of the line of fire.” Nixon feared that any attempt to rally the people to support more bombing after “peace is at hand” would fall flat.
On the evening of December 14, four days before the bombing was set to begin, Nixon told Kissinger to hold a news conference to explain the status of the negotiations. The president followed up with a five-page, singlespaced memo on December 15 and another of two pages on December 16, instructing Kissinger on what to say. He told the national security adviser to “hit hard on the point that, while we want peace just as soon as we can get it, that we want a peace that is honorable and a peace that will last.” Kissinger should admit the U.S. goals had been reached “in principle” in the October agreement, but add that some “strengthening of the language” was needed “so that there will be no doubt on either side in the event that [the agreement] is broken.” He should accuse Le Duc Tho of having “backed off’ some of the October understandings.
Kissinger should emphasize that with the Christmas season coming on, the president had a “very strong personal desire to get the war settled.” But he should also point out that the president “insists that the United States is not going to be pushed around, blackmailed or stampeded into making the wrong kind of a peace agreement.” Finally, he should say that “the president will continue to order whatever actions he considers necessary by air and sea”—the only reference to the bombing order, which had already gone out.
In his memos, Nixon was repetitious to a degree unusual even for him, an indication of the strain he was under, due perhaps to the difficulty of his position. As an example of his dilemma, it was the Americans—in response to demands from Thieu—who had backed off the October agreements, not the North Vietnamese. But Nixon could not have Kissinger straightforwardly tell the American people his administration was bombing Hanoi to convince Thieu to sign. Thieu was increasingly seen in the United States as the sole obstacle to peace and thus was increasingly unpopular. On December 15 Senator Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Republican and one of the toughest hawks, said that if Thieu “bucks much more” the United States should proceed with its withdrawal and “to hell with him.”
Kissinger held his briefing on December 16 and said what he had been told to say. He stressed the president’s consistency, unflappability, firmness, patience, and farsightedness. He mentioned Nixon 14 times (he had been criticized by Haldeman for referring to the president only three times in his October news conference).
By this time the tension in the Nixon-Kissinger relationship was threatening to lead to an open break. Kissinger was unhappy with his boss because of his interference, and his back-and-forthing on the negotiations. Nixon was furious with Kissinger for his “peace is at hand” statement, which had raised public expectations to a high level, expectations that were going to be dashed when the bombing began. Nixon also resented the way Kissinger had thrust himself onto center stage, his constant leaks to reporters, and the way the reporters responded by giving Kissinger credit for the huge margin of the election victory. Further, earlier in December Time magazine had named Nixon and Kissinger “Men of the Year,” with their pictures on the cover; Kissinger correctly feared that Nixon resented having to share the honor.
On December 17 Nixon wrote a letter to Thieu. Usually the president signed drafts of letters to foreign heads of government prepared by Kissinger; in this case, he wrote the letter personally. Nixon had Haig fly to Saigon to hand-deliver it. In the letter Nixon made a threat: unless Thieu accepted the agreement, the United States would go it alone. “You must decide now whether you want me to seek a settlement with the enemy which serves U.S. interests alone.”
Although Nixon himself would do anything possible to avoid a break, the threat was not meaningless because, as Goldwater’s statement indicated, Congress might carry it out regardless of the president’s wishes. Thieu knew that, and he also knew how to read between the lines of Nixon’s letter. After reading it, he told Haig it was obvious he was being asked to sign not a peace agreement but rather an agreement for continued American support.
ON DECEMBER 18 THE AIR FORCE LAUNCHED its B-52s and fighter-bombers against Hanoi. The orders were to avoid civilian casualties at all costs; for example, a missile-assembly plant manned by Russian technicians in the heart of Hanoi was off-limits, partly because of fear of Soviet casualties, partly to avoid near misses that would devastate residential areas. Still, Linebacker II, as the operation was code-named, greatly damaged railroads, power plants, radio transmitters, and radar installations around Hanoi, as well as docks and shipyards in Haiphong.
It was not Nixon but Johnson who had imposed the restrictions on targets; in fact, they frustrated him. The day after the bombing began, he read a report about targets that had been avoided for fear of civilian casualties, and he called Admiral Moorer. “I don’t want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn’t hit this target or that one,” Nixon said. “This is your chance to use military power effectively to win this war, and if you don’t, I’ll consider you responsible.” But the armed forces, concerned about their reputation and perhaps doubtful of the effectiveness of area bombing, continued the restrictions.
Nevertheless, a French reporter in Hanoi referred to “carpet bombing,” a line repeated by Radio Hanoi. As a result, there was an immediate worldwide uproar and many expressions of moral revulsion. There had been no presidential explanation or announcement of any kind. People everywhere had taken Kissinger at his word, that only a few t’s needed to be crossed and a few i’s dotted and the negotiations would be wrapped up. The shock when the bombing was announced was even greater than that following the Cambodian incursion of 1970.
The adverse congressional and editorial reaction was unprecedented. Senator William Saxbe, an Ohio Republican, said Nixon “appears to have left his senses.” Democratic Senate leader Mike Mansfield of Montana called it a “Stone Age tactic.” Democratic senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said it was an “outrage.” In an editorial the Washington Post charged that the bombing caused millions of Americans “to cringe in shame and to wonder at their President’s very sanity.” James Reston, in the New York Times, called it “war by tantrum.”
Nixon did have supporters, including Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California and Republican senators James Buckley of New York, Howard Baker of Tennessee, and Charles Percy of Illinois. John Connally, former governor of Texas and treasury secretary, called Nixon daily to encourage him and assure him that, regardless of what politicians and the media said, the people were behind him.
That was probably an exaggeration, but not as gross as the exaggerations of Nixon’s critics. They charged that he had ordered the most intensive bombing campaign in the history of warfare. That was nonsense. In comparison to the human costs at Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, and Tokyo—not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki—in World War II, the bombing of Hanoi during the Christmas season of 1972 was a minor operation. Under the severe targeting restrictions followed by the air force, civilian casualties were only around 1,500, and at least some of those were caused by SAM missiles falling back on the city after missing their targets. In World War II, a bombing raid that killed fewer than 2,000 German or Japanese civilians was not even worth a minor story in the newspapers, not to mention expressions of moral outrage from opinion leaders and prominent politicians. The Christmas bombing of Hanoi was not terror bombing, as the world had come to know terror bombing in the 20th century.
Nixon’s private response was to personalize it and assign to his critics the lowest possible motives. In his diary he wrote that they “simply cannot bear the thought of this administration under my leadership bringing off the peace on an honorable basis which they have so long predicted would be impossible. The election was a terrible blow to them and this is their first opportunity to recover from the election and to strike back.”
That was by no means the whole truth. The most basic cause for the moral revulsion was the nature of the war itself. Few in the United States had protested the firebomb raids of World War II, which set out deliberately to kill civilians. Why the difference three decades later, especially when the air force was doing its utmost to avoid killing civilians? Because from 1942 to 1945, the United States was fighting for its life against a foe who was not only pure evil but also powerful enough to threaten the entire world. In World War II there had been no ongoing negotiations with the Germans and Japanese, only a demand for their unconditional surrender. In 1942—45 the Americans were bombing in order to hasten that surrender.
But in 1972, no one believed that the United States was fighting for its life, or that the NVA could conquer the world, or that there could be no end to the war until Hanoi surrendered; and few believed that more bombing would bring a quicker end to the war.
Despite the protest, Nixon continued to send the B-52s and fighterbombers, and the battle raged in the sky above Hanoi. If Hanoi was far from being the most heavily bombed city in history, it certainly was one of the best defended. The SAMs shot down six of the 90 B-52s that flew missions on December 20; the following day, two of 30 were destroyed. The air force could not long sustain such losses; on the other hand, the Soviets could not long continue to supply SAMs in such quantity to the North Vietnamese (they were shooting a hundred or more per day at the attackers).
Nixon felt his resolve was being tested; he was determined to prevail. Kissinger, however, broke under the pressure of the protest and began leaking to reporters, especially Reston, word that he had opposed the bombing. This infuriated Nixon. He instructed his aide Charles Colson to monitor all Kissinger’s telephone calls and contacts with the press. The president, according to Colson, “was raving and ranting about Henry double-talking.” Colson did as instructed and discovered that Kissinger was calling Reston and others, “planting self-serving stories at the same time he was recommending Nixon be tough on Vietnam.”
When Haldeman confronted Kissinger, the national security adviser simply denied the facts. “I have never given a personal opinion different from the president’s,” he claimed, and said he had not given an interview to Reston. Haldeman got him to admit that he had called Reston on the telephone, just before Reston wrote a column stating that Kissinger had opposed the bombing and implying that Kissinger was the one moderate, sensible man among Nixon’s advisers. Kissinger concluded his conversation with Haldeman by suggesting that it was time for the president to give him a vote of confidence: a letter from Nixon giving Kissinger backing and credit for the progress in the negotiations.
Nixon went to his home in Key Biscayne, Florida, for Christmas. He ordered a 24-hour halt in the bombing for the holiday. In his diary he complained he was “more and more” a lonely individual. “It is a question not of too many friends but really too few—one of the inevitable consequences of this position.” He received very few Christmas salutations, even from Republicans on Capitol Hill and members of his cabinet. As a result, he told interviewer David Frost four years later, “it was the loneliest and saddest Christmas I can ever remember, much sadder and much more lonely than the one in the Pacific during the war.” He did make some telephone calls, including one to Ronald Reagan, who complained about CBS News coverage of the bombing and said that under World War II circumstances the network would have been charged with treason.
The day after Christmas, despite urgings from some of his aides and much of the media that he extend the Christmas Day truce, Nixon ordered the biggest bombing raid yet, 120 B-52s over Hanoi. Five were shot down, but that afternoon Nixon received a message from Hanoi. The Communists, who had evidently exhausted their supply of SAMs, proposed that the talks resume in Paris on January 9. Nixon replied that he wanted technical talks resumed on January 2, and he offered to stop the bombing of Hanoi if the Communists agreed. Hanoi did so.
General Haig was furious. He did not want to stop the bombing when Hanoi was all but on its knees. He was incensed when he discovered that every single adviser of the president…[was] calling the president daily, hourly, and telling him to terminate the bombing.” But even Haig realized that Nixon had little choice, because if he continued the bombing after the congressional session began on January 3, “there would have been legislative restrictions which would have been national suicide from the standpoint of ever negotiating a settlement.”
Nixon decided to call off the bombing. On December 29 he announced that he had suspended offensive operations north of the 20th parallel and that the Paris talks would resume.
SO WHO WON THE 11-DAY BATTLE? The North Vietnamese had shot down 15 B-52s, and 11 fighter-bombers had gone down. Ninety-three American airmen were missing—31 became known POWs. The enemy had fired 1,200 missiles and lost three MiG jets to achieve these results. Some 40,000 tons of bombs had fallen on Hanoi—40 kilotons, or the equivalent of two Hiroshima-size bombs. However, visitors to Hanoi soon after the battle ended, including Americans, all testify that although great destruction was done to military and industrial targets—such as the airfieids, railroad network, and factories—residential areas were mostly untouched.
There was no clear-cut winner. Thus, the last American action in the Vietnam War was characteristic of all those that had come earlier—cursed by half measures. From 1964 to 1969 Johnson’s actions, as described by Nixon, were always “too little, too late.” That had also been true of Nixon’s ultimatum in November 1969; of his Cambodian incursion of 1970; of his Laotian operation in 1971; of his May 8, 1972, air offensive; and now of his Christmas bombing. He had taken the heat for an all-out offensive without delivering one. It was not that he did not want to, but rather that it was overwhelmingly obvious the American political system would not allow him to do so.
Nixon called Hanoi’s willingness to resume the talks a “stunning capitulation,” one presumably brought about by the bombing. But it had been Saigon, not Hanoi, that had created the stalemate in the talks. In his message to Hanoi, Nixon had referred to the October agreements; going back to them represented an American, not a North Vietnamese, concession. Kissinger’s reference to “normalization” of relations continued the hints he had been secretly making to Le Duc Tho that when peace came the United States would aid in the reconstruction of North Vietnam, just as it had helped Germany and Japan after World War II.
On December 30 Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, called Nixon to ask the president to go on television and explain that “we bombed to get them back to the table.” Nixon passed the message along to Kissinger with a note: “He is right—but my saying it publicly would seriously jeopardize our negotiations.”
Nixon had another reason to hesitate to make the claim that Jackson wanted him to make. It would have been extremely difficult to get informed observers to believe that Nixon had bombed Hanoi in order to force North Vietnamese acceptance of terms they had already agreed to. It was much easier to believe that Nixon’s real target was not Hanoi but Saigon. And as 1972 came to an end, there was no indication that Thieu was prepared to sign.
On January 2, 1973, the House Democratic Caucus voted 154 to 75 to cut off all funds for Vietnam as soon as arrangements were complete for the withdrawal of American armed forces and the return of the POWs. On January 4 the Senate Democratic Caucus passed a similar resolution, 36 to 12.
Nixon passed the pressure on to Thieu. Initially he tried to do so through Anna Chennault, the widow of General Claire Chennault, whose influence on the right wing of the Republican party was considerable. He had her friend John Mitchell, his former attorney general, ask her to use her influence with Thieu, but the “Dragon Lady,” as she was commonly called, refused. There was irony here. In 1968 Mitchell had persuaded Mrs. Chennault to intervene with Thieu to get him to refuse to help Johnson in his election-eve bid for peace, which if successful might have given Hubert Humphrey the presidency. Now Nixon wanted her to persuade Thieu to cooperate with the president and accept an unsatisfactory peace. She would not.
Nixon again wrote directly to Thieu. The letter, dated January 5, was less threatening than previous ones and contained a more explicit promise: “Should you decide, as I trust you will, to go with us, you have my assurance of continued assistance in the post-settlement period and that we will respond with Kill force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.”
Nixon was not in a position to give such a promise. Without congressional appropriations, he could not come to Saigon’s aid.
That same day he had a meeting with the leaders of both parties. The atmosphere was cold. He spoke briefly about Vietnam. He said he knew many of the men in the room disagreed with his policies but added that he was determined to persist.
Nixon concluded, “In any event, you have indicated your own positions—some of you—which is in direct opposition. I understand that. I have the responsibility. Gentlemen, I will take responsibility if those negotiations fail. If they succeed, we all succeed.”
On January 6 Nixon went to his retreat at Camp David, where he met with Kissinger, who was flying to Paris the next day. The president said that if Kissinger could get Le Duc Tho to go back to the October 8 agreement, “we should take it.” Kissinger demurred, but Nixon insisted. He did want Kissinger to get some wording changes so that “we can claim some improvement,” but the point was that the war had to end, on whatever terms, in this round of negotiations; otherwise the 93rd Congress would force the administration to end it on even worse terms.
The president did agree that Kissinger could threaten the North Vietnamese with a resumption of the bombing of Hanoi if they did not cooperate, but Nixon then warned him that “as far as our internal planning is concerned, we cannot consider this to be a viable option.” As for Thieu, Nixon referred to Haig’s report of his December visit to Saigon: Thieu was saying that “it is not a peace agreement that he is going to get but a commitment from the United States to continue to protect South Vietnam in the event such an agreement is broken.” Nixon said that was exactly right.
JANUARY 9 WAS NIXON’S 6oTH BIRTHDAY. In an interview, he gave his formula for living: “Never slow down.” He admitted that he had many problems, “but boredom is the least of them.”
He also wrote by hand a piece of self-analysis: “RN approaches his second inauguration with true peace of mind—because he knows that by his actions, often in the face of the most intense sort of criticism, what he is bringing to the world is a ‘peace of mind’—that is, a peace formed by the exercise of hard reason and calm deliberation, and durable because its foundation has been carefully laid.” Nixon instructed Haldeman to pass the piece along to the staff and called it “an excellent line for them to take” when talking to the press about the president.
That afternoon Nixon got what he called “the best birthday present I have had in sixty years.” Kissinger cabled from Paris that there had been a major breakthrough in the negotiations. In sum, we settled all the outstanding questions in the text of the agreement.”
Le Duc Tho had accepted Kissinger’s revised wording on the demilitarized zone. But it made no practical difference; the accord that had been reached was basically the same as in October. Kissinger aide John Negroponte was disappointed. He told friends, “We bombed the North Vietnamese into accepting our concession.”
Getting the Communists to avow the accord had never been the problem; the problem was Thieu, and that remained. Nixon was eager to have the situation resolved before Inauguration Day, January 20, but he worried that Thieu would refuse to cooperate.
On January 13 Kissinger returned from Paris. He flew down to Key Biscayne to brief the president. They talked until 2:00 A.M. Nixon walked out to the car with Kissinger to say good night and to tell him that the country was indebted to him for what he had done. Nixon later wrote that it is not really a comfortable feeling for me to praise people so openly but “Henry expects it, and it was good that I did so.” Kissinger replied it was only Nixon’s courage that had made a settlement possible. In his memoirs Kissinger wrote that he felt “an odd tenderness” that night toward Nixon.
The next morning they turned their attention to Thieu. Nixon wrote him another letter and told Haig to fly to Saigon to deliver it. The letter was hill of threats: “I have therefore irrevocably decided to proceed to initial the Agreement on January 23, 1973, and to sign it on January 27, 1973, in Paris. I will do so, if necessary alone.” There were also promises. If Thieu would sign, Nixon would make it “emphatically clear that the United States recognizes your government as the only legal government of South Vietnam; that we do not recognize the right of any foreign troops to be present on South Vietnamese territory; that we will react strongly in the event the agreement is violated.” Of course, there was a big difference between not recognizing the right of the WA to stay in South Vietnam and requiring the WA to leave the country when the American armed forces left. Nixon concluded, “It is my firm intention to continue kill economic and military aid.”
Nixon feared that his words would not be enough, but he was determined to prevail. “Brutality is nothing,” he told Kissinger. “You have never seen it if this son-of-a-bitch doesn’t go along, believe me.” To add to the pressure on Thieu, Nixon had Senators John Stennis, a Mississippi Democrat, and Goldwater warn publicly that if Thieu blocked the agreement he would imperil his government’s chances of receiving any further aid from Congress.
Still Thieu would not yield. He sent a letter to Nixon raising the same complaints he had made in October—naturally enough, since it was the same agreement. Nixon replied on January 20 with an ultimatum.
On the public relations front, meanwhile, Nixon was also busy. On January 19 he told Haldeman, “We need to get across the point that the reason for the success of the negotiations was the bombing and the converse point that we did not halt the bombing until we had the negotiations back on track.” He instructed Kissinger to brief the staff on the settlement: “The key to this briefing will be to get a lot of people out selling our line.” Nixon wanted “an all-out effort with inspired leaks, etc.”
On January 20 Nixon was inaugurated for his second term. He had hoped to be able to announce that peace had been achieved, but Thieu’s intransigence made that impossible. Under the circumstances, the hoopla that ordinarily occurs at inaugurations was distinctly absent, and Nixon’s inaugural address was short and somber.
The parade following the ceremonies was marred by small groups of demonstrators chanting obscenities and throwing eggs and debris, but it was nowhere near as bad as four years earlier. If Nixon had not quite yet brought peace, he had gone a long way toward achieving that objective. The madness and hatred that had been so prominent in 1969 had abated by 1973. Sadly, in part it had been replaced by a bitterness because of the Christmas bombing and a suspicion because of the growing furor over the Watergate break-in. If Nixon deserved credit for the gains, he also deserved blame for the bitterness and suspicion.
ON JANUARY 22 WORD ARRIVED THAT THIEU had finally bowed to the inevitable and consented to the agreement. The following evening Nixon went on television to announce that on January 27 the formal signing ceremonies would be held in Paris. A cease-fire would begin at midnight that day.
After this announcement Nixon met with Kissinger. Nixon said he did not want to have any hatred or anything of that sort toward “our enemies”—by which he meant the American doves, not the Vietnamese Communists. “On the other hand,” he continued, Nixon’s foes had to recognize that they “are disturbed, distressed, and really discouraged because we succeeded. ”
Nixon later wondered whether commentators would appreciate what he and Kissinger had accomplished; he decided “probably not.” He told Kissinger that every success was followed by a “terrific letdown,” and he urged Kissinger not to let it get to him. There were many battles left to fight; he should not be discouraged.
For his part Nixon wrote later that he had expected to feel relief and satisfaction when the war ended, but instead was surprised to find himself with feelings of “sadness, apprehension, and impatience.” Kissinger was struck by Nixon’s being “so lonely in his hour of triumph.”
Beyond the letdown he always felt after a crisis, Nixon had reasons for his negative feelings. In the weeks that followed, he often and vehemently maintained he had achieved peace with honor, but that claim was diffcult to sustain. Seven years earlier, when pressed by reporters to explain what of settlement he would accept in Vietnam, he had held up the Korean armistice of 1953 as his model. What he finally accepted was far short of that goal.
The Korean settlement had left 60,000 American troops in South Korea; the Vietnam settlement left no American troops in South Vietnam. The Korean settlement left no Communist troops in South Korea; the Vietnam settlement left 150,000 Communist troops in South Vietnam. The Korean settlement had established the 38th parallel as a dividing line, and it was so heavily fortified on both sides that 20 years later almost no living thing had crossed it; the Vietnam settlement called the 17th parallel a border, but the NVA controlled both sides of it and moved back and forth without interference. The Korean settlement had left President Syngman Rhee firmly in control of his country, to the point that the Communist party was banned; the Vietnam settlement forced President Thieu to accept Communist membership on the National Council of Concord and Reconciliation.
Small wonder that Thieu regarded the settlement as little short of a surrender, and feared that the cease-fire would last only until the Arnericans got their POWs back and brought their armed forces home. Small wonder, too, that he worried about his future, as his army was woefully inferior to Rhee’s army (not to mention the NVA).
Thieu did have one asset to match Rhee’s: a promise from the American president that if the Communists broke the agreement the United States would come to his aid. But in South Vietnam, in the spring of 1975, that promise proved to be worthless, because by then Nixon had resigned to avoid impeachment. In some part the resignation was brought on by the Christmas bombing. Kissinger’s “peace is at hand” promise, followed by Nixon’s triumphant reelection, and then by the bombing, created feelings of bitterness and betrayal and led many Democrats to want to punish Nixon. Nixon gave them their excuse with Watergate.
Nixon’s defenders assert that had it not been for Watergate, the North Vietnamese would not have dared to launch their offensive in 1975. Or, if they had, that Nixon would have responded with the fury he showed in the spring of 1972, and the American bombing support would have made it possible for the South Vietnamese to turn back the invaders once again.
Nixon’s detractors call this scenario nonsense. They assert that all he ever wanted or expected from the cease-fire was a “decent interval” before the NVA overran Saigon. That decent interval was until Nixon had successfully completed his second term. They argue further that Congress was never going to give Nixon the funds to resume bombing in Vietnam and that he knew it, even as he made his promises to Thieu.
No one can know what might have been. Everyone knows what happened. MHQ
STEPHEN E. AMBROSE, is a professor of history and director of the Eisenhower Center at the university of New Orleans. This article is adapted from his book Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 (Simon & Schuster, 1990).
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Truman Fires MacArthur
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