DID NIXON INTEND TO WIN THE VIETNAM WAR?
I was perusing historian David Kaiser's
blog History Unfolding
, when I came across a remarkable claim regarding Richard Nixon
, based in part on Robert Dallek's
new book, Nixon and Kissinger:Partners in Power
:"Nixon and Kissinger, to begin with, came into office determined to win the Vietnam War. In an odd parallel to the current Administration—which decided that 9/11 totally discredited the Middle East policies of the last forty years—they evidently believed that the whole experience of the Johnson Administration had nothing whatever to teach them. Nixon, who saw himself far superior both to his two immediate predecessors and to any successor on the horizon, was convinced that Johnson had failed to win the war only because of a lack of will, the quality on which he prided himself the most. One omission from Nixon and Kissinger (which is more of a biographical study than a policy history) is any discussion of NSSM-1, a massive study of Vietnam which Kissinger commissioned upon taking office. It concluded that nothing the US had done had significantly weakened the enemy’s ability to fight, and that no agency of the US government could foresee the day when the South Vietnamese alone could deal with the enemy. A bold and rational leader must have concluded that the United States had to scale down its objectives to end the war, but Nixon did not. He and Kissinger spent about a year vainly trying to get the Soviet Union to end the war by pressuring the North Vietnamese, and then (as Nixon publicly admitted) tried to gain an advantage with the kind of “decisive” action which, Nixon thought, Johnson had avoided—the invasion of Cambodia. Meanwhile, political and military considerations (the latter involving the state of the armed forces) impelled Nixon to withdraw troops, but he continued to believe that he could make the North give in to our terms—an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam—by unleashing an all-out bombing attack whenever he chose. And historian Jeffrey Kimball was right: Nixon was determined not to make peace without giving such a campaign a chance, as eventually, in December 1972, he did—at the cost of 15 American B-52s, and without in the least improving the terms that Kissinger had already negotiated."
For readers who are unfamiliar, Dr. Kaiser is a historian of the Vietnam War era, with special expertise in the Kennedy administration. I have not read the Dallek book yet, though I certainly intend to now ( I did anyway but David's post has advanced it well up my reading list) as the assertion conflicts sharply with what has previously been known about Nixon's strategic thinking at the time.
Nixon was one of the first major political figures to (gingerly to be sure) try to put South Vietnam into the context of it's actual geopolitical value to the United States, which was small, in a major speech at Bohemian Grove and then in a Foreign Affairs
article " Asia after Vietnam". Much of the discourse Nixon used about the war among his intimates involved his administration's ( or America's) "credibility" or "toughness" in the eyes of Communist adversaries in Hanoi, Beijing and Moscow. Having read innumerable documents and memoirs I'm hard-pressed to believe that Nixon ever thought the Vietnam War was " winnable" and not an albatross that was hindering him from accomplishing his larger strategic goals, especially the China opening. Nixon desperately wanted to avoid outright defeat in Vietnam, certainly, and to use his handling of the war to send signals elsewhere but throwing his administration, heart and soul into winning the war was never on the table.
Nevertheless, Dallek has new material, according to Kaiser, for a new argument. It needs to be scrutinized objectively to see how or if Dallek broadens our understanding of the war and of Richard Nixon's administration. This is how historical truth advances, one document, one argument, one book at a time.
I look forward to reading it.
Labels: book, cold war, david kaiser, historians, historiography, history, nixon, robert dallek, Vietnam War