empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe
5. Nixon’s ‘peace with honour’
Richard Nixon was only elected president in November 1968 by masquerading as the ‘peace candidate’, declaring for ‘peace with honour’.
The Nixon regime, beginning with his first election victory and continuing with his re-election four years later, although appearing to signify the ‘wind-down’ phase of the war, initiated one of the most disturbed periods in US history. With his coterie of right-wing Republican ‘hard men’ buttressed by the erstwhile ‘liberal’ Republican Henry Kissinger, he literally poured oil onto the already troubled waters of US society. Kissinger, during the primary election campaigns of 1968, had backed millionaire ‘liberal’ Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. In a well-publicised statement Kissinger declared that Nixon was “unfit to be president”. The American people would eventually come to the same conclusion as he was driven from office but after the election Kissinger hitched his wagon to that of Nixon. He had also stated that Nixon was “the most dangerous” of all the candidates running for office in 1968. He had even confessed to “an American diplomat that he would have to abstain” rather than vote for either Nixon or Humphrey (the Democrats’ candidate).
Nevertheless, the Democratic liberal establishment believed that Kissinger would act as a check on Nixon: “Excellent… very encouraging,” said Arthur Schlesinger. Another declared, “I’ll sleep better with Henry Kissinger in Washington.”1 Not many Vietnamese or Cambodians, or for that matter Chileans, would approve of these sentiments. Apart from his dirty work in Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, Kissinger also helped to prepare the overthrow in 1973 of the democratically elected government of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile. He had signified his intentions when Allende was elected in 1970: “I don’t see why a country should be allowed to go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”2 Moreover, when the Shah of Iran asked in 1972 for secret American military aid to be given to Kurdish rebels in Iraq, Kissinger agreed despite objections from CIA agents in Tehran. When the Shah later cuddled up to Iraq, the Kurds were cut off and 35,000 killed and an extra 200,000 refugees created. Kissinger also helped to channel funds to a neo-fascist group in Italy, hoping to harm the Communist Party of Italy as a result.
Most of the American population considered that they had voted to end the war in supporting Nixon in the presidential elections. Nixon himself fed this mood when he quoted in a campaign speech the words of a previous US President, Woodrow Wilson: “Men’s hearts wait upon us; men’s lives hang in the balance; men’s hopes call upon us to say what we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try?” 3 The men who were ‘waiting for him’, the troops in Vietnam and the battered and tortured population of that country, waited in vain. The war was escalated ‘secretly’. Nixon’s Chief of Staff, with commendable forthrightness, gave the reasons why: “Bombing in secret would get the message to the North Vietnamese and prevent a flare-up of the antiwar protests in the US, which would disable our peace negotiations in Paris. So the bombing began, but it wasn’t a secret long.” 4
All the honeyed phrases about “peace” disguised Nixon and Kissinger’s intentions to use the threat of force, if not actual force, on the ground with depleted US manpower, to compel the Vietnamese to capitulate. This policy, which would end in failure and defeat, dragged out the war, resulting in the loss of a further 20,000 US troops killed together with tens of thousands of Vietnamese workers and peasants who died needlessly. Massive air raids on the North followed, beginning on 18 March 1969, with so-called ‘Operation Breakfast’, followed by ‘Lunch’ and so on. Three thousand six hundred and fifty B-52 bomber raids were launched, extending over 14 months, and involving four times the tonnage dropped on Japan in World War II. All of this was supposed to facilitate an ‘orderly withdrawal’ from Vietnam. It was, moreover, conducted secretly, as Haldeman admits, particularly the bombing of Cambodia. This infuriated the peace movement, which was massively rejuvenated by the bombing campaign and which echoed the widespread opposition amongst the American people.
Kissinger claimed that all the Nixon presidency was attempting in Vietnam was to negotiate an end to the war, a phased withdrawal along the lines that de Gaulle had achieved in withdrawing French forces from Algeria in 1962. Domestic criticism of any escalation of the war had driven Johnson from office with the clear implication that military escalation could in no way transform US prospects in Vietnam. However, as William Shawcross has demonstrated:
“The new administration considered that the criticism was indeed to be defied. Particularly in the use of air power, escalation was part of their strategy. MENU was launched in March 1969, and in 1970 Nixon expanded the free fire zone in Laos, sent B-52s over the Plain of Jars in Laos for the first time and approved targets in North Vietnam that Lyndon Johnson had never allowed.”
One intention was to demonstrate to Hanoi the political point that Nixon would not be constrained by domestic opposition.
“In 1971, a single B-52 squadron still dropped in one year half the tonnage dropped by US planes in the entire Pacific Theatre in World War II. Furthermore, the White House failed to advertise that bomb loads per raid were increased enormously. In 1968, the average fighter bomb load was 1.8 tons. In 1969, it was 2.2 tons and by 1973, the planes were laden with 2.9 tons of bombs. Each year proportionately more use was made of the B-52, which was militarily the least effective plane, but politically and emotionally the most awe-inspiring.” [Just how “awe-inspiring” can be witnessed first hand at the Imperial War Museum’s aviation museum at Duxford, where a B-52 bomber is on display and by itself occupies virtually a whole hangar.] “In 1968, B-52s accounted for 5.6 per cent of all sorties; by 1972, their share had risen to 15 per cent. To the Air Force it was altogether clear that Nixon was doing anything but wind down its role. Its official secret 1969 history was entitled, The Administration That Emphasises Air Power, and that of 1970 The Role of Air Power Grows.” 5
“Fighting a society”
Even when the Joint Chiefs of Staff wished to withdraw from Southeast Asia some B-52s that were not required, Nixon and Kissinger refused, demanding that they remain on station “for contingency purposes”. Again, as Shawcross comments: “A contingency did arise; it was the overthrow of Sihanouk and the invasion of Cambodia.”6 This stepped-up bombing policy was consistently opposed by the CIA because they could see that it was having no effect on the ability of Hanoi and the NLF in the South to continue the war; on the contrary, it reinforced the anger of the Vietnamese and the determination to defeat the foreign invader.
The Vietnamese, including the leadership of the NLF, North and South, were a much more formidable foe than Nixon and Kissinger imagined. The bombing hardened their resolve, which showed that the policy of attrition had ‘an inherent flaw’ by assuming that it would have a ‘deterrent effect’ on the enemy – and that simply was not the case, despite the deliberate exaggeration of US success. One US observer commented correctly later: “You weren’t really fighting just a military force. You were fighting a society, a society equipped with a total faith.” Maclear comments: “It was the point which took so many people 10,000 days to grasp.” 7
However, once in power Nixon, while professing to want to end the war, nevertheless hoped that the sheer firepower of the US would compel the North Vietnamese and the NLF to come to the conference table and acquiesce. But the mass of the US people, particularly the students and the youth who were paying the biggest price, gradually became aware that Nixon, rather then winding the war down, was prepared to intensify it, particularly by bombing Laos, Cambodia and threatening greater action against North Vietnam, which would mean countless and fruitless further sacrifices in blood and treasure.
Yet, Nixon and Kissinger, who alone decided foreign policy, “quite simply… did not consider an unsigned withdrawal as ‘peace with honour’”.8 In 1969 US combat losses in Vietnam totalled 9,914, down from 14,592 in 1968. But US troops on the ground in Vietnam and those destined to travel into this nightmare, had one thing on their mind: the war was being wound down and they would do everything to avoid becoming one of the statistics of dead or wounded. Another 10,000 Americans, however, would die before the paper peace of 1973. In this period of so-called ‘Vietnamisation’ South Vietnamese military losses would rise 50 per cent to more than a quarter of a million, and civilian casualties – including deaths – would also rise 50 per cent to 1,435,000. Historian Arthur Schlesinger junior states: “Nixon could have got American troops out of Vietnam in 1969”, on the same terms as happened when they were finally forced to withdraw.9 The North Vietnamese were prepared to negotiate for peace, including leaving US stooges such as President Thieu in power, confident that without US bayonets such a regime would eventually collapse within a year or two and the war would have ended on their terms.
Kent State University and the revitalised antiwar movement
The attempt of Nixon and Kissinger, however, to pretend to wind down the war but secretly hoping that they could win it by other means, met with fury in the US, particularly amongst young people. The Vietnam Moratorium Committee called for “immediate massive protests” in May 1969 and this led to “confrontational tragedy unknown since the Civil War”,10 according to Maclear. The invasion of Cambodia was the trigger for massive demonstrations on campuses. This resulted in the infamous scenes at Kent State University, Ohio, when on 4 May National Guardsmen with loaded rifles surrounded the campus and without warning fired a volley of shots into a demonstration of students. Four students were shot dead, two of them young women, and 11 more lay bleeding. The scene of carnage on pristine green lawns was carried the length and breadth of America. Preceding this, on many campuses throughout the US the Reserve Officers Training Corps buildings were attacked or sacked. Kent, which had a special connection with Cambodia, joined in the protests. It seems that Prince Sihanouk, ruler of Cambodia, had once been welcomed there by students who listened to his “denunciations of the American press”. Afterwards, he wrote: “My short stay at Kent somewhat consoled me for all the disappointments we had with America and the Americans.” Shawcross comments: “Now Kent and Cambodia were to be forever linked.” 11
After the ROTC building was burned, Governor James Rhodes of Ohio took his cue from Nixon and Agnew and declared that he would ‘eradicate’ rioters and demonstrators there. He stated: “They’re worse than Brown Shirts and the Communist element, and also the nightriders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people we have in America.”12 Kissinger later confided that Nixon was “on the edge of a nervous breakdown” in May 1970. His state of mind was shown the morning after the invasion of Cambodia before its full impact on America was clear. In the corridors of the White House, a few days before the events at Kent State University, he commented about “bums… blowing up campuses” and “get rid of this war and there’ll be another one”. These comments were published and stoked up the fires of rage sweeping the US. After the shootings at Kent, the father of one dead young woman, one of Nixon’s “campus bums”, declared through tears on TV: “My child was not a bum.”13
At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Nixon was demented, began an “emotional harangue”, using what one of those present called “locker-room language”. He repeated over and over again that he was “going to clean up those sanctuaries” and he declared,
“You have to electrify people with bold decisions. Bold decisions make history. Like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill – a small event but traumatic, and people took notice.”
General Westmoreland tried to warn him that the sanctuaries could not really be cleaned up; within a month the monsoon would make the area impassable.
“Nixon was unimpressed and threatened to withdraw resources from Europe if they were needed in Indochina. ‘Let’s go blow the hell out of them,’ he shouted, while the Chiefs, Laird and Kissinger sat mute with embarrassment and concern.” 14
Haldeman confirmed that “Kent State marked a turning point for Nixon, a beginning of his downhill slide towards Watergate.” Oil was poured on the fires by the White House reaction to the killings, that they were “predictable”. Over the next few days, between 75,000 – 100,000 protestors converged on Washington. Buses were drawn up all around the White House and Kissinger’s adviser Alexander Haig told one journalist that “troops had been secretly brought into the basement in case they were needed to repel an invasion.” When Walter Hickle, Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior warned him that history showed that “youth and his protest must be heard” he was unceremoniously fired.” 15
In the next few days about 500 universities and colleges closed in protest. Shaken by this, Nixon even attempted on 8 May, when the demonstrators were massing in Washington, to visit them at two o’clock in the morning at the Lincoln Memorial to talk to a group of college students. They wanted to talk about Cambodia and the war, but a dysfunctional Nixon, incapable of relating to real people, opened a dialogue about football, ‘their hobbies’, and all kinds of irrelevant issues except the burning one of war, which they were demonstrating over.
The Cambodian invasion was followed by similar actions against Laos in 1971. All of this was allegedly to snuff out North Vietnamese bases in Laos and Cambodia. The result was the virtual destruction of both countries – in Cambodia, 10 per cent of the population was wiped out by the bombing – which laid the basis for the coming to power of the monstrous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. So devastated was Cambodia, so embittered was the rural population in particular, that out of the inferno was born the Khmer Rouge. When they eventually entered the cities, they reflected the enraged rural population and their resentment against the ‘cities’, which had seemed to acquiesce to the unspeakable horrors inflicted on them by US forces. Cambodia accounted for 10.5% of all US air ‘sorties’ and 14% of B-52 missions.
Bourgeois opposition had steadily grown under Johnson and burgeoned under Nixon, particularly when his real intentions in the war became clear. Congress was virtually unanimous in supporting war at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964, as mentioned previously. But with the growing difficulties of the US in Vietnam, that support for the war began to ebb away. In 1967, only 44 Senators were found in support of Johnson’s war policies while 40 were opposed. At the same time, of 205 Representatives interviewed, 43 said they had recently withdrawn their support for Johnson’s policy on Vietnam.
Even right-wing voices urged a massive and speedy withdrawal from Vietnam. Together with his arch-priest Kissinger, supported by the Pentagon and the military tops, Nixon was still trying to hold on to Vietnam. The bombing of Cambodia was undertaken and he clearly thought that by dragging the war out, the Vietnamese would lose heart and would sue for peace on their terms. Kissinger even quite consciously gave the impression to the North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris that his boss, Nixon, was “crazed” and was ready to use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. His chief of staff remarked later that Nixon told him:
“I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached a point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the words to them that ‘For God’s sake, you know, Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he is angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’.” 16
“If the American public would barely tolerate the war in its restrained form of 1967, certainly it would not support an extension of that war into Laos, Cambodia, or North Vietnam, or a drastic escalation of the conflict by bombing the dykes or using atomic weapons.” 17
Nixon was aware of that, as he makes clear in his memoirs. Indicating that he would have clearly liked to continue with the war, he comments:
“Most people [meaning himself] thought of a ‘military victory’ in terms of gearing up to administer a knockout blow that would both end the war and win it. The problem was that there was only two such knockout blows available to me. One would have been to bomb the elaborate systems of irrigation dykes in North Vietnam. The resulting floods would have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The other possible knockout blow would have involved the use of tactical nuclear weapons” (again, a recurring theme of Nixon). Unfortunately for him, he concludes: “The domestic and international uproar that would have accompanied the use of either of these knockout blows would have got my administration of to the worst possible start.”18
He stated that he was not “escalating” the conflict but clearly intended to do just that.
Kissinger’s increasingly hawkish approach also brought him into collision with his former ‘liberal’ admirers. Following the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, a group of his ‘liberal friends’ from Harvard descended on him in Washington (they discovered, to their embarrassment, that Kissinger had provided them all with lunch at his expense). One of their number tried to explain who they were but Kissinger interrupted: “I know who you are… you are all good friends from Harvard University.” The reply from one of their number was, “No, we’re a group of people who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy and we’ve come to tell you so. We are no longer at your disposal as personal advisers.”19 Kissinger himself comments: “A thousand lawyers lobbied Congress to end the war, followed by 33 heads of universities, architects, doctors, health officers, nurses, and 100 corporate executives from New York.” 20