About two months ago, as readers will recall, I was a panelist at the JFK Library in a weekend conference entitled, "Presidents and Vietnam." One of my fellow panelists was Timothy Naftali of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, who has been transcribing and editing presidential tapes for years, and who has just become the head of the Nixon Library. Over the weekend Naftali remarked that in his opinion, the Nixon Administration was actually the best-documented of all Administrations. I was surprised by that, but now I can see that he is almost certainly right.
Because of litigation by Nixon and his family, the records of his Administration have been slow to appear, but the logjam is now definitely broken. The State Department has now released several opening volumes of its basic historical publication, Foreign Relations of the United States, including, now, an enormous first volume on Vietnam covering the period January 1969-June 1970. The entire volume is available on line, albeit in rather unwieldy PDF format instead of State's usual html, and I have been able to read a few hundred pages. They tell an amazing, and highly relevant story. Although I am far from getting the whole picture, certain things are clear.
To begin with, within a year, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had organized a structure that left him in operational control of the American foreign and defense policy apparatus. Kissinger actually kept a very low profile during Nixon's first term--it was not until the 1972 Republican convention that Americans heard him speak live on television--but by early 1971 he was fully in command. His instrument was the Washington Special Action group, which he chaired. It included Richard Helms from the CIA (who emerges as a very important player indeed), one or two second-level officials from State and Defense, one or two members of the Joint Chiefs, and a few of Kissinger's own staffers such as then-Col. Al Haig. While it was not in operational control of what was happening on the ground in South Vietnam, it micromanaged events in Laos and Cambodia to a degree Lyndon Johnson never even aspired to. Indeed, at the time of the invasion of Cambodia, Kissinger generated a flap by having the WSAG designated the authority over that operation. Secretary of Defense Mel Laird immediately weighed in, noting that the statutory chain of command for military operations ran through him, and Kissinger had to change the WSAG to the "coordinating" body. He created another flap when he had President Nixon chair a meeting that included Laird and Secretary of State Rogers for a briefing on the possible invasion of Cambodia, and informed them a day or two later that the meeting had actually approved it. That invasion, by the way, turns out to have been a defensive as much as an offensive measure. The ouster of Prince Sihanouk by his Prime Minister, Lon Nol, while Sihanouk was on a long trip to Europe, had triggered new fighting in Cambodia, and Washington, rightly or wrongly, desperately feared that Phnom Penh was about to fall th North Vietnamese troops. The "incursion" was designed to stop them.
More important, of course, are the policies the documents reveal. Nixon apparently came into office convinced that the Johnson Administration had rushed too quickly to get peace talks going. (His campaign, as we know, had encouraged the South Vietnamese to stall the talks in the last few weeks of the Presidential campaign through Mrs. Anna Chennault, and he was remaining faithful to that policy in office.) South Vietnam under President Thieu, in his eyes (and in defiance of rather pessimistic reports about the Thieu government from the field) was a legitimate government and ally of the United States. The war should be settled by compelling or persuading the North Vietnamese to withdraw their troops from the South while the US withdrew its own, and allowing the Viet Cong to participate in elections. Eventually Nixon and Kissinger had to abandon that vision to make peace, but we don't know when they did so. Certainly it was not until well after the middle of 1970.
The volume includes verbatim accounts of Kissinger's meeting with North Vietnamese negotiations Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho, and they are remarkable as well. The North Vietnamese had an entirely different concept. Since they affirmed (as did the eventual 1973 Paris agreement) the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Vietnam, their troops, they argued, were not "foreign troops," and their withdrawal would not be an issue, if at all, until after a peace agreement that got the Americans out. In addition, they insisted, South Vietnam had to have a new tripartite coalition government including the Viet Cong and neutralists, and General Thieu, Air Marshal Ky, and General Khiem could not take part. In the long meetings from March and April 1972 that I read, Kissinger dropped just one small hint that he MIGHT be willing to discuss changes in the South Vietnamese government after other issues were settled, but that was all. Another option--interesting because the 1972-3 agreements included it--was an acknowledged partition of South Vietnam into Viet Cong-controlled and govenment-controlled sectors. That option received thorough consideration in a paper Kissinger's staff wrote in 1969, but he did not bring it up as yet. Future volumes clearly will tell the tale of how the US gave up the essence of its position and the North Vietnamese gave up the demands for an immediate coalition and Thieu's resignation.
What was quite extraordinary, however, was Kissinger's brief summary of the second meeting, which stated that he had made some progress because the North Vietnamese had expresed some willingness to discuss their withdrawal, even though they didn't explain with whom they would discuss it. I sat stunned before my computer as I read it. I have spent much of my professional life with documents like that, and I could not remember a negotiator conveying such a blatant falsehood. The motive, however, seemed fairly clear. Nixon was determined to compel the North Vietnamese to agree to the kind of settlement he wanted. Kissinger's own power depended, to a certain extent, on validating Nixon's views. He never missed an opportunity to praise Nixon and his policies, or to solicit support from colleagues (such as the Joint Chiefs) based on the idea that the President had already made his decision.
What got me thinking, however, as one old enough to remember these events vividly, was the obvious, deep division between the leadership of the Administration on the one hand and the Congress and opinion leaders on the other. After the very heavy fighting of 1968 (which was not confined to the Tet offensive, but continued through the year), the bulk of Americans had concluded that we were not going to achieve our original objectives. Nixon had not. And so began a tradition that has persisted, off and on, for 36 years: that of an Administration more or less secretly pursuing a policy in which the American public does not believe, because it has convinced itself that such a policy is necessary and dissenters are simply playing politics, showing naivete, or working against their own country.
Something similar certainly seems to be happening today. President Bush and Secretary Rice remain totally committed to their idea of a democratic, pluralistic, relatively secular Iraq, despite the lack of any evidence that such an outcome is getting nearer. (It is not clear, on the other hand, that Vice President Cheney or Secretary Rumsfeld, the other major powers in the Administration, have ever cared much about the future of Iraq once Saddam was gone.) Realism in 1970 would have involved agreeing to a coalition government or acknowledged partition in South Vietnam, allowing the troops to come home, the American defense establishment to rebuild (clearly, based on the new documents, the main concern of Defense Secretary Laird), and the people of Vietnam at least to live in peace. A great deal of suffering might have been avoided, and it is possible that Communists would not have taken power in Laos (whose Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma told Nixon in the spring of 1970 that a coalition government was the answer in South Vietnam) or in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge were not yet a significant factor. Realism today, in all probability, would involve recognizing that Iraq is almost certain to fracture into three parts, and trying to start negotiations to make that process as painless as possible. But within the Green Zone, the American authorities still seem committed to the vision of impartial security forces, disarmed militias, and law-abiding Iraqis. Events seem be happening on two entirely different planes. And it seems, as under Nixon, that no one can serve in the upper reaches of this Administration who does not officially believe in the happy ending to come. (A Washington Post article indicates that some American military officers are advocating partition, but they appear to be in a minority and do not yet include anyone of high rank. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/29/AR2006042901142.html.)
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld apparently believed Saddam had to be eliminated, and did not much care about the consequences. Regime change--or rather, regime elimination--was the sum and substance of their policy. They seem to be, essentially, conventional military thinkers who are only intermittently interested in broader political trends. (Rumsfeld's leaked memo in 2003 or 2004, I believe, was one example of momentary interest.) And now they are fixated on Iran, which is more of a conventional threat than Iraq was. Nixon reacted to stalemate in Vietnam by opening a new front in Cambodia--one that ended even more disastrously--and deepening our involvement in Laos. When South Vietnam fell in 1975, Kissinger, now under Gerald Ford, reacted by trying to get the United States involved in a civil war in Angola to show we had not lost our will. If the Congress wants to stop an air campaign against Iran, it had better move pre-emptively to do so.