It has been my good fortune to have begun life in a family obsessed with news, and then to have become a professional historian. One wondered, in the 1960s and 1970s, what the real story was about Vietnam, Watergate, the Kennedy Assassination, the Nixon pardon, and much more, and now, little by little, we can find out. At the same time, one must face a somewhat painful paradox: by the time the truth comes out, few people care about it, and if the topic (such as Vietnam) still has political implications, it may easily be shouted down. Today's New York Times includes two revelations about matters I have wondered about for decades.
The climax of the Vietnam peace talks in September-October of 1972 was one of the great shocks of my life. Awakening one morning as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, what should I find on the front page of the Boston Globe but the text of a peace agreement, thoughtfully released by the North Vietnamese government before it could be signed? To my utter amazement, it began by reaffirming "the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Vietnam"--an American renunciation of the goal of our whole policy since 1954. Further reading showed that it did not require the withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops from the South, and that it put the Viet Cong on an equal footing with the South Vietnamese government. In the next few days and weeks, it became clear that the United States, however, was not willing to put the finishing touches on the agreement just yet, and I immediately began to wonder whether Henry Kissinger had negotiated the agreement in Paris without the approval of the President. I remember discussing this with a professor of mine, a member of the Silent generation and a devout believer in proper procedures. He was quite certain that anything Kissinger had agreed to must have been sent to Washington in advance. In succeeding years, however, more and more has come to light to indicate that my guess was right. Nixon didn't like the obvious weakness of the agreement, and that was the main reason that he refused to sign it until he had unleashed one last round of bombing.
The split between the two men is the theme of some brief excerpts from newly published documents in today’s Week in Review. The whole new volume of Foreign Relations of the United States on US-Soviet relations is available on line at state.gov, and I am going to quote longer excerpts with expletives undeleted. (Oddly, the Times, like the editors of Nixon’s own presidential transcripts in 1974, makes his language look worse than it was by making certain deletions.)
Nixon. . .If you turn it too much—There’s no greater pleasure frankly that I would have than to leave this office to anybody after having destroyed North Vietnam’s capability. Now let me tell you, I feel exactly that way and I’ll go out with a clean conscience. But if I leave this office without any use of power, I’m the last President—frankly I’m the only President, the only man with the exception of Connally, believe me, who had the guts to do what we’re doing. You know it and I know it. The only man who had the possibility to be President, and Connally’s the only other one who could do what I’m doing. Reagan never could make President to begin with and he couldn’t handle it.
Kissinger: Connally would do it without your finesse though.
Nixon: Well, Agnew, Agnew would—
Kissinger: Agnew. Well, Agnew would have a—Agnew would be in a worse position than Johnson was.
Nixon: But you know what I mean. The point is, as you know, considering electability, I’m the only person who can do it. Now, Henry, we must not miss this chance. We’re going to do it. I’m going to destroy the goddamn country, believe me, I mean destroy it if necessary. And let me say, even the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary.
But, you know, what I mean is, that shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go. By a nuclear weapon, I mean that we will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam and then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapon.
[Omitted here is discussion of domestic opposition to bombing in
Vietnam and of the U.S. Presidential election.]
Nixon: So, all we really need out of this at the present time is enough momentum, enough of this situation where it appears, frankly where we go forward with the Soviet summit because that’s a big plus for us and where we cool Vietnam enough through the summer that after November we can kill them. Make any kind of a promise at all that we’ll do everything to get it past November and then do it. I don’t care whether it’s a year, 8 months, 6 months, whatever the case is.
Kissinger: The only problem is—
Nixon: You see what I’m getting at. Now within that context, however, let me say that if we cannot get that kind of situation, if there is a risk that somebody else will be here after November who will sell out the country, then, by God, I’ll do it. I’ll throw, I’m willing to throw myself on the sword. We are not going to let this country be defeated by this little shit-ass country.
Kissinger: We shall not—
Nixon: It’s not going to happen.
Kissinger: We’ll never have these guys more scared than now.
Nixon: You think so?
Kissinger: The Russians. In November, you’ll be in a good position too, but I agree with you in principle.
Nixon: I see.
Kissinger: My judgment, what we ought to get out of this, if we can get the offensive stopped, Mr. President, if we can get back to the levels of March 29th say—
Kissinger: —before this started—
Nixon: That’s right.
Kissinger: —get talks started which the Soviets guarantee, have the Soviets engaged—
Nixon: Right. All right.
Kissinger: —then we will have won this—
Nixon: Then, yes, talks are started—But now wait a minute. Talks are started but are we, but we’re going to insist that they be held back over the DMZ?
Nixon: They won’t do that. But, on the other hand, on the other hand, that’s what you’ve got to insist on. I think we’ve got to get that, they get back from the DMZ and so forth. What I’m getting at—
Kissinger: You see, but—
Nixon: But it mustn’t appear that we gave up the bombing for talks. That’s the thing.
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: If we give up bombing for talks, we do what Johnson did.
Kissinger: No, no, but Mr. President, we will continue bombing during the talks. That’s the difference. Now I believe, Mr. President, if the Soviets deliver this package that the North Vietnamese will settle during the summit. They’ll settle because they will have to figure, having thrown their Sunday punch and having been in effect not supported
by the Chinese, not supported by the Russians, in fact squeezed by the Russians, and bombed by us. Why would they be better off next year at this time than this year?
Kissinger: Therefore I would bet, if we can get this—
Nixon: They misjudge American public opinion.
Kissinger: Mr. President.
Nixon: You don’t see these people—
Kissinger: No, no. But I will bet that American public opinion—If on Monday night, if everything works well, you can announce this trip, what are the goddamn peaceniks in this country going to say? That a week after, and the talks start again while we are bombing, what are they going to say about bombing then?
Nixon, obviously, plans to compel the North Vietnamese to withdraw from South Vietnam by any means necessary, and Kissinger flatters him that their strategy will succeed. But just a few days later, in Moscow, Kissinger spoke very, very differently to Brezhnev.
Dr. Kissinger: I haven’t yet either. [The Vietnamese] are a heroic people but not a wise people. They are sometimes more afraid of being deceived than of being defeated. They are not prepared to leave anything to history. I know they believe that in 1954 they were deceived by the settlement at Geneva. But the objective conditions between 1954 and 1972 are entirely different. In 1954 John Foster Dulles conducted our foreign policy and he was constructing positions against what he considered Communist aggression all over the world. We were going into countries. But in 1972, when President Nixon is conducting American foreign policy, we are seeking a policy not of confrontation with the Soviet Union or for that matter other major Communist countries, but negotiations. We are doing this in the spirit of cooperation which I described. We are not going into countries to build barriers; we are trying to work out cooperative arrangements. We don’t want any permanent bases in Vietnam.
We have two principal objectives. One is to bring about an honorable withdrawal of all our forces; secondly, to put a time interval between our withdrawal and the political process which would then start. We are prepared to let the real balance of forces in Vietnam determine
the future of Vietnam. We are not committed to a permanent political involvement there, and we always keep our word.
In recent years several similar conversations between Kissinger and Soviet and Chinese diplomats have come to light, in which he indicates that the United States will let events in Vietnam take their course once we have withdrawn—in other words, in which he confirms that his goal was in fact a “decent interval.” Last winter at the JFK Library, Warren Kimball presented a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger later in 1972 in which Kissinger again discussed an eventual South Vietnamese collapse and suggested that the United States could blame it on the Saigon government. Unfortunately, Dr. Kissinger did not show up at the conference until the next day and could not be asked to comment directly. But what is key for my purposes today is the difference between the ways in which Nixon and Kissinger were talking about the problem. While Nixon still wanted to compel a settlement on our terms, Kissinger wanted a settlement on just about any terms. In the end Kissinger got his way after Nixon, in December, bombed as much as American resources would permit (we lost 15 B-52s) and the American public would allow. As one who likes to judge actions based on consequences, I must thank Dr. Kissinger for having gotten us out of that war by outmaneuvering his boss, but I cannot forgive him, frankly, for continuing to blame the Congress and the American people, instead of the South Vietnamese government, for the fall of South Vietnam.
When Nixon finally discussed Vietnam with Brezhnev himself on May 24, he had given up the idea of securing a North Vietnamese withdrawal from the South, but he refused to make any political concessions and threatened once again to end the war by force.
Nixon: Our position now is very forthcoming. We believe it is fair. As a matter of fact, the General Secretary in his conversations with Dr. Kissinger in his visit a few weeks ago suggested the consideration of a ceasefire. All we ask now is a return of and an accounting for our
prisoners of war and a ceasefire. Once that is agreed to, we will withdraw all Americans within four months and cease military actions. We cannot go any further than that. Nothing further is negotiable on that point.
We could talk at great length about the wisdom of the American position in Vietnam. I know the views of the Soviet leaders. You know ours. No useful purpose would be served by going over past history. We now confront the fact that we have taken every step to bring an
end to what is the only major international issue which clouds relations between the United States and the USSR. It is our intention to end the war by negotiations; but negotiations must be fair to both sides.
There cannot be an ultimatum to us to impose on the South Vietnamese a government the North Vietnamese cannot impose by themselves. If the North Vietnamese are unwilling to end the war that way [by negotiations], 6 then I will do whatever I must to bring the war to an end.
Anything we do we will have in mind our desire not to exacerbate the relations between us. To this end we rejected the idea of a blockade which would have involved Soviet ships. During this meeting, for example, we stopped bombing the Hanoi area because of our desire to avoid any incidents embarrassing these talks. We have now reached the point where we see no way to deal with the North Vietnamese except the course I have chosen. Now the choice is theirs. They can have a peace which respects their independence and ends the conflict throughout Southeast Asia. Or we will have to use the military means available to us to bring the war to an end.
Let me be very frank. I am aware of the fact that the Soviet Union has an alliance with North Vietnam. I am aware that the Soviet Union supports the ideological views of the North Vietnamese. Of course, I am also aware that the Soviet Union has supplied military equipment
to North Vietnam. All of this I understand as an international fact of life. We happen to disagree about that area. On the other hand, as two great powers which have at present so many positive considerations moving in the right direction, it seems to me that the mutual interest of both the United States and the USSR would be served by our doing what we can to bring the war to an end. Candidly, I realize that the Soviet Union, because it does have an alliance with North Vietnam and because it supplies military equipment, might be able to influence them
to negotiate reasonably. But up to this point, looking at the evidence, I would have to say we have run into a blank wall on the negotiations front. So the situation is one where we have to continue our military actions until we get some assurance that going back to the negotiating table would produce some negotiating progress. If we can get that, then we might reconsider our present policy.
Let me conclude that I don’t suggest the Soviet Union is responsible for the fact that the offensive took place at this time. I only say that it did take place and we had to react the way we did. So we can see how this kind of situation can be very embarrassing to our relations in the future where the irresponsible acts of an ally could be supplied with arms and get out of control at some future time. I want you to know that I’m very frank on this subject because I know that our
Soviet friends disagree with me, but I know they’d want me to express myself very frankly and I have. . . .
Like President Bush, President Nixon insisted that because our course of action was right, we must, with sufficient will, be able to make it work. But he could not.
The second revelation in today’s Times is on the front page and concerns the life of Sigmund Freud. During the 1980s one of my colleagues at Carnegie Mellon was a Freud scholar named Richard Schoenwald, who kept us up to date on Freudian developments. I remember him showing us an article by another scholar, John Swales, arguing that Freud had had an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, who never married and lived with the Freud family. His evidence came indirectly from Carl Jung, Freud’s friend and, later, rival, who had spoken frankly with Minna during a visit to the family. Jung said that Minna “was very much bothered by her relationship with Freud and felt guilty about it. . . .From her I learned that Freud was in love with her and that their relationship was indeed very intimate.” I firmly believe that a historian has to be willing to face up to the implications of a single piece of evidence, and I remember remarking that in post-Victorian Vienna, “very intimate” could mean only one thing. Today’s Times confirms it: Another scholar, Franz Maciejewski, has discovered a hotel register in which Freud signed for Minna and himself as man and wife.
That those in high positions conceal the truth, or that brilliant thinkers and politicians are not moral paragons, are two of the simplest lessons of history, yet powerful taboos make the battle to establish them an eternal one. Only a small minority of Americans will ever understand the truth about Nixon and Kissinger and Freud’s secret has been zealously defended by Freudians who should have known better for at least half a century. The market for truth remains a specialty market and a particularly remunerative one, but working in it, for me at least, has unique satisfactions.
Happy holidays to all.