Q. The Nixon Administration had hyped the so-called “Vietnamization” of the war, in which South Vietnamese troops would be trained and U.S. troops withdrawn, as a step to securing “peace in our time.” Is there any indication from the tapes at what point the administration realized that the neither the plan nor peace would be successful?
A. By the time Nixon started secretly taping his conversations in February 1971, about halfway through his first term, it was clear that he knew his announced strategy wouldn’t work as promised. He told America he would end the war through “Vietnamization or negotiation.” Vietnamization was supposed to train and equip the South Vietnamese to defend themselves, and negotiation was supposed to secure North Vietnam’s agreement to let the South Vietnamese choose their own government by free elections.
Before Nixon announced the “Vietnamization” during his first year in office, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger asked the Pentagon, State Department and Central Intelligence Agency how long it would take to train and equip the South to defend itself without American troops. They said that, even when the United States had finished training and equipping the South Vietnam military, Saigon “would not be able to survive without US combat support in the form of air, helicopters, artillery, logistics and major ground forces.”
In other words, if America withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would take over the South.
Vietnamization was a fraud.
Q. South Vietnam survived for two more years after Nixon brought the last American troops home. Did the Pentagon, State Department and CIA underestimate Saigon’s resilience?
A. Nixon knew that he would look like a complete failure if Saigon fell right after he brought American troops home. So he spent years secretly negotiating a “decent interval.”
“Decent interval” was Kissinger’s euphemism for the period of time between Nixon’s final withdrawal of American troops and North Vietnam’s final takeover of the South.
Nixon and Kissinger’s calculations were pretty simple. If Saigon fell a few months after Nixon withdrew, it would be obvious they had lost the war. But if it fell a year or two later, they could blame someone else.
At first, they thought they would blame South Vietnam. But they wound up blaming their favorite target, the people who tried to get them to end the war sooner. That included liberals and Democrats in Congress, anyone in the news media who pointed out that things weren’t working the way Nixon and Kissinger said they were, and, of course, the antiwar demonstrators, who were even more unpopular than the war.
To get a “decent interval,” Nixon had Kissinger secretly assure the Communists that he would not intervene if they took over South Vietnam, just as long as they waited a year or two before doing so.
Q. The Vietnam War was unpopular at home and even with U.S. troops by 1970, who worried they would be “the last to die” in the war. If South Vietnam was going to fail anyway, why did the Administration not just end the war and withdraw all troops?
A. Nixon knew that leaving Vietnam meant losing Vietnam. If he lost Vietnam before Election Day 1972, he would lose his campaign for a second term. He had promised “peace with honor,” not retreat with defeat. He couldn’t deliver “peace with honor,” so he found a politically acceptable substitute, delayed retreat followed by delayed defeat.
To keep Saigon from falling before Election Day 1972, he kept American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam through all four years of his first term. He periodically announced partial troop withdrawals, reducing the number of American soldiers in Vietnam from over 500,000 when he took office in January 1969 to under 50,000 when he won reelection in November 1972. That was enough to convince most voters he was ending the war, and it was enough to guarantee that Saigon wouldn’t fall until after he had secured his second term.
There were times when Nixon considered bringing the last American troops home before 1972, but Kissinger talked him out of it. Kissinger said, “We can’t have it knocked over – brutally– to put it brutally – before the election.” That made up Nixon’s mind.
Nixon’s decision to time military withdrawal from Vietnam to his reelection campaign cost thousands of lives. More than 20,000 American soldiers died during Nixon’s first term. The Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian death toll was many times higher. This is by far Nixon’s worst abuse of presidential power.
Q. The phrase “twist slowly in the wind” would long be associated with the Nixon Administration during and post-Watergate. Did the Nixon administration purposefully leave South Vietnamese leaders to twist slowly in the wind?
A. The South Vietnamese paid the price for Nixon and Kissinger’s refusal to level with America. If Nixon and Kissinger had been honest, they would have told America that Saigon couldn’t survive without American troops. They could have negotiated for the exodus of the South Vietnamese who had fought on our side of the war. But they wouldn’t do that, because that would have involved admitting failure, admitting that they couldn’t achieve “peace with honor.”
It would have been the right thing to do, but it would have meant sacrificing their career ambitions, Nixon’s ambition to be a two-term president and Kissinger’s ambition to be acclaimed as a statesman.
For Nixon and Kissinger to get a ‘decent interval,’ the South Vietnamese had to continue fighting and dying in a doomed effort to delay the inevitable. Many paid for Nixon and Kissinger’s deceit with their lives, others with their freedom.