Fighting While Negotiating: Force and Diplomacy in the Vietnam War
East Auditorium, George C. Marshall Conference Center
September 30, 2010
- Chair: Edward Keefer, Historian, Office of the Secretary of Defense
- Harish Mehta, University of Toronto and Trent University, “‘People’s Diplomacy’: The Diplomatic Front of North Vietnam during the War against the United States, 1965-1972”
- Stephen Morris, Johns Hopkins University SAIS, “The Effectiveness of Military Force in Achieving a Desired Diplomatic Outcome in Vietnam: From the Cambodian Incursion to the Easter Offensive, 1970- 1972.”
- Stephen Randolph, National Defense University, “Turning on Both Sides: The Linebacker II Air Campaign, December 1972”
- Commentator: Robert McMahon, Ohio State University
DR. CARLAND: Good afternoon. We are reassembling for the final drive. We can see – excuse me for saying this – what do you think I’m going to say? (Laughter.) A light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, indeed.
Is Stephen Morris in the crowd? Hmm, this may be interesting. We’re gathered for another scholarly session. The chair of this session, which is titled “Fighting While Negotiating: Force and Diplomacy in the Vietnam War,” is Edward C. Keefer, Ted Keefer. He is currently a historian at the Department of Defense, preparing a history of the Secretary of Defense Brown’s tour of duty, 1977-1980. Prior to this assignment, Ted spent a mere 34 years at the Office of the Historian at the Department of State, the last several years as general editor. Ted’s long tenure at the office, and in particular the work he did on FRUS volumes on the Vietnam War--I think the number is 25, is that right, Ted? You were – okay, 25, at least. I think this gives him – makes him the perfect chairman for a panel that speaks to the complex topic of how force and diplomacy related to one another in this wartime setting.
A personal note before I turn this over to Ted: Ted helped me a great deal to learn my trade as a documentary editor. When our time at the – during our time at the Historian’s Office, Ted and I had many talks about how to document the history of the Vietnam War, how to do it better, and so on. We also talked frequently about mounting a conference on the history of U.S. policy in the war when we completed the Foreign Relations series. Well, we have completed the series. We are now having the conference. I hope Ted is pleased. And now I’m going to turn the panel over to him. Ted?
DR. KEEFER: I’d like to add my thanks to John and the staff at HO for this conference. But I’d like to give a special thanks to John, not just for the two volumes exquisitely documented and selected on Vietnam himself, but also for the last two years really being the de facto general editor of the Foreign Relations for the Vietnam volumes. These volumes that came out would not have happened without John.
And then, as John pointed out, I worked in the Office of the Historian for 34 years and I basically started on Vietnam, and the Vietnam of 1955, when I – it was my second assignment. And better late than never. And I am pleased to say that my Vietnam experience is over with. It’s a major accomplishment for the Department of State to produce the kind of volumes that we did, not just on Vietnam. And one of the things that I wanted to emphasize when I was working on Vietnam was that there was also a war going on in the rest of Southeast Asia – in Laos, in Thailand, and Cambodia. So I think we have really managed to cover the Vietnam War in its entirety, and I’m very pleased. And I thank John for his effort and for all the other people who worked on the volumes.
This today’s session is about, really, the essence of the Vietnam War, at least under the strategy of the Vietnam War – grand strategy by the Nixon Administration and by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and that is using force and backing it up with diplomacy, or using diplomacy and backing it up with force, however you want it, get it.
The first paper will be given by Harish Mehta, who did his undergraduate work at the University of Lucknow in India. Then he got his PhD from McMaster University. He was also a journalist for the Straits Times, a group of Singapore, and has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia. And I think what makes his paper interesting and will make it interesting is his work in Vietnamese and Southeast Asian archives. So I would like to turn the session over to him.
PROF. MEHTA: I’d like to thank Dr. Keefer for his comments, for this forum, to have him introduce me. I also, before I start, I’d like to thank, as everyone else has, Dr. John Carland and the Office of the Historian for putting up this wonderful show and for – especially inviting me to kind of – or rather, giving me the opportunity to come and share things with all of you.
So before I actually start, I’d just like to kind of mention that this whole idea of people’s diplomacy, especially from the Vietnamese perspective, is probably a newish idea. It only goes back 50-odd years, but it’s fairly new because it hasn’t really been talked about, especially in the historical field. And before I get into the nitty-gritties of people’s diplomacy, I only – the only thing I need to add is to just mention very briefly the kinds of archives that I’ve looked at. And these are principally the Hanoi archives, as well the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, the National Security Archive, and most importantly not to forget the Bertrand Russell Papers, which are in my university back in Hamilton McMaster.
So the fact that people’s diplomacy is fairly new, and it’s only about 50-odd years old, can only lead me to the conclusion that there are certain gaps in the literature. And these gaps are pretty apparent because the whole process of writing the history of the war has, as has been very well pointed out, been dominated from a very Western point of view, almost an Anglo-American perspective. The – but historians who have – who are kind of late in coming into the field have begun to look at the whole idea of constructing a fuller perspective on the – on what American history is or where it’s going. I think these younger scholars are sort of seemingly taking it in a direction where constructions of post-coloniality, and constructions of resistance, and a deeper understanding of the kind of hegemonies the United States employed and the kinds of resistance it faced. And unfortunately, while resistance is very well talked about, we really haven’t explored archivally the kinds of resistances that existed. There wasn’t one; that’s why I kind of referred to it in the plural. So let me get into the paper very quickly because I had to cut down a fairly detailed paper, trying to bring it down to 10-odd pages.
So the Vietnamese revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, formulated the concept of people’s diplomacy during the war with the French, ’46 to ’54. And starting in 1948, Ho Chi Minh actually begins to send small groups of North Vietnamese mass organizations into France and China, believing that the Vietnamese people will be more effective in establishing relationships with people abroad, because as a fledgling state of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the DRV lacked a properly organized diplomatic service. So it was really the lack of a service that pushes people’s diplomacy. He uses people where formal contacts don’t exist.
So in such circumstances, Ho Chi Minh actually leavened traditional DRV diplomacy with a new ingredient, which was people’s diplomacy. And the North Vietnamese actually begin promoting the cause of Vietnamese independence and establishing enduring links with non-governmental entities and individuals abroad. And people’s diplomacy quickly begins to play a kind of relatively minor role at that point in time, because the main goal of the Vietnamese revolutionaries until then was to achieve independence through military means. Diplomacy was nonexistent with France. I mean, there were a series of – it was existent, but it certainly didn’t go anywhere.
It was during the second Indochina war, with the United States, that the leaders of North Vietnam created a diplomatic front, which was called (in Vietnamese) to implement people’s diplomacy, (in Vietnamese). And both these Vietnamese terms, I only refer to them only once in this paper, only to highlight the fact that they’ve appeared repeatedly through party documents as well as more recent works by Vietnamese historians and other scholars of international relations.
So the idea of people’s diplomacy first comes up at the Second Congress of the Vietnam Workers Party, which is the Lao Dong Party, in February of 1951. At this event, 200 delegates representing 500,000 rank-and-file members of the party attend the event in – at a small location in North Vietnam just when the DRV is beginning mobilizing its forces to confront the French Far Eastern expeditionary (inaudible) on the battlefield. The party admits at the Second Congress that because the (inaudible) hadn’t fully understood the concept of people’s diplomacy, the party had failed to develop an effective and resolute plan to conduct this novel form of diplomacy. The Congress then instructs that people’s diplomacy must be employed in order to tighten connections between mass organizations in Vietnam and people’s organizations abroad, and that people’s diplomats of Vietnam must participate in efforts to mobilize popular support abroad. And in 1951, the people’s diplomats of North Vietnam make important visits to China and North Korea under instructions to win international support and sympathy. This is, again, a Vietnamese formulation. The winning of international support and sympathy is a Vietnamese phrase, which appears again repeatedly through Vietnamese texts.
So this whole idea of people’s diplomacy is very formalized by Ho Chi Minh in these words in – at a diplomatic conference for North Vietnamese diplomats in January 1964, at which event Ho Chi Minh argues that foreign affairs – I’m quoting – “was not only an area of concern for embassies and consulates general, but also for such organized activities as foreign trade, culture, youth, women, trade unions, agencies, all of which are equally responsible for diplomacy.” And under this definition, Ho Chi Minh excludes Foreign Ministry officials, obviously, from diplomacy. But it doesn’t exclude officials from other government departments, the Communist Party, or even himself from interacting with international peace activists who visit Vietnam, and in an effort to win their support and sympathy.
And Ho Chi Minh stresses that the diplomacy practiced by the mass organizations and individuals was equally important as the diplomacy of the state.
So one can imagine that the diplomatic front, as Ho Chi Minh conceives it, begins to encompass writers, cartoonists, women, workers, students, artistic performers, filmmakers, architects, medical doctors and nurses, academics, lawyers, and sports persons. And the extended diplomatic front as such encompasses, obviously, antiwar activists, because they, too, oppose the American intervention.
So how does it actually work? Now, the North Vietnamese, on the one hand, they initiate people’s diplomacy by going overseas. And they facilitated by welcoming those foreign activists and others and investigative agencies to come and visit them. And in both these styles of their diplomatic engagement, they are actually aiming to provide the antiwar movements overseas with evidence of the effects of American bombardment of North Vietnamese civilians under the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign.
So as facilitators and receivers of antiwar support that develops organically outside by the efforts of outsiders, they invite foreign activists to visit and see the human face of the Vietnamese people who are being demonized repeatedly by American officials as vicious communist zealots. So Hanoi relies on people’s diplomacy in noncommunist countries because it was more effective than traditional state diplomacy in gaining the moral support and sympathy of people who were otherwise averse to communism.
So, to give you a couple of examples, now, there was one important thing. Now, after visiting North Vietnam, some antiwar activists met with State Department officials in an attempt to persuade them to halt the bombardment of their country. For instance, the Ohio-born Rabbi Abraham Feinberg, who visited Vietnam, North Vietnam, and met Ho Chi Minh in January 1967, insisted that the American bombardment of Vietnam was a violation of international law under the Geneva Agreements and the UN Charter, and it was fruitless because the Vietnamese people, I quote, “could not be terrorized into submission by any foreign power.”
And in an attempt at informal diplomacy, the rabbi, who preached at the Holy Blossom Jewish temple in Toronto, briefed the State Department official William Smyser in Washington about an invitation that Feinberg was carrying from Ho Chi Minh for President Lyndon Johnson to visit Hanoi for peace talks. And Feinberg actually then phones the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg in January 1967. And Goldberg tells Feinberg that he disapproves of the fact that Feinberg had actually released to the media Ho Chi Minh’s invitation before actually delivering it to the State Department. At any rate, Feinberg pleads and he gets Goldberg to deliver the message personally to LBJ because Goldberg was having lunch with LBJ the following – the same afternoon.
Now, the face that the North Vietnamese put on people’s diplomacy. There were a number of little-known actors. Now, there was a gentleman called Hoang Quoc Viet, who was keenly watched and reported upon by American observers of this time. The CIA, FBIS reports frequently threw up his name, and – as a talented agitator. And so when the Yale University historian Staughton Lynd and the American peace activist Tom Hayden visit, they meet him because he welcomes them at the airport. And both of them thought that Viet was a trade unionist, and because he was a trade unionist he tended to exaggerate the overall opposition of American workers to the American intervention and participation in the war. So – but they also met another gentleman at the airport called Do Xuan Oanh, the Permanent Secretary of the North Vietnamese Peace Committee, who serves as their guide and friend at most of these visits.
Through these conversations, you know, people like Lynd and Hayden are convinced that the Vietnamese revolutionaries are seeking to create a humane socialism and not a ruthless communist dictatorship. And Oanh also seeks to explain that he wanted to educate the people of North Vietnam about American dissidents in order to reduce hatred among the Vietnamese people for the Americans. So when they return home, Lynd and Hayden try in vain to convince State Department officials that the Vietnamese were ready to negotiate. Instead of listening to their pleas, American officials threatened to withdraw their passports on the grounds they had violated the Logan Act, which prohibits American citizens from conducting diplomacy, diplomacy outside of official channels.
And then we see in September ’66 the American activist David Dellinger visiting Hanoi, where Oanh again arranges meetings with Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong. And Ho Chi Minh makes a deep impression on David Dellinger, who found him gentle and sincere. And although Dellinger was a dedicated pacifist, he excused revolutionary violence in this case as necessary for the defense of Vietnam against foreign aggression.
And so following these early visits, the North Vietnamese begin to formalize a system of hospitality as part of this whole people’s diplomacy idea, based on the seniority and importance of the visitors. And the Hanoi authorities group foreign visitors into few – into two levels, based on their power and ability to influence the outside world. So Nobel Prize winners, well-known university professors, famous writers and filmmakers, are identified as A-level guests, while rank-and-file activists are B-level guests. And the A-level guests are accommodated at the best hotels, they ate at the best restaurants that war-ravaged North Vietnam could offer, and the B-level guests were put up at various government guest houses and ordinary hotels. And usually, foreign visitors paid their own tickets, air tickets, but the North Vietnamese extend local hospitality, including meals and the cost of an accompanying translator. And for instance, three important antiwar activists who fell into the A-level were linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, economist Douglas Dowd, and the pastor Dick Fernandez.
The importance of people’s diplomacy within Europe’s left-leaning governments is not so much that it pressures these governments to abandon support for America’s Vietnam policy, as was the case with Britain, Canada, and Australia. It is not surprising that these left-leaning regimes in France and Italy oppose Washington. It’s not that they oppose Washington – it’s not surprising that these regimes oppose Washington. Rather, these settings provide an atmosphere in which people’s diplomacy could flourish.
So to cut to the final couple of pages here, how does President Johnson respond to all of this? Or does he respond at all? Because American officials in the CIA, FBIS reports constantly refer to them as propaganda, communist propaganda. I’m arguing that it was more than propaganda, that it was – it may have been perceived as propaganda because that was the mindset that drove the idea that it’s propaganda, because it was from the left wing. But it wasn’t certainly seen as propaganda across Europe, and certainly not by Bertrand Russell and his cohorts in the whole, vast – the east – the Norwegians and the Swedes, for instance.
So President Johnson is increasingly concerned that the propaganda campaign conducted by the antiwar movement and the North Vietnamese is giving the United States a bad name. And he complains in June 1965 to Birch Bayh, the Democratic senator from Indiana, that the antiwar activists and the Vietnamese revolutionaries are winning the propaganda war against us. This is in quotes. The president adds, “And they’re also winning the other war against us because they’re winning the propaganda one.” Johnson continues, “They have Harold Wilson on the ropes and they have the prime minister of Canada ducking and dodging.” And then the NSA [National Security Advisor], McGeorge Bundy, warns the president that Wilson, quote, “won’t do anything on Vietnam. His peace people won’t let him.” Of course, this refers to the Labor Party and its great pressures not to go along with Wilson on any of this.
So the Johnson Administration couldn’t find more support for its Vietnam policies because of the growing antiwar movements. And nonetheless, these Americans who visit North Vietnam warn the Vietnamese leaders that don’t expect too much from us, that the antiwar movement in America is still small. It has no part to influence the American Government, which is very large, and as yet no match for the size and authority of the American Government. Nonetheless, the Hanoi leaders continue to predict that the antiwar movement would eventually force American – the American Government to withdraw from Vietnam.
So, and then Johnson worries about it some more and he keeps saying, as we go along, we’re only getting bad things from the press, he tells McNamara, and they, the communist bloc, do a far better propaganda job than we do. And we – some of these papers yesterday brought this out very well, of how he believed it – well, again, he was actually over-exaggerating this whole problem, because some of the scholarly works on television coverage have shown that, actually, Johnson was getting rather good television coverage. And somehow – but the impression was, in his mind, he wasn’t. But statistically, he was – it’s been shown that he was getting rather good press.
So a matter of growing concern to officials in Washington were the transnational lines between Ho Chi Minh and the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Together, they got together to create the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which then created the international war crimes tribunal to try Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State and Defense for war crimes in Vietnam, for having used chemical weapons and genocidal strategies.
So – and the people of Vietnam used this. Now, it’s not just Ho Chi Minh and Bertrand Russell involved here. It’s really that the people behind – the people’s organizations are actively playing a very important role in liaising with Russell in London through the Cuu Quoc weekly magazine, because Ho Chi Minh obviously can’t be there, and Russell is too old to travel. He’s 90 years old by this time.
So the North Vietnamese have played a very important and very unacknowledged role in the creation of the war crimes tribunal. This historical literature has ignored the fact that they were actually financial stakeholders in the international war crimes tribunal. The fact that Ho Chi Minh contributed in total 50,000 new francs and doubled the amount on getting these activists over to investigate instances of war crimes in Vietnam, which makes the Vietnamese fairly important owners, literally, of the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal.
And of course, the American authorities did everything they could to kind of denounce and disrupt, through various ways – the CIA got into the act and tried to – Under Secretary of State George Ball played a key role in spreading disinformation and persuading foreign heads of state to get – to quit any association with the war crimes tribunal.
So in conclusion, one – a couple of paragraphs. The people’s diplomacy, I’m arguing, deserves recognition as a powerful force that the embattled people of Vietnam employ in conjunction with the peace movement abroad to exert popular pressure on the American Government to end the war, and that this all worked, in a way, and that without people’s diplomacy, American leaders would have been less restrained, and they might have tried to prolong the war.
I think I should probably stop there. Thanks. (Applause.)
DR. KEEFER: Our next speaker is Doctor Stephen Morris, who’s a fellow at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He received a PhD in political science from Columbia University. He has written a book on the Cambodia – why Vietnam invaded Cambodia. And he is currently writing a book on the Nixon Administration and the Vietnam War, and where he has used Soviet Communist Party Central Committee archives, the Russian Foreign Ministry archives, and the good old Bulgarian archives, which are sometimes very useful, I understand. So he has also visited Vietnam during the last three years.
PROF. MORRIS: Thank you. I just want to say that what I’m going to be talking about is, in general, the perspective of President Nixon as compared to President Johnson on the use of force in order to achieve a diplomatic outcome. And then what I want to talk about is how this had an effect during two phases of the war, particularly the Cambodian incursion and, more important, the Easter Offensive.
Now, I just want to say that most of the so-called lessons of Vietnam have been derived from the experiences of the Kennedy and Johnson Administration. Most recently, a book by Gordon Goldstein on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations’ Vietnam War decision-making, focusing on the role of National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, was reported to have been read by the President of the United States and trumpeted as an indispensable reading by the Office of the Vice President prior to the completion of the review of strategy for the Afghanistan war.
Few historians, compared to the number who have studied Kennedy and Johnson Administration, have paid attention to the Nixon Administration experience in Vietnam for serious study of Vietnam policy, despite the fact that it was the longest-serving of the Vietnam War administrations, and more important, that in its strategic outlook and policies, it was a radical departure from the previous administrations.
The difference between the Johnson and Nixon administrations in their attitude to military strategy and politics are fundamental to understanding their war policies and their relative success and failure. President Johnson was guided in his military policies by one philosophical assumption and three political preconditions. Johnson’s philosophical assumption was that the enemy shared some of the same fundamental universal values: peace as an end in itself, economic prosperity as one of the highest goals, and most important, the necessity of political compromise as a solution to conflict, as the American people and members of the United States Senate. Johnson was very much thinking in terms of his own cultural-political experience. Therefore, he believed the Vietnamese communist leaders might abandon their lifetime ambition to establish a unified communist Vietnam if offered economic incentives of American-sponsored partnership in their economic development. And read President Johnson’s 1965 speech at Johns Hopkins University and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Johnson’s political preconditions for military strategy were, first, domestic politics and policy goals were primary and should provide firm constraints on conduct of the war. Second, international relations with the two major communist powers were too dangerous to undertake military strategies that risk confrontation with them in the Vietnam theater. Third, the United States could not afford to lose for reasons of global credibility, even if it was unable to win.
From this evolved a strategy that, one, imposed vigorous restraints on the geographical application of U.S. force, limiting the application of force in North Vietnam and countries neighboring South Vietnam, where the Vietnamese communist enemy forces operated. Two, a military strategy of incrementalism that escalated the scale of military forces and their targets gradually while punctuating them with periodic battlefield pauses, universal – unilateral ceasefires and bombing pauses, as signs of goodwill, in the hope of eliciting a compromise response. And three, the third component of strategy, was a military strategy of attrition that aimed to inflict material and manpower losses on the enemy to a point, a quote “breaking point,” where it could not continue the fight and would decide to compromise on its objectives through peace negotiations.
General Westmoreland saw the main threat to South Vietnam as the conventional main forces of the Viet Cong and especially North Vietnam. Thus at his recommendation, the Johnson Administration eschewed counterinsurgency in South Vietnam in favor of conventional military strategies, from which evolve large-unit warfare, search-and-destroy missions in pursuit of the enemy. The Johnson Administration had no strategy of military victory, only one of modulated military punishment that would possibly lead to a negotiated compromise.
As we all know, the Johnson Administration policies were an abject failure, except in so far as the United States did not lose the war while Johnson was president. But rather than Johnson finding the communists’ psychological breaking point, the communists found Johnson’s breaking point with the Tet Offensive.
President Nixon was drastically different in his philosophical assumptions and in his political preconditions. He believed that the main enemy center of gravity was the military capabilities of the North Vietnamese communist leaders rather than the pain that could be inflicted on its fighting men. Nixon believed that Hanoi’s leaders did not share any fundamental universal values with the United States and were not interested in compromising their fundamental goal of political victory in South Vietnam. He saw negotiations as only being successful if Hanoi was fundamentally defeated militarily.
Nixon did not have the same political preconditions as Johnson. Domestic politics were important for Nixon and limiting strategy. Hence, Vietnamization of the war. But he was less constrained by them, by domestic politics, than Johnson, even though many of his senior Cabinet officials, especially Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, were highly sensitive to domestic politics as well as to international opinion.
Nixon was less frightened by any adverse reaction of the two major communist powers to his Vietnam strategies than Johnson was, but that confidence was helped and gradually heightened by the evolution of détente with the Soviet Union and the strategic opening and rapprochement with China. Nixon shared Johnson’s precondition that defeat was not an option, but Nixon saw U.S. strategic objectives and a lasting peace as best served by decisive military victories, not incremental force and attrition. Nixon was much more in tune with the strategic outlook of the U.S. professional military, with the strategic outlook of his South Vietnamese allies, and also with the strategic outlook of his Vietnamese communist enemies than Johnson was.
From this evolved a dual-aspect military strategy that combined a heightened focus on classic counterinsurgency strategies aimed at destroying the Viet Cong guerrilla capabilities and a conventional strategy that aimed at cutting the enemy’s strategic supply lines and sanctuaries and destroying the enemy infrastructure so as to greatly diminish its capacity to conduct the war. This did not happen immediately but evolved gradually over the first four years of Nixon’s presidency, culminating in the strategic response to the Easter Offensive.
Now, it’s widely accepted that the Viet Cong insurgency was fundamentally defeated between 1969 and 1971. That is why Hanoi felt compelled to launch a conventional military offensive in 1972. But it is also true that Nixon inflicted massive damage upon the North Vietnamese conventional war-making capacity in 1972, so much so that I will argue he had found the Hanoi leadership’s breaking point. Now, some of the most compelling evidence of the breaking point argument comes from the archives of the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This evidence includes not only the Soviet Union’s own secret evaluations of the military and political situation in North Vietnam but also secret speeches of Vietnamese Communist Party leaders, which have not been published but which were – and I tell this to the Vietnamese friends here – they were covertly acquired by Soviet military intelligence operatives in Vietnam during the war. In other words, your Soviet friends were engaged in espionage activities against you and they got a lot of very interesting information as a result of that. So this is some of the material that I have been looking at.
What I want to do is look at the – very briefly at the Cambodian incursion and the Easter Offensive in very broad-brush terms because there’s no time to do it any other way, and to see it as examples of Nixon’s evolution into a successful commander-in-chief in Vietnam who achieved at least a temporary victory in the war.
Now, let me first look at the Cambodian incursion. Cambodia was, under Prince Sihanouk, attempting to play a role as a neutral nation in the world. And its foreign policy was not at variance with that of the United States, or was not hostile to that of the United States, until the early 1960s. It’s a complicated story, but basically, in the early 1960s, Prince Sihanouk turned more towards Hanoi and China in his foreign policy. From 1960 – in 1965, Sihanouk broke diplomatic relations with the United States. And from 1965 on, the Chinese, Russians, and Czechs were allowed to use the port of Sihanoukville to supply the Vietnamese communist troops in South Vietnam. And the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were allowed use of eastern provinces of eastern – of Cambodia as a sanctuary in their fight against U.S. imperialism. Sihanouk continued to build these ties with the PRC and the Chinese recognized value in having Sihanouk as an ally. Throughout 1966 and ’67, Sihanouk issued statements supporting Hanoi’s stand on preconditions for negotiations.
It was not until the coup d’etat of 1970, however, that the United States began to consider seriously the possibility of direct intervention in Cambodia by U.S. ground combat forces. The Johnson Administration avoided this. Now, Sihanouk’s tilt towards the North Vietnamese was brought to a halt in 1969 and he changed his position and moved towards a more neutral position between North Vietnam and the United States. However, this was rather a reaction in part to domestic issues, including the concerns of his army. In an interview with the American journalist Stanley Karnow, Sihanouk indicated that his government would do nothing if the United States attacked Vietnamese communist bases in remote areas of the country. He would only retaliate if Cambodians were killed. The same message was repeated to U.S. Government envoy Chester Bowles in Phnom Penh in January 1968. However, the messages from Sihanouk fell on deaf ears within the Johnson Administration. President Johnson was faced with many questions about his existing strategy in Vietnam, and the shock of the 1968 Tet Offensive turned him against any consideration of voiding the geographical boundaries of the war.
Now, from the early stages of the Nixon Administration, there was consideration of change to the Johnson Administration’s policy. However, there was no evidence that the United States, in considering policies such as bombing of Cambodia, had any interest in overthrowing Sihanouk. On the contrary, President Nixon’s policy was one of trying to engage Sihanouk and try and develop friendly diplomatic relations. One had – at the same time, a decision was made to undertake bombing of Cambodia, which began in August of 1969, the so-called secret bombing which was not at all a secret.
Sihanouk was, of course, not at all unhappy about that and he was able to make a position – take a position which was intermediate between the two. However, Sihanouk was not completely in charge of his own domestic political situation, and in 1970, he was overthrown by a coup d’etat. Examining the U.S. archives, you will find not only no evidence that the U.S. was involved in the coup d’etat against Sihanouk, but evidence that it could not have been. It was almost – and certainly not been. I don’t have time to go through the evidence now, but if you want to bring it up in discussion, we can.
Now, the coup, I think, however, was not to the advantage of the United States, because Sihanouk was a fundamental political asset in Cambodia. And had the original Nixon plan to try and engage Sihanouk and bring him into a closer relationship with the United States been successful, his political attributes – he was a political asset which would turn the balance of forces in favor of the United States in any future confrontation with North Vietnam. By Sihanouk being overthrown, he threw in his lot with the North Vietnamese, with China, and eventually with the Khmer Rouge. And that, therefore, made – by doing so, he became an asset against the United States. So the coup d’etat was a disaster. But it’s very important to understand that the United States neither instigated nor was involved in the coup, and it was a tragedy from the point of view of the United States policy because the Cambodian Government without Sihanouk was an extremely weak government.
Now, the incursion was – that took place six weeks after the coup d’etat came after North Vietnamese forces decided that they would attack the Government of Cambodia. The Government of Cambodia, the new government, had wanted to remove North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces from Cambodia. It didn’t have the means to do so. And it was an example of many, many different aspects of the irrationality of the Cambodian Government. However, they incited the North Vietnamese, therefore, by – without having any backup from the United States, to launch an attack upon them. And in the context of that, in the context of the possible loss of Cambodia, it was decided by the United States that it had to intervene in Cambodia, it had to go after the North Vietnamese, because the whole Vietnamization program was in danger if North Vietnam was able to really establish full control over Cambodia and bring back Sihanouk and their own influence.
The view was if Cambodia became a de facto communist state, even under the – even with the appearance of the royal government, it would be a far more dangerous place for the United States policy in Vietnam than otherwise. It was a Catch-22 situation for the United States. It was an extremely difficult one. It’s a very hard judgment call for anyone to make now on what should have been done, but at least it made sense to the United States at that time.
Now, the consequences of the incursion were that the – was – I would argue that the incursion had a mixed result. On the positive side for the United States, it led to a protection of the pacification program in the two major areas of South Vietnam, Three Corps and Four Corps. I personally experienced the drastic changes in the security in the southern half of South Vietnam in visits there as an Australian student in 1970 and 1972. In 1970, it was impossible for me to travel unescorted in most of the rural countryside, day or night. In January in 1972, it had become possible for a Western visitor to travel in safety without military escort throughout the southern countryside by day or night, a condition that had not been possible two years earlier. So this Cambodia sanctuary clearing was one factor, not the only factor, but one factor making this enhanced security possible.
The North Vietnamese, however, moved deeper into Cambodia and were able to create a zone – liberated zones in Cambodia which were very important for the eventual victory of the Khmer Rouge. So that was the downside. There was a plus side and a downside.
However, I want to say that, from the point of view of the North Vietnamese, they were also affected psychologically by that, and I think that’s a very important thing to understand. In a speech by Hoang Anh in, to, a plenum of the Central Committee at the end of 1970, he noted Nixon’s bold move into going into Cambodia. And he pointed out that the supply of our forces in 1970 was made more difficult than previously, when we were able to use a seaport. But after a coup in Cambodia, we were deprived of this possibility. Besides that, we intended to fulfill part of the supply by air, using airports in Cambodia for this, but until now, we have decided not to do this because of the danger that our aircraft will be attacked and shut down. That is why, at the present time, as in old days, we continue to carry out supply by the land route through Laos, and we’re still having difficulty supplying personnel, arms, and ammunition.
Moreover, Hoang Anh pointed out that the North Vietnamese now feared – because of the boldness displayed by President Nixon, he feared that there could be an American landing in North Vietnam. There was American military planning for such a possibility, but it was never politically contemplated. However, the North Vietnamese, and Hoang Anh in his report, indicated that if the United States did land in North Vietnam at a key military junction point, it would create enormous difficulties for them, very serious difficulties for them, and the whole war effort would be challenged. So, in summary about – with regard to the Cambodia incursion, I believe that it was not a clear positive or negative for the United States. It was a mixed bag.
With regard to the Easter Offensive, I’m far more – I have come to the conclusion far more that it was a great success, for the United States and for Nixon’s strategy. I can’t go into the details of what actually happened. Those of you who are familiar with the subject that will know that both Dale Andrade, who’s in the audience, and Steve Randolph, who’s a colleague on the panel, have written outstanding books on this subject, and I recommend those who want to pursue the subject of the Easter Offensive read those two books.
Just in a nutshell, the North Vietnamese launched the biggest offensive of the war in 1972 on three fronts, coming down from the North through the Demilitarized Zone, from the northwest of Saigon into Binh Long Province and toward the provincial capital of Xuan Loc, and thirdly, into the central highlands. These – this – the battles of the 1972 Easter Offensive were the bloodiest of the war, and they ultimately resulted in massive losses, not only for the South Vietnamese, but more important, for the North Vietnamese – bloody losses which they did not anticipate. Secondly, the United States began a bombing campaign of North Vietnam and a mining of HaiphongHarbor. The mining of HaiphongHarbor had some success, but it wasn’t as effective as had been hoped. The bombing of North Vietnam, however, was devastating. The B-52 was the most potent piece of artillery that the United States possessed, and it had not only an effect on the physical capabilities of the North Vietnamese but also psychologically upon the soldiers.
The Nixon Administration had one advantage that the Chinese, the Johnson Administration did not have, in that, by 1968, it had acquired smart weapons – smart weapons, laser-guided munitions, which were not only more accurate but also caused less collateral damage, less civilian casualties, so that, therefore, the advantage in technology the United States had enabled Nixon to be more successful in his bombing than had previously been possible under Johnson.
Now, how do we know that this bombing had a success on the North Vietnamese position? Largely by result of their diplomatic position. First of all, I’ve read two speeches by General Tran Van Quang, one on June 26th to the Politburo in Hanoi. First, on June 26, 1972, General Quang indicated that the North Vietnamese were surprised at the U.S. reaction to the Easter Offensive. He said we knew the Americans would resume the bombings, but felt that they would not lay strikes north of the 20th parallel. In fact, it turned out the Americans attacked Hanoi. At first this was unexpected by us. Secondly, he went on to talk about the success of the bombing on their military targets. However, Quang said that all was not lost and the enemy had – and that the enemy had suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese forces.
Now, he went on to say that what the relationship was between fighting and diplomacy. At the present time, he said – General – I’m quoting from General Quang: “At present time, the central issue is the Paris peace accords on Vietnam. Nixon and Laird are seeking a means for the creation of favorable conditions on the fronts in order to have a durable position at the peace talks. Nixon wants to resolve the Vietnam issue by means of peace negotiations.” And then he goes on to say, “In reaction, we’re preparing for the liberation of Hue. The liberation of Hue, following the liberation of Quang Tri, shall have a major political significance. It can facilitate Nixon’s loss during the upcoming elections. Therefore, we must liberate Hue prior to the presidential elections at any price, despite any difficulties.” Now this – and he also pointed out that the beginning of the operations for the liberation of Hue is set for September of 1972.
Now, when I look at the second speech by General Quang in September of 1972, on September 15th, a document which became famous when I gave it to the New York Times in April of 1993, you’ll find that General Quang was no longer talking about the liberation of Hue. This had been – was no longer an objective. Instead, the three issues that he raised had nothing to do with future political strategy.
To sum up, and I’m coming to the end of this now, Kissinger’s meeting in October 8th with Le Duc Tho is an important meeting, because at that meeting Le Duc Tho made a number of important concessions on negotiations and basically accepted the key and fundamental parts of President Nixon’s May 1972 peace proposal. This was the most important breakthrough in the negotiations which had been achieved. And by looking at the Soviet archives, I’ve been able to discover that the North Vietnamese leadership was basically in internal conflict over what happened in the war and what the political consequences would be. And a struggle took place between elements in the Politburo over whether the war could be won by primarily military means. The key person in all of these discussions was Pham Van Dong. And Pham Van Dong was somebody who believed that, ultimately, the war ought to be won by primarily political and diplomatic means, not by military – primarily military means. That was not the position of the majority of the Politburo until the end of September, early October of 1972. At an extraordinary plenum of the Central – of the Politburo in October of 1972, a majority of the Politburo came to Pham Van Dong’s position, and interestingly Le Duan, the General Secretary, was in a minority.
So as a result, we see the basic background for the concessions that Le Duc Tho was willing to make to Dr. Kissinger. They came about as a result of a debate within the Vietnamese Communist Party, and that debate within the Vietnamese Communist Party was the result of enormous losses which were suffered in the Easter Offensive, losses that went beyond what they anticipated and were willing to accept for the future.
So we’re at – I will end my talk and say to you that I think that President Nixon, on foreign policy, was one of the most successful foreign policy presidents. Although he has been given a lot of credit for his diplomacy with regard to China and the Soviet Union, he was also a very successful commander-in-chief. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. KEEFER: Our next panelist is Stephen Randolph, associate dean of faculty at the IndustrialCollege of the Armed Forces at the National Defense University. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, was an Air Force pilot, got his – after he retired, he got his PhD from George Washington University, and within an in-ordinarily short amount of time, I say with a bit of envy, his dissertation was published into a very important book, Powerful and Brutal Weapons: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Easter Offensive.
So I welcome Doctor Randolph.
PROF. RANDOLPH: Let me start by joining everybody else who’s appeared up here and express my appreciation to John and to Ed and all of the folks who made this conference possible, and beyond that, this miracle of these volumes and the material that’s come out here. I think it really is a monumental achievement and one that will stand for a long, long time. I’d be a little bit more grateful if they’d gotten my volume out more than a week ago.
I’ve been doing some high-speed scholarship getting ready for this appearance here. And it’s been one of the charming and kind of unexpected aspects of this conference that so many people have talked about their personal experience with the Vietnam War, and it reminds us all how this war has touched us all and continues to touch us all. And I thought, well, what the heck? I’ll play.
I grew up on a farm in the Central Valley of California. My dad was a farmer. He’d been a bomber pilot in World War II. He taught me how to fly. And when the time came, I was a football recruit at the Air Force Academy, and it seemed just perfectly natural that I would go. And it was natural for him to support the war because that’s what Americans used to do. It was unquestioning. And so I went off to the AirForceAcademy. I got there a month after KentState, to give you an idea of the kind of society we were living in at the time, graduated in 1974. And not until years later did I learn that my mom had lived in dread that this forever war would last until I could join it and deploy downrange and it would engulf her family.
When I got to my operational career flying F-4s, it was interesting. I was stationed in Germany and all the people that were my commanders – my flight commander, my instructor – they were all Southeast Asia veterans but we rarely talked about the war, although they did know some cool songs. We were all waiting for the real war, and that was the one on the central front.
And so time drifted by and I got back to the war about 10 years ago in a desperate search for a dissertation topic. Dale Andrade had done this wonderful book on the Easter Offensive, but there was more to be done, I thought, on the air side of it. And I started studying the air action of that offensive. And you can drop how many bridges, killed how many trucks, how many tanks, but what does it all mean? None of that matters until you understand what people were trying to achieve with this offensive. And so that got me then into the Nixon papers, the Nixon tapes, to understand the strategic intent of all that. And I’ve been there happily ever since in my own little Idaho.
And what I like about the Nixon papers, and it continues to absorb me, is the drama. It is the drama. It is so Shakespearian: three people like Nixon and Kissinger and Haig with this incredible mix of strengths and weaknesses that we’ve witnessed up here, as a matter of fact, and this interplay among them. More Shakespearian than most of Shakespeare, to be honest with you. And then you’ve got the dukes and the earls that come in every once in a while to provide a foil and advance the action. Who are those? It’s Laird, it’s Rogers, it’s Moorer.
Rogers, before I forget, I don’t think he ever shows up signing any of the papers in this 1,241 volume [sic pages]dealing with the culmination of this war, not a single one. And then, when the tension gets too high or the action starts to drag, you hauling Spiro Agnew for comic relief. (Laughter.) And it’s always a joy to see him enter. It is always a joy.
The other thing about this, and Stephen kind of touched on this a little bit, is that Nixon’s war follows exactly the five-act structure of Shakespearian drama. You’ve got ’69, where everybody’s getting to know each other and kind of get things figured out and you set up relationships. You need a propelling act to spin this thing into the drama, and that is Cambodia in 1970. Act Three is Lam Son 719, and that’s when this thing begins to converge toward a conclusion. Act Four, which Stephen talked about, the Easter Offensive and Linebacker, propels this thing toward a conclusion. And Act Five, which is what I’m about to talk about, everything becomes manifest. All the hidden flaws of character and plot and relationships, there’s this terrible cataclysm. And you set the basis either then for a reconciliation of this terrible conflict or a sequel. Stand by me to the end of this talk and we’ll see where it all goes.
Okay, a little bit on the chronology. Stephen talked about it. You had the Easter Offensive. We obviously have a lot to talk about, since we’re basically working on the same book. But the Easter Offensive, these conferences that he talked about, what you have are Politburo deliberations dealing down from their original objectives for the offensive. What they wanted to do was create a negotiated settlement that would get the Americans out, leave the North Vietnamese in country, set up a coalition government with an easy transition finally to a communist-controlled state. And when the offensive stagnated because of the steps that Stephen talked about, now the Politburo gets together and they start prioritizing among their objectives because they can’t have it all. They haven’t gotten as much on the ground as they wanted. And what they prioritized, then, was in a very careful set of deliberations – North Vietnamese army has to stay in country, the Americans have to go, there has to be some form of political recognition of the People’s Revolutionary Government and their right to a legitimate existence in South Vietnam, and reparations or reconstitution or whatever word you want to use for it, but basically financial support from the Americans. And they traded away the political terms that they’d been fighting for, for so many years. That was driven by the stagnation of the Easter Offensive.
What I want to say, first of all, in kind of a little bit of a reaction to some of the things that have come here before – negotiations, when you make that a personal confrontation between Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, you are trivializing a very, very important and complex set of relationships. The Politburo was setting its conditions in this feverish discussion back in Hanoi, prioritizing things. And Le Duc Tho was staying within that guidance very, very skillfully. And what they told him was go for these objectives and trade off everything outside of that. And when you read the record of these negotiations, keep that in mind, because Kissinger is winning everything outside of those core objectives. And they stand, then, through the end of the January negotiations.
The second thing I wanted to mention, and this has to do with what Ambassador Negroponte said this morning, is it was Kissinger who was using the election as a relentless driving timeline to complete this peace settlement. It was him who was driving the North Vietnamese. And he kept saying if you think this guy is tough before the election, wait until you see what he’s like after. And so both sides were racing to the finish line. It’s not like Le Duc Tho said, hey, I got this idea on October 8th and suddenly he tricked Kissinger. That was Kissinger basically falling on his own punji stick right there.
So what followed, then, was Kissinger goes racing off to Saigon to try to convince President Thieu that 14 divisions on his territory were really just fine. Thieu, of course, rejected those terms and there was a second round of negotiations in late November where Kissinger attempts to represent the South Vietnamese position, which also fails. But there’s a very creative interlude now where they almost converge on this de facto withdrawal of North Vietnamese troops across the DMZ, a hundred thousand of them, in return for the South Vietnamese releasing prisoners, the civilian and military detainees, out of their prisons. But I think Le Duc Tho got ahead of Politburo guidance on that one. It all went away. They tried it once again in December. They came agonizingly close to a negotiated settlement. Two symbolic, almost nonexistent, areas of difference between the two countries, one on the modalities of crossing the DMZ, which was then and would forever be under the sole control of the North Vietnamese army, and the other on how the signing peace agreement would be conducted. And on this basis, now, we undergo this massive military action.
What things do we see in this volume and the other material? The first thing, to quote my esteemed colleague here, John Carland, is the ascendancy of Al Haig. And this matters a lot because there’s a lot of material out there on the Nixon-Kissinger relationship, and if you miss the ascendancy of Haig in this period, you are missing the story. This is especially evident in October and December. Kissinger is downrange negotiating with Le Duc Tho. Haig is next to Nixon in the White House. And so Haig’s, in getting the cables from Kissinger, interpreting them for Nixon, talking to Nixon, and then relaying Nixon’s response back to Kissinger. This, of course, drove Kissinger completely crazy, which is very satisfying to read in these accounts. (Laughter.)
The other thing that is really, I think, extremely important here is that Nixon was genuinely concerned about Kissinger’s negotiating tactics and about his emotional stability. And that comes out very clearly in these documents in some pretty shocking ways, really. The other thing is he’s really sick and tired of these endless squabbles with Rogers and Laird. It is tiresome. It comes at a cost. So Haig becomes the most trusted advisor in this period of time. And why does it matter? It’s because Haig, in all of these conversations with Nixon, is a firm, resolute proponent to be ready to make what they called a massive turn to the right. If the time came, you need to be ready to use massive force to blast this impasse away. And Nixon was by no means eager to do this. He knew the price that he would pay. And yet, it was this kind of relentless, ceaseless advocacy on the part of Haig that then leads finally to the Christmas bombing, to the extent that you can trace in the three offenses, air offensives, that we executed in 1972, the personalities and philosophies of power of their primary architects. Freedom Train in April: incremental, precise, limited, signaling. That’s Kissinger. Linebacker: this relentless, ceaseless application of force. That’s Nixon, closely tied to the diplomatic action. And Haig is just pure brute force. Brutal was his favorite word, and that’s the way he liked to use the military instrument.
Related to that in this period of time is the progressive centralization and what you might call a toxification of decision-making in the White House. And this is not going to cause any headlines tomorrow. But it is interesting, if you follow this five-act structure that I’ve outlined, to look at the progressive deterioration of the formal decision-making structure through the Nixon Administration. In ’69, when they’re addressing these options, it looks a lot like a normal government. The State Department people are talking to the NSC, they’re writing papers, Secretary Rogers gets a vote. By ’70, as Stephen mentioned, basically the Joint Chiefs of Staff are out of that picture but there were NSC deliberations on that. For Lam Son in ’71, there was this bizarre kabuki theater that would make the people think that they were being consulted but the decision had been made long since for the Easter Offensive on May the 4th. And you can all listen online to these conversations. There was this conference in the White House where Nixon, Kissinger, Haig, Connally at that point, and more, all got together and basically decided on this thing. And then they had a ritualistic NSC meeting so that Nixon could avoid talking to Rogers on the subject. It’s all right there in black-and-white, folks.
At this point now in late ’72, Connally’s gone. Moorer has completely lost favor within the White House. And some of the language about him, they say, they call him a Navy lobbyist who doesn’t give a damn for this war. Later on, they call him a whore because he’ll do anything the President wants. So you have your choice of agreeing with the President and being called that or disagreeing with him and being considered disloyal. This is a toxic environment here, folks.
And it emerges most clearly – and this is kind of the centerpiece of the talk here – that Linebacker II was only the most vivid but not even probably the most effective of a three-month campaign of coercion and cooptation that was wielded against both Vietnamese parties by the Nixon White House to enable America to extricate itself from this war. When the title of my talk here is Turning on Both Sides, that’s exactly how Kissinger phrased it and that’s exactly what they did. When they turned on the South Vietnamese, it is actually a more existential threat than that levied against the North. You had these constant stream of messages and visitors threatening the cutoff of military and economic aid. On the other hand, flushing a billion dollars worth of equipment into theater in the Enhanced Plus Program, the equipment of which they couldn’t use or maintain or even store, but it was a way to try to buy Thieu’s acceptance of these terms. Against the North Vietnamese, you had this constant convergence of the war aims, the negotiating terms. It’s very important, this agreement, to support reconstruction. And finally, this resort to force. So this is a campaign against both Vietnamese parties.
A couple things that didn’t happen that I find interesting. First of all, the Agnew ploy, which is interesting because there was about a two-month constant series of deliberations on the idea of sending Spiro Agnew to Saigon to represent Nixon, not to negotiate, God knows, but as a messenger to Thieu to say time to get on board and knock it off; we’re done. And it’s interesting, because you get to hear Nixon and Kissinger talk about Agnew, but more so because Agnew is not going there because he’s uniquely gifted as a diplomat. He’s going there because he is the standard bearer of the American right and Nixon has always worried about his right flank. He’d given up the left, given up the press, given up the liberals – not too sure, though, about Reagan and Goldwater and Stennis and that crowd. That’s what that was all about.
Second thing that didn’t happen was the movement toward a bilateral settlement, which, when you get into the records, was a constant, constant possibility, a strategic option that Nixon and Kissinger were ready to execute, to the point where Ambassador Negroponte actually drafted the speech that would announce that switch to a bilateral settlement and try to justify it to the American people. And he drafted the peace terms, a peace settlement, on that basis.
The third thing that was striking about this was, particularly in these cables back and forth between Paris and the White House, this discussion of how you would transition, then, to this use of force. Would President Nixon give a speech, then, trying to explain this to the American people? And Kissinger thought it was fundamentally impossible to do this without a presidential address to let the American people understand it. But you guys that were around at the time will remember this dead, deafening silence from the White House, this absolute blanket, not just of the President not talking but dropping a blanket on both military and diplomatic public affairs officers. Not a word. And it was very surrealistic over that Christmas holiday as the bombs fell.
Why was that? Well, mostly it was because – and it’s in one of those kind of charming quotes that you find in this latest volume of FRUS -- Nixon couldn’t figure out what to say. How do you explain that we’re bombing Hanoi to make Saigon agree to a peace agreement? It’s that issue that we discussed yesterday with respect to that cable that John Prados has mentioned that Kissinger had sent back, although you’ll all be glad to know that Kissinger got over that pretty quickly. Nixon couldn’t figure out how to explain this to the American people, and so there was no speech.
Some themes that emerge that are really important: One I call coalition warfare, moral hazard, and the weapons of the week. One of the – I think probably the most powerful thing that emerges from this latest volume is to look at this vicious, protracted, desperate interplay between the United States and the South Vietnamese in this three-month period between October and January of now ’72 to ’73 and the means by which each side tried to exert its will against the other and keep track of and project the decisions of the other side. I think that’s the most interesting new documents that emerge in this volume. And again, on the part of the South Vietnamese, it was an existential struggle. Thieu thought that he was being given the choice of dying, of his country being eliminated quickly if he rejected the agreement or slowly if he accepted it.
The second of these is civil-military relations as a competitive, reactive, iterative process. And all of these things are important. There was a beautiful guidance message from Haig going to the military chain of command defining the Linebacker campaign as being psychological, not military, in its objectives – that you had to attack these targets, that’s viciously and completely, and then move on from there. But what happened from there is you get this guidance injected into a military chain of command that is unresponsive, sprawling, and basically does a very, very poor job of campaign analysis. John talked yesterday about that target list we had in September. We had target lists. What we didn’t have is a concept of an integrated campaign that fused the capability of the Navy, tactical air forces, and the B-52s in theater, or did any careful analysis of the North Vietnamese defenses. They, on the other hand – and this is where the work of Merle Pribbenow is so very important in helping us understand this reactive relationship of strategy – the North Vietnamese started planning on defending Hanoi in April of 1972. When we sent the first B-52 raid, it was a night raid on April 16th of ’72. The North Vietnamese didn’t know until the next day that there had been B-52s in that strike force. Our ECM, our capabilities, were so good at blanketing these aircraft. After that, they began a careful technical analysis of the B-52s to the extent of sending their air defense guys down to the panhandle to sit on mountaintops and watch the B-52s execute their mission, so that they could understand the flight patterns and the defensive arrangements around the B-52s. And so they did this very careful analysis, then, with a lot of this internal dialogue on which direction they’re going to come from, where we’re going to put our defenses, how do we combat the jamming patterns.
Beyond that, then, though, again in this world of comprehensive planning, their civil defense arrangements – I had the pleasure of hosting Ambassador Tran [Tran Van Tung] in NDU the other day, and in conversation it turned out that he as a young Foreign Service officer evacuated from Hanoi on December 12th of ’72. Now this is two days before Nixon decides to execute the campaign. They projected what we were going to do before the decision was made to execute that attack, went out to the northwest. And they did the similar preparations with respect to their transportation network, their civil defense, their air defenses, dispensing supplies so they wouldn’t be destroyed when we attacked the storage areas. And what you get, then, is this blunting of the psychological effect of this air offensive because they shot down 15 B-52s. That is a really bracing thing to see if you’re a Vietnamese air defender, a B-52 arcing through this night sky aflame. And they saw that 15 times, okay?
So what comes out of that, then, is a very, very closely struggled diplomatic action. Basically, at the same time of the Christmas bombing, Nixon sent Haig off to Saigon to tell him don’t let this get your hopes up; this is not changing anything. If we get any movement whatever off of the October agreement, we will accept it. And that’s exactly what happened. There was a very minor incremental shift in the North Vietnamese terms, and the Nixon Administration continued to coerce Thieu up to the point in late January when it was now or absolutely never. And at that point, Thieu capitulated and the Paris Peace Accords – and you can all see the quotations floating in the air over my head – the Paris Peace Accords were then signed.
And in conclusion, I will say before I can get the hook here, is, you know, there is an enormous benefit to this action in extricating America from the Vietnam War, but we need to all bear in mind the cost, not just in the lives and the treasure and the trauma and everything, but if you look at this from a broader strategic perspective – and I leave this really to your judgment, because I just made this stuff up – the surest way, I think, to prevent America from reentering that war was to leave it as we did, this absolutely untrammeled exercise of executive power, no consultation with Congress, no notification of the American people. The op-ed pieces, the press, everybody just going – just in despair, in despair. And the thought, then, that Congress would permit America now to reengage in that war once we’ve gotten all the POWs out, I just think is hallucinatory. Really is. So I think Watergate is almost secondary to that, and it’s an additional consideration that we need to think about.
The other thing, and I guess this is my closing line, is that this is I will say the dispiriting and divisive end to a dispiriting and divisive war. And on that positive note, I will thank you for your attention and await your questions. (Applause.)
DR. KEEFER: In the interest of time, I’m just going to not introduce Bob McMahon. He’s a friend and colleague, former colleague, a well-known scholar. And Bob would you just give your comments, please?
PROF. McMAHON: Thank you, Ted. And thanks to John Carland and Ed Brynn and company at the Office of the Historian for inviting me to this stimulating and provocative conference. We’re running short of time, unfortunately. It’s hard to pack three papers and a comment into an hour and 45 minute session and also have time for questions, so I’ll try and be as short as I can, which I guess means talking fast.
Let me talk first and say a few words about Professor Mehta’s paper. I’ll say a few remarks about each of them in turn and then offer some general concluding thoughts, and then I do hope we’ll have some time for dialogue because these are very important and provocative papers.
Professor Mehta describes people’s diplomacy as a form of soft power employed by the North Vietnamese Government in order to influence opinion within the United States and Western Europe. He suggests that the North Vietnamese found natural allies in antiwar movements that had developed in the West and in Asia. I think there’s some tension here, though, between what he at once – at one point refers to as natural allies and at other points refers to as a kind of opposition which is not created or generated by North Vietnamese efforts but is significantly influenced by North Vietnamese efforts. The obvious counter-factual is even if North Vietnam had engaged in no propaganda efforts, would there not still have been massive antiwar movements in the United States and Europe? And then how do you in fact measure the extent of this influence?
I suppose we’re all offering personal anecdotes. One of my first exposures to the Vietnam War as a high school student living in Bayside, Queens in New York was when my local public high school – I went to a Catholic high school – was all of the sudden locked down and there were dozens of police cars, and this resulted from a local high school branch of Students for a Democratic Society, which had shown a North Vietnamese film at Bayside High in an effort to expose people to another perspective. This was 1966. And I went on to learn a lot more about the Vietnam War, but that brought it close to home since it was only about three blocks from my house and right next to the basketball courts where I spent most of my time. The people at Bayside High, which is still one of the highest-achieving public schools in New York, were much more politically conscious than people in most high schools throughout the United States at that point in time.
So I think there is certainly the phenomenon of the Tom Haydens and the Staughton Lynds and the others who traveled to North Vietnam. We have several books about that, probably more books and articles than we need about a small group of people who traveled to North Vietnam. But the extent to which these folks were really influenced by the people’s diplomacy engaged in by North Vietnam is, I think, an open question. It would be interesting to know what Vietnamese archives reveal about the self-examination that the North Vietnamese Politburo engaged in as it tried to assess the weight of importance of these efforts that it engaged in. Clearly, Professor Mehta demonstrates that there’s a clear connection between standard state-to-state diplomacy and this so-called people’s diplomacy. Clearly, the North Vietnamese saw them as complimentary, much as they saw force and diplomacy, the theme of our session, as complimentary, but did they see them as advancing significantly their own interests? And how does this fit in with the story that Professor Robert Brigham told some time ago about the role of the National Liberation Front and then the People’s Revolutionary Government, which engaged in its own acts of diplomacy, and the importance of the National Liberation Front being recognized as a diplomatic actor by other countries and movements around the world? That’s another dimension of North Vietnamese diplomacy which needs to be weighed in the balance here as well.
He suggests that worldwide linkages were formed, sustained by informal diplomacy, which made it difficult for the United States to prolong the war. I guess my response to that is: Really? How do we demonstrate that linkages formed by North Vietnamese propaganda with sufficient importance that they actually led U.S. officials not to do things that they otherwise would have done? Methodologically, I think that’s a very difficult proposition to prove, based on the – at least based on the evidence which is presented in this paper. It’s a rich paper, it’s an interesting paper, it’s an important topic, but I find myself skeptical about the extent to which this is influential. Interesting and influential are not necessarily the same things.
Stephen Morris’ paper is one that takes a bold stance which in many respects is contravened by the paper that Professor Randolph offered. It would be interesting, if we have time, to get the two of them in dialogue. He suggests it was – it had – it is widely accepted by scholars that the Viet Cong insurgency was largely defeated between 1969 and 1971. I’m not going to render my own judgment on that, but I would question whether it is widely accepted by scholars. Certainly, David Elliott, a leading scholar, challenged it yesterday. And what precisely does it mean to say that the Viet Cong insurgency was defeated when there are a couple hundred thousand North Vietnamese troops present within the territory of South Vietnam throughout this period? Isn’t that in fact a more critical element of the relationship between force and diplomacy than the relative power or popularity of the insurgency?
People raise some analogies to the Korean War. I think it’s important as we – if we want to compare the Korean War to the Vietnam War, to recognize that North Korea never had a quarter of a million troops within South Korean territory at the time that a ceasefire was being negotiated. There was a line that divided North Korean and South Korean troops. And the fundamental negotiating problem that Henry Kissinger faced from ’69 right through the breakthrough in ’72 was whether the United States would or would not accept the continued presence of North Vietnamese troops in the South, troops that the North Vietnamese continued to insist were not there.
So, talk about a negotiating deadlock, ultimately – and I think the third paper makes this point very clear – Nixon and Kissinger conceded the point three and a half years after entering office and after years of insisting that any troop withdrawals would have to be mutual. Well, you can only insist on the mutuality of troop withdrawals for so long when you are unilaterally withdrawing yours and your enemy is keeping his there. After a while, you do lose some credibility. And we all know how important credibility was to Nixon and Kissinger. Certainly, if I’m a diplomat and I’m negotiating with an opposite number and I’ve got troops and he’s insisting that we must both withdraw our troops simultaneously and he’s withdrawing his and making big public announcements about it, and I know that’s enormously popular with his public, and I’m keeping mine present, ultimately what happens in Cambodia, what happens during the Easter Offensive, in my judgment, is less significant than that fundamental fact that you’re talking about, somewhere on the order of, what, 14 divisions of North Vietnamese troops who don’t budge between 1969 and 1972.
Now Professor Morris says despite that fact, and he doesn’t really discuss that fact much, Nixon was one of the most successful U.S. commanders-in-chief in U.S. history. Again, my response is an exclamation point. Really? On what basis? What is the basis for success? How do we render such a wild, wildly positive and optimistic judgment about the success of Nixon’s military efforts? Military efforts have to be geared toward political objectives. What were the political objectives? The political objectives, it seems to me, were a settlement favorable to the interests of the United States. But as Professor Randolph’s paper makes, I think, crystal clear, the endgame of this military-diplomatic strategy is probably best described as a fiasco of Shakespearian proportions. The North Vietnamese, as he makes clear, never compromised on core objectives in the negotiating positions taken by Le Duc Tho in Paris.
Yes, it is true, and I think conventional wisdom, that they were significantly punished militarily as a result of the Easter Offensive, but what fundamental concessions did they make to the United States? Again, the 14 divisions remained. If American diplomatic – if American military efforts were so punishing, so devastating, so successful, why weren’t the North Vietnamese forced against their will to begin the withdrawal of their troops from the South? They weren’t. And so my verdict would be that this is a sideshow in many respects to the core issue of the war, which is about who will control South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese liked their chances of ultimately controlling South Vietnam once the American troops were withdrawn. In many respects, how we look at the success or the failure of an incursion such as Cambodia and Laos in ’70 and ’71 and the Easter Offensive in ’72 is secondary to the fundamental issue that North Vietnam’s hand was going to be far stronger than the hand of South Vietnam once a negotiated settlement was put in place that allowed them to keep their troops in the South and that ensured – and I think this a critical issue – that there would be no political or congressional support likely for any reintroduction of American forces or any reintroduction of military force in the wake of the 1972 fiasco.
Professor Morris refers to the Cambodian incursion as being largely successful, although somewhat ambiguous. And at one point, he says antiwar protests broke out in the United States. That, it seems to me, is like saying the folks in Columbus were disappointed when Michigan defeated Ohio State 70 to nothing. I mean, we’re talking about some of the most epic public protests in the modern history of the United States. More college campuses shut down early as a result of antiwar protests than ever before. The domestic political issue in which Nixon lost, and lost big time, has to be factored into the equation. And as this session, I think, is pushing us to do, we must look for the integration of force, diplomacy, and politics. And we can’t look at any one of those factors in isolation. One of the strengths, I think, great strengths of John Prados’s recent sweeping book about the Vietnam War is I think he does as solid a job as any author I’ve seen in integrating politics with force and with diplomacy.
So to sum up, I think there are fascinating issues raised by this – these series of papers. Professor Randolph’s observation that, when we’re looking at the Nixon government and its operation in 1972, we’re not looking at a normal government. We’re not looking at normal high-level officials or normal behavior. We can’t forget that. That’s a critical factor. And his use of the Shakespearian analogy might be useful in that regard. You know, missing the role of Al Haig, as some scholars do, I think is something which goes against the goal of achieving a fuller understanding of what’s going on. His theme and title, Turning on Both Sides, is not only apt but in many respects tragic. That after nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives to preserve a non-communist Vietnam, the endgame of this conflict is one in which the Americans turn on their allies as well as on their adversaries, and then ultimately accept a settlement that allows the enemy to maintain a quarter of a million troops within the territory of South Vietnam. Again, not a small issue when we assess the overall settlement. Nixon forced, too, to accept a peace agreement Stephen [Morris] said that would doom his country. I think there’s something to be said to that – about that, that these are allies that didn’t trust each other.
There’s a document buried away in the 1968 volume of the Foreign Relations of the U.S. series, which includes a verbatim conversation between Thieu and Ky, two people, South Vietnam’s president and vice president. Why do we have a record in a U.S. Government publication about a private conversation between the president and the vice president of our close allies? Undoubtedly, there was a wiretapping or there was a source at the highest level of the South Vietnamese Government. One doesn’t have to be particularly ingenious to figure this out. How long did this go on? What does that tell us about the nature of the relationship between the United States and its South Vietnamese allies? And one wonders, is that the tip of the iceberg? I know something from being a member of the State Department’s Historical Advisory Committee on the FRUS series that sometimes battles are long and drawn out and bloody about the declassification of intelligence materials. So one wonders if this document which found its way into our FRUS series is indicative of the fact that the United States might in fact have had a lot more information about internal deliberations within Saigon than previous historians have suspected.
So these issues, these big issues about the relationship between force and diplomacy, and I would add politics, I think are crucial to the understanding of the entire Vietnam War period, but especially to the complexities of the period from 1969 to 1972, which the recent volumes in the Foreign Relations of the U.S. series have done such a superb job documenting. Thanks. (Applause.)
DR. KEEFER: John, I have failed. We’ve run – do we have any time for questions?
DR. CARLAND: A couple of questions.
DR. KEEFER: Yeah. Let me allow any of the panelists one minute to respond to anything, to Bob’s very interesting comments. (Laughter.)
PARTICIPANT: One minute.
DR. MORRIS: One minute. What did the defeat – I said the Viet Cong insurgency was defeated, it’s widely accepted, by the end of 1971. Pointing that the North Vietnamese troops were allowed to remain in the South does not disprove that the insurgency was defeated. They were two completely separate aspects of the war. And my point still stands that, not only from my own experience, the experience of so many others who traveled in the South Vietnamese countryside in 1972, The Viet Cong were no longer a potent force in the majority of South Vietnamese villages, and especially in the Mekong Delta.
Secondly, what does success as commander-in-chief mean? And Bob says that we didn’t get the North Vietnamese troops out. Success as commander-in-chief meant that he moved the other side diplomatically through the use of military force. That was my argument. It wasn’t that he got the best possible peace agreement. It wasn’t even that he got a good peace agreement, but he moved the other side substantially diplomatically as a result of force in such a way that he thought it would work. And I would like, therefore, to point out also that the argument that Kissinger made, or Nixon thought, both of them, with regard to the future of South Vietnam without American forces was that they still had the opportunity to bring back U.S. air power. Now, it didn’t happen because of Watergate. Watergate emasculated the president and it was no longer possible for him to use U.S. air power. But U.S. air power was the counterweight to the existence of 14 North Vietnamese divisions. And I would point out they did not control most of the populated areas. And Soviet documents make extremely clear that in the late 1973 – by September of 1973, the Battle of the Flags in South Vietnam had gone so far on the side of the South Vietnamese Government of President Thieu that they wondered – they wondered whether there would be territory with people in it whereby they – where they could raise the flag of the Provisional Revolutionary Government.
So therefore – all right, my minute’s up. And just one more point. (Laughter.) One sentence. If you wonder whether the use of air power as a counterweight to the presence of 14 divisions was relevant, read General Tran Van Tra’s account of the final offensive, where he makes it clear that the Politburo was tentative about launching that offensive in ’74-’75. They were planning for ’76, not ’74-’75. But they saw the collapse of the home front in America and they wondered. The only question they had was, will Nixon – will Ford bring back U.S. air power? That was their question. They did a feint, they tested it, they saw there was no U.S. air power, and they went ahead. So that was the point and the argument and the logic and the rationality of Commander-in-Chief Nixon, and he was not able to predict his own demise, which sabotaged the whole plan.
DR. KEEFER: Steve, would you like to – or you wish – any other responses? Or can we open it up to –
PROF MEHTA: I just have – yeah.
DR. KEEFER: You have one minute.
PROF. MEHTA: Okay. I’d like to thank Professor McMahon for his very detailed remarks. And I think the fact that there’s a tension between national and outside efforts, there certainly is. And I don’t – in fact, that’s the point I make in the paper, that people’s diplomacy was both directed outwards and inwards.
To the point that whether – can you imagine an antiwar movement in the West, not just in the United States, because people’s diplomacy went not just to America but also to Europe in a much bigger way, Japan, Asia, as well as the communist world. So can you imagine an antiwar movement without any visits by American activists? Hayden, Dellinger. Hayden and Dellinger, before they actually went, had no clue as to what – who the North Vietnamese were because there was enough propaganda against them, and they all seemed to be uniformly communist. And it was only after they’d gone that when these people returned, that were they able to actually have town hall meetings in America. And when the press dismissed them as communist dupes, that they actually went out and – they actually went out and started having town hall meetings.
DR. KEEFER: Well, I’m going to have to stop there. And can I have, like, one question? Or two questions?
DR. CARLAND: One question and then we break.
DR. KEEFER: One question – the best question you can possibly think of. (Laughter.) Yes.
QUESTION : You might want to consult – (Inaudible) Rosenblatt to (inaudible) Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao and Hmong, and I would just note that the demise of the Sihanouk government late in the stages of the war when we knew that the U.S. was not going to participate was one of the fundamental tragedies. It brought Cambodia and its people into the war, where they might have stayed out of it. And of course, we needed some Vietnamese up here to talk about the effects on the ground to the Vietnam front, and not to mention Laos and Cambodia. So I suggest next time we do one of these, we have a panel involving the folks who were most affected. Well, even one hour.
DR. CARLAND: That was great. Were--The schedule’s slipping a bit, so let’s take a quick 10-minute break and then get back in here and move on.