For my write-up today on volume 2 of Richard Nixon’s memoirs, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Nixon says on page 69:
“One guest wanted to know whether I had thought about bombing the dikes in North Vietnam. I replied that naturally I had thought about it, but that it would involve an enormous number of civilian casualties. I continued, ‘We are prepared to use our military and naval strength against military targets throughout North Vietnam, and we believe that the North Vietnamese are taking a very great risk if they continue their offensive in the South. I will just leave it there, and they can make their own choice.'”
I’ve been keeping a lookout for things that Nixon says about civilian casualties in the Vietnam War, for that is an issue that I’ve encountered in discussions about Nixon’s Presidency. In the movies Frost vs. Nixon and Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia was said to have resulted in a number of civilian casualties, even of children. In the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (which I blogged about here), Nixon is on tape telling Kissinger that he did “not give a damn” about the civilian casualties from our bombings.
In Nixon’s memoirs, however, at least in what I have read so far, Nixon appears to portray himself as one who sought to minimize civilian casualties. That’s why he was reluctant to bomb the dikes in North Vietnam, emphasizing that he wanted to attack military targets. And, according to Nixon in volume 1, his offensives against Cambodia aimed to cut off the military supplies that were coming from Cambodia (with some disapproval from the Cambodian government) to the Communists in Vietnam. Another point that Nixon makes about civilian casualties is that the Vietnamese Communists themselves were quite brutal towards civilians.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Nixon sought to minimize civilian casualties in Vietnam. Yet, Nixon probably felt that, at times, there were more important factors than minimizing civilian casualties, and so certain operations (in his eyes) were necessary, even if civilian casualties might result.