My latest reading of volume 2 of Richard Nixon’s memoirs focused on the Vietnam War. I have two items.
1. In an earlier post on this book, I talked about Nixon’s discussion of the topic of Vietnamese civilian casualties in the Vietnam War. Nixon’s view appeared to have been that the U.S. should focus on attacking military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. In my latest reading, Nixon addresses this topic some more. Nixon dismisses as Hanoi propaganda the claim that “the American bombers were deliberately hitting the crucial system of dikes and dams in North Vietnam in order to kill large civilian populations in the resulting floods” (Nixon’s words on page 185). According to Nixon, anti-war leaders such as Ted Kennedy were buying that claim. But Nixon narrates: “In one of my press conferences I tried to introduce at least an element of logic regarding this charge: if in fact we had decided on a policy of deliberately bombing the dikes and dams, we could have destroyed the entire system in a week.”
I don’t know whether or not American bombers were taking out dikes and dams. I do have some questions, though. In his account of the Vietnam War, Nixon paints a picture in which he as President was using bombing as a way to persuade the North Vietnamese to yield to U.S. demands: if North Vietnam became aggressive, U.S. bombings would continue; when North Vietnam and Kissinger were trying to hash out an agreement, the bombings were reduced. My question is this: Were all of these bombings aimed at military targets? Just how many military targets were there to bomb? In volume 1, Nixon at one point expresses support for bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail because supplies came to Communist forces on it. But how often does the U.S. need to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail for the U.S. to get the job done? (Not that I know the extent to which Nixon had the Ho Chi Minh trail bombed.)
Well, come to think of it, maybe one attack on certain military targets was not enough in terms of the U.S. meeting its goals. To use an example, my impression from volume 1 of Nixon’s memoirs was that Nixon ordered an attack of Cambodia twice, since supplies were coming to Communist forces in Vietnam from Cambodia. The first time that happened, U.S. casualties were reduced. But Nixon apparently felt a need to attack Cambodia again. And, even later, in North Vietnam’s talks with Kissinger, there was discussion of cutting off supplies to Communist forces in Vietnam from Cambodia. Were supplies still coming to the Communist forces from Cambodia, even after Nixon’s attacks on the country (or, more accurately, the Communists in the country, for Nixon narrates that the leader of Cambodia didn’t particularly care for the Communists in his country, either)?
Did Nixon bomb military targets over and over, or were there also civilian targets?
2. On page 190, Nixon outlines a proposal by Vietnamese Communist Le Duc Tho that met Nixon’s major requirements for an agreement. First of all, there would be a cease-fire, and sixty days later U.S. troops would withdraw from Vietnam, as prisoners-of-war (POWs) on both sides would be returned. Second, because North Vietnam claimed that it did not have troops in South Vietnam (and I think this was because, according to North Vietnam, the Viet Cong in the South was a separate entity from North Vietnam), North Vietnam could save face by not being required to withdraw its troops from South Vietnam. At the same time, North Vietnam could no longer receive supplies from the Communists in Laos and Cambodia, and Nixon thought that this would sap the North Vietnamese forces of their strength. Third, there would not be a coalition government in the South consisting of Communists, but there would be a National Council of Reconciliation and Concord, which would consist of the South Vietnamese government, the Viet Cong, and “neutral members.” Nixon states that, on this council, “Unanimity would be required in its votes; thus Thieu [the leader of South Vietnam] would be protected from being outvoted by the Communists and their supporters.” Fourth, Thieu would remain the leader of South Vietnam. Fifth, the U.S. would provide economic aid to North Vietnam, which the Communists would see as reparations, but which would increase the U.S.’s leverage with North Vietnam.
Thieu of South Vietnam was not particularly happy with this proposal. He wanted for the North Vietnamese to withdraw from South Vietnam, and he was also leery about a National Council of Reconciliation and Concord that would contain Communists. There was also a sentiment that some of the Communist POWs were terrorists and should not be released. And there was the factor that the North Vietnamese were trying to gobble up as much land as they could before the cease-fire. Moreover, Thieu did not really want for the American forces to leave, for he did not feel that he could hold off the Communists without them.
At the present time, I’m not sure how all of this turned out. (Well, I know that North Vietnam won in the end, but what was the agreement that ended the war under the Nixon Administration?) Nixon acknowledged some of Thieu’s concerns, and Nixon himself objected to mandating equality of arms between North and South Vietnam, for Nixon felt that South Vietnam’s military advantage was essential to keeping the peace. However, Nixon was trying to get Thieu on board with the overall proposal by saying that it would weaken the Communists in Vietnam, and by warning that the Democratic Congress might vote to cut off aid to South Vietnam if it deemed Thieu to be standing in the way of peace. As is often the case in negotiations, there was a lot of delicate ground.