For my write-up today on Richard Nixon’s 1980 book, The Real War, I’d like to highlight and comment on four passages.
1. On pages 109-110, Nixon discusses President John F. Kennedy’s transfer of the responsibility for running the Vietnam War from the CIA to the Pentagon:
“The first [event that created dramatic setbacks for the U.S. in Vietnam] took place far from Vietnam, in Cuba, in 1961: the Bay of Pigs invasion. That disastrous failure prompted President John F. Kennedy to order a postmortem, and General Maxwell Taylor was chosen to conduct it. He concluded that the CIA was not equipped to handle large-scale paramilitary operations and decided that the American effort in Vietnam fit into this category. He therefore recommended that control of it be handed over to the Pentagon, a decision that proved to have enormous consequences. The political sophistication and on-the-spot ‘feel’ for local conditions that the CIA possessed went out the window, as people who saw the world through technological lenses took over the main operational responsibility for the war.”
The reason that this passage stood out to me was that it called to my mind Oliver Stone’s movie, JFK. In that movie, a military intelligence official going by the name of “X” (played by Donald Sutherland) tells New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner), who is investigating the Kennedy assassination, that President John F. Kennedy wanted to end the reign of the CIA. X also contends that Kennedy had designs to withdraw American troops from Vietnam and to develop a positive relationship with the Soviet Union. For these reasons, X was arguing, Kennedy was assassinated.
Nixon essentially acknowledges that Kennedy was reducing the CIA’s power, at least in the area of Vietnam. But Nixon does not believe that Kennedy was aiming to withdraw American troops from Vietnam. Rather, according to Nixon, Kennedy was taking the operation of the war out of the hands of the CIA and was giving it to the Pentagon because Kennedy thought that the Pentagon could handle Vietnam better, especially after the disaster of the Bay of Pigs. But Nixon thinks that Kennedy made a wrong move here, for the CIA had a better feel for local conditions. As a result of Kennedy’s move, Nixon argues, the U.S. was fighting with conventional means a non-conventional war in which the enemy was using fly-by-night, guerrilla tactics.
For further discussion of the movie JFK, Kennedy’s relationship with the CIA, and Kennedy’s stance on Vietnam, see here.
2. On page 111, Nixon discusses Diem, the leader of South Vietnam, as he presents a favorable picture of the man:
“The third key event that set the course of the war was the assassination of Diem. Diem was a strong leader whose nationalist credentials were as solid as Ho Chi Minh’s. He faced the difficult task of forging a nation while raging a war. In the manner of postcolonial leaders he ran a regime that drew its inspiration partly from European parliamentary models, partly from traditional Asian models, and partly from necessity. It worked for Vietnam, but it offended American purists, those who inspect the world with white gloves and disdain association with any but the spotless.”
Nixon says something similar about General Thieu, another leader of South Vietnam whom Nixon thinks got a bad rap: “Thieu’s Land to the Tiller program, for example, had reduced tenancy from 60 to 7 percent by 1973, a truly revolutionary development that undercut the communists’ argument that the government allied itself with the rich and oppressed the people” (page 124).
This wikipedia article discusses why there were people who had such a problem with Diem. Nixon addresses some of the issues that this article brings up (though, of course, the article had not been written yet), such as the poor relationship between Diem and Buddhists in South Vietnam: Nixon says on page 112 that “some Buddhists sects were more political than religious”, and that Diem’s Catholicism “made him an ideal candidate to be painted as a repressor of Buddhists.” The wikipedia article goes into some detail about why Diem was considered to be repressive and hostile to Buddhists.
There is a lot that I do not know about Diem, but I liked what Nixon said about him because Nixon was trying to argue that Diem was not a mere American puppet, the same way that Ho Chi Minh was not merely a puppet of the Soviets: Diem was a nationalist who loved Vietnam, and Diem’s regime was sensitive to Asian culture, meaning it wasn’t a Western-style democracy imposed from the outside on South Vietnam.
I should note one more thing: On page 113, in discussing the coup that ended Diem’s life, Nixon says that “Charges that the U.S. government was directly involved may be untrue and unfair.” Nixon goes on to say, however, that the Kennedy Administration “greased the skids for Diem’s downfall and did nothing to prevent his murder.” This stood out to me on account of a charge that Jerry Voorhis talks about in The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon that someone in the Nixon Administration forged a document linking Diem’s assassination to the Kennedy Administration.
3. On page 139, Nixon says as he goes through the history of China: “China has repeatedly been invaded, but each time it has absorbed the invaders and eventually converted them.”
To be honest, I don’t know what Nixon means by this, but this passage stood out to me because it conveyed Nixon’s respect for China. Although The Real War is about the Cold War, Nixon tries not to see certain countries solely through Cold War lens; rather, he goes into their history. That, in my opinion, is one reason that the book is so fascinating, even though it is arguably quite dated.
4. On pages 145-146, Nixon talks about the different beliefs among Communist Chinese leaders about the path that Red China should follow:
“During the decades that followed Mao’s victory on the mainland, three lines of thought were in more or less constant contention among the Chinese leadership. One, identified with Liu Shaoqi, was the classic, doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist line that looked to Moscow for leadership, example, and assistance. This was in the ascendancy in the early years. Another, identified today with Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping, was essentially pragmatic, concerned with economic development and willing to compromise ideology and deal with the West. This is in the ascendancy now. The third, Mao’s own, was rooted in the experience of the Long March and devoted to the ideal of constant struggle: revolution was an end in itself; whenever any group, including the Communist Party bureaucracy, got too entrenched or too comfortable, it was time to turn the country upside down. The people’s communes, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, all were examples of Mao’s determination to maintain the spirit of struggle and purify through purge, chaos, and dislocation; millions died in his drive to keep the ‘revolution’ revolutionary.”
I like this passage for a variety of reasons. For one, it shows that Communism is not monolithic, for there are different perspectives among Communists, as there are different perspectives in most movements, since people are (well) different. Second, it says that Deng wanted economic development for his country and was ideologically flexible, which stood out to me because Nixon wrote this before China had become an economic powerhouse. Third, I could somewhat identify with the desire of some Chinese Communists to keep the revolution fresh. It’s like a Christian taking steps to ensure that his or her faith is not stale but is vibrant. That does not mean that I endorse Mao’s bloody way of keeping the revolution fresh, for I don’t. But it is a good idea for countries to take an inventory to see whether they are living up to their ideals. In some cases, dramatic action may be a good thing—-but I would want for that dramatic action to occur through the ballot box, as people elect leaders who are committed to reform.