The Vietnam War – Errors and Omissions – Episode Eight
The Richard Nixon Foundation looks forward to a national conversation about the Vietnam War.
The Foundation believes it is vital that President Nixon, who inherited and ended the Vietnam War and brought the POWs home, have an active voice in that conversation.
To that end, the Foundation offers Richard Nixon’s own words and writings — in video interviews, on hundreds of pages of yellow pads, on many hours of White House tapes, in speeches from the Oval Office, and in his 1985 bestselling book No More Vietnams.
The Vietnam War is a new 18-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick currently airing on PBS stations nationwide.
The film deals extensively with President Nixon and the Nixon Foundation will be correcting any factual errors and unsupported allegations.
Episode Eight: “The History of the World” (April 1969-May 1970)
Premieres September 26 at 8/7c
Privately, Nixon knew that military victory was impossible.
NARRATOR: “Privately, Nixon knew that military victory was impossible, that things would have to be settled at the bargaining table in Paris. He had to find a way to extricate Americans from Vietnam without seeming to surrender.”
If Mr. Burns, Ms. Novick, or Mr. Ward are somehow privy to what President Nixon knew privately, they have the duty to provide the sources and citations to support this statement.
In 1985, the former President wrote in No More Vietnams, “If our cause was unjust or if the war was unwinnable, we should have cut our losses and gotten out of Vietnam immediately. As President, I could not ask any young American to risk his life for an unjust or unwinnable cause.”
The Burns/Novick/Ward version of Vietnam is based on what they believe to be desperation and duplicity on the part of President Nixon. They purport to know what he thinks privately, and what he thinks privately turns out to be what they think he thinks privately, which is trying to find a surreptitious way to surrender.
“Surrender” never occurred to President Nixon. The word was not part of his vocabulary.
According to Tom Vallely, identified throughout the film as a Marine, Nixon and Kissinger developed a secret strategy to surrender without saying that they surrendered.
TOM VALLELY: “Nixon and Kissinger. Their job is to clean up. The war’s over. Okay. When Nixon and Kissinger, when they come, they’re not going to win the war. So they develop a secret strategy to surrender, without saying they surrendered. This is not a bad strategy. This is the only strategy.”
There is no factual basis for this statement. Even among Nixon critics this is an extreme statement. It is an opinion to which Mr. Vallely is entitled. But Mr. Vallely expresses it as fact, which should oblige the filmmakers, at the very least, to acknowledge that there are different opinions.
Further, Mr. Vallely, in addition to being an articulate and compelling interviewee, is also the film’s Senior Advisor. Unless viewers stay tuned through the credits, where this role is acknowledged, it is perhaps misleading to include him among the other interview subjects without disclosing that association.
President Nixon had a clear strategy for Vietnam. It included not just ending the war, bringing the POWs home, and securing the right of the people of South Vietnam to determine their own political future. Through achieving better relations with China and the Soviet Union –what became known as “linkage”—Nixon planned to build the framework for a generation of peace.
If President Nixon had decided to “surrender” he could have announced the immediate withdrawal of all American troops in his Inaugural Address in 1969, or following it. He well knew what he was told by Democrats and Republicans: that he had about six months after he became President until “Johnson’s war” became “Nixon’s war.” He accepted that responsibility because he believed a dishonorable peace, such as one achieved by surrender, might be temporarily popular but would inevitably lead the way to future and even more difficult wars.
According to Vincent Okamoto, identified as an Army solider, justification for the war shifted in its latter days to maintaining America’s credibility.
VINCENT OKAMOTO: “No 19, 20 year old kid wants to die to maintain the credibility of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.”
From his first days as President (indeed, foreshadowed by his seminal article “Asia After Vietnam” published in the October 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs), Nixon felt that America’s reputation as a dependable ally, and role as a great power working for peace around the world, would depend on the way the United States dealt with ending the Vietnam War.
Nixon would have had considerable domestic and international support if he had decided to leave Vietnam on any terms and begin his new administration with a clean slate. But, as Nixon wrote in his Memoirs, “To abandon South Vietnam to the Communists now would cost us inestimably in our search for a stable, structured, and lasting peace.”
He elaborated in a 1983 interview: “I had been there [Vietnam] going back to 1953. I was there in ’53, ’56, and four times in the sixties, and I knew that if we were to get out of Vietnam then, the Communists would overrun it. I also knew that if we got out under those circumstances, it would have a devastating effect on our other allies in that area — the Thais, for example, the Filipinos, and so forth. And I also knew, and this is a conviction I have even today, I knew it would have a devastating effect on American morale, on our willingness to play a credible role in the world, because there’d be instant relief for a while, and then there would be a turning inward and saying ‘Why did we have this loss of life for nothing?’”
The narrator says that Nixon ended up widening the war, just as his predecessors did.
NARRATOR: Richard Nixon, having promised a swift end to the war, would, like all the presidents who came before him, end up widening it. In the process, he would reignite opposition to the war on American campuses that threatened to tear the country apart again.
President Nixon’s predecessors, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, began the Vietnam War and expanded it until, when Richard Nixon was inaugurated on January 20th 1969, there were more than 500,000 Americans in Vietnam. Beginning in his first year as President, Nixon began withdrawing U.S. troops, until there were only some 23,000 by the time he was able to end the war in 1973.
The idea that Nixon widened the war is based on his announcement of the Cambodian incursion in April 1970. This incursion sent American and South Vietnamese troops a limited number of miles across the Cambodian border, where invading North Vietnamese soldiers had established sanctuaries (supplied via the Ho Chi Minh trail which extended from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia). More than one thousand Americans were killed during his first two months in office, many of them the result of attacks staged from these sanctuaries.
Nixon announced a timetable by which the sanctuaries would be destroyed and the Ho Chi Minh trail interdicted, and the American and South Vietnamese forces would then return to their bases in South Vietnam. Following that timetable, the troops moved into the Cambodian sanctuaries on the 29th of April, and had been completely withdrawn from Cambodia by July 22nd.
In No More Vietnams, the former president wrote, “Our incursions into Cambodia in 1970 did not widen the war. Since 1965, North Vietnam’s forces had occupied the border areas of Cambodia. In March 1970, Hanoi infiltrated into Cambodia over 200,000 Khmer Rouge guerillas who had been trained in North Vietnam. In April, after Cambodia’s government tried to assert its authority over its own territory — hardly an unreasonable demand — North Vietnam launched an invasion of the country. Hanoi’s delegate to the private peace talks freely admitted to us that North Vietnam intended to bring down the government of Phnom Penh. In May and June, when American and South Vietnamese forces cleared out the Communist sanctuaries, Cambodia was already swept up in the war.”
Nixon used the POW issue to change the narrative about the war and rebuke the anti-war movement, “who seemed more sympathetic to North Vietnamese civilians than those who were doing the bombing.”
NARRATOR: The Johnson Administration had generally downplayed the issue, hoping quiet diplomacy might bring the men home. The Nixon Administration launched a “go public” campaign instead, meant to put the plight of American prisoners and those missing in action at the center of things. It also provided a rebuke to those in the antiwar movement who seemed more sympathetic to North Vietnamese civilians who had been bombed, than they were to U.S. airmen who had been shot down doing that bombing.
After three years, the Johnson administration’s general downplaying of the issue, and counting on “quiet diplomacy,” had clearly failed.
The North Vietnamese insisted that the POWs were “war criminals” rather than prisoners of war, and treated them accordingly. During this period of “quiet diplomacy,” the American POWs were tortured, starved, denied medical treatment, mentally abused, subjected to beatings. Some were beaten to death and others died as a result of inadequate, or no, medical attention.
These facts rebuked the anti-war movement, not Nixon’s decision to “go public” with them.
During his first weeks in office, President Nixon met with wives, mothers and sisters of POWs and responded to their concerns. In No More Vietnams, he described that meeting: “It was an emotional and heartwarming experience to hear them express support for the administration’s policies and reject the demands of the antiwar politicians that we accept defeat and simply withdraw our forces in exchange for our POWs.”
In May 1969, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird announced the “Go Public” policy at a Pentagon press conference, saying that, although “the North Vietnamese have claimed they are treating our men humanely,” there was “clear evidence that this is not the case.” They had not identified the names of the prisoners they held, nor had they complied with requirements of the Geneva Conventions. The “prompt release of all American prisoners” became a non-negotiable contention at the Paris peace talks.
The first improvements in the conditions of the POWs finally began as the result of public pressure after stories about their inhumane treatment continued.
NARRATOR: A Gallup Poll now found that most Americans believed Vietnam had been a mistake.
This is correct. A Gallup poll taken February 1-6, 1968 was first time that most Americans agreed that the Vietnam War had been a mistake. That was the belief of most Americans from that point on.
Beginning in January 1969, the Gallup Poll also asked on 20 separate occasions, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Nixon is handling the situation in Vietnam?” Eighteen of the 20 times, more Americans said they approved than disapproved of Nixon’s handling of Vietnam.
NARRATOR: Richard Nixon knew he needed to signal to the public that an end was in sight. The National Security Council had warned Nixon that the joint chiefs of staff, the secretaries of State and Defense, the CIA, and the U.S. embassy in Saigon all privately agreed, that without U.S. combat troops, the South Vietnamese cannot now, or in the foreseeable future, stand up to both Viet Cong and sizable North Vietnamese forces.
At best, this is a non sequitur. The narration jumps, without notice, from February 1968 when Nixon has just announced his presidential candidacy, to early 1969 when he is already President and Commander-in-Chief.
The only document that we can find in the archives that matches the description in the Burns/Novick/Ward film, is “Vietnamizing the War (NSSM 36)” from Henry Kissinger to the President on June 23, 1969. This document, which was top secret at the time, was declassified in 2012. You can read it here: https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/LOC-HAK-502-1-5-7.pdf
If the film’s producers are referring to a different document, they should cite it.
This document begins, “Secretary Laird has forwarded you the outline plan (Tab A) prepared by the Joint Chiefs for Vietnamizing the war. This plan has been coordinated with the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency.”
On the first page of Secretary Laird’s covering memo, he describes his reservations about the situation he had observed during a recent trip to South Vietnam. All the contributors (the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of State) were understandably cautious and wary. But far from sending a warning, the document expresses a prudent optimism about the possibility of success and a guarded enthusiasm about the benefits of the policy.
Nixon needed no warning, or reminding, of the difficult situation he had inherited.
NARRATOR: Nonetheless, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird said, the war was now to be Vietnamized. Saigon’s troops would gradually take over responsibility for engaging the enemy.
“Nonetheless” is misleading, because it implies that the prudent reservations —that were expressed about a policy that would be unfolding against the background of an ongoing war— were the point of this document.
The risks were clearly understood, but the possibility of success made the risks acceptable:
“Positive effects of Vietnamizing the war could include improving the negotiating climate; encouraging mutual withdrawal of North Vietnamese Army forces; stimulating RVNAF leaders resolve to fight while reducing their dependence on the United States; promoting additional US public support for the US effort in Vietnam; and saving US lives. The Vietnamese public could be led to accept the gradual approach if such reductions appears to be in each instance the result of a joint assessment and agreement between the United States and the Government of Vietnam and if the public were persuaded that the plan considered such factors as the military situation, the RVNAF’s capabilities, and progress in Paris.”
In a clear example of presenting advocacy as fact, from its first mention in the Burns/Novick/Ward film, the Nixon policy of Vietnamization is described only in negative terms and characterized as a secret and face-saving way concocted to protect President Nixon’s reputation.
MERRILL McPEAK: The reason I was ordered home early was because President Nixon announced the policy of Vietnamization. Now, Vietnamization was a lie. But it had an element of truth in it. We were leaving, okay? And that sealed the South’s fate. I knew it. And I think anybody who was conscious and could see what was going on, knew it.
General McPeak deserves respect for his service in Vietnam and later as Air Force Chief of Staff. Viewers will have to decide how they feel about his statement in the documentary that “we were fighting on the wrong side.”
That opinion may inform this extreme and simplistic statement about the policy of Vietnamization that was developed by many military and civilian experts and leaders over four wartime years. The fact that Vietnamization was a complex, sophisticated, and controversial policy is totally ignored.
Calling an official policy of the United States and South Vietnamese governments “a lie,” which “sealed the South’s fate,” does little to facilitate a national conversation about Vietnam.
To see errors and omissions from the previous episode, click here.