No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam
By Larry Berman
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.
President Richard Nixon spent New Year's Eve 1972 watching his beloved Washington Redskins defeat the Dallas Cowboys 26-3. Afterward, Nixon wrote in his diary, "As the year 1972 ends I have much to be thankful for China, Russia, May 8, the election victory, and, of course, while the end of the year was somewhat marred by the need to bomb Hanoi-Haiphong, that decision, I think, can make the next four years much more successful than they otherwise might have been. 1973 will be a better year."
It was a fair assessment of 1972. It was, of course, wildly wrong about the years to come, thanks to Watergate, but on that New Year's Eve, Nixon had reason to be optimistic. His biggest foreign policy problem, inherited from LBJ, had been the ongoing Vietnam War. Heading into 1973, it seemed likely that a peace treaty was just around the corner. Indeed, as he wrote, peace negotiations were getting restarted. The New York Times reported that Hanoi's negotiator, Le Duc Tho, was en route to Paris for a new round of meetings with Henry Kissinger. As we now know, Tho was first making a secret stop in Beijing in order to consult with Chou Enlai. The Chinese premier summarized the state of affairs nicely. He began by noting that Nixon's effort "to exert pressure through bombing has failed." Observing that Nixon faced numerous international and domestic problems, Chou advised Tho to "adhere to principles but show the necessary flexibility" that would produce a settlement. "Let the Americans leave as quickly as possible. In half a year or one year the situation will change," Chou Enlai advised Le Duc Tho. As he knew full well, 150,000 North Vietnamese troops were still in the South. The North was positioned for eventual victory; America was fed up with the war to the point of exhaustion. The ally that America had long supported, and continued to guarantee the safety of, was facing almost certain doom.
While Le Duc Tho was in China, Strom Thurmond, South Carolina's senior Republican senator and one of Nixon's strongest supporters, penned a personal message to the president. Nixon had always valued Thurmond's advice and support. In 1968, Thurmond had delivered the crucial Republican southern delegates to Nixon's nomination for president. A certified hawk on the war and a strong supporter of the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam, Thurmond wrote to the president on January 2 that any final settlement negotiated in Paris between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho that allowed North Vietnam's troops to remain in the South would be viewed as a betrayal of those who had fought and died in the war. "I am pleased that the bombing of North Vietnam has brought the communists to the negotiating table. This proves once again that the firmness of your policies brings results. It is my hope that the forthcoming negotiations will produce a revised draft agreement, which will explicitly provide that all non-south Vietnamese troops will be required to evacuate South Vietnamese territory. I am deeply concerned that past draft agreements indicate that North Vietnamese troops would be allowed to remain in South Vietnam. This could be the foundation for North Vietnam to take over South Vietnam after our final withdrawal in the future. In such an outcome, history will judge that the sacrifice of American lives was in vain."
Three weeks later, on Tuesday, January 23, 1973, at the International Conference Center in Paris, the test of his assumption was launched. Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger, about to conclude their Nobel Prize-winning negotiations on the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, were joking together. Kissinger said, "I changed a few pages in your Vietnamese text last night, Mr. Special Advisor, but it only concerned North Vietnamese troops. You won't notice it until you get back home." They shared a good laugh.
* * *
Two years later there would be no laughter.
By 1975, Watergate had unraveled the presidency of Richard Nixon. Throughout the negotiation and signing of the agreement, Kissinger and Nixon had privately promised to South Vietnam's president, Nguyen Van Thieu, that America would intervene if any hostilities broke out between North and South, but Thieu knew that these promises were fragile. In a final plea for assistance, President Thieu penned a personal letter to a man he had never met, President Gerald Ford: "Hanoi's intention to use the Paris agreement for a military take over of South Vietnam was well-known to us at the very time of negotiating the Paris Agreement...Firm pledges were then given to us that the United States will retaliate swiftly and vigorously to any violation of the agreement...We consider those pledges the most important guarantees of the Paris Agreement; those pledges have now become the most crucial ones to our survival."
But President Ford had already accepted the political reality that Congress would not fund another supplemental budget request and that America's involvement in Vietnam would soon be over. Reviewing the first draft of his address to a joint session of Congress, the president read his speechwriter's proposed words: "And after years of effort, we negotiated a settlement which made it possible for us to remove our forces with honor and bring home our prisoners." Ford crossed out the words with honor.
Henry Kissinger also knew that American honor was in danger. In the cabinet room on April 16, the secretary read aloud a letter from Sirik Matak, one of the Cambodian leaders who had refused the American ambassador's invitation to evacuate Phnom Penh. The letter was written just hours before Mitak's execution: "Dear Excellency and Friend, I thank you very sincerely for your letter and your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people, which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it. You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is too bad, because we are all born and must die one day. I have committed this mistake of believing in you, the Americans."
In Saigon, the fate of thousands of Vietnamese was on the line. The American ambassador, Graham Martin, cabled Kissinger that "the one thing that would set off violence would be a sudden order for American evacuation. It will be universally interpreted as a most callous betrayal, leaving the Vietnamese to their fate while we send in the marines to make sure that we get all ours out." Martin pleaded with Kissinger to delay the evacuation for as long as possible because any signs of the Americans' taking leave could set off panic and "would be one last act of betrayal that would strip us of the last vestige of honor."
Nonetheless, evacuation plans proceeded. By April 29, the situation at the American embassy was in chaos as Ambassador Martin flagrantly disregarded the president's evacuation order. By April 30, the top-secret transmissions came in quick bursts from the CH-46 Sea Night helicopters and the larger CH-53 Sea Stallions, which were ferrying evacuees from the American embassy rooftop to the U.S. fleet offshore. All communications between the pilots and their Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center were simultaneously transmitted to U.S. command-and-control authorities in Hawaii and Washington. The final transmissions confirmed the bitter end of the evacuation.
"All of the remaining American personnel are on the roof at this time and Vietnamese are in the building," reported the pilot of a CH-53. "The South Vietnamese have broken into the Embassy; they are rummaging around...no hostile acts noticed," reported another transmission. From the embassy rooftop, Marine Major James Kean described the chaos below as similar to a scene from the movie On the Beach.
Finally, at 7:51 A.M. Saigon time, the embassy's Marine ground security force spotted the CH-46 and its call sign, "Swift 22." It was the last flight from Saigon that would take the Marines home.
The final transmission from the CH-46 arrived with just seven words: "All the Americans are out, Repeat Out."
But not everyone was out. A breakdown in communication had occurred between those running the evacuation from the ground and those offshore, with the fleet controlling the helicopters and those making the decisions in Hawaii and Washington. "It was the Vietnam war all over again," observed Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. "It was not a proud day to be an American." There, on the embassy rooftop, over 420 Vietnamese stared into the empty skies looking for signs of returning American helicopters. Just hours earlier, they had been assured by well-intentioned Marines, "Khong ai se bi bo lai" ("No one will be left behind").
The helicopters did not return.
From the White House, President Gerald Ford issued an official statement: "The Government of the Republic of Vietnam has surrendered. Prior to its surrender, we have withdrawn our Mission from Vietnam. Vietnam has been a wrenching experience for this nation...History must be the final judge of that which we have done or left undone, in Vietnam and elsewhere. Let us calmly await its verdict."
* * *
It has been over thirty years since the United States and Vietnam began talks intended to end the Vietnam War. The Paris Peace Talks began on May 13, 1968, under the crystal chandeliers in the ballroom of the old Majestic Hotel on Avenue Kleber and did not end until January 27, 1973, with the signing of the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam at the International Conference Center in Paris. Despite the agreement, not a moment of peace ever came to Vietnam. This book uses a cache of recently declassified documents to offer a new perspective on why the country known as South Vietnam ceased to exist after April 1975.
Since the very first days of his presidency in January 1969, Richard Nixon had sought an "honorable peace" in Vietnam. In January 1973 he characterized the Paris agreement as having achieved those lofty goals: "Now that we have achieved an honorable agreement, let us be proud that America did not settle for a peace that would have betrayed our allies, that would have abandoned our prisoners of war, or that would have ended the war for us, but would have continued the war for the 50 million people of Indochina."
A speakers' kit assembled within the White House on the evening of the president's announcement of the cease-fire described the final document as "a vindication of the wisdom of the President's policy in holding out for an honorable peace and his refusal to accept a disguised and dishonorable defeat. Had it not been for the President's courage during four years of unprecedented vilification and attack the United States would not today be honorably ending her involvement in the war, but would be suffering the consequences of dishonor and defeat...The difference between what the President has achieved and what his opponents wanted, is the difference between peace with honor, and the false peace of an American surrender."
A White Paper drafted for distribution to members of Congress offered more barbed attacks on his critics.
For four agonizing years, Richard Nixon has stood virtually alone in the nation's capital while little, petty men flayed him over American involvement in Indochina. For four years, he has been the victim of the most vicious personal attacks. Day and night, America's predominantly liberal national media hammered at Mr. Nixon, slicing from all sides, attacking, hitting, and cutting. The intellectual establishment those whose writings entered America into the Vietnam war pompously postured from their ivy hideaways, using their inordinate power to influence public opinion...No President has been under more constant and unremitting harassment by men who should drop to their knees each night to thank the Almighty that they do not have to make the same decisions that Richard Nixon did. Standing with the President in all those years were a handful of reporters and number of newspapers nearly all outside of Washington. There were also the courageous men of Congress who would stand firm beside the President. But most importantly there were the millions upon millions of quite ordinary Americans -the great Silent Majority of citizens who saw our country through a period where the shock troops of leftist public opinion daily propagandized against the President of the United States. They were people of character and steel.
Meanwhile, the North Vietnam heralded the Paris agreement as a great victory. Radio Hanoi, in domestic and foreign broadcasts, confined itself for several days to reading and rereading the Paris text and protocols. From the premier's office in Hanoi came the declaration that the national flag of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) should be flown throughout the country for eight days, from the moment the cease-fire went into effect on January 28 through February 4. For three days and nights, Hanoi's streets were filled with crowds of people celebrating the fact that in 60 days there would be no foreign troops in Vietnam.
The Nhan Dan editorial of January 28, titled "The Great Historic Victory of Our Vietnamese People," observed, "Today, 28 January, the war has ended completely in both zones of our country. The United States and other countries have pledged to respect our country's independence, sovereignty, reunification, and territorial integrity. The United States will withdraw all U.S. troops and the troops of other foreign countries and their advisors and military personnel, dismantle U.S. military bases in the southern part of our country and respect our southern people's right to self-determination and other democratic freedoms."
Premier Pham Van Dong was more forthcoming to American broadcaster Walter Cronkite that "the Paris Agreement marked an important victory of our people in their resistance against U.S. aggression, for national salvation. For us, its terms were satisfactory...The Paris agreement paved the way for our great victory in the Spring of 1975 which put an end to more than a century of colonial and neo-colonial domination over our country and restored the independence, freedom and unity of our homeland."
Perhaps the most honest response came from a young North Vietnamese cadre by the name of Man Duc Xuyen, living in Ha Bac province in North Vietnam. In a postcard, he extended Tet New Year wishes to his family. "Dear father, mother and family," the letter began. "When we have liberated South Viet-Nam and have unified the country, I will return."
Only in South Vietnam was there no joy or celebration over the signing of the Paris agreement. By the terms of the deal, over 150,000 North Vietnamese troops remained in the South, whereas the United States, over the course of Nixon's presidency, had unilaterally withdrawn over 500,000 of its own troops. President Nguyen Van Thieu and his fellow countrymen understood that the diplomatic battle had been won by Le Duc Tho. President Thieu was agreeing to nothing more than a protocol for American disengagement. True, President Nixon had guaranteed brutal retaliation if the North resumed any aggression. But could these guarantees be trusted? The fate of his country depended on them. Twenty-eight months later, South Vietnam would disappear.
* * *
To date, there have been two quite different explanations for the failure of the Paris Accords and the subsequent end of the country known as South Vietnam.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger have always maintained that they won the war and that Congress lost the peace. The treaty itself, they said, although not perfect, was sound enough to have allowed for a political solution if North Vietnam had not so blatantly violated it. North and South Vietnam could have remained separate countries. When the North did violate the agreement, Watergate prevented the president from backing up his secret guarantees to President Thieu. Kissinger goes even further, insisting there was nothing secret about the promises Nixon made to Thieu. In any case, by mid-1973 Nixon was waging a constitutional battle with Congress over executive privilege and abuse of powers; he could hardly start a new battle over war powers to defend South Vietnam. "By 1973, we had achieved our political objective: South Vietnam's independence had been secured," Nixon later told Monica Crowley, former foreign policy assistant and confidante, "But by 1975, the Congress destroyed our ability to enforce the Paris agreement and left our allies vulnerable to Hanoi's invading forces. If I sound like I'm blaming Congress, I am."
Kissinger has put it this way: "Our tragedy was our domestic situation...In April , Watergate blew up, and we were castrated...The second tragedy was that we were not permitted to enforce the agreement...I think it's reasonable to assume he [Nixon] would have bombed the hell out of them during April."
The other explanation for the failure of the Paris Accords is known as the "decent interval." This explanation is far less charitable to Nixon or Kissinger because it is premised on the assumption that by January 1973, U.S. leaders cared only about securing the release of American POWs and getting some type of accounting on MIAs, especially in Laos. The political future of South Vietnam would be left for the Vietnamese to decide; we just did not want the communists to triumph too quickly. Kissinger knew that Hanoi would eventually win. By signing the peace agreement, Hanoi was not abandoning its long-term objective, merely giving the U.S. a fig leaf with which to exit. In his book Decent Interval, Frank Snepp wrote: "The Paris Agreement was thus a cop-out of sorts, an American one. The only thing it definitely guaranteed was an American withdrawal from Vietnam, for that depended on American action alone. The rest of the issues that had sparked the war and kept it alive were left essentially unresolved and irresolvable."
Kissinger was asked by the assistant to the president, John Ehrlichman, "How long do you figure the South Vietnamese can survive under this agreement?" Ehrlichman reported that Kissinger answered, "I think that if they're lucky they can hold out for a year and a half." When Kissinger's assistant John Negroponte opined that the agreement was not in the best interests of South Vietnam, Kissinger asked him, "Do you want us to stay there forever?"
Nixon yearned to be remembered by history as a great foreign policy president; he needed a noncommunist South Vietnam on that ledger in order to sustain a legacy that already included détente with the Soviets and an opening with China. If South Vietnam was going down the tubes, it could not be on Nixon's watch. "What really matters now is how it all comes out," Nixon wrote in his diary in April 1972. "Both Haldeman and Henry seem to have an idea which I think is mistaken that even if we fail in Vietnam we can survive politically. I have no illusions whatsoever on that score, however. The US will not have a credible policy if we fail, and I will have to assume responsibility for that development."
* * *
No Peace, No Honor draws on recently declassified records to show that the true picture is worse than either of these perspectives suggests. The reality was the opposite of the decent interval hypothesis and far beyond Nixon's and Kissinger's claims. The record shows that the United States expected that the signed treaty would be immediately violated and that this would trigger a brutal military response. Permanent war (air war, not ground operations) at acceptable cost was what Nixon and Kissinger anticipated from the so-called peace agreement. They believed that the only way the American public would accept it was if there was a signed agreement. Nixon recognized that winning the peace, like the war, would be impossible to achieve, but he planned for indefinite stalemate by using the B-52s to prop up the government of South Vietnam until the end of his presidency. Just as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution provided a pretext for an American engagement in South Vietnam, the Paris Accords were intended to fulfill a similar role for remaining permanently engaged in Vietnam. Watergate derailed the plan.
The declassified record shows that the South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and the United States disregarded key elements of the treaty because all perceived it was in their interest to do so. No one took the agreement seriously because each party viewed it as a means for securing something unstated. For the United States, as part of the Nixon Doctrine, it was a means of remaining permanently involved in Southeast Asia; for the North Vietnamese, it was the means for eventual conquest and unification of Vietnam; for the South Vietnamese, it was a means for securing continued support from the United States.
The truth has remained buried for so long because Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did everything possible to deny any independent access to the historical record. As witnesses to history, they used many classified top-secret documents in writing their respective memoirs but later made sure that everyone else would have great difficulty accessing the same records. They have limited access to personal papers, telephone records, and other primary source materials that would allow for any independent assessments of the record pertaining to the evolution of negotiating strategies and compromises that were raised at different stages of the protracted process. The late Admiral Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt, Jr., former chief of naval operations, said that "Kissinger's method of writing history is similar to that of communist historians who took justifications from the present moment and projected backwards, fact by fact, in accounting for their country's past. Under this method, nothing really was as it happened." This is how the administration's history of "peace with honor" was written.
The personal papers of Henry Kissinger are deposited in the Library of Congress with a deed of gift restricting access until five years after his death. For years we have been denied access to the full transcripts of Kissinger's negotiations. Verbatim hand-written transcripts of the secret meetings in Paris were kept by Kissinger's assistants, Tony Lake, Winston Lord, and John Negroponte. Negroponte gave a complete set of these meeting notes to Kissinger for writing his memoirs, but they were never returned. In his deposition to the Kerry Committee investigation, which examined virtually all aspects of the MIA issue and gave special attention to the Paris negotiations, Winston Lord stated that there were "verbatim transcripts of every meeting with the Vietnamese. I'm talking now about the secret meetings, because I took, particularly toward the beginning, and we got some help at the end, the notes as did Negroponte or Smyser or Rodman and so on." Only now have notes of these secret back-channel meetings become available. Furthermore, the North Vietnamese have published their own narrative translation of the Kissinger-Tho negotiations.
This is the story of a peace negotiation that began with Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and ended with the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. Many secret meetings were involved. The principal sources include transcript-like narratives of documents from Hanoi archives that have been translated by Luu Van Loi and Nguyen Anh Vu and published as Le Duc Tho-Kissinger Negotiations in Paris; declassified meeting transcripts from a congressional investigation of MIAs in Southeast Asia; declassified meeting notes from the papers of Tony Lake and memoranda of conversations from recently declassified materials in the National Archives or presidential libraries. These three have been triangulated to connect minutes as well as linkages between events. In many cases, I have been able to fill in classified sections through materials in back-channel cables from Kissinger to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker or President Nixon.
Here, then, is the emerging story of what Nixon called "peace with honor" but was, in fact, neither. This story of diplomatic deception and public betrayal has come to the light only because of the release of documents and tapes that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sought to bury for as long as possible. Prior to these declassifications, we knew only what Nixon or Kissinger wanted us to know about the making of war and shaping of the so-called honorable peace in Vietnam.