Iraq and Vietnam: Kissinger’s Decent Interval Strategy

Henry Kissinger is apparently giving similar advice to the Bush Administration on Iraq that he gave to the Nixon Administration during the Vietnam War. Via Brad DeLong comes Rick Perlstein:

To begin unraveling the true meaning of Kissinger’s advice to the White House, we have to go back to August 3, 1972. On that date, President Nixon repeated to the good doctor, his national security adviser, what he’d been saying in private since 1966: America’s war aim (standing up a pro-American and anti-Communist South Vietnamese government in Saigon) was a fantasy. “South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway,” the president sighed. But a presidential election was coming up. He had long before promised he was removing the U.S. presence, more-or-less victoriously (though “victory” was a word Nixon, by then, wisely avoided; instead, he called it “peace with honor”). It was Kissinger, who had been shuttling back and forth to Paris for peace negotiations with the enemy, who named the dilemma: “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two, after which–after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74, no one will give a damn.” Thus was confirmed what historians would come to call the “decent interval” strategy. Having pledged to Saigon–and American conservatives–that Communist troops would not be allowed in South Vietnam after a peace deal was signed, Kissinger negotiated the opposite. “Peace is at hand,” he announced on the eve of the 1972 presidential election, in one of his rare appearances before the TV cameras. The United States left the following spring; the Communists moved in; Saigon fell. That’s not how Nixon and Kissinger told the story, of course. They blamed the defeat on a combination of the liberal congressmen who refused to vote for continued aid to South Vietnam in 1974 and Saigon’s own unfortunate lack of will.

The parallels to today are striking. Standing up a pro-American democracy in Iraq is seen by most with any common sense as a fantasy. So why do we stay? The decent interval strategy has been revived – complete with bashing liberals as terrorist appeasers.

But I’m puzzled by something. Sure, I thought Richard Nixon’s 1968 peace with honor was lord of partisan BS – just as I thought Humphrey would have brought our troops home from Vietnam faster than Nixon would. OK, I was too young to vote in 1968 but I was old enough to spot a liar when I saw one. Likewise, I was very troubled with what was clearly the partisan “peace is at hand” uttered just before the 1972 Presidential Election. And I have no doubt that President Nixon would sacrifice countless lives of American soldiers just to avoid the political consequences of a war gone bad. In this regard – as well as many others – George W. Bush reminds me of perhaps the most corrupt President in American history (well, the most corrupt before George W. Bush took office).

But here is what I do not understand. There were prospects for a peace deal between the U.S. and the North Vietnamese during both 1968 and 1969. Martin Kettle suggests that Nixon undermined President Johnson’s attempts in 1968:

On the eve of his election in 1968, Richard Nixon secretly conspired with the South Vietnamese government to wreck all-party Vietnam peace talks as part of a deliberate effort to prolong a conflict in which more than 20,000 Americans were still to die, along with tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians. The devastating new charge against Nixon, which mirrors long-held suspicions among members of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration about the Republican leader’s actions in the autumn of 1968, is made by the authors of a new study of Nixon’s secret world in the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine. “The greatest honour history can bestow,” reads the inscription on Nixon’s black granite tombstone in California, “is the title of peacemaker.” But if the charges by authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan are correct, Nixon better deserves to be called a peacewrecker than peacemaker. At the heart of the new account was Nixon’s fear that Vietnam peace efforts by President Johnson in the run-up to the November 1968 US presidential election could wreck Nixon’s bid to oust Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, and capture the White House. Nixon’s response to Johnson’s efforts was to use a go-between, Anna Chennault, to urge the South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen van Thieu, to resist efforts to force them to the peace table. Nixon’s efforts paid off spectacularly. On October 31, Johnson ordered a total halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, the precondition for getting the North and their Vietcong allies to join the talks. Two days later, under intense secret urgings from Nixon and his lieutenants, Thieu announced his government would not take part. Less than a week later, Nixon was elected president with less than a one-point margin in the popular vote over Humphrey. The Vanity Fair article charges that Johnson knew what was going on. Intelligence reports to the president told him that Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew, were playing politics with the lives of US soldiers. “Had it been made public at the time, it would surely have destroyed Nixon’s presidential hopes at one stroke, and forever,” the authors write. Johnson offered Humphrey the chance to go public about Nixon, but Humphrey was afraid that the charges would be seen as election dirty tricks. Once Nixon had won, Johnson again contemplated revealing what he knew, but decided the national interest precluded it. In the weeks running up to the election, Nixon’s public stance was that, if elected, he would bring the war to an end more effectively than Humphrey. He promised not to interfere with pre-election peace efforts, pledging that neither he nor Agnew “will destroy the chance of peace”. In reality, however, Nixon used his campaign manager, John Mitchell, later his disgraced attorney general, to use go-betweens to encourage Thieu to believe he would get a better deal under a Nixon administration and to boycott the putative talks. Nixon constantly denied that he was conspiring with Thieu against the US government, but the release of previously classified FBI files used by the authors show this was exactly what he was doing. Chennault, Nixon’s main go-between with the South Vietnamese, was a right-wing Republican society hostess who was Chinese born and lived in a newly constructed Washington apartment complex – named the Watergate. She was vice-chairman of the Republican election finance committee and an inveterate lobbyist on behalf of right-wing and pro-American Asian interests. Chennault regularly passed messages to Mitchell and Nixon during 1968 and they urged her to put pressure on the South Vietnamese leader to create delays and to refuse to take part in the peace talks.

If these accusations are true, none of this would shock me given my low regard for Richard Nixon. But once Nixon was President, how come we could not come up with a peace deal with the North Vietnamese in 1969? Then again – how come the current President can’t find some way for us to wind down our presence in Iraq?