In 2000, the Presidential Recordings Program (PRP) at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs hired me to start listening to Nixon's Oval Office tapes from the beginning, summarizing each conversation and identifying passages of historical interest for future transcription—in other words, to listen to the tapes in the order they were recorded, starting the day Nixon's voice-activated taping system came on line, February 16, 1971, and proceeding day by day, tape by tape. Selectivity was not a factor (or even an option). By the time I had finished poring over every Oval Office tape from February 16 to April 15, 1971 (and my assignment had changed from preparing summaries to preparing transcripts), I could not help but notice Nixon's adoption of a “decent interval” exit strategy. At the time I was reviewing the tapes for the PRP, Jeffrey Kimball was doing his own research independently on the newly declassified tapes and documents for The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence, KS, 2004). Kimball independently recognized the historical significance of the February and March 1971 conversations and published his own transcripts of many of them in The Vietnam War Files. This book and his earlier work on the subject, Nixon's Vietnam War (Lawrence, KS, 1998), proved very helpful to my own research and provide a model of scrupulous, responsible scholarship based on close examination and careful weighing of historical evidence.
Fatal Politics: Nixon's Political Timetable for Withdrawing from Vietnam
Article first published online: 5 MAY 2010
© 2010 The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR)
Volume 34, Issue 3, pages 497–506, June 2010
How to Cite
Hughes, K. (2010), Fatal Politics: Nixon's Political Timetable for Withdrawing from Vietnam. Diplomatic History, 34: 497–506. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7709.2010.00864.x
- Issue published online: 5 MAY 2010
- Article first published online: 5 MAY 2010
President Richard M. Nixon timed American military withdrawal from Vietnam to the 1972 U.S. presidential election. He kept American troops in Vietnam into the fourth year of his presidency to avoid a South Vietnamese collapse prior to Election Day 1972—a collapse that would have demonstrated that his “Vietnamization” program of training and equipping the South to defend itself had failed. By early 1971, he had decided to stretch the withdrawal out so that the last troops would not come home until shortly before or after the presidential election. His secret timetable served the political purpose of concealing Vietnamization's failure long enough to render voters incapable of holding him accountable for it.
Publicly, the president stood firmly behind the commitment he made upon taking office in 1969 to bring the troops home only when South Vietnam was capable of defending itself against a Communist takeover or when North Vietnam had agreed to abandon military conquest and recognized the South's right to choose its own government peacefully by elections. Nixon defined “peace with honor” in Vietnam much as President George W. Bush would later define victory in Iraq. Bush publicly conditioned American withdrawal on Iraq's ability to govern, defend, and sustain itself, and Nixon publicly conditioned American withdrawal on South Vietnam's ability to govern and defend itself—even after he privately concluded that the South could probably do neither. And he said so on tape.1 Nixon's secretly recorded White House tapes capture both his realization that he would not achieve his goals and his determination to make it look like he did.
Despite public claims that he would withdraw troops only when South Vietnam was ready, the president privately resolved more than a year before the election to bring the troops home between July 1972 and January 1973.2 The timetable served two political purposes: (1) keeping enough troops in South Vietnam to prevent a pre-Election Day collapse while (2) bringing enough troops home to make it look like Vietnamization was working. Nixon was determined to stick to his election-centric timetable regardless of whether Hanoi agreed to a settlement (something Nixon thought he had only a 40 to 55 percent chance of getting) and regardless of whether South Vietnam could survive without American troops. “We've got to get the hell out of there,” Nixon said on March 11, 1971. “No question,” National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger replied:
President Nixon: There's a 40 to 50 percent chance, maybe 55—and that could fall apart—that we might even get an agreement. But lacking an agreement, I think if they were—in other words—I just think—in other words—the forces will—there'll still be war out there back and forth. But the South Vietnamese are not going to be knocked over by the North Vietnamese—not easily.
Kissinger: Not easily. And that's all we could bring about.
President Nixon: And that's all we can do.3
This private acknowledgement that Vietnamization would not prevent the South from falling, just from falling “easily,” was one Nixon dared not make public. Announcing a partial troop withdrawal in a nationally televised address on April 7, 1971, the president said, “The day the South Vietnamese can take over their own defense is in sight.”“The [withdrawal] date,” Nixon told newspaper editors a week later, “cannot and must not be related to an election in the United States. . . . I don't want one American to be in Vietnam one day longer than is necessary to achieve the two goals that I have mentioned: the release of our prisoners and the capacity of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves against a Communist takeover.”4 At one point, Nixon privately sounded willing to abandon his political timetable to secure the release of American prisoners of war (POWs), who were being tortured and abused by the North in violation of the Geneva Conventions. “When we finally get down to the nut-cutting, it's very much to their advantage to have a negotiation to get us the hell out and give us those prisoners,” Nixon said on March 19, 1971. “And you know, if they'll make that kind of a deal, we'll make that any time they're ready.” Kissinger quickly reminded him of the political hazards of withdrawing American troops from Vietnam long before Election Day:
Kissinger: Well, we've got to get enough time to get out. It's got to be because—
President Nixon: Oh, I understand.
Kissinger:—we have to make sure that they don't knock the whole place over.
President Nixon: I don't mean [unclear]. What?
Kissinger: Our problem is that if we get out after all the suffering we've gone through—
President Nixon: And then have it knocked over, oh [unclear]—
Kissinger: We can't have it knocked over brutally—to put it brutally, before the election.
President Nixon: That's right.5
The POWs' freedom came second to Nixon's domestic political considerations, as did his other proposed settlement terms. Despite his public commitment to achieving “peace with honor,” Nixon secretly maneuvered to achieve something less than peace: a “decent interval” between his final troop withdrawal and the Communists' final victory. On February 18, 1971, minutes after Nixon resolutely, firmly, and unequivocally told Kissinger, “We can lose an election, but we're not going to lose this war, Henry,” the national security adviser inadvertently revealed how little the president meant by “peace with honor.”6 After listing their basic requirements for a settlement (release of American POWs, a cease-fire, and total American withdrawal) Kissinger concluded, “What we can then tell the South Vietnamese—they've got a year without war to build up.”“A year without war” is just an interruption, not an end, to hostilities. It is not what most people consider peace. Nixon and Kissinger had their own special definitions of words like peace, lose, and even triumph. “A negotiation is a triumph,” Nixon later told Kissinger. The President could consider “a year without war” to be a triumph only because by the time he began taping, a little more than halfway through his first term, he had privately defined defeat downward.
The primacy of politics in Nixon's selection of settlement terms cannot be missed in this discussion of whether South Vietnam, like South Korea, should retain a “residual force” of American troops following a settlement:
President Nixon: The idea that we have to keep a residual force in South Vietnam—I'm not really for it. I don't think the South Vietnamese are—
Kissinger: Well, it'd be desirable, but I—I don't—
President Nixon: Face it: I don't think the American people are going to support it and it isn't like Korea somewhere—
Kissinger: Above all, Mr. President, your re-election is—
President Nixon: Yeah.
Kissinger:—really important for the future.
President Nixon: I'm afraid [unclear] I'm afraid we have too many chips on South Vietnam and if my re-election is important, let's remember, I've got to get this off our plate.7
Reelection was the overriding goal of Nixon's “decent interval” exit strategy, but not the only one. For Nixon to maintain his political standing in his second term, South Vietnam had to survive not only through Election Day, but also long enough after his final troop withdrawal to make Saigon's fall look like Saigon's fault. An August 3, 1972, conversation, one that at first seems to be about the geopolitical goals of Nixon's exit strategy, quickly reveals the domestic political goals underlying it. The president privately acknowledged what he publicly denied—that South Vietnam probably would not survive:
President Nixon: Now let's look at that just a moment again, think about it some more, but let's be perfectly cold-blooded about it. If you look at it from the standpoint of our game with the Soviets and the Chinese, from the standpoint of running this country, I think we could take, in my view, almost anything, frankly, that we can force on Thieu. Almost anything. I just come down to that. You know what I mean? Because I have a feeling we would not be doing, like I feel about the Israeli, I feel that in the long run we're probably not doing them an in—uh, a disfavor due to the fact that I feel that the North Vietnamese are so badly hurt that the South Vietnamese are probably gonna do fairly well [unclear]. And also due to the fact—because I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway. I'm just being perfectly candid—I—
Kissinger: In the pull-out area—
President Nixon:[Unclear—overlapping voices] There's got to be—if we can get certain guarantees so that they aren't . . . uh, as you know, looking at the foreign policy process, though, I mean, you've got to be—we also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important. It's terribly important this year, but can we have a viable foreign policy if a year from now or two years from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam? That's the real question.
Kissinger: If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it's the result of South Vietnamese incompetence. If we now sell out in such a way that, say, within a three- to four-month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink—we ourselves—I think, there is going to be—even the Chinese won't like that. I mean, they'll pay verbal—verbally, they'll like it—
President Nixon: But it'll worry them.
Kissinger: But it will worry everybody. And domestically in the long run it won't help us all that much because our opponents will say we should've done it three years ago.
President Nixon: I know.
Kissinger: So 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.8
Kissinger had succinctly stated the domestic political bottom line: If Saigon fell three to four months after Nixon withdrew the troops, “our opponents will say we should've” withdrawn in 1969, before another 20,000 Americans had died. “So we've got to find some formula,” Kissinger concluded, “that holds the thing together a year or two.” In other words, they only needed to delay, not deny, the Communists' ultimate military victory.
This is not an isolated, unrepresentative conversation, despite Kissinger's later claims to the contrary. “The trouble with writing history the way it is now done on the Internet,” Kissinger told an Associated Press reporter who questioned him about the conversation in 2004, “is that you guys find one sentence, or one conversation . . . something that everyone can run with and have a good time. And have a sentence that proves it. But it was not the thrust of [Nixon's] policy.”9 Kissinger has used this “one” defense more than once. As long ago as 1994, when New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis published a December 15, 1970, entry from White House Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman's diaries revealing that Kissinger urged Nixon to prolong the war for political reasons, Kissinger tried to brush it off as “a single entry in 600 pages.”10 So Lewis published another Haldeman diary entry the following week, this one from December 21, 1970: “Henry argues against a commitment that early to withdraw all combat troops because he feels that if we pull them out by the end of '71, trouble can start mounting in '72 that we won't be able to deal with, and which we'll have to answer for at the elections. He prefers instead a commitment to have them all out by the end of '72 so that we won't have to deliver finally until after the elections and therefore can keep our flanks protected.”11 The Haldeman diaries were the first chink in the armor Kissinger had constructed in his multiple memoirs (written with practically exclusive access to the classified record that was largely kept from the public for a quarter of a century) in defense of his claim that the Nixon administration “vindicated the anguish of a decade not by a ‘decent interval’ but by a decent settlement.”12
The armor came further undone throughout the rest of the 1990s and into the twenty-first century as the government began releasing hundreds of hours of Nixon tapes in chronological order and declassifying thousands of pages of White House foreign policy documents. Jeffrey Kimball found a telltale note scribbled by Kissinger in the margins of the briefing book for his secret first trip to China in July 1971: “We need a decent interval. You have our assurance.”13 As Kissinger told Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, “We will set a deadline for withdrawals, and during withdrawals there should be a ceasefire, and some attempt at negotiations. If the agreement breaks down then it is quite possible that the people in Vietnam will fight it out.” Kissinger added that, “If the [South Vietnamese] government is as unpopular as you seem to think, then the quicker our forces are withdrawn the quicker it will be overthrown. And if it is overthrown after we withdraw, we will not intervene.” Zhou noted Nixon's insistence on a cease-fire. “For some period of time,” Kissinger replied. “We can put on a time limit, say 18 months or some period”14 (in other words, a year or two, as Kissinger put it more than a year later on August 3, 1972). Kissinger's aides made transcript-like memoranda of his conversations with foreign leaders, and, according to historian Jussi Hanhimaki, several revealing passages indicate that “Kissinger was doing his best, in 1971–72, to sell the ‘decent interval’ solution to Hanoi via the Soviets and the Chinese.”15
“We were trying to get the Chinese to lean on the Vietnamese,” Kissinger said when the New York Times questioned him in 2002 about his first trip to China, “and we were conveying to them what our position was all along, that if this were to develop into a political contest we would not prop up the government . . . We had hung in there for three years through extraordinary differences. Why would we abandon Vietnam?”16 For the same reason they had “hung in there”—the alternative was admitting failure. If they had withdrawn the troops in 1971 or sooner, South Vietnam might have collapsed before the 1972 election; a “decent interval” would put off the collapse long enough to make it look like the South, not Nixon, had failed.
And if they had not withdrawn shortly after the 1972 election, the South would have collapsed at least as quickly (i.e., before a “decent interval” had elapsed), as Kissinger himself argued in an October 6, 1972, Oval Office conversation. That exchange occurred at a pivotal moment—the day before Kissinger flew to France, where he (presciently) expected Hanoi to accept Nixon's settlement terms. But those terms spelled destruction for South Vietnam as President Nguyen Van Thieu said during a classified briefing by Kissinger's deputy, General Haig, in Saigon two days earlier. “In the proposal you have suggested, our Government will continue to exist,” Thieu said. “But it is only an agonizing solution, and sooner or later the Government will crumble and Nguyen Van Thieu will have to commit suicide somewhere along the line.”17 In the days leading up to Kissinger's departure for the key round of negotiations, Nixon had begun making ambiguous noises, saying that the South Vietnamese government needed to survive, “period,” and that he would continue bombing and mining North Vietnam for six months past the election even if public opinion turned from support to opposition: “Let it turn. I have determined that I am not gonna sit here and preside over 55,000 American dead for a defeat. Now goddamn it, we're not gonna do it.”18 On October 6, 1972, Kissinger entered the Oval Office needing to know whether Nixon wanted him to make a “decent interval” deal or not:
Henry A. Kissinger: I read [Alexander M.] Haig's transcript and these guys are scared.19 And they're desperate. And they know what's coming. And Thieu says that, sure, these proposals keep him going, but somewhere down the road he'll have no choice except to commit suicide. And he's probably right. I mean, we—
President Richard M. Nixon:[Unclear.]
Kissinger: We have to be honest—
President Nixon: Right.
Nixon and Kissinger recognized that triangular diplomacy with China and the Soviet Union was bearing fruit, for better and for worse:
Kissinger: Hell, the thing that worries me is that—before we get to the specifics—is that we've now got all the steam into the boiler. Everything—
President Nixon: I know.
Kissinger:—that we have a plan for is happening. The Russians are pressing them. The Chinese are pressing them.
President Nixon: The French?
Kissinger: VIP planes going back and forth between Peking, Moscow and Hanoi. [Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F.] Dobrynin was in again yesterday. I got another message from [North Vietnamese negotiator] Le Duc Tho yesterday. I've had five since the last meeting.
Kissinger: And I actually think we can settle it. On terms, however.
President Nixon: On our terms [unclear] but not Thieu's.
Kissinger: On close to our terms. But—and I also think that Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him.
President Nixon: You c—you c—you're convinced of that, Henry?
Kissinger: Not that they shouldn't. If, you know, if this were . . . but given their weakness, their disunity, it will happen. Not—we can defend it. Now, the thing that makes it anguishing is that, supposing we don't settle—
President Nixon: Yeah.
Kissinger:—I don't see that we're better off six months from now.
The problem, as Kissinger saw it, was that six more months of American bombing could improve the military situation for South Vietnam, but it would not get American POWs back. At some point, the North would offer a simple trade: freedom for American POWs in return for total American withdrawal. Such an offer would be politically irresistible:
President Nixon: That's a deal we have to take, Henry.
Kissinger: That's right, but that will also collapse the South Vietnamese, except we won't be so responsible for the whole settlement. So, as I look down the road, I think there is one chance in four.
President Nixon: Well, if they're—they're that collapsible, maybe they just have to be collapsed. That's another way to look at it, too. [Unclear] We've got to remember, we cannot—we cannot keep this child sucking at the tit when the child is four years old.
Despite Nixon's angry outburst, Kissinger had made his point. Another six months of bombing and mining would not lead to victory, but to a simple prisoners-for-American-withdrawal swap followed quickly by South Vietnam's collapse. There would be no cease-fire between the Vietnamese combatants, no face-saving “decent interval,” no way to hide the failure of “Vietnamization and negotiation” to make the South capable of defending and governing itself, no way to hide the fact that Nixon had lost the war, no way to refute the argument that he should have brought the troops home four years earlier and saved more than 20,000 American lives. In other words, bombing and mining for another six months would lead to a South Vietnamese collapse more quickly than would a “decent interval” deal.
As a result, Nixon concluded that it was less important to succeed than to look successful:
President Nixon: Vietnam is important because, of course, of our prisoners and, of course, because we don't want 17 million people to come under Communism, but . . . however, those, basically, are not the really important issues. The important issue is how the United States comes out in two ways. One: whether or not the United States in all parts of the world—whether our enemies, the neutrals and our allies after we finish are convinced that the United States went the extra mile in standing by its friends. That doesn't mean we have to succeed. It does mean that we have to have done that.
It's hard to see how America's “enemies” could be convinced that the United States stood by its friends, since its president had let China and the Soviet Union know that the Communists could overthrow an American ally without fear that he would intervene, provided they first waited a “decent interval:”
President Nixon: Let us suppose, putting it quite coldly, that we face the situation here where South Vietnam simply over the long haul cannot survive on its own as an independent entity. I don't mean like Thailand [unclear] guarantee. I don't mean like [unclear] South Vietnam because of its—the nature of the South Vietnamese people, when they truly struggle with the North and so forth, that inevitably, unless the United States can stay in there indefinitely, South Vietnam is gonna fall. All right, if that is the case, then what we have to look to is the bigger subject: How does the United States look in the way it handles this goddamn thing? So as I see it, the thing to do is to look as well as we can and hope and pray for the best. And then use our influence with the Russians and with the Chinese, which should be considerable at this point, and say, “Now, damn it, you push us here, you know, we contribute—we just cannot be pushed too far. Understand?”
President Nixon: I almost think that that's what we're looking at.20
Despite his brave words earlier that week, the president, at the moment of decision, did not insist that South Vietnam survive, “period.” Hanoi, as expected, took the “decent interval” deal, understanding it did not have to abide by its terms for more than a couple of years. Less than two weeks before the 1972 election, Kissinger stood before cameras in the White House and said, “We believe that peace is at hand.” He knew better, as did the President. Nixon claimed great political courage for prolonging a war that most Americans considered a mistake and holding out for a settlement on his terms, but these actions reflected political calculation. Finding himself unable to render South Vietnam capable of defending and governing itself, Nixon decided to fake it.
Interested readers can see and hear most of the evidence cited in this article in the Web documentary miniseries, Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, Vietnam and the Biggest Republican Landslide, http://fatalpolitics.blogspot.com.
Conversation 476–7, April 9, 1971, 8:52 a.m.–9:58 a.m., Oval Office, Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, California (hereafter NPL). Nixon said, “We've got dates in mind. We've got dates everywhere [from] July to August to September [to] October [to] November to December [to] January of 1973.” In March 1971, Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig reported that “discussions with General [Creighton W.] Abrams have convinced me that we have gone far enough now to make reductions to less than 100,000 by September 1972 an acceptable risk. I am also convinced that if certain minimum requirements are met this plan is workable and will not result in any serious unravelling here through period of our Presidential elections and well beyond” (emphasis added). Haig to Kissinger, March 16, 1971, “Haig SEA Trip—March 1971 [1 of 2]” folder, National Security Council Files, Alexander M. Haig Special File, Haig SEA Trip—14–21 Mar 71 [1 of 2], General Haig's Trip to Vietnam, Sept. '71 [2 of 2], box 1013, NPL.
Conversation 466–12, March 11, 1971, 4:00 p.m.–4:55 p.m., Oval Office, NPL. Unless otherwise noted, all the transcripts I cite in this article were drafted by me or other PRP scholars who have worked on the Nixon tapes. Thank you, Seth Center, David Coleman, W. Taylor Fain, Patrick Garrity, Max Holland, and Erin Rose Mahan for your many hours of intellectual labor.
“Panel Interview at the Annual Convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors,” April 16, 1971, Public Papers of the Presidents: Richard Nixon, 1971 (Washington, DC, 1972), 537.
Conversation 471–2, March 19, 1971, 7:03 p.m.–7:27 p.m., Oval Office, NPL.
Conversation 451–23, February18, 1971, 6:16 p.m.–6:37 p.m., Oval Office, NPL.
Conversation 465–8, March 10, 1971, 10:42 a.m.–1:15 p.m., Oval Office, NPL.
Conversation 760–6, August 3, 1972, 8:28 a.m.–8:57 a.m., Oval Office, NPL.
Kissinger's comments are quoted from “Election Role In Vietnam Pullout? New Tape Suggests Nixon Sacrificed Troops For Second Term,”Associated Press, August 8, 2004, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/05/26/politics/main619719.shtml.
The passage read as follows: “He thinks that any pull-out next year would be a serious mistake because the adverse reaction to it could set in well before the '72 elections. He favors, instead, a continued winding down and then a pull-out right at the fall of '72 so that if any bad results follow they'll be too late to affect the election.” Lewis, “Abroad at Home: Guilt for Vietnam.”New York Times, May 30, 1994. “Hanoi, Not Nixon, Set Pace of Vietnam Peace,”New York Times, June 3, 1994.
Anthony Lewis, “Abroad at Home: The Lying Machine,”New York Times, June 6, 1994. Diary entries for December 15 and 21, 1970 in H. R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House: The Complete Multimedia Edition (Santa Monica, CA, 1994). I revised the transcription of the entries after listening to copies of Haldeman's tape-recorded diaries at the College Park, MD, branch of the Nixon Library.
Henry Kissinger, The White House Years (London, 1979), 1359.
Jeffrey Kimball, “The Case of the ‘Decent Interval’: Do We Now Have a Smoking Gun?”SHAFR Newsletter 32, no. 3 (September 2001): 35–39. “Polo I Kissinger (Briefing Book) July 1971 Trip to China,” National Security Council Files, For the President's Files-Lord-China, box 850, NPL. The handwritten note appears on page 5 of the section headed “Indochina.”
“Memorandum of Conversation,” July 9, 1971, 4:35 p.m., Chinese Government Guest House, “China Visit; Record of Previous Visits Arranged by Subject Matter; Book I Feb 1972 TS [2 of 2]” folder, National Security Council Files, Kissinger Office Files, box 90, NPL.
Jussi M. Hanhimaki, “Some More ‘Smoking Guns’? The Vietnam War and Kissinger's Summitry with Moscow and Beijing, 1971–1973,”SHAFR Newsletter 32, no. 4 (December 2001): 40–45.
“Records Dispute Kissinger on His '71 Visit to China,”New York Times, February 28, 2002.
Memorandum of Conversation, October 4, 1972, 9:00 a.m.–12:50 p.m., Presidential Palace—Saigon, “Sensitive; Camp David—Volume XIX” folder, NSC box 856, NPL.
Conversation 789–6, September 30, 1972, 10:56 a.m.–12:00 p.m., Oval Office, and Conversation 790–8, October 2, 1972, 11:20 a.m.–11:39 a.m., Oval Office, NPL.
Alexander M. Haig was deputy national security adviser and had traveled to Saigon to brief South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu.
Conversation 793–6, October 6, 1972, 9:30 a.m.–10:03 a.m., Oval Office, NPL.