Bob Woodward’s charge in his new book The Last of the President’s Men that President Nixon knew that the bombing of Laos and North Vietnam in the early 1970s “was not working” and “defended and intensified it in order to advance his re-election prospects” is based purely on conjecture, and is contradicted by the results of the administration’s military campaigns in Southeast Asia.
Woodward’s research is sourced from files illegally seized from the White House by then aide Alexander Butterfield, who oversaw scheduling and the taping system for the president.
Woodward cites a top secret January 1972 memo from then National Security advisor Henry Kissinger to Nixon, describing artillery attacks against the Long Tieng military base in Laos, and the limited ability of U.S. pilots to inflict damage on Communist forces.
Nixon’s hand written notes are scribbled across the page: “K. [Kissinger] We had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V. Nam. The result = Zilch,” wrote Nixon. “There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force. I want a ‘bark-off’ study – no snow job – on my desk in 2 weeks as to what the reason or failure is.”
On the previous day, in an hour-long White House special with CBS correspondent Dan Rather, Nixon called the results of the bombing, “very, very effective.”
In fact, they were.
A 1971 memo from the National Security Council described the operation in Laos as creating significant problems for Hanoi:
“It disrupted the Ho Chi Minh Trail complex, physically blocking various branches of the trail. South Vietnamese forces found or destroyed, or called in U.S. air power to destroy, some 4900 weapons, 1900 crew served weapons and thousands of tons of ammunition and other supplies. This was in addition to the vast quantity of supplies, ammunition and equipment which was consumed by the North Vietnamese in Laos instead of continuing down the trail to be used in South Vietnam or Cambodia. Moreover, when the North Vietnamese were obliged to engage AVRN forces in a fixed battle position, their units massed and became targets for concentrated Vietnamese firepower and U.S. air power which destroyed over 100 tanks and many artillery pieces. Some 300 enemy trucks were destroyed directly in the operation and 4300 more were destroyed by air interdiction while the operations were in progress. Finally, because North Vietnamese logistics units were engaged in the fighting and were badly damaged, their resiliency in restoring the flow of supplies southward has been degraded. An estimated 3500 enemy rear service personnel vital to the operation of the trail logistics system were killed.”
Nixon’s concern was that U.S. forces were constrained by the rules of engagement against Soviet supplied surface-to-air missile sites (SAMs). American pilots could target missile sites only when their aircraft came under fire.
In a February 2, 1972 meeting with Kissinger and Ambassador to Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker recorded on the White House taping system, Nixon told Bunker that he’d like to “expand the definition of protective reaction to mean preventative reaction” on SAM sites, and advocated doubling the deployment of B-52s, each of which can carry over one hundred bombs.
“Get them the hell over there, right now,” President Nixon said. “Let’s have an awesome show of strength.”
Two days later, the White House directed the Secretary of Defense to add an additional aircraft carriers to the three available for military operations in South East Asia, deploy additional B-52s and fighter squadrons, and remove all restrictions for B-52 and tactical air missions “as soon as the enemy offensive commences.”
The offensive came on March 30, when North Vietnamese forces crossed the DMZ and pushed an estimated 120,000 troops deep into South Vietnamese territory.
Nixon would also often express his frustration over what he felt was the Pentagon’s lack of urgency. He believed they could do better.
In an April 3 meeting with Kissinger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Thomas Moorer, Nixon complained that “Defense, in its usual way is temporizing a situation which is serious (Nixon expressed similar frustration a year later when the Pentagon delayed arms shipments to Israel in the October 1973 War).”
“It’s got to be an effective job,” Nixon told Moorer. “If they can’t do an adequate job there’s no reason to go over Vietnam.”
Ultimately on May 8, Nixon announced he would authorize the bombing of high value targets in Hanoi, and mining of Haiphong Harbor.
Not only did this move risk public opinion, just as the decision to bomb Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos earlier in his administration, it also jeopardized recently forged relations with China and the upcoming summit with the Soviet Union on the reduction of nuclear arms.
“In effect we have crossed the Rubicon and now we must win,” Nixon wrote to Kissinger still very unsatisfied with Pentagon thinking on air strategy, “…. not just a temporary respite from this battle, but if possible, tip the balance in favor of the South Vietnamese for battles to come when we no longer will be able to help them with major air strikes.”
Sen. Ted Kennedy said the mining was a “futile military gesture taken in desperation.” Neither was the news media supportive of the effort. The St. Louis Dispatch went as far to editorialize that the nation would not support the president because “in this case, the cause of war isn’t one of honor but of dishonor.”
In short, Nixon, acting against the tide of public pressures, was in it to win.
In a memo from Kissinger to Nixon, the National Security advisor appraised the measures, writing that they had “produced positive results in North Vietnam, South East Asia, and in other parts of the world:”
“Since our new actions have no doubt convinced Hanoi that we are unpredictable and capable of anything, it probably does not rule out some kind of limited invasion of North Vietnam itself. This could tie down enemy forces that might be otherwise committed to battle. For example, so far, we have detected only one regiment of the 325th Division in northern MR-1 and two (rather battered) regiments of the 312th Division have pulled back to North Vietnam from northern Laos; moreover additional scarce manpower and resources have to be devoted to strengthening local defense and militia units. Were there no air threat to North Vietnam, more anti-aircraft assets could be deployed to South Vietnam. Just prior to Vietnam, these were to protect LOC’s in this area and might later have been used in direct support of ground troops in MR-1 had we not resumed large-scale operations over the North. Most of these assets have now been pulled back to the North.”
By August 1972, after a three year stalemate, the North Vietnamese was finally ready to discuss a settlement. After the election and a period of continued bombing in December, an agreement was reached in January 1973 in Paris, establishing a cease-fire and guaranteeing the return of American Prisoners of War.
Contrary to Woodward’s assertions, it was the subsequent lack of American air power – restricted by the U.S. Congress – that guaranteed the demise of the South Vietnamese, and victory for Communist forces backed by their patrons in Moscow.