In the years before he was elected as President, Richard Nixon kept a relatively low profile politically. Employed by the Wall Street law firm Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, & Alexander, RN had the chance to travel internationally without the burden of a political title, but with the access and privilege of a former Vice President. Though he was no longer a politician, many in the Party still considered him an important thought leader, and in the December 1965 issue of Reader’s Digest RN relayed his views of the situation in Vietnam as he saw it on his civilian trips abroad.
By 1965, the situation in South Vietnam had so declined that Commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) General William Westmoreland and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recommended the rapid dispatch of U.S. troops to aid in the fight against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army. Keen on this advice, President Lyndon Johnson authorized the dispatch of 100,000 troops to Vietnam and another 100,000 in 1966, thereby committing the United States in a wider military effort.
Though the Johnson administration thoroughly examined when and how many troops to engage in Vietnam, they failed to give the engagement direction. The influx of American troops helped dampen Communist infiltration of the South, but its attritional tactics did not lead to outright victory. Even so, with a noticeable momentum shift in Vietnam, there were serious public appeals to engage in negotiations.
In the Reader’s Digest paper, “Why Not Negotiate in Vietnam?”, RN starts off with a blunt but optimistic status report: “The tide has finally begun to turn in the war in Vietnam.” He argued that the war would be won only if the pressure on the North Vietnamese was maintained, and if that were the case the effort would still last two years or more. He followed with a caveat: the entire effort of the war would be lost if the United States entered into peace negotiations prematurely.
In RN’s mind, there was more than the safety of the American and Vietnamese troops at stake. There was a global opinion of America to be maintained. A major factor in his support for retaining a military presence in Vietnam was what he heard from Asian leaders regarding America’s previous actions in that part of the world. According to RN, the leaders of Asia that he met with brought up two points: initiating peace negotiations would be taken as a sign of weakness by the communist forces, and that America’s handling of the situation in Laos earlier in the decade tested their trust of American support. His fear was that if America conceded to negotiations any physical fight that America put up would be made more difficult because of the moral boost it would give the North Vietnamese.
RN’s commitment to the war effort was driven by even larger, more global trends. He felt that if the North Vietnamese were to win it would be not only a blow to the South Vietnamese, but to all the nations in Southeast Asia. This was echoed by his visit with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, who told RN, “If one small nation is unsafe from communist domination, all are. The United States stands for the safety of all free nations in Asia by defending South Vietnam.” His worry was compounded by the fact that if the US were to lose the war, China would become more powerful and could possibly merge to create an unprecedented superpower bloc with the USSR. The merger of these two nations would ultimately, in the view of RN, put the world on the path to World War III.
RN made his stance on Vietnam clear in this early article: the objective was not an unconditional surrender by North Vietnam, but instead the preservation of a free and independent South Vietnam and to set the example that any free nation could retain its sovereignty.