Setting the Record Straight
The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, by Geoffrey C. Ward, with an introduction by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and based on the film series by Burns and Novick, was published September 5th by Alfred A. Knopf. The 460-page book is intended as a companion to the 18-hour Burns-Novick documentary that will be broadcast in 10 episodes on PBS beginning on September 17th.
This companion book to the upcoming 18 hour Ken Burns PBS film, deals extensively with President Nixon, and the Nixon Foundation will be correcting any factual errors and unsupported allegations.
The quote Mr. Ward cites (that “something big is afoot”) was sent to Nixon campaign aide Richard Allen on September 26th — considerably before the context in which Mr. Ward’s text places it.
Despite Mr. Ward’s uncritical acceptance of President Johnson’s reassuring statements about evenhandedness, and his promises about keeping all the candidates equally informed, after receiving a memo from longtime adviser Bryce Harlow on October 22nd, candidate Nixon had dependable information that neither were now true. Instead, LBJ was not only favoring the Humphrey campaign, he was trying to tilt the election toward his Vice President.
President Johnson had, indeed, pledged to treat all three presidential candidates equally; and candidate Nixon had accepted the President’s continued assurances that he was being forthright and evenhanded in this regard. That was why the impact of the Harlow memo was so devastating. It is hard to understand how Mr. Ward would write that “Nixon, whose lead in the polls had now been halved, saw it as a political trick intended to put Humphrey over the top, and set out to undermine it,” without at least mentioning the Harlow memo in his text.
In this regard, Mr. Ward is not alone. It his biography Richard Nixon: The Life, John A Farrell purported to have found proof of candidate Nixon’s guilty involvement with Anna Chennault subverting LBJ’s plan for peace, based on his discovery of notes of a telephone conversation with candidate Nixon on the night of October 22nd. Based on those notes, Mr. Farrell judged candidate Nixon’s actions regarding LBJ’s bombing halt as “the most reprehensible” of his lifetime of politics. Mr. Farrell leveled this serious charge without informing his readers that candidate Nixon had received the Harlow memo, with its bombshell news, that afternoon.
The Bryce Harlow memo of October 22nd 1968 is a pivotal document for understanding candidate Nixon’s conduct regarding LBJ’s bombing halt. The former President quoted it at length in his memoirs. Neither Mr. Ward and Mr. Farrell even refer to it.
Here is what Bryce Harlow sent to candidate Nixon, from an impeccable source in President Johnson’s innermost circle, on October 22nd 1968:
The President is driving exceedingly hard for a deal with North Vietnam. Expectation is that he is becoming almost pathologically eager for an excuse to order a bombing halt and will accept almost any arrangement….
Clark Clifford, [Joseph] Califano, and Llewellyn Thompson are the main participants in this effort. [George] Ball is in also, although somewhat on the fringe.
Careful plans are being made to help HHH exploit whatever happens. White House staff liaison with HHH is close. Plan is for LBJ to make a nationwide TV announcement as quickly as possible after agreement; the object is to get this done as long before November 5 as they can….
White Housers still think they can pull the election out for HHH with this ploy; that’s what is being attempted.
Nothing in this sentence is true. There is no evidence to prove any of its allegations.
These wiretaps, involving national security, were considered legal when they were placed. In 1972, a year after the last Nixon wiretap had already been removed, the Supreme Court heard an unrelated case and ruled that national security wiretaps would require a court order if the subject had no “significant connection with a foreign power, its agents or agencies.” (United States v. United States District Court, known as the “Keith case”)
The number of warrantless wiretaps installed per year during the Nixon administration was less than any administration since FDR.
After many years of intense involvement and close study by the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the CIA and other intelligence outfits, USAID and many other government agencies and NGOs, the politics of Cambodia, however intricate, were hardly “little understood in Washington.”
Perhaps what Mr. Ward means by these ostensibly condescending words is that they were “little understood” to the extent that they differed from the particular interpretation of the very complex events Vietnam: An Intimate History presents as absolute fact.
Referring to the final days of the 1968 presidential election, this statement presents as fact the most extreme version of the ongoing Nixon/Chennault controversy.
Ignoring the many intriguing and elusive details, the Chennault controversy boils down to two basic questions: (1) Whether or not it is true, and (2) if it is true, whether candidate Nixon was personally involved, or whether it was the work of campaign aides without Nixon’s knowledge.
Elsewhere in this book, it is claimed that candidate Nixon personally, purposely, and purposefully used Mrs. Chennault to subvert President Johnson’s peace negotiations; now, however, it is “the Nixon campaign.” Although that change and substitution may seem insignificant, it is highly relevant to the most critical questions at the heart of the Chennault controversy.
Even on its own terms, the statement is not correct. The negotiations were not “scuttled.” They began on January 15 1969, supported by both President Johnson and President-Elect Nixon.
Military operations were named by the Pentagon, or by commanders in the field. This statement makes as much sense as saying that Operation Pocket Money, which began on May 8, 1972 and included the mining of Haiphong harbor, was named because President Nixon was fond of loose change.
Although this error may seem minor, or even trivial, it reflects the approach to President Nixon throughout the book. His actions and decisions about Vietnam are oversimplified, presented as ad hoc, devoid of strategic vision, motivated by political calculations, or the results of fits of pique.
The many hours of tapes and vast collections of documents dealing with Nixon’s strategy for Vietnam, and for Vietnam as part of his grand strategy involving China and the Soviet Union (his blueprint for what he called “a generation of peace”) are bypassed. But his supposed fondness for the film Patton and its alleged influence on the Cambodian incursion finds space. Anecdotes should be supplements to history, not substitutes for it.
A section of the book — titled “ON A THIEVERY BASIS!”— is devoted to the Pentagon Papers. This attention befits the seriousness of this leak of classified information by Daniel Ellsberg. Mr. Ward even adds his own exclamation point to the transcript from which the quote is taken, lest any reader miss the point he wants to make.
That point, which is outside the mainstream even of Nixon critics, is the personal opinion and hobbyhorse of Ken Hughes, one of the consultants on the Burns Vietnam project. It is an intriguing and provocative opinion, involving elements of conspiracy theory. The problem, in terms of the standards traditionally applied to historical scholarship, is that there is no evidence for it, much less proof.
It is Hughes’, and apparently Mr. Ward’s, opinion that “Nixon privately feared something else.” They are entitled to their opinion, but it should be identified as such.
Mr. Ward mischaracterizes the context of President Johnson’s quote.
President Nixon was told that a safe at the Brookings Institution contained copies of classified government documents that had been illegally removed from the Pentagon at the end of the Johnson administration. The clear context of President Nixon’s obviously extreme suggestion for retrieving them was his frustration with this situation. Obviously, he did not expect to read the next morning’s news summary about the firebombing and resulting casualties at Brookings.
Ken Hughes, Mr. Ward, and, presumably, Ken Burns in his upcoming film, fall prey to the greatest pitfall of using the White House tapes: using them selectively to prove a preconceived notion. The tapes are a unique resource, and a gift to history, but they cannot be understood in sound bites. Only when listened to for entire days, weeks, and even months, can the complete context of the conversations be understood and analyzed; and even then they are inevitably imperfect reflections of what really happened because not every location spent time in was recorded.
There is no factual support for anything in this sentence.
Counting on Burns/Ward’s reputation for accuracy and objectivity, current reviewers and future historians will quote these sentences as fact, and those quotations will in turn be cited as proof.
This paragraph illustrates the kind of imprecision that plagues Mr. Ward’s writing and disserves the readers who, based on previous Burns/Ward collaborations, will expect a book that is balanced and accurate.
Operation Menu began in March 1969 and ended in May 1970. Its overall mission was to remove the enemy bases that had been established within the neutral nation of Cambodia. These bases, supplied with men and materiel from North Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail, were staging areas for attacks across the border into South Vietnam that accounted for significant numbers of American and South Vietnamese deaths and casualties.
The book gives no hint that there is a lively ongoing controversy regarding Operation Menu’s success or failure, and debating its consequences. Mr. Ward chooses facts and commentators to support the opinion that the operation was futile and unsuccessful.
The statement that COSVN remained unscathed is untrue on its face. The sheer volume of ordnance and bombs delivered over fifteen months assured that nothing remained unscathed. In one eight week period alone (Operation Breakfast), 25,000 bombs were dropped on an area of less than 10 miles.
Quoting one of many CIA reports to say that “according to the CIA” the Menu attacks had no “appreciable effect on enemy capabilities in target areas” is reductive and misleading.
Nothing in this caption is true. Everything in this caption is misleading.
Although this is “only” a caption, it deals with one of the most disputed elements of the Nixon/Chennault controversy. It is irresponsible and tendentious of Mr. Ward not to inform his readers that he is presenting as fact something that is the subject of an ongoing controversy.
The caption purports to describe p. 346, which is entirely devoted to the four pages of handwritten notes Nixon aide Bob Haldeman made of a late night phone call with the presidential candidate on October 22nd 1968.
That afternoon Nixon had received a memo from a trusted aide with impeccable Washington connections on both sides of the aisle. The memo reported that a source in the highest circles inside the Johnson White House revealed that, despite his firm public stance, LBJ was becoming “almost pathologically eager for an excuse to order a bombing halt and will accept almost any arrangement…”. Further, the memo revealed that “White Housers still think they can pull the election out for HHH [Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey] with this ploy; that’s what is being attempted.”
Nixon was furious and concerned. (“N – mad as hell” Haldeman wrote.) He believed that the 1960 election has been stolen from him, and was determined not to let it happen again eight years later. President Johnson had sprung a similar “October Surprise” involving Vietnam in the days before the 1966 congressional elections. From reading all four pages of Haldeman’s notes, it is clear —or, at the very least, it is arguable and plausible — that the context of the notes is Nixon’s determination to prevent Johnson from announcing the bombing halt.
Even the last sentence of this caption supports this interpretation. Haldeman writes: “Agnew – go see Helms – tell him we want the truth – or he hasn’t got the job.”
“The truth,” in the context of these notes seems clear: it was the truth about what LBJ was really up to with his sudden decision to announce a bombing halt. The note makes no sense when interpreted as referring to the Paris peace negotiations, as Mr. Ward does.
All of Nixon’s specific orders during this conversation deal with letting LBJ know that the plan to tilt the election by announcing a bombing halt has been discovered, and that Nixon isn’t going to let him get away with it. The words “negotiations” or “Paris” do not appear on any of the four pages. Nonetheless, some, including Mr. Ward, claim that Nixon is referring to the Paris negotiations.
There is one reference to Anna Chennault in Haldeman’s notes: “keep Anna Chennault working on SVN –insist publicly on the 3 Johnson conditions.”
Mrs. Chennault had been working with Republican members of Congress to make sure LBJ would not declare a bombing halt unless the North Vietnamese agreed to meet the three preconditions he had set down during the summer — the preconditions that LBJ was now willing to ignore in order to announce the bombing halt and influence the election
For a detailed analysis of the Haldeman notes, click HERE.