The Vietnam War – Errors and Omissions
The Richard Nixon Foundation looks forward to a national conversation about the Vietnam War.
The Foundation believes it is vital that President Nixon, who inherited and ended the Vietnam War and brought the POWs home, have an active voice in that conversation.
To that end, the Foundation offers Richard Nixon’s own words and writings — in video interviews, on hundreds of pages of yellow pads, on many hours of White House tapes, in speeches from the Oval Office, and in his 1985 bestselling book No More Vietnams.
The Vietnam War is a new 18-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick currently airing on PBS stations nationwide.
The film deals extensively with President Nixon and the Nixon Foundation will be correcting any factual errors and unsupported allegations.
EPISODE SEVEN: The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968 – May 1969)
Premieres September 25 at 8/7c
According to three of his speechwriters, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon came to the conclusion in 1968 that there was no way to win the war, but he had to say the opposite to keep some bargaining leverage with the enemy.
Narrator: “Richard Nixon was comfortably ahead in the polls and refused to debate. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no way to win the war he told three of his speechwriters in private. But we have to say the opposite just to keep some bargaining leverage.”
The apparent source for this quote is Richard Whalen’s book Catch the Falling Flag: A Republican’s Challenge to His Party, in which Mr. Whalen writes:
“As he [Nixon] announced the conclusion he had researched and the course he intended to follow, my pen stopped. ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no way to win the war. But we can’t say that, of course. In fact, we have to seem to say the opposite, just to keep some degree of bargaining leverage.’ … I took Nixon’s conclusion as sincere and remained skeptical of his declared tactics as we reviewed the fourth and final draft.” (Italics in original, pgs. 137, 138.)
Richard Whalen was briefly a Nixon 1968 campaign speechwriter. He left the Nixon staff during the Republican convention in Miami after becoming disillusioned when candidate Nixon didn’t agree with him about Vietnam, and after having disagreements with other staff members. As The New York Times reviewer noted, he used the book to “settle a few personal scores.”
When Richard Nixon became President in January 1969, he inherited a controversial and increasingly unpopular war. In just three years, 1965-1968, the number of Americans in Vietnam had escalated from 16,000 to over 500,000. In No More Vietnams, Nixon noted that the policies and strategies of his predecessors (JFK and LBJ) had precluded the possibility of a military victory. President Nixon’s challenge, as well as his goal, was to end the war in a way that would give our South Vietnamese ally a chance to survive as an independent nation, bring the American POWs home, and preserve the United States’ position as a great power and a force for peace around the world.
How Nixon would end the war, deal with his domestic opposition, and treat America’s allies, was being closely watched in Asian capitals from Manila to Bangkok; particular attention was being paid in Tokyo, Moscow, and Peking.
Nixon wanted the people of South Vietnam to be able to determine their own political future, bring the POWs home, and maintain America’s credibility as an ally and honor as a nation. Without that, the opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union, which included the first-ever treaty to limit strategic nuclear arms, would not have been possible.
The narrator states as fact that during the 1968 presidential campaign, at candidate Nixon’s personal direction, a Nixon campaign representative contacted the South Vietnamese government and urged President Thieu to stay away from the peace talks announced in the week before the American presidential election.
On one phone conversation President Johnson taped with Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, discussing his belief the Nixon campaign were urging the South Vietnamese to stay away from the peace talks, Johnson says, “This is treason.”
The film plays a short excerpt from a phone call President Johnson taped, in which Nixon tells the President that he was not involved. The film states as fact, “Nixon was lying and Johnson knew it.” Ultimately, the film claims, Nixon’s “fear” about this “scandal” contributed to the abrupt end of his presidency.
NARRATOR: “But then on November 2nd, with just three days to go until Americans went to the polls, President Thieu suddenly announced that the South Vietnamese government would not attend the proposed talks after all.”
“A representative of the Nixon campaign, at the candidate’s personal direction, had secretly contacted the Saigon government, urging Thieu to stay away from the talks.”
“The representative promised that once Nixon was elected, he would drive a harder bargain with Hanoi than Humphrey would.”
“Due to a CIA bug planted in Thieu’s Saigon office and a FBI wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, Johnson learned what had happened, and called Everett Dirksen, the Republican Senate Minority Leader, to warn him that the Nixon people were committing treason.”
“Nixon was lying and Johnson knew it. But to go public with the information, the President would have to reveal the methods by which he had learned of the Republican candidate’s duplicity. He was unwilling to do so.”
“Nixon’s secret was safe. The American public was never told that the regime, for which 35,000 Americans had died, had been willing to boycott peace talks to help elect Richard Nixon. Or that he had been willing to delay an end to the bloodshed in order to get elected.”
This long and richly detailed story, which is presented as fact, in fact, is a collection (and confusion) of various charges and theories for which there is no proof.
It is irresponsible and tendentious of Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick not to inform viewers that they are oversimplifying a very complicated series of events that have been the subject of intense controversy for almost five decades, and then presenting as fact a more extreme version of those events than is held by many of President Nixon’s strongest critics.
Ignoring the many intriguing and elusive details and the elements of conspiracy theory that have become involved, the Chennault controversy boils down to four basic questions:
(1) Whether or not it is true that candidate Nixon or the Nixon campaign used Mrs. Chennault to tell South Vietnamese President Thieu not to join the Paris talks because a Nixon administration would be tougher on North Vietnam than a Humphrey administration.
(2) If it is true, whether candidate Nixon was personally involved, or whether it was the work of campaign aides without Nixon’s knowledge.
(3) If it is true, regardless of who knew, did it violate the Logan Act?
(4) If it is true, regardless of who knew, did it reach the level of treason?
The answers to these questions have been the source of controversy for almost five decades:
(1) There is no proof that candidate Nixon had any involvement with, or even knowledge, of any such activities.
(2) While there is no proof that any Nixon campaign aide told the South Vietnamese government not to participate in the Paris talks, it is possible that a campaign aide or aides may have pointed out what was already obvious to the South Vietnamese government: that the Nixon campaign pledge was to achieve peace with honor, while the Humphrey campaign had come very close to promising immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.
(3) Even assuming the most extreme version of the story, Mrs. Chennault was a private citizen, and she was not negotiating with a foreign government.
(4) There is no evidence that candidate Nixon was involved in any way in any untoward, much less illegal or treacherous dealings with South Vietnam.
The same cannot be said of Senator McGovern’s direct negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris regarding POWs in 1972. Senator McGovern was an official of the U.S. Government, and he was negotiating with an enemy government during wartime. When confronted with that fact, he denied it.
Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick tell this shocking story (and the Senator’s hardly less shocking denial) briefly, and move on without any comment, without noting that candidate McGovern had actually done what candidate Nixon is charged with having done.
Nor does the documentary note that the Soviet Union tried to influence the 1968 presidential election in favor of Nixon’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The Soviets, aware of Nixon’s past, wanted to prevent such a strong and effective anti-communist from occupying the Oval Office.
Soviet leaders ordered their ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, to approach Vice President Humphrey with an offer of clandestine funding for his campaign, which the Vice President, properly, refused.
Soviet diplomats in Paris told their American counterparts that Moscow, fearful of a Nixon Administration, were pressuring the North Vietnamese to settle the war before the election in order to moot one of Nixon’s most effective issues. Johnson seized on this information, although it soon became clear that the North Vietnamese, determined to win and confident of victory with time, had no intention of yielding any ground or even of participating in any serious negotiations.
Nixon told aides and the public that he would end the war fast.
NARRATOR: “37,563 Americans had died there by the time he took the Oath of Office. I’m not going to end up like LBJ holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face on the street, Richard Nixon told an aide, I’m going to stop that war. Fast.”
There is no record of President Nixon telling the public he would end the Vietnam war “fast.”
It is true that during his first weeks, and even months, in office, President Nixon was optimistic about being able to end the war quickly because he assumed that the North Vietnamese also wanted peace and would agree to negotiate peace terms that were acceptable and honorable for both sides.
Only slowly and painfully did President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger realize that North Vietnam had no interest in negotiating. The North Vietnamese not only demanded what amounted to an unconditional American surrender, but insisted that the American government topple the South Vietnamese government as it withdrew; nor would the North agree to the return of American POWs, and an accounting for those missing in action.
Between 1969 and 1973, President Nixon delivered fourteen long and detailed speeches to the nation on Vietnam. He used them to keep the American people up to date on developments in his attempts to negotiate an end to the war.
For example, in the third of those speeches, on December 15, 1969, near the end of his first year in office, the President reported “no progress on the negotiating front” for over a month. Four months later, on April 20, 1970 in his fourth address, he echoed those sentiments: “no progress has taken place on the negotiating front.” He introduced a “new initiative for peace” on October 7, 1970 — in his seventh speech — in an attempt to restart negotiations with the North. On January 25, 1972 — in his eighth speech — the President outlined the elements of the numerous proposals the United States had made during these negotiations, only to see them repeatedly rejected by North Vietnam. The North would not agree to a negotiated peace for another year.
Excerpting White House Tapes
The almost thirty-five hundred hours of Nixon White House tapes can be excerpted or taken out of context to “prove” just about anything.
The Burns/Novick film also includes edited audio tapes of LBJ-Dirksen and LBJ-Nixon conversations on this subject. The filmmakers cut sentences early, string segments of sentences together, and edit out three words in the middle of one of Nixon’s key sentences.
In the film, and in the companion book, Burns/Novick/ Ward select and edit sections of the tapes — amounting to a few hundred words out of 3,432 hours of tapes — in order to show what President Nixon or Dr. Kissinger “thought” or “believed” about issues or events.