Podcast: Greg Daddis on the Nixon Administration’s Vietnam War Strategy
President Nixon announces his policy toward enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia on April 30, 1970 as part of his war strategy in Indochina. (AP)
Gregory Daddis is professor of history at Chapman University and author of “Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam.”
What characterized the final years of America’s engagement in the Vietnam War, specifically the policy of the Nixon administration?
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we’re in studio with one of the nation’s foremost experts on the Vietnam War, Gregory Daddis. Dr. Daddis is professor of history at Chapman University, and director of its masters program in war and society. He is also a West Point graduate, and retired Army colonel. He specializes in Cold War and Vietnam War history, and is the author of a new book by Oxford University Press, “Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
What characterized the final years of America’s engagement in the Vietnam War, specifically the policy of the Nixon administration? We’re in studio with one of the nation’s foremost experts on the Vietnam War, Gregory Daddis. Daddis is a professor of history at Chapman University, and director of its masters program in war and society. He is also a West Point graduate, and retired Army colonel. He specializes in Cold War and Vietnam War history, and is the author of a new book by Oxford University Press, “Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam.” Greg, welcome.
Greg Daddis: Thanks for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: How did you come to write this book? I guess starting first off, how did you come to study Vietnam War history?
Greg Daddis: I think part of it, large part of it just had to do with being an army officer. I’d gone to West Point in the mid 1980s, and the army as a whole was still kind of reconciling what had happened in Vietnam, was still working through some of the major lessons of Vietnam of dealing with what many by then had seen as the Army’s first lost war. While I was cadet at West Point, we still had faculty members that were Vietnam veterans. I still remember reading a book, “Summons of the Trumpet,” by David Palmer, who was our then-superintendent, it was about the Vietnam War, it was mandatory reading for all cadets. So I think growing up in the army, it was kind of ingrained into our professional culture of thinking about who we were as organization and it really had I think an impact on our organizational identity. And, you know, when you think about the first kind of main incursion in the modern era in Iraq with the Operation Desert Storm and President Bush saying we kicked the Vietnam syndrome, it clearly was still integral I think to how we were thinking about who we were as an army.
And so as I got older and then had gone… I taught at West Point and then as we started our more recent incursions in Iraq in 2003, 2004, I thought it was a really good time to kind of go back and reevaluate some of the key lessons that were still with us in Vietnam. And one of those was thinking about how the army was measuring its effectiveness in progress in Vietnam. And the standard storyline was that this was a war of attrition, and all we cared about was killing the enemy. And so all that we really thought about in terms of measuring our effectiveness was the body count. And what I found is, when I went back and did some more research, was that in fact was not the case. And so part of, I think, my approach to Vietnam and the history of Vietnam has been reassessing kind of the standard storylines of how we think about Vietnam. Was it simply a war of attrition? Were army officers in the 1960s wedded to this conventional World War II thinking or did they actually consider the non-military aspects of this largely unconventional conflict? Was it true that we won the war in Vietnam, but lost the war at home? So part of I think my approach to this era as a historian has been to kind of test and contest some of those standard storylines about how we see ourselves and how we live with the supposed lessons of Vietnam.
Jonathan Movroydis: You begin the book by comparing two commencement addresses given by President Nixon and…of President Kennedy and Nixon to the cadets at West Point. Kennedy in ’62, and President Nixon in ’71. You write that these are sort of bookends and they suggest to how a decade’s worth of war had reshaped presidential narratives on the limits of American power. How so?
Greg Daddis: I think if we look at the Kennedy address to the Corps of Cadets it’s very aspirational, there’s this belief that with the right amount of power applied by smart individuals that we really can achieve anything. There’s this almost assumption that’s driving American foreign policymakers in the early Kennedy years that we really can achieve anything, that this truly is the greatest generation that comes out of World War II and there aren’t any limits to American power. And I think by the time you get to President Nixon, there’s a necessity to kind of look at the world through a more sober lens. And I think Nixon does that. And when he speaks to the cadets, there’s quite a bit of honesty there, right? There’s a sense that there are limits to what the Americans can achieve. And then we have to kind of grapple with that and it’s okay to grapple with that. And so I think what you see by the time you get to Nixon’s presidency in terms of foreign policy is some of those key assumptions that were driving earlier administrations about the unlimited nature of American power, I think the new administration comes in and almost necessarily has to reconsider those assumptions based on what they’re seeing in Vietnam.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was it really a test of American power? Was the United States just caught in an asymmetric war? Not like any other great powers, Russia in Afghanistan. The country is still powerful, but the war’s not…it’s just a…I guess could be considered a futile use of that power.
Greg Daddis: Yeah. I mean, it does get to this larger question of whether the war’s winnable or not, right? That there’s a strand of American scholarship that says that the war just simply was an unwinnable war and based on Vietnam, Vietnamese history and culture and the larger objectives that were at play. I think we need to be careful with that because it suggests that there’s an inevitability to this. And, you know, I think clearly America could have won. I think the key aspect of that is how do we define victory, what would have been the cost of that victory. And I think both the Johnson and Nixon administrations are kind of looking at victory, but also looking at the cost of that victory. And I think certainly by the time you get to Nixon’s administration, there’s a clear realization that it’s no longer worth the cost, that the benefits coming out of an extended American presence in Vietnam, the concept of what victory will look like…it’s just not worth the cost anymore.
And I think it’s pretty telling if you look at Nixon’s memoirs. He says that he enters the presidency realizing that traditional military victory is no longer possible. And that’s…to me it’s just an amazing admission, right, that the President is coming in and suggesting to his foreign policy apparatus and to the senior military commanders, said “Look, we’ve tried this for quite some time now. And the military victor, traditionally defined, is not possible.” And I think that’s, again, a pretty honest and sober appraisal of American power.
I mean, he says before in his memoirs, he says before he even takes the presidency he realizes that total military victory is not possible. I mean, he says, “I began with the fundamental premise that total military victory was no longer possible.” And so as he’s coming into office, then what he’s saying is the primary mission is no longer a traditional military victory à la World War II, that there’s not going to be an unconditional surrender document signed here. But that the premise then is to really transition the war over to the South Vietnamese fully and to hopefully ensure that we leave something stable behind.
Jonathan Movroydis: What is, I guess…in terms of I guess the overall strategy of the United States, what does victory look like? Is it a geopolitical victory? Is it a psychological victory?
Greg Daddis: Yeah, well, I think it’s both, right? I think it’s certainly a psychological victory, and I think the phrase “peace with honor” speaks to that, right, that there has to be something that comes out of this that is psychologically appealing for those that have sacrificed so much. So I think that’s certainly a part of it. I think the geopolitical victory, if you will, is really a repurposing and a realignment of American power and American interests. My sense is that the President Nixon and Kissinger as well come in with the belief that too much of American focus and too much of America resources are being placed on one small area of the globe. And that in a sense is unfortunate as I think for the South Vietnamese in particular that South Vietnam is no longer as important to U.S. foreign policy in 1970 as it was in 1960 or 1965. And I think this is important for students of Vietnam to realize that the global environment is not static between 1965 and 1970. It’s changing and I think Nixon clearly realizes that as he’s looking to re-navigate American foreign policy at large and to realign Cold War relationships.
And so my sense is that from a geopolitical standpoint, the word “victory” is a way to depart from Vietnam in a methodical manner that is based on policy rather than ?collapse,” to paraphrase Kissinger, and then to realign American foreign policy objectives toward the relationship between the United States, China and the Soviet Union. And that means that…again, it’s unfortunate maybe for the South Vietnamese themselves that that area of the globe is not as important as it was. And so it’s not a traditional victory, as we might think of it in a conventional concept, but the victory is, in a sense, re-allocating focus and resources to larger aspects of American foreign policy.
Jonathan Movroydis: How much does credibility play a role on this? It’s interesting because I was reading through Kissinger’s memoirs the other day, and Charles de Gaulle, the French president, asks Dr. Kissinger, “Why are you in Vietnam?” And he says, “It’s an issue of credibility,” and de Gaulle scoffs at Kissinger telling him, “Well, your enemy is losing credibility in the Middle East.” So how much does credibility for the Nixon administration play a role in this?
Greg Daddis: I think, in one sense, too much. But it’s not just for the Nixon administration. I think it’s for Cold War presidencies at large. I think that much of the Cold War is about credibility and prestige. And thinking about Cold War relationships as a zero-sum relationship, that if the Soviets win the United States automatically loses or vice versa. And so, you know, I think you can make a pretty solid argument that one of the reasons why the United States enters into Vietnam is because of credibility and prestige. And one of the reasons why the Johnson administration escalates in Vietnam is because of credibility and prestige. And once we start providing not simply advice, but support to the South Vietnamese regime, there’s almost a sunk cost thinking there. And I think that what happens with President Johnson and to somewhat an extent Nixon as well that the credibility of the nation becomes conflated with individual credibility and prestige, that “I can’t fail in Vietnam, not simply for the United States, but also for me personally, as a president, as politician, as a person.”
But again, I think from President Nixon’s standpoint, and from the viewpoint of Kissinger, who’s negotiating the settlement in Paris, both of them believe that part of this process of refocusing American effort away from South Vietnam is credibility, that they have to do this as a matter of policy to ensure American credibility because that’s the only way that this realignment and refashioning of Cold War relationships is going to work, that if we lose credibility coming out of Vietnam, we’re no longer going to be able to have that relationship that we want with China or the Soviet Union. So I think it very much drives the process of withdrawing from Vietnam. In part I think it also helps explain partially why it takes so long to withdraw from Vietnam.
Jonathan Movroydis: Essentially, I mean, does it make it look like if we want to do diplomacy with China, if we get out of Vietnam in a too precipitous manner, it hurts our credibility with China who’s trying to offset their diplomacy with the Russians? Or does it hurt credibility more with, I guess, our allies around the globe who are crucial to the future of our Southeast Asia policy?
Greg Daddis: My sense is it’s less about our allies and more about negotiating with China and the Soviet Union, that if we’re seen as failing in Vietnam, that that will hamper our efforts to serve as a credible, not just adversary, but a new, potentially, partner in this new Cold War era of the time.
Jonathan Movroydis: What is…the first study memorandum that Nixon and Kissinger put out is NSSM 1, national security study memorandum one. What does that entail?
Greg Daddis: It’s really a forcing mechanism for the White House to re-evaluate American Strategy inside South Vietnam and to have these agencies that are running the war, the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV), the CIA, a whole host of agencies to re-look at some of the key components of American strategy in Vietnam and see what’s working, see what’s not, and see what needs to be changed as the new administration comes in. Now, I think there’s clearly some historical debate about this, of whether this process that was being run from the National Security Council staff was just a way for the Nixon administration to get some time to get its footing as it was taking over the White House to just kind of give these agencies a few months to weeks and months to just be occupied with this study. But I think really what it is is it’s a way to have a bottom-up approach of having these agencies that are running the war given an assessment of how well it’s going, so it can turn into some policy options for Kissinger and Nixon. And ultimately, I think what it does is it feeds into this kind of holistic approach that Nixon conceives in terms of withdrawing from Vietnam.
Jonathan Movroydis: What is that holistic approach?
Greg Daddis: He really talks about it in as one of five pillars. And so, you know, my argument in “Withdrawal,” part of it is that this very holistic strategy, which I think is necessary, is also outside of the capacity of especially the Military Assistance Command of Vietnam. So, when you look at Nixon’s memoirs, and I think when you look at all the archival material here in the presidential archives, what you see is Nixon calls this five key pillars. And so the first is “Vietnamization,” which really means turning over the war to the South Vietnamese not just from a military standpoint, but also from a political standpoint. So it’s policy of allowing the Southeast Vietnamese not only to govern themselves, but also to defend themselves.
The second piece of this is “Pacification” which has been ongoing for years now. There’s partially an argument that it’s not until Abrams takes over that Pacification is part of American strategy. I don’t think that’s correct. I think Pacification has been an integral part of the American military strategy for quite some time. And this aspect of the strategy is trying to not only protect the South Vietnamese at the village level, but also to establish linkages between the rural population and the Saigon government, which has been a challenge throughout because this is really I think with the heart of a war, especially the heart of the political war inside South Vietnam.
The third aspect of the strategy is diplomatic isolation of China and Soviet Union to kind of isolate Hanoi, which ultimately, I’m not so sure how successful that part of the strategy is. I don’t think that Kissinger, as he’s working through negotiations, is ever able to kind of totally isolate Hanoi from either one of its benefactors.
The fourth piece of this is peace negotiations in Paris which really is both public and private, the private ones being mostly run by Kissinger himself. And then finally, a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam.
So when you think about this, right, this is a pretty holistic approach to this strategy. It takes into account military aspects, political aspects, diplomatic aspects, this is the essence of what strategy is. It’s not just focused on the military component of the war, which I think says a lot about the thinking that Nixon is doing before he even comes to the White House. And we’ve talked about this before, I think the wilderness years as Nixon calls them I think is so important for him as a grand strategist and a president from foreign policy perspective, that he comes in to the White House already with pretty significant ideas about what needs to happen in terms of American foreign policy. And so this is a whole of government approach, if you will, to withdrawing from Vietnam.
Again, I think the hard part of this is its complexity, that all of these necessary components make the strategy itself immensely complex. And I think what you have at the at the implementation level inside South Vietnam, especially for General Creighton Abrams, who is the military commander, is not only trying to balance these aspects, these pillars as Nixon calls them, but also trying to work through the tensions as they’re competing against one another, right? And Kissinger realizes this as well. And so does Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird that there are just components of this that almost necessarily are working against one another. So as an example, Kissinger laments almost throughout the negotiating process, right, that the one key aspect of leverage he has as he’s negotiating Paris are American troops in Vietnam. And so every time there is a withdrawal of American forces, Kissinger feels like he’s losing leverage in Paris.
For Abrams himself, he’s trying to fight a war against North Vietnamese regulars who are still operating inside South Vietnam against certainly an insurgency that has dealt with defeat during the Tet Offensive but is not defeated itself, and is again trying to work through these really difficult issues of pacification of trying to create some political linkages between the Vietnamese rural population and the Saigon government. And I think it just really in a sense is just outside the capacity of Abrams at the implementation level to make happen for the president.
Jonathan Movroydis: How do you…I guess, how do you do all this? How do you adopt all these policies and such complex policies in such a very quarrelsome political environment as well?
Greg Daddis: Yeah, and I think that’s the other key piece of this, right, is that… I think one of the folks that gets left out of the conversation far too often is Melvin Laird who’s the Secretary of Defense. And I think as a congressman from Wisconsin he comes into the Nixon administration with a clear eye of the political homefront and the problems of maintaining political support which is already waning after the Tet Offensive. And so, you know, you see Nixon in his memoirs say that the key aspect of making all this work is time, and the one thing that Nixon doesn’t have is time. And so I think that complicates all of this, right, is that you have this very complex strategy that needs time to take hold. And that’s the one thing that the President doesn’t have and Laird realizes that.
And so, you know, I think as the administration’s already looking towards the 1972 election, which I think is normal, is that you’ve got to start bringing some of these troops home because you just don’t have the political support to maintain a large American presence because the American population is no longer convinced that the sacrifices are worth it. And so, I think there are some clear linkages here between the war that’s going on in South Vietnam and the home front, and Nixon has to deal with both of those which makes it even further complicated.
Jonathan Movroydis: Do you think that had they been continued…had the administration been able to fund the war even after they…not fund the war, but you know, continue to supply, both economically, and militarily, and politically the South Vietnamese after a complete withdrawal, that they would have been able to sustain Saigon?
Greg Daddis: I don’t know. That’s certainly the popular counterfactual, right? And what it does is it’s I think it’s popular, certainly among senior military officers coming out of Vietnam, because what that counterfactual allows you then to do is place blame on Congress, right? “Look, it wasn’t our fault. We had the war won. We had signed a peace settlement and it was Congress that didn’t follow through.” And Nixon says this in I believe it’s “No more Vietnams,” right, that we won the war and lost the peace. And part of losing the peace was because the legislative branch wouldn’t fund South Vietnam.
The hard part I think of that argument that may not work is that what it does is it may fund the Saigon government in terms of military equipment and other aspects of the military conflict. But what it doesn’t resolve are some of the key political issues that just are not being answered by American military support or American financial support. And that really is the continued question over who was the legitimate government in South Vietnam, and I think, more deeply, what does it mean to be Vietnamese in the modern post colonial era. And I just don’t know how much American funding is going to help answer that question.
Now, you know, there’s a part of this argument is that the longer the South Vietnamese government is able to exist as an entity, that they’ll be able to work through that. And there have been studies done more recently based on Vietnamese sources that argue that you are starting to see the inception of a separate South Vietnamese identity by the time you get to the late ’60s and early ’70s, but it just hasn’t taken hold yet. And by the time you get to the North Vietnamese military incursion in ’74 and ’75, that it’s just not…it’s not strong enough to kind of combat that. And so if the Saigon government has American support and lasts longer, it will be able to help develop that sense of identity.
And I see that argument, I’m just not so sure how convinced I am. And part of it is because there’s still a lot of killing that’s going on. And I think we forget that the peace settlement in Paris in January of 1973 doesn’t really leave peace. It allows the United States to completely withdraw from South Vietnam, but there’s no peace coming out of that peace settlement. The Vietnamese are still fighting. The ink is not even dry on the document and they’ve resumed fighting. And so I’m just not so sure that any financial support that was continued to be given to the South Vietnamese government would have helped them resolve some of the key political issues that were at the heart of this conflict.
And I think this is an important thing for us to think about as we’re looking at more recent American military incursions in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world is this is a really difficult thing to do to create a new political identity in a time of war. It’s just such an incredibly difficult task to do. And I think sometimes we undervalue that.
If we think about just the debates we’re having here in the United States, a lot of them…healthcare issues, over Confederate monuments, issues over tax laws, Supreme Court nominees, a lot of it comes down to questions of who we are as Americans, and how do we define American identity. And we’re for the most part, for most Americans, at least in the time of peace even as we’re, you know, in kind of continual war abroad for a smaller segment of the American population.
But we’re wrestling with these kind of very vital questions of who we are as Americans today and our society is not at war. And so think about now trying to resolve these same questions if you’re a South Vietnamese citizen, and your country is at war, and you’ve got North Vietnamese regular army divisions inside your country, and you still have a resilient insurgency that is fighting inside your country. I think that’s what makes all of this so incredibly hard.
Jonathan Movroydis: Do you think… You devote a whole chapter to the concept of Vietnamization, and you had mentioned earlier how complex the Nixon administration’s war policy is. Can you talk a little bit about what Vietnamization entailed both from a military aspect and from a politico-economic aspect as well?
Greg Daddis: Right. The asssumption is that…you know, the first phrase is “de-Americanization.” That’s the word that’s kind of…just initial meetings that happened I believe in March of 1969, Secretary of Defense Laird is having conversation with the President and Dr. Kissinger, and there’s a discussion about how we need to de-Americanize which is basically the withdrawal piece of it. And I think it’s Laird that says, you know, “We need to put the emphasis on the right place, and so we need to Vietanamize rather than de-Americanize.”
And so, I think the military component is based on some long-standing questions that I don’t think ever really get truly resolved. I think first and foremost is, where is the main threat? What’s the most dangerous threat to the South Vietnamese political entity? Is it an external threat from North Vietnam and a largely conventional threat with the North Vietnamese army, or is it an internal threat with the southern insurgency, the National Liberation Front, pejoratively called the Vietcong and those forces, the People’s Liberation armed forces?
And the problem with Vietnamization is previous to Nixon’s administration, you kind of have this divvying up of responsibility where the Americans will focus mostly on the main force units, and the South Vietnamese will focus more on the insurgency, or at least conceptually, that’s how it’s planned out.
As President Nixon decides that we’re going to start withdrawing and Vietnamize the war, now both of those missions fall to the Vietnamese Armed Forces, South Vietnamese armed forces. And so this is a hard thing I think in terms of Vietnamization is where’s the priority? Do you focus on Vietnamizing the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army to focus mostly on a main force threat, a conventional threat or on a insurgency threat? And I’m not so sure that ever fully gets resolved because at the end of the day, that army has to do both.
And then I think from the the political aspect of it, which is also economic, is how to leave something stable behind. This American presence that’s grown up since the early 1960s has, in one sense, created a false economy in South Vietnam. And so that withdrawal is going to have clearly an economic impact, the devastation that’s occurred, the social dislocation that’s occurred inside South Vietnam is going to have to be resolved in some sense, because that’s going to have an impact on the political structure. You’ve had, you know, quite literally, millions of refugees inside South Vietnam of a population of about 16 and a half, 17 million. And at certain points, there are a million refugees, wartime refugees at one point or another to sort of think about, you know, that ratio and how much of your population is being dislocated by the war, that’s going to have an impact on the political entity that’s left behind.
And then I think ultimately, it’s a struggle to work with the Thieu regime to get a sense of how best it incorporates all these dissenting voices. Should the Thieu regime incorporate communists into their government or not? And as Nixon and Kissinger are trying to negotiate or withdraw from Vietnam, Hanoi is adamant that the Thieu regime has to go. And so that complicates this Vietnamization process even further, because with a negotiation piece, the North Vietnamese delegation is demanding to Dr. Kissinger that, “Look, Thieu has to go, this has to be part of the peace settlement.” And clearly, to get back to your earlier point about credibility and prestige, that’s a non-starter for Kissinger as he’s negotiating.
So I think, again, it’s important for not just scholars, I think, but anybody looking back on this period about just the complexities of just this one aspect of it right, in terms of “How do I give President Nixon what he wants here, right? And if Vietnamization is a key pillar of his strategy to depart from Vietnam, how do I make this happen in a manner that works for him as the president?” And just based on what I said, think about how difficult that is to provide for him. It’s pretty amazing.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that Nixon as vice president believed that Dwight Eisenhower’s threat to breach the nuclear threshold helped end the Korean War. Did Nixon, through the use of the so-called “Madman Theory”, think he could do the same thing with Vietnam, especially with also having the policy of Vietnamization? How do you reconcile those two?
Greg Daddis: Yeah, I think the “Madman Theory” has been a bit overdone. I just don’t think that President Nixon was that irrational that he was just going to, you know, decide one day to wake up and “I’m going to start using tactical nuclear weapons to finish this thing off.” But what I think he does realize coming out of his experiences of vice president is that the threat of military force is still a viable part and an integral part of strategy. And so as he’s coming in, if we just kind of take that one episode where he’s talking with Haldeman about, you know, “If I can prove to…you know, we can let Hanoi know that Nixon’s a madman and he’s irrational, you know, they’ll better be able to deal with Hanoi.”
If we kind of take that off the table for a moment, I think what Nixon does realize is that the threat of military force and doing away with some of the limits that were imposed by the Johnson administration will help them disengage from Vietnam. And so ultimately, I think when you see the expansion of the war outside of South Vietnam’s borders into Cambodia, into Laos, in a sense that’s the rational aspect of the madman theory, right, that “I’m going to use military force or the threat of military force to demonstrate to Hanoi that the military component of the strategy is still an integral part of it.” And you see the same thing I think with the bombing of North Vietnam proper, Operation Linebacker both I and II. And so my sense is it’s… when you look at the transcripts and you look at the archival material, I think what you have to do is take some of that rhetorical language out and then take a look at how that language is actually put into policy. And the policy as I mentioned is, is it military forces as part of strategy and is a component of how we’re going to withdraw from Vietnam?
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Greg Daddis, professor of history at Chapman University and director of its war and society program. Our topic was the final years of American engagement in Vietnam with a specific focus on the Nixon administration policy. His book is “Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam.” Dr. Daddis, thank you so much for joining us.
Greg Daddis: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis, signing off.