“No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War.” No one did more to keep it that way than the author of the preceding sentence, Richard Milhous Nixon. It’s the opening line of his 1985 best seller, No More Vietnams. In the former president’s version of events, he won the war, only to watch helplessly as Congress “proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” One reviewer wrote that Nixon had fabricated a “stabbed in the back” myth, one all too reminiscent of the Dolchstosslegende that German militarists created to blame their defeat in World War I on their country’s civilians (rather than on the predictable shift in the balance of battlefield power caused by America’s entrance into the war on the Allied side). In the battle over history, however, Nixon had a crucial advantage over his critics. They didn’t have access to the best evidence: the classified record of Nixon’s foreign policy making, especially his secretly recorded White House tapes. The tapes covered the critical period— February 16, 1971, to July 12, 1973— when Nixon withdrew the last American troops from Vietnam, negotiated a settlement of the war with North Vietnam’s Communist government, engineered the diplomatic opening to China, established a détente with Russia, and won a landslide reelection. The tapes reveal the complex and subtle interplay between all these actions— including the ways Nixon manipulated geopolitical events for domestic political gain. Unsurprisingly, he fought until his death in 1994 to keep the American people from hearing the tapes; tragically, it took the federal government nearly two decades, until 2013, to finish declassifying these invaluable and (thanks to Nixon’s sound-activated recording system) comprehensive historical records. By then it was almost too late. Politicians, policy makers, and pundits now routinely invoke Nixon’s backstabbing myth as reason to block attempts to end America’s twenty-first-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They even promote Nixon-era strategy as a path to victory in both these countries.
Nixon’s tapes reveal, however, that he merely came up with a politically acceptable substitute for victory. Neither Nixon nor any of his military or civilian advisers ever devised a workable strategy to win the war, but Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger devised a brilliant, if ruthless, strategy to win the election. As Nixon and Kissinger saw it, victory in the presidential election did not depend on victory in Vietnam; they merely had to postpone— not prevent — the Communist takeover of South Vietnam until sometime after November 1972. To accomplish this end, Nixon kept American soldiers in Vietnam into the fourth year of his presidency, at the cost of thousands of American lives.
That was the military side of his secret strategy. Like his official, publicly announced strategy, Nixon’s secret strategy had both a military and a diplomatic side. Officially, Nixon’s strategy was “Vietnamization and negotiation.” Publicly, Nixon said Vietnamization would train and equip the South Vietnamese to defend themselves without the need for American troops. Secretly, Nixon used Vietnamization as an excuse to prolong the war long enough to delay South Vietnam’s fall past Election Day 1972.
As for the diplomatic side, Nixon said publicly that the aim of negotiations was to reach an agreement with the North guaranteeing the South’s right to choose its government by free elections. Secretly, however, he did not require the North to abandon its goal of military conquest of the South. Instead, he settled for a “decent interval”— a period of a year or two — between his final withdrawal of American troops and the Communists’ final takeover of South Vietnam. For Nixon to completely evade the blame for defeat, he had to do more than prop up the Saigon government through 1972. If it fell shortly after he brought the troops home, Americans would see that their soldiers had died in vain, and Nixon would go down in history as the first president to lose a war. Nixon could avoid this fate, however, if the Communists gave him a “decent interval.”
Nixon and Kissinger’s secret strategy, though clearly immoral, did not spring simply from the character flaws of two men. It was a logical, if extreme, outgrowth of Cold War politics. Successful Cold War politicians blamed their opponents for losing countries to the Communists — even countries where Americans and Communists had not been fighting.
Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in 1946 in part by blaming Democrats for “losing” Eastern Europe to Communism; the GOP also picked up House and Senate seats in 1950 by blaming Democrats for “losing” China to Mao Zedong’s Communist revolutionaries. JFK won the presidency in 1960 in part by blaming Republicans for “losing” Cuba to Communist Fidel Castro. Given this political tendency, Nixon had reason to fear that if he lost Vietnam in his first term, American voters would deny him a second one. That was political reality. It doesn’t excuse what Nixon and Kissinger did; it merely shows that they acted on the basis of rational political calculation.
Just as important as how Nixon won the 1972 election is how his opponent lost. According to the Emory University professor Drew Westen, political campaigns are built, in part, on “the story your opponent is telling about himself” and “the story you are telling about your opponent.” The story Nixon told about himself— that he would keep the war going only until South Vietnam could defend itself or the North agreed to let it choose its government by free elections — was not true. Unfortunately, the story his opponent told about him wasn’t true, either.
The Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, did not accuse Nixon of prolonging the war and faking peace for political gain, of putting his reelection campaign above the lives of American soldiers, of sacrificing them for a fig leaf behind which he would secretly surrender the South to the Communists. Instead, McGovern and other liberals claimed that Nixon would never allow Saigon to fall, that a vote to reelect the president was a vote for four more years of war. Although Nixon’s tapes show that he was not the steadfast ally of Saigon that he pretended to be, McGovern’s charges counterproductively reinforced the image that Nixon had carefully cultivated.
Worse, McGovern didn’t know what to do in October 1972 when South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu publicly declared that the deal Nixon and Kissinger made with North Vietnam was a sellout and surrender to the Communists. The charge was both damning and true, but because it contradicted what McGovern had been saying, he failed to seize the opportunity it offered. Autopsies of McGovern’s campaign usually detail his parade of political pratfalls through the summer and fall of 1972, but they neglect its central strategic flaw. Vietnam was the biggest issue of the general election campaign, and McGovern fumbled it.
It didn’t have to be that way. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D- Massachusetts, provided an alternative strategy when he accurately accused Nixon of cynically using Vietnamization as a fraudulent cover for timing military withdrawal to his reelection campaign. Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver — McGovern’s running mate in the fall campaign — accurately accused Nixon of negotiating surrender. If McGovern had told that story throughout the campaign, not only would he have been right, but Nixon’s troop withdrawals and Thieu’s blowup would have provided the story with credible confirmation. Instead, McGovern and other liberals lost control of the foreign policy narrative, telling a story about Nixon that was both false and flattering to the man it was designed to defeat.
Though the 1972 campaign is decades past, the myth Nixon made (and McGovern unwittingly reinforced) persists, now hallowed as if it were settled history. Right and Left agree that Nixon was determined to use American military power to preserve South Vietnam until Congress tied his hands. The Right calls that losing Vietnam, the Left calls it ending the war, but both agree that’s what happened. As we shall see, Nixon invited Congress to pass legislation denying him authority to militarily intervene in Vietnam, despite having the votes he needed to sustain a veto. Legislation barring military intervention throughout Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) passed with a veto-proof majority only after Nixon’s conservative supporters joined his liberal opponents and accepted his invitation. Like Nixon’s secret military and diplomatic strategy, this legislative maneuver enabled him to deny responsibility for losing Vietnam.
The danger of the backstabbing myth that Nixon spun in No More Vietnams is that it paves the way for more Vietnams. Today, no politician wants to be accused of losing Iraq or Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean any of them (or their civilian and military advisers) have ever come up with a way to win either war. Nixonian myth, however, gives them a politically acceptable alternative to admitting failure. They can hold up the false hopes that training and equipping the local armies will enable them to replace American soldiers and that a political settlement will reconcile parties who have demonstrated their inclination to fight out their differences. The cost of false hope is measured in lost and shattered lives.
Fortunately, Nixon’s myth is shattered by the evidence on Nixon’s tapes and in his White House documents. I’ve been studying Nixon’s tapes for decades, first as a journalist writing in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine,and other publications in the 1990s, and since 2000 as a researcher with the Presidential Recordings Program of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The tapes tell a story that is both true and, potentially, lifesaving. Once we remember this hidden part of our past, we will no longer be condemned to repeat it.
Excerpted from “Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection” by Ken Hughes. Copyright © 2015 by Ken Hughes. Reprinted by arrangement with University of Virginia Press. All rights reserved.