Richard Nixon: A Belligerent Dove

by historian Stephen E. Ambrose

RICHARD NIXON WAS NOT FREE to act as commander in chief as he thought best. By the time he became president, it was too late to escalate in Southeast Asia into a general air, sea, and ground war. He wanted to do so, was tempted to do so, had said from 1963 to March 1968 that he would do so if he became president. But his secretaries of state and defense, his national security adviser, people he consulted with, and the common political wisdom all told him that he could not do so.

The kind of actions that students of the war have suggested as possible routes to American victory—the occupation of Hanoi and of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia—were beyond the capability of the American armed forces in Indochina after March 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson rejected the option of reinforcing those forces. In the aftermath of the Tet offensive, Nixon accepted that decision.

Unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon could not demand an unconditional surrender. Unlike Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower in Korea, he could not dig a trench across the border dividing North and South Viet Nam and force the communists to stay on their own side, not so long as the Ho Chi Minh Trail remained open, providing free access to the South for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). American mobilization was not sufficient to expand the war, and the American political situation would not allow further escalation.

But Nixon believed strongly that he could not just walk away. To do that would be cowardly, a betrayal of the people and government of South Viet Nam, America's allies for fifteen years, and would weaken American credibility and influence in the world. Yet how could he ensure the survival of the government of Viet Nam (GVN) when he could only fight the tip of the enemy's spear, not the spear-thrower, much less the spear-maker?

Nixon's answer was Vietnamization. During the 1968 campaign he had said that he had a policy to end the war, presumably with a victory. As commander in chief, he adopted a plan to end American involvement in the war. He said that he would bring about "peace with honor," which, in practice, "American withdrawal with honor."

It was Richard Nixon's fate to preside over the retreat of American power. He hated it. Every instinct in him rebelled against it. For twenty years, in every crisis, at every turning point, his advice had been to take the offensive against the communists. Attack, with more firepower, now—that was his policy. Yet in 1969, when he finally came to power, he had to retreat. He knew it, he accepted the fact, and he did it. The process began at his first news conference, January 27, 1969, in answering, as president, his first questions on foreign policy. With regard to Viet Nam, he said he would propose to the other side "mutual withdrawal, guaranteed withdrawal, of forces." During the political campaign just completed, Nixon had never mentioned the possibility of American withdrawal.

But withdrawal did not mean surrender. When Nixon came to power, he realized that the great American air offensive, February 1965 to March 31, 1968, code named ROLLING THUNDER, had failed to break the will of the North Vietnamese, while adding greatly to the numbers in the antiwar movement at home. He knew further that the great American ground offensive, from the summer of 1966 to the Tet offensive of 1968, had failed to destroy the NVA. So he wanted to try a third option, an offensive against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia. By interdicting these supply lines, he hoped he could sever the enemy forces in the South from North Viet Nam, making it possible for him to withdraw the American troops from South Viet Nam while simultaneously reinforcing his "madman" image as the man who might do anything, thereby encouraging the enemy to agree to armistice.

In March 1969 Nixon ordered the secret bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Secretary of State William Rogers was opposed, because of public opinion. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird was ready to go ahead but favored "going public right away," as he thought the bombing could not be kept secret. Nixon rejected their advice, thus beginning what would become a pattern in his decision-making as commander in chief—acting alone, against advice.

...Nixon decided to announce the beginning of the withdrawal of Americans from Viet Nam as well as a program to train and equip South Viet Nam's armed forces. He made the announcement from Midway Island, in June, after a meeting with the GVN President Nguyen van Thieu. Nixon called the policy "Vietnamization."

Thieu was opposed; General Creighton W. Abrams was opposed; [Henry] Kissinger was opposed; Johnson had resisted such a move; and Nixon hated doing it, but the American political system imposed it on the president. He could not escalate on the ground and stalemate was unacceptable; withdrawal was the only choice.

Having decided to retreat, Nixon might have gone about it with dispatch. Instead, he went about it with agonizing slowness. At Midway, he announced that he was pulling out 25,000 men and that at "regular intervals" thereafter he would pull out more. The pace of withdrawal would depend on three factors: progress in the Vietnamization program to train and equip ARVN; progress in the Paris peace talks; the level of enemy activity.

He had obtained no concessions from Hanoi for his action. In his memoirs, he was brutally honest in stating that he had begun "an irreversible process, the conclusion of which would be the departure of all Americans from Viet Nam." He had made it impossible for the United States to extract concessions in negotiations from the North Vietnamese. He had made it difficult, if not impossible, for the American military commanders in Viet Nam to maintain morale among their fighting men.

The phased, slow-motion retreat was the worst mistake of his presidency. Because the war went on, tension and division filled the land, and the Nixon haters went into a frenzy. It was the continuation of the Viet Nam War that prepared the ground and provided the nourishment for the Watergate seed, which without the Viet Nam War would never have sprouted.

Excerpts taken from Commanders in Chief: Presidential Leadership in Modern Wars (1993), edited by Professor Joseph G. Dawson III

Note: By the end of 1968, there were 31,000 U.S. casualties in the Viet Nam War. There would be 27,000 more U.S. casualties during the Nixon administration, thus bringing the total to 58,000.