Nixon's Vietnam War

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Jeffrey Kimball. Nixon’s Vietnam War, 1998. Paperback edition, Lawrence, KS : University Press of Kansas, 2002. 528 pages. $24.95

Summary

Blame for America's failure in Vietnam is most popularly laid at the feet of Lyndon Johnson. It was he after all who, after President Kennedy's death in 1963 ratcheted up our military commitment there, and it was under his administration that most American casualties were suffered. Jeffrey Kimball argues however, in his book Nixon's Vietnam, that President Nixon must be held, if not equally accountable, nearly so, for the failure of American Vietnam policiy. In laying out this case, he makes many of the same points David Halberstam does in The Best and the Brightest, noting that like Kennedy and his advisors, Nixon and Kissinger viewed the Vietnam war most importantly as another battlefield of the cold war. American was in the war to prevent a communist takeover of Asia. At its base, for both Halberstam and Kimball, this was the main reason for American failure in Vietnam. In looking at the war in this way, American policy makers consistently underestimated North Vietnam's strength and resolve in the face of America's military might. Halberstam would argue that Kennedy had begun to listen to the advisors that were telling him this, and perhaps at the time of his assasination, was considering ways to reduce America's commitment there. Kimball on the other hand, argues that when Nixon came into office, he was well aware that the conflict could not be won militraily, but that military might was necessary to bring Hanoi into negotiations on terms favorable to Nixon's view of what an honorable peace would look like. That view, according to Kimball was based on "...Nixon's own reelection and the global interests of the United States - as he and other policy makers perceived them." (Kimball,88) One of the foundations of this view was that President Thieu's government was to be upheld. The strategy Nixon and Kissinger or "Nixinger" as Kimball refers to them devised to extricate American from Vietnam on these terms involved several interlinking parts, none of which proved effective. They were: big military plays, Vietnamization, pacification, clever negotiating ploys, Societ linkage, the China Card and counterattacks against domestic opponents. Overlaying this multiprong strategy are two tactics Nixon viewed as indispensible - the Madman theory, and the uncertainty principle

Kimball begins his book with a very useful chapter recounting Nixon and Kissinger's evolution of thought regarding America's use of power, and the role it should play in the struggle with communism. Particularly interesting, and a bit frightening, were their views regarding the tactical use of nuclear weapons to ward off Communist designs in Indochina. There was even discussion of using them to aid the French at Diembienphu. In fact, Kimball notes later in the book that both Nixon and Kissinger were disappointed when the Soviet Union achieved nuclear parity with the United States, as it took the use of tactical nuclear weapons off the table as a strategy in Vietnam!

Commentary

Jim Daniels, fall 2005

This perhaps the most dense book I have ever read. It is extremely well written, but is so laden with facts that to summarize it here would be nearly impossible. And it was very difficult to keep up with the different actors as the chronology unfolded (though Kimball did provide a helpful list of abbrevations). However, the bulk of the book, is a chronology of Nixon's efforts to bring an end to the Vietnam war before he ended up like President Johnson. He goes through in impressive, and almost excruciating detail Nixon's actions as a part of this multipronged strategy. Essential to his potential success, Nixon believed, was the madman theory, the effort to convince his enemies that his opposition to communism was so strong that he was willing to engage in ...excessive force...that is, force that normal statesman would consider not only disproportionate to the issues in dispute but also senselessly dangerous..." (Kimball, 76) Accompanying this was the uncertainty principle, which was designed to confuse ones opponent by allowing multiple lines of thought regarding a single subject to become public, thus not allowing his opponent to be confident of any counterstrategy they may devise.

Kimball devotes many pages to each of the parts of Nixon's plan to end the war. Included are descriptions of the raids into Cambodia and Laos, his efforts at Vietnamization and troop withdrawl to quell opposition at home, his efforts to get North Vietnam to the negotiating table on terms favorable to the United States, his concurrent efforts to get the Soviets to aid at pressuring North Vietnam by linking success in other areas (nuclear talks, mideat etc), to the Vietnam question, and when this did not work, his initial efforts to play the China card by opening negotiations with them as a further way to pressure the Soviets, and finally, the realization by Nixon and Kissinger, that the best they could accomplish was to guarantee the Thieu government a "decent interval" (Kimball, 260) of security once the American's left Vietnam. Kimball recounts, in almost tedious detail the final negotiations that led to the peace agreement in 1973.

The only real problem I had with this book, other than its density (I'm going to have to read it again), is Kimballs liberal use of psychological analysis of Nixon and Kissinger. He uses it here to explain their attitudes towards power and how it evolved. He also uses it to explain the relationships Nixon and Kissinger had with others, and with each other. He posits that Nixon in particular may have had clinically diagnosable disorders which may go some way to explaining his behavior in certain situations. And although it does not ultimately detract from the usefullness of the book, I find it to be unconvincing, because it is not based on the type of evidence one needs to make these kinds of judgements, that is an examination of the people involved by qualified professionals. --kjdaniels 02:21, 8 Nov 2005 (EST)

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