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 You are in: Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs: Office of the Historian > Foreign Relations of the United States > Nixon-Ford Administrations > Volume VI
Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970
Released by the Office of the Historian

(This is not an official statement of policy by the Department of State, but is intended only as a guide to the contents of this volume.)


When President Richard Nixon and his foreign policy team assumed office on January 20, 1969, the war in Vietnam was their foremost concern.  The Presidential election of November 1968 had demonstrated how divisive Vietnam had become in American society and politics.  On the second day of the new administration, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger, initiated a full-scale policy review by directing 28 pointed questions—often with sub-queries—about the situation in Vietnam to the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the Director of Central Intelligence. (4) The second meeting of Nixon’s National Security Council (NSC) on January 25 was scheduled to concentrate on policy options in Vietnam, but even at the first NSC meeting on January 21, the Council discussed Vietnam.  The President made it clear that he wanted to “rethink our policy tracks” and that “he was very much aware of the domestic issues but he would rather take the heat now and achieve a sound settlement subsequently.” (5)  Prior to January 20, 1969, Kissinger presented the President-elect with essentially three options:  escalation (or the threat of escalation), current posture, or substantial reduction in U.S. presence with the South Vietnamese assuming increased responsibility for the fighting. (8)  At the January 25 NSC meeting these options were discussed.  While no clear consensus emerged, the President suggested that it would take six months of strong military action and about two years to bring the Vietnam conflict to an acceptable conclusion through private negotiations with Hanoi.  (10)

The documents reveal that there was no specific plan to end the war in the opening days of the Nixon presidency.  Rather, the administration searched for ways to demonstrate its resolve and to convince the leaders in Hanoi that that there was a new “firm hand at the helm” prepared to both talk and fight. What kinds of military action would send this message?  (12)  The Commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams proposed B-52 raids on the enemy headquarters in Cambodia.  (22, 23)  This idea ultimately metamorphosed into the so-called secret Menu bombings of Cambodia sanctuaries.  Another opportunity to show some military muscle took the form of a proposal for retaliatory bombing against North Vietnam’s 1969 Tet offensive.  The problem was that the 1969 offensive was low level and not convincingly aimed at South Vietnamese population centers.  Part of the deal that the previous administration had worked out with Hanoi on October 31, 1968 was that the U.S. bombing halt against North Vietnam would continue as long as South Vietnamese cities were not targeted.  Documents reveal concern that the level of North Vietnamese military activity did not provide convincing justification for renewed bombing of the North.  (26, 30)

On March 8, 1969, U.S. and North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris focused on private meetings rather than sterile public talks.  (31)  On March 8, Secretary of State William Rogers met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and suggested private U.S.-Soviet talks about Vietnam should resume and that private talks in Paris could include all four parties:  The United States, the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), and the National Liberation Front (NLF).  (32)  Kissinger and Nixon were aghast, believing that Rogers had given away an important negotiating point and feared such an offer might preclude their evolving plan secretly to bomb Cambodia.  As Kissinger told the President:  “If you hit Cambodia after the private talks start it can break them, and you will be accused of insincerity.”  Kissinger advised:  “Hit them hard and then ask for private talks.”  Nixon made it clear that “there is not going to be any de-escalation. State has nothing to do with that.  We are just going to keep giving Wheeler the word to knock the hell out of them.” (33, 35)

After enemy rockets attacked Saigon and Hue in mid-March 1969, President Nixon ordered secret bombing of Cambodia and maximum aerial reconnaissance of North Vietnam:  “everything that will fly is to get over North Vietnam.”  Rogers’ opposition to overt military action and his concern with domestic anti-war demonstrations convinced the President to limit military action to a one-shot secret “Breakfast” (first part of the so-called Menu) bombing of Cambodia on March 17.  Then Nixon initiated serious private talks with North Vietnam in Paris.  As Kissinger told Wheeler:  “if they [North Vietnam] retaliate without any diplomatic screaming, we are in the driver’s seat.”  (41)

The President also asked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to consider creating a covert paramilitary force to harass the North Vietnamese regulars in their Cambodian sanctuaries and to consider ways to eliminate or reduce—the President suggested bribery—the Cambodian arms traffic to the enemy in South Vietnam.  The CIA was unenthusiastic, citing the high cost and low expected returns.  As Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms told the President, the CIA did not have enough money to bribe the Cambodian generals who were making millions off the arms trade. The CIA preferred to concentrate its efforts against the Viet Cong infrastructure in South Vietnam. (42)  Nixon accepted Helm’s argument (47 fn. 2), but these objections did nothing to reverse his view that the Agency was dominated by Ivy Leaguers opposed to his policies.

In late March 1969, the bureaucracy provided strategic options in response to the Kissinger questions posed in January and the NSC met to consider the options at the end of the month. (44, 46) The conversation was long and involved—the President came to realize that NSC meetings were not the best forum to decide policy.  When the conversation shifted to the South Vietnamese taking over more of the fighting and Rogers’ suggested “we have to de-Americanize the war to safeside a failure in negotiations,” Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird responded, “I agree, but not with your term de-Americanizing. What we need is a term Vietnamizing to put the emphasis on the right issue.” (49)  In this way, Laird coined the term “Vietnamization,” which came to define the administration’s policy toward the war.  On April 1, the President issued National Security Decision Memorandum 9, his first official policy statement on Vietnam:  there would be no de-escalation or talk of de-escalation, the United States would withdraw its combat troops if the DRV withdrew its troops from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and if these withdrawals could be verified, supervised, and guaranteed. (51)

NSC discussions and planning were only the most overt element of Nixon and Kissinger’s strategy to end the war.  In an April 3 memorandum to the President, Kissinger suggested that the Paris talks offered the best prospect for ending the conflict, but “we must convince the American public that we are eager to settle the war, and Hanoi that we are not so anxious that it can afford to outwait us.”  Kissinger maintained that military pressure on Hanoi had to continue, the U.S. Government had to speak with one voice, and relations with South Vietnam must remain intimate so Hanoi did not believe they could use the negotiations to break the Government of the Republic of Vietnam.  If all these things happened, Kissinger stated, “the war might wind up by next spring.”  In virtually the same breath, however, Kissinger suggested that none of these requirements were likely to be met, so a bold, coordinated stroke was necessary.  Kissinger recommended involving the Soviet Union, offering a package deal to Hanoi at Paris, and presenting a credible threat of serious consequences if no settlement was reached.  (52)  Nixon approved the proposal, especially the approach to the Soviet Union since it was in keeping with his concept of linkage.  In a telephone conversation two days later, Kissinger told the President the “Soviet are getting edgy” and they might be willing to use some of their influence on Hanoi.  The two men agreed to “crack” North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia with more secret bombing and then talk to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin.  (55)

On April 14, Kissinger called Dobrynin to the White House for a private talk.  Kissinger theatrically showed the Ambassador talking points signed by the President:  Nixon was not going to be the first American President to lose a war; he would make one more effort to achieve a reasonable settlement, but if that failed “other measures would be invoked which could involve wider risk to U.S-Soviet relations.”  Those relations were at a crossroads, but they could not move forward without an acceptable Vietnam settlement.  Nixon was prepared to agree with Hanoi on a political-military settlement based on mutual withdrawal, a mutual ceasefire, freedom for the NLF to participate in South Vietnam’s political life—as long as they were willing to forego force and violence, and agreement that South Vietnam would remain independent and separate for at least five years.  The President would give North Vietnam six weeks to agree in principle to this settlement and then leave the details for the Paris negotiators. (60)

On May 8, the NLF released a 10-Point Peace Proposal, which the CIA suggested could be the basis for serious negotiations provided Hanoi was not presenting it on a take it or leave it basis.  (67)  On May 14, President Nixon made a television address in which he outlined a major proposal for mutual withdrawal in South Vietnam over a 12-month period.  As Kissinger explained to the members of the NSC and Cabinet the next day, it was “the most comprehensive statement made by an American President about Vietnam.”  There was a general round of self-congratulations and Nixon was later assured that the foreign press responded to his speech positively and the Soviet bloc response, while negative, was moderate and quite measured.  When Nixon read the U.S. newspapers on Sunday May 18 he found them to be negative or neutral. Nixon told Haldeman that if John F. Kennedy had made the speech, the press would have been ecstatic. (68)

Soon thereafter, negotiators in Paris reported that the May 22 public plenary session at Paris for the first time represented “a serious effort by the other side to engage in substantive discourse.”  (72)  Chief of the U.S. Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks, Henry Cabot Lodge, described the May 31 private meeting with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho as “the most significant meeting we have had with the DRV since my arrival here in January.” (75)  Other administration officials, however, viewed such optimism with skepticism.  Laird confidentially informed Kissinger that the Paris Peace negotiating team was in a shambles, dominated by “State Department people” working their own agenda.  Lodge was an “old man encapsulated by the bright State Department boys” and his deputy, Judge Walsh “seemed totally out of it.” (78)

As Nixon prepared to go to Midway in June 1969 for a meeting with South Vietnamese President Nuygen Van Thieu, he announced an initial U.S. unilateral troop withdrawal of 25,000 men, who would be replaced by South Vietnamese troops. (70,71)  After the meeting, the NSC planners presented the President with plans to “Vietnamize” the war and to bring about a mutual withdrawal of forces and an internal political settlement in South Vietnam. (87, 91, 96)  Planning continued into the autumn.  (114)  On the evening of July 9, the President and his foreign policy team discussed Vietnam aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia, specifically whether the recent lull in the fighting meant Hanoi was serious about negotiating and de-escalating or just temporally exhausted.  The consensus was that the United States should respond with a reciprocal slow down of the fighting.  Also decided was that the formal military strategy in Vietnam—MACV’s mission statement—should be changed from defeating the enemy to forcing his withdrawal, strengthening South Vietnam, pacification, and cutting off flow of enemy supplies.  This change in mission and the emphasis on Vietnamization meant that South Vietnam’s internal security capabilities would be key to success after the fighting “officially” stopped.  An interagency study of South Vietnam’s capabilities deemed them “far from satisfactory” and desperately in need improvement.  But the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued against Laird and the Department of Defense that any major reorganization would create “massive disarray” and outweigh any potential benefits, so the Nixon administration eventually sought some middle ground of modest and gradual improvements. (94, 96) 

After the Sequoia cruise, Kissinger told Laird “for his own use only” that he President had not excluded “an option to the right [a sharp military escalation] to end the war quickly.”  (93)  To make sure that this message was heard by Hanoi, Kissinger asked French contact Jean Sainteny to pass a letter to Ho Chi Minh assuring him that “a just peace is achievable” and adding—fully expecting Sainteny would pass it on to Hanoi—that the President wished to seek an honorable settlement, but he would not be pushed beyond a certain point.  Sainteny was unable to deliver the letter to Hanoi, but instead gave it to the North Vietnamese in Paris.  Ho Chi Minh sent a tough, unyielding reply.  (111)  At Nixon and Kissinger’s request, Sainteny arranged a private meeting between Kissinger and Xuan Thuy, the head of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s Delegation in Paris. (97, 106)

On August 4, Kissinger held the first secret discussions with officials of the DRV Delegation in Paris.  Most talks were held with Le Duc Tho, officially only an adviser to the DRV Delegation, but a powerful force in the Hanoi Politburo.  The first discussion with Xuan Thuy was of great interest to the President and a select few Americans who were aware of it, but it only defined the ground rules for future meetings.  (105, 106, 108, 109)  By early September, Kissinger became more seriously concerned about Vietnam.  Dissatisfied with intelligence analysis of the conflict, he suggested the creation of a Special Vietnam Study Group under his chairmanship to analyze Vietnam.  Nixon agreed.  (115)  On September 10 Kissinger sent the President a bleak assessment of the present course of action, including grave doubts about Vietnamization and concerns about U.S. domestic pressure to get out.  Suggesting that time favored the DRV and the war could not be “won” in two years, Kissinger argued the best military strategy would involve a sharp escalation designed to force an acceptable negotiated settlement.  Kissinger already had his NSC staff brainstorming about such possibilities under the code name Duck Hook.  (117, 119)  Kissinger worked up a plan for attacking 29 significant targets in North Vietnam by bombing and aerial mining of deep water ports for presentation to the President on October 2, but Nixon’s reading of it was delayed for the remainder of the year until Kissinger could assess infiltration statistics.  (129)  The President also had the Joint Chiefs of Staff  (JCS) prepare a plan for sharp, high intensity air and naval operations against the North to achieve maximum psychological and military impact—Operation Pruning Knife—but Kissinger and his staff considered the plan inadequate.  (134, 135, 136)  On October 24, Nixon requested that Laird prepare a contingency plan for a three-day retaliatory air and naval campaign against North Vietnam, but it was not implemented.  (140)

Nixon and Kissinger were keen to take some positive action to coincide with a major speech the President planned on Vietnam.  They also decided to do some hard talking with the Soviets.  In a September 1969 private meeting with Dobrynin, at Nixon’s instruction, Kissinger told the Soviet Ambassador that as far as Vietnam was concerned, “the train had left the station and was headed down the track.”  (125)  A month later, Nixon and Kissinger met with Dobrynin in the Oval Office and made it clear that progress in U.S.-Soviet relations was dependent on the Soviet Union pressuring North Vietnam; if not, Nixon was prepared to act unilaterally.  Nixon “wanted nothing so much as to have his Administration remembered as a watershed in U.S.-Soviet Relations, but we would not hold still for being ‘diddled” to death in Vietnam.”  (139)  On November 3, Nixon gave the so-called “silent majority speech” on Vietnam.  In recent historiography, there has been speculation that a nuclear alert was orchestrated to send the Soviets and the DRV a message.  There are hints of this in the record presented, but the Nixon administration’s plans for either military action or, in effect, a military bluff came to little. (144)  The United States remained without good options in Vietnam.

Vietnam was not the only area of conflict in Southeast Asia.  The United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had been fighting a secret war in Laos for over seven years in which North Vietnamese regulars and their Pathet Lao allies squared off against U.S. supported Royal Lao Government forces and CIA-directed and supported Hmong guerrillas.  Neither the Pathet Lao nor the Royal Lao Government had much stomach for combat, so the North Vietnamese and the Hmong did the bulk of the fighting.  The Nixon administration did not initially take much interest in Laos beyond bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail, but eventually Laos as a whole fell under its field of vision.  (56, 82, 86, 99, 102, 112)  By mid-September, the administration decided to implement an expanded program of military assistance to Laos and began to question the unofficial agreement based on the 1962 Accords whereby the fighting was limited.  The President became increasingly frustrated about the bureaucracy’s unwillingness to consider new ideas.  Nixon wanted to do more in Laos so as to send a signal to North Vietnam.  (121, 124, 127)  NSC staffer Winston Lord wrote a think-piece about Laos suggesting that the CIA rather than the President was controlling the policy there and recommending that the President and his NSC staff assume the reins of control.  (130)  This reexamination of Lao policy (131) coincided with a visit of Lao Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma to Washington in early October 1969.  (132, 133)  The Nixon administration began to gain control of military planning and strategy in Laos.  (146)

The investigation of the My Lai massacre, which occurred in March 1968, fell to the Nixon administration who treated the issue with extreme caution.  (113)  In December 1969, the administration decided on both political and judicial grounds against agreeing to Congressional calls for a presidential commission to investigate the incident.  In addition, White House Assistant Patrick Moynihan’s idea a panel of “wise men” to investigate was rejected.  Should additional atrocities come to light, the President was prepared to consider the commission idea.  For the time being, the military would investigate. (155)

As the 1969 drew to a close, the DRV hinted that it wanted additional secret negotiations in Paris, and Nixon and Kissinger expressed interest if Hanoi had something new to talk about.  (159, 162, 166, 169, 185)  In late February 1970, Kissinger met secretly in Paris with Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy.  The conversations are reproduced verbatim.  (189, 190)  Kissinger suggested to Nixon that the meeting was “significant” and Hanoi was apparently prepared to drop preconditions.  Kissinger also recommended that he use this private channel to explore the two basic issues:  mutual withdrawal from South Vietnam of non-South Vietnamese military forces and a political settlement.  Nixon wrote the following advice:  “Don’t haggle so much over ‘what did they mean by this or that’—they thrive on this kind of discussion.  Come directly to the hard decisions on the two main issues & say ‘we will leave the details to subordinates’—otherwise you will spend two days on details & make no progress on substance.  We need a breakthrough on principle—& substance—Tell them we want to go immediately to the core of the problem.”  (191-192)  Such advice was easier said than done as the next meetings with the North Vietnamese on March 16 and April 4 proved.  (201, 218, 222, 223)

Kissinger’s private talks with Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy did not take place in a vacuum, but were influenced by other events in Southeast Asia, especially U.S. decisions in Laos and Cambodia.  In Laos, the Nixon administration followed a two-track policy.  Under pressure from Congressional hearings, Nixon publicly acknowledged the secret war in Laos (194, 197), but at the same time the administration authorized secret dispatch of Thai artillery units to Laos and the clandestine dispatch of Thai troops to the Plain of Jars to support beleaguered Hmong guerrillas. (203, 204, 207, 209, 211-214)  While the escalation in Laos might have signaled resolve to Hanoi, it was Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia that increased pressure on the DRV.  

Nixon and Cambodia’s leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had a history going back to 1953.  Early in his term, Nixon suggested that he might use his personal relationship to improve United States-Cambodian relations, suspended since 1965. (17) Secretary of State William Rogers recommended that the United States issue a border declaration recognizing Cambodia’s territorial integrity as a first step to resumption of diplomatic negotiations.  The President agreed.  (18, 48)  Although Sihanouk initially was not impressed with the gesture, language was revised and relations were restored in June 1969.  (66)  In late August 1969, Senator Mike Mansfield traveled to Cambodia and met with Sihanouk who confided to the Majority Leader that the North Vietnamese were his main threat, that breaking diplomatic relations with the United States had been a mistake, and that bombing of North Vietnamese/Viet Cong (NVN/VC) troops in Cambodia would not result in protests from him so long as Cambodians were not hit. (110)  In February 1970, Rogers reported to the President that U.S.-Cambodian relations were off to a good start and the White House was considering resuming U.S. aid to Cambodia.  (179, 180)  In addition, in early March the White House sought to initiate a private channel to Sihanouk to help move diplomatic relations to “friendly relations.”  (196)

Within two weeks, on March 18, 1970, General Lon Nol and Sirik Matak overthrew Sihanouk while the Prince was in Paris.  It is sometimes assumed that the United States instigated this coup.  The evidence presented in this volume calls that assumption into question.  As the coup in Cambodia unfolded, the Nixon administration was much more concerned with the question of military options in Laos, especially using B-52 bombers to attack North Vietnamese troops and whether to send Thai troops into combat on the Plain of Jars.  (203, 204, 209, 211- 214)  It seems clear that the coup took the administration by surprise.  Once it occurred, however, Nixon moved quickly to take advantage of it and cement a close relationship with Cambodia’s new leaders.  Sometime after the coup began (March 17 Washington time/March 18 Cambodian time), the President read a summary from Kissinger of a military assessment of Cambodia prepared as of March 13, which recommended extending limited aid to Sihanouk.  (202)  Nixon suggested that the United States should aid the “new group.”  (202 fn. 3)  When Kissinger briefed the President on the coup on March 19 (205), Nixon ordered “Helms to develop & implement a plan for maximum assistance to pro US element in Cambodia—Don’t put this out to the 303 or the Bureaucracy.  Handle like air strikes [Menu bombing].  (205 fn. 1)  When Kissinger and Rogers discussed the coup on March 18, they agreed not to say more until they knew more about what was happening.  Rogers noted, “Mansfield said we are not involved in anyway.  That’s a good line to follow but I think it’s unwise to say whether or not we have agents there.”  (205 fn. 3)

Whether or not any U.S. officials had foreknowledge of the coup, the Nixon administration was quick to support the new regime.  On March 23, Helms proposed a plan to support the Lon Nol government by encouraging it to maintain a public stance of neutrality while the United States covertly supported its military effort against the NVN/VC in Cambodia and provided covert economic, financial, and political support. The CIA recommending dispatch of an “experienced Agency officer” to assess the situation and make contacts with agents, establish secure radio communications, and develop a clandestine worldwide propaganda effort to support the Lon Nol government.  Providing the Cambodia response was positive, Helms suggested using a clandestine airlift to provide the Cambodian army with weapons, and a clandestine combat control center to coordinate with U.S. and South Vietnamese military efforts.  (208)

The question of how the Nixon administration moved from looking for ways to shore up the Cambodian Government of Lon Nol to deciding that it was under such pressure from the North Vietnamese that a joint U.S.-GVN invasion of the Cambodian sanctuaries was required is the next great theme of the volume.  In the beginning of April 1970, the Nixon administration examined Hanoi’s next moves in Cambodia and began to think about contingency plans to attack the NVN/VC in their Cambodian sanctuaries.  The question was could this be done by South Vietnam alone or would U.S. troops be required.  Laird thought that South Vietnam could handle the job, Kissinger disagreed.  (216, 217)  On April 3, Laird sent the President a plan prepared by General Abrams, to attack two enemy bases in Cambodia.  One plan called for a joint U.S.-GVN force, another would employ GVN forces with U.S. riverine support.  Kissinger asked Laird to prepare options using only South Vietnamese forces.  (219)  On April 8, Ambassador to the GVN Ellsworth Bunker and Abrams sent their own backchannel message to Kissinger advising that any cross-border operations should be limited. (224)

While the contingency planning for a possible attack on the sanctuaries in Cambodia continued, the United States began secretly to funnel military (especially AK-47s and ammunition captured in South Vietnam or manufactured in Indonesia) and financial aid, and other covert support to Cambodia. (225, 229, 232)  Kissinger directed this operation through meetings of the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG).  (230, 233)  Increasingly President Nixon leaned towards an attack on the sanctuaries in Cambodia.  At mid-April 1970 meeting in Hawaii with Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, Admiral John McCain, Nixon discussed military options in Laos and Cambodia.  Nixon asked McCain to return to San Clemente to give Kissinger the same briefing. At this meeting at the Western White House, Nixon specifically asked McCain to comment on the mix of South Vietnamese and U.S forces in any potential cross border operations into Cambodia.  McCain reported that the theme of the meetings was the “need for speeding view of the ‘precarious situation’ in Cambodia.”  In a conversation with Kissinger after the meeting, the President made it clear that he had basically decided to order an incursion into Cambodia:  “Cambodia is important and we will have to do it fast.  I need to know how soon the VN can get going over there.”  Nixon told Kissinger he was not yet decided on whether to order U.S. troops into Cambodia, but he did not “want SVN to get in there and get the hell kicked out.” (239)

The decision to attack the Cambodia sanctuaries was made in principle by the third week in April.  Nixon and Kissinger then concentrated on bringing the rest of the U.S. Government along.  Reports from Cambodia were not good:  North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops were not only solidly in control of key strategic areas, “but are pushing more deeply inland” and “the Cambodian Army does not seem to do anything about it.”  (240)  On April 18, Kissinger met with a CIA officer sent to Phnom Penh to assess the situation.  When Kissinger asked if the Cambodia would collapse if the NVN/VC forces moved out of their sanctuaries, the officer replied they would.  The CIA’s Far East Chief of Operations, William Nelson (also at the meeting) suggested the Cambodians would fight.  (238)  Speaking to Kissinger on the telephone on April 21, Rogers worried that the President “is making decisions at the drop of a hat.” Kissinger asked Rogers:  “do you think there is a prayer for Vietnamization if Cambodia is taken over [by the North Vietnamese]?”  Rogers responded, “yes,” but admitted it would be a “psychological set back.”  Kissinger shot back: “you’re entitled to your opinion.”  The two men then disagreed on whether Cambodia was really in danger of falling and Rogers lamented that Nixon was not listening to his Cabinet-level advisers.  (241)

Evidence of Nixon’s concern over Cambodia took a curious form.  At the President’s instruction, the CIA passed the word to Hanoi that should its troops in Cambodia attack Phnom Penh, the United States would move on the sanctuaries.  (242)  On April 21, Kissinger was told that South Vietnam was prepared to go it alone into Cambodia, but they wanted to attack only shallow targets.  (243)  On the same day, Acting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General William Westmoreland sent Laird a pessimistic view of Cambodia’s ability to withstand what appeared to be an enemy plan to isolate of Phnom Penh.  Westmoreland suggested that South Vietnam should attack in division force, with U.S. artillery and logistical support and exploit North Vietnamese troops while they were vulnerable.  (244)  Kissinger called Westmoreland and cemented JCS support for an attack at the NSC meeting scheduled for the next day.  Kissinger explained that the President “can understand the political people thinking of reasons why we shouldn’t, but the military usually stands with the Commander-in-Chief and he wants to do something.”  Westmoreland told Kissinger he could count on him and Chairman of the JCS Admiral Moorer.  Kissinger ended the conversation with a quip by asking Westmoreland if they needed a political analyst in the army because “I’ll never be able to go back to Harvard.”  (footnote 2, 244)

On the day of the NSC meeting on Cambodia, Nixon was wide-awake at 5 a.m. firing off memoranda to Kissinger about Cambodia, none of which Kissinger acted upon.  (245, 246, 247).  In effect, this was the way that the President vented his frustrations and anxieties.  The President forbade notes to be taken at the April 22 NSC meeting so Kissinger’s recollections provide the only account. Three options were discusses:  current shallow operations (preferred by Laird and Rogers), attacking the sanctuaries with U.S. tactical and logistical support (Kissinger’s choice), and an all out U.S.-South Vietnamese attack on the sanctuaries (the choice of Bunker, Abrams and the JCS).  The President seemed to support the second option.  The Vice President Agnew asked why not go all the way and Kissinger believes this ultimately turned the tide in the President’s mind.  After the meeting, Kissinger and Rogers talked and the Secretary still pushed for limited action.  (248)  The President authorized a combination of options one and two:  South Vietnamese shallow cross-border operations against the sanctuaries in division size with U.S. artillery support, but tactical air support held in ready reserve.  (249)

The repercussions of this decision began to unfold.  Three of Kissinger’s NSC Staffers dissented from the decision, two resigned. (250)  Laird and Rogers fought a rearguard action against anything but a limited operation in Cambodia and got themselves excluded from a key meeting with the President and his military advisers and Helms on April 24.  The upshot of this meeting was that the President leaned towards a combined U.S.-GVN attack on the on the so-called Fishhook sanctuary and a GVN attack on the Parrot’s Beak.  Kissinger called Helms after the meeting and asked for his “private” advice.  Helms responded that if the President was prepared for the fall-out it was worth it, but Nixon had to give Laird and Rogers their say even if the decision was already made. (254)  On the morning of April 24, Kissinger told the WSAG, “If Cambodia becomes a Communist base, Vietnamization will be impossible.” (255)  On the afternoon of April 24, Kissinger and Nixon anticipated excitedly the operations and set up a conference call with Senator Stennis to win him over to the plan.  (256, 258)  On the morning of April 27, Laird and Rogers met with Nixon after the President had formally approved the two-pronged South Vietnamese and U.S.-SVN attacks on the two sanctuaries up to a 31 kilometer limit.  Rogers warned about causalities, complained he had not been consulted, and suggested the results would not merit the costs.  Laird fought the decision on turf ground. (261)  As a result, Nixon ordered a 24-hour suspension to allow Abrams to suggest an alternative the Fish Hook sanctuary attack where the enemy’s headquarters (COSVN) was located.  Abrams and Bunker responded that the attack on the Fishhook (Base areas 352/353) was the most important target, with Abrams adding that these attacks would advance Vietnamization.  (266)  These comments bolstered Nixon’s resolve to carry out the attacks.  On April 28, with Attorney General John Mitchell present, Nixon told Rogers and Laird that the two operations were going forward.  Nixon suggested that there would be “probable adverse reaction in some congressional circles and some segments of the public” and told Laird and Rogers he had dictated a tape which included their contrary recommendations (the tape has not been found).  (267)  When Kissinger suggested after the meeting, that they would “take heat” for the decision, Nixon responded, “you take heat if you don’t do anything.  You take it for the Parrot’s Peak, COSVN.  Rogers and Mansfield will attack us for COSVN.  If we lose the whole thing, what will they say?”  Kissinger responded, “Vietnamization is a failure.  Nixon replied: “We are not going to lose that way.”  (267 fn. 1)

Nevertheless, the Nixon administration was probably unprepared for the magnitude of the backlash provoked by the Cambodian incursion.  The anti-war movement exploded, mobilizing large numbers of students and other Americans in protest.  The story is familiar—massive anti-war demonstrations, teach-in, strikes, the Kent State University deaths.  The administration tried to defuse the controversy by meeting with representative groups of anti-war protesters, but there was little room for common ground.  (277)

Once the operation was underway, Nixon gave the military authority to attack additional Cambodian sanctuaries “in a bold and aggressive approach” that would “hit the enemy the hardest blow possible and to destroy as much of the enemy’s base area in Cambodia as feasibly possible.”  (273, 279)  Rogers and Laird both complained to Kissinger that the President had given the military too free a hand.  (283)  The President wanted results and there was a serious campaign to portray the accomplishments of the operations in the best possible light. (278, 284)  Kissinger and Nixon complained that the operation was not getting a fair press, citing the media references to the “elusive enemy.”  Nixon countered, “What are the men [enemy troops] going to do if we get all their guns?”  (287)  At this point, the U.S. and GVN forces had conducted 8 operations against 11 sanctuaries, and captured an immense amount of war materiel.  But the Fishook Operation failed to locate and destroy COSVN, the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong headquarters. (296)

U.S. forces were scheduled to leave Cambodia on June 30, but ARVN would continue to fight there.  There was much discussion of how the GVN should be supported and directed.  (301, 302, 312)  The fate of the Lon Nol government and the poor state of the Cambodian Army—notwithstanding clandestine efforts to shore it up—was still a crucial problem, as White House military adviser Alexander Haig reported from his mission to Phnom Penh.  Since the incursion into Cambodia had pushed the enemy toward Phnom Penh, it was touch and go whether the Lon Nol’s government would survive.  (306, 307)  On May 31, just a month before the United States was scheduled to end it operations in Cambodian, the President met with his advisers in San Clemente for a broad review of “where we are in Southeast Asia,” but the meeting produced few decisions.  (313)

The problem was to determine how effective the operation had been.  Kissinger summarized for the President an intelligence source “that rings true” who suggested the DRV had been surprised at U.S. “unpredictability” in Cambodia and had lost 30% of their Cambodian supplies.  Nonetheless, the source continued, the North Vietnamese would await the United State departure on June 30 and then try to gain a spectacular success against ARVN.  (316)  Within the White House itself there was debate over whether the Cambodian operation was necessary to save Lon Nol or whether it had made the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong more aggressive and ambitious in Cambodia, increasing the threat to Lon Nol.  (318)

Nixon was determined to assure that Cambodia survived.  He met with the WSAG and gave them pep talks on two occasions in mid-June.  (326, 331)  When the President believed the WSAG wasn’t doing its job, he telephoned Kissinger and told him to tell them to “get off their butts and get going.”  (327)  As part of his plan, Nixon sent a senior military man to Phnom Penh to organize allied military aid to Lon Nol.  (328)  Kissinger reported to the President “positive steps” to aid Cambodia.  (329)  After U.S. forces withdrew from Cambodia, Nixon received optimistic field reports.  (341, 342)  One of the consequences of the change of government in Cambodia from Sihanouk to Lon Nol and the incursion was the capture of enemy documents that indicated that the U.S. intelligence community had seriously underestimated the quantity of enemy supplies moving through the port of Sihanoukville to South Vietnam.  Nixon was not pleased with this intelligence failure.  (344)

The volume ends with an NSC meeting on July 21, 1970 in which the President and his advisers reviewed the negotiation situation in Paris and looked forward to four main issues:  should the United States propose a ceasefire, should it propose a broader conference on Indochina, what should the new Chief of the U.S. Delegation, Ambassaor David Bruce, bring to the negotiations, and how should the United States deal with the Russians.  (346-347)  The President and his advisers used this meeting for stock taking and reflection upon policy for the coming months.  The tone of the meeting is somber and the confident 1969 predictions that the war would be over within two years are absent.  (348)  Disappointed by Hanoi’s unwillingness to negotiate seriously and aware of its commitment to the long haul no matter the cost, the Nixon administration realized it faced a difficult challenge. The overthrow of Sihanouk and the U.S.-GVN incursions into Cambodia were viewed as a plus for Vietnamization, but they also created serious problems, not the least of which was adding Cambodia to the wider conflict in Southeast Asia.  In addition, the domestic ramifications of the Cambodia operations had jarred the Nixon administration to the realization that domestic support for the war was a factor that both it and the leaders in Hanoi would calculate carefully in their future strategies.

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