Richard Nixon became a national figure during the 1968 presidential election, campaigning on a platform of criticism of the previous administration’s disastrous policies in Vietnam and the promise that he would ensure an honorable withdrawal from the war torn country. For Nixon this honorable peace could be achieved through establishing a “decent interval” in which American forces could be gradually withdrawn while combat responsibility was gradually and permanently ceded to the Saigon government, its army supported by US materiel and munitions. In this fashion Nixon hoped to avoid international humiliation and to “pass the buck” to the Vietnamese people, saving his administration’s reputation at the cost of an abandoned South Vietnam. Of this former matter Nixon was especially concerned, as international humiliation or perceived weakness might rouse the Communist bear to further expand, confidant that it would not be contested by a reluctant and impotent United States. It was of particular importance in response to these fears that Washington not appear weak or in frenzied retreat, tearing down infrastructure and fleeing hastily as the French had done in the early 1950s, but rather that the ARVN was necessarily responsible for the inevitable defeat, while peace of mind was assured in the American people at the price of Vietnamization.
With Vietnamization also came a new effort by Washington policy planners, especially Henry Kissinger, to establish a ceasefire and antebellum status quo, in order to mature the “decent interval” and ensure honorable withdrawal. Kissinger succeeded in this in 1973 by engineering the Paris Peace Accord, which signed by the three belligerents issued an immediate ceasefire and prisoner exchange pending additional negotiation. These two measures, enforcing the South Vietnamese army through Vietnamization (and returning US soldiers home) as well as establishing an air of political cooperation amongst enemies, greatly enhanced the public perception of the Nixon administration, and if not for the transgressions of Watergate, would have ensured a relatively harmonious second term. This latter point is perhaps the ulterior motive for Nixon’s emphasis on securing an honorable peace, as if he had not lived up to his campaign promises and assuaged the consternated and increasingly fragmented national spirit, he would have surely not been reelected. Â Having supposedly secured peace in Vietnam, Nixon fulfilled his political obligations, and thus ensured the continuation of his office.
In Nixon’s 1969 “Silent Majority” speech the president outlined his concerns for Vietnam: “A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends. Our defeat and humiliation in South Vietnam without question would promote recklessness in the councils of those great powers who have not yet abandoned their goals of world conquest.”[i] Herein Nixon outlines his paranoid worldview: that the USSR, a country bent on world domination, in the face of US retreat from the Indochina region, would be inspired to rise up and go on the offensive. Nixon might have also been alluding to Communist China, a country which had extensively supported the Communist insurgencies in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and thus brought the whole of South East Asia into its sphere of influence. Nixon’s hardline stance and assumptions of imperialism levied against Communism would eventually be tempered by time, as the president and his most influential advisor (Henry Kissinger), while early in the administration prone to a belligerent McCarthy-eske attitude toward Moscow, Hanoi and Beijing, would by the end of 1973 come to establish a more rational discourse, seeking long term stability and economic opportunities through temperate and unconditioned diplomatic council.
This shift in policy is best illustrated in Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, in which the president was pictured shaking hands with Chairman Mao himself, offered political recognition and vowed to establish trade relations with the country if it restrained in supporting Hanoi’s aggression against South Vietnam. This effort was yet another action geared toward strengthening the “decent interval,” establishing a situation in which South Vietnam would be judged equal against Hanoi, capable of victory or defeat on its own merits, without judgment levied toward the US from the international community, and especially by the USSR, as an act of betrayal or weakness.
Nixon’s assumptions about the USSR’s designs for world conquest may not have been as unfounded as apparently is the case. Nixon’s fears, while seeded in McCarthy “Red Scare” era propaganda and fundamentally ignorant of the historical record, may have been at least superficially confirmed by events contemporaneous to the 1950s. The 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia for instance was a clear statement to the western democracies that the USSR was still able and willing to use military force to expand and maintain Communist governments, even if they had evolved to capitalistic tendencies through peaceful political process. The Brezhnev Doctrine was born and with it the fear of further aggression into Europe. The 1969 Sino-Soviet Conflict, in which Russian forces massed for an offensive against China’s northern border, sparking a short but furious combat, led further credence to the notion that the USSR was once again stirring for war. Â In this fashion while Nixon and many of his advisors interpreted the conflicts in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as Communist aggression, false judgments arising out of an ignorance or willful misrepresentation of the historical record, as the hostilities originate in colonial and national liberation struggles rather than in ideological Communist expansion, there was in fact a real possible threat in the USSR’s movements of the late 1960s.Â In any case, Nixon used this concern as a rationale to establish an “honorable peace” (i.e. a gradual withdrawal and Vietnamization) rather than a hasty retreat, as the latter was deemed by the president to represent an opportunity for Communist aggression.
[i] As Quoted In: Marvin E. Gettleman, Vietnam and America. New York: Grove Press, 1995. p. 438