September 2001 Newsletter

The Case of the "Decent Interval":
Do We Now Have a Smoking Gun?

by
Jeffrey Kimball
Miami University

Did President Richard Nixon, with the help or at the instigation of his assistant for national security affairs, Henry Kissinger, seek a "decent-interval" solution for ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War as critics have charged? Conjuring suspicions of deceit and betrayal, the decent-interval question continues to influence Americans' memories of the Vietnam tragedy. This exit strategy was one of several alternatives U.S. planners developed during the war and at least as early as 1968.(66) Its purpose was to preserve American "honor" in spite of withdrawing U.S. armed forces from South Vietnam and even while Communist forces remained undefeated. Honor would be salvaged by weakening the enemy and strengthening Nguyen Van Thieu's non-Communist government in Saigon during the period of withdrawal in order that South Vietnam's collapse might be avoided or at least postponed for a sufficiently lengthy period of time to make it appear as though defeat had not been the fault of U.S. policymakers. Implicit in this approach was the acceptance of the possibility that, while Thieu's regime might survive, it might also lose.

On numerous occasions and in many venues during and after the war, Nixon and Kissinger directly and indirectly denied they had followed this path for exiting Vietnam. They claimed instead that defeat in South Vietnam was not the result of their policies but of the enemy's perfidy in violating the 1973 Paris Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Vietnam, Saigon's incompetence in dealing with the enemy, and Congress's failure to support Thieu's government adequately.

Frank Snepp, a senior intelligence analyst in the CIA's Vietnam station from 1973 through the final fiasco in 1975, agreed that Nixon and Kissinger had not deliberately chosen the decent-interval option. In his bitter memoir, Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End (1977), which introduced the term to Vietnam-watchers outside the corridors of government, Snepp argued, however, that a decent interval had nonetheless come to pass, even if unintentionally. The two-year interlude between the flawed Paris Agreement of January 27, 1973, which formally completed the American withdrawal, and the final battles between Vietnamese adversaries, which led to the defeat of Saigon's forces at the end of April 1975, obscured the true causes of South Vietnam's collapse and made it possible for Nixon and Kissinger cover up their own errors.

The debate continues. In one recent philippic, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (2001), political scientist Larry Berman, offered a twist on Snepp's thesis. Like Snepp, Berman denied that Nixon and Kissinger deliberately pursued a decent-interval solution, even though a decent interval in effect came about. He, like Snepp, proposed that they had intended instead to bring about an equilibrium or stalemate between South Vietnamese and Communist forces following the American withdrawal. And like Snepp, he blamed Kissinger more than Nixon for the deceptions of the U.S. government. The twist Berman offered was that the stalemate was to be achieved, not by great power diplomacy between the U.S., the USSR, and China, but by continued fighting between the Vietnamese parties and heavy bombing by American B-52 airmen.

Nixon and Kissinger, the makers of policy, knew what the truth was but, having their interests to protect, concealed and distorted it. Snepp, a CIA agent on station, possessed intelligence information about people and events in Vietnam but lacked knowledge of White House intent. Berman, a scholar who had access to recently declassified White House files, misinterpreted, I believe, the evidence he examined. The cumulative weight of this evidence, which consists primarily of National Security Council documents of the Nixon White House and transcripts of U.S.-North Vietnamese negotiations, has persuaded me that Nixon purposefully selected the decent-interval option at least as early as the fall of 1970 - after his initial victory plan of 1969 had failed. This was Nixon's strategy. Kissinger was its implementer, not its creator, though he, in his frequent conversations with Nixon and in his staff's preparation of studies and plans, contributed to its formulation. I developed this argument at length in Nixon's Vietnam War, which was published in November 1998, and which drew upon a significant portion of currently available declassified documents, including the first installment of NSC documents.

Since 1998, audio tapes of Oval Office conversations for the year 1971 have been released, additional NSC documents have been declassified, and virtually the full record of negotiations has been made available. This new material only adds more support to the thesis that Nixon and Kissinger adopted a decent-interval solution to their Vietnam problem in the fall of 1970.

One document in particular would seem to provide incontrovertible incriminating evidence of their support for a decent interval. This smoking gun, so to speak, consists of two notations Kissinger wrote in the "Indochina" section of the briefing book for his July 1971 trip to China to talk with high-level Chinese leaders in preparation for Nixon's 1972 visit. The briefing book was prepared by Kissinger's staff and reviewed by Nixon shortly before Kissinger departed for China. Kissinger probably scribbled these marginalia while re-reading the latest revision of the briefing book on his flight to Beijing.(67)

On page five of the "Indochina" section, the first paragraph reads: "On behalf of President Nixon I want to assure the Prime Minister solemnly that the United States is prepared to make a settlement that will truly leave the political evolution of Vietnam to the Vietnamese alone. We are ready to withdraw all of our forces by a fixed date and let objective realities shape the political future." The adjective "objective" before "realities" was most probably a reference to the military developments that would influence the political balance of power after American troop withdrawals. Kissinger edited in "South" before "Vietnam" in the phrase "evolution of Vietnam," and in the margin of the paragraph, he wrote: "We need a decent interval. You have our assurance." In brief, what I think is significant about this scribbling is that (1) Kissinger actually used the phrase "decent interval"; (2) it serves as a direct summation of the mountain of additional evidence to be found in other places, such as White House tapes;(68) (3) he wanted to assure the Chinese, with whom Nixon and Kissinger very much desired rapprochement and whom they wanted to assist them in persuading Hanoi to sign a cease-fire agreement.

Moreover, on the cover of the "Indochina" section, he jotted this instruction for his staff: "Get Mao quote on betraying allies." I cannot be certain about the precise quote to which Kissinger was referring, but in a 1937 exhortation Mao wrote: "To let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong, and refrain from principled argument because he is an old acquaintance, a fellow townsman, a schoolmate, a close friend, a loved one, an old colleague or old subordinate, or to touch on the matter lightly instead of going into it thoroughly, so as to keep on good terms, the result is that both the organization and the individual are harmed." In Nixon's conversation with Zhou Enlai in February 1972, in which the President made an obligatory declaration in support of America's obligation to stand by its friends, Zhou said in response: "That is still your old saying - you don't want to cast aside old friends [referring to Thieu]. But you have already cast aside many old friends. Of these, some might be good friends and some might be bad friends, but you should choose your friends carefully...." Clearly, Kissinger's marginal notation, asking his staff to look up Mao's saying, was an attempt to come up with an anecdote that was compatible with realist Chinese thinking about the vagaries of friendship, in order that in his talks with Chinese leaders he, with Nixon's concurrence, might justify how the U.S. could "betray" an ally but at the same time maintain its great-power credibility with the Chinese.

I do not believe that Nixon and Kissinger actually betrayed President Thieu of South Vietnam, for, after all, before the Paris Agreement was signed, Thieu was aware of the concessions made by the Nixon administration in the negotiations. I do believe, however, based on the evidence I have seen and heard, that Nixon and Kissinger failed to win the war, which is what they hoped to do when they came to power in 1969. Realizing in late 1970 that they could not win the war, but knowing that "objective" political and military realities compelled them to end American involvement, they settled on the decent-interval solution.

     66See. e.g., Vietnam Policy Alternatives [1968], folder: Vietnam - RAND, box 3, National Security Council Files: Henry A. Kissinger Office Files, HAK Administration and Staff Files, Nixon Presidential Materials.
     67Briefing book for HAK's Oct. 1971 trip POLO II [Part I], box 850, NSC. For the President's Files (Winston Lord) - China Trip/Vietnam, NPM.
     68I will cite this material in a forthcoming book about crucial documents and tapes regarding Nixon-Kissinger-Ford policy on linkage diplomacy and the Vietnam War. I referred to the pre-October 1998 sources in Nixon's Vietnam War (1998).

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