March 2002 Newsletter

Letters -- A Difference of Opinion

January 10, 2002
Dear Larry,

I regretted using the word "Philippic" soon after I mailed my historical note to Bill Brinker, the editor of the SHAFR Newsletter, in late August, just before the deadline for submissions. I regretted it, or at least had serious second thoughts about it, because of the potential the word held for misunderstanding. My intent was not to insult you but to use a one-word noun to characterize a book that I understood -- both from the publisher's advertising campaign and from the author's prose -- as a denunciation and condemnation of Nixon-Kissinger policy regarding the Vietnam War. Perhaps it was the wrong word, even though it is associated with great writers and orators such as Demosthenes and Cicero, both of whom vociferously criticized tyrants, as you seemed to do in your book about Nixon.

I have long argued orally and in print that historical debate too often consists in bitter or personal accusation, and if I have contributed to this unfortunate tradition, then I apologize. In any case, my use of the almost archaic word "Philippic" was not meant as a personal attack against a colleague for whom I have great respect. My main interest was in historiography; namely, in the question of the decent-interval, which is a central issue in the story of Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam policy. I disagreed with your interpretation.

My use of "political scientist" to describe you was descriptive, not condescending. My son is a political scientist -- as are some of my best friends -- and I admire political science. My use of the word "misinterpret" was also descriptive of what I thought about our differing interpretations of the evidence. My purpose in the note was not to attack you personally but to present new evidence. I suppose we should have talked about this when we had the chance at the Wilson Center in April 2000 when you were in the audience at a presentation I gave on the matter. Neither one of us took the opportunity. Of course, then, I didn't know who held the views you expressed in your book.

I would welcome your comments in the SHAFR Newsletter as a contribution toward a debate that we ought to have about such an important issue as the decent interval. We can all trot out our evidence and see where it leads and hope that the discussion furthers historical knowledge and our colleagues benefit from it. I hope that Bill Brinker is receptive to your request.

Regards, Jeff


On January 12, 2002, Larry Berman wrote:

Dear Professor Brinker,

I really don't need Jussi Hanhimaki to defend me with respect to Jeffrey Kimball's recent description of what he calls my "philippic."[I love those words] I am requesting the opportunity to respond in the next Newsletter. Professor Kimball accuses me of "misinterpreting" the documents in my possession -- an especially serious charge when made to a distinguished group of diplomatic historians. Kimball notes that I'm a political scientist (I did receive the Bernath Lecture Prize), so perhaps my cognitive and intellectual limitations can be explained by my disciplinary training. Nevertheless, it's obvious to those of us with limited skills as the result of forceps delivery that Professor Kimball has his own case to advance and what better way to do so than by tarnishing Berman without even the courtesy of a communication or query to the author. Curious stuff for such a highly regarded scholar as Kimball, especially given the strong reviews my book has received in recent months. Please let me know when I should submit my response to Professor Kimball characterization of my work.

Thank you, Larry

[Subsequent e-mail messages between the Newsletter editor and Professors Kimball and Berman resulted in their agreement to print the letters above and a response by Larry Berman, which follows]

February 17, 2002

In the September 2001 SHAFR NEWSLETTER, Professor Jeffrey Kimball ("The Case of the 'Decent Interval': Do We Now Have a Smoking Gun?") flatters me with use of "philippic" in describing my recent book, No Peace No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam. I am grateful for being placed in company with speeches of Cicero against Mark Anthony, Demosthenes against Phillip II of Macedon, and other discourses of bitter condemnation against tyrants. In Plutarch's words, Demosthenes possessed both "force and effectiveness" as well as "majesty of utterance."

Of course, Professor Kimball's did not come to praise my utterances. Kimball writes that I "misinterpreted" newly declassified evidence in developing the thesis that Nixon possessed a devious plan of permanent war at an acceptable political cost -- air war, not land war -- in order to prevent the collapse of South Vietnam. Nixon had no expectations that the Nobel Prize winning negotiations conducted between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho would bring an end to the conflict in Vietnam.

Kimball, on the other hand, believes that he has discovered "incontrovertible evidence" that both Nixon and Kissinger supported a decent interval as early as 1970. Since I rejected this historical explanation of a decent interval strategy, Kimball reasons that I must have misinterpreted the documentation. I have the utmost respect for Professor Kimball's scholarship and have benefitted greatly from his award-winning book, Nixon's Vietnam War. Nevertheless, I do not believe the available evidence supports Professor Kimball's claim for a "smoking-gun" as described in the recent NEWSLETTER. In Kimball's words, Nixon and Kissinger realized "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."

In 1970 the United States had yet to back away from a negotiating position of "mutual withdrawal" of troops as part of any settlement to the conflict in Vietnam. The United States would withdraw its troops from South Vietnam only if the North would do the same. Le Duc Tho, however, adamantly insisted that the only invading foreign army in South Vietnam was that of the United States. Kissinger capitulated (a small point missed by the Nobel Prize Committee). Once the U.S. agreed to unilateral withdrawal, the decent interval strategy became more or less obsolete because Nixon was allowing an invading army to remain "in-place." By 1972 the balance of forces in the South was decidedly in Hanoi's favor and the Politburo instructed Tho that he could concede on the point of President Thieu remaining in power. In his memoirs Kissinger describes this moment of concession as the one he had dreamed about for years -- Hanoi had separated military from political issues. As John Negroponte quipped, "we bombed them into accepting our concessions."

President Thieu remained in power, buttressed with private assurances from Nixon, Kissinger and Haig of massive, brutal retaliation for communist violations of the Accord - but only after the return of American POWs in the sixty days following the signing of the Accords in January 1973. By March or April 1973 it would be necessary to bomb again and the declassified record documents these recommendations. In private, Nixon promised Thieu that if he agreed to the Accords it would be possible to rally the Silent Majority --"people with character of steel" -- to support renewed bombing. Unity between allies was essential to the future conduct of the war, not the peace. Nixon expected communist violations, and did almost nothing to prevent South Vietnamese violations. Aside from the return of American POWs, little attention was given by Kissinger to any of the post-60 day responsibilities for effective implementation of a cease-fire -- status of opposing forces, territorial limits of control, policing and enforcing, and replacement of war materiel. When Major General Gilbert Woodward, the chief of the U.S. delegation to the Four Party Joint Military Commission requested guidance, Kissinger displayed almost total disinterest. He and Nixon had other expectations regarding treaty enforcement.

A decent interval solution supposes that Richard Nixon was willing to accept a military solution imposed by Hanoi. Nixon told Nguyen Phu Duc in the White House on November 29, 1972, "No one could be more strongly behind the survival of the Government of Vietnam2 Communists do not respect paper. They understand bombs, mines, and the U.S. resolve."

I have not seen a declassified document that even remotely suggests Nixon or Kissinger believed that with 150,000 Northern troops in the South, elections could be held -- one of those small details about the Vietnamese parties shaping the future of South Vietnam. It all sounded so noble. The declassified record provides many examples of encouragement to President Thieu: that he not hold elections until the northern troops went home and that he use political prisoners, whose release had been promised by Kissinger to Tho, as hostages for getting the northern troops out of the South. Thieu was being asked to accomplish something that Kissinger failed to achieve in three years of negotiations.

Then Vice President Richard Nixon learned from the 1954 Geneva Accords that any provisions pertaining to elections could be ignored if the balance of forces did not favor the desired outcome. Kissinger and Nixon repeatedly told their ally that there was no reason to risk a political solution until a North Vietnamese withdrawal from the South. The aged men in the Politburo had no intention of accommodating this daydream.

Professor Kimball makes much of two marginal notations made by Kissinger in a briefing book for Kissinger's 1971 trip to China. "We need a decent interval," is what Kissinger wrote in preparation for discussions with the Chinese. This notation is quite interesting and may or may not reflect Kissinger's thinking at the time. It is hardly a smoking gun and I am surprised that Kimball would leap from a Kissinger notation to a Nixon world view or exit strategy. The notion that one can deduce from what Kissinger said to anyone what he really believed is contrary to everything that we know about him.

Professor Kimball writes that President Thieu was not betrayed because he "was aware of the concessions made by the Nixon administration in the negotiations." The declassified record makes it "perfectly clear" that Thieu was informed and never consulted; he was kept in the dark by Kissinger who negotiated directly with Tho on the future of South Vietnam. "I wanted to punch Kissinger in the mouth," is what President Thieu told his assistant, Hoang Duc Nha, after learning the depth and consequences of Kissinger's concessions in October 1972.

The new documentation suggests a deceitful plan that I compare to Lyndon Johnson's manipulation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that was used to justify expanded military engagement. The Paris Accords were intended to justify American reengagement -- this was the case in 1964, the public and the Congress would not be told. Permanent war at acceptable political costs is the conclusion that I drew from the available documentation and that I presented in No Peace No Honor. Only Watergate derailed that plan.

In No Peace No Honor I interpreted the new documentation in a way that rejects the decent interval strategy. I am comfortable with the inference that Nixon planned for an indefinite stalemate by using U.S. airpower to prop up the government of South Vietnam through 1976 and the end of his second term. He was prepared to take on Congress by appealing directly for support from the Silent Majority. Nixon expected violations to occur, but he had an enforcing mechanism -- the return of the B-52s. The President would take whatever actions necessary to guarantee that when he turned the keys of the White House over to the next occupant in 1976, there would be a South Vietnam.

Professor Larry Berman
Director, University of California Washington Center
1608 Rhode Island Ave., N.W., 3rd Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036

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