December 2003 Newsletter

A Final Word on the “Decent Interval” Strategy
By Larry Berman

I want to thank Mitch Lerner for providing the opportunity to recapitulate what I learned from the "decent interval" exchange between Professor Jeffrey Kimball and myself. Mitch has offered me much more space than I need.

First, it is important to remind readers of this Newsletter that I was minding my own business when the September 2001 SHAFR Newsletter arrived with Jeff’s article on the Paris agreement and the end of the Vietnam War. In that article he made the case for a “decent interval” strategy with new documents purporting to constitute a “smoking gun.” Not content to build his case from a mountain of evidence, Jeff brought me into this (I would have preferred just to have read the essay) by characterizing my new book, No Peace No Honor, as a “recent philippic.” I took this as a compliment, but he added the far more serious charge that I had “misinterpreted” primary source evidence at my disposal.

That’s how all this started. Jeff and I then enjoyed an exchange in the Newsletter, and a SHAFR roundtable was organized so that we could present our cases and clarify our differences. Let me say right off that I’ve had fun and enjoyed all this and learned quite a bit. It was gratifying to see how many people attended the roundtable, and we fielded some great questions. I have benefited from the entire exchange, and I have only the highest respect, as I have previously acknowledged, for Jeff Kimball’s contributions to the field. I have learned so much from him and from his scholarship.

At the roundtable I learned that Jeff and I disagree on the most fundamental point—the very meaning of a decent interval. This is not insignificant. Jeff sees the decent interval as a strategy Nixon and Kissinger reached a decision about in 1970, when they concluded that American involvement in Vietnam should end through a plan that would leave the political evolution of Vietnam to the Vietnamese. Jeff brought along several interesting documents, which he described in the Newsletter as “incontrovertible” evidence of this strategy, that seem to support his conclusion that Nixon and Kissinger decided on a decent interval as early as 1970 and that this might or might not have resulted in the end of the country once referred to as South Vietnam.

I made the point at the roundtable that we really won’t know the answer to the decent interval question until all the documents are opened. Two decades hence I expect the younger generation, led by Mitch Lerner, to end this debate. Find me on the river after the trout stop biting to tell me who is correct. At the roundtable I argued that Nixon and Kissinger knew that leaving the political future of Vietnam to the Vietnamese, given the balance of forces in 1970, would result in a communist Vietnam. Kissinger may have wanted some cover for his future resume and for history, but Nixon had no intention of betraying Thieu. Moreover, in 1970 the North Vietnamese had no intention of agreeing to a political solution while American military forces were still in Vietnam. They could afford to wait until the balance of forces was in their favor. Le Duc Tho conceded that when that time arrived Thieu could remain in power. This was the North’s big concession, for which Kissinger has taken great credit. The concession was made, in my opinion, because the North believed they would win the political battle once the Americans were gone. I believe that Nixon shared this belief and therefore did not intend to have elections take place while NorthVietnamese forces remained in the South. The documents don’t tell us this yet, but let’s give the screeners twenty years.

Jeff maintains that Thieu was not betrayed, since he was aware of the concessions that had been made during the negotiations. I maintain that Thieu was merely informed of the concessions made by Kissinger in secret meetings with Le Duc Tho. Thieu was never part of the negotiations between North Vietnam and the United States. When he learned of the concessions, most especially the North Vietnamese army remaining in the South, he was told that if he did not go along, he would not get the B-52s back in April 1973. By that time the last American POW would have been released, and communist violations of the agreement were expected to begin.

The evidence I have seen shows that Kissinger and Nixon encouraged President Thieu not to hold elections until the northern troops went home and suggested that he use political prisoners as hostages for getting the northern troops out of the South. Thieu was told that the political apparatus designed to organize elections was a joke and that he, not the communists (who respected only bullets and hardware) would control the timing of any election. Although it sounded so noble, leaving the future of Vietnam to the Vietnamese meant nothing to Nixon or Kissinger if it might result in a communist government. No elections would occur until the northern armies left the South. I do not believe that I have misinterpreted the evidence, but we will know when all the evidence is opened for scholars.

I believe Nixon and Kissinger knew that the treaty was unenforceable, knew violations would occur, and expected to use air power again in the spring of 1973 to create a permanent stalemate that would keep Thieu in power through 1976. Only Watergate prevented this. I rejected the decent interval thesis because leaving the political future of Vietnam to the Vietnamese meant only one thing to Nixon and Kissinger—the betrayal of an ally. I just don’t believe Nixon could have ever accepted this. Kissinger is another story.

Now I would like to suggest that SHAFR schedule a panel in 2023 on the subject “Twenty Years Later: What Have We Learned About the ‘Decent Interval’ since Berman and Kimball?” Jeff and I will be discussants, and Mitch Lerner will be the chair. Jeff and I hope to see you all there!