December 2003 Newsletter
Decent Interval or Not?
The Paris Agreement and the End of the Vietnam War*
By Jeffrey Kimball
In previous SHAFR Newsletter exchanges Larry Berman and I debated the
question of whether the decent interval solution was part of the Richard
Nixon-Henry Kissinger strategy for exiting Vietnam. My hope is that Larry and I
will be able to resolve our differences about this issue. If not, I hope at
least that we can clarify what it is we disagree about—that we can, so to speak,
clear the air and thereby advance scholarship on a complex topic with broad
The exchanges began after my brief article "The Case of the 'Decent Interval': Do We Now Have a Smoking Gun?” appeared in the September 2001 issue of the SHAFR Newsletter. The smoking-gun document I had cited in this article is one I had recently uncovered in the Nixon papers: a briefing book that Kissinger’s staff had drafted in preparation for his first meeting with Zhou Enlai in Beijing in early July 1971. Relevant information about the decent interval appears in the first paragraph on page five of the "Indochina" section: 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."1
In deploying the Leninist-sounding expression "objective realities," Kissinger intended to assure Zhou that, once having withdrawn its armed forces from South Vietnam, the United States would not re-intervene in order to influence the continuing military and political struggle between Vietnamese adversaries. But the most pertinent evidentiary item was what Kissinger had written in the left margin of page five:
"We want a decent interval. You have our assurance." 2
I believed in August 2001, when I wrote the article, that these sentences provided convincing evidence, especially when combined with corroborating documents, that at least by 1971 Nixon and Kissinger were pursuing a decent interval strategy.3 In other words, I was not and am not now just blowing smoke.
In the course of reviewing the historiography of the issue in my historical note, I briefly discussed Frank Snepp's 1977 book, Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End, and Larry Berman's 2001 book, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam. Based on what I thought I understood about Larry’s position, this is the core of what I wrote about the thesis he had put forward:
"[Larry Berman] offered a twist on Frank Snepp’s thesis. Like Snepp, Berman denied that Nixon and Kissinger had 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 [as Snepp had argued], but by continued [and "permanent"] fighting between the Vietnamese parties and heavy bombing by American B-52 airmen."4
The main difference between Larry and me about the decent interval, as I understood it then and understand it now, is that I maintain that sometime between 1970 and 1971 Nixon and Kissinger, out of necessity, had deliberately chosen to pursue a decent interval solution. Their choice of this strategic option was, in other words, a matter of policy. Moreover, the two Vietnamese parties, as well as the Soviets and Chinese, knew this to be the case. The decent interval was a central feature of Nixon and Kissinger's evolving strategy in Vietnam, and their denials about having pursued this approach help to sustain the historical myth they fabricated about how the war ended and the Republic of Vietnam fell.
I had discussed these issues in my 1998 book, Nixon’s Vietnam War, which had been based on substantial documentation from the United States and elsewhere, and I had followed up in subsequent years with several articles and papers on U.S., Soviet, Chinese, and Vietnamese policy and strategy. Since 1998, considerably more documentation about Nixinger strategy and the decent interval solution has become available to researchers, much of which, including transcripts of White House tapes, is excerpted in my forthcoming book, entitled The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (to be published in November of this year), a book that reflects my better understanding of the decent interval and other issues.
My argument is that in November and December of 1969—that is, after the failure of their initial, "tough" strategy—Nixon and Kissinger turned to what they called the "long-route" strategy: that is, unilateral, paced U.S. troop withdrawals coupled with Vietnamization, continuing military operations, the stratagem of détente, and the madman theory. Probably by the fall of 1970, and certainly by the spring of 1971, they turned to a longtime option that had circulated within the American national security bureaucracy: the decent interval solution. It was now their strategy, or, as they sometimes referred to it, their "game plan." According to this plan, they timed the negotiations so that a settlement would be reached (assuming one could be reached) just before or just after the American presidential election of 1972.
Kissinger used the terms "decent interval," "healthy interval," "sufficient interval," and "reasonable interval" in referring to a scenario in which the period of time between America’s withdrawal from Indochina and the possible defeat of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s government in Saigon would be long enough that when the defeat took place—assuming it would take place—his and Nixon's policies would not appear to have been responsible. To put it another way, the interval of time between an armistice agreement and the fall of Saigon would have been sufficiently long that it would lend credence to Nixon’s and Kissinger’s claim that they had negotiated an honorable settlement on ending the war, thereby preserving U.S. credibility as a counterinsurgency guarantor and Nixon’s reputation as a skillful and trustworthy foreign policy leader. Neither the American public nor America's allies or adversaries would therefore perceive Saigon’s fall as a humiliating U.S. defeat.
Despite the continuing presence of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong (or National Liberation Front) forces in South Vietnam, the decent interval option did not guarantee Thieu’s defeat. Nixon and Kissinger could hope that Thieu's government might possibly be sustained by means of several measures: continued U.S. economic and military assistance; reforms in the Saigon government and army; successful "pacification" programs; the massive bombing of North Vietnam (or the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [DRV]) as American forces were leaving Vietnam; the collaboration of the USSR and the People's Republic of China (PRC) in restraining the DRV; and the re-introduction of U.S. air power in the event of renewed fighting after an American pullout. However, Nixon, Kissinger, and their inner circle knew that the success of these stopgap measures was problematic, because not one of them was sustainable in the long term, considering the erosion of support for such efforts across the entire political spectrum in the United States, the economic and budgetary crises afflicting America and the rest of the capitalist world during the 1970s, and the intrinsic weaknesses of the Saigon government and its military forces. Acknowledging these realities, Nixon told Kissinger in March 1971, "I'm not going to allow their [i.e., the South Vietnamese's] weakness and their fear of the North Vietnamese to . . . delay us [from withdrawing]."5
If the administration's stopgap measures could not sustain Saigon’s government and army following the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces, Nixon and Kissinger believed that South Vietnam’s defeat could then be blamed on Saigon’s incompetence, Congress’s obstructionism, the American public’s irresolution, and historical "fate." Having said this, the point to be made is that Nixon and Kissinger did not want Thieu to fall from power, even if they did not want to fight a permanent war to keep him in power. They were therefore prepared to sign a cease-fire agreement in late 1972 or early 1973 that included the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces—on condition that it provided for the release of American POWs, allowed the United States to continue providing aid to Thieu, and did not require the removal of Thieu from power by the United States.
When they arrived at their decent interval solution sometime between late 1970 and early 1971, neither Nixon nor Kissinger had given up hope of achieving their goal of strengthening Thieu’s government through Vietnamization while weakening Hanoi and the Viet Cong through diplomatic and military measures. In 1972, for example, they tried to revive the mutual withdrawal formula in the Paris negotiations and launched two “Linebacker” bombing campaigns to bolster Saigon's morale and damage Hanoi's military capabilities. Nonetheless, by early 1971 they had come to realize that they could and might fail in their effort to shore up Thieu’s regime permanently, since his chances for survival after an American pullout were at best, they believed, "fifty-fifty."7
The issue of whether or not Nixon and Kissinger followed a decent interval strategy can be resolved, as I have tried to demonstrate, by means of empiricism, or evidence-based observation, logic, and interpretation. But there is another issue Larry has raised: namely, that of whether Nixon and Kissinger betrayed Thieu. This, I think, is mainly a normative issue, only partially resolvable through empirical methodology: that is, it is a judgment call, which is dependent not only on the facts of the case but on differing standards or understandings of ethics and diplomatic behavior.
For now, I will concede that Nixon and Kissinger were often disingenuous with Thieu, but I want to observe, on the other hand, that Thieu essentially knew what Nixon and Kissinger were offering to Hanoi in the Paris negotiations. He had known for almost two years before the Paris Agreement, for example, about Nixon’s abandonment of the mutual withdrawal formula, which was Nixon's key concession, and he knew that even without this formal diplomatic accommodation, American combat troops would in fact be completely out of Vietnam by late 1972. The fact is that Thieu could not accept these realities and did not appreciate the dilemmas American policymakers faced (that they had brought these upon themselves is irrelevant). Thieu had not wanted to leave office but had wanted American forces to fight for him permanently. As it happened, Nixon and Kissinger had pursued a game plan that had kept American armed forces in South Vietnam long enough to protect and strengthen Thieu and safeguard Nixon's reelection. For critics of the war, and for many combat soldiers and airmen and their families, this was far too long a period. Having stayed in Vietnam through January 1973, Nixon and Kissinger had prolonged the war and postponed the inevitable, causing, in the process, more American and Indochinese casualties, as well as more bitterness. But whether or not Thieu was in fact betrayed, the accusation of betrayal assumes that the war could somehow have been won after 1972. Another perspective—and the one I think is correct—is that Thieu was a failed leader and that South Vietnam was a failed nation. Neither Thieu nor South Vietnam could have been "saved." Indeed, the fall of Saigon had much to do with intrinsic weaknesses in South Vietnamese leadership and the ersatz nature of the South Vietnamese state.
In defeat, betrayal is a rampant theme. Nixon and Kissinger accused the antiwar movement, the press, liberals, and Congress of betraying the cause of victory; Thieu had accused American policymakers of betrayal. How ironic it is that some Americans should now accuse Nixon and Kissinger of having betrayed the goal of victory.
Selected Document Excerpts Relevant to the Decent Interval Question
[From Jeffrey Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).]
Oval Office Conversation no. 466-12, Nixon and Kissinger, after 4:00 P.M.,
March 11, 1971, WHT, NPMP (transcribed by J. Kimball).
Nixon: And because, uh, it's quite clear that, uh, [unclear] how strong they are. I'm not going to allow their weakness and their fear of the North Vietnamese to, to, to delay us. On the other hand, let me say, though, you see, we've been thinking all along [unclear]. Now we, we've tried everything; we've done everything the military wants. We have, we have, we've done everything to our own satisfaction in order to bring the war to a successful conclusion. I think, I think it's going to work. I think it will, I think, I agree with you that there's a 40 to 50 percent chance, maybe 55, that it will work, that we might even get an agreement. But what of an agreement? I think, I think, in other words, I guess, in other words, of course there will still be war out there, back and forth, but the South Vietnamese are not going to be knocked over by the North Vietnamese—not easily, not easily—
Kissinger: —Not easily, and this we could bring about—[both talking]
Nixon: —That's all we can do.
Oval Office Conversation no. 471-2, Nixon and Kissinger, 7:03-7:27 P.M.,
March 19, 1971, WHT, NPMP (transcribed by J. Kimball).
Kissinger: . . .I think that there's a chance of a negotiation [unclear]. Again, it's less than even, but it's still—
Nixon: It might be. [Unclear] boy, [unclear] negotiation, but I think we've played the game down to the nut-cutting. It's very much to their advantage to have a negotiation to have us get us the hell out of there and give us those prisoners.
Kissinger: That's right. That's why—
Nixon: And we've got to do it, and, uh, we know that if they are willing to make that kind of a deal, we will make it better[?]—anytime they're ready.
Kissinger: Well, we've got to get enough time to get out; it's got to be because—
Nixon: Well, I understand—
Kissinger: —because we have to make sure that they don't knock the whole place over—
Nixon: —I don't mean [unclear; both talking]. But—
Kissinger: —Our problem is that if we get out, after all the suffering we've gone through—
Nixon: We can't have them knocked over brutally.
Kissinger: —we can't have them knocked over brutally, to put it brutally, before the election.
Nixon: That's right.
Kissinger: And, uh—
Nixon: So that's why, that's why this strategy works pretty well, doesn't it?. . . .
Oval Office Conversation no. 474-8, Nixon, Nixon, Laird, Connally, Packard,
Moorer, Kissinger, Haig, after 4:25 P.M., March 26, 1971, WHT, NPMP (transcribed
by Ken Hughes).
Nixon: I said [to Democratic congressmen], "Now, on this withdrawal, let's just understand one thing." I said, "I have a plan. I know the date that we're going to be out of there. It's a reasonable date. It's one that I am convinced is the earliest possible date we can get out without risking a South Vietnamese debacle. And also, it's the one that I think is essential for us to have in terms of our—any possible bargaining position with regard to prisoners and the rest. . . . If you on the other hand, decide that you're going to take over and set arbitrary dates. . . then you will have to take the responsibility for an American defeat in Vietnam after all these deaths [and] for the communization of South Vietnam." I said, "This is what is on the line here. . . . You can play it one way or another". . . I said, "It's a hell of a risk." I said, "It's a chancy thing to know whether South Vietnam can survive. Who knows? . . .
Oval Office Conversation no. 527-16, Nixon, Haldeman, Kissinger, and
Ehrlichman, 9:14 A.M.-10:12 A.M., June 23, 1971, WHT, NPMP (transcribed by J.
Nixon: —because, because, you've gotta remember that everything is domestic politics from now on. And, uh, [unclear]. Everything's domestic politics. Maybe, maybe, maybe, Henry, we have got an excuse, I mean, they have to do it. To hell with the whole thing. You know what I mean? Even if we thought we didn't have that after, we wouldn't have it after November, uh, November '69, I said, all right, we gotta decide now, either, either stand up or flush it. We stood up, and we stood up again in April the next year. We didn't, we never had this opportunity again. Maybe. We've got to remember this one solid thing: LBJ couldn't be more right—talking about staying in until December of next year, August of next year, and so forth. This is frankly now moot. It is moot. Oh, I don't mean to tell, tell Thieu we're getting out in the fall. But it's moot, because we are without question gonna get out—cut off this [unclear: "fucker"?]. . . .
Nixon: . . .and as far as the date, we can do it. It's the one thing we can do.
Kissinger: Mr. President, the date, that's not the issue. The date was always gonna be around nine months, because we've offered them twelve previously, and they have offered six, and it's got to be nine. So, you know, so that's no—
Nixon: [Unclear], yeah.
Kissinger: It's not gonna break down on three months. There's only one issue, and one only: must we impose a Communist government in Saigon?
Nixon: That's right.
Kissinger: If they settle that one, everything else will be settled in, in a month. If they're willing to leave Thieu in place while we get out and then let them, let them go at each other afterwards, uh—
Nixon: Yeah, [unclear].
Kissinger: —let us continue giving military aid or let both sides cut off military aid. . . .
Memcon, Kissinger and Zhou, July 9, 1971, folder: China—HAK Memcons July
1971, box 1033, For the President's Files—China/Vietnam Negotiations, NSCF,
Kissinger: I would like to tell the prime minister, on behalf of President Nixon, as solemnly as I can, that first of all, we are prepared to withdraw completely from Indochina and to give a fixed date, if there is a cease-fire and release of our prisoners. Secondly, we will permit the political solution of South Vietnam to evolve and to leave it to the Vietnamese alone.
We recognize that a solution must reflect the will of the South Vietnamese people and allow them to determine their future without interference. We will not re-enter Vietnam and will abide by the political process. . . .
Memcon, Kissinger and Zhou, July 10, 1971, folder: China—HAK Memcons July
1971, box 1033, For the President's Files—China/Vietnam Negotiations, NSCF,
Kissinger: What we require is a transition period between the military withdrawal and the political evolution. Not so that we can re-enter, but so that we can let the people of Vietnam and other parts of Indochina determine their own fate.
Even in that interim period, we are prepared to accept restrictions on the types of assistance that can be given to the countries of Indochina. And if no country of Indochina is prepared to accept outside military aid, then we are even prepared to consider eliminating all military aid.
I have told the prime minister yesterday, and I am willing to repeat this, that if after complete American withdrawal, the Indochinese people change their governments, the U.S. will not interfere. . . .
Memo, Kissinger to Nixon, September 18, 1971, folder: Vietnam Elections, box
872, For the President's Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, NSCF,
We recognized from the beginning the uncertainty that the South Vietnamese could be sufficiently strengthened to stand on their own within the time span that domestic opposition to American involvement would allow. It has always been recognized that a delicate point would be reached where our withdrawals would coincide with maximum domestic uncertainty to jeopardize the whole structure at the final hour.
Therefore a negotiated settlement had always been far preferable. Rather than run the risk of South Vietnam crumbing around our remaining forces, a peace settlement would end the war with an act of policy and leave the future of South Vietnam to the historical process. There would be a clear terminal date rather than a gradual winding down. We could heal the wounds in this country as our men left peace behind on the battlefield and a healthy interval for South Vietnam's fate to unfold. In short, Vietnamization may be our ultimate recourse; it cannot be our preferred choice. . . .
Memcon, Kissinger and Andrei Gromyko, May 27, 1972, folder: Mr. Kissinger's
Conversations in Moscow, May 1972, box 73, Country Files—Europe—USSR, HAKOF,
Kissinger: The North Vietnamese are heroic people and personally very attractive people. On the other hand they will not rely at all on the historical process. They want everything written down and today. . . . I think the evolution is even more important than the agreements. If North Vietnam were wise–I'm being candid–it would make an agreement with us now and not haggle about every detail, because one year after the agreement there would be a new condition, a new reality. . . .
If they don't want a . . . comprehensive settlement, then let us agree on a cease-fire, let us agree to exchange prisoners of war, and we would withdraw all our forces, and let them work out a political solution with the South Vietnamese. We would then guarantee, except for economic and military aid, to keep our hands out of it; we would be neutral in the political process. . . .
Gromyko: My impression sometimes from the president and Dr. Kissinger [about the] the official position of the United States is that it is impossible to leave Vietnam to some kind of Communist or Socialist government. This by itself throws a shadow on statements. Is your main preoccupation the character of the government?
Kissinger: That is a good question when it is posed by reasonable people. What we mean is that we will not leave in such a way that a Communist victory is guaranteed. However, we are prepared to leave so that a Communist victory is not excluded, though not guaranteed. I don't know if this distinction is meaningful to you. . . .
Memcon, Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, June 21, 1972, folder: China—Dr.
Kissinger's Visit June 1972, box 97, Country Files—Far East, HAKOF,
Kissinger: I believe that if a sufficient interval is placed between our withdrawal and what happens afterward that the issue can almost certainly be confined to an Indochina affair. It is important that there is a reasonable interval between the agreement on the cease-fire and a reasonable opportunity for political negotiation. . . . The outcome of my logic is that we are putting a time interval between the military outcome and the political outcome. No one can imagine that history will cease on the Indochina peninsula with a cease-fire.
1.. Briefing Book for Kissinger's July 1971 Beijing trip, POLO I [Part I],
box 850, For the President's Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, National
Security Council Files (NSCF), Nixon Presidential Materials Project (NPMP),
National Archives, College Park.
2. Two archivists at the Nixon Presidential Project affirmed that Kissinger wrote these words.
3. See appendix.
4. Jefrey Kimball, “The Case of the ‘Decent Interval’: Do We Now Have a Smoking Gun?” SHAFR Newsletter, September 2001.
5. Oval Office Conversation no. 466-12, Nixon and Kissinger, after 4:00 P.M., March 11, 1971, White House Tapes (WHT), NPMP (transcribed by J. Kimball).
6. Memo, Kissinger to Nixon, September 18, 1971, folder: Vietnam Elections, box 872, For the President's Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, NSCF, NPMP.
7. Oval Office Conversation no. 527-16, Nixon, Haldeman, Kissinger, and Ehrlichman, 9:14 A.M.-10:12 A.M., June 23, 1971, WHT, NPMP (transcribed by J. Kimball).