Sunday, April 14, 2013

Jerry Voorhis: The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon 6

For my write-up today on Jerry Voorhis' The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon (copyright 1972, 1973), I will focus on the Vietnam War.  I'll use as my starting-point something that Voorhis says on page 194:

"[President] Richard Nixon did not wind down the Southeast Asia war.  Instead, in an attempt to win it he devastated three countries of Southeast Asia with ruthless bombing.  Most of Cambodia and great areas of Laos were delivered over to Communist control.  Without protest from the Nixon Administration an absolute dictatorship was set up in South Vietnam.  Whatever decent excuse for the war may once have existed was gone.  Mr. Nixon's visit to China rubbed out the excuse that we were resisting Communism or Chinese domination of Southeast Asia.  The Thieu dictatorship [in South Vietnam] rubbed out the excuse that we were giving the people of South Vietnam a chance to choose their own government."

Here are some items.

1.  Voorhis disputes the claim that President Richard Nixon winded down the Vietnam War.  Granted, Voorhis does praise Nixon for withdrawing American ground-troops from Vietnam.  Yet, Voorhis contends that Nixon has escalated the war in terms of bombing and naval forces.

2.  In blogging through Richard Nixon's memoirs, I have asked about civilian casualties during Nixon's execution of the Vietnam War.  On page 182, Voorhis refers to the findings of a congressional investigating committee, which said that "more than four million civilians in the countries of Indochina who were alive and well when Richard Nixon took office have been either killed, maimed or driven into refugee camps" (Voorhis' words).

On page 182, Voorhis mentions technology that reminded me somewhat of drones: "pilotless planes aided by sensory devices scattered across the countryside to detect any kind of movement on the ground and even to drop bombs on any moving object over which they pass."  I'm not sure to what extent such technology actually existed, or if it was merely on the drawing board when Voorhis wrote this.  But Voorhis does refer to objects that explode when someone touches them, or that "flash signals to computers in planes flying overhead" (page 182).  This is relevant to civilian casualties because "The sensors cannot of course distinguish between a farmer, a child, a cow, an enemy soldier, or an American soldier" (page 182).

2.  Voorhis presents Nixon's attack on Cambodia as baseless, brutal, and poorly conceived.  Nixon's goal in attacking Cambodia was to get rid of alleged North Vietnamese sanctuaries there that were providing supplies to the Communists in Vietnam.  Voorhis does not believe that this was justifiable, for he notes that Lyndon Johnson as President refused to violate Cambodian neutrality, the implication perhaps being that this would be odd if supplies were coming to the Communists in Vietnam from Cambodian soil.  Voorhis also says that the "much publicized secret headquarters of the enemy either never existed or, in any case, was never found" (page 179).  On brutality, Voorhis on page 179 mentions press reports of "American jet bombers striking populated Cambodian villages with napalm" (Voorhis' words).  Regarding the poorly-conceived nature of the U.S. and South Vietnamese attack on Cambodia, Voorhis said that Nixon either was unaware or did not care that there was long hostility between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, which was why Cambodians resented the attack on their country by South Vietnamese forces, which Voorhis states committed horrible atrocities against Cambodian civilians.  According to Voorhis, the Cambodian government has frequently "demanded" that the U.S. leave Cambodia, and Voorhis also refers to "persistent ugly rumors" that American agents helped to overthrow the neutral government of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia to replace him with a military dictator.

I have some points to make about Voorhis' discussion of Cambodia.  First of all, according to this New York Times article, the Lyndon Johnson Administration actually did secretly bomb Cambodia.  I wouldn't be surprised if there was at least some truth to the charge that there were North Vietnamese sanctuaries there.  Second, I wonder if the hostility between Cambodians and Vietnamese could have influenced the Cambodians, not only to resent South Vietnamese incursions into their country, but also the presence of North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.  On page 472 of volume 1 of his memoirs, Richard Nixon says that Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia did not care for the North Vietnamese army's presence in Cambodia, and that he privately requested that the U.S. launch a ground or an air attack on the sanctuaries.  But Nixon knew that he had to do the bombings secretly because Cambodia wanted to appear neutral, and that Sihanouk would criticize the bombings were they to become public.  Third, on the issue of civilian victims, the New York Times article states that Henry Kissinger "later claimed that he had been assured that there were no civilians in the area, which was not the case."  This article says that Nixon urged deeper bombings into Cambodia, notwithstanding his public assurances that "bombing would not take place within a kilometre of any village" (the article's words).  Moreover, according to the article, the bombings encouraged more and more Cambodians to become Communist insurgents (presumably because their villages were being attacked by the U.S. bombings).

3.  Voorhis discusses the eight-point peace proposal that Nixon drew up, as well as peace proposal by North Vietnam.  Regarding Nixon's proposal, Voorhis criticizes Nixon on several grounds.  He says that Nixon's "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude (Voorhis' words) ran against the Asian desire to save face.  This stood out to me because Nixon in his memoirs presents himself as sensitive to the North Vietnamese desire to save face, which was why there were certain concessions to North Vietnam.  Voorhis also criticizes Nixon's backing of General Thieu of South Vietnam, notwithstanding Nixon's call for elections in that country.  Voorhis' view seems to be that Thieu was so repressive, that people would be reluctant to oppose him politically.  See my post here about Nixon's proposal, based on Nixon's memoirs.

According to Voorhis, the North Vietnamese proposal included the following: the U.S. and her foreign allies' would withdraw from Indochina within 1971; the mutual release of POWs would occur alongside this withdrawal; the U.S. would end its support of Thieu, and Thieu would be replaced by "a new administration standing for peace, independence, neutraility and democracy"; the U.S. would pay reparations for the war; in accordance with past agreements (one in 1954 and one in 1962), the U.S. would not intervene in Indochina; the Indochinese countries would respect each other's sovereignty and independence; after an agreement, there would be a cease-fire; there "should be international supervision"; and there would be an "international guarantee for the fundamental national rights of the Indochinese peoples, the neutrality of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and lasting peace in this region."

I don't know what the full-scale ramifications about these two proposals were or (in the case of the North Vietnamese one) would have been.  If I were Nixon, I'd want more (or more fleshed-out) assurances were I thinking of adopting the North Vietnamese proposal: an assurance that there would be rigorous international supervision, ensuring that foreign Communist interests were not interfering in Indochina; and some assurance that Communists in the South wouldn't railroad democracy and take South Vietnam over.

4.  On page 178, Voorhis suggests that one reason that the U.S. was involved in Vietnam was because it had a lot of oil.  My relatives have expressed different views about whether the U.S. went into Vietnam on account of its resources.  One of my relatives thinks that we were in Vietnam on account of its rubber supplies, and he related to me a story that a Vietnam vet told him about how he (the vet) was called upon to escort Michelin representatives when they came to Vietnam during the war.  Another of my relatives thinks that we went into Vietnam to contain Communism, and that's it!  Nixon in volume 1 of his memoirs talks about the importance of hindering Communist expansion, but he also mentions Vietnam's tin and rubber.  I doubt that economics plays no role at all in our decisions to go into other countries. 

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