Thursday, December 5, 2013

No More Vietnams, by Richard Nixon

I finished Richard Nixon’s No More Vietnams.  In this book, Nixon defends the Vietnam War as a noble cause.  He critiques how his presidential predecessors conducted the war, defends his own approach, and blames the Democratic U.S. Congress’ failure to continue providing support for South Vietnam for Communist North Vietnam’s takeover of that country.  Nixon in later years would express regret for the title of this book, No More Vietnams, saying that he should have entitled it A Noble Cause.  Nixon’s argument in the book was not that the United States should be paralyzed from intervening in other countries out of a fear of another war like Vietnam, but rather that, if the U.S. had to intervene, it would do what it takes to win—-that it would not lose, as it did in Vietnam.

I was initially hesitant to read No More Vietnams because I had already read other books that discussed Nixon’s stances and strategies regarding the Vietnam War.  I read his memoirs, and his criticisms of President Johnson as well as his own approach to the war were significant elements in the narratives of some of the biographies about Nixon that I had read.  But I am glad that I read No More Vietnams because, overall, Nixon goes into more detail in that book in terms of defending his own point-of-view.  I wouldn’t say that this is the case regarding his explanation for why the United States entered the war, for, on this, he simply states that “The United States intervened in the Vietnam War to prevent North Vietnam from imposing its totalitarian government on South Vietnam through military conquest, both because a Communist victory would lead to massive human suffering for the people of Vietnam and because it would damage American strategic interests and pose a threat to our allies and friends in other non-Communist nations” (page 152, in an edition in which No More Vietnams is attached to another book by Nixon, Real Peace).  Nixon believes that the answer to why the U.S. was in Vietnam is “simple” and “apparent.”

But Nixon does go into detail when he defends his point-of-view on relevant issues: why he believed that Ho Chi Minh was a Communist rather than merely a Vietnamese nationalist; how we can know that Nixon’s military strategy was not targeting civilians; why Nixon did not believed that most young people were against him; and the list goes on.  When defending his decision to intervene in Cambodia, where North Vietnam supposedly had bases from which it was channeling supplies to the Communists in Vietnam, Nixon responds to the charge that he was violating Cambodia’s neutrality under a Geneva agreement by quoting the agreement itself: it said that the U.S. did not have to honor a country’s neutrality if its enemy was using that country as a base.  Nixon also argues that, under President Lyndon Johnson, there actually was a Gulf of Tonkin incident, contrary to the claims of some that the U.S. made that up as a pretense to escalate its involvement in the Vietnam War, for Nixon states that the North Vietnamese account of the war assumes that the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred.  And, while Nixon seems to acknowledge that the Tet offensive was on some level a loss for the U.S., he also notes that it severely damaged the Communist forces in Vietnam and set them back significantly. There were often times when I wished that Nixon would document his claims, either through footnotes, or by referring to sources within his text.  There were times when he did, but I wished that he had done so more.  Overall, however, I found his arguments to be detailed and thoughtful.

Something that interested me in reading No More Vietnams was that Nixon, although he criticized his predecessors for not being tough enough in their prosecution of the war, acknowledged that he himself was limited in terms of his ability or willingness to be aggressive.  Nixon said that President Johnson was reluctant to be too tough because that could anger the Soviets and the Chinese, but Nixon indicated that he himself had similar concerns when he was President.  Another factor was the lack of popular support for the war, which Nixon apparently found to be constrictive.  Overall, I found Nixon’s discussion of the Vietnam War in No More Vietnams to be open and honest about its challenges, at least in comparison to what he wrote in his memoirs.  Nixon, in both his memoirs and No More Vietnams, portrays the South Vietnamese army as brave and heroic, against detractors who considered it to be a lost cause.  But Nixon in No More Vietnams acknowledges that his policy of Vietnamization (which is having the South Vietnamese army take up more of the slack of fighting the war) took a while to be effective.

There is a lot more in No More Vietnams than what I mention in this blog, but I will stop here.  I found a lot of what Nixon said to be persuasive, but I should probably read a source that is more critical of his policy on Vietnam.  I’m hoping that Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland can be that source.  I have already read some critiques of Nixon’s policies: Jerry Voorhis had his criticisms in The Strange Case of Richard Milhous Nixon, Joan Hoff was rather critical, and, in biographies about Nixon, there is often a summary of the arguments that certain Nixon aides were making when they were suggesting that the President not attack Cambodia.  But, overall, I have not found their arguments to be persuasive, for, if Cambodia was being used by North Vietnam as a base for supplies, then it makes sense for the U.S. to attack the North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia.  The only anti-Nixon or anti-Vietnam War argument that makes sense to me is that the war was taking the lives of many innocent civilians, and that makes me second-guess whether the war was worth the effort, even if I can understand the rationale for it.  Consequently, while I accept Nixon’s portrayal of North Vietnam as a brutal Communist country, I am open to hearing whatever pacifist arguments there may be as to what alternatives there were to war: was there a way to stop Communist North Vietnam’s expansion, without military force?  I am skeptical, but I am open.  The issue is relevant even today, as the U.S. continues to debate military interventions, whether in the form of drones, troops, or bombs.

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