On page 656 of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein quotes a conversation between President Richard Nixon and John Connally. Connally is urging Nixon not to worry about killing civilians in Vietnam. People already thought that Nixon was doing so, Connally argued, so Nixon had might as well do so. Nixon’s response was “That’s right.” Earlier in the book, on page 649, Perlstein quotes a similar conversation between Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Nixon said that he thought it was time to “take out the dikes” and asked if that would “drown people”, and Kissinger replied that it would drown approximately 200,000 people. Nixon then said he’d prefer to use a nuclear bomb, and Kissinger retorted that this would be “Too much.” Nixon then said that he wanted Kissinger to “think big".
Perlstein draws both conversations from the Nixon Library Tapes, and
Perlstein is the one transcribing them. They appear to me to differ
from what Nixon says in his memoirs and in No More Vietnams.
In his writings, Nixon affirms that he did not deliberately bomb dikes, and that
America bent over backwards to avoid killing civilians, which was why
American soldiers were taken as POWs: in their attempts to avoid killing
civilians, they left themselves more vulnerable than they would be if they did not
Perhaps one could argue that the tapes do not contradict Nixon’s
books, that the tapes present Nixon talking big about what he could or
should do, whereas the books are about what he actually did as
President. Perhaps. I can see Nixon’s point in his memoirs that, had
he wanted to kill innocent civilians, he would have waged the Vietnam
War much more aggressively than he did; still, one cannot deny that many
civilians died in the Vietnam War.
(UPDATE: Later in the book, Perlstein talks about the American bombing
of Vietnamese dikes.)
Even if Nixon’s words on the tapes contradicted his actions, his
words are really cold. It is one thing to wage a war that one thinks is
necessary and that may entail the deaths of civilians; it is another
thing not to have second thoughts about this, or not to think about how
horrible civilians’ death is—-these are people trying to live their
lives, many of whom have families. Of course, one could argue that
these two things are not significantly different in terms of the
civilians themselves, that they are still getting killed. That would be
a fair point, but it would be part of a broader conversation about if
and when war is necessary.
Should Nixon’s character be judged on the basis of these sorts of
statements on the tapes? Well, I would hate for my entire character to
be judged on the basis of things that I have said here and there. I
have been more compassionate than I have sounded to others, and perhaps
that was the case with Nixon, too. Jesus said that out of the heart the
mouth speaks, but I have a problem going from there to saying that
everything I say manifests the sum total of my character. At the same
time, I do believe that what I say reveals elements of my character,
some of them bad.