NIXON AND KISSINGER: The "Madman and the "Psychopath"
written by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick…
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger dominated their era as few other men have. Their bold moves brought the world closer to peace. But they also ushered in cruel and vindictive policies that more than offset their achievements. They are as unlikely a pair as ever held high office. Kissinger found Nixon “a very odd man…a very unpleasant man…so nervous…an artificial man…[who] hated to meet new people.” He found it strange that such a loner “became a politician. He really dislikes people.” White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman spent a great deal of time with Nixon but said he “didn’t see me as a person, or even…as a human being. … To this day he doesn’t know how many children I have nor anything else about my private life.”
Kissinger and Nixon were privately contemptuous of each other, fighting incessantly over who would get credit for their achievements. Kissinger disparaged Nixon as “that madman,” “our drunken friend,” and “the meatball minds,” while fawning all over him in his presence. Nixon referred to Kissinger as his “Jew boy” and called him “psychopathic.” But the madman and the psychopath shared a vision of the United States as global hegemon. Nixon considered Woodrow Wilson the “greatest President of this century” because he had “the greatest vision of America’s world role.” Wilson had proclaimed that United States to be the worlds’ savior. Kissinger similarly observed, “Our experience led us to look upon ourselves and what we did as having universal meaning, a relevance that extended beyond national boundaries to encompass the well-being of all mankind. America was not itself unless it had a meaning beyond itself. This is why Americans have always seen their role in the world as the outward manifestation of an inward state of grace.” But neither Kissinger nor Nixon understood the basic decency that should have guided the United States’ exercise of power.
Lawrence Eagleburger, who had worked closely with Kissinger over many years, observed, “Henry is a balance-f-power thinker. He deeply believes in stability. These kind of objectives are antithetical to the American experience. Americans…want to pursue a set of moral principles. Henry does not have an intrinsic feel for the American political system, and he does not start with the same basic values and assumptions.” Nixon and Kissinger would suffer different fates. Nixon would be brought low by pettiness, venality, suspicion, and ambition. Kissinger, though equally flawed, would win the Nobel Peace Prize. But ugly accusations and the threat of indictment for war crimes would haunt him for the remainder of his days.
Nineteen sixty-eight was one of the most extraordinary years of the century. Both the United States and the world crackled with energy. Change was in the air. A critical presidential election pitted Republican Richard Nixon against Democrat Hubert Humphrey, whose image was tarnished by years of obsequiously defending Johnson’s Vietnam policies as vice president. Stunningly, the segregationist Alabama Govern George Wallace, running as a right-wing populist with retired General Curtis LeMay as his running mate, was polling 21 percent with barely a month to go before the election. His law-and-order message resonated with white voters concerned about ghetto rebellions, campus disruptions, and rising crime.
Postwar baby boomers had begun flooding college campuses in 1964. Imbued with youthful idealism inspired by the civil rights movement and dismissive of Cold War Shibboleths, their protests swept the country. In April 1968, Columbia University students occupied several campus buildings to challenge the university’s treatment of the surrounding black community and its support for military research. Columbia President Grayson Kirk charged, “Out young people, in disturbing numbers, appear to reject all forms of authority…and they have taken refuge in a turbulent and inchoate nihilism whose sole objectives are destructive. I know of no time in our history where the gap between the generations has been wider or more potentially dangerous.”
Kirk was right about the generation gap, but his charge of nihilism couldn’t have been farther from the truth. After eight days, New York police violently dragged the protesters from the buildings. Eight hundred were arrested and more than a hundred injured. Nixon called the protests “the first major skirmish in a revolutionary struggle to seize the universities of this country and transform them into sanctuaries for radicals and vehicles for revolutionary political and social goals.” The viciousness of the attack seemed to confirm radical students’ contention that when push came to shove, U.S. officials would employ violence against their own citizens as they did to defend U.S. corporate and geopolitical interests in Vietnam and Indonesia.
Uprisings of student and young workers convulsed industrial nations around the globe. Massive demonstrations rocked Prague, Paris, Tokyo, West Berlin, Turin, Madrid, Rome, and Mexico City, where U.S.-equipped police and soldiers massacred hundreds of protesting students.
In the United States, antiwar forces mounted a challenge to the Democratic Party establishment, throwing their support to Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. In June, Kennedy was assassinated minutes after his victory in the California primary, dashing hopes for a progressive alternative to Humphrey and his insipid “politics of joy.” In August, antiwar delegates and 10,000 protesters converged on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They were met by 12,000 Chicago police, 6,000 National Guardsmen, and 1,000 FBI agents. An additional 7,500 U.S. Army troops were deployed to patrol the black community. Television cameras showed club-wielding police indiscriminately attacking not only the protesters but also the bystanders and the media in what a blue-ribbon commission later called a “police riot.”
By a stunning two-to-one margin, the pubic supported the police over the protestors. Nixon identified those Americans as the “silent majority” and rode their resentments into the White House, narrowly defeating Humphrey. The riot dashed Johnson’s hope that a deadlocked convention would turn to him at the last minute. He still kept a tight grip over the convention proceedings, even blocking the moderate platform plank on Vietnam that Humphrey desperately needed. Clark Clifford called the platform defeat “a disaster for Humphrey.” Humphrey didn’t help he cause by waiting until late September to distance himself slightly from Johnson’s unpopular Vietnam policies. Nixon, on the other hand, insisted that he had a secret plan to end the war, refusing to divulge the details. In reality, this “plan,” as Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird admitted, amounted to little more than a strategy to pummel North Vietnam into submission.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Johnson jump-started the stalled peace talks, ordering a bombing halt to bring Hanoi back to the table. Fearing such an “October surprise,” Nixon employed Anna Chennault, widow of famed World War II general Claire Chennault, as his liaison with the South Vietnamese government. Johnson put her under surveillance and determined in late October that she was telling South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu to withdraw from the talks because he would receive better terms from Nixon. Johnson considered Nixon’s behavior treasonous. But lacking ironclad proof, Humphrey foolishly declined to expose Nixon’s machinations. “Johnson was furious,” White House aide Joseph Califano reported. Not exposing Nixon’s “treason,” Johnson believed, had been “the dumbest thing in the world,” proving that “Hubert had no balls, no spine, no toughness,” and it cost Humphrey the presidency.
With less than a week to go in the campaign, Thieu and Vice President Ky did indeed pull out of the talks, sealing Humphrey’s fate. Years later, Chennault, who co-chaired Republican Women for Nixon, confessed he role. Until that discovery, just days before the election, Johnson provided little assistance to Humphrey, believing that Nixon would more likely continue his Vietnam policies. Humphrey, he feared, would seek peace at any price. Johnson even had the FBI tap Humphrey’s phones so he would get advance notice if Humphrey planned to openly oppose the war.
Nixon had another source of information. Harvard Professor Henry Kissinger had been a close advisor to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s foe in the Republican primary. When Nixon won the nomination, Kissinger sneered, “The man is…a disaster…he can’t be elected – or the whole country would be a disaster.” He told others, “That man is unfit to be president.” That, however, didn’t deter him from offering Nixon secret information about the Paris peace talks that Nixon used to sabotage the negotiations. He alerted Nixon to a major breakthrough in early October that made a bombing halt imminent. The U.S. delegation in Paris, he reported, had “broken open the champagne.”
Kissinger simultaneously ingratiated himself with the Humphrey camp. He told Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Look, I’ve hated Nixon for years,” and offered to give Humphrey access to Rockefeller’s Nixon “shit files.” Humphrey naively believed that Kissinger was working for him and later said that he had planned to name him as national security advisor.
Nixon had little interest in domestic policy, which he once dismissed as “building outhouses in Peoria.” His domestic programs catered to moderates, alienating hard-core conservatives. It was foreign policy where he hoped to make his mark. He and Kissinger decided to bypass the “impossible fags” in the State Department and run foreign policy out of the White House. Nixon chose his secretary of state accordingly: he selected an attorney, William Rogers, who told Nixon that he knew little about foreign policy. Nixon confessed, “It was that ignorance that made the job his. Kissinger cracked, “Few Secretaries of State can have been selected because of their president’s confidence in their ignorance of foreign policy.” Kissinger made sure that Rogers was kept out of the loop on critical intelligence and decision making. The Nixon/Kissinger policies proved less ideological than many expected. “American-style democracy,” Nixon declared in 1967, “is not necessarily the best form of government for people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with entirely different backgrounds.” He advised Kissinger to disregard Africa. “Henry,” he said, “let’s leave the niggers to Bill [Rogers] and we’ll take care of the rest of the world.”
During the transition period, Kissinger commissioned the RAND corporation to come up with a set of policy options on Vietnam. RAND assigned Daniel Ellsberg, who had just completed work for Robert McNamara on a secret study of U.S. involvement in the war that would later gain fame as the Pentagon Papers. In drafting his options, Ellsberg refused to include a nuclear option, on principle, or a win option, because he thought victory impossible.
Ellsberg’s second report, NSSM 1, posed a series of questions. In response, the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated that the absolute best the United States could hope for was to control South Vietnam in eight to thirteen years, but at a tremendous cost in dollars and lives. Facing that prospect, Nixon decided to quickly end U.S. involvement, but he insisted on ending it on his terms – “with honor” – even if that meant laying waste to much of Southeast Asia in the process.
Nixon gradually shifted the burden of fighting from U.S. troops, whose numbers had peaked at 543,000 to U.S.-trained and equipped Vietnamese, but he made it clear to Hanoi that this did not indicate a lessening of resolve. He first intensified the bombing in South Vietnam and Laos and then, in March 1969, began bombing North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia. Nixon wanted to make it clear that he refused to be constrained by previous limits and might act irrationally if provoked. In explaining he “madman theory” to Bob Halderman in 1968, he highlighted the value of nuclear threats.
Nor was it always clear that he was just bluffing. After briefing then Vice President Nixon about nuclear weapons, J. Robert Oppenheimer told a friend that he had “just come from a meeting with the most dangerous man I have ever met.” Nixon had, in fact, supported using atomic bombs to bail out the French at Dien Bien Phu.
Fearing a massive public outcry over the bombing of Cambodia, the administration devised an elaborate system of dual target reporting to erase the evidence. Each afternoon, Major Hal Knight, who commanded the radar site at Bien Hoa Air Base, was given alternate targets to pass on to his pilots, who were sworn to secrecy. Neither the radio operator who called in the strike reports nor the intelligence officers who logged in the reports knew that the original targets in Vietnam had not been bombed. Knight, knowing that his actions were in violation of the Military Code of Conduct, finally informed Congress in 1973.
When the New York Times exposed the bombing of sanctuaries in Cambodia in April 1969, Kissinger called Laird a “son of a bitch” and accused him of leaking the story. Nixon, equally furious, ordered J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap three of Kissinger’s top aides, one defense official, and four journalists. Others would later be added to the list.
In case Nixon’s bombing and threats failed to bring the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the North to heel, he and Kissinger prepared to deliver a crippling blow. Nixon had Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chief of naval operations, secretly draft the plan for Operation Duck Hook without Laird’s knowledge. Kissinger instructed the special NSC committee charged with evaluating the plan, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point. … It shall be the assignment of this group to examine the option of a savage, decisive blow against North Vietnam. You start without any preconceptions at all.”
Roger Morris, research coordinator for the planning group, saw plans targeting two sites in the North for nuclear airbursts. He noted, “Savage was a word that was used again and again…a savage unremitting blow on North Vietnam to bring them around.” Haldeman told Special Counsel to the President Charles Colson that “Kissinger had lobbied for nuclear options in the spring and fall of 1969.” Laird said the nuclear threat had been “always…an option” for Kissinger. Even without nuclear weapons, Duck Hook would be brutal beyond comparison. Options included invading North Vietnam, saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, mining Haiphong harbor, and bombing North Vietnam’s dikes to destroy its food supply. Kissinger met secretly with the Vietnamese in Paris in early August and conveyed the planned ultimatum: “If by November 1 no major progress has been made toward a solution, we will be compelled – with great reluctance – to take measures of the greatest consequences.” On October 2, Kissinger sent Nixon a top secret memo stating, “we must be prepared to play out whatever string necessary. … To achieve its full effect on Hanoi’s thinking, the action must be brutal.”
Kissinger’s late-September meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin was interrupted by a prearranged phone call from Nixon, after which Kissinger alerted Dobrynin, “It was a pity that all our efforts to negotiate had failed. The President had told me in his call that the train had just left the station and was not headed down the track.” Fortunately, the trained pulled back into the station. For a number of reasons, including opposition by Laird and Rogers, concerns about effectiveness, growing antiwar sentiment, and major upcoming antiwar protests, Nixon called Duck Hook off. “The only chance for my ultimatum to succeed,” he reasoned, “was to convince the Communists that I could depend on solid support at home if they decided to call my bluff. However the chances I would actually have that support were becoming increasingly slim [given] signs of a new level of intensity in the antiwar movement.” He opted to convey his toughness another way.
On October 13, 1969, Nixon put the U.S. military on secret nuclear alert. Nuclear-armed SAC bombers were dispersed to military bases, awaiting the order to attack. Thirty-two B-58s, 144 B-52s, and 189 KC-135 refueling tankers were readied. Nixon was signaling the Soviets that they had better dramatically increase pressure on Hanoi to negotiate. Laird thought it a futile gesture vis-à-vis Vietnam and a potentially reckless one if the Soviets misread U.S. intentions. Undeterred, the United States escalated further on October 25, loading more aircraft with nuclear weapons and placing them on SAC runways. The following day, SAC began flying nuclear-armed B-52s over the polar icecap, taking them ominously close to the Soviet Union. Largely unknown to U.S. leaders, at the same moment the Soviet Union and China were on the verge of war over a border dispute. The Soviets had even sounded out the United States’ willingness to collaborate on a preemptive strike against Chinese nuclear facilities, much as Kennedy and Johnson had sounded out Soviet willingness a decade earlier. China had mobilized nearly a million soldiers and was prepared to respond with nuclear weapons to a Soviet attack. The Soviets might have interpreted Nixon’s provocation not as a signal regarding Vietnam but as a real attack in coordination with China.
Morris later acknowledged that Duck Hook had been a harebrained scheme: “The Chiefs had been trotting this crap out for years. It was one more quick fix in a war which had no quick fixes. … It was a military and political fiasco which had taken on reality in…the Pentagon, where, to put it kindly, some not-very-gifted minds were applying military solutions to these problems.” Even hawkish Edward Teller found the nuclear option “irrational.” He later told an interviewer, “Only a few idiots – and they really were idiots – suggested the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam.”
Nixon went out of his way to suppress attendance at the October and November antiwar marches. The White House spread rumors of Communist involvement. Prowar groups orchestrated by the White House suddenly popped up, condemning the planned rallies. Infiltration of antiwar groups intensified. Antiwar members of Congress were targeted. The beleaguered president even tried to placate the antiwar movement by announcing further troop withdrawals, temporarily suspending draft calls, and firing Lewis Hershey, the despised head of the Selective Service Board, whose announcement that the draft boards would review protesters’ records had made him a target of activists’ wrath.
Despite this unprecedented effort to suppress attendance, some 2 million protesters gathered in cities and towns across the nation on October 15. Nixon recalled, “Although publicly I continued to ignore the raging antiwar controversy, I had to face the fact that it had probably destroyed the credibility of my ultimatum to Hanoi.”
American society became so polarized around the war and other issues that some people began speaking of a civil war. College campuses were the front lines in the battle. Demonstrations, rallies, and strikes erupted on hundreds of campuses. Government and industry spokespersons set foot on campuses at their own peril.
Activists condemned the unethical use of science to further the country’s military agenda. Scientists, having helped spark the antiwar movement, were often in the forefront of such protests. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the nation’s largest scientific body, with more than 100,000 members, was the first professional organization to pass an antiwar resolution in December 1965. The resolution stated:
Prolongation of the Vietnamese war, with its increasing danger of universal catastrophe, threatens not only the lives of millions, but the humanitarian values and goals which we are striving to maintain. … Beside this concern which we share with all citizens, we bear a special responsibility as scientists to point out the large costs of war for the continued vigor of scientific research. Like all scholarship, the sciences cannot fully flourish, and may be badly damaged, in a society which gives an increasing share of its resources to military purposes.
Scientists’ opposition only intensified in subsequent years. In January 1966, twenty-nine scientists from Harvard, MIT, and other nearby institutions condemned the United States’ use of chemical agents to destroy crops. The statement, presented by Harvard biochemist John Edsall, decried the “barbarous” use of such an indiscriminate weapon. “The fact that we are now resorting to such methods,” the scientists charged, “shows a shocking deterioration of our moral standards. These attacks are also abhorrent to the general standards of civilized mankind, and their use will earn us hatred throughout Asia and elsewhere.” The AAAS urged McNamara to stop the spraying, and Johnson received a petition from some five thousand scientists, including many Nobel laureates, demanding he do the same.
In April 1967, the AAAS magazine, Science, reported that Defense Department officials were have trouble recruiting scientists to perform military research. Former Stanford defense researcher Harold Adams explained, “There is a fundamental revulsion on Vietnam in the egghead community. Academics would rather support the forces of life than those of death.” Over the next few years, scientists would increasingly employ the metaphor of choosing “forces of life” over “forces of death” to explain their antipathy toward military research.
In April 1968, when Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection, scientists flocked to support antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy. In May, Scientists and Engineers for McCarthy was formed, with five thousand dues-paying members, including more than 115 members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and 12 Nobel Prize winners. Frustrated Humphrey supporters confessed that they had abandoned attempts to organize a scientists’ support group. On the Republican side, neither Richard Nixon or Nelson Rockefeller had even made the effort.
In January 1969, MIT graduate students and faculty members called for a national research stoppage on March 4 to alert the public to how the “misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind.” Approximately thirty universities participated. The events at MIT proved to be the high point of the national effort. Speaker after speaker emphasized the need for scientists to assume responsibility for the social consequences of their work. In the most passionate address, which the Boston Globe called perhaps “the most important speech given in our time,” Harvard biologist George Wald asserted that the real purpose of government was to preserve life, but “our government has become preoccupied with death and the preparation for death.” He said, “We scientists, we otp for life.”
Events that spring exacerbated the public’s mistrust of science; they were highlighted by a nine-day takeover of Stanford’s Applied Electronics Laboratory and the growing furor over the use of chemical and biological weapons, which forced the Nixon administration to announce a partial cessation of their use in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Nixon’s threats continued. Neither Moscow or Hanoi took them seriously. Nguyen Co Thach, North Vietnam’s foreign minister, said that he had read Kissinger’s books. “It is Kissinger’s idea that it is a good thing to make a false threat the enemy believes is a true threat. It is a bad thing if we are threatening an enemy with a true threat and the enemy believes it is a false threat. I told Kissinger that ‘False or true, we Vietnamese don’t mind. There must be a third category – for those who don’t care whether the treat is true of false.’” Thach even disputed Kissinger’s claim to having issued an ultimatum in August: “Never has Kissinger threatened us in the secret talks. Because he threatens us, we would turn our backs. We would stop the talks. They could not threaten us for we knew that they could not stay in Vietnam forever, but Vietnam must stay in Vietnam forever.”
Thach understood a basic truth that U.S. leaders never grasped: The Vietnam war was about time, not territory or body counts. The United States wreaked considerable destruction; it won every major battle. But it could not win the war. Time was on the side of the Vietnamese, who didn’t have to defeat the Americans but simply outlast them. They would pay a terrible price for independence and freedom. But they would ultimately triumph. North Vietnamese military leader Vo Nguyen Diap explained, looking back:
We won the war because we would rather die than live in slavery. Our history proves this. Our deepest aspiration has always been self-determination. That spirit provided us with stamina, courage, and creativity in the face of a powerful enemy. Militarily, the Americans were much more powerful than we were. But they made the same mistake as the French – they underestimated Vietnamese forces of resistance. When the Americans started their air raids, Uncle Ho said, “The Americans can send hundreds of thousands, even millions of soldiers; the war can last ten years, twenty years, maybe more, but our people will keep fighting until they win. Houses, villages, cities may be destroyed, but we won’t be intimidated. And after we’ve regained our independence, we will rebuild our country from the ground up even more beautifully.
Policy makers arrogantly assumed that the United States’ superior wealth, technology, and firepower would prevail by inflicting such suffering that the Vietnamese would rationally calculate that the price of victory exceeded the benefits. Nixon, in fact, bore some responsibility for Americans’ ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture. As a charter member of Washington’s China lobby – anti-Communist zealots in the Congress, military, media, and business who blamed the State Department for the “loss” of China in 1949 – Nixon had hounded the most knowledgeable China and East Asia experts out of the State Department in the 1950s. In explaining the U.S. blunders in Vietnam, McNamara later admitted:
I had never visited Indochina, nor did I understand or appreciate its history, language, culture, or values. The same must be said, to varying degrees, about…Kennedy…Rusk,…Bundy,…Taylor, and many others. … When it came to Vietnam, we found ourselves setting policy for a region that was terra incognita. Worse, our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance. … The irony of this gap was that it existed largely because the top East Asia and China experts in the State Department – John Patton Davies, Jr., John Stewart Service, and John Carter Vincent – had been purged during the McCarthy hysteria of the 1950s…we – certainly I – badly misread China’s objectives and mistook its bellicose rhetoric to imply a drive for regional hegemony. We totally underestimated the nationalist aspect of Ho Chi Minh’s movement.
Ignorance of the enemy filtered down through the ranks. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, strove mightily to understand the Americans. U.S. infantryman Larry Heinemann, who later won the National Book Award for his novel Paco’s Story, attended a literary conference in Hanoi in 1990, where he met Hanoi University Professor American Literature Nguyen Lien. Heinemann recounted their conversation:
I asked him what he did during the war. … He said that his job was to go to Beijing and learn English and then go to Moscow University to read and study American literature. Then he went back to Hanoi and out to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and gave lectures on American literature to the troops traveling south…he talked to them about Whitman, Jack London, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. A lot of Vietnamese soldiers carried translations of American literature in their packs. Le Minh Khue – a young woman who worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail disarming bombs – carried Earnest Hemmingway. Professor Lien asked me this question, “Now what Vietnamese literature did the American military teach to you?” I laughed so hard I almost squirted beer up my nose.
While U.S. leaders and the troops they deployed remained in the dark about the country they were invading, the American people were discovering the ugliness of the war their tax dollars were financing. As the November 15 mobilization neared, freelance journalist Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. forces had massacred up to five hundred civilians in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai, which the GIs had nicknamed “Pinkville” for its strong Viet Cong sympathies. Many of the women had been raped. The slaughter had gone on so long that the soldiers interrupted the killing and raping to take lunch and cigarette breaks. Not a single round had been fired at the U.S. infantrymen in return.
U.S. troops were on a typical search-and-destroy mission that day in the Son My hamlet. They arrived to find, with few exceptions, a village of women, children, andn old men. Much of the killing was carried out by members of the 1st Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley. The slaughter was finally halted when Hugh Thompson landed his helicopter between rampaging soldiers and fleeting Vietnamese who were about to be slaughtered. Thompson ordered his crewmates Larry Colburn and Glenn Andreotta to open fire on U.S. troops if they tried to harm the Vietnamese he was rescuing from the bunker. Colburn recalled, “There were elders, mothers, children, and babies. … They come into a town and rape the women, kill the babies, kill everyone, … And it wasn’t just murdering civilians. They were butchering people. The only thing they didn’t do is cook ‘em and eat ‘em. How do you get that far over the edge?”
The appalling incident had been covered up for more than a year. The truth might never have surfaced if it hadn’t been for the persistence of Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour, who was so troubled by what he had heard about the massacre that when he returned to the United States, he wrote a two-thousand-word letter, which he sent to thirty members of Congress and executive branch and military officials.
Before Ridenhour sent his letter, the army had managed to suppress the story despite the fact that at least fifty officers, including generals, had knowledge of the massacre and cover-up. The mainstream media ignored the story until it was finally broken by Hersh through the alternative Dispatch News Service, after the major publications rejected his stories.
Americans were shocked by the news and outrage by the grotesque and increasingly undeniable inhumanity of the war. The mother of one of the My Lai participants, and Indiana farmworker, told a reporter, “I gave them a good boy and they sent me back a murderer.”
Nixon complained about the negative publicity resulting from the news of the massacre, repeatedly saying to his deputy assistant, Alexander Butterfield, “It’s those dirty rotten Jews from New York who are behind it.”
My Lai was extreme, but indiscriminate killing civilians was an everyday occurrence. Specialist Fourth Class Tom Glen, who had served in a mortar platoon, described the routine brutality in a letter to General Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam:
The average GI’s attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish…[and] discounts their very humanity. … [Americans,] for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves. … Fired with an emotionalism that belies unconscionable hatred, and armed with a vocabulary of “You VC,” soldiers commonly “interrogate” by means of …severe beatings and torture at knife point.
Glen’s letter was forwarded to Major Colin Powell in Chu Lai, who discounted Glen’s complaints. “In direct refutation of this portrayal,” Powell concluded, “is the fact that relations between American [Division] soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
The antiwar movement continued to grow. As many as three quarter of a million protestors flocked to Washington, D.C., for the November 1969 march; 150,000 more demonstrated in San Francisco. Despite the size of the protests, the war’s dehumanizing effects spread beyond the battlefield, hardening the hearts of the populace as a whole. Sixty-five percent of Americans told pollsters that they weren’t bothered by the My Lai massacre. The steady inuring against human sympathy that Dwight Macdonald had so eloquently described as resulting from the terror bombing of Japanese cities had again infected much of the nation.
News of My Lai opened the door to a steady spate of horror stories. The public learned of “free-fire zones,” where anything that moved would be shot. It learned of the tens of thousands killed by the CIA as part of the “Phoenix Programs” and the “tiger cages” in which political prisoners were incarcerated and brutalized. It learned of the displacement of more than 5 million Vietnamese peasants, who were relocated to wire-enclosed refugee camps. It learned of widespread and wonton torture and many other crimes that outraged the sensibilities of at least some Americans and brought forth calls for war-crimes trials.
Exploding antiwar sentiment may have forced Nixon to cancel Duck Hook, but on April 30, 1970, he announced a joint U.S.-South Vietnamese ground invasion of Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese bases along the border, insisting that the United States would not act “like a pitiful, helpless giant.”
Nixon steeled himself for the decision by drinking heavily and watching the movie Patton over and over again. He seemed particularly agitated when he went to the Pentagon the next morning for a briefing. First called protesting students “bums…blowing the campuses…burning up the books.” Then he cut short the briefing by the Joint Chiefs and repeatedly declared he was going to “take out all those sanctuaries.” He proclaimed, “You have to electrify people with bold decisions. Bold decisions make history. Like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill – a small event but traumatic, and people took notice.” He concluded his expletive-laden diatribe with “Let’s go blow the hell of them,” as the Joint Chiefs, Laird, and Kissinger looked on in stunned disbelief.
The campuses erupted. Students and professors went on strike. More than one-third of colleges and universities suspended classes. Violence flared. Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. Mississippi state police shot into a crowd of protesters at Jackson State College, killing two and wounding twelve.
Protests and violent confrontations spread to more than seven campuses. The Washington Post reported, “The overflow of emotion seemed barely containable. The nation was witnessing what amounted to a virtual general and uncoordinated strike by its college youth.” Scores of thousands of protesters descended on Washington. Kissinger described the capital as “a besieged city” with the “very fabric of government…falling apart.” Secretary of the Interior Warren Hickel urged Nixon to heed the protesters. When his letter leaked to the press, Nixon fired him.
More than two hundred Foreign Service officers signed a petition protesting the invasion of Cambodia. Nixon ordered an undersecretary to “Fire them all!” Four of Kissinger’s top aides resigned in protest, as did NSC consultant Morton Halperin. Morris regretted not having gone to the press with documents because he believed that Kissinger was a restraining influence. He told Daniel Ellsberg, “We should have thrown open the safes and screamed boldly murder, because that’s exactly what it was.” He later concluded that there were no limits to Kissinger’s ruthlessness.
A delegation of Kissinger’s Harvard friends informed him that they would no longer serve as advisors. Thomas Schelling explained, “As we see it there are two possibilities. Either, one, the President didn’t understand when he went into Cambodia that he was invading another country; or, two, he did understand. We just don’t know which one is scarier.”
Nixon’s behavior became increasingly erratic. He and his valet visited the Lincoln Memorial at 5 A.M. for an awkward exchange with student protesters. Kissinger feared that Nixon might have a nervous breakdown. Under mounting pressure, Nixon announced that all combat troops would be out of Cambodia by the end of June. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Moorer acknowledged, “The reaction of noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.” But the bombing campaign intensified, devastating much of Cambodia.
The White House made broad claims about its authority to break the law in order to curb dissent. Testifying before the Senate, Tom Huston, who was in charge of White House internal security, explained, “It was my opinion at the time that simply the Fourth Amendment did not apply to the president in the exercise of matters relating to the internal security or national security.” When David Frost later confronted Nixon with his lawbreaking, Nixon replied simply, “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” That argument was very similar to the one the George W. Bush White House would make years later to justify its own illegal measures.
Nixon also justified overthrowing a popular government in Chile. A rarity in Latin America, Chile had been a democracy since 1932. Nixon and Kissinger would soon change that. Chile’s importance was magnified by the fact that it was the world’s leading copper producer, with production dominated by two American-owned firms, Kennecott and Anaconda. In 1964, the CIA, which had been meddling in Chilean affairs since 1958, helped moderate Eduardo Frei defeat Socialist Salvador Allende for the presidency. Over the next few years, the United States spent millions more supporting anti-Communist groups and provided $163 million in military aid, placing Chile, among the Latin American states, second only to Brazil, whose reform government the United States had helped overthrow in 1964. Meanwhile, the United States trained some four thousand Chilean military officers in counterinsurgency methods at the U.S. Army School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone and on U.S. military bases.
Whereas Kennedy and, to some extent, Johnson had tried to work with democratic elements in the region, Nixon and Kissinger opted for the naked use of force. Nixon informed the NSC, “I will never agree with the policy of downgrading the military in Latin America. They are power centers subject to our influence. The others, the intellectuals, are not subject to our influence.”
Allende ran again in 1970, promising to redistribute wealth and nationalize U.S. companies that controlled Chile’s economy, such as ITT. Prodded by Chase Manhattan Bank’s David Rockefeller and former CIA director and ITT board member John McCone, Kissinger instructed U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry and CIA station chief Henry Hecksher to stop Allende. Hecksher enlisted the help of Chilean power broker Agustin Edwards, who owned copper mines, the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant, and El Mercurio, Chile’s biggest newspaper. The CIA conducted a massive propaganda campaign to convince the Chilean people that Allende would destroy democracy. Korry later deplored the CIA’s incompetence: “I had never seen such dreadful propaganda in a campaign anywhere in the world. I said that the idiots who helped create the ‘campaign of terror’…should have been sacked immediately for not understanding Chile and Chileans.” Despite U.S. efforts, Allende narrowly outpolled his two rivals. When Kissinger told Nixon that Rogers wanted to “see what we can work out [with Allende],” Nixon shot back, “Don’t let them do it.”
At a September 15 meeting with Attorney General John Mitchell and Kissingers, Nixon instructed Helms “to prevent Allende from coming to power to unseat him.” He told him to use his “best men” and gave assurances that he was “not concerned [about the] risks involved.” “Make the economy scream,” he ordered. He told Helms to run the coup planning without notifying Rogers, Laird, or the “40 Committee,” the five-member Kissinger-chaired review panel that authorized and oversaw all CIA clandestine activity. McCone informed Kissinger that ITT’s chief executive officer, Harold Geneen, had offered $1 million to support the effort.
Nixon instructed the CIA to pursue a two-track operation. Track one had two components: spreading propaganda to terrify the Chilean public about the consequences of an Allende presidency and bribing elected officials to block Allende’s confirmation by the Chilean Congress. Track two called for a military coup. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Charles Meyer, Hecksher, and VIron Vaky, Kissinger’s chief advisor on Latin America, all opposed the coup option. Trying to reason with Kissinger, Vaky wrote, “What we propose is patently a violation of our own principles and policy tenets. … If these principles have any meaning, normaly depart from them only meet the gravest threat to us., e.g. to our survival. Is Allende a mortal threat to the U.S.? It is hard to argue this.”
Clearly, Allende posed no “mortal threat” to the American people. A National Security Study Memo commissioned by Kissinger concluded that “the U.S. has no vital national interests within Chile” and an Allende government would not significantly change the balance of power. Kissinger himself had earlier disparaged Chile as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” But he now feared that a successful democratic socialist government in Chile could inspire similar uprisings elsewhere. “What happens in Chile,” he figured, would have an effect “on what happens in the rest of Latin America and the developing world…and on the larger world picture, including…relations with the USSR.” For Kissinger, Chile’s democratic traditions and the freely expressed will of the Chilean people were of little, if any, concern. While chairing a meeting of the “40 Committee,” Kissinger remarked, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
Helms chose Brazil station chief David Atlee Phillips to head the Chile task force. Phillips was well suited to the job, having helped overthrow a democratic government in Guatemala, and suppress a democratic uprising in the Dominican Republic. Despite having twenty-three foreign correspondents on his payroll, he doubted that track one would succeed. Chilean elected officials were simply too honest to bribe. He also doubted the efficacy of track two. Chile’s military, under General Rene Schneider, a strong supporter of the Constitution, was staying out of politics.
CIA propaganda was having more of an impact in the United States than it was in Chile. Time magazine’s October 19 issue had a bright red cover featuring Allende titled “Marxist Threat in the Americas – Chile’s Salvador Allende.” Time trumpeted the CIA line, warning that if Allende “is acknowledged the winner, as seemed virtually certain last week, Chile may not have another free election for a long, long time.” Even worse, it opined, a Communist takeover would inevitably follow. In a subsequent issue, however, one astute reader, Michael Dodge of St. Paul, Minnesota, challenged Time’s biased coverage:
Sir: Intrigued by your marvelous cold war headline, MARXIST THREAT IN THE AMERICAS, I read on to see who is being threatened. Apparently it’s some U.S. copper firms, the telephone company, and assorted juntas. Somehow, I’m not alarmed. I am, however, irritated by your persistent assumption that any form of Marxism enjoying any form of success in any part of the world is, ipso facto, a threat. This kind of thinking gave us Viet Nam. And it ignores the obvious: non-Marxist politicians have generally failed to meet the needs of the masses. I suggest we let our humanity transcend our cold war reflexes and hope that the people of Latin America are finding some of solution to their problems. We haven’t been much help
As the futility of track one became apparent, the focus shifted to track two. With the assistance of allies like Edwards, the United States proceeded to destabilize Chile politically and economically. “You have asked us to provide chaos in Chile,” Hecksher acknowledged in a cable to Langley. Ambassador Korry warned Chilean Defense Minister Serio Ossa, “We shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chilean people to upmost deprivation and poverty.” But even Korry later cabled Kissinger that he was “appalled” by the coup. Undeterred, Kissinger had Helms cable the CIA station in Santiago: Contact the military and let them know USG [U.S. Government] wants a military solution, and that we will support them now and later. … Create at least some sort of coup climate. … Sponsor a military move.”
On October 13, after a meeting with Kissinger, Thomas Hecules Karamessines, director of the CIA’s clandestine services, cabled Hecksher, “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende by overthrown by a coup.” Karamessines instructed the Santiago station chief to encourage General Robert Viaux to join forces with General Camilo Valenzuela and other coup planners in the military. The CIA provided guns and money to two of Valenzuela’s henchmen as part of a plan to kidnap General Schneider – the first step in initiating the coup. But on October 22, Viaux’s men apparently got to Schneider first and assassinated him. Exactly one week earlier, Nixon had assured Korry that he was going to “smash” that “son of a bitch Allende.”
Allende took office on November 3, 1970, having been certified by a vote of 153 – 24. Two days later, Nixon instructed the National Security Council to topple Allende: “If we let…potential leaders in South America think they can move like Chile…we will be in trouble. … No impression should be permitted in Latin America that they can get away with this, that it’s safe to go this way.”
Infuriated by the CIA’s failure to block Allende’s election and its tepid response to his coup plans, Nixon decided to clean house. Egged on by Kissinger’s deputy Alexander Haig, who urged him to eliminate “the key left-wing slots under Helms” and revamp the entire covert operations, Nixon threatened to slash the agency budget and fire Helms if he didn’t conduct a thorough purge. Haig knew that it would be “the most controversial gunfight” in memory. Helms axed four of his six deputies. Nixon ordered him to turn control of the agency over to his deputy, General Robert Cushman, and stay on as figurehead. Helms refused to go along. He also refused to have the CIA take the fall for the Watergate break-in. Nixon ended up firing him.
The Export-Import Bank, the Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the McNamara-led World Bank cut off economic assistance and loans to Chile. U.S. business interests in Chile helped Washington destabilize the government. The CIA jumped in, funding opposition parties and organizations, running propaganda and disinformation campaigns, and initiating demonstrations and violent actions against the government. The Chilean National Congress responded in July 1971 by nationalizing Kennecott, Anaconda, and Cerro Mining and assuming management control of ITT. Chilean authorities calculated that in light of the exorbitant profits that Kennecott and Anaconda had accrued over the years, they were entitled to no compensation. One of Anaconda’s lawyers complained, “We used to be the fucker. Now we’re the fuckee.” Nor was ITT in line for compensation after columnist Jack Anderson exposed the company’s efforts to block Allende’s election and destabilize Chile afterward.
On December 4, 1972, Allende took his case against the United States and the multinational corporations to the United Nations. In a powerful ninety-minute indictment that left listeners in the packed General Assembly hall cheering wildly and yelling “Viva Allende!” the Chilean president detailed the concerted attempt “to prevent the inauguration of a Government freely elected by the people and…to bring it down ever since.” “It is action,” he charged, “that has tried to cut us off from the world, to strangle our economy and to paralyze trade in our principle export, copper, and to deprive us of access to sources of international financing.” He spoke of the plight of all underdeveloped countries being ruthlessly exploited by multinational corporations when he said:
Our economy could no longer tolerate the subordination implied by having more than eighty percent of its exports in the hands of a small group of large foreign companies that have always put their interests ahead of those of the countries where they make their profits. … These same firms exploited Chilean copper for many years, made more than four billion dollars in profit in the last forty-two years alone, while their initial investments were less than thirty million. … We find ourselves opposed by forces that operate in the shadows, without a flag, with powerful weapons, from positions of great influence. … We are potentially rich countries, yet we live in poverty. We go here and there, begging for credits and aid, yet we are great exporters of capital. It is a classic paradox of the capitalist economic system.
Because of Chile’s “decision to recover its own basic resources.” Allende contended, international banks had colluded to cut off its access to credit. ”In a word,” he declared, “it is what we call imperialist insolence.” He singled out the outrageous behavior of ITT, “whose capital is larger than the national budgets of several Latin American countries put together,” and Kennecott Copper, which, he alleged, had averaged 52.8 percent annual profit on its investment between 1955 and 1970. He decried the fact that huge, totally unaccountable “transnational” corporations were waging war against sovereign nations. “The entire political structure of the world,” he warned, “is being undermined.”
Allende spoke on behalf of millions of Latin Americans who had been ruthlessly exploited for decades by U.S. corporations backed by U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence forces. It was the same indictment that General Smedley Butler and Henry Wallace had made so eloquently decades earlier.
U.S. UN Ambassador George H. W. Bush, who, according to the Chicago Tribune, had joined in the standing ovation, feebly replied, “We don’t think of ourselves as imperialists.” “The charge that private enterprise abroad is imperialistic bothers me. It’s one of the things that makes us great and strong.” Nor, he claimed, was the United States participating in any boycott of Chiles. All the United States wanted to see was that the nationalized firms received just compensation. ITT’s response was equally disingenuous. A company spokesman said, “I.T.T. never intervened or interfered in the internal affairs of Chile in any way. … I.T.T. has always respected a host’s [sic] country’s desire to nationalize an I.T.T. property.”
In delivering his courageous speech to the United Nations, Allende may have been signing his own death warrant. In early 1973, the CIA urged its Chilean agents to “induce as much of the military as possible, if not all, to take over and displace the Allende govt.” Strikes and antigovernment protests escalated. Chilean military leaders, directed by General Augusto Pinochet, the army commander, set the coup for September 11, 1973. When Allende heard that the military uprisings had begun across the country, he made a final radio address from the presidential palace: “I will not resign. … Foreign capital – imperialism united with reaction – created the climate for the army to break with their tradition. … Long live Chile! Long live the people! These are my last words. I am sure that my sacrifice will not be in vain. I am sure it will be at least a moral lesson, and a rebuke to crime, cowardice and treason.” Allende took his own life with a rifle he had been given as a gift. A gold-medal plate embedded in the stock was inscribed, “To my good friend Salvador Allende from Fidel Castro.”
Pinochet seized power. After the coup, Nixon and Kissenger assessed the damage. Speaking by phone, Kissinger, who was getting ready to attend the Redskin’s season opener, complained that the newspapers were “bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.” Nixon muttered, “Isn’t that something. Isn’t that something.” Kissinger replied, “I mean instead of celebrating – in the Eisenhower period we would have been heroes.” Nixon said, “Well we didn’t – as you know – our hand doesn’t show on this one though.” Kissinger amended the statement: “We didn’t do it. I mean we helped them. --- created the conditions as great as possible.” To which Nixon responded, “That is right…as far as people are concerned…they aren’t going to buy this crap from the liberals on this one…it is a pro-Communist government and that is the way it is.” “Exactly. And pro-Castro,” Kissinger agreed. “Well the main thing was, let’s forget the pro-Communist, it was an anti-American government all the way,” Nixon added. Oh, wildly,” Kissinger concurred. He assured Nixon that he was just reporting the criticism. But it wasn’t bothering him. Nixon reflected, “Yes, you are reporting it because it is just typical of the crap we are up against.” “And the unbelievable filthy hypocrisy,” Kissinger averred.
Pinochet murdered more than 3,200 of his opponents and jailed and tortured tens of thousands more in a reign of terror that began with the actions of the Chilean Army death squad known as Caravan of Death. Kissinger saw to it that the United States quickly recognized and provided aid to the murderous regime. In June 1976, he visited the Chilean dictator and assured him, “We are sympathetic to what you are trying to do here.”
Pinochet didn’t limit his killing to Chile. Three months after Kissinger’s visit, Pinochet’s assassins killed Orlando Letilier, Allende’s ambassador to the United Nations, and Ronni Moffitt, Letelier’s colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies. The car bombing, which occurred fourteen blocks from the White House, had been carried out under Operation Condor, an assassination ring run by a network of Latin American intelligence agencies based in Chile. Members included the right-wing governments of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. At a minimum, the United States facilitated communications among the intelligence chiefs. The operation was masterminded by Colonel Manuel Contreras, the head of Chilean intelligence, who served as a CIA asset and received at least one payment for his services. Many of those assassinated were left-wing guerrilla leaders. But Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Harry Sclaudeman informed Kissinger that the targets actually included “nearly anyone who opposes government policy.”
Kissinger could have disrupted the Condor operations, including the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations. On August 30, 1976, Shlauderman sent him a memo, stating, “what we are trying to head off is a series of international murders that could do serious damage to the international status and reputations of the countries involved.” Kissinger had already approved sending a diplomatic protest to the heads of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, expressing “our deep concern” over “plans for the assassinations of subversives, politicians, and prominent figures both with the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad.” But the demarche was never delivered because, on September 16, Kissinger canceled the warning, cabling Shlauderman that he had “instructed that no further action be taken on this matter.”
Under Condor, assassination squads tracked down and killed more than 13,000 dissidents outsides their home countries. Hundreds of thousands more were thrown into concentration camps.
Although Nixon and Kissinger have been rightly condemned for the viciousness of their policies in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Chile, they have also garnered praise for easing tensions in other areas. Normalizing relations with China was the most obvious case in point.
Nixon followed up his triumphal February 1972 visit to China with a May visit to the Soviet Union. Wary of the United States’ new friendship with China, the Soviets greeted him warmly. In Moscow, Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), the first strategic arms agreement, which restricted each side to two defensive antiballistic missile systems and placed limits on the number of offensive ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The treaty failed to slow the growth of nuclear warheads because it placed no restraints on multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) – missiles that could carry several bombs aimed at separate targets. Nor did it do anything to roll back the massive existing arsenals that gave each side the ability to destroy the other several times over. But as a first step, the agreement was of great symbolic importance. Brezhnev and Nixon also initiated the process that resulted in recognition of Eastern Europe’s borders in return for pledges to respect human right in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. They issued a joint communique and statement of “Basic Principle.” The first of those principles stated that both countries “will proceed from the common determination that in the nuclear age there is no alternative to conducting their mutual relations on the basis of peaceful coexistence.” Nixon addressed a joint session of Congress upon his return, saying:
Everywhere new hope are rising for a world no longer shadowed by fear and want and war. … To millions of Americans for the last quarter century the Kremlin has stood for implacable hostility toward all we cherish, and to millions of Russians the American flag has long been held up as a symbol of evil. No one would have believed even a short time ago that these two apparently irreconcilable symbols would be seen together as we say them for the those few days. … Three-fifths of all people alive in the world today have spent their whole lifetimes under the shadow of a nuclear war. … Last Friday in Moscow we witnessed the beginning of the end of that era.
Nikita Khrushchev, who had helped pave the way for this monumental change, was not around to see it; he had died of heart failure the previous September. Living in a long cabin, he had become a critic of the Soviet government and its heavy-handed suppression of dissent. He infuriated Soviet leaders by smuggling his memoirs out of the country. Published in the West under the title Khrushchev Remembers, it became a best seller. In it, he mused sadly about the peaceful world he and Kennedy wanted to achieve. The Soviet Central Committee decided to downplay his funeral, burying him in a corner of Moscow cemetery. No monument was erected for four years.
On June 17, 1971, the United States and Japan signed a treaty that allowed Okinawa to revert to Japan in May of 1972. The Japanese had recoiled at the United States’ use of Okinawa as a base for operations in Vietnam and a storage site for nuclear weapons. Okinawans concurred. According to the new treaty, the United States would sell Okinawa back to Japan but would retain its bases on the island and use them for combat in the region. Japan not only paid the United States an exorbitant sum to “buy back” the island, it agreed to make large annual payments toward the costs of retaining the bases. Elsewhere, the United States paid host countries for the privilege of putting bases on their land or at least shared the cost. To make matters worse, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato subverted the agreement by secretly allowing the United States to reintroduce nuclear weapons into Okinawa.
The conflict over Okinawa went back more than a decade. In 1960, the United States and Japan concluded the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, widely known by the Japanese abbreviation AMPO, which sanctioned continued occupation of Okinawa and retention of U.S. military bases elsewhere in Japan. Opposition had been so widespread and protests so massive that the government of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Sato’s older brother, had been forced to resign. Kishi had also blundered by telling the Diet that the Japanese Constitution did not ban the development of nuclear weapons, a view that was anathema to most Japanese. U.S. Ambassador Douglas MacArthur had complained that “latent neutralism is fed on anti-militarist sentiments, pacifism, fuzzy-mindedness, nuclear neuroses and Marxist bent of intellectuals and educators.” The previous year, MacArthur had pressured the chief justice of the Japanese Supreme Court to overturn a Tokyo District Court ruling that U.S. forces in Japan represented “war potential” and therefore infringed upon the antimilitarist Article 9 of the Japanese Peace Constitution that General Douglas MacArthur, the ambassador’s uncle, had helped fashion during the occupation. Article 9 states, “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” and that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” During that time, the Japanese government had also concluded the first of a series of “secret agreements” with the United States in which the government supported U.S. nuclear strategy and military preparations. The most egregious offense had come in the “tacit agreement” that “no prior consultation is required for US military vessels carrying nuclear weapons to enter Japanese ports of sail in Japanese waters.”
But the smoldering tension between the United States and Japan flared under Nixon. Japan’s consternation and surprise over the United States’ opening to China only exacerbated the two countries’ long-standing military and economic differences. U.S. leaders had continuously pressured Japan to revoke Article 9 and play a greater role in regional defense. The United States also threatened to impose import quotas against Japanese textiles, forcing Japan to cut its textile exports, allow in more U.S. imports, and open its markets to U.S. investors. Nixon privately complained about the “Jap betrayal” and expressed his eagerness to “stick it to Japan.”
Sato had been a willing partner in the United State’s push for the remilitarization of Japan – perhaps too willing. He had taken office in November 1964, just one month after the Chinese atomic bomb test. He had met with President Johnson in January 1965 and declared that “if Chcoms [Chinese Commumists] had nuclear weapons, the Japanese also should have them.” He had added that “Japanese public opinion will not permit this at present, but I believe that the public, especially the younger generation, can be ‘educated.’” Such a view had widespread support among Japanese leaders in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Yasuhiro Nakasone, the director of the Japanese Defense Agency and a future prime minister, commissioned a report by the agency that concluded, “it would be possible in a legal sense to possess small-yield, tactical, purely defensive nuclear weapons without violating the Constitution.” But the agency recommended against doing so at that point, a stance that Johnson welcomed.
It was Sato who tried to hoodwink the Japanese people into believing the sincerity of his anti-nuclear statements when he articulated the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” before the Diet in December 1967. According to those principles, Japan would not manufacture, possess, or permit the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan, a commitment that Sato was regularly breaking and that he described to U.S. Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson as “nonsense.” When Japan had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1970, it had extracted a promise from the United States that it would not “interfere with Tokyo’s pursuit of independent reprocessing capabilities in its civilian nuclear power program.” Given Japan’s technological capability and stockpile of spent fuel, it would always remain one “screwdriver twist” away from having nuclear bombs.
Not everyone applauded Nixon rapprochement with China and the Soviet Union. The North Vietnamese feared that they were being hung out to dry. As a New York Times editorial noted, “Chairman Mao received President Nixon shortly after heavy bombing of North Vietnam had resumed; Secretary General Brezhnev received the President shortly after North Vietnam’s harbors were mined. No words are needed for Hanoi to understand that the Chinese and Soviet leaders put their own interests first.”
Though most Americans applauded his bold initiatives, Nixon braced for a “revolt” by his former allies on the right who thought he had betrayed them by visiting China, concluding arms control treaties that allowed the Soviet Union to gain nuclear parity, pulling most U.S. troops out of Vietnam, taking the United States off the gold standard, imposing wage and price controls, and embracing Keynesian economics. They were also upset that he had established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), endorsed a guaranteed annual income for all families, supported the Equal Rights Amendment and Endangered Species Act, and strengthened the Voting Rights Act.
Opponents of détente and arms controls struck back, spurred by former RAND nuclear expert Albert Wohlstetter. Applying game theory and systems analysis to defense policy, Wohlstetter based his projections not on what the Soviets were likely to do but on what they were capable of doing – no matter how irrational or self-destructive. He worried that SAC bombers and ICBMs might be vulnerable to a surprise Soviet nuclear attack and supported the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) system to defend them. McNamara had dropped plans to build a large-scale ABM system when he learned that defensive weapons cost five times much as the missiles they protected against and could be easily overwhelmed by sending more ICBMs. Scientists throughout the country mobilized in opposition to ABM, which they believed expensive, unnecessary, unworkable, and likely to further propel the arms race. McNamara knew that the U.S. deterrent was more than adequate. When he declared in 1964 that a 400-megaton nuclear strike would be enough to destroy the Soviet Union, the U.S. stockpile was already 42.5 times that size and growing rapidly.
Wohlstetter and veteran hawk Paul Nitze formed the Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy and set out to defeat the ABM treaty. The recruited Richard Perle, Edward Luttwak, Peter Wilson, and Paul Wolfowitz. One committee enthusiast, Dean Acheson, anointed them “our four musketeers.” Wilson and Woflowitz had studied with Wohlstetter at the University of Chicago, where he taught political science. Perle had become of disciple while still in high school.
Following the unsuccessful effort to stop the ABM treaty, Perle took a job with Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s powerful Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Jackson’s foreign policy team would eventually include a gaggle of leading neoconservatives. Jackson and his acolytes bristled at the fact that the SALT treaty allowed the Soviets a temporary advantage in the number of missiles and in missile throw weight. They ignored the fact that the United States had significant advantages in terms of both numbers of nuclear warheads and technology. The United States also had a three-to-one advantage in bombers. Jackson charged U.S. negotiators with having “caved in” to their Soviet counterparts. He attached an amendment to the SALT treaty stipulating that no future treaty could permit the United States anything less than numerical parity in any category of weapons. Jackson pressured the White House into firing a quarter of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) staff, including a dozen people involved inn SALT negotiations. The new, more conservative head of the ACDA, Fred Ikle, recruited Wolfowitz to fill one of the vacancies. In 1974, Jackson’s allies passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which denied trade benefits to any Communist nation that restricted citizens’ rights to emigrate freely. Kissinger was furious, claiming that the amendment had “blighted U.S.-Soviet relations ever after,” which was just what Jackson, Perle and company wanted.
In June 1971, the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam War, showing that the government had systematically lied to the public about Vietnam for years. RAND analyst Daniel Ellsberg was one of the few people to have had access to the study in the summer of 1969. The more he read of the history of the French and then U.S. invasions, the more he understood the moral indefensibility of U.S. policy. By September 1969, he had drawn several key conclusions: The war had been “an American war almost from the beginning.” It was a “struggle of Vietnamese…against American policy and American financing, proxies, technology, firepower, and finally, troops and pilots.” It was only U.S. money, weapons, and manpower that had kept the political violence at the scale of a “war” since 1954. And, most significantly, he understood that
It was no more a “civil war” after 1955 or 1960 than it had been during the U.S.-supported French attempt at colonial reconquest. A war in which one side was entirely equipped and paid by a foreign power – which dictated the nature of the local regime in its own interest – was not a civil war. To say that we had “interfered” in what is “really a civil war,” as most American academic writers and even liberal critics of the war do to this day, simply screened a more painful reality and was as much a myth as the earlier official one of “aggression from the North.” In terms of the UN Charter and our own avowed ideals, it was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression.
Ellsberg recalled his former Pentagon boss John McNaughton telling RAND researchers that “if what you say is true, we’re fighting on the wrong side.” Ellsberg realized that stating it that way had “missed the reality since 1954. We were the wrong side.” Therefore, in his mind, the war was a “crime,” an “evil,” “mass murder.” And he knew that Nixon was lying about ending it. In fact, through his bombing policy, Nixon was showing the North that there were no limits to what he was willing to do to achieve “victory.”
Inspired by the example of young activists who chose to go to prison to protest the war and increasingly desperate to end the bloodshed, Ellsberg photocopied the forty-seven-volume McNamara study. He then tried to convince several senators to enter the study into the public record. When that failed, he went to Neil Sheehan of the New York Times. On Saturday, June 13, 1971, the Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers. On June 15, the Justice Department filed for an injunction in Federal District Court in New York. The judge issued a temporary restraining order against the Times. Such an action was unprecedented. An injunction had never before been used to stop the presses in the United States.
To circumvent the injunction, Ellsberg then gave the documents to the Washington Post, which took up where the Times left off until it, too, was blocked. But, anticipating that, Ellsberg had gotten copies to seventeen other newspapers. After the Post was enjoined, excerpts appeared in the Boston Globe and then the St. Louis Post Dispatch. In all, nineteen papers printed sections of the papers. Meanwhile, the FBI conducted a thirteen-day manhunt for Ellsberg, who had gone into hiding. The Detroit News interviewed Ellsberg’s father, a Republican who had twice voted for Nixon. The elder Ellsberg proudly defended his son’s actions: “Daniel gave up everything to devote himself to ending that foolish slaughter. … If he did give them that report, and if the government accuses him of some crime…well, he might be saving some boys they’d have sent there otherwise.”
On June 28, Ellsberg surrendered to the authorities. As he walked toward the federal building, a reporter asked, “How do you feel about going to prison?” Ellsberg replied, “Wouldn’t you go to jail to help end the war?” On June 29, Alaska Democratic Senator Mike Gravel tried unsuccessfully to read the papers on the floor of Congress, but he later managed to read them into the record in a hastily called evening subcommittee session. He also distributed a large number of unpublished top secret documents to reporters. The following day, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Times, releasing the Times and Post to resume publication. Ellsberg, however, was indicted on criminal felony charges and faced 115 years in prison.
Nixon actually welcomed the leaks showing years of lies about Vietnam by Democratic administrations. He salivated at the thought of leaking more documents exposing Kennedy’s involvement in the Diem assassination. Kissinger called it a “gold mine,” but when he hesitated to undertake the leading himself, Nixon instructed Charles Colson to do so.
Nixon and Kissinger decided to destroy Ellsberg. Kissinger told Nixon, “Daniel Ellsberg is the most dangerous man in America today. He must be stopped at all costs.” In late July, Kissinger railed against Ellsberg to Nixon: “that son of a bitch – first of all, I would expect – I know him well. … I am sure he has some more information. … I would bet that he has more information that he’s saving for the trial. Examples of U.S. war crimes that triggered him into it.”
In July, Nixon approved establishing a White House Special Investigations Unit. Former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt were brought in to help run things. They hung a “Plumbers” sign on their door and set to plug the leaks. In September, they broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in hopes of finding something to use to silence him before he could release documents Nixon thought he had revealing Nixon’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Coming up empty with that break-in, they made further plans to silence Ellsberg, unleashing a wave of dirty tricks and criminal activities that would eventually bring multiple indictments and Nixon’s ignominious resignation.
Hanoi’s spring 1972 offensive pulverized the South Vietnamese army. Desperate to avoid defeat before the election, Nixon contemplated measure so extreme that even Kissinger objected. “…power plants…the docks…And, I still think we ought to take the dykes out now. Will that drown people?” Nixon asked. “About two hundred thousand people,” Kissinger informed him. “No, no, no…I’d rather use the nuclear bomb,” Nixon asserted. Kissinger hesitated, “That, I think, would just be too much.” “The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?” Nixon asked, “I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.”
Nixon bombed North Vietnamese cities for the first time since 1968 as well as sites throughout the South and mined Haiphong. He wanted Hanoi to be “bombed to smithereens,” declaring that the “bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” Civilian casualties soared. Nixon felt no remorse, telling Kissinger, “The only place where you and I disagree…is with regards to the bombing. You’re so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.” Kissinger assured Nixon that his restraint was based on political calculations, not humanitarian ones: “I’m concerned about the civilians because I don’t want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher.”
In October, the stalled Paris talks suddenly revived. Kissinger announced, “Peace is at hand.” But after winning reelection, Nixon unleashed a massive twelve-day “Christmas bombing” campaign against Hanoi and Haiphong – the heaviest bombing of the war. The international outcry was deafening. Peace talks resumed. On January 23, Nixon announced an agreement that would “end the war and bring peace with honor.” The Paris Peace Accords were signed on January 27. The United States ceased military activities, and the last U.S. troops departed on March 29, 1973. Approximately 150,000 North Vietnamese soldiers remained in the South, thought they were to respect the cease-fire. Thieu would retain power pending the results of the elections in which all would participate. But in fact he made no effort to hold elections. Nixon assuaged Thieu by increasing the already massive military support and promising to restart the bombing if the Communists attempted a new offensive.
In April, within weeks of the U.S. troops’ departure, Nixon and Kissinger ordered a resumption of bombing in both the North and the South – bombing more intense than at any previous point in the war. The order was rescinded, Time magazine reported, when Nixon learned of John Dean’s damning revelations to Watergate prosecutors. Nixon decided not to inflame public opinion by bombing at the same time he was preparing to battle Congress, a determination he would make for the rest of his time in office.
The war dragged on for two more years. On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese seized Saigon. The war was finally over. By its end, the United States had dropped more bombs on tiny Vietnam than had been dropped by all side in all previous wars throughout history – three times as many explosives as were dropped by all sides in World War II. Unexploded ordinance blanketed the countryside. Nineteen million gallons of herbicide poisoned the environment. In the South, the United States had destroyed 9,000 of the 15,000 hamlets. In the North, it had rained destruction on all six industrial cities, levelling 28 of 30 provincial towns and 96 of 116 district towns. Le Duan, who took over leadership of North Vietnam when Ho died in 1969, told a visiting journalist that the United States had threatened to use nuclear weapons on thirteen different occasion. The war’s human toll was staggering. More than 58,000 Americans had died in the fighting. But that paled in comparison to the number of Vietnamese killed and wounded. Robert McNamara would later tell students at American University that 3.8 million Vietnamese had died.
The horrors of Cambodia exceeded those of Vietnam. In December 1972, Nixon instructed Kissinger, “I want everything that can fly to go over there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?”
Kissinger conveyed the orders to his assistant Alexander Haig: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?”
The bombing continued until August 15, 1973, when Congress cut funding for the war. More than 100,000 sites were hit with more than 3 million tons of ordnance. The attacks left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead. The Cambodian economy lay in tatters. Inflation skyrocketed, especially food prices. Production dwindled. Rice production was barely one-sixth of prewar levels. Starvation was rampant. Not everyone suffered, though; the elite frolicked in opulence and splendor. Refugees flooded into Phnom Penh, creating a humanitarian crisis. Approximately 95 percent of all income came from the United States. By early 1974, U.S. humanitarian aid totaled $2.5 million compared with $516.5 million in military aid.
The Khmer Rouge, which had been a weak force prior to the bombing, used those atrocities to recruit in the same way that others would later use U.S. atrocities to recruit in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Khmer Rouge officer Chhit Do:
Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched. … The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them. … Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge grew exponentially. Terrifying reports circulated of the fanaticism of its young cadre. In 1975, it seized power. It wasted little time in unleashing new horrors against its own people, leading to a genocide in which more than 1.5 million people perished, on top of the half million or so who had been killed in the U.S. phase of the war. The United States, given its new alliance with China, Cambodia’s principle ally, maintained friendly relations with the brutal Pol Pot regime. In late 1975, Kissinger told the Thai foreign minister, “You should…tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.”
Fortunately, Hanoi did not turn a blind eye. In 1978, it tried to spark the Cambodians to rise up against a government Vietnamese leaders described as “the most disgusting murderers in the latter half of this century.” Vietnam invaded that year, eventually toppling Pol Pot’s heinous regime. The Vietnamese reported, “In Cambodia, a former island of peace…no one smiles today. Now the land is soaked with blood and tears. … Cambodia is hell on earth.” Perhaps a quarter of Cambodia’s population died during the Khmer Rouge’ brief rule.
If the United States did not wreak similar devastation on Laos, it was not for lack of trying. The United States had been “secretly” bombing Laos since 1964. It was no secret to the Laotians. Starting in 1967, the pace of the bombing picked up. Civilian suffering increased. When Nixon took over, all restraints were removed. Belgian UN advisor Georges Chapelier detailed the situation on the basis of interviews with survivors:
Prior to 1967, bombing was light and far from populated centers. By 1968 the intensity of the bombing was such that no organized life was possible in the villages. The villages moved to the outskirts and then deeper and deeper into the forest as the bombing climax reached its peak in 1969 when jet planes came daily and destroyed all stationary structures. Nothing was left standing. The villagers lived in trenches and holes or in caves. They only farmed at night. All of the interlocutors, without any exception, had his village completely destroyed. In the last phase, bombings were aimed at the systematic destruction of the material basis of the civilian society. Harvest burned down and rice became scarce.
Between 1965 and 1975, the United States dropped 2,756,941 tons of ordnance in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites.
The Pathet Lao-controlled Plain of Jars region was one of the areas that took the brunt of the U.S. offensive. Most of the young left to join the Pathet Lao. U.S.-allied Meo soldiers evacuated the remaining villagers. By September 1969, the area was largely deserted. Fred Branfman, who interviewed more than a thousand refugees, wrote, “after a recorded history of seven hundred years, the Plain of Jars disappeared.” Much of Laos suffered a similar fate.
Nixon barely had time to savor his 1972 electoral victory before the Watergate scandal engulfed his administration. Congressional investigations revealed the depths of corruption and abuses of power. The floodgates opened when Alexander Butterfield disclosed the White House tapes, without which Nixon would have avoided impeachment. At the time, Butterfield said he hoped he wouldn’t be asked about the tapes and, when asked, did not want to perjure himself. He later admitted privately that he hope committee members would ask the question. He said that while sitting in on Nixon, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman’s discussion of who they were going to pin Watergate on, he had concluded that they were despicable, ruthless human beings and had decided not to protect them. The public soon discovered what John Mitchell referred to as “the White House horrors.”
In October, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced out of office over bribes and kickbacks he had received when governor of Maryland. Nixon appointed the likeable but undistinguished House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to replace Agnew. One observer noted, “few men are better qualified than Ford for a job that demands practically nothing of the man who holds it.”
The House Judiciary Committed drafted three articles of impeachment for obstructing justice, misusing the powers of the presidency, and refusing to comply with the committee’s requests for information. Pressure to resign came from all sides. Many observers felt that Nixon was becoming dangerously paranoid. Wary of what Nixon might do, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and instructed that no military units respond to orders from the White House without first getting his approval. By early August, Nixon’s support in Congress had evaporated. Having run out of time and options, he resigned on August 9, 1974.
Gerald Ford announce: “Our long national nightmare is over” and later gave the “madman” Nixon a controversial pardon. But forty government officials and members of Nixon’s reelection committee were convicted of felonies. Among those sentenced to prison terms were Dean, Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, political assistants, Charles Colson, Egil Krogh, and Jeb Stuart Magruder, and the president’s lawyer Herbert Kalmbach. Nixon impersonator David Frye quipped, “There’s a bright side to Watergate. My administration has taken crime out of the streets and put it in the White House where I can keep an eye on it.”
“Psychopathic” Kissinger came through unscathed. In October 1973, he and North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Tom Lehrer, America’s most brilliant political satirist, announced that Kissinger’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize made political satire obsolete and refused ever to perform again. Unlike Kissinger, Le Duc Tho, knowing that peace had not yet been achieved, had the decency to turn the prize down.
Historian Carolyn Eisenberg aptly pointed out, “Richard Nixon was the only President in American history to engage in sustained military action against three nations without a mandate from the public, press, the government bureaucracies or the foreign elite.”
Next, Chapter 10: COLLAPSE OF DÉTENTE – Darkness at Noon