09 August 2004
As President George Bush faces an election with US troops enmeshed in a foreign conflict, evidence has emerged that President Richard Nixon may have delayed a military pullout from Vietnam in 1972 to avoid a collapse that might have imperilled his bid for a second term.
The evidence is in newly released tapes of a conversation in the Oval Office on 3 August, 1972, between Mr Nixon and his then national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. The transcripts were made public by the University of Virginia, 30 years to the day after Mr Nixon, facing impeachment by Congress, became the first and only President to resign.
The recordings, made on the same, secret, voice-activated system which would bring about Mr Nixon's Watergate downfall in August 1974, show he was concerned about the domestic impact of a collapse of the South Vietnamese government, left to fight the North alone without US military support.
Mr Nixon, who died in 1994, aged 81, had decided that despite months of heavy bombing in the North, the South "probably can never survive anyway". But he told Mr Kissinger: "We also have to realise, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important", as was the need for a "viable foreign policy".
Mr Kissinger's advice that day was that the US could retain its foreign policy credibility, if the South Vietnamese government in Saigon held on for a certain period, the so-called "decent interval" approach. "So we've got to find some formula that holds the whole thing together a year or two", after which Vietnam would be "a backwater". If a settlement could be reached that year, Mr Kissinger said, "by January 1974, no one will give a damn". In the event, the Paris peace conference deal to withdraw US troops came in January 1973, two months after Mr Nixon had won re-election in a landslide over his Democratic opponent George McGovern.
After more than two years, Saigon fell to the North in April, 1975. Mr Kissinger and his North Vietnamese opposite number, Le Duc Tho, shared the Nobel peace prize for negotiating a settlement.
Last night, Mr Kissinger denied Mr Nixon had delayed an inevitable withdrawal - ensuring the deaths of more US servicemen - to avoid a pre-electoral foreign-policy disaster. He said he had letters from Mr Nixon stating "the exact opposite of what's in this conversation". In the letters, Mr Kissinger says, the President urged his senior foreign policy adviser to "go ahead and do what you need to do, but don't be affected by the election. We want an agreement that lasts".
But some historians disagree. Jeffrey Kimball, author of Nixon's Vietnam War, said that by early 1972, if not before, the administration had concluded the war was unwinnable. "But say they pulled out at the end of 1971 or at the beginning of 1972; Saigon might fall before the election, or right after the election. What would that look like?"
Iraq is not Vietnam, neither in length of conflict nor of US casualties, but President George Bush faces problems similar to those of Mr Nixon 32 years ago. Amid continuing violence, and after the deaths of 924 servicemen, the American people increasingly favour a pullout of their 140,000 troops in Iraq. But that would almost certainly plunge the country into chaos, and probably finish the interim government of Iyad Allawi, the last thing Mr Bush wants in a close-fought election year.