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SETTING THE STAGE: NIXON'S POLICY

 

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon, well known as a hard-line anti-Communist, proposed a plan to end the war and ran his campaign based on a peaceful withdrawal from Vietnam. Nixon did win the Presidency and many believed he won it by his stance on ending the war. Upon assuming office in January 1969, Nixon ordered an internal governmental survey of American involvement in Vietnam. The results, published as National Security Study Memorandum 1 (NSSM-1), noted 'emphatic differences' among the various agencies on how to defend and withdraw from Vietnam. Perhaps the largest area of disagreement was over the bombing strategy employed, then later stopped by President Johnson. It appears that the division over the bombing arose not because it was a bad way to ensure a peaceful withdrawal, but because of the manner in which the Johnson Administration used the bombing campaign. Specifically, targets were selected by the President and his staff in Washington. If Nixon were to employ such a tactic, many of his supporters feared that this might also lead to a perceived escalation of the war, resulting in another round of public demonstrations. Since NSSM-1 had confirmed the divisions between government agencies and bureaucrats on the overall conduct of the war, Nixon would use this confusion among the established system of governmental 'checks and balances' to his own advantage by freely acting without the concurrence or non-concurrence of those agencies in his policy decisions. In other words, organized internal governmental opposition (Democratic Party, Republican in-fighting, etc.) to his policy would be almost non-existent. However, Nixon had several major considerations, both domestic and international, which would affect the development and execution of his policy.

The first issue was the growing anti-war movement. Many Americans were ready for an end to the war because measurable gains at any level (political and military) were far outweighed by the rising cost in American lives and economic resources during the previous five years of the conflict. Secondly, and inextricably linked to the first issue, was America's long-standing investment in and commitment to the protection of South Vietnam. This issue would inherently cause conflict and contradiction in the face of establishing a withdrawal policy when considering the billions of dollars of aid and thousands of lives expended for an apparently futile effort. Additionally, Nixon was concerned that the USSR and China would view this 'retreat' and change in American policy as a victory for world communism. If America failed to stop communist aggression, then the 'Communist Revolution' was sure to succeed. In a July 1969 speech, Nixon would sum up these concerns by saying: The way the war ends in Vietnam will have an enduring impact upon events, although the domino effect is not necessarily valid. It is easy to feel that we should get out of Asia at all costs. The war plagues us at home, is costly in our relations with the USSR, and offers all kinds of temptations to our politicians. Yet if the Vietnam war goes sour, there would be an escalation of not just 'get out of Vietnam sentiment' but 'get out of the world sentiment.' And this would be disastrous. Should we abandon Vietnam, there would be far more blood spilled than if we remain steady in our purposes.

Nevertheless, Hanoi continued to stall at the Paris negotiations in hopes that the American anti-war movement would force the Administration to withdraw almost unconditionally from Vietnam. Aware of Hanoi's diplomatic tactics, Nixon would have to establish his policy quickly in an attempt to strengthen his position and bargaining power. For several months, Nixon tested the waters by maintaining a policy towards the war which was not significantly different from that of his predecessor. However, now the time had come to implement his style of leadership through actions regarding the war in Vietnam that differed significantly from that which the world had come to expect of Washington. This change would catch many governments off guard, especially those of Hanoi and other leading communist states.



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