Saturday, October 29, 2011

Richard Nixon, the Pentagon Papers and the Christmas Bombing

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe how the release of the Pentagon Papers, a Defense Department review of Vietnam War policy since the 1940s, led to the Watergate Scandal and the horrible devastation wrought by President Richard Nixon's "Christmas Bombing" campaign in 1972.

President Richard Nixon deeply believed in secrecy and felt threatened whenever White House discussions became public knowledge. This extended even to public knowledge about debates within previous administrations. His volcanic temper exploded, therefore, with The New York Times’ 1971 publication of what came to be known as “The Pentagon Papers,” a huge collection of government memos on Vietnam from the period just after World War II to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that had been archived and analyzed by the Defense Department under the order of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967. The documents spanned 47 volumes, complete with 3,000 pages of commentary by unnamed government historians. The papers revealed that several Democratic and Republican administrations had intentionally misled the American public about the military’s success in Vietnam and the stability and strength of the United States’ ally South Vietnam.

Worried, as Karnow suggested, that “any disclosure of squabbles and duplicity within the government – even the Johnson administration – might damage the public’s faith in his own leadership,” the Nixon administration rushed to the federal courts to halt publication of the documents after the Times published three installments. The Justice Department won a temporary retraining order to stop further publication by the Times and the Washington Post, which had begun to publish its own series. On June 30, 1971, the United States Supreme Court lifted the order, holding that freedom of the press stood paramount over administration concerns about secrecy.

Nixon was not done with the matter. “I want to know who is behind this, and I want the most complete investigation that can be conducted,” Nixon shouted. “ . . . I don’t want excuses. I want results. I want it done, whatever the costs.” Nixon’s secret investigation revealed the source of the leak, Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon official during the McNamara era. Egil “Bud” Krogh, a White House assistant, sought to damage the reputation of Ellsberg and prevent further press leaks. “Anyone who opposes us, we’ll destroy,” Krogh said. “As a matter of fact, anyone who doesn’t support us, we’ll destroy.” The team Krogh assembled to “plug” leaks became known as the “White House Plumbers.” The Plumbers, which included White House Special Counsel Charles Colson, former CIA Agent E. Howard Hunt, and retired FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, would play a key role in Watergate.

They compiled a White House “enemies list” of 200 names, including celebrities such as liberal actor Gregory Peck, star of the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Super Bowl-winning New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath, reporter Daniel Schorr of CBS News and print journalist Stanley Karnow. The Plumbers put Ellsberg under surveillance and in one of their many illegal acts, burglarized the office of his psychiatrist hoping to find damaging evidence about his mental health. A grand jury had indicted Ellsberg for theft of the Pentagon Papers and he went on trial in January 1973, but all charges were dropped on May 11 after news broke about the Plumbers’ burglary. During the summer of 1974, a jury convicted White House aides Ehrlichman and G. Gordon Liddy of violating the psychiatrist’s civil rights and sent the pair to federal prison.


Vietnam peace talks started in Paris in 1968 during the Johnson administration, although after the first eight months of talks, the only issue the Americans and the North Vietnamese had agreed upon was the shape of the conference table. A key sticking point for the peace talks became North Vietnam’s insistence that South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu resign, an issue on which Nixon would not budge.

By the start of 1972, the President could correctly point out that he had withdrawn more than 400,000 troops from Southeast Asia. Now, combat deaths were down to about 10 a week. Kissinger was secretly negotiating with the government committee that had run North Vietnam since Ho’s death. Yet, the war was going to take one more bloody turn that year.

The North Vietnamese launched their “Easter Offensive” on March 30, with more than 120,000 North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong soldiers initially overwhelming South Vietnamese forces in the northern provinces, the Central Highlands and the area just north of the capital, Saigon. “Equipped with Soviet artillery, rockets and tanks,” the North Vietnamese made big gains. The Americans, on the other hand, had only 6,000 combat soldiers left of the 70,000 remaining in Vietnam. South Vietnam had a million armed soldiers, but they were stretched to the breaking point.

North Vietnam was beating the South Vietnamese forces badly because, as Nixon observed in his diary, “the enemy is willing to sacrifice in order to win, while the South Vietnamese simply aren’t willing to pay that much of a price in order to avoid losing.” Karnow estimates that the North Vietnamese suffered 50,000 dead during the campaign and about the same number of wounded. In the end, the North Vietnamese did not deal their enemies a final defeat or permanently gain much territory, but they killed Nixon’s willingness to stretch out the game much longer in the hope that Vietnamization would work and leave a durable regime in Saigon.

Politically unable to re-introduce combat troops, Nixon pounded North Vietnam and communist positions in South Vietnam with bombs, American B-52s flying about 50,000 sorties south of the demilitarized zone that separated the two countries. The bombing in the North was sustained and brutal, with 125,000 tons of bombs dropped there, and hospitals, schools, and other civilian targets destroyed along with military objectives like roads, bridges, and oil facilities. Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital, suffered much of the damage. Americans also bombed Haiphong Harbor, a key supply depot for the communists, and placed a naval blockade on the North, creating food shortages and other hardships. By the time “Operation Linebacker” ended in October, North Vietnam had suffered 100,000 casualties. By the end of 1972, the Americans couldn’t “win” with air power alone, and the North Vietnamese couldn’t protect themselves from bombers. Hanoi signaled it was ready to talk again.

The combat in 1972, however, produced one more searing image from the war. On June 8, South Vietnamese pilots accidentally dropped napalm on a South Vietnam village and Nick Ut photographed a young woman, Kim Phuc, who had torn off her burning clothes and was running down a road near Trang Bang screaming as the chemicals burned her flesh. The napalm burned her skin at almost 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Phuc, who eventually defected to Canada, underwent 17 surgeries to overcome her injuries. Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo, another scarring image from a long, divisive war. As it was published around the world, even more Americans questioned the sanity of continuing the conflict.

One last act remained in the almost 30-year drama. Talks between Kissinger and the North Vietnamese representative to the peace talks, Le Duc Tho, resumed on August 1. Kissinger told the American public that peace “was at hand” just before the November election showdown with McGovern, but the talks stalled again. Nixon responded with the so-called “Christmas Bombing” in December, in which U.S. planes dropped more ordnance than in the first two years of the Nixon administration. A Vietnamese physician, Nguyen Luan, later recalled how, after a bomb hit one hospital, he had to amputate the limbs of patients so he could remove them from the rubble. The North Vietnamese shot down 26 American aircraft. By now, both sides were exhausted. The North Vietnamese no longer demanded the removal of South Vietnamese President Thieu. All remaining differences between Le Duc Tho and Kissinger were resolved and a truce was signed January 27, 1973 that allowed Nixon to declare, “We have finally achieved peace with honor.”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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