Nixon’s Nuclear Specter by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball


William Burr, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, and Jeffrey P. Kimball, an emeritus professor of history at Miami University in Ohio, did extensive research (mainly by conducting interviews and researching declassified documents) for their book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 445 pp., $39.95).

The book looks at the initial effort by President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam by trying to win concessions from Hanoi at the negotiating table through coercive diplomacy. This when the Madman Theory came about, with Nixon threatening excessive force, including possible nuclear strikes, to try to convince Hanoi and Moscow to end the war sooner rather than later.

Nixon started with verbal threats, then authorized bombing NVA and VC bases in Cambodia. Next came a ruse that the U. S. was planning to mine Haiphong Harbor. Planning for the nuclear option also started. That drastic step had been considered several times since World War II, including during the 1954 disaster at Dien Bien Phu when the French were begging for U.S. air support; during the 1958 Lebanon crisis; and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

This book covers the Vietnam War year of 1969 month by month in almost mind-numbing detail. It focuses on what our nation’s leaders said to whom, and when and why they did.  The key players are Nixon,  Kissinger, Russia’s Anatoly Dobrynin, Secretary of State William Rogers, Secretary of Defense William Laird, and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler.

What the authors reveal is the intense, behind-the-scenes plotting and planning that Nixon and Kissinger carried on in 1969 as they desperately tried o find a way to move the Vietnam War peace talks with Hanoi to fruition. Nixon and Kissinger resorted to playing “good cop–bad cop” with Dobrynin. Yet, always in the back of their minds was what they could do to make Moscow put pressure on Hanoi—but not go so far as to put the Soviets on the alert and escalate tensions between the super powers.

This book reveals Nixon’s negotiating strategy: talk tough, make threats, rattle sabers, then think better of the risks involved and back down. The reader or researcher hungry to know every last detail of the interactions between the aforementioned players will find this book satisfies that need and then some. The notes alone cover eighty pages. The bibliography runs sixteen pages.

Some sobering realizations came about as a result of the authors’ research. By 1969, Nixon and Kissinger—as well as the majority of Nixon’s inner circle—had decided that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. The overlying principle motivating Nixon and Kissinger therefore was not how to win the war, but how to get our forces out without appearing to have lost. The aim of the North Vietnamese was to drag out negotiations until the American people tired of the war sufficiently to demand that we throw in the towel. So, while this “unwinnable” war dragged on from 1969 until 1973, more than 21,000 Americans died.


Another disturbing revelation is that long before the Saigon government collapsed in 1975, America’s exit policy had already been set. The term was “decent interval.” That meant getting U.S. troops home first, then blaming Democrats and the antiwar movement when Saigon was defeated by the North Vietnamese. With a “decent interval” we could also blame the South Vietnamese for losing “their” war. Nixon and Kissinger used the word “Vietnamization” in conjunction with “peace with honor.”

Nixon’s “Madman” strategy failed. His ruse of preparing to mine Haiphong Harbor and to set SAC B-52 bomber “readiness” exercises and  6th Fleet maneuvers failed to get Moscow sufficiently worried about what we were up to. It was not until 1972 when Nixon authorized Operation Linebacker II, unleashing B-52 bombers over Hanoi, that they decided to sign a peace treaty.

That’s how Nixon  wound up having  his “decent interval” to disengage from the Vietnam War and claim “peace with honor.”

—James P. Coan

American Statecraft by J. Robert Moskin

J. Robert Moskin’s American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service (Thomas Dunne, 1,229 pp., $35) is nothing less than a recounting of the entire story of the U.S. Foreign Service from its beginnings during the American Revolution into the 21st century. It’s a mammoth undertaking that includes a short chapter on the Vietnam War as told primarily through the actions of State Department higher-ups such as Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Dean Rusk and U.S. Ambassadors to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker and Graham Martin.

Moskin—the author of The U.S. Marine Corps Story and other books— starts with the spring of 1776 when the Continental Congress sent Connecticut merchant Silas Deane on a secret mission to the court of Louis XVI to secure French support for the fight against the British. Working mostly chronologically and writing journalistically, Moskin goes on to tell the story of American foreign policy primarily through the stories of many of the men (and later women) who served in the Foreign Service. As is the case with the Vietnam War, he concentrates mainly on Secretaries of State and ambassadors, but also includes tales of professional Foreign Service men and women working in the many and varied foreign-policy trenches aboard and in Washington.

Robert Moskin

In his Vietnam War chapter, Moskin looks at, among other things, the 1968 Tet Offensive. His assessment: The results “were mixed. The Communists lost a large number of men but demonstrated their ability to carry the war to the cities. In the end, the South Vietnamese people did not rise [against their government as the VC had hoped]; while in the United States two-thirds of those polled no longer supported President Johnson. The tipping point of the American opinion against the war was Tet’s most important result.”

Moskin has less-than-flattering things to say about Kissinger and his handling of the Vietnam War. In 1969, Moskin says, he interviewed Kissinger when he was President Nixon’s National Security Adviser. Moskin asked Kissinger if Vietnamization, his plan to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, would “prepare the South Vietnam army to fight the Viet Cong or the strong North Vietnam forces.”

Kissinger, Moskin says, “pushed a button under his desk and an Army colonel appeared. Kissinger repeated the question. Colonel Alexandrer M. Haig, Jr. said, ‘I don’t know, sir. But I’ll find out.’

“Neither of them knew. They were concentrated on the domestic political effect of Vietnamization in the United States, not on foreign policy.”

The author’s website is

—Marc Leepson

The 1970s by Thomas Borstelmann

Sometimes called the “Me Decade,” the 1970s saw the final withdrawal of American combat troops from Vietnam in 1973 and the communist victory there in 1975. In The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton University Press, 401 pp., $29.95) University of Nebraska History Professor Thomas Borstelmann offers a book-length essay in which he examines and analyzes what he calls “a decade of ill repute.”

We often think of the seventies as a decade in which progressive issues such as environmental awareness and women’s, gay, disabled, and Native American rights took big strides. Borstelmann covers those social issues, but also argues that this decade was a time when many aspects of society tilted toward conservative ideas. The “citizens’ faith,” he says, was “transferred from the public sector to the private sector, from government to business.”

As for the Vietnam War, Borstelmann calls it “the foremost issue that had loomed over American life since 1965.” During the early seventies, under the Nixon administration and its war architect Henry Kissinger, the U.S. steadily wound down the effort in Vietnam. In doing so, Borstelmann points out, more than 21,000 American troops died, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese military personnel and civilians. This also was a time when military morale plummeted, with increasing incidences of fragging and an epidemic of drug use in Vietnam.Morale in Vietnam and support at home for the war further eroded when The Pentagon Papers were published in 1971, Borstelmann notes.

By the inglorious end in 1975, he says, “most Americans wanted nothing more to do with Vietnam. Gallup polls showed public opinion running 54-36 against even granting refuge to America’s allies, the anticommunist South Vietnamese…. Close the door and put Indochina behind us, was the prevailing sentiment.”

More importantly, Borstelmann writes, the realization that the U.S. “perhaps was not the unique, special, ever-victorious nation its citizens had tended to assume marked a watershed in modern American history, a crisis of identity. Rather than being the  exceptional nation, the United States now appeared to be much like other great nations across time, with some of the same strengths and some of the same challenges.”

—Marc Leepson

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Vietnam War comes up several times in The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (Simon & Schuster, 641 pp., $32.50), a sprightly written account by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy that examines the relationships of former U.S. presidents to sitting presidents beginning with the Eisenhower administration.

Gibbs and Duffy, who are TIME magazine editors, include an entire chapter on former President Dwight Eisenhower’s influence on Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War during the tumultuous last four years (1965-68) of Johnson’s presidency. LBJ invited Ike to address his top Vietnam War policy makers in February of 1965, the authors report, and the former five-star general who did not escalate the war in Vietnam during his eight years in the White House (1953-61), made a case to use America’s military might to mount “a campaign of pressure,” as Ike put it.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Gibbs and Duffy say, asked Ike if that including using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Eisenhower replied that if China intervened, the U.S. should “hit them from the air, using whatever force was necessary, including nuclear weapons.” Ike “doubted that would happen,” the authors note, “But the United States [had] to put its prestige into keeping Southeast Asia free; if that takes [quoting Ike] ‘six to eight divisions… so be it.'”

Eisenhower later became disenchanted with Johnson’s handling of the war.  Ike was particularly bothered by LBJ’s public assertions that he escalated the war because of promises that Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had made to come to South Vietnam’s defense. Ike “had never made a unilateral military commitment to defend Vietnam, he insisted; he had only promised [South Vietnamese Premiere Ngo Dinh] Diem ‘economic and foreign aid.'”

Despite his disenchantment with Johnson, Eisenhower never publicly disagreed with Johnson on Vietnam War policy. Ike espoused a hawkish stance up to his death in March of 1969.

There’s also a chapter on the interaction during the election year of 1968 between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and LBJ, who on March 31 had announced that he would not run for re-election and would seek peace with the Vietnamese communists. Gibbs and Duffy show that Nixon continually promised Johnson that he—Nixon—would not “do anything to undercut the U.S. position” in bargaining with North Vietnam, and then worked to do the very opposite.

Nixon, in essence, helped sabotage the budding peace talks, making LBJ and his Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent, look weak and indecisive in the process. Nixon used allies such as Henry Kissinger (who served as an adviser to Johnson on Vietnam War policies) and Republican bigwig Anna Chennault to all but subvert the peace process. The historian Robert Dallek said that the moves that Nixon made behind the scenes with regard to shaping the peace process in 1968 contributed to “a fall campaign that would produce as much skullduggery and hidden actions as any in American history.”

It is also worth nothing, the authors say, that with the missed opportunity for the start of peace talks in 1968, the Vietnam War “would continue and widen, the death toll mount, the damage deepen for years, until it finally ended on terms very much like the ones tentatively agreed to in October of 1968.”

—Marc Leepson