Pat and Dick by Will Swift

It’s safe to say that the story of First Lady Pat Nixon’s influence on her husband’s Vietnam War policy making has not been addressed in any of the many books on the Nixon administration and the war. That situation has changed with the publication of Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage (Threshold Editions/Simon & Schuster, 496 pp., $30), a dual biography in which author Will Swift chronicles the ups and downs of the 53-year marriage of Dick Nixon and Pat Ryan.

Swift—the author of The Roosevelts and the Royals and The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm—says that Pat Nixon regularly discussed issues of importance, including the Vietnam War, with her husband from the beginning of his presidency in 1969. The President often passed on his wife’s input to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, who all but ignored it as the two did not get along.

“She was put off by [Haldeman’s] arrogant manner and his desire to isolate the president,” Swift says. “Haldeman disdained her preference for tackling her pile of correspondence over taking a more active public role in supporting the president’s programs. He dismissively called her Thelma (her middle name) behind her back.”

Pat Nixon’s biggest involvement in her husband’s administration’s Vietnam War activities involved stepping “carefully out of the White House to try to smooth” the deep political divisions the war engendered among the American populace, especially among young people. That effort included visits to colleges and to volunteer programs in which college students participated.

Will Swift

“She traveled with heavy security and visited spots where angry student demonstrations were unlikely,” Swift writes. “Nonetheless, she encountered protesters chanting ‘kill for peace,’ a sarcastic reference to Nixon’s policy of bombing his way to a peace settlement.” Pat Nixon, he says, “ignored the protests.” The orchestrated appearances before mostly friendly audiences earned the First Lady the nickname “Plastic Pat” from Kandy Stroud of Women’s Wear Daily.

During the turbulent antiwar protests in Washington in May 1970 following the U.S. incursion into Cambodia Pat and Dick hunkered down inside the White House, “ignoring the raucous chants of the protesters… Pat caught up on her mail in her dressing room.” For the Nixons, Swift says, “the sense of being under siege” was “another painful assailant in a career that had been full of them.” Their reaction, he writes, was to retreat “further and further into an ‘us versus them’ mentality that increasingly justified Dick’s punitive and secretive ways of handling dissent.”

The unrest on college campuses across the nation forced the Nixons to cancel plans to attend their daughter Julie’s graduation from Smith College. Richard Nixon blamed it on “lawless elements [that] threatened to disrupt the events.” Instead, the Nixons threw Julie “their own, jocular version of graduation that June at Camp David,” Swift writes, with Nixon pal Bebe Rebozo in attendance dressed in Notre Dame faculty robes.

Swift’s conclusion about Pat Nixon: She “was the loyal and at times angry and resentful wife of a brilliant, sentimental man she admired. She proved herself a personable and shrewd team player to a politician who considered her an essential helpmate. A hip, wise, and playful woman, she was also sometimes catty, small-minded, and fiercely partisan. Publicly silent but powerful in private, she influenced and tempered her husband, his actions, and his policies.”

—Marc Leepson


The Road to War by Marvin Kalb

In The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Institution, 280 pp., $29.95) veteran journalist and Harvard professor emeritus Marvin Kalb brings new depth of meaning to the adage “a man is only as good as his word” as he guides the reader through the political maze of the Vietnam War by focusing on the actions of American presidents that brought us into the war without a congressionally approved declaration of war.

Kalb’s easy-to-follow, well-documented book describes how Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had at least three major Vietnam-War policy-making things in common: none had a clear plan for winning the war; all firmly believed in the Domino Theory; and none wanted to be known as the president who lost a war.

The book clearly shows that Congress exerted little of its power to influence the war one way or another—except to provide funds. Late in the Vietnam conflict, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which restricted the president’s ability to wage war longer than 60-90 days without congressional approval.

America’s participation in the war began with Truman’s commitment not to interfere when France decided to reclaim Indochina as a colony after World War II. Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence for Vietnam and overtures for cooperation with the United States fell on fear-deafened ears in Washington. Fears of communist expansion were fueled by the aggressiveness of the Russians and Chinese. Communist control of Indochina was seen as a threat to our national security.

Marvin Kalb

The United States became involved in the Korean War in the early 50’s. At that same time France was losing its war in Vietnam. Staying true to their commitments to fighting communism in that arena, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower sent military advisers, air support, and financial aid to bolster the French  in Indochina. By the time of the defeat of France by the North Vietnamese in 1954, the United States was paying 75 percent of the bill.

While President Kennedy was reluctant to send combat troops to Vietnam, he did send thousands of advisers and huge amounts of weaponry. American pilots took part in combat missions. It was also at this time that reporters coined the term “the Americanization” of the war.

Disgusted at the corruption and ineptness of the South Vietnamese political leaders, Kennedy didn’t interfere with the 1963 removal (and assassination) of President Ngo Dinh Diem from office. When the military and political situations didn’t improve, Kennedy began to withhold funds from the war effort. Several weeks later,  Kennedy was assassinated.

Wanting to stay true to the commitment to prevent the dominoes from falling in Southeast Asia, President Johnson chose to heed his advisers, who told him victory was still possible in Vietnam. Several others told him to cut and run as victory was impossible.

Instead Johnson widely escalated the war. Like his predecessors, LBJ did not want to be known as the president who lost the war. However, the stalemate in Vietnam and rising antiwar sentiment at home convinced Johnson not to run for re-election in 1968.

While the war did come to an end during the presidency of Richard Nixon, it took an additional five years of massive destruction, tens of thousands of deaths, and enormous expenditures. Searching for an honorable exit from Vietnam, President Nixon visited both China and Russia. He asked the communist leaders to help him find an honorable exit from the war. When the Paris peace negotiations fell apart, Nixon ordered the unrestricted bombing of North Vietnamese on a scale not seen since World War II.

In the end, however, when the North Vietnamese blatantly violated the terms of peace treaty, Nixon was unable to fulfill his commitment to help South Vietnam due in large measure to the Watergate scandal.

Marvin Kalb uses the last part of his book to describe U.S. commitments to other countries during the Vietnam War era, especially to Israel. Then, during the second Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, Kalb points out that once again there is “no clear plan of action.”

President Obama has used the word “ironclad” to describe America’s defense commitment to the Israelis. Kalb suggests that it’s time for an official defense treaty with Israel. It would assure Israel—and its enemies—that the U.S. this time is finally serious about a commitment to an ally.

—Joseph Reitz