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

Hope by Richard Zoglin

Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century (Simon & Schuster, 565 pp., $30) is a very well written, all-but-authorized biography. With the “generous help and cooperation” of Bob Hope’s daughter Linda, Zoglin has done a fine job telling Hope’s personal and professional stories, offering a good mix of narrative and analysis. Zoglin,Time magazine’s theater critic, does not shy away from pointing out the unpleasant parts of Hope’s life in a book that makes a strong case that he played a seminal role in the development of stand-up comedy.

Zoglin devotes a good amount of the book to Bob Hope’s long and honorable service to the nation by entertaining the troops in World War II and in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. These sections contain much praise, but also highlight the controversial nature of Hope’s work in Vietnam. Hope—who died in 2003 at age 100—never grasped the enormous differences between the American war in Vietnam and the two preceding conflicts, nor did he understand the vast differences in the generations of Americans who fought in those wars.

Hope, a close friend and strong supporter of President Richard Nixon, was a fervent Vietnam War hawk. He “had little understanding of the nuances, say, of whether the United States was trying to repel aggression in Vietnam or intervening in a civil war,” Zoglin writes. Hope, a friend said, “never really discussed the war with anyone below a five-star general.” Yet, Zoglin notes, “Hope wouldn’t temper his hard-line views or stop speaking out about the war.”

His standard reply letter to those who wrote to him criticizing his hawkishness was: “The servicemen over there believe they are doing a necessary job, and they can’t understand the draft-card burning and the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. They wonder if patriotism and love of one’s fellow men have gone out of style.”

Bob Hope, Cu Chi, 1971

By 1970, Zoglin writes, Hope’s “jokes about the counterculture were sounding increasingly smug and out of touch.” After emceeing the Miss World pageant in November of that year, for example, Hope spoke about the women’s liberation activists who disrupted the event, saying, “You’ll notice about the women in the liberation movements, none of them are pretty, because pretty women don’t have those problems. I don’t get it.” To which Zoglin adds: “He clearly didn’t.”

Zoglin describes an almost surreal episode during Hope’s 1971 Christmas trip to Southeast Asia: a secret, private meeting set up by the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand in which Hope and North Vietnamese envoy Nguyen Van Tranh met in Vientiane, Laos, to discuss the POW issue. The two men had cordial talks and agreed to meet again in North Vietnam.

Hope’s effort, Zoglin writes, “came to naught,” after his application for a visa to go to North Vietnam was denied.

—Marc Leepson

Invasion of Laos 1971 by Robert D. Sander

In 1971, the war in Vietnam was slowly drawing to an end for the U.S. and Richard Nixon was very keen on Vietnamization. An invasion of Laos to close off the Ho Chi Minh Trail was to be crucial in ending the war with what Nixon called “honor.”

In Invasion of Laos 1971: Lam Son 719 (University of Oklahoma Press, 304 pp., $29.95) Robert D. Sander, a helicopter pilot who took part in the invasion of Laos, offers his thoughts on why this operation was an epic failure. He has researched his subject diligently and presents it well in this book. Sander finds no end to those who contributed to the lack of success of the operation known as Lam Son 719.

An earlier plan to invade Laos, Operation El Paso, was devised by Gen. William Westmoreland to try to stop the flow of North Vietnamese Army troops and equipment through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. El Paso was never carried out after Gen. Creighton Abrams assumed command of the troops in Vietnam.

When President Nixon took office the idea of invading Laos came up again. Because of an act of Congress forbidding American military involvement on the ground in Laos, the South Vietnamese military
would be the invading force.They would receive air support from units of the U.S. Army, as well as the Air Force and Marines.

The reason for the operation in 1971 was to prevent the North Vietnamese from mounting a dry-season offensive in the South. While America still had military advisors attached to the South Vietnamese military, they did not join the South Vietnamese Army during the invasion. This created serious communication problems with air and artillery support during the invasion.

This problem was one of many that Sander’s explains in the book. The timing of the invasion also was a serious concern. The rainy season had not quite ended, and fog and morning rain greatly effected the planning and execution of the operation.

This is a serious review of the events and it is a well-documented work. There are copious amounts of footnotes and quotes by those involved, as well as references to voices in Washington at the time.

After reading his book, it is apparent to me that the Greeks may have had the answer to going to war. First you abolish the standing government and create a dictator to rule until the end of the war. Then you let the military do its job. But that may not even had been enough in Lam Son 719 as there were several occasions when staff officers dropped the ball on the field of battle.

There is truly enough blame to go around for the failure of Lam Son 719.

—John Lavelle

Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War by David F. Schmitz

David F. Schmitz, a Whitman College history professor and U.S. foreign relations expert, bores into the first three years (1969-72) of Richard Nixon’s presidency in Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War: The End of the American Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 161 pp., $38), a concise examination and analysis of how Nixon ran the Vietnam War. In this well-written, well-researched, and well-argued book Schmitz makes a convincing case that Nixon—contrary to his public assertions at the time and after he resigned from the presidency—did not come to office to end the war by withdrawing American troops, but instead pursued what Schmitz terms “escalation and victory.”

Schmitz shows that Nixon—like President Johnson before him—was strongly motivated by the fact that he did not wish to go down in history as the first American president to preside over a losing war. So while he publicly espoused “peace with honor,” in reality, Nixon let loose the dogs of war.

There “was no grand design for detente that guided all of his decisions as president as [Nixon] and his supporters have claimed,” Schmitz says. “Rather, his priority upon taking office was victory in Vietnam.” Nixon, furthermore, “turned to deception and covert policies to escalate and expand the war while creating the appearance that he sought peace.”

David Schmitz

Things changed drastically in 1971, Schmidt notes, when Nixon was forced to draw down the American presence in Vietnam significantly and to step up the pace of peace negotiations. The result was the ignominious end of American participation in Vietnam in 1973 and the communist takeover two years later.

Nixon’s “decision to continue the war in 1969,” Schmitz writes, “had devastating consequences for Vietnam and the United States. The seven years of additional fighting incurred millions of casualties, further destruction of the land and infrastructure of Vietnam, and expansion of the fighting into Cambodia and Laos.”

At home, Schmitz notes, Nixon’s Vietnam War strategy “meant deeper political and social divisions, a worsening economy, and the political crisis of Watergate culminating in” the first and only resignation of a U.S. president.

—Marc Leepson

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 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