- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2001

By Larry Berman
Free Press, $27.50, 334 pages

Although the American Civil War ended nearly a century and a half ago, controversies still rage. In many cases, disagreements remain as deep as they ever were and each year new books rehearse these controversies. If a conflict as far in the past as the Civil War still engenders debate, it is no wonder that the Vietnam War remains controversial. Like the Civil War, debate about this conflict is destined to outlive the participants.
One of the most contentious Vietnam War controversies concerns the end of U.S. involvement in the war and the collapse of South Vietnam. According to Larry Berman, professor of political science at the University of California at Davis and director of the University of California Washington Center, in his fine new history of the final phase of the war, "No Peace, No Honor," there are two prevailing views about the failure of the Paris Accords and the subsequent conquest of the Republic of Vietnam by communist North Vietnam.
The first, advanced by President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger, claims that the Nixon administration had won the war but that Congress lost the peace. According to this view, the United States had achieved its goal of securingthe survival of South Vietnam but Watergate made it impossible to respond when the communists violated the Paris Accords.
The second view, which Mr. Berman labels the "decent interval" argument, is less charitable to Nixon and Mr. Kissinger. It holds that the United States was only concerned with securing the release of American prisoners of war and extricated itself from the war by making a deal with the North Vietnamese at the expense of our South Vietnamese allies. "Kissinger knew that Hanoi would eventually win. By signing the peace agreement, Hanoi was not abandoning its long term objective, merely giving the U.S. a fig leaf with which to exit."
Mr. Berman, the author of two other books on Vietnam, "Planning a Tragedy" and "Lyndon Johnson's War," argues that "the true picture is worse than either of these perspectives suggests." He contends that Nixon expected the accords to be violated and that he intended to use the violation as an excuse for a permanent U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. "Just as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution provided a pretext for an American engagement in South Vietnam, the Paris Accords were intended to fulfill a similar role for remaining permanently engaged in Vietnam. Watergate derailed the plan."
Mr. Berman claims that the truth has remained buried for so long because Nixon and Kissinger did everything they possibly could to deny independent access to the historical record. "No Peace, No Honor" is based on recently declassified U.S. documents and North Vietnamese translations of the Kissinger-Le Duc Tho negotiations. Based on these sources, Mr. Berman constructs an account of the Paris Peace Accords that is substantially at odds with those of either Mr. Kissinger or Nixon.
Despite the publisher's claim that the book constitutes a "shocking account" of Mr. Kissinger's negotiations with the North Vietnamese, the book promises a great deal more than it delivers when it comes to Mr. Berman's main charge. The claim that Nixon cynically intended to use expected North Vietnamese violations of the peace accords as a way of re-involving the United States in Vietnam is never really substantiated. At best, it is an inference. The author's hard evidence for this assertion is very thin.
But ifthe book does not support Mr. Berman's major claim against the Nixon administration, it does reveal that there was nonetheless enough duplicity, insincerity, and double-dealing to confirm the view of even the most cynical observer. It is clear from the record that the North Vietnamese never intended to honor the Paris Accords. For the communists, the agreement was a means for the eventual conquest and unification of Vietnam. Mr. Kissinger did seem anxious to get an agreement even if it meant betraying South Vietnam.
Mr. Berman demonstrates that Mr. Kissinger's approach to negotiating with the North Vietnamese did smack of the "decent interval" interpretation. For instance, despite the objections of the South Vietnamese government, Mr. Kissinger never demanded the withdrawal of regular North Vietnamese forces from South Vietnam. And despite his domestic pronouncements, Nixon clearly did make a commitment to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to provide support to South Vietnam if the communists violated the accords. In the end, Watergate made such a response impossible.
There are many interesting revelations in the book. For instance, Mr. Berman presents evidence that there was collusion between Mr. Thieu and presidential candidate Nixon before the 1968 election. According to accounts in the book, the Nixon campaign had "illegally interfered with the Paris Peace talks by convincing Saigon to stay away until after Nixon came to office."
Ironically, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey could do little about this collusion because publicizing the Nixon-Thieu contacts would have forced Johnson to reveal that his administration was bugging the Republicans during the 1968 campaign (Mr. Nixon was not the first president to use illegal wiretaps against those suspected of leaks). Mr. Berman suggests that one of the reasons for Nixon's continued support of Mr. Thieu in the face of increasing domestic criticism was that he was grateful for the South Vietnamese president's help during the 1968 election.
Additionally, the book describes the growing chasm between Nixon and Mr. Kissinger as the talks progressed. The president believed that his negotiator was too interested in achieving an agreement for its own sake and wished to claim all of the credit if the negotiations succeeded.
Whether one agrees with Mr. Berman's point of view or not, "No Peace, No Honor" is an excellent account of the diplomacy of the major players in the Vietnam War, as well as the Soviet Union and China. But to see the whole picture, the book should be read in conjunction with Lewis Sorley's 1999 "A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last years in Vietnam," which looks at the military dimension of the war after the 1968 Tet Offensive and the move toward Vietnamization. Mr. Sorley concludes that the war in Vietnam "was being won on the ground even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress."
Mr. Sorley makes the case that the post-Tet 1968 U.S. military strategy was working. The 1972 Easter Offensive, the largest North Vietnamese military operation of the war, proved that Vietnamization was on track. And LINEBACKER II, the "Christmas bombing" of the North at the end of 1972 proved that U.S. airpower, when employed properly, not for diplomatic "signaling," could change North Vietnamese behavior.
Regarding U.S. air power, it is interesting to consider an observation by the foremost American expert on Vietnamese communism, Douglas Pike, whose books "Viet Cong" and "PAVN: People's Army of Vietnam," are classics. In a paper delivered at a Wilson Center symposium on Vietnam in January, 1983, Mr. Pike wrote that "the initial reaction of Hanoi's leaders to the strategic bombings and air strikes that began in February, 1965 — documented later by defectors and other witnesses — was enormous dismay and apprehension. They feared the North was to be visited by intolerable destruction which it simply could not endure."
Based on interviews and intense archival research, Mr. Pike concluded that " … while conditions had changed vastly in seven years, the dismaying conclusion to suggest itself from the 1972 Christmas bombing was that had this kind of air assault been launched in February of 1965, the Vietnam War as we know it might have been over within a matter of months, even weeks."
One does not have to accept all of Mr. Berman's conclusions to recognize that he has made the case that the Paris Accords provided neither peace nor honor. But it remained for Congress to give new meaning to the word dishonor. In perhaps the most shameful act in U.S. history, Congress cut off all assistance to South Vietnam, and it ceased to exist.
Many of us who fought in Vietnam share the sentiment of Vernon Walters, who as a military attache in Paris assisted Mr. Kissinger during the secret negotiations with Le Duc Tho. "To this day," writes Mr. Berman, Gen. Walters "keeps a little South Vietnamese flag in his office. When asked about it, he explains that it stands for 'unfinished business. We let 39 million people fall into slavery.' Such was one legacy of 'peace with honor.'"

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.

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