The smoking gun in this case has been discovered by Anthony Summers, as reported in his recent book The Arrogance of Power. Through the Freedom of Information Act, he found an FBI memo reporting on a wiretap that revealed Chennault conveyed a message from Nixon to Thieu urging him to refuse to attend the peace talks. Summers suggests that Nixon thereby prolonged the war for five more years. More than a third of all American casualties during the war occurred during Nixon’s presidency — a total of 20,763 Americans killed. That was also the period of the most intense bombing of the war, resulting in the deaths of perhaps a million or more Vietnamese. But Langguth does not see the Nixon-provoked failure of the 1968 peace talks to be a decisive moment in Our Vietnam.
In his telling of the story, the opposition to the war gets almost no attention. The 1969 Mobilization brought “the largest throng ever gathered in the nation’s capital,” Langguth writes, perhaps half a million people; nevertheless, he devotes only a couple of paragraphs to the event. Langguth describes the 1970 national student strike against Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia as “the greatest protests of the Vietnam War,” but nevertheless devotes only a couple of paragraphs to it, writing that “students reacted even more violently than Nixon had anticipated.” Focusing on violence — rather than on the rationality of the issues raised by protesters — was, of course, Nixon’s approach. Kent State, where National Guardsmen shot and killed four students during an anti-war protest, gets half a page. Tens of thousands of students converged on Washington a few days later; those events are narrated exclusively from Nixon’s perspective.
The night before the biggest demonstration, Nixon made 40 phone calls in the middle of the night and then left the White House at 2 a.m. with his valet to meet protesters at the Lincoln Memorial, where he tried to talk college football with them. Many other historians have described Nixon’s response to the anti-war movement that night as some kind of nervous breakdown, but Langguth describes Nixon’s state only as “exhausted but sleepless.” National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger during these days feared anti-war demonstrators might confront him at his Washington apartment, so he started sleeping in his office in the White House basement; General Alexander Haig stationed troops there to provide additional protection from threatening college students who might penetrate the White House perimeter.
Did the war end because of public opposition in America, or because the Vietnamese outfought and outlasted the invaders? Langguth’s conclusion — and his last paragraph — is that “North Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to win. South Vietnam’s leaders had deserved to lose. And America’s leaders, for 30 years, had failed the people of the North, the people of the South, and the people of the United States.”
Jon Wiener teaches history at U.C. Irvine and is a contributing editor ofThe Nation; his most recent book isGimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.
OUR VIETNAM: The War 1954–1975 By A.J. LANGGUTH | Simon & Schuster 734 pages | $35 hardcover