The administration’s peace rhetoric was aimed at domestic and international audiences, not the Vietnamese. Indeed, UN Secretary-General U Thant worked tirelessly during the 1960s to broker a peace agreement based on the Geneva Agreements of 1954, but to no avail. The real difficulty for Johnson and company would be to explain to the American people why American blood had been shed in Vietnam at all. Having passed up ripe opportunities to resolve the burgeoning war in Vietnam in late 1963, following the Diem overthrow, and in late 1964, following his re-election as the “peace candidate,” President Johnson sabotaged another opportunity to negotiate an end to the war in late 1966. The Hanoi government was prepared to sit down with U.S. representatives in secret talks arranged by Poland, code-named “Marigold,” when Johnson authorized bombing raids on the center of Hanoi for the first time on December 13 and 14. The North Vietnamese pulled out, the talks collapsed, and the war expanded.
As in Laos, the U.S. began to secretly bomb Cambodia in 1965 to order to impede the flow of arms to the NLF-NVA in South Vietnam. In March 1969, President Nixon significantly increased the aerial assaults under the codename MENU, while still keeping the raids secret from the American people, an amazing feat considering that 110,000 tons of bombs were dropped over a fourteen-month period. A Pentagon report, released in 1973, stated that Nixon’s national security adviser, “Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970 as well as the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers.” In March 1970, Cambodia fell into civil war after Defense Minister Lon Nol engineered a coup d’état. The U.S. backed the anticommunist Nol, sending U.S. forces into Cambodia in May and June. U.S. bombing continued until Congress passed legislation forcing the administration to end it in August 1973. All told, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, an amount that exceeded the tonnage dropped on Laos. According to the diplomatic historian Greg Grandin:
Over the years, Stone’s relationships with colleagues and clients have been so combustible that his value as a messenger has been compromised. Stone worked for Donald Trump as an occasional lobbyist and as an adviser when Trump considered running for President in 2000. “Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump told me. “He always tries taking credit for things he never did.” Like Nixon, Stone is also a great hater—of, among others, the Clintons, Karl Rove, and Spitzer. So what happened at Miami Velvet one night last September, he said, amounted to a gift.
When Nixon announced his resignation, on August 8th, a Thursday night, a few thousand people stood along Pennsylvania Avenue and across the street, in Lafayette Square, enjoying a witch-is-dead celebration. Inside the White House, Nixon’s family and some loyal staff members watched the speech. Someone later gave Garment a copy of , including fifteen minutes that were recorded before Nixon went on the air. “What struck me when I saw that was not so much what was said but how relaxed he was,” Garment told me. “This was not a man about to give up the prize of his tortured life, but a man being saved from extinction by what he was about to say. . . . It was a life-saving opportunity.”
On June 8, 1969, President Richard Nixon met with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island in the Pacific and announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the end of August. Thus began the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, theoretically to be replaced by ARVN troops. Labeled “Vietnamization” by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, the policy sought to reverse the Americanization of the war, notwithstanding the fact that there was no possibility of the South Vietnamese winning the war on their own. The shift in policy may be attributed to domestic opposition to the war – a political reality – rather than to any military strategy for winning the war or even achieving a stalemate. According to Department of Defense statistics, U.S. troop levels fell from 539,000 in June 1969 to 415,000 in June 1970; 239,000 in June 1971; 47,000 in June 1972; and 21,500 in January 1973.
For nearly forty years, Stone has hovered around Republican and national politics, both near the center and at the periphery. At times, mostly during the Reagan years, he was a political consultant and lobbyist who, in conventional terms, was highly successful, working for such politicians as Bob Dole and Tom Kean. Even then, though, Stone regularly crossed the line between respectability and ignominy, and he has become better known for leading a colorful personal life than for landing big-time clients. Still, it is no coincidence that Stone materialized in the midst of the Spitzer scandal—and that he had memorable cameos in the last two Presidential elections. While the Republican Party usually claims Ronald Reagan as its inspiration, Stone represents the less discussed but still vigorous legacy of Richard Nixon, whose politics reflected a curious admixture of anti-Communism, social moderation, and tactical thuggery. Stone believes that Nixonian hardball, more than sunny Reaganism, is John McCain’s only hope for the Presidency.
This anniversary, then, is also the anniversary of a mystery: How and why did this ruthless, talented man—perhaps the best-prepared person ever to assume the Presidency—squander those assets? The answer remains in large part deeply personal to Nixon, and therefore beyond explanation, although the more persuasive theories begin with the presumption that Nixon never got over his very narrow loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential race; that he believed the Kennedy campaign had cheated and stolen the election, something that he’d never allow to happen again, whatever it took; and that the loss, as well as his scarily close margin of victory in 1968, magnified his natural suspicion and created an atmosphere in the White House that encouraged lawlessness. When I spoke a few years ago with William Scranton, the former governor of Pennsylvania, who knew Nixon well, he called it “that darn paranoia.”
Still, President Nixon did what he could to ensure that South Vietnam would survive as long as possible. On April 30, 1970, he ordered U.S. troops into Cambodia to destroy NLF-NVA sanctuaries as well as back up the rightist coup d’etat of General Lon Nol. Nixon’s public announcement of this expansion of the war set off nationwide protests on college campuses, including one at Kent State where members of the National Guard shot and killed four students. U.S. troops were withdrawn from Cambodia after two months, but the bombing of Cambodia continued for another three years.
Richard Rovere, who wrote about politics for this magazine for three decades, described the 1955 edition of Nixon, then forty-two, as “robust, intelligent, conscientious, ruthless, affable, articulate, competitive, telegenic, and breathtakingly adaptable.” Not someone Rovere took to, perhaps, but someone about whom he could add, “If he takes the elementary precautions with his health and does not squander the formidable political assets that are now his, he has ahead of him a full quarter-century of service to the Republic and to the good name of Richard Milhous Nixon.”
On October 31, 1968, with the antiwar movement in full-swing and public opinion having turned against the war, President Johnson ended Operation Rolling Thunder, hoping to boost the presidential prospects of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Republican candidate Richard Nixon won the election and continued this official halt, while increasing the bombing of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He nonetheless wanted DRV leaders in Hanoi to believe that he was ready to employ all means necessary to win the war, perhaps even nuclear weapons. According to Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman, Nixon had confided to him:
In part to limit the damage from America’s impending loss in Vietnam, the Nixon administration undertook a dramatic new policy in early 1972, inaugurating détente with the great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union. New trade and arms control agreements were signed as part of a general relaxation of tensions. After twenty-five years of anti-communist propaganda and policies, it appeared that the U.S. could live with communist nations after all, that peaceful competition could replace militant confrontation and that mutual interests could be pursued. This seismic change in official U.S. attitudes toward communism was surprisingly well-received by the American public. Nixon and Kissinger essentially adopted the liberal program advocated by former Vice-president Henry A. Wallace in the late 1940s, and by many European leaders beginning in the mid-1950s. Had the détente policy been taken up a generation earlier, the American War in Vietnam would never have taken place.