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Promises, Promises

The Palace File
by Nguyen Tien Hung and Jerrold L. Schecter
(Harper & Row, 542 pp., $22.95)

The literature on Vietnam, so scant in the 1960s, when it was most needed, is now swelling toward flood tide. Much of what is being produced is either redundant or merely memoiristic; but one can now add The Palace File to the relatively short list of important books on this grim and complicated subject. It is the product of an occasionally awkward coauthorship between an economist who served as a special assistant to President Nguyen Van Thieu during the last years of the Republic of Vietnam and the distinguished former diplomatic correspondent for Time magazine. Hung and Schecter's book provides new and valuable information about the doomed alliance between Washington and Saigon. Their contribution has been to cast light upon that alliance from the South Vietnamese point of view. Their study leaves unanswered some profound questions about the American role in Vietnam, but still it is fascinating, and an unusual way of looking at one of the most dramatic events in recent American history.

Just before the end came for the government of the Republic of Vietnam in April 1975, President Thieu sent Hung to Washington to plead for last-minute help. To assist with his argument, Thieu gave Hung photocopies of 31 secret letters written by Presidents Nixon and Ford to Thieu, These hitherto unpublished letters form the connective tissue of The Palace File. Interspersed with cross references to previously published memoirs and extensive interviews, Hung and Schecter shift the focus away from our usual obsession with the condition of the Americans toward the ultimate victims of the tragedy, the Vietnamese themselves.

This is the story the way Thieu and Hung want it remembered. Predictably, it differs sharply from the story presented by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in their memoirs. In essence, The Palace File advances two theses. First, that Washington's treatment of Saigon from 1969 to 1975 constitutes a "betrayal of an ally unrivaled in American history"; or, as Thieu himself put it, "It is so easy to be an enemy of the United States, but so difficult to be a friend," Second, that had the United States kept its word. South Vietnam would have survived.

In late April 1975 Hung made public two or three of Nixon's letters to Thieu, The full file, placed in the context of other events between 1971 and 1975, does make one sympathetic to at least part of the authors' argument. Nixon's and Ford's letters (presumably written in large part by Kissinger) skillfully combined threats and promises, with the intention of pushing Thieu into accepting a cease-fire agreement that he felt was fatally flawed.

Nixon, Kissinger, and Ford have defended themselves in the past with various explanations and denials: that Watergate prevented the United States from saving South Vietnam; that Hanoi broke the agreements; that liberals in Congress shackled the government with restrictive anti-war legislation; that they regret having treated Saigon so harshly; and so on. Each of these explanations falls short of fully satisfying, and of course they are somewhat contradictory. Still, I do not mean to make light of Nixon's and Kissinger's dilemma. Seeking a way to end America's involvement in Vietnam without getting blamed for the probable consequences of our departure, they selected a method that required some deception of almost everyone.

To conservatives, they wished to appear tough—hence such actions as the Christmas bombing of 1972, To liberals, and to war-weary Americans in general, they wished to appear to be moving toward the end of America's involvement in Indochina—hence the gradual withdrawal of American troops, and Kissinger's "peace is at hand" statement in October 1972, Yet their slow, deliberate ambiguity in the negotiations was designed more for appearances than for purposes of policy, Kissinger in effect conceded this in his own memoirs: by July 1969 (when Nixon visited Saigon), he wrote, "We were clearly on the way out of Vietnam, by negotiations if possible, by unilateral withdrawal if necessary."

To effect that departure without vast international embarrassment, Nixon and Kissinger had to gain approval from the Thieu government for agreements that were, from Saigon's point of view, deeply worrisome, since they permitted North Vietnam to keep well over 100,000 regular military forces in the South after the cease-fire. This was a major concession by Nixon, and it terrified Thieu, The reciprocal Communist concession, that Hanoi would no longer insist on the prior removal of the Thieu government, was hardly the major negotiating achievement that Nixon claimed it was, in the light of what Hanoi had already gained. Thus, to allay Thieu's fears, Nixon reassured Thieu in private letters with phrases and promises too strong for public consumption. If the North Vietnamese violated the Paris Accords, the president vowed, he would respond, "You have my absolute assurance," Nixon wrote after the 1972 elections, "that if Hanoi fails to abide by the terms of this agreement it is my intention to take swift and severe retaliatory action."

Such a commitment would have been repudiated by Congress, however, and by most of the American public. Thus the existence of the letters was a closely guarded secret. Not even Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, who might have had to implement such an "assurance," knew of them, something that to this day he regards as astonishing and appalling. In fact, the letters had little standing as anything more than personal statements of Richard Nixon's, But Thieu, perhaps confused about the nature of the American political system, took great comfort from the secret correspondence, and chose to treat it as an integral part of the Paris Accords, (Ironically, Nixon was sending secret letters to Hanoi at exactly the same time, offering vast amounts of economic assistance after the cease-fire. It is odd that Hung and Schecter make no mention of the president's other bit of secret epistolary diplomacy.)

By this time, Thieu had come to regard Kissinger with great distrust, (After the Christmas bombing, he allegedly told his National Security Council: "If Kissinger had the power to bomb the Independence Palace to force me to sign the agreement, he would not hesitate to do so,") But in characteristic Asian fashion Thieu believed that if he could communicate directly with Nixon, instead of through his adviser, the president would take a tougher stand against Hanoi, This was wishful thinking; there was no evidence for Thieu's confidence in a direct relationship with Nixon, except for the advice of a few American conservatives who disliked Kissinger, Still, Thieu's faith sustained him, and led to several dramatic confrontations with Kissinger—all of which, of course, Thieu lost, Kissinger, for his part, came to regret some of the things he had done or said to Thieu, Indeed, he came close to an apology in a remarkable and previously unpublished letter he sent to Thieu in 1980 after Thieu attacked him in an interview:

My book praises you repeatedly for your courage and decency and acknowledges, in essence, that you were right. … I agree with you that the cease-fire terms were harsh. Our tragic dilemma in 1972 was that we had reached the limit of our domestic possibilities. … If it had been President Nixon's and my intention to betray you, we could have done it in 1969. You and I had many disagreements, but only over tactics. In view of the outcome, your anger is understandable. However, it would be a pity if those who long advocated our abandonment of South Vietnam were now able to use your bitterness as another weapon against those who tried to save South Vietnam. … I do not expect to convince you. I can at least try to assure you of my continuing regret and respect.

Thieu did not reply to Kissinger's letter.

Thieu's situation was quite desperate, although significant American officials, especially Ambassador Graham Martin, continually delivered reports to Washington that were wildly overoptimistic. But with the withdrawal of American and Korean troops, the overall manpower and firepower of the non-Communist forces was declining, while Hanoi's was increasing. In 1973, the congressionally mandated cutoff of all American military activities in all of Indochina—accepted by Nixon after it was proposed by the House minority leader, Gerald Ford—would ultimately doom Saigon, as Alexander Haig had warned Nixon in an unsuccessful last-minute attempt to convince him to limit the restriction to Cambodia and Laos. And Watergate eliminated the last, slim chance that Washington would have the political will or the popular support to return to Indochina.

Why, in the face of all these events, did Thieu not understand the real limits of the American commitment? Why did Thieu not make a more realistic appraisal of his situation and proceed from there? The answer lies partly in the prodigious efforts of Nixon and Kissinger—as well as the American ambassadors in Saigon, Ellsworth Bunker and Graham Martin—to convince the South Vietnamese not to give up. In their complex balancing act, every American step toward withdrawal was to be matched by another symbol of our commitment. Every concession to Hanoi was to be matched by another secret letter pledging American retaliation if Hanoi violated the agreements. For example, the cease-fire agreement was to be preceded by the Christmas bombing of Hanoi.

Still more fundamentally, Thieu had no real choice. He had to believe those letters. He had to believe that a private bond and personal commitment existed between him and the American president, that we would still come to his aid in a crunch. Not understanding—not wanting to understand, perhaps—the domestic pressures that were inexorably shaping Nixon's foreign policy, Thieu had to convince himself that Hanoi, not Saigon, was the sole object of American deception. Yet Nixon and Kissinger, those famous skeptics about deals made with Communists, could scarcely have believed that the agreement being forced upon Thieu stood a chance. Far more likely, they hoped for enough time between the Paris Accords and a North Vietnamese takeover of Saigon—the famous "decent interval"—to put into place their grand design for a global strategic balance involving both the Soviet Union and China. That design, unveiled with dramatic and successful trips to Peking and Moscow, in February and May of 1972 respectively, had elements of genuine brilliance in it, and they were not going to let the mess in Southeast Asia thwart it.

Hung and Schecter write with great sympathy for Thieu. But they weaken their case by accepting his analysis of the battlefield situation in 1975. They contend that the war was being won, that "had the United States kept the promises made in writing to Thieu to convince him to sign the Paris Accords, the Republic of Vietnam could have survived." This is, to put it mildly, a highly debatable proposition. Combined with the authors' charge of American "betrayal," it makes The Palace file almost unique among books on Vietnam: it attacks Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger from the right, holding them, rather than Congress or the anti-war movement, most responsible for the calamity.

But Hung and Schecter's material, while fascinating, does not adequately support such a conclusion. Continued American military involvement would certainly have delayed Saigon's collapse; it had for many years. But it would not have brought a South Vietnamese victory. No matter how much we bombed the North or propped up the South, the ruthless leaders in Hanoi (who have subsequently fought both China and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge) would have continued fighting as they had since 1945, at whatever cost, in order to outlast their foes by at least one day. Moreover, Thieu's government was inept and corrupt, and itself infiltrated by Communists. The importance of these unpleasant truths about America's ally is diminished throughout The Palace File. I must assume that it is Hung who insisted on such a sanguine and sanitized view of the Thieu government, of its actions and its motives. Hung's uniquely Vietnamese point of view gives The Palace File some of its power, though he consistently exaggerates his own role; in any event, his is a view that few outsiders would share.

It is a troubling story, this tale of the dying relationship between America and its Vietnamese ally, a story about which nobody—neither hawk nor dove— should feel proud, or even at ease. For the United States, disengagement from Vietnam became a necessity. But was it also necessary to treat our allies in this shabby manner in order to disengage?

Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 1977 to 1981, served in Vietnam as a member of the Foreign Service from 1963 to 1966 and was a delegate to the Paris PeaceTalks in 1968-69.