Daniel N. White
The University of Texas at Austin recently hosted an Event on the new book on the newest release of the Nixon White House recordings. It rates the capital E on account of their bringing in out of town talent, Douglas Brinkley the biggest, for a panel discussion on the new book about them, followed by a Q & A. Jeremi Suri of the UT History Department read an interesting excerpt from 1969 or 1970, with Nixon discussing the Vietnam War with Billy Graham. Nixon rambled about how he had the choice of liquidating the US war in Vietnam upon his election, and that he’d thought about it, because he could you know, and he had his doubts about the war succeeding, at least our side succeeding in it. South Vietnam really didn’t have much hope, Nixon said, and French president Charles de Gaulle had managed to do a cut-and-run in Algeria and got away with it, but he, Richard Nixon, had to think about the United States’ future position in the world and how he had to consider how the rest of the world would look at US guarantees if we did that, so we had to stand firm in Vietnam to signal to the Soviets and Chinese that the US would stand up to them in the future.
It was a lengthy ramble, and Billy Graham, as was his customary wont, had nothing useful to say in response nor asked any questions about it afterwards and did not press any point about how maybe the Ten Commandments, including something about “Though shalt not kill,” might be useful to mention here to the Commander in Chief.
I was glad to hear that excerpt, because I’ve always wondered why Nixon didn’t pull the plug on the war in ’69. I’d always wondered how much thought Nixon had given to it, and to following the example set by Charles de Gaulle in liquidating a failed war—and the Tet Offensive in ’68 had shown that we just couldn’t win the war militarily, and therefore we had to make some sort of settlement.
Instead, Nixon and the US government increased the air war in South Vietnam and Laos and expanded it into Cambodia. We killed hundreds of thousands of civilian non-combatants in those countries, and the air war in Cambodia destroyed that country and led directly to Pol Pot and the killing fields a few years later. The ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) share of the war picked up as did their casualties.
The US death toll in Vietnam went down on the weekly counts from the ’68 highs but people generally don’t realize that more than 20,000 Americans were killed in the war on Nixon’s watch. Our Vietnamese allies’ war got bloodier still—every single week of the war (with the exception of the two weeks immediately after Tet ’68) South Vietnamese casualties exceeded ours, generally by a good, and now by a steadily increasing, margin. Everybody knows about the 58,000 Americans killed in that war but we forget about the 300,000 (? There is no reliable statistic to date yet) South Vietnamese (out of a population of maybe 14 million in the entire country) killed in the war we gave them. This was all done with Nixon’s knowing that South Vietnam was never going to stand on its own two feet and was doomed to defeat sooner or later.
I’d always wondered if Nixon knew enough history to know about de Gaulle and Algeria. I never figured any of his staff did, nor would Congress have much back then. The example set by de Gaulle of liquidating a failed war, a failed war that was mostly a military success by the time of de Gaulle’s presidency (the French in Algeria had succeeded militarily in a way we never got close to doing in Vietnam) had always been in front of us had we chosen to see it, study it, and follow it. De Gaulle saw how war in Algeria was an unproductive futility and that France had more important matters at hand. The war had to go and it did and with it Algerie Francais went off to disappear permanently in history’s dustbin. De Gaulle succeeded in liquidating a much more difficult war situation than ours, as Algeria had been an integral part of France and the French Army threatened mutiny again (they’d already mutinied twice over Algeria). Plus de Gaulle faced down dozens of assassination attempts by disaffected pied noirs and military throwbacks. Nixon faced none of this over Vietnam.
If Nixon the red-baiting cold warrior could kiss and make up with the Red Chinese then why couldn’t he call an end to Johnson’s War, as so many Republicans called it then? He saw that we were not going to succeed with the South Vietnam project, which meant that he understood we were militarily defeated.
The panelists at UT Austin all agreed that this was the key question about the Nixon presidency, the one that mattered most. As far as their answering it, they all were happy to quote Nixon’s geopolitical strategizing, mostly sympathetically and uncritically, and point out how Nixon did after all open up to China. They agreed with my take on Nixon’s failure to liquidate the war promptly as his worst decision in office, but they simply repeated Nixon’s arguments as to the reason why he persisted in prosecuting a lost war. None of them volunteered any reasons as to why this key question had never gotten any attention from them, their fellow historians or academics, and was not a question ever posed or debated in American political discourse.
Nixon’s self-justifying excuses about standing tall and tough against China and the Soviet Union, in his words or in the panelists’, had a familiar ring to my ears, and then it occurred to me where I’d heard their like before. It was a very long time ago, back when Nixon was president in fact, and they came from my 7th grade PE coach, Coach McShane.
Coach McShane was recently out of the Marine Corps, where he’d been on the Marine Corps basketball team. Being a military jock on an official Army or Navy football or baseball or basketball team is the leading soft-tit do-nothing safe gig the US military has. Interesting feat, the basketball team, for a short white boy like McShane—I doubt whether he stood 5’6”.
McShane’s height, or lack thereof, was his most noticeable characteristic, followed closely by his coping mechanism for it, his little-man personality, which he had a very bad case of. Cocky, aggressive, mouthy, and pushy—all of those objectionable features of it, McShane had in spades. He could get away with it, and maybe it was made worse, by his being a coach and not having to deal much with adults.
My dad had retired from driving airplanes for Uncle Sam the year before and he’d narrowly avoided Vietnam, but a lot of my friend’s dads, every one of them career Air Force like my dad, hadn’t. The war in Vietnam had hung over my head and those of every other kid I knew every single day of our conscious lives up to that point. Now Coach McShane was the first jarhead and the first jock I’d ever encountered. Back then I was still dutiful and believed in doing what my adult superiors wanted me to do. I wasn’t that sharp, most 7th graders aren’t and I was no different. I was probably less sharp in a lot of ways because the military school and base housing system was more Ozzie-and-Harriet then than the rest of the outside world was. Particularly South Austin in those days, which was fairly redneck, stupid, and ugly. But I was smart enough then to disbelieve McShane’s first day of class speech, or at least snap to there being something wrong with it.
McShane got in front of us and rambled for a good bit about being a Marine, and how tough boot camp was, and how it made him, and how he could have gone over the fence any time, but he didn’t, because he was tough. Lots of other people went over the fence but he didn’t, because he was tough. And so on. Then more repetitious statements about how tough it was to be on the Marine basketball team.
Even as a 7th grader I realized that there was something wrong with someone like McShane talking so much about going over the fence and bragging about how tough he was. I knew firsthand that there was a war on the entirety of his time in the Marines, and I had a good solid inkling that infantry and war was one hell of a lot tougher than boot camp and basketball. But my mental faculties were less developed, and I still had respect for adult authority, and I didn’t raise my hand like I should have during his speech, interrupting and asking —“Excuse me, Coach McShane, but going over the fence—that’s one way to keep from going to Vietnam, isn’t it?”
That would have been the setup. That might have gotten some grins from the smarter 7th graders in the audience, ugly looks from the rest, most of whom had already well-internalized and accepted the foremost great lesson of life in our free country, that you don’t talk back to authority, you go with the program and don’t make waves. McShane’s answer no doubt would have been some sort of shut-up kid thing, and he’d have gone back to his ramble. My hand would have gone up again, waving, and he’d have irritatedly called on me again, and I’d have asked the kill shot question: “Excuse me, Coach McShane, but being a Marine jock and playing on the Marine Corps basketball team—that’s another way to keep from going to Vietnam, isn’t it?” The gym no doubt would have gone silent with that one, and maybe even McShane too for a bit. McShane would have killed me for it later, but it would have been worth it.
Nixon’s whining to Billy Graham about why he didn’t do a de Gaulle and liquidate the Vietnam War when he got into office had to my ears forty years on the same ring of McShane’s first day of class speech to my 7th grade gym class. Both speeches were dishonest and self-pitying and full of hackneyed conventional wisdom tropes and false promises. They were both cowardly in refusing to deal with the obvious issue at hand. McShane played the jock card to dodge Vietnam and bragged afterwards about how tough he was for being a Marine to suppress that fact. Nixon (and the lion’s share of elite America then) didn’t have the guts to liquidate a war that he at least was smart enough to know was lost. They both were cowards, their words were cowardly, and they repeated excuses and clichés to cover it up. Nixon’s clichés were the familiar ones of superpower intimidation that we should all be good and tired of by now, while McShane repeated the usual ones about how tough boot camp and Marines and jocks were.
Addressing 7th graders, McShane had no problems getting away with his self-justifying lies. Nixon, and the most of Congress back then who agreed with his rationales on prolonging the war, as well as all the apologists in academia and the power structure in this country, then or now, who signed off on it, have gotten away with far worse for at least as long. And we have no excuse for this. That we as a people weren’t smart enough, or grown up enough, to call Nixon on it then or talk about it now in our history books and our political discourse, shows that maybe most of us don’t make it much past the 7th grade anyway.
Nixon, McShane, and their lies about Vietnam. They show us a lot about America as a society and people. How much we are the prisoners of our preconceptions and our own beliefs, true or not, about ourselves. And how rare real courage, which is to say moral courage, is, and really how little we respect it.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.