Nixon the Nation-Builder? Strategic Understanding in the Vietnam War


A new book from Evan Thomas reminds us – as if we needed it – of the peculiarities of President Richard Nixon. Brilliant, reclusive, and disturbed, Nixon ought to defy caricature even though he has often been the subject of it. His foreign policy partnership with Henry Kissinger reflected this. By marginalizing groups which traditionally held greater sway over American foreign policy – like the regular State Department and Pentagon bureaucracies – and concentrating decision-making power in their own hands, Nixon and Kissinger created a system that reflected their own highest qualities and most glaring defects.

I had a chance to see this system in action when I delved into the records of the Nixon White House while researching a book on the history of U.S. nation-building efforts during the Vietnam War. Most of what has been written about the administration’s Vietnam War policy focuses on its search for a negotiated settlement, its military moves in Laos and Cambodia, and its build-up of the South Vietnamese armed forces. I instead tapped a rich vein of documents dealing with the administration’s policy towards and understanding of the granular detail of the ground war and nation-building effort in South Vietnam.

They made surprising reading. Like the Johnson administration, Nixon and Kissinger were concerned with the vitality of the non-Communist Government of Vietnam (GVN). As U.S. forces were steadily withdrawn from the country, the GVN needed to be strong enough to maintain control of the people and resources of South Vietnam and contain the Vietnamese Communist movement. Much like during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. aimed to foster the emergence of local proxies who would continue to see that it’s war aims were achieved even after the withdrawal of outside forces.

This general concern with nation-building was hence predictable. But what was surprising was the sophisticated understanding of the process, and especially of its limitations, which White House documents displayed. Disturbed by the informal policymaking processes of the Johnson administration, to which he had served as a consultant, Kissinger set about constructing an analytical apparatus which would give himself and the president a true picture of the ebb and flow of the ground war in South Vietnam.

The result was the Vietnam Special Studies Group (VSSG). Kissinger, who had spent years listening to rosy reports about the war under the Johnson administration and then seeing them proven wrong, was sceptical of analysis about the progress of the war from the field. Instead, he felt that strategic-level decision-makers needed their own sources of analysis. In this spirit, and staffed by the sort of “systems analysts” to whom Robert McNamara’s tenure at the Pentagon had given a bad name, the VSSG was tasked with assessing the prospects for the GVN winning what Kissinger called “the control war”.

The control war was the struggle not to militarily defeat the Vietnamese Communist movement, but rather to bring the people of South Vietnam under the control of the GVN and eject Communist shadow governments. Previously, the mere absence of violence in an area had been taken as evidence it was free of Communist activity. The analysts at the VSSG believed this had given a mistaken impression of the strength of the GVN, as apparent security did not preclude the existence of a shadow government engaged in recruiting, terrorism, and political organization. The prevalence of this underground infrastructure had become clear during the Tet Offensive, which struck at a time when – according to the Johnson administration’s metrics – the countryside was more secure than ever.

By staring hard facts such as this in the face, the VSSG reached a remarkably accurate and prescient picture of the state of the war. It warned that GVN control of the population of South Vietnam was much lower than had been imagined. It also pointed out that the most significant factor in bringing about control gains was the presence of U.S. forces – the exact same forces that were being withdrawn. The analysts warned that the GVN did not have the ability to substitute its own assets for these U.S. forces, and so pointed out that GVN control was likely to decrease and not increase as time went on. Finally, the group was at pains to point out the rising risk of an exogenous shock such as the Tet Offensive – exactly the sort of shock which struck South Vietnam with the 1972 and 1975 offensives, the first robbing the GVN of a great degree of territorial control and the second of the entire country.

The quality and integrity of the VSSG’s analysis stuck out for me in comparison to the Johnson administration’s wishful thinking. Kissinger and Nixon kept abreast of the group’s reports and were the wiser for it.

But the VSSG also stands as a reminder that, as Chris Tripodi has recently reminded us, we ought not to place too much faith in “understanding”. Strategic-level decision-makers ought to have the best and most honest analysis available to them, but it is naive to expect that this alone will lead to successful policy outcomes. Ultimately, information is what you make of it. Having inherited a strategy which required a strengthened GVN to be successful, Kissinger and Nixon remained wedded to this goal despite their pessimism over it ever being achieved. The alternative – to have abandoned the GVN, and hence their war aims, unilaterally – seemed to them unthinkable.

Still, this research ought to stand as a corrective to those who still think that all U.S. policymakers were blindly naive and optimistic about the Vietnam War, or completely ignorant of the true state of the political situation in South Vietnam. The truth is more complex, and more disturbing: they knew, but they carried on regardless.

Image: U.S. President Richard Nixon (left) and Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, at the White House. From the booklet “President Nixon and the Role of Intelligence in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War” courtesy of the CIA.

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