The Nixon Presidency: Unraveling, Again

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday September 25, 1992

To watch the Senate’s POW/MIA hearings is to watch the Nixon presidency unravel one more time.

This week, the senior diplomats, intelligence chiefs, military commanders and defense secretaries of Richard Nixon’s Class of ’73 have paraded to the witness table in Washington and told us in varying degrees of candor that, yes, we knew or strongly believed we were leaving men behind as prisoners in Indochina.

They’re a bit late, of course, because the acknowledgement they are making now is the opposite of what Nixon and four succeeding presidents have told the American people — and in particular the anguished families of the Vietnam missing — for the last 19 years and six months.

Many of these witnesses before the Kerry-Smith special committee were noticeably uncomfortable as the truth, or a portion of it, was drawn from them. We know they will not tell us everything about this shameful episode; human experience informs us that we should not expect frail and fallible humans who have compromised under pressure, which means nearly all of us, to tear open their secret innards for all the world to see.

But of all the household names (Schlesinger, Laird, Rogers, Haig, etc.) from that era, only one witness stood out as incapable of proffering at least a respectable percentage of the truth. Henry Kissinger, protecting his eternal flame, was true to form.

Indignant and righteous and defensive and angry all at the same time, the former national security adviser and secretary of state and chief negotiator with North Vietnam demanded to be praised rather than challenged. His tone most of the day fell in the category of “How dare you question my honor?”– when indeed the only thing the senators were questioning was whether he had given America a reasonably complete accounting of what was known about the prisoners.

Kissinger protested that he was a patriot who had sought to end a wrenching war in the noblest manner but that “his leverage with Hanoi had been taken from him by the restrictive edicts of an increasingly antiwar Congress.”

“If servicemen were kept by our enemies,” he said, “there is one villain and one villain only: the cold-hearted rulers in Hanoi…

“What has happened to this country that a congressional committee could be asked to inquire whether any American official of whatever administration would fail to move heaven and earth to fight for the release of American POWs and for an accounting of the missing… or, even worse, arrange for a conspiracy to obscure the fate of the prisoners left behind?”

But, regrettably for Kissinger’s rendering of history, there has been little else but obscuration since Jan. 27, 1973, when the peace terms negotiated by him were signed in Paris before we had obtained from Hanoi an authenticated list of all prisoners. The names missing from the list that Hanoi finally provided were mostly men, as many as several hundred, known to have been captured in Laos.

Also unfortunate for Kissinger is the testimony given the committee by so many of his colleagues — to the effect that they had come to the conclusion, based upon the same intelligence data that apparently did not impress Kissinger, that men were indeed left behind, especially in Laos.

Winston Lord, one of Kissinger’s key aides in the negotiations with Hanoi, told the committee, for example, that a Richard Nixon hamstrung by the antiwar mood and by the expanding Watergate scandal had been forced in the spring of 1973, with the two-month-old Paris accords already unraveling, to make an “agonizing” choice between letting things be in Indochina or reopening the war over the issue of unaccounted for Americans.

As we know, Nixon opted against any attempt at renewing hostilities. Instead, he announced that all the live prisoners were on their way home and had the Pentagon proclaim that everyone else was dead. Was this a dishonorable decision? Or was it merely an acceptance of realpolitik by a man who believed he would never get the men back alive anyway — Hanoi could simply execute them — and would lose more men in any resumption of combat?

This is not the place for such judgments to be made. One thing can be said, however. Nixon’s choice, which of course was also Kissinger’s choice, does not qualify as a policy decision, in Kissinger’s words, “to move heaven and earth to fight for the release of American POWs and for an accounting of the missing.”

Would it have been so terrible to have told Congress and the American public in 1973 about the men who were missing and believed alive? Even with our leverage on Hanoi drastically diminished, could we not have raised such an international stink about the prisoners Hanoi was holding, in brazen violation of the Geneva convention, that the North Vietnamese might have become concerned over the prospect of becoming a pariah nation?

What did we have to lose by launching a diplomatic bombardment? Nothing really — and a presidency that wasn’t falling apart might have done it. But Nixon was trying to save himself. And men around him were trying to save themselves. And the prisoners were not saved. Were they not as honorable in their service of their country as the men in Washington?

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