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The Vietnam War Files

Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy

Jeffrey Kimball

November 2003
384 pages, 15 illustrations, 3 maps, 6-1/8 x 9-1/4
Modern War Studies
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1283-3, $34.95

WINNER OF THE LINK-KUEHL PRIZE, GIVEN BY THE SOCIETY FOR HISTORIANS OF AMERICAN FOREIGN RELATIONS

book cover imageHow Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger pursued their public vow to end the Vietnam War and win the peace has long been entangled in bitter controversy and obscured by political spin. Recent declassifications of archival documents, on both sides of the former Iron and Bamboo Curtains, have at last made it possible to uncover the truth behind Nixon’s and Kissinger’s management of the war and to better understand the policies and strategies of the Vietnamese, Soviets, and Chinese.

Drawing from this treasure trove of formerly secret files, Jeffrey Kimball has excerpted more than 140 print documents and taped White House conversations bearing on Nixon-era strategy. Most of these have never before been published and many provide smoking-gun evidence on such long-standing controversies as the “madman theory” and the “decent-interval” option. They reveal that by 1970 Nixon’s and Kissinger’s madman and détente strategies had fallen far short of frightening the North Vietnamese into making concessions. By 1971, as Kissinger notes in one key document, the administration had decided to withdraw the remaining U.S. combat troops while creating “a healthy interval for South Vietnam’s fate to unfold.”

The new evidence uncovers a number of behind-the-scenes ploys—such as Nixon’s secret nuclear alert of October 1969—and sheds more light on Nixon’s goals in Vietnam and his and Kissinger’s strategies of Vietnamization, the “China card,” and “triangular diplomacy.” The excerpted documents also reveal significant new information about the purposes of the LINEBACKER bombings, Nixon’s manipulation of the POW issue, and the conduct of the secret negotiations in Paris—as well as other key topics, events, and issues. All of these are effectively framed by Kimball, whose introductions to each document provide insightful historical context.

Building on the ground-breaking arguments of his earlier prize-winning book, Nixon’s Vietnam War, Kimball also offers readers a concise narrative of the evolution of Nixon-era strategy and a critical assessment of historical myths about the war. The story that emerges from both the documents and Kimball’s contextual narratives directly contradicts the Nixon-Kissinger version of events. In fact, they did not pursue a consistent strategy from beginning to end and did not win a peace with honor.

"In a superb archival account, Kimball, author of the widely praised Nixon's Vietnam War skillfully discredits [the accounts in] Nixon's and Kissinger's memoirs and produces both U.S. and North Vietnamese documents that expose their reactive and often frenetic style of policy making. Indeed, Nixon's 'Madman Theory' is given new meaning by Kimball's examination of the nuclear alert of October 1969. . . . As for South Vietnam, Kimball produces documents that prove neither Nixon nor Kissinger harbored any illustions concerning Saigon's chances for survival. In the end, despite their bluster, Nixon and Kissinger agreed to terms in 1973 that they could have obtained in 1969. The 'decent interval' was neither decent nor sufficient to save Saigon. Essential."--Choice

“A quite remarkable and highly readable account of the Nixon Administration’s war and peace strategy. The variety of sources, the clear and concise introductions, and the drama itself of how the ‘Madman Theory’ evolved, and dissolved, make this
our best study yet of the war’s end.”--Lloyd C. Gardner, author of Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam

“An important book, full of new and essential material, tied together by Kimball’s exceedingly clear prose and judicious evaluations. Students of the era will be in his debt for a long time to come.”--Melvin Small, author of The Presidency of Richard Nixon

JEFFREY KIMBALL is professor of history at Miami University and the author of To Reason Why: The Debate about the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War and Nixon’s Vietnam War, winner of the Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize.

 

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