In reading Party of Defeat by David Horowitz and Ben Johnson, I am reminded of an incident that occurred in 1981 when I was working in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration. I was tasked by the National Security Advisor with producing a paper for a National Security Council (NSC) meeting at which the President would decide whether or not to continue draft registration. During his successful campaign for the White House in 1980, President Reagan called Carter’s reinstatement of draft registration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan an empty gesture. He had promised in a letter to Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) to abolish registration if he were elected.
However, many congressional supporters of the Reagan defense build-up, including members of the “party of defeat,” like Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were actually pressing to bring back the draft, felt canceling draft registration would undermine the signal that the Reagan defense buildup would send to the Soviet Union.
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Ken Hughes of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia offers extra analysis:
Dear Mr. Korb,
I’m glad you mentioned Richard Nixon’s responsibility for losing Vietnam in "Criticism of War Policy is Patriotic." My study of the Nixon White House tapes (as a research fellow with the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia) shows that Nixon understood that his settlement with Hanoi doomed South Vietnam.
I’ve turned my research into a documentary miniseries, Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, Vietnam & the Biggest Republican Presidential Landslide.
All the episodes are online, available to anyone to watch for free. Here’s a synopsis of the latest, episode five: “South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway,” President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on August 3, 1972, by which time he had spent nearly four full years telling the American people the opposite. “I’m just being perfectly candid.”
Nixon had publicly promised to bring the troops home from Vietnam only when the South could defend and govern itself, but he privately recognized that that it probably never would be able to. He could have withdrawn the troops when he first realized this. And gone down in history as a president who lost a war. And gone down to defeat in the 1972 election.
Instead, Nixon secretly timed military withdrawal from Vietnam to the election, bringing enough troops home to bolster his claim that his training program for the South Vietnamese military was succeeding, while leaving enough there (until the politically opportune moment) to conceal that it wasn’t. And he secretly proposed a “decent interval” exit, letting Hanoi know via triangular diplomacy that he would not intervene if it overthrew the Saigon government after he got out — as long as the Communists waited about 18 months. Enough time so that Saigon’s fall looked like Saigon’s fault, not Nixon’s.
Episode five of Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, Vietnam & the Biggest Republican Landslide: Decent Interval II shows how Nixon’s secret diplomatic strategy began to bear fruit in 1972. The Chinese accepted the “decent interval” concept, then urged it on the North Vietnamese. The last US combat troops came home. Nixon rode sky high in the polls.
Almost twenty thousand American soldiers had died during his presidency (one-third of all who died in our longest war). They had been told they were fighting for South Vietnam’s independence and freedom, not for a decent interval before North Vietnam won. “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two,” Kissinger told Nixon. “After a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.”