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LISTEN: "To Put It Brutally..."

On this, the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War seems like a distant dream and America's actions during that long tragedy are as inscrutable as ever. As early as 1971, one would have said President Nixon should remove American troops from Vietnam for political reasons alone. After all, nearly three-fourths of Americans favored a withdrawal. And yet, the troops remained. This would seem to jibe with the view, cultivated by Nixon himself, that he wanted to win the war but that Congress tied his hands. As Ken Hughes reveals in his latest book, however, Nixon and his advisors privately agreed the war could not be won.

In Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection, Hughes investigates many remarkable conversations from the Oval Office to show, among other revelations, how national security advisor Henry Kissinger convinced the president that maintaining a presence in Vietnam was in the best interest of his reelection hopes. Were South Vietnam to fall before the election, he reasoned, it could have a negative impact on the campaign. If this sounds like a paltry, not to say shocking, reason to persist in a war, you'll understand the urgency of Hughes' findings.

Nixon and Kissinger express their feelings about a withdrawal's impact on the campaign quite openly in a conversation from March 19, 1971. You may listen to it, and read the full transcript, here. Nixon is negotiating for the release of POWs and considers the North Vietnamese demand of complete pull-out of American troops. Kissinger reminds the president that such a withdrawal would result in the “knocking over” of Saigon—that is, its untimely capture by the enemy.

Kissinger: Our problem is that if we get out after all the suffering we’ve gone through—
President Nixon: And then have it knocked over. Oh, I think—
Kissinger: We can’t have it knocked over—brutally—to put it brutally—before the election.
President Nixon: That’s right.

This view would prevail and guide the president’s course in his decisions on Vietnam. And so American involvement in the war continued, and thousands more lost their lives in what even the president privately agreed was a lost cause.

Like its predecessor, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate—a book the Washington Post called “the best account yet of Nixon’s devious interference with Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam War negotiations”—Fatal Politics is based on Hughes’ unparalleled knowledge of the secret White House tapes and offers the most penetrating look yet at the inner workings of Nixon's Oval Office.

For more of Ken Hughes on Nixon and Vietnam, read his current pieces for Salon and for the History News Network. Hughes will be appearing at the 92nd Street Y in  New York on Wednesday, May 7. Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection is available now.

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