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LISTEN: A Decent Interval

Nixon with troopsDespite agreement among Richard Nixon and his advisors by 1971 that the Vietnam War was a lost cause, the president took the advice of his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and decided to leave American troops in Asia until he had won reelection. The inevitable fall of Saigon—so the thinking went—must not happen in an election year. And so thousands more American soldiers lost their lives in a military action that their president had lost faith in. This disturbing story is part of Ken Hughes' findings for his new book, Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection. There is, unfortunately, even more to the story.

A researcher at the Miller Center and an expert on the White House tapes ("Ken Hughes is one of America's foremost experts on secret presidential recordings."—Bob Woodward), Hughes explains how the decision to prolong American involvement in Vietnam to help ensure a second term for Nixon opened the door for a second, equally reprehensible, decision. If South Vietnam were to fall to the North too soon after American troops were finally removed, it might reflect badly on the president. Kissinger felt there needed to be a "decent interval" between these two events, and so he secretly met with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (along with the Soviet Union, China was one of the two largest suppliers of military aid to the North Vietnamese) to ask him to use his influence in Hanoi to delay an invasion of South Vietnam. What could Kissinger offer in return? A clear path to the South, with no American intervention. What would constitute a decent interval? Eighteen months, said Kissinger. Give us eighteen months.

The conversations surrounding these historic, largely secret, events are available on a dedicated web site as transcripts and audio files, so readers may hear for themselves. On October 6, 1972, months after Kissinger's confidential meeting with Zhou, he and the president reflected on the inevitable fall of South Vietnam, which they had in effect set up. As Kissinger acknowledges, the deal they have negotiated would "collapse the South Vietnamese." What are the odds Saigon will prevail? "I think there is one chance in four," Kissinger admits. "Well" says Nixon, "if they’re that collapsible, maybe they just have to be collapsed. That’s another way to look at it, too." You may listen to the entire conversation here.

Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection is available now.

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