- The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy
Strange as this may sound to the uninitiated, archival research can be exciting. As one pores over box after box of dusty documents, one not only gets a rich sense of the trials and tribulations suffered by policymakers but also a thrill at reading someone else's "mail." Occasionally, one stumbles across a critical decision-memorandum with much sought-after marginalia that gives additional insights into what was on the minds of high-level officials. Often documents of truly historic importance are mixed haphazardly with the minutiae of everyday life as office assistants close out the daily file for some future archive. Sometimes policymakers even plant evidence intended to throw the future researcher off track, or include a few jokes, or even deliberately leave behind information that supports their version of events. Archives, of course, also contain much information that former policymakers probably regret was preserved in the first place. Yet, despite the exciting detective work that goes into archival research, the vast majority of historians end up writing history; they do not just let the documents speak for themselves.
Jeffrey Kimball's The Vietnam War Files is an exception to this rule. Kimball provides excerpts of selected documents from various archives, allowing them to speak for themselves, or at least to support his less-than-rosy depiction of the Nixon administration's efforts to extract the United States from its disastrous military involvement in Southeast Asia. Kimball begins The Vietnam War Files with an introductory chapter that describes several contemporary debates about the Nixon administration. The remainder of the volume offers a series of short commentaries about key events during the Nixon administration's war effort, supplemented by excerpts from declassified documents to justify Kimball's assessment of the way foreign policy was conducted by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
Kimball seems especially interested in providing documentary evidence that Nixon attempted to put into practice the "mad man" theory of diplomacy. Borrowing from what was then cutting-edge thinking about deterrence, Nixon apparently attempted to signal to Moscow, Beijing, and Hanoi that he was becoming increasingly desperate and willing to undertake "irrational" escalation of the Vietnam War to bring it to a conclusion on terms minimally acceptable to the United States. We still have little way of knowing what impact, if any, Nixon's "mad man" posturing had on Communist leaders' perceptions of the developing situation. Indeed, we can not yet be sure [End Page 117] that they even noticed the various signals generated by Washington, including a U.S. nuclear alert intended to gain Moscow's attention. Although Kimball seems most interested in using the documentary evidence to demonstrate that Nixon was in fact "mad" in seeking to create the impression that he was becoming increasingly irrational, the president's effort to make credible threats of irrational behavior is consistent with mainstream deterrence theory. In any case, Nixon's approach reveals the lengths to which he and Kissinger were willing to go—and the limits of the instruments available to them—to find some sort of face-saving way to extract the United States from Vietnam.
What actually emerges from the fragments of documents in the book is a rather favorable image of the Nixon-Kissinger grand strategy. Both men realized that Chinese and Soviet officials were willing to fight in Vietnam to the last North Vietnamese soldier and that the key to a reasonable settlement in Southeast Asia was to detach Moscow and Beijing from Hanoi. Once the North Vietnamese were deprived of their great-power patrons, the thinking went, they alone would have to face the brunt of U.S. military power, a prospect that Nixon and Kissinger believed would spur Hanoi to end the conflict. To this end, they pursued triangular diplomacy, linkage, and détente while making irrational threats and launching military operations to demonstrate their willingness to use large-scale violence to terminate the conflict. As the documentary evidence testifies, their deliberations...