- Exchange on the Nixon Administration and the Vietnam War
To the Editor:
I am grateful for the generally favorable review given my book The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004) in the Winter 2007 issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies. Unfortunately, the reviewer, James J. Wirtz, grossly misrepresented the nature of the book and my theses, while also failing to place these theses in historiographic context.
Wirtz asserts, for example, that "Kimball seems most interested in using the documentary evidence to demonstrate that [President Richard] Nixon was in fact 'mad' in seeking to create the impression that he was becoming increasingly irrational." To the contrary, I do not claim that either Nixon or Henry Kissinger was necessarily mad or certifiably crazy in pursuing "madman theory" stratagems. I do demonstrate, however, that they were naive and unsuccessful in using this stratagem.
The reviewer implies that I claim that Nixon and Kissinger "realized that Chinese and Soviet officials were willing to fight in Vietnam to the last North Vietnamese soldier." Nixon and Kissinger thought no such thing. Indeed, their "triangular" and "linkage" diplomacy was based on quite different assumptions.
Wirtz claims that "Nixon and Kissinger were masterful practitioners of realpolitik" and that "Kissinger also emerges as a consummate diplomat," thus implying that I drew these conclusions or that the documentary evidence I present in the book supported them. Instead, I argue that all parties—including Vietnamese, Soviet, and Chinese—engaged in realpolitik, but that of all the players Nixon and Kissinger were the least successful. Concerning Kissinger's diplomatic skills, he was tactically very clever and a good debater, but he was also, as Nixon himself often commented, a poor negotiator.
Wirtz refers to the documentary excerpts in the book as "fragments." In fact, most of the documents are substantial excerpts, and some are whole documents—all properly referenced to the originals. The book, as I explain in the preface, is not intended to be a comprehensive compendium or, in the reviewer's [End Page 142] words, a "sustained narrative." It is intended to provide substantial examples accompanied by ample analyses of recently declassified documentary evidence bearing on key historiographic issues concerning Nixon's and Kissinger's direction of the Vietnam War. For a "sustained narrative," Wirtz should have consulted my earlier book, Nixon's Vietnam War (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998).
Wirtz also omitted mention of other key issues and topics I document and analyze in The Vietnam War Files; for example, the progress of the secret negotiations, the so-called Nixon Doctrine, the decent-interval exit strategy, and the false and mythical narrative Nixon and Kissinger concocted after the war to defend their failed policies.
I fail to see how historical research can advance if reviewers do not accurately describe the books they are reviewing.
—Jeffrey P. Kimball,
Miami University (Ohio)
Reply from James J. Wirtz
Jeffrey Kimball's fundamental complaint about my review is that it offered an inaccurate depiction of his book. This is surprising because the way he characterizes his manuscript generally corresponds to my description of The Vietnam War Files. In my review, I wrote that the book contained "excerpts of selected documents" and "fragments of documents," whereas Kimball says the book contains "substantial excerpts" of documents. I also informed readers that the book lacked a sustained narrative. Kimball concurs and suggests I consult another of his works if I seek this type of monograph. Kimball states an important purpose behind his volume was to demonstrate that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were "naïve and unsuccessful" in using the "mad man" strategy to extract the United States from Vietnam, whereas I stated that his analysis provided a "less than glowing depiction of the Nixon administration's efforts to extract the United States from its disastrous military involvement in Southeast Asia." A careful reader of Kimball's letter can see that his critique actually confirms the accuracy of my review, or at least that I did not "grossly misrepresent the nature of his work."