Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Vietnam Wars and Nixon

I don’t really know where to begin talking about the Nixon administration’s war in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia). Let me just say simply that it was primarily about deception. If Johnson purposefully ignored what people were telling him, in favor of ‘loyalty,’ Nixon worked even harder to fabricate a story, and surrounded himself with people who were willing participants in deception. This is not news, of course. Interestingly, I think most people in the US associate Nixon with the Watergate burglary, and perhaps with illegal wiretapping . . . but it’s seldom mentioned in popular conversation that Nixon was behind the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia. The US involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War created and exacerbated the problems which led to the nightmarish rise of the Khmer Rouge.

As with Johnson, this book doesn’t really investigate Nixon’s motives (or the motives of the people he surrounded himself with)—that is the stuff of biographies. But I find it difficult to reconcile the multiple pictures of Nixon. With Johnson, I don’t see such a huge personality discrepancy based on his actions—but I find Nixon troublingly complex. Young’s book characterizes Nixon’s outreach to China in the early 70s as a strategic move to ensure that China would put the right kind of pressure on Vietnam. To some extent, this strategy worked—but ultimately didn’t fulfill US goals. On the other hand, having read China-centric works about this first meeting between the US and the PRC, I’m not willing to believe that his visit was only strategic with regard to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Furthermore, we have an oddly sympathetic picture of Nixon in other areas. Young describes a “hallucinogenic” moment when Nixon couldn’t sleep, amid the demonstrations and killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the capitol, when he and his valet Manolo Sanchez took a walk in the middle of the night out to the Lincoln Memorial. He talked casually to the demonstrators there (described on pages 249-251) about the broadening effect of travel. Young turns around the common phrase to suggest that this is the “evil of banality.” I’m still not sure what to make of this, and of other personal and political details about Nixon that seem in such contrast to his apparent lack of scruples or compassion in other areas. I suppose that while all heroes have feet of clay, the converse can be argued: all villains have moments of humanity.

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