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RICHARD NIXON cannot be called a hawk on the Viet Nam war. He wants the U.S. out, and he would prefer to bargain toward the exit rather than fight his way there. He has begun to reduce the American force level in Viet Nam. In May the President put forward a conciliatory negotiating position, inviting the Communists to discuss it seriously. Yet the impasse and killing continue. If presidential ferocity is not to blame, perhaps a kind of optimism is.

Implicit in Nixon’s policy so far has been the expectation that North Viet Nam could be persuaded or compelled to make counterconcessions. Reciprocity could take a number of forms: a mutual reduction of military activity, simultaneous pullback of North Vietnamese and American forces, a compromise on one or more of the outstanding political issues. Reasonable as that hope sounds, the reality seems to be far more stark. Unless Ho Chi Minh’s death causes a North Vietnamese policy change that is not yet apparent and does not seem likely, Nixon’s announced goal of “a peace we can be proud of” is no closer than it was when the Administration took office in January. Rather, Nixon may have to face the fact that the Communists are prepared to wait him out indefinitely, convinced that sooner rather than later a U.S. public weary of the war will force the issue on the President. Thus Washington’s real choice may amount to fighting on as it has since 1965 or making some new and major one-sided concession.

In that grim framework, Nixon last week staged yet another review of Administration thinking as if he were starting anew, amid some confusion, the search for a policy of disengagement. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and General Creighton Abrams jetted in from Viet Nam, Admiral John McCain from Honolulu, and Philip Habib from the U.S. negotiating team in Paris. They joined Secretary of State William Rogers and the familiar group of Washington-based advisers for a four-hour White House session with Nixon. Such meetings have usually preceded policy announcements, but the White House initially would say nothing after last week’s conference. Nixon may discuss Viet Nam in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week.

One of the most pressing issues on the agenda at the White House was a second reduction of U.S. forces in South Viet Nam. On this point, Nixon had more than Communist intransigence to consider. Although Defense Secretary Melvin Laird last month was prepared to recommend another withdrawal, Nixon deferred the announcement after Communist military activity accelerated. It later became clear that there was another reason: growing opposition to further cutbacks from the service chiefs. There is increasing skepticism among the generals that the Army of South Viet Nam (ARVN) is really prepared to take over the fighting from the U.S. Further, some military leaders are now insisting, as they so often have in the past, that the Communists cannot withstand American military pressure indefinitely. General Leonard Chapman, Marine Commandant, said last week that “time, the weapon employed so well by the enemy, is beginning to work against him now.”

For whom the clock ticks loudest is of course a crucial question—both on the battlefield and at home in the U.S. So far the President has not had to contend with the kind of domestic antiwar pressure that drove Lyndon Johnson from power. That luxury is not likely to endure much longer. Now Nixon has been in office for nine months and it is reasonable to ask what has been accomplished and what new initiatives might be attempted.

Vanished Lull. The Administration’s critics accuse Nixon of letting opportunities that might lead to a settlement slip by. Even with the benefit of hindsight, however, it is difficult to identify specific moments of great promise that the U.S. ignored. A battle lull did exist when Nixon took office, but it soon evaporated in a new enemy offensive. After that, Nixon displayed more caution than enterprise. He wanted to review all of the options in minute detail. He sought to create a sound working relationship with the Saigon government of President Nguyen Van Thieu. Both projects took time.

The desire to coordinate policy with Thieu was understandable, but has had scant results. Excessive concern for Thieu’s viewpoint has inhibited imaginative approaches to the Communists. Though there has been agreement in principle and pronouncement, there is divergence in fundamental interest: the U.S. wants to disengage from the war but probably cannot do so and assure the survival of Thieu’s government.

The split was clear last week in the manner in which Washington and Saigon responded to the 72-hour cease-fire that the Viet Cong proposed in memory of Ho Chi Minh. Saigon at first rejected it. After appeals from the U.S., a joint statement emerged saying that allied activities would be “influenced by the nature of enemy military operations.” Then the South Vietnamese went ahead with offensive probes while U.S. forces assumed a defensive posture.

Unpromising Norm. As the truce ended, the Administration seemed to be groping for a correct tactical approach. Ground operations by both sides were resuming, with the Communists starting “normal” attacks a few hours early. But for nine hours, at Washington’s orders, B-52 sorties were restricted to one-half the usual rate. Then the President, without explanation, ordered a total suspension of B-52 raids within South Viet Nam. The move was at first interpreted as an invitation to Hanoi to reciprocate. Thirty-six hours later, as enemy and allied ground operations continued, Nixon ordered the Stratofortresses back into action. Had Washington informed Hanoi of what it was doing? The White House would not say. Was the U.S. attempting to lure the other side into a stand-down by tangible example? If so, 36 hours was hardly enough time for the opportunity to register with Communist leaders. Finally the White House explained somewhat lamely that it had made the gesture in hopes that the Communists were considering a combat reduction of their own. The U.S. was not initiating a peace feeler; it was preparing to react to a possible Communist move, or so the White House said. It was, all in all, a fumbling performance.

Thus at week’s end matters were back to the weary, unpromising norm. Nixon’s task is to determine whether anything within the range of possible actions will draw a positive response from the other side. Some of the options:

> A massive and early unilateral withdrawal of American forces, which is what the Communists want most, would of course be the fastest way out for the U.S. and the most economical in terms of American lives. It would also be an admission of failure that would reduce allied bargaining power in Paris to near zero and virtually assure a Communist takeover in South Viet Nam. The effect on American prestige and credibility in Asia could be devastating. Neither the Administration nor the American people as a whole is ready to accept this course—at least not yet.

> A series of smaller troop cutbacks, scheduled in advance and carried out over the course of perhaps 18 months, could at least persuade Saigon that the U.S. is serious about the “Vietnamization” of the war. The South Vietnamese might either become more energetic in their own defense or they might reconsider their reluctance to reach a political compromise with the Communists. Some American support elements might remain to stave off a Communist military victory.

> The U.S. could attempt to induce a full or partial cease-fire before other agreements are reached. It might be attempted in a few provinces at a time. Saigon’s cooperation would be necessary, of course, and that might have to be obtained by threatening to withdraw.

> The U.S. could pressure Saigon into offering an important political concession, such as establishment of an interim coalition government that would then hold national elections. Thieu has pledged never to consider this; the concession could cause his fall from power. At some stage, however, the interests of his regime will have to yield to the larger need for peace.

Any dramatic innovation would be both difficult and risky. None carries more than a small chance of success. Jean Lacouture, the French biographer of Ho Chi Minh, insists that “Hanoi can be moved by something very bold.” But it is more prudent to admit that the West does not really know what will move Hanoi, and given the mood and domestic needs of the U.S., it is difficult to see why Hanoi should see any reason to assist the U.S. out of Viet Nam. More than anything else, that is the agony of Nixon’s dilemma.

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