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Nation: Understanding Understandings

3 minute read

Tough and defiant, President Nixon last week publicly decoded his recent signals to Hanoi: at any moment he chooses, with any frequency he deems necessary, he would order the bombers to fly again. First he pointed out, as he has in the past, that as American ground troops are gradually withdrawn from South Viet Nam, he will carry out his responsibility to protect those that remain from attack. Then he continued: “Now, if as a result of my conclusion that the North Vietnamese by their infiltration threaten our remaining forces−if they thereby develop a capacity and proceed possibly to use that capacity to increase the level of fighting in South Viet Nam−then I will order the bombing of military sites in North Viet Nam, the passes that lead from North Viet Nam into South Viet Nam, the military complexes and the military supply lines … I trust that this is not necessary, but let there be no misunderstanding.”

Russian Trucks. The President once again based his position on “understandings” with the North Vietnamese dating back to November 1968. At that time the U.S. let it be known that in return for the bombing halt ordered by Lyndon Johnson, it expected the North Vietnamese to refrain from attacking across the Demilitarized Zone and stop rocketing South Vietnamese cities; the U.S. also intended to continue intelligence flights over the North. The North Vietnamese never formally agreed to the understandings. Instead, word came from Moscow that Hanoi grasped the American position. By and large, the North Vietnamese have stuck to the unacknowledged agreement since, except for occasional attacks on U.S. intelligence flights. Now the President has unilaterally and considerably widened the understandings. Lately Hanoi has increased infiltration, and an estimated 8,000 Russian-made military trucks now are parked just north of the Demilitarized Zone. The President did not say that Hanoi would actually have to use its growing forces before the bombing began; merely assembling them could be enough to call down a U.S. attack if American troops are threatened.

P.O.W. Offer. Viet Nam is not the only place where the elastic nature of unwritten diplomatic “understandings” has been demonstrated. Washington and Moscow reached such an understanding over Cuba after the 1962 missile crisis: no more nuclear weapons in Cuba, no U.S. invasion of the island (see THE WORLD). The flexible nature of the agreement was apparent at the Nixon press conference when he said that a Russian submarine base at Cienfuegos, where nuclear subs presumably could be serviced, does not constitute a threat to the U.S. One of the shorter-lived understandings led to the Middle East cease-fire in August. With Washington and Moscow in the immediate background, Egypt and Israel stopped shooting and agreed not to increase their forces along the Suez. Egypt immediately started moving SAM missiles in, the Russians denied a violation, and the “understanding” was a bad memory.

Nixon’s brusqueness with Hanoi did not stop with his carefully worded statement on bombing. He flatly rejected the idea of unilaterally extending a Christmas cease-fire in Viet Nam through Tet, arguing that to do so would endanger U.S. troops. He branded North Viet Nam an “international outlaw” for its treatment of American prisoners and its failure to accept an offer, made last week by Ambassador David K.E. Bruce in Paris, to exchange approximately 800 American and South Vietnamese P.O.W.s for ten times that number of North Vietnamese.

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