… had sent a letter to North Vietnam at the height of the December 1972 Christmas bombings?
That’s the question I’d like to consider in light of the recent letter 47 Republicans sent to the government of Iran while President Obama is negotiating with that country over their nuclear program.
Let’s go back a nearly a half-century to imagine a counter-factual historical event: the sending of a letter by Democrats to the leader of North Vietnam while President Nixon was engaged in peace talks to bring an end to the war.
The Vietnam war was controversial to say the least. It divided this country in ways that are still having aftershocks to this day. Yet during that time, despite criticism by some Democratic politicians – not a majority by any means as a large number of Democrats were defense hawks – President Nixon was given the ability to prosecute the war and ongoing peace talks with North Vietnam as he saw fit.
In December 1972, the talks were at a standstill. North Vietnam wanted an unconditional withdrawal of all US troops, while the Nixon and Kissinger insisted on a mutual withdrawal including all North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops from South Vietnam. At one point in October, an agreement in principle had been reached between Kissinger and North Vietnam’s lead negotiator, Lee Duc Tho, but the South Vietnamese government led by Nguyen Van Thieu immediately rejected the proposed agreement.
A more compliant Le Duc Tho suggested to Kissinger that North Vietnam was willing to consider an agreement recognising the government of South Vietnam, so long as it included processes for free elections and political reform. The pair drafted a treaty, which was completed in late October 1972 and unveiled by Kissinger, with much fanfare, at a White House press conference.
Kissinger and Le Duc Tho’s treaty was enthusiastically received around the world. After almost five years of impasse, it appeared as if a workable peace for Vietnam was in sight. But the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, was outraged by the draft treaty, believing it placed his country at the mercy of the Viet Cong.
Theiu was suspicious of the Kissinger/Le Duc Tho agreement on several grounds. One, it left North Vietnamese troops in place during the period while the Viet Cong and the Theiu government negotiated a final settlement. Second, it required that a final settlement be negotiated by three parties: Theiu’s government (the “Republic of Vietnam”), the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (the “PRG” a/k/a the Viet Cong) and a third party to be selected by agreement Perhaps his deepest concern, however, was that his government would not survive without a continued American military presence in South Vietnam. Whatever his ultimate reasons for rejecting the accord, demanding over 100 changes to the proposal, and then on October 26th he broadcast a speech detailing his opposition to the accord, painting its provisions in the worst light possible.
President Nixon was furious with Theiu. Kissinger’s efforts to obtain an agreement with Tho had been fast tracked in order for a peace treaty could be announced prior to the November election. Theiu, however, refused to back down. Theiu’s rejection of the treaty naturally led the North Vietnamese to suspect that Kissinger had hoodwinked them for political gain. They saw Theiu as an American puppet, and so came back with new demands of their own. The breakthrough announced by Kissinger and Tho was now perceived as a failure, with both sides making further demands and changes and both accusing the other of negotiating in bad faith.
Nixon then made a fateful decision. He ordered Operation Linebacker II – an all out bombing campaign of North Vietnam to begin during the during the month of December, 1972. Also known as the “Christmas Bombing” and among the USAF as the 11 Day War, B-52 bombers and other aircraft began the largest and heaviest bombing campaign against North Vietnam during the course of the war.
During these operations, Air Force and Navy tactical aircraft and B-52s commenced an around-the-clock bombardment of the North Vietnamese heartland. The B-52s struck Hanoi and Haiphong during hours of darkness with F-111s and Navy tactical aircraft providing diversionary/suppression strikes on airfields and surface-to-air missile sites. Daylight operations were primarily carried out by A-7s and F-4s bombing visually or with long-range navigation (LORAN) techniques, depending upon the weather over the targets. In addition, escort aircraft such as the Air Force EB-66s and Navy EA-6s broadcast electronic jamming signals to confuse the radar-controlled defenses of the North. The Strategic Air Command also provided KC-135s to support the in-flight refueling requirements of the various aircraft participating in Linebacker II operations.
Between December 18th – 29th, over 1,500 night time sorties were flown by the USAF against targets in North Vietnam, with the greatest focus on Haiphong and Hanoi. During the airstrikes major protests were held throughout the country. Nixon may or may not have feared what the new Congress would do, as Democrats, despite losing the Presidential race and regained control of both the House and Senate.
Certainly their was widespread sentiment among both dovish Republicans and Democrats alike that the war must come to an end. During 1972, a number of bills had been proposed to cut off funding for the wars in Southeast Asia, though they generally were contingent on a return of American prisoners of war. Imagine, however, that a group of Democratic Senators and/or Representatives had chosen to take further action, especially in light of what appeared to be a failure of the peace talks and the resumption of massive bombing campaigns. And this was no ordinary bombing campaign. There was no great discrimination between civilian targets and military ones, no surgical drone strikes. This was carpet bombing in the extreme, and its effect on the civilian population in North Vietnam was horrific.
During the 12 days of Christmas bombing, 200 B-52s flew over 700 sorties, and fighters and smaller bombers flew over 1,200 additional missions. Those planes dropped over 20,000 tons of bombs. The B-52s were used for “carpet bombing” the two cities. “Carpet bombing” involves multiple planes, flying in formation, laying down figurative “carpets” of bombs that flatten everything within the area bombed — like a carpet lying on a floor. […]
During the Christmas bombing, as throughout the war, the United States flatly denied that we were bombing civilian targets. This was an out-an-out lie. We bombed schools, hospitals, and civilian population centers. Indeed, carpet bombing is uniquely well suited to targeting civilians who, in military parlance, present less “hardened” targets than do military facilities.
To take but one specific example, during the Christmas bombing — on December 19 and again on December 22 — B-52s bombed the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. At 1150 beds, Bach Mai Hospital was the largest civilian hospital in the DRV. We substantially damaged or destroyed the entire hospital. This was not an isolated example, either. The Bach Mai Hospital had been previously bombed by the United States on June 27, 1972; many other hospitals in the DRV were destroyed during the Christmas bombing.
The primary bombing campaign only ended after North Vietnam agreed to return to the peace negotiations in Paris. In the end, a the peace treaty that was signed by the parties was nearly identical in all important respects to the agreement Kissinger and Tho had reached in October, 1972.
But what if before Operation Linebacker II ended, my aforementioned group of Democratic elected officials had taken it upon themselves to denounce the policy of the US government in a letter to the leader of North Vietnam? And what if that letter stated that they would cut off all funding for the war, regardless of whatever terms the Nixon administration proposed at the peace negotiations in Paris, should they resume?
Now we know that no such thing ever happened. But what if it had? What would have been the reaction of the American public, war weary by all means, but one that had just re-elected President Nixon in a landslide of epic proportions? I suspect that any Democratic Senator or representative foolish enough to have taken such an extreme stance would have been prosecuted for treason by the Nixon Justice Department with the full support of a majority of the American people. Of course, we will never know, since the Congressional members of that era did not interfere directly in matters of US foreign policy. They operated constitutionally. In fact, the War Powers Resolution of 1973, whatever you may think of its effectiveness, was a direct result of the proper use of Congress’ constitutional authority as the Legislative Branch of our government. Congress passed it over President Nixon’s veto on November 7, 1973.
My how times have changed. The Republican-controlled Congress refuses to stay within the bounds of its lawful constitutional authority when it comes to its relentless opposition to anything President Obama proposes (the TPP excepted). Not only did they invite the sovereign head of a foreign government to address Congress for the sole purpose of attacking the current negotiations with Iran, but now 47 of these “servant of the people” have taken it upon themselves to directly contact the head of the government of Iran to inform him that any agreement Obama reaches with them will be undone. I can’t recall a time in out history when members of Congress have taken it upon themselves to go beyond their own constitutional role and both usurp and undermine the power and authority of the Executive Branch to conduct foreign affairs.
And yet not one of these Republicans will be prosecuted or charged with any violation of the Constitution or the law. Perhaps that is the better result from a strictly practical and legal standpoint. But if any members of the Congress in Nixon’s day, or even during the last Bush administration, had taken it upon themselves to interfere directly in diplomatic relations with a foreign government, I can easily imagine that those Republican administrations would have found legal grounds for indicting the elected officials who dared to take such steps in opposition to the President.
And we would have never heard the end of the tale of the Democratic traitors and “backstabbers” from our “liberal media.” On the other hand, does anyone doubt these 47 Republican Senators will not suffer any long term consequences, whether individually or to the reputation of their party. No, they will not. Of that you can be certain.