Sargent Shriver Dies; Kennedy Brother-in-Law Saw Nixon’s Vietnam Settlement as ‘Surrender’

Sargent Shriver’s life is being celebrated for his civil rights record, his founding leadership of the Peace Corps, and even for his family’s work on Alzheimer’s, but I doubt that a single obituary or appreciation will mention stand he took in the final days of his fated 1972 vice presidential campaign. It was bold, lonely (not even shared by his presidential nominee) and right.
The Nixon White House caused an international sensation less than two weeks before Election Day when National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger announced before the television cameras that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger had, in fact, reached a settlement with the Communist government of North Vietnam, but it was not peace, as they all realized. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, whose government more than 50,000 American soldiers had died defending, realized that Nixon’s settlement terms would destroy the South. Privately, as Nixon’s White House tapes have since revealed, the President and the national security adviser acknowledged it, too. (Listen to Nixon and Kissinger discuss the matter here.)

The first national security study Nixon ordered on taking office in 1969 was a complete review of Vietnam. The results, compiled in a classified document known as National Security Study Memorandum 1, revealed that all of the defense, diplomatic and intelligence agencies that took part in the study believed that South Vietnam would never be able to survive without major U.S. ground forces–even *after* Nixon completed his ambitious “Vietnamization” program of expanding, training and modernizing the South’s military.

Nixon’s choice: keep U.S. soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam for the foreseeable future, or withdraw and let the Communist North take over the entire country. Neither choice was politically acceptable, so Nixon publicly pretended the dilemma didn’t exist.

He told America that he would withdraw U.S. forces only when the South was capable of surviving without them, but he realized that day would never come. Periodically during his first term he would go on television and announce that Vietnamization was working well enough for him to bring some troops home, but not all, not yet. In fact, he had privately decided that he would bring the last American soldiers home around the next presidential election. By early 1971, he had decided that it could be a little bit before or after Election Day, as long as he could avoid a pre-election Communist victory.
During the first four years of Nixon’s term more than 20,000 American soldiers (and countless more Vietnamese, North and South) died while the President awaited the politically correct time to pull out. During that time, Sen. George S. McGovern, D-South Dakota, led an unsuccessful fight in Congress to force the President to withdraw faster than suited his political convenience. Nixon beat back attempts to set an “end date” in 1970 and 1971 by saying McGovern’s legislation would lead to Communist victory, and denying that his own strategy would do the same, only with many more casualties.
At the same time, Nixon had Kissinger negotiate a “decent interval” exit strategy with the Communists. At his first secret meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai, Kissinger told North Vietnam’s second largest supplier of aid that if the South waited a while after Nixon withdraw the last American troops before it took over the South, Nixon would not intervene. (Check out the documentation here & here.)
In other words, North Vietnam accepted Nixon’s settlement before Election Day 1972 because it realized, like Nixon and Kissinger, that the settlement would lead to a Communist victory. For the same reason, South Vietnam rejected the deal.
On paper, the settlement called for a reconciliation commission with Communist and anti-Communist members to work on setting up elections in South Vietnam, but the commission was designed to deadlock. Nixon realized that the two sides would ultimately fight it out, but hoped that the South would last long enough so its final defeat was its fault, not his. In the most recent released batch of Nixon tapes, you can hear Nixon and Kissinger discuss the best time–in terms of American politics–for the South to fall (after the 1974 midterm elections in the spring of 1975–exactly when it did.)
On the Democratic ticket, only Sargent Shriver, the vice presidential candidate, criticized the deal for what it was. “If this is peace with honor,” Shriver said on Oct. 31, 1972, “I’d like to know what surrender is. . . . I don’t see the difference between what [Nixon and Kissinger] got and what we used to call surrender.”
At the top of the ticket, however, presidential nominee McGovern claimed that Nixon had “closed the door to peace once again” by refusing to sign the deal before Election Day. The deal was nothing like peace, so refusing to sign it didn’t close any door to peace. It just gave Nixon more time to find a way to force President Thieu to accept the terms that would destroy South Vietnam.
McGovern, like so many liberals, overestimated Nixon. They thought he was really determined to prevent Communist victory in Vietnam. He was only determined to prevent Democratic victory in America.



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