By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor
My favorite in-house fellow presidential history buff, Andy Franklin, reminds us today: it was 35-years ago this very day that one of the most memorable phrases of the entire Vietnam era entered the lexicon. On October 26, 1972, President Richard Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger went before reporters at the White House and declared that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. It wasn't just memorable. As it turned out, it was wrong.
The New York Times, Oct. 27, 1972
By then the war had been going on for years. It had cost tens of thousands of American lives, billions of dollars, and had left the country divided, exhausted, and eager to move on. Kissinger's announcement was greeted with euphoria for the most part, although skeptics questioned the timing -- less than two weeks before the presidential election. Kissinger's news conference was in response to North Vietnam's surprise announcement earlier that morning that an agreement to end the war was near. In fact, South Vietnam was not on board, and the North Vietnamese may have been trying to leverage the coming U.S. elections to pressure the Americans and the South Vietnamese to wrap up the deal being hammered out at the Paris peace talks. Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman recorded in his diary that day that Kissinger had called him at three in the morning "in a state of very great concern" to tell him what the North Vietnamese had done.
Kissinger's televised briefing that morning was a rarity. Given his thick accent and dour manner, the Nixon White House preferred to keep him off-camera. Nixon himself, whose relationship with Kissinger was complicated and competitive, thought that Kissinger had gone too far in the briefing, raising the nation's hopes (and reporters' expectations) too high by saying that peace was at hand. Nixon later wrote in his memoirs that after he heard what Kissinger had said, he "knew immediately that our bargaining position with the North Vietnamese would be seriously eroded," and the problems it would cause with South Vietnam "would be made even more difficult." Nixon is heard on White House tapes that day telling Haldeman, "See, the lead [story] that came out of his stuff, probably, is that 'peace is at hand.' Now that sets us up one hell of a hurdle. I wouldn't have said that." (emphasis added). Nixon then acknowledged, "We have to live with it now for ten days" – roughly the time remaining until the election. He and Haldeman go on to discuss the politics of the situation, and it's clear the president thought Kissinger had missed an opportunity in failing to go after Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern:
Nixon: I think also on Vietnam, we oughta attack McGovern. I think it's not enough, what we're doing. Say he would've sold out, he would've surrendered, he would've left our POW's abandoned, that sort of thing.
Haldeman: I'd argue strongly, we should get ready for them. But we should not today --
Nixon: Oh, I understand that. But then shoot first.
Haldeman: But then shoot -- but be ready, and the instant he shoots in any direction, we shoot his head right off.
Nixon: That's right. Oh, I understand that. What I meant -- let him -- it's like a mousetrap. The moment he gets out, crack the s*** out of him, rather than answering.
Nixon then headed out on the campaign trail, telling a crowd in Huntington, West Virginia, "As all of you have read or heard on your television tonight, there has been a significant breakthrough in the negotiations with regard to Vietnam." He was overstating the case, as Kissinger had done, but he added this understatement: "There are still differences to be worked out." Indeed there were. For the next month and a half, Kissinger tried to close the deal and end the war -- to achieve what Nixon called "peace with honor, not peace with surrender" -- in a way that was also acceptable to both North and South Vietnam. He failed. The talks finally collapsed in mid-December -- well after Richard Nixon had trounced George McGovern in one of the biggest landslides in American history.
At that point, what was at hand was not peace, but the most intense bombing campaign of the war. Now safely re-elected, Nixon unleashed waves of B-52 attacks against North Vietnam, telling Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Thomas Moorer, "I don't want any more of this crap about the fact that we couldn't hit this target or that one. This is your chance to use military power to win this war, and if you don't I'll hold you responsible." The operation was code-named "Linebacker II," but it was better known as the Christmas Bombing. For 12 days, through late December, thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on Hanoi and Haiphong. When it was over, an agreement was finally reached with North Vietnam -- on January 9, 1973. It was Richard Nixon's 60th birthday.
Which reminds us: today is Hillary Clinton's 60th birthday. These days she's running for the office Richard Nixon once held, but back in 1972 when "peace was at hand," she was a young Wellesley and Yale Law School grad named Hillary Rodham, celebrating her 25th birthday and campaigning for George McGovern with her boyfriend Bill Clinton. Two years later, she had a job on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee as it pursued the impeachment of Richard Nixon. And that reminds us of something else: 35 years ago today, after Henry Kissinger had raised such high and premature hopes about Vietnam, Bob Haldeman confessed in his diary that the whole episode had a bright side: "It takes the corruption stuff [Watergate] off the front pages, totally wipes out any other news." And it did, too -- for a while.
We hope you can join us for tonight's broadcast. We have a powerful Making A Difference report tonight from the fire lines out west -- about a dozen people who were clearly willing to give their lives to put out the fire and save others. We hope you have a good weekend, and we'll look for you Monday night.