Don’t Believe “Peace Is at Hand”

"Peace is at hand."

Americans longed to hear this 35 years ago, when National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger announced it about Vietnam. We long to hear it again about Iraq. If we do hear it before the next election, we shouldn't believe it. "Peace is at hand."

Kissinger, we now know, realized Vietnam was not getting peace, but merely "a decent interval" — a year or two between the final American troop withdrawal and the final South Vietnamese collapse. Still, his announcement worked. Two weeks later, Nixon won reelection in the Cold War's biggest Republican presidential landslide.

President George W. Bush can't run again, but he faces Nixon's dilemma — to prolong a mistaken war or go down in history as the president who lost it. No wonder Bush's top outside foreign policy adviser is Kissinger. There's no greater living expert at turning geopolitical failure into political triumph.

Fortunately, Nixon kept a secret, voice-activated recording system in the White House in from 1971 to 1973. If we learn from the declassified tapes how a president fooled us once, we won't get fooled again.

In what must be the only overlooked parallel between Iraq and Vietnam, Bush's conditions for bringing troops home are nearly identical to Nixon's. Bush defines victory as Iraq's ability to "defend, sustain and govern itself." Nixon defined "peace with honor" as South Vietnam's ability to defend and govern itself. Publicly, his strategy was "Vietnamization and negotiation" — training the South Vietnamese to defend themselves and securing Hanoi's agreement to free elections in the South.

Alone with Kissinger, Nixon acknowledged on tape, "South Vietnam probably is never gonna survive anyway." Since Nixon couldn't enable South Vietnam to defend and govern itself, he faked it. Halfway through his first term, he secretly decided to complete American troop withdrawals around election time. His stalling postponed the South's collapse until it was too late for voters to hold him accountable.

Then as now, most Americans considered the war a mistake and wanted Congress to force the president to bring the troops home sooner. Like Bush, Nixon killed withdrawal legislation by claiming it would lead to defeat. Nixon didn't mention that his private political timetable would do the same, but with even more American casualties.

Nixon claimed great political courage for prolonging an unpopular war, but based his actions on political calculation. Then as now, for the president and his party, continuing the war posed less risk politically than ending it. We can't know Bush's private thinking, but his public statements and actions recall Nixon's all too well.

Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq shares the strengths and weaknesses of Nixon's offensive against North Vietnamese infiltrators on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia. Each president managed to postpone an ally's collapse, not to prevent it. Each declared his defensive offensive a success and announced a partial troop withdrawal. Each put off final withdrawal.

If Bush follows the Nixon game plan completely, next year he will launch a big bombing campaign followed by a "peace" settlement that interrupts the war without really ending it. Nixon used the diplomatic opening to China to engineer his "decent interval." During Kissinger's secret 1971 trip to Beijing, he told the Chinese that if the Communists overthrew the South Vietnamese government after Nixon withdrew American troops, the United States would not intervene. The North Vietnamese were more likely to make "peace" if they could pursue their military aims after a year or two. So are Iraq's armed factions and neighbors in 2008.

On Oct. 26, 1972, Kissinger went before the television cameras to announce North Vietnam's agreement to Nixon's settlement terms — total American withdrawal, release of American prisoners, and a ceasefire while Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists discussed elections in the South. It sounded good to most voters.

But South Vietnam had rejected Nixon's terms for the same reason North Vietnam accepted them. Both realized the settlement would lead to Communist military victory. Kissinger thought so too, as he told Nixon in a previously unreported Oct. 6, 1972, conversation: "I also think that [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu is right, that our terms will eventually destroy him."

This year, at Kissinger's suggestion, Bush read "A Savage War of Peace," Alistair Horne's history of France's long, bloody withdrawal from Algeria under President Charles de Gaulle. Kissinger followed the Algerian example in Vietnam, telling Nixon, "What did de Gaulle do in Algeria, who everyone thinks a great man? Basically, he made a settlement that turned the country over to his enemies."

We now know that one president prolonged a war to conceal his failure to achieve its ends. We must not let another do likewise. A president's historical reputation isn't worth a single casualty.

Ken Hughes is with the Miller Center of Public Affairs' Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia,http://millercenter.virginia. edu, and is a writer for the History News Service.