WASHINGTON – President Richard Nixon believed that years of aerial bombing in Southeast Asia to pressure North Vietnam achieved "zilch" even as he publicly declared it was effective and ordered more bombing while running for re-election in 1972, according to a handwritten note from Nixon disclosed in a new book by Bob Woodward.
Nixon’s note to Henry Kissinger, then his national security adviser, on Jan. 3, 1972, was written sideways across a top-secret memo updating the president on war developments. Nixon wrote: "K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The result = Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force."
The day before he wrote the "zilch" note, Nixon was asked about the military effectiveness of the bombing by Dan Rather of CBS News in an hourlong, prime-time TV interview.
"The results have been very, very effective," Nixon declared.
Nixon’s private assessment was correct, Woodward writes: The bombing was not working, but Nixon defended and intensified it in order to advance his re-election prospects. The claim that the bombing was militarily effective "was a lie, and here Nixon made clear that he knew it," Woodward writes.
Nixon’s note, which has not previously been disclosed, was found in a trove of thousands of documents taken from the White House by Alexander P. Butterfield, deputy to H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, and not made public until now. Butterfield’s odyssey through Nixon’s first term is the subject of Woodward’s book, "The Last of the President’s Men," to be published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.
Butterfield became a key figure in the Watergate scandal when he revealed to Senate investigators the existence of the White House taping system. The tapes captured Nixon’s role in the cover-up and marked a critical turning point in the collapse of his presidency. He resigned in 1974. Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the Watergate story in the Washington Post.
The new book, based on the documents and more than 46 hours of interviews with Butterfield, offers an intimate but disturbing portrayal of Nixon in the Oval Office. Butterfield depicts Nixon, who died in 1994, as forceful and energetic, but also vengeful, petty, lonely, shy and paranoid.
Butterfield felt deeply conflicted; he was proud to be serving but chagrined to be caught up in the underside of Nixon’s presidency.
"The whole thing was a cesspool," he told Woodward.
Butterfield, now 89, was in charge of preventing other Nixon staffers from leaving the White House with government documents, but he saw many, including the late Nixon counselor Arthur Burns, haul away boxes when they left.
Butterfield anticipated writing a memoir, so when he left the White House in 1973, "I just took my boxes of stuff and left," he told Woodward. Woodward writes that the boxes contained everything from routine chronologies and memos to some top-secret exchanges with Kissinger and a few highly classified CIA bulletins.
Butterfield acknowledged to Woodward that it was improper and wrong to remove them, and he pledged to ensure that they will be deposited with a proper archive.
Woodward, who wrote that he thought the Nixon story was over for him after his book on Mark Felt, the FBI associate director and secret source known as Deep Throat, said he was "shocked" at the existence of Butterfield’s secret files.
The Vietnam War had been all-consuming for Nixon’s presidency. The antiwar movement was strong in the United States, and Nixon was under political pressure to end the conflict. The centerpiece of Nixon’s approach was "Vietnamization": Withdraw U.S. troops so the South Vietnamese could take over, and negotiate a peace settlement "with honor," avoiding anything that could be labeled a defeat.
As ground troops withdrew, air power was one of Nixon’s few remaining tools to pressure Hanoi. In late December 1971, Nixon ordered renewed bombing of North Vietnamese targets for five days.
By early 1972, Nixon was on the verge of announcing his re-election campaign and taking his momentous trip to China. But he was worried about reports of a major North Vietnamese buildup, foreshadowing a possible offensive.
On Jan. 2, 1972, in the CBS television interview, Rather asked Nixon, "On everyone’s mind is the resumption of the widespread bombing of North Vietnam. Can you assess the military benefits of that?"
Nixon reiterated what he had often said about the bombing, that it was "very, very effective," and added, "I think that effectiveness will be demonstrated by the statement I am now going to make." Nixon then announced that he would soon bring home more troops – virtually removing any U.S. combat force in Vietnam.
The next day, writing his private thoughts to Kissinger, Nixon added, "There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force. I want a ‘bark-off’ study – no snow job – on my desk in two weeks as to what the reason for the failure is." Nixon added that "otherwise continued air operations make no sense in Cambodia, Laos, etc. after we complete withdrawal – Shake them up!!" Nixon underlined the last words twice.
Woodward said he could find no evidence that the study was ever carried out.
In another memo written a few months later, also found in the Butterfield files, Nixon complained to Kissinger that the military and bureaucracy were too timid. Nixon demanded action that is "strong, threatening and effective" to "punish the enemy" and "go for broke."
Kissinger, in an interview, told Woodward he agreed with the conclusion that years of bombing North Vietnam had failed, and he recalled that Nixon was frustrated.
"He was in the habit of wanting more bombing … his instructions most often were for more bombing," Kissinger said.