The Christmas Bombing
The Prestige Press and the Christmas Bombing, 1972.
by Martin F. Herz.
Assisted by Leslie Reider. Ethics and Public Policy Center. 103 pp. $5.00.
In early October 1972, the United States and North Vietnam seemed on the verge of an agreement to end the Vietnam war. Hanoi had retreated from its longstanding demand that the United States participate in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government as its price for the return of American prisoners of war and a general cease-fire. In late October Henry Kissinger, the principal American negotiator, traveled to Saigon to gain South Vietnam’s assent to the imminent arrangements. But the South Vietnamese had their objections, and, within three days after Kissinger’s arrival in Saigon, the North Vietnamese released the text of what had been agreed to thus far. The publication of the text seemed designed to generate public pressure on the United States to sign, with the additional hope that a Washington-Saigon rupture would make Hanoi’s future ambitions in the south easier to achieve.
This led to a series of events now more than eight years old but well remembered nonetheless. On October 26, 1972, Kissinger stated, “We believe peace is at hand,” but he pointed out that a final agreement had not been reached. When negotiations resumed after President Nixon’s overwhelming defeat of George McGovern in the November election, Kissinger discovered that the North Vietnamese now sought major revisions of the earlier agreement. In response, President Nixon ordered renewed bombing in the Hanoi-Haiphong area on December 14. The campaign was expanded on December 18 and continued for eleven days. Negotiations resumed on January 8, 1973, and were concluded four days later. On January 27, 1973, the cease-fire went into effect.
Ordinarily, historians would examine these events as a case study of the relationship between diplomacy and coercion. Martin Herz, a retired career foreign-service officer who has served as a U.S. ambassador, is himself a scholar and currently a university professor. Yet for significant and obvious reasons, he is obliged to approach the Christmas bombing as an event in American political and cultural history. The episode has not yet been rescued from today’s demonology, nor, if the revival of the issue during the recent confirmation hearings of Secretary of State Alexander Haig is any indication, is it likely to be soon.
The research of Ambassador Herz and his associate Leslie Reider provides a data base for what many sensed at the time: the Christmas bombing was relentlessly criticized by the prestige press—by which Herz and Reider mean the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and CBS. Their analysis of the news reports finds that in them the U.S. was assigned greater blame for the breakdown of the negotiations than was Hanoi and that negative reactions from elsewhere around the world were given assiduous coverage. As for domestic reactions, we learn, for example, that CBS gave six times as much coverage to critical comment as it did to favorable comment, while, in the Times, the ratio was nineteen to one and, in the Post, twenty-five to one. (We know from Peter Braestrup’s 1977 book, Big Story, that such “news” emphasis had been the rule. Braestrup’s analysis of the media treatment of the 1968 Tet offensive shows that the pattern was well in place years before.)
There is nothing mysterious about these lopsided proportions, or about the concerted effort of these news organizations to portray the United States role in the worst possible light. A sampling of relevant editorial comment provides the link. The Times accused President Nixon of “disregard of humanitarian principles,” saying that “the United States itself is in danger of being reduced to . . . stone-age barbarism.” The bombing, it said, was “terrorism on an unprecedented scale.” The Times’s columns of opinion were rife with not very subliminal references to Nazism. Anthony Lewis called the bombing “a policy that many must know history will judge a crime against humanity.” Tom Wicker wrote, “It is we who have loosed the holocaust.” A Washington Post editorial was entitled “Terror Bombing in the Name of Peace.”
And so it went. News stories stressed civilian damage, suggesting that the air attacks were somehow a replay of the firebombing of Dresden. Since some 20,000 tons of bombs were dropped, it was also possible to invoke Hiroshima, for the first atomic bomb had an explosive force equivalent to only 14,000 tons of TNT. When, in March and April of 1973, it became known that civilian damage had been grossly overstated, that aerial photographs and first-hand accounts had refuted the accusation of “carpet bombing” against civilian areas, the information was tucked away. Nor did the editorialists previously cited acknowledge that they had been wrong in their allegations. And, because the prestige press had long been in favor of settling the war on practically any of Hanoi’s terms, the argument that President Nixon’s action had been instrumental in securing a better chance for South Vietnam’s survival did not seem worth examining.
In retrospect, it is obvious that North Vietnam had come to enjoy moral immunity. The Hanoi regime had become an innocent, a victim, not to be called to account for either its ambitions or its methods. It is still a privileged sanctuary today. In his confirmation hearings, for example, Secretary Haig was asked by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss his role in the Christmas bombing in the context of an “abuse of power” by the American government. The relevant context did not seem to include North Vietnam’s violation of every provision of the 1973 peace agreement, or its crushing of South Vietnam with Soviet-made tanks in 1975, or its invasion of Cambodia, its wholesale expulsion of civilians into the sea, or any of the rest of the “liberation” process.
The contrast has gone unnoticed between the questioning of Haig and the proceeding which accompanied Cyrus Vance’s nomination as Secretary of State in 1977. Vance had been a Deputy Secretary of Defense for Lyndon Johnson, but in his confirmation hearings not much attention was paid to the role of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in starting the war in Vietnam. It was the role of the Nixon administration in ending it which needed “investigation.”
Of course, what is ethical in national policy may not always be wise, and retroactive claims of guilt and innocence are difficult to establish. Perhaps, though, the past can be made a bit more intelligible by reference to the present. As we know, for 444 days, 52 Americans were held prisoner by the government of Iran. Their treatment by their captors has occasioned a national outcry, and their return a national celebration. President Carter, who once called the Vietnam war an instance of America’s “intellectual and moral poverty,” heard accounts from the 52 Americans and later called the Iranians “animals.” There are calls for revenge and urgings that the U.S. repudiate the agreement with Iran which secured the Americans’ release.
Anyone who is outraged by Iranian behavior ought to read accounts of the conditions endured by American prisoners in North Vietnam—and not by 52 for fourteen months, but by hundreds for years. Taken together with the experience of the crew of the Pueblo inside North Korea, they provide an education in what sadistic and loathsome brutality really means.
For all of our newfound, and healthy, capacity for national anger, we seem unable to get angry with the North Vietnamese even in retrospect. At Christmastime 1972, while the North Vietnamese were going about their customary sordid business, there were indeed B-52 raids in the Hanoi area. The commander of each American bomber was ordered, under threat of court-martial, not to deviate from his prearranged flight plan, even for the purpose of evading enemy anti-aircraft missiles. There were, in fact, sound tactical reasons behind an order of this kind but it was also given to reduce the chances of civilian casualties. The contrast between what the North Vietnamese were doing on the ground and what the Americans were doing high above it could, if anyone bothered to understand, lead to a sensible national perspective on Vietnam in general and the Christmas bombing in particular. But this has yet to happen.