Along with the men, women and children who are paying the price in blood, there are two major casualties of President Nixon's decision to observe the festival of the Prince of Peace by unleashing upon North Vietnam the greatest rain of death and destruction since the war began.
The first casualty is the hope, which wish-thinking had made into an almost universal assumption, that the Vietnam nightmare was finally coming to an end. It isn't. Instead we seem to have renewed proof of the perhaps self-fulfilling prophecy made by Dr. Kissinger three years ago when he said that Vietnam "may be one of those tragic issues that destroys everyone who touches it."
The second casualty is the credibility of a Nixon administration that loudly heralded the end of the war 10 days before a national election in which its inability to bring about the promised ending had been the major issue. The hopes that have been so ruthlessly demolished were hopes raised by the administration itself on the basis of peace terms which it has now, in essence, rejected; and the President, accordingly, cannot evade responsibility for what, on the face of it, appears to the public as a massive deception.
The question, in retrospect, is whether the deception was calculated and cynically political, or whether it was a case of self-deception arising from an honest belief that the terms of the preliminary pre-election agreement with Hanoi could and would be translated into a conclusive settlement. Were President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger kidding the voters back in late October, or were they kidding themselves?
Probably it was a little of both. Even with a landslide in prospect, the administration was eager to try to vindicate President Nixon's four-year-old end-the-war pledge before the election. And given this political eagerness, it was easy for the policy-makers to deceive themselves into supposing that their allies in Saigon could be talked into accepting an agreement that failed to guarantee a permanent and separate South Vietnam.
If this was the case, the administration should have known better. President Thieu, predictably, dug in his heels and insisted that the concept of two separate Vietnams must be written into the agreement, knowing that this was a condition that Hanoi could never accept. And President Nixon, torn between his pledge to end the war and his pledge to stand behind Thieu, lost his nerve and decided again, perhaps predictably to honor the latter.
This is the more charitable view of the tragedy. The alternative explanation would be that the Nixon administration never had any intention of ending the war on the basis of the preliminary agreement, and that it indicated otherwise solely for campaign purposes. This is hard to believe, even for those who are inclined to think the worst of Mr. Nixon. Certainly it is unthinkable that Dr. Kissinger, for all of his occasional flights into Machiavellianism, would have been a party to such an immoral scheme.
So now we are back in the business of trying to bomb back into the Stone Age a tiny country which in no way threatens us, in lunatic pursuit of an "honorable" end to a war which the President cannot bring himself to acknowledge was dishonorable to begin with. The destruction it is inflicting upon the Vietnamese is exceeded only by the destruction it is inflicting upon our own national conscience.