On May 8th, 1972, President Nixon had ordered underwater, explosive mines to be placed in Haiphong Harbor, something that had been rejected by previous administrations. Later that same month, reports began to come in from European scientists and diplomats that the dikes of the Red River Delta in North Vietnam were being targeted by U.S. planes. The Swedish ambassador to Vietnam reported to an American delegation in Hanoi that he had at first believed the bombing was accidental, but now, having seen the dikes with his own eyes, he was convinced it was deliberate.
I might have missed the significance of these reports had Tom Hayden, whom I was dating, not shown me what the recently released Pentagon Papers had to say on the subject: in 1966, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, searching for some new means to bring Hanoi to its knees, had proposed destroying North Vietnam’s system of dams and dikes, which, he said, “If handled right- might…offer promise…such destruction does not kill or drown people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after a time to widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is provided—which we could offer to do at the conference table.” President Johnson, to his credit, had not acted upon this option.
Now, six years later, Richard Nixon appeared to have given orders to target the dikes—whether to actually destroy them or to demonstrate the threat of destruction, no one knew.
It is important to understand that the Red River is the largest river in North Vietnam. Like Holland, its delta is below sea level. Over centuries, the Vietnamese people have constructed –by hand!– an intricate network of earthen dikes and dams to hold back the sea, a network two thousand five hundred miles long! The stability of these dikes becomes especially critical as monsoon season approaches, and requires an all-out effort on the part of citizens to repair any damage from burrowing animals or from normal wear and tear. Now it was June, but this was no ‘normal wear and tear’ they were facing. The Red River would begin to rise in July and August. Should there be flooding, the mining of Haiphong Harbor would prevent any food from being imported; the bombing showed no signs of letting up; and there was little press coverage of the impending disaster should the dikes be weakened by the bombing and give way. Something drastic had to be done.
The Nixon Administration and its US Ambassador to the United Nations, George Bush (the father), would vehemently deny what was happening, but the following are excerpts from the April-May 1972 transcripts of conversations between President Nixon and top administration officials.
April 25th 1972
Nixon: “We’ve got to be thinking in terms of an all-out bombing attack [of North Vietnam}…Now, by all-out bombing attack, I am thinking about things that go far beyond…I'm thinking of the dikes, I'm thinking of the railroad, I'm thinking, of course, of the docks."
Kissinger: "I agree with you."
President Nixon: "And I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?"
Kissinger: "About two hundred thousand people."
President Nixon: "No, no, no…I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: "That, I think, would just be too much."
President Nixon: "The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?…I just want to think big, Henry, for Christsakes."
I don't know. We're doing something on Fonda at Third Sunday. Nothing big, just getting the word out on an event she's doing. C.I. had the idea to promote it as a choice (that a TV network denied its viewers) so we're just going to note the August event.