Fonda arrived in Paris and called a press conference. She brought film of the bombed dikes. “I believe in my heart, profoundly, that the dikes are being bombed on purpose,” she said, “hydraulic systems, sluice gates, pumping stations, and dams as well.” She pointed out that a Nazi commander had once been executed by the Allies for bombing dikes in the Netherlands.
The Pentagon claimed the Communists placed key roads, antiaircraft emplacements, and military installations astride the dikes. She answered by pointing to the screen: “You see fields and fields of paddy and then just at that one strategic point you see the bomb crater.”
She pointed to the screen again: two healthy-looking American POWs. “Without exception,” she said, “they expressed shame at what they had done.” She said they asked her to tell their families to work for McGovern: “They fear if Nixon stays in office, they will be prisoners forever.”
The same day, the State Department promised they would disprove Fonda’s assertions with photographic evidence. Assistants carted easels into the pressroom at Foggy Bottom. Then, suddenly, the briefing was canceled. “The administration realized,” the New York Times reported sardonically, “that Hanoi also could produce photographs.” Ron Ziegler spoke from the White House pressroom: “North Vietnam is having some success with their campaign to get the world to believe that American planes were bombing dikes.” State’s spokesman contradicted that the next day: yes, American planes were bombing dikes, but as “a result of legitimate attacks on military installations such as antiaircraft sites.” Then the State Department released an intelligence report on the dike system: it admitted damage to twelve locations, all accidental. Which unfortunately cut across the State Department’s other habitual assurance: that America’s laser-guided bombing systems were the most accurate in the history of warfare.
The sci-fi sex kitten from Barbarella had the White House sweating bullets. She’s better than the entire Democratic Party.
Of a sudden, on July 27, the president invited the White House press corps for a rare Oval Office briefing, where he offered a denial in the form of a boast: “If it were the policy of the United States to bomb the dikes, we could take them out, the significant part of them, in a week.” Then he confused the matter further by dilating on the moral question. Some were listening to “well-intentioned and naive people,” but as Eisenhower had said about the firebombing of Dresden (in which the intentional incineration of civilians was undeniable): “The height of immorality would be to allow Hitler to rule Europe.”
Then Nixon sent his UN ambassador, the failed Senate candidate George Herbert Walker Bush, to advise Kurt Waldheim to stop repeating propagandistic falsehoods. The meeting, however, was brief. Bush, a fighter pilot in World War II, emerged looking shell-shocked, suddenly unwilling to press his assigned case that the dikes had been spared. He told reporters, “I think that the best thing I can do on the subject is shut up.”
The Washington Post never reported George Bush’s climbdown.
Back in the Oval Office after the briefing, Nixon and Kissinger believed massive bombing, enough to keep the Communists from overrunning Saigon until after his reelection, was the only way to preserve what he had started calling, stealing a phrase from the Democratic platform of 1952, “peace with honor.”
But what he was working on now was neither honorable nor peace. His main concern was political timing. As the president put it to Kissinger on August 3, as the battered and bruised McGovern cast about desperately for a new running mate, “I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway. I’m just being perfectly candid.” The problem, he went on, was the presidential election: “It’s terribly important this year.”
Kissinger put two and two together. He and Nixon had been reading each other’s mind for some time now. Kissinger noted, “If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence.”
Kissinger gets ready to quit Vietnam. But only until after using winning Vietnam as the hook for reelection bait.