President Obama’s Leap Day gala for 200 veterans of the Iraq War has invited comparisons to one held nearly 40 years ago at the end of what used to be America’s longest war.
The black tie dinner Richard Nixon gave 600 newly freed prisoners of North Vietnam remains the biggest one held in White House history. Technically, it was outside the White House beneath an enormous red and gold tent within whose folds glowed chandeliers. The White House had to borrow two refrigerator vans from the army to keep the first course (Supreme of Seafood Neptune) and dessert (strawberry mousse) at precisely 36 degrees. Nixon also served the POWs the biggest names in entertainment. Jimmy Stewart. Bob Hope. John Wayne.
Nothing was too good for the men he had used so cruelly.
They could not know that their freedom had waited for years upon the President’s desire for a second term. His calculation was simple. The North Vietnamese wouldn’t free the POWs until he agreed to withdraw American troops from Vietnam. Without American troops, South Vietnam would collapse. If it collapsed before Election Day, he’d lose reelection.
By the time Nixon started secretly recording his Oval Office conversations early in 1971, he had a plan. He would keep American troops in Vietnam until shortly before or after Election Day 1972.
Once, on March 19, 1971, alone with National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon sounded like he might be willing to abandon his political timetable to free the POWs. “Henry, I’ve never been much for negotiation, but I think when we finally get down to the nut cutting, it’s very much to their advantage to have a negotiation to get us the hell out and—and give us those prisoners.”
“That’s right,” Kissinger said.
“And we’ve got to do it. And you know if they’ll make that kind of a deal, we'll make that any time they’re ready.”
“Well, we’ve got to get enough time to get out,” Kissinger said. “We can’t have it knocked over brutally—to put it brutally, before the election.”
“That’s right,” the President said.
In speech after speech, Nixon made the opposite argument, saying that he had to keep American troops fighting in Vietnam to put pressure on Hanoi to free the prisoners. Senator Robert F. Byrd, D-West Virginia, once asked Nixon the obvious question: If Hanoi hadn’t freed the POWs when there were 500,000 American troops in Vietnam in 1969, why would it do so when Nixon one-tenth as many in 1972?
Nixon joked about it afterwards with Kissinger. “Of course, I couldn't say to him, ‘Look, when we get down to 50,000, then we’ll make a straight-out trade—50,000 for the prisoner of wars—and they’ll do it in a minute, ’cause they want to get our ass out of there.”
“That’s right,” Kissinger said.
“You know?” Nixon laughed. “Jesus!”
After the 1972 election, Nixon forced South Vietnam to settle on terms that would ultimately lead to a Communist victory. Under the settlement, American POWs left North Vietnam as American soldiers left South Vietnam. All were out by the spring of 1973.
That’s when Nixon gave the POWs the biggest White House gala ever. They presented him with a plaque. “Our leader—our comrade Richard the Lionhearted.” Their wives wept as they thanked Kissinger. “Some of the women kissed him, some hugged him, some thanked him profusely for bringing their husbands home,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
The event gave Nixon a political boost right at the start of the Watergate hearings. Americans didn’t yet know that their President secretly recorded visitors to the Oval Office. Although they would soon find out and some of the tapes would prove that he had committed impeachable offenses, Nixon was able to keep most of them from the public until his dying day. As shown by the excerpts quoted above, all of them released only after Nixon’s death, he committed crimes far worse than Watergate.