The Russkies, Vietnam and a Possible Coup
For readers who missed part 1 of this series of posts, I am summarizing a fictional novel written almost forty years ago.
In the novel, written so many years ago, many chapters were devoted to the back-channel negotiations that went on between the Johnson Administration (in the person of Walter Rostow) and the Soviet Union (in the person of Andrei Gromyko). Most of that needn’t detain us now, but we should take a quick look at what was going on.
The Soviets had never understood why the Americans hadn’t invaded North Vietnam and why they had allowed the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular army to find sanctuary in Cambodia and Laos. In particular, the Soviets were flabbergasted that the United States had allowed the North Vietnamese to build and expand the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The trail was one of the great wartime engineering feats in history—it included a 3,000-mile oil pipeline—but it violated the sovereignty of two countries, Laos and Cambodia, and was likely responsible for half the American deaths over the course of the war. The United States bombed the trail regularly, but wouldn’t attack it with ground troops.
Soviet doctrine assumed that the Americans would eventually explode in frustration and both attack the trail and invade North Vietnam. Against that eventuality, the Soviets had put together a detailed plan to send the Red Army into North Vietnam to counter an American invasion.
The Soviets had also considered the unlikely possibility that the United States might use nuclear weapons on North Vietnam. In that event, the USSR would retaliate by using nuclear weapons on an American ally, most likely France.
Johnson knew all this, of course, and so he sent Rostow to meet very privately with Gromyko at Schloss Ort in the resort town of Gmünden in Upper Austria, on the Czech border. It required three such meetings, thus delaying the execution of Project Black Hole, before Gromyko agreed not to nuke Paris if the United States nuked North Vietnam.
The Soviets were willing to make a deal with Johnson in part because they were sick to death of propping up the North Vietnamese regime, and in part because the Soviet economy was hard pressed to keep sending money and materiel to the Vietnamese.
Ever since the French collapse at Dien Bien Phu back in 1954, the North had been assuring the Soviets that victory was just around the corner. But the abject failure of the Tet Offensive in 1968 had been the last straw for Moscow. That failure that had been predicted by North Vietnam’s talented general, Võ Nguyên Giáp, who opposed the offensive and who, in fact, left Hanoi, supposedly for medical treatment in Budapest, before the Tet Offensive began.
Hungry for a way out of the Vietnam mess, the wily Gromyko finally told Rostow that the Soviets wouldn’t nuke Paris, but he exacted a different pound of flesh. To avoid Soviet retaliation, the United States would have to give up either Israel or West Germany.
This presented Johnson with a serious dilemma. Rostow had recommended that the United States give up its support for Israel, mainly because Israel was a small country with a population of only three million in 1971.
According to Gromyko, the Soviets believed that, once the United States stopped sending money and weapons to Israel, it would require about a decade for the Arab countries, backed by Soviet weapons, to eliminate Israel altogether. Johnson would be safely out of office by then.
West Germany, meanwhile was home to some 63 million people, all of whom would become subject to the tender mercies of the East German government. In effect, Germany would be reunited under the domination of the East, exactly the opposite of what actually happened two decades later.
Sixty three million was a lot of people to betray, but Johnson knew there was little sympathy for Germany in the United States. Indeed, memories of World War II, the Nazis, and the Holocaust were still prominent in many American minds. Israel, by contrast, was fervently supported by American Jews, virtually all of whom voted Democratic.
The delays in launching Project Black Hole occasioned by the lengthy negotiations with Moscow, and Johnson’s indecision about Israel and West Germany, played into the hands of George and Jenny Leader and their small group of plotters holed up on the Eastern Shore.
And the Leaders certainly needed the extra time, because once Grace Atkinson had spoken the word “coup,” pandemonium had broken out at the remote farmhouse where the Approvals Panel was meeting.
And after that it got worse, because it soon became clear that if anything like a “coup” was going to be mounted, it would have to remove not just the President, but many others as well.
“Let’s think this through,” George Leader had said. “Suppose we, somehow, snatch the President and take him to a secret location. What happens? Hubert Humphrey becomes president. But as soon as Johnson returns from captivity, Humphrey steps down and Johnson is back in the saddle. And we’re back in the soup.”
“Dare I mention the word assassination?” a panel member said, and the room went deathly quiet.
Then Jenny Leader spoke up. “What you’re suggesting is that if we have to choose, on the one hand, between nuclear war and the loss of Israel or West Germany, and on the other hand, assassination, maybe it’s actually the moral choice.”
But it quickly became clear that the panel members had no stomach for assassination.
“All right, then,” George said, “What’s the alternative?”
After a great deal of discussion, the panel concluded that the only alternative was a coup on a larger scale. Not only would President Johnson have to be removed from office, but so would many others: the Vice President, the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, the Secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, and the Attorney General. To say nothing of all the Black Hole plotters, starting with Rostow and including almost a dozen military officers.
This seemed preposterous to many members of the panel, simply undoable. But, again, George Leader insisted that they at least talk it through. “Let’s don’t decide it can’t be done until we know for a fact it can’t be done,” he said.
The room was quiet for a long time. Then Grace Atkinson said, “The essential ingredient in a coup that has any chance of success is this: We have to have a powerful military force on our side.”
Everyone turned and stared at General Willy Green.