The Vietnam War was our longest—longer than the Civil War and the two world wars. It rent our society as no other issue had done since the War Between the States, and the wounds it inflicted have yet to completely heal. With its conjoined ordeal, Watergate, it raised distrust of government to new levels. It affects our attitudes toward war to this day; we are still struggling to define our nation’s interests abroad.
A less recognized but significant aspect of the Vietnam War is that it was our transitional war: our first war of counterinsurgency, against an enemy in the midst of the very people we were trying to defend and that melted back into the population after striking. A war against both a state (North Vietnam) and an ideological revolution (communism), it frequently involved unorthodox combat. Up against a far weaker opponent—in conventional terms—we learned the limits of traditional military power; our B-52s did not subdue a tough and determined enemy. Since Vietnam, the concept of power has radically changed.
Now we are engaged in a war against terrorism that takes us even further from prior experiences. We are up against what are termed non-state actors. The enemies, more elusive than even those in Vietnam, are using time and space in new ways—and also highly unconventional weapons. We’ve embarked on an open-ended war, and we won’t know at any particular moment whether we’ve been victorious.
Some of the misconceptions that America acted on in the Vietnam War are stunning. Successive administrations—those of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—committed some of the same errors made by the French, Vietnam’s former colonial power. The French had maintained protected enclaves, like Dien Bien Phu, which American leaders reinvented as "strategic hamlets." The French had a strategy of jaunissement (or "yellowing"), which we reinvented as "Vietnamization"—trying to turn the war over to the local populace. Our leaders’ failure to learn from history is a cautionary tale.
The Vietnam War resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million to 3 million Vietnamese and other Indochinese and 58,000 Americans. It was the catalyst for Richard Nixon’s self-induced disgrace. And it broke the three other U.S. leaders most associated with it: Johnson; his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara; and, in a way, Henry Kissinger. I say "in a way" because Kissinger went on to sell his name, strategic advice and access to foreign leaders, and because many political figures, businessmen and members of the news media consider him an oracle.
Kissinger’s 14th and latest book, Ending the Vietnam War, reflects just how tormented he remains over the war and the criticisms of his role in it, first as Nixon’s national security adviser and then as Nixon’s and Gerald Ford’s secretary of state. The book, comprising previously published texts reworked to pull them together, is well worth examining as a thing unto itself.
Ostensibly a history of the Nixon administration’s efforts to end the war, the book reads more like Kissinger’s case for the defense, and is written with some outrage and not a little self-pity. He takes on the serious charges that have been lodged against his and Nixon’s prosecution of the war, saying, "Nothing could be further from the truth." He still wrestles with some decisions—"I have since often anguished," he says of one tactical move—but he doesn’t question the basic premises behind his and Nixon’s conduct of the war.
Kissinger argues, unpersuasively, against the enduring criticism that the deal in 1973 between the United States and North Vietnam could have been reached as early as 1969, shortly after Nixon took office. The agreement called for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam and the exchange of prisoners, and it left the composition of a new South Vietnamese government to a commission made up of South Vietnamese officials and their communist opponents. Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart, the high-ranking Le Duc Tho, were awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for the cease-fire agreement. (Le Duc Tho declined the award. Kissinger didn’t collect his at the Oslo ceremony because of the threat of antiwar demonstrations there.) Of course, the agreement soon collapsed, the North Vietnamese overran the South, and in the spring of 1975 the world saw the ignominious pictures of Americans and South Vietnamese nationals being evacuated by helicopters from the roof of the American embassy. The issue of whether the 1973 agreement could have been reached in 1969 gets to the core, searing question about Vietnam: Did it have to last all those years?
It’s fair to ask what alternative course Nixon’s critics would have followed. Some serious people argued for complete withdrawal, on the grounds that the war was a loser. Some have argued that Nixon, after taking office, should have declared that the situation in Vietnam was far worse than he had thought, blamed it on the Democrats and sought a deal with the North Vietnamese like the one that was ultimately reached. Meanwhile, the argument goes, Nixon could have used tough rhetoric at home to assuage the Right. Whether the approach would have worked can’t be known, but had it worked, it certainly would have been preferable to what happened instead.
During the 1968 campaign Kissinger, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Kissinger, spoke scathingly about Nixon—until it looked as though Nixon might win, at which time Kissinger, then allied with Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, began to ingratiate himself with the Nixon camp, and even, according to Stanley Karnow’s history, Vietnam, clandestinely supply it with information about Humphrey’s plans.