Henry Kissinger on Vietnam

Henry Kissinger's new book revisits America's troubled extrication from Indochina

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Once in office, Kissinger and Nixon said they were seeking "peace with honor": the abandonment of our South Vietnamese allies would be a dishonorable betrayal and would undermine our credibility in the world. (We ended up abandoning them anyway.) Even overlooking for the moment how the whole thing turned out, the "peace with honor" formulation was riddled with flaws. And the South Vietnamese regime was known to have been inept and hopelessly corrupt. In writing about the importance of our allies in South Vietnam, Kissinger gives minimal attention to the Vietnamese people but a great deal to South Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu, calling him a great "patriot" and a "dauntless leader."

Kissinger, not unlike some American presidents, including Nixon, had a myopic affinity for strongmen—the Shah of Iran, Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos. A student of Metternich, the 19th-century Austrian statesman, Kissinger was a practitioner of the "realist" (or realpolitik) school of diplomacy, which places emphasis on the state’s interests and the use of military power to achieve them, and he preferred to deal with the strong leaders of nation-states who could deliver. Kissinger does say that the Kennedy administration’s complicity in the 1963 overthrow of South Vietnam’s leader General Ngo Dinh Diem conferred legitimacy on the North Vietnamese claim that the South Vietnamese government was illegitimate.

Kissinger makes almost no mention of the American lives lost while he and Nixon sought "peace with honor," and none of the fact that our pursuit of what many saw as a patently hopeless cause may have damaged our standing in the rest of the world as much as an earlier end to the war would have.

As he took office, Nixon faced two conflicting political exigencies. On one side were the ever-growing number of critics of the Vietnam adventure, a mobilized antiwar movement and increasing doubts among significant congressional figures. On the other side were those, mostly on the Right and substantial in number, who felt that we shouldn’t lose. Kissinger slips at one point, saying the "peace with honor" doctrine was also Nixon’s way of appeasing the Right. To appease the war’s opponents, Nixon commenced the unilateral withdrawal of troops. Kissinger is correct that such withdrawals weakened his bargaining position with North Vietnam, and he admits that, oddly, he and Nixon mistakenly thought that the withdrawals would buy them time "for developing a new strategy." Instead, the military drawdowns simply increased domestic pressure for more of them.

Kissinger is dismissive of leading Senate opponents of the war—including the estimable J. William Fulbright, John Sherman Cooper, Mark Hatfield and Mike Mansfield—treating them as so many misguided pests. He describes the Congress elected in 1974, following Watergate and Nixon’s forced resignation, as the "McGovernite congress," though the defining characteristic of the 75 Democrats elected to the House that year (the "Watergate babies") was their zeal for political reform. Kissinger maintains that McGovern lost the 1972 election over Vietnam—whereas a number of factors contributed to his defeat—and that in voting to reduce or cut off funds for actions in Indochina, the Congress was abrogating the last presidential election. Several of his statements in Ending the Vietnam War show that Kissinger didn’t really understand public and congressional opposition to the war. The war’s opponents, he writes, "destroyed our bargaining position"—as if there were no weaknesses in the policies themselves.

In telling his story, Kissinger sheds light on Nixon’s peculiar governing style. He hated to give direct orders and sometimes issued orders he hoped or expected would not be carried out. He had an aversion to controversy among his advisers. And after Vice President Spiro Agnew said in one meeting that the South Vietnamese, with American support, should attack two North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia rather than just one, as had been proposed, Nixon agreed. But, according to Kissinger, Nixon was so annoyed that Agnew had staked out a more hawkish position than his own that he excluded Agnew from the next meeting on the war.

Kissinger isn’t above taking swipes at former colleagues. He portrays the politically astute Mel Laird, secretary of defense, as slippery and busy covering his own tracks—though Laird was often proved right about the likely public reaction to proposed U.S. actions. For Kissinger to describe Laird as manipulative takes the pot-kettle formulation to new lengths. Kissinger, an accomplished charmer, was a masterly manipulator in a city where manipulativeness is a job requirement.

The Vietnam War was not without its tragicomic aspects. There was the futile hunt for the elusive COSVN, supposedly the North Vietnamese military headquarters in Cambodia—and a leading rationale for U.S. military incursion into Cambodia in 1970. The South Vietnamese troops and their American advisers found only deserted huts. Nevertheless, Kissinger describes the attack as a success, leading to the capture of documents, arms and ammunition, which, according to Karnow, were quickly replaced. There was also the raid by American commandos on the Son Tay prison in North Vietnam, which was believed to hold American prisoners of war but turned out to be empty. U.S. intelligence had said the prison was "closed," Kissinger says, which it interpreted as "locked."

Like any case for the defense, Ending the Vietnam War is selective. Kissinger omits several relevant matters or deals with them in triumphs of understatement. He doesn’t mention that two of his senior aides (Anthony Lake and Roger Morris) quit in 1970 in protest over the expansion of the war into Cambodia. And as for the national upheaval and constitutional crisis that was Watergate, Kissinger says that Nixon felt unappreciated for his effort to withdraw troops, that antiwar sentiment "touched Nixon on his rawest nerve" and that he saw enemies all around him and so engaged in "methods of all-out political combat." That’s it. No mention of Nixon’s "enemies list"; of the White House’s hiring a goon squad (the "plumbers") to conduct break-ins; or of Kissinger’s supplying names to the FBI for wiretaps of his own aides and of journalists, to trace leaks about the war.

Clearly, it’s Cambodia that most sticks in Kissinger’s craw—with good reason, given the havoc following U.S. military action, and the horrific way things turned out, with more than a million Cambodians slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. One justification for U.S. military actions in Cambodia was that Vietnam might overrun Cambodia—whether it actually intended to do so isn’t yet known—which would have jeopardized the plan for turning the war over to the South Vietnamese.


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