Henry Kissinger on Vietnam

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

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.

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.

Yet Kissinger, according to this fascinating and sad book, persisted in believing that, given enough time and resources, his Vietnam policy would succeed. In other words, it was the war opponents’ fault that the policy failed. In 1975, after Ford had taken office as president, Kissinger writes that the administration’s "sole remaining card to prevent Saigon’s collapse" was additional money from Congress to fund the war effort—an appropriation that Congress was resisting. The denial of the money may well have sped the collapse of the South Vietnamese government, but how long it could have been sustained is another matter. Late in the book, Kissinger addresses the crucial question: "Was it worth it?" His reply: "Probably not for us; almost surely for Saigon, about whose survival the war had, after all, been fought." This is at once a monumental admission and an avoidance of the fact that Saigon collapsed despite our five years of waste of human lives and national treasure. Elsewhere in Ending the Vietnam War, Kissinger says, "With anything like the support extended to allies in Korea, the Gulf, and the Balkans, they [South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos] might have survived until the erosion of Communism set in." This assertion assumes that substantial support would have lasted another decade and a half—an extraordinary leap of imagination—and it also is akin to equating apples with zebras. (And despite the collapse of communism elsewhere, Vietnam remains a stable communist state, with capitalist features.) If Kissinger truly continues to believe these things, one is forced to conclude that he was—and still is—deluding himself. Kissinger and Nixon were in a bunker of their own, clinging to the false promise of Vietnamization, holding to a misbegotten concept of national honor and railing at the war’s opponents. Great leaders have the insight and longsightedness to make the right decisions in dire circumstances: Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, to name two, got it right. The reputations of Nixon and Kissinger are doomed to carry the heavy freight of the fact that they did not.

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