They died for Henry Kissinger's "credibility": The real history of our Vietnam immorality

There was no good answer when John Kerry asked how you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake. Here's why

Published October 18, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Bill Ingraham/Henry Griffin)
(AP/Bill Ingraham/Henry Griffin)

Excerpted from "Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy"

Détente with the Soviet Union and the opening to China were significant breakthroughs in their own right. Indeed, a positive appraisal of the Nixon administration’s foreign policies is predicated on our viewing them this way. But Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did not view them in isolation at the time. Instead, both men believed that Moscow and Beijing, keen to extract economic and strategic benefits from an improved relationship with Washington, would apply pressure on Hanoi to agree to peace terms permitting a full American withdrawal. On this topic their reasoning was misguided. It did not accord sufficient respect to North Vietnam’s fiercely guarded status as an independent actor, or indeed to the ideological solidarity that existed on at least a bilateral basis between Hanoi and its two Marxist-Leninist patrons.

So when the United States withdrew from Vietnam in January 1973, when “peace” was finally achieved, it came at a horrendous cost. Cambodia was dragged directly into the fray, leading ultimately to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and a genocide that killed approximately 1.7 million people— 20.1 percent of Cambodia’s population. Hundreds of thousands of North and South Vietnamese soldiers and noncombatants lost their lives. Of the fifty-seven thousand American soldiers who died on or above Vietnamese soil, twenty thousand perished during Nixon’s presidency. During the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon had stated his intention to achieve “peace with honor.” In 1971, a returning veteran named John Kerry testified powerfully before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He indicted the war as “the biggest nothing in history” and posed a powerful question: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Kissinger’s best answer to Kerry’s question was “for the sake of credibility.” The national security adviser understood that the United States could not “win” the Vietnam War and largely agreed with Kerry that the Americanization of the conflict had been a mistake. But he was adamant that the nation could not be seen to “lose” it either. In a widely noted essay in Foreign Affairs in January 1969 titled “The Viet Nam Negotiations,” Kissinger placed greatest emphasis not on the tangible ramifications of withdrawal but on the amorphous psychological ones:

The commitment of 500,000 Americans has settled the issue of the importance of Viet Nam. What is involved now is confidence in American promises. However fashionable it is to ridicule the terms “credibility” or “prestige,” they are not empty phrases; other nations can gear their actions to ours only if they can count on our steadiness . . . In many parts of the world—the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, even Japan— stability depends on confidence in American promises.

Henry Kissinger’s plan for a staged withdrawal from Vietnam was thus sustained by the logic of keeping up appearances. “We could not simply walk away from an enterprise involving two administrations, five allied countries, and thirty-one thousand dead,” Kissinger observed in his memoir, “as if we were switching a television channel.” More would die to display America’s continued potency to friends and enemies. The nation would not slink away under cover of darkness but depart with all guns blazing.

Credibility was important to nineteenth-century diplomats like Metternich and Bismarck. (The latter established extensive German colonies in Africa primarily for reasons of credibility, not because he believed that an African empire added much to Berlin’s strategic or economic strength.) But its logic was harder to sell in twentieth-century America, where battlefield deaths born of prestige-driven actions were tolerated less well by political elites beholden to mass democracy and subject to media scrutiny. In Paris in March 1969, President Charles de Gaulle asked Kissinger, “Why don’t you get out of Vietnam?” Surprised by de Gaulle’s bluntness, Kissinger answered, “Because a sudden withdrawal might give us a credibility problem.” “Where?” demanded de Gaulle. Kissinger specified the Middle East. “How very odd,” said de Gaulle. “It is precisely in the Middle East that I thought your enemies had a credibility problem.” De Gaulle understood something that Kissinger did not: America’s allies—even ambivalent ones like France—believed Washington’s credibility would be enhanced, not diminished, by casting aside fictions, cutting its losses, and pursuing an expedited withdrawal.

Kissinger’s ostensible peace goals were twofold: that North Vietnamese troops leave South Vietnam at the point of armistice, and that North Vietnam respect South Vietnam’s independence after America’s withdrawal. Kissinger was not so naïve that he believed either goal was realistically attainable. Rather, as he observed to Hans Morgenthau in 1968, he would “drag on the process” of withdrawal “for a while because of the international repercussions.”

This dragging effect would be achieved with multiple weights and pulleys. First, the withdrawal of American troops would commence at a steady rate—twenty-five thousand American troops left Vietnam in 1969 and hundreds of thousands soon followed. Second, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), whom the Americans would train and equip to the highest standards, would fill the gap left by the departing American troops—a strategy described as “Vietnamization.” Third, the United States would escalate the war in the most efficient (read destructive) manner possible. As the ground war was being deescalated, the U.S. bombing campaign increased sharply in intensity—and secretly, for such actions were always likely to create a firestorm of protest. Nixon and Kissinger expanded the U.S. bombing campaign in the spring of 1969 to include targets in Cambodia. This action caused two of Kissinger’s assistants, Anthony Lake and Roger Morris, to resign in protest. A year later, American troops began their “incursion” (read: invasion) of Cambodia in the hope—forlorn, as it turned out—of destroying North Vietnamese command facilities.

The bombing of Cambodia encapsulated all of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s failings regarding transparency, strategy, and morality. The bombings were conducted in total secrecy and were falsely designated as attacks on North Vietnam. Congress and the public were not informed. As per usual, many within the administration knew as little as Congress: the State Department, inevitably, and even the secretary of the Air Force. Yet keeping a large-scale bombing campaign under wraps was impossible. On May 9, 1969, The New York Times ran a front-page story publicizing this expansion of the war into Cambodia. Nixon was furious, exclaiming to Kissinger, “What is this cock-sucking story? Find out who leaked it, and fire him.” Without foundation, Kissinger pinned the blame on Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and confronted him directly: “You son of a bitch. I know you leaked that story, and you’re going to have to explain it to the president.” Laird simply hung up. Kissinger subsequently conceded that he had accused the wrong man. To identify the real culprit, he and Nixon requested the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, to install a series of wiretaps on three of Kissinger’s NSC staff: Daniel Davidson, Morton Halperin, and Hal Sonnenfeldt, as well as one of Melvin Laird’s assistants at the Pentagon, Colonel Robert Pursley. The number of wiretaps Nixon and Kissinger authorized on administration staff eventually totaled seventeen, but none captured anything incriminating. Nixon lamented that the wiretaps “never helped us,” they merely comprised “gobs and gobs of material. Gossip and bullshitting.” Only one recording device captured a detail that led to a high-level resignation. It was voice-activated and whirred into action whenever the president opened his mouth.

The bombing of Cambodia killed thousands of people and destabilized a sovereign nation to little if any discernible effect. The secret bombing raids—for the administration persisted in denying their existence in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary—continued for fourteen months, during which U.S. B-52s flew 3,875 sorties and dropped 108,823 tons of bombs. The objective of the raids was to destroy North Vietnam’s political and military headquarters—the Central Office for South Vietnam—and in this it failed. Kissinger felt no moral qualms about escalating the war in this fashion. The fact that the primary strategic objective had not been met seemed not to faze him. This was because the bombing had a negligible impact on the United States beyond the cost of the tonnage—and the lives of the airmen who died delivering their payloads.

Kissinger was as hawkish as Walt Rostow when it came to bombing, observing, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like Vietnam does not have a breaking point.” Unsurprisingly, Rostow was on hand to encourage Kissinger to stay the course, that the bombing was having its desired effect. In November 1970, he told Kissinger, “On Vietnam, I suggest you give some thought in light of intelligence coming from Hanoi, that they are having some difficult morale problems in the field as well as at home . . . I get word that for the first time in the whole thing leaflets saying go home, work the farms, grow some rice, raise some kids—that’s something the army in the field and the people at home may be ready to listen to.” Rostow’s words were an echo from the previous administration; he had told LBJ the same story for months in 1967 and 1968. It is hard to say whether Rostow’s observations pepped up Kissinger or depressed him.

Throughout this process of escalation, Kissinger was concurrently engaged in peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris. As Le Duc Tho, the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, well understood, “Vietnamization” was a patchy device designed to cloak an inevitable U.S. withdrawal. So he was not particularly amenable to granting concessions prematurely. The South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, was vehemently opposed to Nixon and Kissinger’s withdrawal strategy and drew only limited succor from the expansion of the war into Cambodia. Kissinger could not decide which side he disliked more. Thieu was “this insane son of a bitch,” and the North Vietnamese were “bastards . . . [who] have been screwing us.” Broadly speaking, he concluded that his Vietnamese interlocutors on both sides of the 17th parallel were “just a bunch of shits.”

Thieu and Le Duc Tho understandably formed a similar view of Kissinger. Thieu’s South Vietnam was being given up for dead—this was the reality. The United States was bombing North Vietnam, meanwhile, to preserve Kissinger’s pool of “credibility” and as a parting gift to Thieu. In May 1972, the White House tried to solicit support from George Kennan for an escalation in the bombing campaign. Kennan’s “I thought it was inordinately costly in terms both of extraneous destruction and of our international reputation,” was not at all the hoped-for reply. The Christmas bombing campaign of December 1972 marked the first occasion that B-52 bombers, incapable of precision strikes, wreaked destruction on the centers of Hanoi and Haiphong—the destroyed wing of Bach Mai hospital was just one example of collateral damage. America’s allies and enemies universally condemned the campaign.

On the other side of the equation, in order to secure Thieu’s agreement, Nixon and Kissinger threatened to cut off all aid to South Vietnam and cast the nation adrift. The pursuit of “honor” thus played little role in any of Kissinger’s Vietnam gambits. The peace that came a few weeks later was not so much sullied as disfigured beyond recognition. On January 8, Kissinger shook Le Duc Tho’s hand and told him, “It was not my fault about the bombing.” Tho replied, “You have tarnished the honor of the United States. Your barbarous and inhumane action has aroused the general and tremendous indignation from the world peoples.” John Ehrlichman later asked Kissinger how long South Vietnam was likely to last. Kissinger predicted, “I think that if they’re lucky, they can hold out for a year or two.”

For making peace in January 1973, Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later in the year. Knowing what was around the corner, Tho refused the award. Kissinger had no such qualms, although he understood as well as Tho that the “peace” was stopgap—a sham. Edwin Reischauer, the Harvard scholar and former U.S. ambassador to Japan, observed that the award “shows either that the people of Norway have a very poor understanding of what happened out there or a good sense of humor.” The critic and humorist Tom Lehrer famously announced his retirement on the grounds that reality had rendered satire obsolete. Kissinger and Nixon complained that insufficient respect was being accorded to what was a significant achievement. On October 17, 1973, Kissinger asked Nixon if he had seen “The New York Times blasting the Nobel Prize.” “Why have they blasted it?” asked Nixon. “Because they can’t bear the thought the war in Vietnam has ended,” replied Kissinger. After Nixon observed, “that’s amusing,” Kissinger elaborated: “They can’t bear the thought— you know, Mr. President, when they said the détente wouldn’t work. They never say the détente enabled us to settle the Vietnam War because that’s the thing they cannot bear—with honor.” Nixon replied, “Yeah, that’s right. When we stick to the honor—that’s the last straw.”

There was in fact a connection between détente and the settlement of the Vietnam War, and it had occurred six months previously at the Moscow Summit. Over the course of a wide-ranging discussion, Brezhnev recounted to Nixon an earlier conversation he had had with his national security adviser, during which “Dr. Kissinger told me that if there was a peaceful settlement in Vietnam you would be agreeable to the Vietnamese doing whatever they want, having whatever they want after a period of time, say 18 months. If that is indeed true, and if the Vietnamese knew this, and it was true, they would be sympathetic on that basis” to reaching an agreement. Brezhnev had outed Kissinger’s acceptance of a “decent interval” between American withdrawal and a North Vietnamese invasion of the South.

This interval lasted a little longer than Kissinger had estimated. In March 1975, North Vietnam army regulars crossed the 17th parallel and advanced rapidly on Saigon, encountering token resistance along the way. The ARVN collapsed or melted from view, Saigon fell within a month, and a murderous final reckoning ensued. The abiding image of those harrowing events is an American helicopter perched precariously atop one of the embassy’s auxiliary buildings, a ladder dangling below providing last-gasp deliverance for a fortunate few. A little farther down, at ground level, thousands of desperate South Vietnamese citizens besiege the embassy’s gates, unable to escape, soon to enter a very different world.

George Kennan was pleased that the United States had terminated a meaningless conflict and shed an unreliable ally. “They won. We lost. It is now their show . . . our attitude should be: you are heartily welcome to each other; it serves you both right.” The callousness of Kennan’s appraisal is perhaps mitigated by the fact that his opposition to the Vietnam War was long and consistently disinterested in morality. Kissinger’s record is harder to defend. He had inherited a debacle, the escalation of which he supported from afar, and had failed to achieve any of his declared aims beyond a compromised peace agreement and U.S. withdrawal, on terms similar to those Averell Harriman had proposed in 1968. American credibility was already low when the nation took its gloves off and bombed Cambodia and North Vietnam with few restrictions; the world’s most powerful nation deploying its heavy bombers against tightly packed cities did not make for edifying viewing. American credibility was almost undetectable in 1975 as Saigon burned.

In an ideational sense, the Vietnam War combined the worst of two worlds. The conflict was made and escalated by liberal Cold Warriors—in the name of ideals that can be traced to Wilson—and was terminated by devotees of realpolitik at a deliberately glacial pace for reasons of credibility.

Like the Civil War, Vietnam would cast a pall over American society, and its foreign policy, for decades. Like the Civil War, its history and meaning are fiercely contested to this day. In recent years, orthodox critics and revisionist defenders of the war have clashed over issues such as whether the war was ever winnable, and whether the United States really lost. So Ngo Dinh Diem was a disaster unworthy of American support; Diem was a heroic leader whom the United States fecklessly destroyed. South Vietnam lacked the wherewithal to stand alone; South Vietnam was pro-Western, growing in strength, and badly betrayed. LBJ’s bombing campaign was brutal; LBJ’s bombing campaign was timid. The United States losing the Vietnam War was inevitable; America would have won had its political leaders shown greater fortitude. So go the lessons of history—or not.

Excerpted from "Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy" by David Milne. Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2015 by David Milne. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By David Milne

David Milne is a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of East Anglia and the author of "America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War"

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