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Kissinger gets it wrong again


Henry Kissinger is arguing that the Vietnam War taught us the perils of military withdrawal. But the true lesson of the Vietnam War is that the continuing presence of U.S. troops will only compound the tragedy in Iraq and the region -- and that Kissinger's own partisan criticism of legitimate dissent will aggravate national disunity in the United States.

By Jeffrey Kimball

In a syndicated op-ed published recently in the Washington Post and elsewhere, Henry A. Kissinger's ostensible purpose was to apply the lesson he drew about the U.S. "defeat in Vietnam" to the possible "collapse in Iraq." His lesson turns out to be the old Cold War-era domino theory dressed up in modern war-on-terror garb. Just as "defeat in Vietnam had [dire] long-term psychological significance" for countries dependent on the United States, he asserted, "radical Islam" would "gain momentum from Indonesia . . . to Western Europe" should the United States withdraw from Iraq on a fixed deadline. Therefore, Kissinger proposed, Congress should set no such deadlines, critics of the war should abandon "partisanship," and sufficient time should be given to finding a political solution.

Most of Kissinger's op-ed, however, was not about Iraq but was instead a defense of his and former President Richard Nixon's management of the Vietnam War from January 1969 to January 1973, when Kissinger served as Nixon's special assistant for national security affairs. While defending their policies, Kissinger took a jab at historians who, he wrote, were not "serious" because their historical accounts of the Vietnam War were supposedly based on mere "fragments of tapes out of context." The result, he claimed, is "a prevalent myth: that the Nixon administration settled in 1972 for terms that had been available in 1969 and thus prolonged the war needlessly."

Kissinger thus misstated and oversimplified what I and other historians have written about the Nixon-Kissinger-Gerald Ford phase of the Vietnam War. Our work has been based on a massive treasure trove of recently declassified audio tapes and paper documents of the Nixon and Ford administrations, bolstered by newly available evidence from the other side of the former Iron and Bamboo Curtains. This evidence contradicts Kissinger and Nixon's version of history, which is demonstrably untrue in substantial part and therefore constitutes a historical myth. It is a myth that blames previous presidents for starting and escalating the war and opponents of the war for prolonging it by their alleged partisanship. The historical reality is more complicated and quite different.

The origins of the Vietnam War go back to the 1940s and 1950s. Nixon and Kissinger claimed in their public statements and memoirs that they had inherited a much larger war from Nixon's predecessor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, during whose term (1964 - 1968) the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam had risen from 20,000 to over 500,000. Left unmentioned by Nixon and Kissinger is that Nixon had helped to transform a relatively small war in Indochina into a bigger war when he had served as vice-president under President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. As a political candidate during the 1960s, he had advocated the very military escalation for which he criticized Johnson and Johnson's predecessor, John F. Kennedy. During this entire period, Kissinger had supported the purposes of the war.

On coming to power in 1969, Nixon and Kissinger believed that there was, in Nixon's words, "no way to win the war" militarily. Instead, they sought to win a "negotiated victory" that would prevent Hanoi from reunifying Vietnam. They hoped to accomplish this end by levering cooperation from the Soviets and concessions from the North Vietnamese and Vietcong through détente diplomacy with Moscow, the bombing and mining of Hanoi and Haiphong, nuclear threats against North Vietnam, and stepped-up military operations in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Failing in 1969 to achieve their goals in these and other ways, Nixon and Kissinger considered two options through much of 1970. One option was unilateral U.S. withdrawal. Another option was unilateral U.S. withdrawal coupled with a negotiated political compromise and cease-fire-in-place (which would leave the Vietcong in control of some South Vietnamese territory). They expected that both options would lead to civil war and a possible or likely victory of North Vietnam and the Vietcong.

Political, diplomatic, and military realities at home, abroad, and in Indochina led them to pursue this second option by 1971. But they also paced the ongoing U.S. withdrawals and negotiations with Hanoi in such a way as to postpone a diplomatic agreement until the 1972 U.S. presidential election. This extended schedule would serve to protect Nixon's chances for reelection by preventing untoward developments in South Vietnam from occurring before November 1972. They also hoped it would provide more time to strengthen the South Vietnamese army so that the possible collapse of the Saigon government after a negotiated agreement might be delayed, thus mitigating the blame that might be directed at them for Saigon's possible defeat.

Nixon and Kissinger later argued that it was their 1971 - 1972 strategic policies toward Beijing and Moscow and their military measures toward North Vietnam in 1972 that caused Hanoi to accept a diplomatic solution in January 1973 that favored Washington and Saigon. The new evidence does indeed reveal that the Soviet Union and China attempted to influence the North Vietnamese, but the evidence also strongly demonstrates that Moscow and Beijing lacked the will and ability to have a decisive impact on Hanoi. Washington and Hanoi decided to compromise at the negotiating table mostly because of their assessment of the deadlocked balance of political and military forces on the ground in South Vietnam.

In 1971 Washington abandoned its military demand for the withdrawal of the North Vietnamese army and offered a deadline for the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces. In 1972, after its Easter Offensive, Hanoi yielded on its political demand for South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu's removal from power. Political dissent in the United States also influenced President Nixon to seek a settlement, but by 1972 dissent was bipartisan and included key congressional hawks. The Agreement on Ending the War of January 1973 may not have been possible in 1969, as Kissinger claims, but in 1969 neither Mr. Nixon nor Kissinger were willing to concede what they conceded in 1972 and 1973.

Nixon’s choice not to end the war in 1969 meant four more years of escalating warfare in the air and on the ground for the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians – and tens of thousands of American casualties. The American dead and wounded during the Nixon period amounted to over one-third of the total of the approximately 58,000 killed and 300,000 wounded from 1965 through 1972.

As for the supposedly dire international consequences of Saigon's fall in April 1975, Kissinger's own aide, W. R. Smyser, reported to him in July that no dominoes were falling in Southeast Asia or anywhere else in the world. Nonetheless, during the following postwar period, Nixon, Kissinger, and their supporters blamed dissenters, the press, liberals, Congress, Watergate investigators, and the South Vietnamese for the defeat in Vietnam and the rest of Indochina. It was this scapegoating of others that exacerbated political disunity in the United States and helped cause the intense partisan bickering that lasts to this day.

Based on his version of Vietnam War history, Kissinger now suggests that fixed deadlines for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq would produce unwanted international consequences – namely, loss of credibility and falling dominoes. But if the Vietnam War's ending is a guide, the lesson is that the continuing presence of U.S. troops will only compound the tragedy in Iraq and the region and that Kissinger's own partisan criticism of legitimate dissent will aggravate national disunity in the United States. The Vietnam War record of Kissinger, a self-styled "realist," is one of persisting in a deadlocked war for the sake of appearance – i.e., salvaging an elusive and false U.S. credibility. This also appears to be his prescription for the Second Iraq War.

Posted by Dave Baxter
02/12/2012, 03:36 AM

Great article! The fact that Kissinger is still being listened and published in America scares me.

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