One Hundred Years of Kissinger

As Henry Kissinger celebrated his 100th year birthday, during this Memorial weekend, mainstream media lauded his brilliance and lifetime of achievement. Predictably ignored, were the literally thousands of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese children, whose chance to reach adulthood was cruelly severed by Kissinger- promoted airstrikes.

The Washington Post ran a proud column by Kissinger’s son David pondering the secrets of his longevity. The "real secret of my father’s endurance is his sense of mission." Some might think him a "cold realist," but his unrecognized idealism is salient. "He believes deeply in such arcane concepts as patriotism, loyalty, and bipartisanship. It pains him to see the nastiness in today’s public discourse and the seeming collapse of the art of diplomacy."

Notably absent from David’s list are other "arcane concepts" – including human rights, the rule of law, the sovereignty of nations, the sanctity of democratic governance. Also sidestepped in the outpouring of tributes were the many places, where Kissinger’s actions contributed to vast human tragedies, among them,Bangladesh, Chile, Argentina, and East Timor.

But what of Vietnam, the place where Kissinger left his mark as ostensible peacemaker? During Nixon’s first term in office, the National Security Advisor traveled back and forth from Washington to Paris and Saigon to achieve a settlement. This Herculean effort finally resulted in the four-power Paris Peace Agreement of January 27, 1973. For this accomplishment Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Kissinger readily accepted, Le Duc Tho did not.

That Kissinger emerged from this enterprise with an enhanced reputation was largely the result of the network of relationships with celebrities, reporters, and columnists, which he had carefully cultivated. Through these private communications he conveyed the impression that unlike Nixon and his immediate circle, he was a moderate "dove" – someone distanced from the carnage taking place on the ground, who was bending every effort to terminate it.

There were grains of truth. Kissinger desperately wanted to secure a Vietnam peace agreement, which could solidify his standing with Nixon and enhance his national profile. But the peace agreement he was charged with pursuing, was on American terms: mutual troop withdrawal of North Vietnamese and US troops from South Vietnam, and the retention of the existing Thieu government, at least for a time.

It quickly became obvious to Kissinger that there was zero prospect that Hanoi would agree to mutual withdrawal, an aim that he reluctantly abandoned. However, the retention of an independent South Vietnamese government was essential for Nixon and for others in the Administration. If that regime disappeared, it would be all too obvious that the United States had lost the war.

How to avoid that outcome? Behind the scenes, Henry Kissinger was a leading "hawk " -at times more aggressive in his approach than even the President. If there was any group that commanded his respectful attention, it was the military leadership- in the Pentagon and at military headquarters in Saigon (MACV). It was no accident that within his NSC staff, it was Brigadier General Al Haig, who largely eclipsed the more intellectual experts, including Morton Halperin, Anthony Lake, Roger Morris and others.

Under fierce political pressure from the antiwar movement and a restless public, in the summer of 1969, the President had begun the gradual process of troop removals, claiming that a revitalized South Vietnamese army could take their place. For Kissinger, this "Vietnamization" project was folly. Once US troop removals began, this step would become like "salted peanuts," difficult to refuse once eaten. Nor did he believe that the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) could rapidly become an effective fighting force. Unknown to his expanding network of media admirers, the National Security Advisor was consistently opposed to "bringing the boys home."

Kissinger’s preference was escalation, as the means of forcing Hanoi’s concessions at the negotiating table. This included the secret bombing and subsequent US and South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the launching of a massive operation into Laos, the mining of Haiphong harbor and the use of B-52 bombers over Hanoi and Haiphong. Throughout the four years, his indifference to civilian suffering or even risk to American pilots was unceasing.

By October 1972, Le Duc Tho seemed ready to accept a deal, which would leave the Thieu government in place. However, when Kissinger traveled to Saigon to share the good news, he encountered South Vietnamese fury, over his apparent acceptance of 140,000 North Vietnamese troops in the South.

"The art of diplomacy." By mid-December, the combined obstruction of South Vietnam and the resulting vacillation in Washington, fed doubts in Hanoi. With a settlement delayed, Kissinger returned to Washington in a rage. "Having crossed the Rubicon," he explained to Nixon, "the only thing we can do is total brutality." His recommendation was to bomb North Vietnamese cities for seven days, or even longer. Of course, the source of difficulty was President Thieu, whom he described as "an unmitigated, selfish, psychopathic person, son-of-a-bitch." And since "the bastard can’t figure out how to stay in office if a free political contest," he had undermined the American position.

Despite Nixon’s uncharacteristic doubts, on the advice of Kissinger and Haig the "Christmas bombings" commenced. Though publicly described as an attack on military targets, by bombing industrial plants, railroad yards, electrical power stations, bridges, and radio facilities in heavily populated cities, it inevitably harmed civilians. More than 2000 inhabitants died, an estimated 1500 people wounded, thousands of homes and Bach Mai hospital ruined. The casualties would have been greater had the authorities not prudently evacuated children from the area. In these senseless killings in Hanoi and elsewhere, there was less "art" than rage.

Carolyn Eisenberg is the author of Fire and Rain: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Wars in Southeast Asia (Oxford University Press). She is also a Professor of US History and American Foreign Policy at Hofstra University.

Author: Carolyn Eisenberg

Carolyn Eisenberg is co-founder of Brooklyn for Peace and co-convener of the Legislative Working Group of United for Peace and Justice.