Jeffrey Kimball: Kissinger Gets It Wrong Again

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeffrey Kimball is professor emeritus at Miami University, the author of award-winning books and articles on the history of war, foreign relations, peace, politics, and ideas, past president of the Peace History Society, a former Nobel Institute Senior Fellow, and a former Woodrow Wilson International Center Public Policy Scholar.]

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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.

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Wayne Coyne - 7/15/2007

After reading the Kissinger editorial- The Way Back From Iraq (WAPO 7-10-07) when originally published I cannot agree with the author on his counterpoints challenging Mr. Kissinger. Mr. Kissinger stresses diplomacy throughout his argument as a the only means to an end of the Iraq War.

Further, nowhere in his editorial does Mr. Kissinger compare Vietnam with Iraq. In fact, within the Kissinger editorial whether, intentional or not, the word Vietnam is never used. The author is drawing on perceived inferences that are not presented anywhere in the body of Kissinger's article instead of countering the actual ideas assembled by Mr. Kissinger. Yes, Kissinger may be basing his assumptions for his editorial on Vietnam but, for Kissinger, Vietnam is his benchmark and the mistakes made there provide an opportunity for Kissinger to correct history so as not to repeat the failures of a past misadventure onto the current calamity.

The use of diplomatic negotiations coupled with economic incentives is something the Bush Administration has avoided throughout the current crisis especially, in dealing with the Sunni insurgents (the Iraq Oil Law for example), Iran, Syria and to a far greater extent the equally important Hezbollah.

The Bush team always appear to bet on the wrong horse (Chalabi for example) while isolating key groups and players (Sadr) who could help drive the current Waterloo to a somewhat graceful if not, successful conclusion.

For what it is worth I found the Eugene Robinson editorial- Resolute Amid the Wreckage (WAPO 7-10-07) directly below the Kissinger byline to be totally lacking in offering any real solutions to bringing the Iraq War and current Mideast crisis to closure.

Kissinger may not be spot on with his assessment but it does offers a better solution than anything the Bush team or any other critic has attempted to date.

Brian Robertson - 7/14/2007

I disagree with the claim that Nixon did not inherit JFK and LBJ's war. Although Nixon indeed was a hawkish advocate for for American military involvement in Vietnam as Vice-President (he may have even advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons at Dien Bien Phu in 1954), he did not play a substantial role in implementing U.S. Foreign Policy during the Eisenhower years. He basically played the same role that his vice-President, Agnew, played in his administration.

Throughout the Johnson and Kennedy years, Nixon was indeed critical of the two administrations for not doing enough in South Vietnam (Occasionally, he even waffled on his
advice). Nixon was also critical of the McNamara gradual approach to the war and it is unlikely that a 1960 to 1964 administration would have followed this same approach. Thus, although Nixon was a strong advocate for U.S. involvement in South Vietnam, he did indeed inherit a troubled economy and a badly managed and increasingly unpopular war that resulted from the policies of the two preceding administrations.

Maarja Krusten - 7/2/2007

The objections to the release of Haldeman’s and other White House files centered on former President Nixon’s claims that the information was personal or private-political and hence returnable to Nixon. That includes the 270-page folder of Haldeman's notes for November-December 1972 described above, for which we federal employees at the National Archives sought to open all but 10 pages but Nixon claimed nearly all was "objectionable" for opening.

Jack Anderson wrote a column a couple of years after Nixon submitted his claims, contesting the planned release of Haldeman’s files by NARA. Those of you with access to Nexis may want to look at Anderson’s July 25, 1989 column, “Archivists Leaning Toward Returning Papers To Nixon.” The composition of NARA board which considered Nixon’s claims and which Anderson described changed after George H. W. Bush left office in January 1993. (The change in members was not directly related to President Bush leaving office, although the U.S. Archivist, Don W. Wilson, in 1993 took a position with GHWB’s foundation. In 1996, most of Nixon’s objections were rejected and many, but not all, the files opened. Here's the press release from 1996 on the opening

Some of the material that was returned to Nixon reportedly will be donated by his family back to NARA soon. How much NARA will eventually open, I don't know. Had the removal of documents from NARA that took place in 1996 occurred while Nixon was alive, he would have been able to do whatever he wanted with the materials, even destroy them, if he chose.

I know, I know, what I describe of our battles to open Nixon's materials probably sounds awfully quaint to HNN’s readers, the values I describe perhaps dating back to another age. I joined NARA in 1976 and my archival colleagues and I actually took our statutory mandate to screen Nixon’s materials very seriously! The law told us to open material “of general historical significance,” as the statute puts it. Whether we were naïve or not, we really did feel the public trust keenly. (Maureen Dowd said of present day archivists involved in the classified records controvery with Vice President Cheney that “the National Archive data collectors - I'm visualizing dedicated 'We the People' wonky types with glasses and pocket protectors . . .pushed back.”) But despite our academic degrees, mostly in history, we feds at NARA didn’t all wear pocket protectors, then or now, LOL

As to the way we strove to uphold the Nixon records statute, you have to remember, it was a different age. Journalists and scholars looked at these issues differently in that time period, right after Watergate, than they do now. Setting aside OAH, for most individual scholars, other than Stanley Kutler and Joan Hoff and perhaps a couple of the other Nixon scholars, I think the pendulum largely has swung back in recent years to the mindset that prevailed during the days of LBJ and JFK. I myself believe the Nixon record’s act was well intended but handed NARA a hollow mandate. The lesson seems to be that it is nearly impossible to open records if a former President objects. As I said recently, NARA has customers but almost no constituents. It might just be best to seal everything during the lifetime of a former President.

Maarja Krusten - 7/2/2007

Interesting that “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." Those tapes still are in the process of being released, to date, only Watergate information and tapes through October 1972 are open. Disclosures have been slow in coming. Nevertheless, you can learn from the process something about how those who make history in the White House and people trained in assessing it (employees of the National Archives and Records Administration) may differ. Of course, the extent to which historians can assess issues is affected by what information is made available to them.

Those of you who have done research at NARA in the meeting notes of Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, know that they cover many of the same events, in similar language, as his diary entries. In 1987, Nixon's representatives formally filed objections to block NARA from opening some of the meeting notes. They claimed that items were private, personal, or privileged. (Interestingly, in some cases, they claimed that documents both were personal, that is, non-governmental, and privileged, a claim associated with executive actions.)

The objections list at one time was available for any researcher to study or copy. According to this list, of the materials that NARA had marked for opening in 1987, Nixon's representatives objected to and blocked the release of a number of Haldeman's notes for November 1972.

The objections list also included the following (the quote is verbatim): "File: 11/17/72-12/21/72 Note: Practically all the documents are objectionable."

Haldeman's diary, published in 1994, includes for the latter time period the following entries of interest to historians studying the Vietnam War:

November 18, 1972 [extract]
"P mentioned at noon that K was having problems with Thieu. He's gotten a new cable and apparently Thieu is causing trouble again. The P told him to just go ahead and get the best deal we can and then let Thieu paddle his own canoe. Then when the P called in the evening, he said K has now read the message and it wasn't nearly as bad as he thought, so it was another crisis that Henry was stirring up."

November 29, 1972 [extract]
"Apparently the meeting with the South Vietnamese envoy didn't go very well. The P spent a long time with him, about two and a half hours. The net result was the P softened a little bit, which was bad. They're going to have to meet tomorrow to try to clean that up, but the South Vietnamese, after the meeting, came back and told Henry to tell the P they would probably have to go it alone. And that we should just go in, make a settlement to get our prisoners back, and stop fighting as far as we're concerned, and let the Vietnamese go on fighting it out. They don't seem to understand that our Congress won't continue to supply them, if they take that route. And that they have to go along with us on a settlement, a point which Henry would like to get across to them (and the P) in the meeting tomorrow."

I once worked as a NARA employee but left to take a job elsewhere in 1990. In 1994, I filed a petition with NARA under 36 CFR §1275.56. Using regulatory language, I asserted that segments of the diary suggested that for equivalent portions of the Haldeman meeting notes, the continued "restriction of specified materials is inappropriate and should be removed." The 36 CFR §1275.56 process does not require a lawyer. I merely wrote up and sent to the Acting U.S. Archivist a petition after analyzing the objections list and the published diary. NARA subsequently opened many of the meeting notes, including a note in Haldeman's files for November 18, 1972 about getting "best deal" and Thieu paddling his own canoe. Whether the release would have occurred had Nixon not died in 1994, I do not know.

You almost never hear such issues discussed and I’ve concluded that despite these types of red flags, historians are comfortable with the way these matters are handled by former Presidents and NARA. Mention Nixon’s unreleased tapes in forums on H-Net and the most you are likely to draw by way of response are queries about whether transcripts are available. Some experts have tried find out the reasons for such passivity: an observer who attended an anniversary commemoration at the National Archives two years ago told me that he raised the question of why historians rarely focus on the process of releasing primary sources. One of the people present at the NARA event reportedly told him historians no longer work much with primary sources. (There may or may not be such a trend but it can’t be universal, as Dr. Kimball’s own essay points to numerous primary sources. But the use of secondary sources can lead to problems. Dr. Stern’s main page essay last week on JFK pointed to problems tracking down information that has a muddled provenance.)

Whatever the reason, I very much doubt NARA receives many 36 CFR §1275.56 petitions these days. Of course, NARA no longer tells researchers where Nixon’s estate may have disagreed with its processing standards. According to an article I read in Public Historian, representatives of Nixon’s estate continue to screen what NARA proposes to open but such matters nowadays are handled quietly behind the scenes. The publicly noticed regulatory objections process that drew press attention in 1987 has not been used since then. The Nixon Library will be merged with NARA’s Nixon Project on July 11th.